Buying a sailboat is a huge investment and requires planning and forethought before you begin.
Knowing your needs and requirements before you start shopping is crucial to making the buying process easier.
That being said, knowing how big of a boat you need is the first step:
Here’s How to Choose What Size Sailboat you Need:
Consider your needs before buying your boat. If you are a solo sailor or have a huge family, if you cruise or race, or if you want to sail the ocean, your needs and size of the boat will change. Most sailboats range between 15-40 feet. Depending on your needs, you may need 15-25 or 25-40 feet.
What is the Best-Sized Sailboat for a Family of 4?
You will not need as much room for a family of 4 that is racing and/or daysailing.
You won’t need the stowage for provisions or offshore equipment, and you expect to bump into one another now and then when tacking.
Keeping in mind that all boats are different and headrooms can differ even on boats of the same length, a good size would be 25-28 feet. If the kids are younger, a smaller boat is better, and if they are teens or pre-teens, a larger boat is preferable.
On longer trips, you need more space per person and storage. This is especially true if you are going to be liveaboards.
Liveaboard families will probably need a 36-42 foot range.
What is the Minimum Size Sailboat for Rough Weather?
Most modern sailboats are manufactured to handle rough weather for at least a reasonable amount of time.
Knowledge of construction and rigging and manufacturing standards are very high in the marine industry (liability has made this a certainty over the years).
With that being said, you’d still want to be in at least a 24-foot boat if you want to sustain storm conditions for a significant length of time. A rugged boat like the J/24, while designed as a one-design racer, can take a lot of pounding.
You would not necessarily want to cross the ocean in that size boat (though it can and has been done), but you can handle most of the rough weather you encounter along the coast.
What Size Sailboat Can you Live on Comfortably?
We need to consider whether you will be living by yourself on the boat or with your family and if you will be staying mostly at a marina or cruising offshore, living from port to port.
Personal preference for accommodations is important here, too. Some people are perfectly comfortable living in Spartan conditions, while others would find it difficult to live without the most modern amenities.
If you live by yourself on board, your options will be wider, as you will not need the room that a family will require. If this is the case, 30 feet is a pretty good choice to live in comfortably.
The Catalina 30, for example, was one of the most successful designs ever as a racer/cruiser and had plenty of space and storage and a comparatively roomy bathroom. The Cataline 30 can also go for extended cruises, so it is a good size for single-living whether you will be marina-based or going on long-distance cruises.
If a family is living aboard, you need a bigger boat.
Staying at a marina where you can spend time ashore is easier, so 36-38 feet can be a comfortable size, but this sized boat will probably become cramped if you live offshore or from point to point.
Offshore, 40-42 feet is a good size for a family of four. If your family is larger, you might have to find a 45-footer for everyone to live in comfort.
What is the Minimum Size Sailboat for Sailing the Ocean?
The record-sized boat to cross the Atlantic is just over five feet in length, but that was a feat of endurance and not a comfortable or safe crossing.
It is generally accepted that about a 30-footer is the minimum you’d want to take across the Atlantic or Pacific, even by experienced sailors.
This is for the combination of speed, stowage, durability, and safety.
What Size Sailboat to Sail the Caribbean?
If you are cruising through the Caribbean for a while, you want to be comfortable.
You will see all sizes of sailboats making their way between the islands, but not all of them are doing it comfortably or safely.
The most common sizes with these factors in mind are in the 30 to 35-foot range, both in monohulls and catamarans.
Many of these are charter boats, taken by people with little or no sailing experience, particularly the catamarans, so crossings between islands are usually done in calmer seas. Still, boats in this range will be able to handle any unexpected weather.
What Size Sailboat to Sail to the Bahamas?
If you are sailing to the Bahamas from Florida, the passage is not as long or difficult as going through the Caribbean and definitely not as bad as across the Atlantic.
If the trip is planned properly, you will not see any rough weather at all.
The crossing is routinely made by sailboats as small as 20 feet in length. Most sailors tend toward the 22- to 26-foot range in making the voyage safely and easily.
If you want to do it in comfort, you can’t go wrong with your 30-footer.
How Many Guests Will You Have?
Many sailors prefer to sail solo.
If you prefer solo sailing, you will probably not need as big a boat as you do not require the amount of space and storage you would with a crew on board.
This is not always true because you need a larger boat for durability and storage if you are doing distance solo sailing.
For most sailors, though, the company of their friends and family is a prime draw of being out on the water. If you intend to have more people with you, you will certainly need a larger boat.
The more people you intend to take with you regularly, the larger the boat will need to be.
Will You Be Doing Serious or Casual Sailing?
Depending on your level of seriousness, your choice of boat size will vary.
Smaller boats are easier to maintain, more fun to take out on weekends, and don’t have a lot of upkeep. However, bigger boats will end up costing you so much more, need a lot of attention, and will generally require a lot of experience.
Some of the highest costs here are sails. This is not just because of the sail area, but cloth weight and material, as well. So a new mainsail for a 30-foot boat will cost twice or more than one for a 20-foot boat.
Furthermore, marinas charge slip fees based on the boat’s length, or at least the size of the slip. The difference between the slip fees for a 25-foot boat and a 30-foot boat can be hundreds of dollars a year.
Also, larger boats always require more work. Because they are longer, they have more surface area that needs to be cleaned and repaired, more teak that needs to be treated, and more hardware that needs to be maintained and replaced.
A casual sailor is often less inclined to spend the time and money required to maintain a larger boat so that they will gravitate toward a smaller one.
The serious sailor understands the commitment in time and money, so they expect it. Because they are more dedicated to sailing, they usually will end up with a larger boat.
Will You be Racing, Cruising, or Both?
If you are primarily racing, you need to determine whether you will be doing one-design or handicap:
In handicap racing, your boat will be assigned a rating based on its documented performance, and other boats will owe you time, or you will owe them time over the length of the racecourse, expressed in seconds per mile.
This is more about the performance of your crew and their experience as well. In this case, any size boat can compete, though fleets are usually broken up at certain ratings.
So a 22-foot boat will be in a different class than a 40-foot boat, and they will not be competing directly with each other unless the fleet is small and so they are all combined.
In one-design racing, all boats are the same as one another, whether Lasers, J/24s, or Vipers.
If you want to go that route, your choice in size of a boat will be made for you.
If you intend to do both racing and cruising and do not go the one design route, you are free to choose the size of boat that you wish. You will probably opt for a little larger-sized boat, as you are a little more serious about your sailing.
There are many sailboats made with both racing and cruising in mind. This “hybrid design” started in the 1970s with the explosion of sailing’s popularity, and today most boats are made to accomplish both.
The exceptions to this are the pure racing boats, which are generally very uncomfortable to do any pleasure cruising in over any significant distance, anyway.
So, What Boat Size Works for You?
If you are doing casual solo sailing, you might look at dinghies around 15 feet.
A Sunfish-style boat is ideal, as it is easy to sail and get up to speed. Likewise, serious solo racers might look in the 15-foot range, such as Lasers or Moths. These are all trailerable.
If you want to stay in dinghies, there are many 2-person boats, often classic classes like Hamptons or popular boats like the Hobie 16 catamarans. There are many larger dinghies around, such as the Thistle, which has active racing classes and requires a crew of 3.
If you are a casual solo cruiser, you might look in the 19 to 23-foot range. At this size, a sailboat is still relatively easy to handle. There are a variety of small daysailers made with this in mind.
Serious solo cruisers will look for larger boats, as they will frequently be sailing, and frequently it will be distance cruising. Longer boats will have better speed and more room, and these sailors will handle the larger size.
25 to 30 feet is a good size for these sailors, but it is not rare to see an experienced solo sailor taking a 35 or 40-footer across an ocean.
If you are taking out a crew of 4 people regularly, you will be looking in the 25 to 30-foot range as a cruiser, whether serious or casual, with serious being at the longer end. If you anticipate 6 to 8 people regularly, 35 or 40 or more feet will be more comfortable.
Serious and casual racers will be found in almost any size boat from 20 to 45 feet. One design will determine the exact boat if you go that route, but otherwise, there are few limits outside of price.
The determining factors here will probably be the number of crew you can count on and the fleet you wish to compete in.
Casual racers will probably opt for smaller boats here, as it is less expensive and easier to compete short-handed if all of the crew cannot make the race. Serious racers will opt toward the larger boat here, as they are more competitive, and the best competition is usually at the upper end of the fleet.
We’ve looked at the major considerations for choosing the best size sailboat for you and/or your family and looked at what size is best for certain voyages.
Price is something we did not examine closely, except in the context of being a serious or casual sailor, but that will have to fall where it may.
The bigger boat will cost you more. If not in the initial purchase, then it will cost more in the maintenance.
The bottom line is what you want to accomplish in your sailing and how many people in your crew.