Duncan Kent chooses the best sail and motor boats under 40ft for circumnavigating the islands of Britain and Ireland
Best sail and power boats for sailing around the UK
Right around the UK in a small boat is a long sail, close to 2,000 miles in fact if you include Ireland.
Along the way you’ll likely encounter almost every kind of weather and sea state, so having the right boat is paramount.
Over the past 100 years cruising boat design has changed beyond imagination, with the emphasis for modern yachts placed predominantly on brisk performance and spacious, bright and luxurious interiors.
The primary element nowadays, for both sail and motor yachts, is commonly speed and comfort, whereas 50 years ago it was more about its ability to handle adverse conditions.
A yacht had to look after its crew regardless of the weather and a keen performance was simply a bonus. Of course, there were plenty of racing yachts back then that were chiefly designed for agility and performance, but few would have been taken by a family for a week’s holiday or sailed across open oceans for pleasure.
Sat firmly in the northern hemisphere, the UK experiences a wide range of weather patterns, which in turn affect the sea state.
There’s also a noticeable difference between its southern and northern coastal waters and sea areas.
I don’t want to lay down rules about which boats can safely make it around the UK and which can’t, as a very large proportion of this will be down to the experience of the skipper and crew.
But the following suggestions might help you choose a suitable boat for the task or at least let you know what modifications you might want to make to your existing boat to make the cruise safer and more enjoyable.
To circumnavigate the UK in a reasonable time frame requires a boat that is tough enough and comfortable enough to beat into wind and waves when necessary, without making life totally unbearable on board.
That’s not to say a well-found bilge-keeled yacht couldn’t do the job perfectly well, it just means it might take slightly longer due to the little extra leeway experienced during heavy weather beats.
Folk have made it around in windsurfers, dinghies and even a kayak!
However, I personally wouldn’t want to attempt a circumnavigation in an outboard-powered boat, either motor or sail.
More often than not you’ll be needing to motor or motorsail through confused seas, especially off Cape Wrath and similar foreboding headlands.
So, unless the outboard is mounted in a deep well on the centreline, the prop is likely to keep lifting out of the water just when you don’t need it to.
With all older yachts with inboards, I’d be looking for a newer engine than the original for a trip like this, unless they have been professionally rebuilt and meticulously maintained.
It will be a great deal more pleasant in heavy weather if the boat offers a reasonable level of protection from the elements for the on-deck crew, such as a windscreen, sprayhood or wheelhouse.
Depending on your overall plan, you should expect to be anchoring often when you need to stop, so think ‘off-grid’.
Sailing yachts under 25ft LOA for sailing around the UK
The duration and number of stopovers you plan to include will favour some boats and not others.
Keeping the passages to 8-10 hours each during the summer months, with a few overnighters when the weather is favourable, means you could do the whole trip in a sub-25ft boat, although hull stability and cockpit protection would be high on my list, as well as a reliable inboard diesel.
For a sturdy motorsailer such as the long-keeled, shoal-draught Fisher 25, the trip should be a doddle in most conditions.
Lighter, slightly cheaper, but equally seaworthy boats such as the Vivacity 24 or the Hunter Horizon 23/235 should also serve well, although the limited accommodation volume and restricted headroom can sometimes get a little wearing on a long trip, especially when the weather is poor.
I have a good friend who sailed his 1970s Hurley 24 for many thousands of miles, including down to the Mediterranean and around the UK and Ireland.
Apart from the usual breakages and lack of power against fast currents and headwinds, the H24 served him and his wife well.
They remain happily married today, although they now cruise a 37ft swing-keel Southerly out of their southern Brittany home port.
Motorboats under 25ft LOA for sailing around the UK
There are a few sub-25ft semi-displacement motorboats that would safely complete a long passage by port-hopping in fair weather and sea conditions.
The bluff-bowed Hardy Pilot 20 is the smallest I would consider, sporting a powerful 30hp inboard diesel and super-tough hull.
Although she’s pretty rudimentary below, she does have 2+2 berths plus a basic galley and heads.
A cockpit tent will add considerably to the living area in port.
Numerous other small boats could be considered too, if properly prepared with well-maintained inboard engines.
For instance, the Channel Island 22, though primarily intended for coastal and estuary cruising, could be in the running for a frequent stop itinerary, thanks to her pokey twin Volvo diesels and comfy interior.
Owners of boats such as these might, however, prefer cutting through the Caledonian Canal to avoid the rougher waters off Scotland’s northern coastline.
The larger Seaward 25 is a cosy pilothouse cruiser with comfortable accommodation below for two, maybe even four on day passages.
Twin 100hp+ diesels give her all the power you’d need to battle against foul tides and her sea-kindly motion makes her suitable for long passages.
Her spacious and comfortable pilothouse will keep you warm and toasty whatever the weather, while her cockpit has ample room for entertaining at anchor.
Below, she sports a good-size double forepeak berth, a private heads, and a decent size galley with ample stowage.
Sailing yachts 26-30ft LOA for sailing around the UK
There are plenty of capable passage-making boats in this size range, from older budget buys to more recent yachts.
In the budget range, I’d look closely at a decently maintained Contest 28.
Produced between 1976-1981 she is an IOR design but wasn’t taken to extremes and as such is a very stiff, stable boat with a 50% ballast ratio and high topsides.
Her accommodation is somewhat rudimentary but it has all the requirements for offshore cruising, including a comfy quarterberth and long, straight saloon settees.
For slightly more money, boats such as the Twister 28, Trapper 500/1, Moody 27 and Westerly Merlin and Hunter Channel 27 all come to the fore.
The first is a rugged, narrow-beamed long-keeler renowned for her seaworthy performance in heavy weather.
Though somewhat ‘cosy’ below, for a relatively hardy couple she possesses all the basic attributes of a liveaboard boat.
Early boats were wooden, but the later all-GRP models are still valued as wallet-friendly offshore cruisers.
The UK-built Trapper 500/1 was based on the steadfast Canadian C&C27.
She’s a heavily built, all-round offshore cruiser with a fair turn of speed under sail and a sea-kindly motion under way.
The T500 experienced noticeable weather helm in rough conditions, though, which was alleviated by a rudder redesign in the T501.
Trapper interiors are traditional, with the 501 having a quarterberth at the cost of one of the T500’s two deep cockpit lockers.
Westerly’s 28ft Merlin replaced the popular Konsort and featured a much-improved interior and deck layout.
Early boats had a transom hung rudder, before being upgraded to the 29 with its sugar scoop stern and semi-balanced spade rudder.
New to Westerly then was the Merlin’s inner floor moulding to which the furniture was bonded, providing further stiffness to the hull.
The Moody 27 is a more modern-looking yacht with a wider beam providing extra volume below and shallower underwater lines improving performance under sail.
She’s pretty stiff in a blow and has excellent agility in the gusts, although her transom rudder becomes overloaded if pushed too hard.
A remodel in 1985 formed the Moody 28 with a more modern, stepped transom and semi-balanced spade rudder.
A development of the Ranger 265, only with a higher coachroof and a marginally bigger rig, the Hunter Channel 27 is easily capable of a UK circumnavigation.
With her twin, foiled keels she sails upwind like a fin-keeler and can take full canvas up to a Force 5 thanks to her high-aspect, self-tacking jib, which is ideal for beating against the elements.
All sail control lines are within reach of the tiller, plus she’s nicely balanced and light on the helm.
Though her side decks are quite narrow, sturdy handrails help going forward.
Her cockpit is comfortable and sports a deep locker that accepts most long-term cruising gear.
Below, she offers 1.88m (6ft 2in) headroom, a light and airy saloon and up to six berths including the two saloon settees.
The galley is well equipped with ample stowage and the nav station opposite has a large table and stowage for charts and books.
A moulded GRP heads provides a shower and a wet locker. Another alternative would be the popular Hallberg-Rassy 29.
Launched in 1982 as a ‘go anywhere’ family cruiser, she is remarkably stable in heavy seas.
Her Lloyds-certified, solid GRP hull was reinforced with stringers, while her foam sandwich deck and superstructure offered weight savings and good insulation.
Her longish, cast-iron fin keel is also encapsulated, so there are no keel bolts to worry about.
Although her hull is narrow by modern standards, she does boast a comfortable double vee-berth forward and two excellent saloon sea berths.
Boats with the removable chart table option also had a quarterberth.
Motorboats 26-30ft LOA for sailing around the UK
The Finnish-built, single-engined Aquador 28C is a stalwart motoryacht built with precision and care using top quality materials.
Her roomy wheelhouse opens right out aft to give an unhindered walkway through to the cockpit in fine weather.
She sports a 300hp Volvo diesel driving through a sterndrive transmission and is capable of over 30 knots flat out.
At a more sedate 24 knots she is quiet and economical. There’s good headroom throughout and a very comfortable forepeak berth/day cabin.
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Surprisingly for her size, she also has a full width midships cabin beneath the wheelhouse sole, along with heaps of smart cherry wood trim and Corian worktops.
The trusty ‘Nelsonesque’ Seaward 29 started life 30 years ago and is still built in the Isle of Wight today.
Early models are now quite reasonably priced and, being so ruggedly constructed, most are still in pretty good condition too.
Nicely balanced and steady in a choppy sea, her two pokey Yanmar diesels can power her up to nearly 30 knots or cruise quietly and economically in the low twenties.
Later models featured a smart Vessel Control System (VCS), capable of smoothing out the ride by automating the trim adjustment.
Accommodation on the S29 is roomy for a sub-30ft boat, with good size berths below and a well-equipped galley in the spacious wheelhouse.
Sailing yachts 31-35ft LOA for sailing around the UK
Traditional heavy displacement yachts like the Nicholson 32 or 35 never seem to age.
I’ve owned late models of both, so I might be a tad biased, but they really are workhorses of the sea.
The latest owner of my Nic32 recently completed a UK/Ireland circumnavigation without a hitch, albeit she had a new engine, rigging and running gear when I sold her.
The Nic35 was my overall favourite, however.
Another popular classic is the Contessa 32, often described as the definitive offshore cruising yacht.
Without a doubt, the Contessa 32 is a very seaworthy yacht with impressive stability specifications, which has allowed many owners to safely sail the world over with confidence.
The Westerly Fulmar 32/33 is also envied for her competent sailing performance in all weathers.
She’s weighty enough to carry her through an oncoming sea and stiff enough to stand up to full sail up to the top end of a Force 5.
Although not the quickest 32-footer around she handles beautifully on a beat thanks to her responsive helm, plus she tracks well off the wind.
Fulmars were available with either fin or bilge keels, the latter losing a little in leeway terms but gaining loads in convenience for those wishing to creek crawl.
In port or at anchor her hinge-up tiller increases available cockpit lounging area, while below her accommodation is warm, comfortable and practical, with a double forepeak berth, straight settees and a cosy quarterberth.
The Vancouver 34 Classic is a sturdy, long-keeled, shoal draft sailing yacht capable of modest speeds but with a powerful demeanour.
When challenged in a gale she’ll happily romp home while remaining stable enough for the crew to safely make and eat a hot meal.
On deck, her cockpit is narrow and deep, with high coamings to keep the water out.
Initially light and positive, her helm gets noticeably heavier if over-canvassed, but downwind her long keel enables her to hold her course as if on rails.
Many cruisers like the flexibility of the cutter rig and appreciate the ability to run under a staysail and triple-reefed mainsail in a gale.
Although tacking her can be somewhat slow, due to the need to haul the yankee around the inner forestay, her displacement enables her to keep way on through the tack and she quickly picks up speed on the new course.
Below, her interior is ideal for long term, open sea cruising. She can sleep up to six, and I like having all the ports openable for ventilation.
The galley is well appointed and the heads very spacious.
The ever-popular, ketch-rigged Fisher 34 motorsailer was purportedly designed to be as seaworthy as a North Sea fishing boat, but with the sailing abilities of a long-distance cruising yacht.
For this reason, she sports a canoe stern, long keel, deep-vee entry and pronounced sheer with high, flared bows and tall bulwarks.
Her rig is powerful enough to enable her to sail at motoring speeds, while remaining protected in her cosy wheelhouse thanks to a large, see-through, sliding hatch.
Renowned for their rugged build quality, below they are fitted out to a high standard, accommodating six crew in a double forecabin, a double aft quarter cabin and a convertible double saloon berth.
Motorboats 31-35ft LOA for sailing around the UK
Once you get over 30ft the ideal motorboat for a UK circumnavigation is a twin-engined, semi-displacement boat.
These offer all the grunt you need to plough through steep seas and adverse currents while being spacious enough to enjoy life on the hook once you arrive.
The Fairline Corniche 31 was praised for her stability when she was first launched back in the 1980s and has now become a sought-after shoestring motor cruiser.
That said, problems with her original twin Volvo diesels can be costly to fix, as can poorly maintained gear on the outdrive models.
The Nelson-derived Channel Islands 32 is a tough, twin-diesel, semi-displacement motoryacht that is ideally suited to long open sea passages, cruising economically at around 18-20 knots.
Despite her very roomy pilothouse, she has a decently sized and well sheltered cockpit too, while below she boasts a surprising amount of living space for her length, featuring four berths in two comfortable cabins, a well-appointed, seamanlike galley, and a roomy heads compartment.
Moving up in size and price, the Askham-designed Humber 35 (also from Nelson origins) features the same fine entry, long keel and round bilges, providing comfortable seagoing characteristics and pronounced form stability at speed.
Sailing yachts 36-40ft LOA for sailing around the UK
The Holman & Pye-designed Rustler 36 started life in 1980 as a development of the earlier Rustler 31, itself a derivative of the legendary Folkboat.
She’s a competent and seaworthy cruising yacht capable of any serious ocean passage.
Though her accommodation is nowhere near as voluminous as a modern yacht she has all the necessities for living aboard comfortably at sea.
Her full long keel, encapsulated ballast, high ballast ratio and relatively conservative cutter rig make her very stable and easy to handle in heavy weather.
Intended for serious passage making in all weather and sea conditions, she was the choice of the majority of the 2022-23 Golden Globe Race entrants.
Angus Primrose’s robust 1980s cruiser, the Moody 36, was a frequent visitor to various far-flung parts of the world.
She was heavily built, in days when the thickness of GRP was what counted, therefore not the quickest boat around.
However, her centre cockpit not only purveyed a sense of security to the crew but also meant she was ahead of her time with regard to comfort below, and introduced Moody’s future signature feature – a full-width aft double cabin.
Unlike the Rustler’s long keel, the Moody’s fin keel and balanced rudder make her more responsive and agile, while her ample beam provides much more room below, both for living and for stowing equipment and provisions.
Another early British boat, the Westerly Ocean 37, utilised the well-proven and easily driven Dubois-designed Typhoon hull.
The Ocean model added a more powerful rig and a deep, secure cockpit, with sensibly placed deck gear making her easy to sail single-handed.
Below, she is woody and warm with a very traditional layout, albeit with two heads.
The furnishings are solidly put together with no sharp edges, and she is comfortable to live in under way.
At anchor, she doesn’t feel quite as ‘open’ as more modern yachts do, but for those who put build quality before design flair she ticks all the boxes.
Another ideal yacht for this trip would be the Hallberg-Rassy 352 which did a great deal towards establishing the Swedish yard’s reputation for producing steadfast, go-anywhere cruising yachts.
In addition to having a comfortable interior and practical layout for liveaboards, she was one of the first centre-cockpit yachts to incorporate an internal corridor into the aft cabin, removing the need to go via the cockpit.
In early versions of the 800-plus HR 352s launched, headroom here was limited but over the following 14 years the deck was twice raised to alleviate this problem.
A long, encapsulated fin keel contains three tons of cast iron ballast with a cutaway forward to assist tacking and manoeuvring.
A full-depth skeg adds support to the rudder, which is semi-balanced to keep the helm light.
Those with a bigger budget but still yearning for the Hallberg-Rassy thoroughbred feel could opt for the equally sea kindly, but even more luxurious Hallberg-Rassy 36.
Though not cheap, a popular mid-range Swedish cruiser of the early 2000s was the Najad 380, a relatively long-keeled, heavy displacement yacht with enough volume to cruise in comfort as a family.
Not only is she sumptuous below with well thought out spacious accommodation but under sail, she’s really well balanced, even in a blow.
Motorboats 36-40ft LOA for sailing around the UK
A very common sight on the water in the 1980-90s, the Fairline 36 came in two versions.
The Sedan was a conventional aft cockpit with flybridge and aft cockpit, whereas the Turbo model, by far the most popular, boasted a large aft cabin with a raised afterdeck.
The Turbo’s aft cabin is full width and the centreline berth is huge. The ensuite and stowage matched the opulence.
Twin 165hp or 200hp Volvo diesels were standard, with the 300hp TAMD61 an option.
The former gave her reasonable performance in the mid-20 knots range, the latter nudged her on to touch 30 knots.
I’ve often looked longingly at the Aquastar OceanRanger 38, despite preferring to remain with rag and stick for as long as my aged body allows.
She looks like a proper gentleman’s yacht without the towering appendages that adorn many post-millennium motorboats, despite the popular option of a flybridge helm station.
Below, the standard layout on the aft cabin model provides two heads/shower and four permanent berths, fore and aft, with another four on a convertible dinette and convertible settee in the wheelhouse.
The aft cabin/owner’s suite is impressively spacious and boasts a queen-size centreline berth, loads of stowage and large windows letting the light flood in.
There is no doubt about the 38’s all-weather capabilities.
Early models, however, had relatively small 160hp diesels limiting her cruising speed to around 15 knots.
Later these were doubled in size and power to make her capable of a more impressive 25 knots or more.
Are you ready to go sailing around the UK?
Plenty of small boats complete arduous passages safely. The key is preparation.
Provided your boat is seaworthy, properly prepared, and skilfully skippered there’s no reason such a demanding journey as a UK circumnavigation should be a problem.
Size isn’t everything, but obviously once you get above 35ft almost any post-millennium sail or motor yacht should handle the vagaries of such a trip, along with many 1970-2000 boats too.
The decider is often how you plan to sail.
If you’re keen to tick off the headlands and get around ASAP then you need a robust boat with big tanks that is capable of handling heavy seas.
However, if you plan to potter, day sail, anchor in nice places and stay out of the rough stuff on inclement days then your choice of craft is much wider.
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