Guide to selecting a trailer sailer

Selecting a “Weekender”

A guide to selecting a trailer sailer

My wife and I, together with our two young children will soon be relocating from Sydney to Coffs Harbour, about half way between Sydney and Brisbane.

Coffs Harbour has a great marina and a good sailing club, but apart from the Solitary Islands – which you cannot land on – there’s very little in the way of cruising grounds around. The coastal towns up that way are all at the mouth of significant rivers. These rivers usually have a very serious sand bar protecting the entrance making it very dangerous to enter except in good conditions and at the turn of the tide.

So I’m having to rethink my sailing. I’ve been spoilt for cruising grounds here in Sydney. Not only do we have the harbour, but 20 miles north we have Broken Bay and the Hawskbury river and 20 miles south we have Botany Bay, Port Hacking and the Georges River.

I’m seriously thinking of buying a trailer sailer. Karina is a good sailor and all we need is a boat that we can spend a few days on in a nice cruising area with the children. Maybe the Whitsundays even.

As a big boat sailor I’ve never given much thought to trailer sailers, but I’ve been researching over the last month or so and there’s a mountain of information on the internet.

This is what you need to consider when looking for a trailer sailer.

how big a boat do you need?

Obviously the size of boat you can consider is determined by the size of your towing vehicle. All cars and trucks are registered for the maximum weight they can tow. This weight is total towing weight and includes the weight of the trailer.

Smaller boats (16 -20ft) are easy to tow and require less effort to launch and recover. However you need fairly good weather to really enjoy sailing these small boats and headroom can be a problem for taller sailors. They’re also a lot slower than their larger sisters, so your cruising range will be much less.

Larger boats are able to withstand heavier weather, are faster and more spacious. However, they are more difficult to tow, launch and recover and need a larger vehicle to tow them.

If you’re looking for what I call a “weekender” as distinct from a “daysailer”, that is, a boat for a couple plus 2 small children that you can cruise for 4 – 5 days on protected water (as I am) you’ll probably end up looking at boats between 20 and 22 ft long. The only exception would be a water ballasted boat such as the MacGregor 26 which can dump over 1,300 pounds of water ballast before you retrieve it.

Any longer than 24 ft and you’re going to need a heavy 4 wheel drive SUV to tow it and a couple of strong men to launch it and rig the mast. Also, over 24 feet the beam becomes a problem. If the beam is over 8 feet you may need a special permit to tow it on public roads

how heavy can it be?

A medium sized SUV could have a tow rating of 3,500 pounds. You should check under what conditions this figure is valid. If it’s the tow weight along a straight smooth road, you need to seriously consider if the clutch is up to the strain of pulling this weight up a launching ramp.

And if you consider that a trailer can weigh up to 40% of the boat it carries, add for an outboard motor (say 50 pounds) plus all the equipment you need on a boat (sails, stores, anchors, gas bottles, bedding and other sundry equipment – say 250 pounds) you quickly come to the conclusion that the heaviest boat you can consider is about 2,400 pounds.

Of course, much of this equipment can be carried inside your car while towing, but it’s all likely to be aboard when you haul the boat out of the water and up the ramp – just when the load on the clutch is greatest.

what type of keel?

Of the three main keel types – fin, twin bilge and lifting – the fin keel is not really suitable for a trailer sailer and twin bilge keels are not very common.

So we’re left with a lifting keel as the best solution.

A lifting keel is one which either swings or lifts up inside the boat. A boat with a lifting keel has it’s maximum weight close to the road which gives the most stable towing arrangement. Lifting keels also allow the boat to be launched and retrieved in shallow water.

A swing, or pivoting keel is sometimes put forward as the best solution because if the keel pivots, it will pivot when the keel hits the bottom and no damage will be done to the hull and keel trunk.

This is true, but sailing a swing keel boat without locking the keel down in some way, except in very protected waters, is very dangerous. If the boat is knocked down by a heavy gust of wind, the boat can heel over to the horizontal or more and you could have your keel slam back into the trunk, damaging the trunk and almost guaranteeing a capsize.

A vertical lifting keel with a bulb at the bottom may well be the best of all worlds for a trailer sailer. Weight can be placed low in the fin for stability and yet the boat can sit low on it’s trailer when the keel is raised. Having most of the weight in the bottom of the keel improves stability dramatically, and a properly profiled fin can provide significant lift and much improved windward performance.

what about raising and lowering the mast?

Any mast longer than about 20 feet will probably need some system to raise and lower it.

The usual system is one where the mast is moved backward from its towing position until the base of the mast can be attached to the tabernacle.

A pole, which is as long as the dimension from the tabernacle to the forestay attachment, is attached vertically to the tabernacle on a pivot system and the jib halyard is led from the top of mast to the pole. Another sheet is lead from the pole through a turning block at the forestay attachment point and back to a winch.

When the sheet is winched in, the whole system pivots at the tabernacle and the mast is raised and the pole ends up on the deck.

Very hard to explain, so watch these videos.

video 1
video 2
video 3
video 4

some other personal preference criteria

  • opening ports
  • self bailing cockpit
  • 2 full size berths plus v berth forward
  • no dinette
  • good winches
  • forward hatch
  • bridge deck at companionway

some good examples
(click on the links)

and one last thing

Watch out for overhead power lines!