A family cruising yacht can be one of the most difficult types of boat to choose. Different family members will inevitably have different priorities and future requirements are hard to predict. Add to that the emotional cost of choosing the wrong boat and it's no surprise that it often becomes one of the high-stakes decisions that is understandably dodged, with the result that many families miss out on the benefits owning a boat can bring (Get your family boating in 7 steps might also be worth a read).
Of course your first consideration is whether you are after a sailing boat at all, or whether power will better serve your purpose (see Five of the best family powerboats). If it's a sailing yacht you want, then read on...
So how do you go about identifying the best type of boat for your needs? Firstly it's important to be realistic about the amount and type of use you will give the boat – even the most dedicated of sailing families find a surprising number of weekends are taken up with unavoidable commitments elsewhere. Also there's no guarantee that the time you book off as holiday will coincide with weather that's suitable for exploring significantly further afield that your usual weekend cruising ground.
There are many stereotypes of what a safe family cruiser should look like and the desirable qualities it should embody. However the truth is that families successfully – and safely – cruise the widest variety of boats imaginable, from 14ft dinghies to the largest of yachts, and from race boats with minimal accommodation to gleaming classics.
Easily handled family cruising boats
So if the style of vessel doesn't define the choice of a family cruiser, how do you figure out the important attributes to prioritise? Unless your children are already talented sailors and are nearing their teenage years, ease of handling is perhaps the most important factor. This helps in two respects: firstly there will be times that the boat is only handled by the parents and at times one parent may need to look after the kids, leaving the other effectively singlehanded.
Secondly, an easily-handled boat with relatively powerful deck gear relative its size, makes it easier to fully involve younger or less experienced children in crewing the vessel. Such an approach is likely to get them hooked on sailing for life. However, children who are banished below deck whenever anything interesting happens – and their parents start to get stressed – are quickly dispirited. Don't underestimate how powerful this negative experience is for children on a boat.
Equipment that will help with ease of handling includes an effective autopilot, single-line mainsail reefing that enable the sail to be reefed from the cockpit by one person and a deck layout that makes it easy to accurately trim the sails. The latter point is often overlooking when choosing a cruiser, but among other things poor sail trim makes a boat difficult to steer, especially in a rapidly rising wind.
A performance cruiser is likely to be better appointed in this respect than an out and out cruising boat, and will also benefit from a better balanced hull, plus a more efficient keel and rudder. These attributes also make the boat easier to manoeuvre under power, with a tighter turning circle and more resistance to being blown off course by strong gusts of wind. The boat will also be more fun to sail, which increases the enjoyment factor for everyone on board and can help enthuse less committed members of the family.
It's important to take a realistic view of the costs of boat ownership – you never meet boat owners who discovered their boat was cheaper to run than initially expected, but there are plenty that have been stung by bad experiences. It’s worth adding at least 20 per cent to your estimate of predictable expenses such as moorings, haul out, insurance and routine maintenance. It's also a good idea to have a contingency fund for replacing or repairing big-ticket items when necessary.
Running costs increase exponentially with the size of the vessel – so stretching yourself financially to buy a significantly larger boat is unlikely to be a prudent move.
The ideal size of family cruiser?
Owning a big boat is an understandable dream for many people – there are many benefits including space and privacy, a better galley that makes preparing meals less of a chore, and a more comfortable motion at sea. These may initially appear to be a strong enticement for more reluctant members of the family, but it can backfire, with less keen family members feeling guilty about their failure to appreciate an expensive asset.
As boats get larger they also become more difficult to handle in tight spaces. Manoeuvring a bulky and unwieldy four-bedroomed yacht into a disconcertingly small gap can be a recipe for family discord – the stress of this will rub off onto everyone on board. Yet popular sailing areas are increasingly populated with yachts upwards of 40ft that are only used for short daytime passages.
Identifying the right compromise
What if you know your kids won’t entertain sleeping on board unless they have their own cabin, but don’t have the budget for a boat of that size? This was the problem faced by a friend, whose son and daughter were early teenagers, and compounded by the fact the a boat that would offer that was not the sort of boat he would enjoy sailing.
His solution? A 24ft trimaran – it’s a great daysailer with acres of deck space for lounging in the sun. It's also exciting and rewarding to sail, with even a 60-mile cross Channel trip a 6-8 hour sail in suitable weather.
Of course the compromise is in the accommodation – it’s only sufficient for a couple of people to camp overnight. But the financial savings compared to running a larger craft will easily pay for the best restaurants and hotels in every port. It’s the nautical equivalent of a spirited motorbike ride on gloriously empty country roads, followed by a session relaxing in the spa of a luxury hotel.
Granted it’s not a compromise that would suit every family, but illustrates the importance of keeping an open mind as to the optimum style of craft until you have figured out what everyone would genuinely like from a boat. That – and avoiding the temptation to over stretch your budget – are the keys to choosing the ideal family cruiser for your individual needs.
For more family cruising yachts see our pick of some of the best models for less than the price of a family car.
Of course, once you've chosen and bought your boat (see How to buy a boat: first-time buyers’ guide) you need to get sailing. Essential reading will be Sailing with your family: how to be a successful skipper and, if you have family members to convert, Get your family boating in 7 steps.
See also Weekend cruisers and Choosing a tender.