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How to Choose the Right Cruiser for You

By: Richard Crowder

Family relaxing on boat
Regal 33XO Express Cruiser

The term “overnighter” can be pretty variable depending on your goals (and your budget!) but here’s a little help for choosing the right boat for your next adventure.

By “overnighter,” I mean a boat with dedicated sleeping accommodations. The smallest of these boats are called cuddy cabin boats, which used to start at nineteen or twenty feet in length but in recent years have begun to start around twenty-two to twenty-four feet in length, seldom going longer than twenty-seven feet.

Cuddy cabins are not as popular as they once were in most markets in North America and fewer models are being offered by mainstream manufacturers. This is because they are a compromise between overnight accommodations and seating/day tripping accommodations. They are still being produced, mainly because they still have great overall utility, and can be purchased in a multitude of configurations on both the new and used market.

Cruisers are generally referred to as boats with dedicated sleeping accommodation(s), cooking facilities (galley), dinette table(s) for sit-down eating, and separate toilet/sink facilities within a dedicated head compartment. The smallest of these, called mini or pocket-cruisers, generally start around twenty-two to twenty-four feet in length and carry on as long and as wide as you like until about forty feet. Once you get beyond forty-foot territory they become referred to as “yachts,” at which point they have usually switched from sterndrive (inboard-outboard) and gasoline power to inboard or Pod drives and diesel power.

“Cruisers” are sub-divided into several model designations, the most popular by far over the past several decades being the mid-cabin ‘express cruiser.’ This design features sterndrive or the less popular V-drive power mounted immediately inside the transom of the boat, ahead of which is a “mid-cabin” berth offering (usually) beam-to-beam sleeping accommodation in an area located immediately below the helm.

Other cruiser models include the ‘hardtop sedan’ which has been most popular on the Pacific Northwest but is gaining in popularity in the east due to its weather-protected interior that doesn’t require canvas. There’s the ‘flybridge express,’ which has become less and less popular in Canada over the past number of decades; the ‘flybridge sedan,’ which is recognizable by its vertical glass bulkhead with a door located toward the rear that offers weather protection to the helm ; and the ‘flybridge aft-cabin,’ usually with straight inboard power.

Both cuddy cabin boats and express cruisers provide seating and lounging facilities in the cockpit area – that being the outside area of the boat from the transom forward to the helm bulkhead. Generally, a lockable entry door leads to the sleeping accommodations located one or two or more steps down at a lower level in the boat. The cockpit seating area is often overlooked in either style of boat when purchasing, often viewed as being less important than the interior. Not so.

It is a common occurrence at boat shows to see customers come aboard a cruiser and immediately rush down into the boat’s interior while hardly glancing at the cockpit seating/lounging area. It is here you will spend ninety percent or more of your waking time aboard and therefore should be considered carefully to ensure it meets your needs. You will only use the interior area of your boat to sleep, to use the head facilities, and sometimes to prepare meals, but even most cooking these days is done on a swim platform-mounted propane barbeque.

Since mid-cabin express cruisers are by far the most popular cruiser design, let’s concentrate our discussion on them, keeping in mind all comments still apply to the other cruiser designs mentioned above.

A word used most often when researching a boat is “compromise.” Every design has to compromise something within any given length and beam. Every boat buyer knows they have to compromise somewhere and cannot get all they want in a given size and price range. A previous cruiser owner will have learned, through using their boat, some of the comforts and conveniences they are willing to compromise, and those they are not.

These most common compromises often include headroom in the cabin, the size, length, width, access, and configuration of the prime sleeping accommodations, the size of the head compartment and whether it has a wet or a separate shower area, the size and layout of storage within the galley, whether a convertible side dinette is provided in the cabin and whether it is U-shaped or booth style, the layout of the cockpit seating and whether a convertible dinette table/sunpad is provided, whether a refreshment centre/wetbar/refrigerator and/or ice-maker is provided in the cockpit, whether there is camper canvas, if there is a hardtop over the helm, whether the boat is legally trailerable, has single or twin engines, or if it has a generator.

There are also several lesser-mentioned compromises that can be easily overlooked but are worth considering. Details like a side-deck walkaround versus through-the-windshield access to the foredeck, stereo and/or television entertainment options, electronic navigation options, propulsion specs, reverse-cycle heating/air conditioning, bow and/or stern thrusters, electric anchor windlass, and even fishing configurations for leisure time.

The smallest mini or pocket cruisers have a forward V-berth area of about six feet long, a mid-cabin berth approximately four to five feet wide along the length of the boat, plus the engine compartment and swim platform, all within a twenty-two to twenty-four foot boat. That leaves little room in the cabin for the head compartment on one side and the galley on the other, plus perhaps a hanging locker or the stairs the cockpit that all take up space along the length of the boat. That means most mini or pocket cruisers have very little stand-up room in the cabin, with little additional space to spare.

As length of the boat increases, each of the above areas can be expanded as well as the seating in the cockpit area. As length increases, so does the boat’s beam from the legally trailerable eight-foot six-inch beam upwards to ten, twelve, and even fourteen feet. The designer’s ability to increase the comfort level and conveniences offered both in the interior and the cockpit all expand exponentially with increase length and width. And so, too, do your decisions on compromise.

Cruiser buyers often have a budget range in mind when they go shopping, and sticking to this budget is critical to your long term enjoyment of boating. There is no sense buying your dream boat and then worrying every time you have to pay storage or maintenance costs. So given your budget, it’s not unwise to consider purchasing a smaller but newer cruiser or a larger but older cruiser. This may be your first, and most important, compromise and once established, all others will of necessity fall in line.

One of the most important things to keep in mind as you shop for your boat is that you can never buy a boat big enough for all your relatives and friends. It is crucial that you shop for a boat that suits the needs of the people who will be on the boat ninety percent of the time. Choose your compromises accordingly and never apologize for the accommodations, size, or conveniences aboard your boat. Your boat needs to be chosen for you, everyone else will adjust accordingly.

Now, on to cuddy cabins. I have purposely saved cuddy cabinsto this point of the discussion for one primary reason: discussing compromises in a cruiser can be directly applied to a cuddy cabin, but in a much less complicated way. A cuddy cabin usually has sleeping accommodations for two in the bow area, along with a toilet and seating/lounging in the cockpit area. In general, the layouts are simpler.

Since the V-berth sleeping area has to be about six feet long, the overall length of the boat will determine the amount of length left for cockpit seating. A small cuddy cabin will locate the toilet, most often a chemical recirculating “porta-potty” design a deck pumpout fitting, beneath one of the centre filler cushions of the V-berth. This means that if you have to use it once you are in bed for the night, one or both of you will have to get up and move in order for the toilet to be used.

As an understandably troublesome compromise to have to consider, a longer cuddy cabin will often locate the head within a separate compartment near the cabin entrance bulkhead with a sink on the opposite side. Be prepared that headroom within any cuddy cabin is severely limited. It is often crawl in and crawl out – or at least very bent over- but at least you won’t have to move everyone in the middle of the night.

At any length, any extra space allocated to the cabin will reduce the space for cockpit seating. You may prefer less cabin space to allow for a cockpit refreshment centre with sink, cooler/refrigerator, storage, a cockpit table, or flexible seating/lounging facilities in the cockpit. After you accurately assess your needs and where you want to prioritize space, a cuddy cabin may just be a great boat for you to enjoy overnighting on the water.

As you continue shopping for your new cruiser or cuddy cabin, there are many decisions to make regarding how to get as many of your needs satisfied while staying within your budget. Take your time and prioritize your decisions on compromises with your partner. The more you agree sign on the dotted line, the happier you will be with your final choice. Then let the adventures begin.

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