Why choose a performance cruising yacht when you can usually buy a larger boat for the same money? Surely it’s only racers and speed freaks that will gain from the extra performance? Many cruising sailors unnecessarily shy away from opting for a performance cruiser, believing that it will prove difficult to handle, especially in strong winds, and that all the extra power will be difficult to tame. However, the reality is usually very different, particularly with designs from the past 20 years or so. Here are six irresistible reasons to choose a performance cruising yacht.

Performance cruising yacht in strong winds

In a strong wind a performance cruiser with decent sails will carry on sailing efficiently and comfortably when others are struggling. (Photo: Rupert Holmes)

1. Better deck gear, layouts and sail handling systems

Part of the extra cost of a performance cruiser boat goes into elements that can transform the sailing experience. For instance, an out-and-out cruiser may have a fixed backstay, but the adjustable one on a faster boat enables the mainsail to be flattened and depowered easily, simply by pulling a piece of rope, or by powerful hydraulics on large boats. In gusty conditions do you ever find that cruisers are difficult to keep on course, with the boat rounding up into the wind in every gust? On a performance boat that can be counteracted just by letting the mainsheet traveller a little way down the track in the gusts, and then bringing in back up towards the windward side in the next lull. With decent systems you’d be surprised at how this is done, and how small the loads are, even on a large yacht. In addition, a boat with top-notch deck gear will also be one on which it’s easy to shorten sail. Contrast that with a boat that has the minimum of sail handling equipment and what is provided is likely to be the minimum size the builders think they can get away with.

Elan 400: performance cruising yacht

This Elan 400 has a great interior with plenty of space – but a huge amount of stability. Decent deck gear means that it’s also easily handled by two people, even with the giant asymmetric spinnaker flying. (Photo Rupert Holmes)


2. Efficient hull shapes make for easy sailing

With a faster boat designers don’t cram as much accommodation into the ends of the vessel, as weight here saps speed. Therefore, designers can optimise the hull shape here to prioritise good handling characteristics. As a result, the boat will be better balanced when sailing upwind, and a modern boat will surf or plane more readily, and with greater control, when sailing downwind in a good breeze.

3. It will nearly always be easier to handle

A performance boat is likely to have more efficient keels and rudders – it costs time, effort and money to optimise these vital aspects of a boat’s design, so on a cruiser, where the boat’s sailing qualities are not the main priority, they get compromised. The efficient keel and rudder of the performance boat helps to make it easier to handle, both in terms of responsive, easy steering and high stability that minimises the need for reefing, while also minimising sudden heeling.

Grand Soleil 43: performance cruising yacht

Good deck gear and responsive rig design enables this Grand Soleil 43 to be sailed singlehanded in a strong breeze.

4. Ease of manoeuvring

A performance cruiser’s efficient keel and rudder, combined with reduced windage, invariably make them much easier to manoeuvre in marinas and other tight spaces. This alone can significantly reduce stress levels at the beginning and end of each sail, especially if there’s a bit more wind or tide than you anticipate.

5. It’s more likely to look after you in really tough conditions

Often this is where a cruiser is assumed to be the better choice, but again this is not always the case. The high stability, combined with slightly narrower beam, of the performance boat will frequently confer a higher angle of vanishing stability, the key measure of the point at which a boat becomes stable in an inverted position. Equally, the performance cruiser will stand a much greater chance of being able to beat away from a lee shore in a rising gale. What about really extreme conditions? Whatever the boat, my money is on having a series drogue (for example: www.jordanseriesdrogue.com) that will hold the boat stern to the waves, help prevent it pitchpoling or capsizing, and allow the crew to shelter in safety below.

6. You’ll spend more time sailing and less time under power

The reasons for this are two-fold. Firstly, an efficient sailing boat will make more acceptable progress in lighter airs than a cruiser, so you spend less time on passage motoring in light winds. In addition, even if you hope to never have to sail to windward, an efficient boat that tacks through 80 degrees will be on a very comfortable and fast fetch with a true wind angle of 55 degrees. However, an inefficient boat, with sails that are impossible to trim accurately, will still be hard on the wind, making slow and uncomfortable progress.

Compromises of a performance cruiser

Of course, there are also some compromises, the biggest of which is reduced space relative to the overall length of the boat. This is partly a result of less beam, but also of not cramming accommodation into the very ends of the boat. This typically means a faster boat loses around 10 per cent of its length in terms of accommodation. In addition, length for length a performance boat will also be more expensive – the improved deck gear and often more sophisticated construction come at a price. However, I’d wager that the skipper and crew of the performance cruiser boat will have less stress and more fun. On shore, what would you prefer to drive – a BMW or a people carrier? A modern Volkswagen camper van that drives like a car, or a giant lumbering Winnebago? What if you already own an all-out cruiser and it’s not viable for you to change boats for the foreseeable future. It’s possible to improve the deck gear of any boat to make the rig more easily controllable and upgrading to sails of a low stretch material will also significantly improve the boat’s handling and speed in strong winds and gusty conditions.

Written by: Rupert Holmes
Rupert Holmes has more than 70,000 miles of offshore cruising and racing experience, in waters ranging from the North Sea to the Southern Ocean and Cape Horn. He writes about all aspects of boat ownership and marine travel, including destinations, seamanship and maintenance, as well as undertaking regular new boat and gear tests. He currently sails around 5,000 miles per year and in the past couple of seasons has cruised from the UK to the Azores, as well as winning his class in the 2014 two-handed Round Britain and Ireland Race. He also owns two yachts, one based in the Mediterranean and the other in the UK.