Whether you’re moving on from dinghies, or downsizing to a boat that’s fun without being a financial millstone, here’s a pocket cruisers market guide

Pocket cruisers: the best boats between 17-20ft

Selecting a pocket cruiser or any boat can be a bit of a lottery. Especially if it’s getting on a bit.

If you are looking at a brand-new model you can of course ask the dealer for a trial sail. But this won’t necessarily tell you the full story.

If the test is on a sunny day with light winds, what will she be like in a blow? Or vice versa?

Reprints of test reports can also provide extra useful input (although they’re not so easily available these days) and help you to build up an overall picture.

You can also study owners’ opinions by visiting class association websites and YBW forums. Either way, you need to tap into the experience of as many people as possible to build up a picture of any older boat’s good and bad points.

When it comes to second-hand boats, trial sails are the exception rather than the rule.

Pocket cruisers - a Norfolk Gypsy III

Norfolk Gypsy III. These are popular boats and often in demand. Credit: Neil Thompson Boats Ltd

Even the best brokers are unlikely to take you for a spin on one of the many boats on their books.

The owner – if it is a private sale and the boat is afloat – may offer a trial sail. But again, this cannot be guaranteed.

Your surveyor might also chuck in a general comment such as ‘great boats’ or ‘I wouldn’t dream of owning one of those’.

You should also ask yourself the same three basic questions that we encouraged our Hunter clients to consider.

These are: ‘where are you going to sail it; how often; and with whom?’ It was interesting that clients often decided on something a bit smaller once they’d gone through this self-cross-examination.

And then there is the expectation of what you want from a sailing boat.

The inside of a small boat

Norfolk Gypsy Ripple. Credit: Neil Thompson Boats Ltd

Some sailors relish top performance and a design that will slice upwind in fair weather and foul.

Others are less fussed about speed or close-windedness and are happy with a boat that will trundle along satisfactorily and safely.

On the comfort stakes, some are happy with adequate if spartan accommodation, while others want maximum space and comfort down below.

The field is wide and sometimes confusing. What’s more, some boats represent better value for money than others.

Buying a tired example of an obscure model can mean ‘throwing good money after bad’.

Pocket cruisers: Sailfish 18

Starting at the small end of the scale, where should you look if you want a pocket cruiser in the 16ft-20ft size range that’s capable of trailer-sailing?

Many sailors make their first purchase around this size having moved on from dinghies; while others decide that a smaller boat could offer lots of fun without being a financial millstone.

Indeed, many sailors downsize to smaller cruisers after retiring and decide to ‘own little and charter large’.

I started my search for sensible and trailable 16- to 20-footers by consulting two PBO columnists who champion the smaller boat – Dave Selby and Sam Llewellyn.

Pocket cruisers - Sailfish 18 yachts lined up on the water

Sailfish 18 yacht racing at the 2013 Rutland Water Rally. Credit: Judy Stratford

Dave owns a Sailfish 18. He paid £2,000, which included an excellent trailer (worth half the total purchase price, he said).

This versatile small cruiser was designed by Leo da Costa and built by Maxim Marine in converted farm sheds in Hampshire.

And thanks to a clever marketing policy of offering it as a complete package including outboard motor and trailer, it sold like hot cakes.

It was launched in 1970 and around 900 were built.

The Sailfish’s LOA of 18ft 6in and beam of 7ft 1in – combined with a huge cockpit, generous topsides and high coachroof – mean it offers plenty of space for its size.

a pocket cruiser sailing on a river

Sandpiper 565 on the Saint-Laurent river, close to Quebec, Canada

Dave told me: “You can sleep on a king- sized airbed in its 6ft cockpit. The original tent even has windows, creating an extra room or conservatory. The builder’s original brochure claimed it slept six!”

Dave’s friends towed their Sailfish to Disneyland Paris, put it in the caravan park and lived in it (along with their two children). A passer-by was heard to exclaim: “That caravan looks like a boat!”

The Sailfish offers more, however, than space.

Its vertically lifting keel (operated by a worm drive) weighs 114kg/250lb (out of a displacement of 454kg/1,000lb) and reduces draught from 3ft to 1ft.

So the boat is also relatively easy to trail, launch and retrieve, and it sails well and is simple to handle.

Dave got caught in heavy winds off Felixstowe on an early trip and found that the wide companionway meant he could stand on the keel box in the cabin and reef the sail.

He “was surprised when friends said later it was a Force 7”. Dave does not, however, use his keel as an echosounder.

Unlike a pivoting plate, it does not flip up.

The Sailfish UK Class Association offers advice galore on maintenance and often sources spare parts – should you ignore his advice and crunch the keel.

Dave describes the owners’ association as excellent, providing friendly support and sociable rallies.

These are essential parts of any elderly boat’s inventory.

You can mull over the Selby meanderings on pbo.co.uk/dave-selby/sailfishing-compliments-dave-selbys-mad-boat.

The Sandpiper 565 is a similar da Costa design of which a few were built in the UK and many more in Canada.

Pocket cruisers: Cornish Shrimper 19

Sam Llewellyn also graced PBO’s pages with many musings about his Cornish Shrimper 19 (19ft 3in LOA), praising it as an ideal ‘minimum boat’.

His route to this boat, having owned “a 30ft ketch when the family was small: a slow but very good sea boat; then a Drascombe Longboat when I got fed up with paying mooring fees for the ketch; slow again, but also a very good sea boat; then a Cornish Crabber Mk1 until I got fed up with not sailing too well… Then I bought a Cornish Shrimper because it was solid and had a roof and sailed quite well and, most importantly, it was trailable.”

Sam’s keen on ‘trailability’: “I like being able to sail in the Hebrides and Scilly in the same year, without spending weeks on passage.”

A few years later Sam bought a Corribee 21, summing up his philosophy of boat ownership by saying “the smaller the boat, the bigger the fun, within reason. Friends have Discovery 55s and mighty Olin Stephens classics. The haunted expression on their faces tells its own story.”

The Cornish Shrimper is one of the UK’s most successful small boats. More than 1,100 have been built. It comes with a variety of interior layouts and choice of an outboard well, a Yanmar diesel and now an electric engine.

It weighs 2,348lb and draws 1ft 6in with pivoting centreplate up and 4ft with it down. So it’s trailable, albeit behind a beefy car.

A small boat sailing in Scotland

Cornish Shrimper in the Sound of Islay. Credit: Sam Llewellyn

The original Cornish Crabber 24 was built in marine plywood, then market demand led to production switching to GRP to satisfy the long queue of waiting customers.

Designed by Roger Dongray, she offered attractive, chunky looks with a flattish deck and plenty of space below.

However, when her smaller sister – the Cornish Shrimper 19 – came along, Dongray hit the jackpot.

Some designers say they can design a boat 95% right, but the last 5% is down to luck. If that’s the case, the 19ft Shrimper was Dongray’s lucky boat.

She looks the part with her jaunty sheer, pretty coach-roof and gaff rig.

As a sensible concession to modernity she also sports a roller genoa tacked to a bowsprit.

Continues below…

I suspect that the Shrimper’s major appeal lies in its lovely lines and elegantly proportioned rig.

It’s still available new (£43,950 from cornishcrabbers.co.uk) and has become a true ‘cult’ boat.

Its accommodation is not huge for its length, but – as on the Sailfish 18 – a good cockpit tent works wonders when at anchor in wet, windy conditions.

An active class association runs an extensive programme of sailing and social events.

If you like the idea of a versatile and attractive day sailer-cum-weekend cruiser, the Shrimper 19 is a safe choice.

And if a gaff rig with varnished spars doesn’t appeal, the Adventure 19 version (also £43,950) has alloy spars and a Bermudan rig with a semi-fathead mainsail and no backstay.

Both versions should be easy to resell at a later date.

Long-term favourites

The Drascombe Coaster (from Churchouse Boats, drascombe.uk) and Original Devon Coaster (from honnormarine.co.uk) are also long-term favourites.

Both offer new boats from around £32,000 and brokerage boats from around £5,500 to £10,000 depending on age and specification.

The Coaster’s hull, based on the open Longboat model, is 21ft 9in LOA, 6ft 7in beam and draws 1ft/3ft 10in.

Its attractively styled coachroof provides a two-berth interior. An optional sprayhood and cockpit tent add two more berths while a tilting 5hp-8hp outboard lives in a well aft of the mizzen mast.

A Drascombe boat with red sails and a blue hull

Drascombe Coaster. Credit: Sharon Geary

The Drascombe Coaster has a sailing weight of 1,280lb and estimated towing weight of around 2,160lb.

Coasters often take to the road to attend Drascombe Association events around the country.

The association reckons that over 5,000 boats have been built since the first Lugger was launched in 1966 so these events are all well attended and great fun.

After the Cornish Shrimper hit the scene, Andrew Wolstenholme designed the Norfolk Gypsy for Charlie Ward’s East Coast firm.

She’s small enough to trail and easy to launch and rig, yet she’s tough enough to stand up to heavy weather.

The inside of a Gypsy III

Inside of the Norfolk Gypsy III. Credit: Neil Thompson Boats Ltd

The attention to detail and quality of finish Ward lavished on these yachts makes them objects of beauty.

The current builder (Neil Thompson Boats, neilthompsonboats.co.uk) offers similar quality. Thompson usually has a selection of used Gypsys for sale at around £24,000 and a new one costs £72,000 inc. diesel inboard.

The Norfolk Gypsy is a high-quality gaffer and remains in demand.

Pocket cruisers: Cape Cutter 19

A similar but less known trailer-sailer-gaffer is the Dix-designed and Honnor Marine-built Cape Cutter 19.

At 2,535lb it’s slightly heavier than the Shrimper while its draught with centreplate up or down is similar.

With a longer LWL, wider beam and longer full width coachroof, it offers more space down below.

And its cutter rig is more adaptable than the Shrimper’s single genoa rig. A new Cape Cutter 19 costs £39,500.

Despite moving on to a larger gaffer, Charles Erb’s blog travellingaurora.wordpress.com about his earlier Cape Cutter 19 contains a wealth of information.

He recommends the class association website capecutter19association.org.

A Cape Cutter 19 pocket cruisers

Cape Cutter 19. Credit: Chris Wicks

After considering a Hawk 21, Drascombe Longboat, Shrimper and small Beneteau, Charles bought the Cape Cutter, saying: “We chose it because it looks very handsome, can sleep all four of us (I didn’t think this would be possible until I saw inside one) and handles really well. It’s also excellent value for money.”

The ability to trail and sail was also important. Another owner was grateful that he stumbled across the Honnor Marine stand at a Southampton Boat Show.

Dennis Ogle went on to buy a CC19 saying “It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made… It’s the sailing performance that really does it for me. I frequently outsail larger yachts in our club, especially in light winds. I sail mainly single-handed – the Cape Cutter is ideal for this. The cutter rig gives lots of options as the wind strength varies … the boat carries a lot of sail so it will reach hull speed in the lightest of breezes, yet it’s not overpowered in a Force 6 with a single reef in the mainsail and the staysail only.”

A boat with a blue hull and red sails

The trailer-sailer-gaffer Cape Cutter 19 is similar to the Cornish Shrimper but offers more space down below. Credit: Dennis Ogle

PBO was responsible for another owner choosing a Cape Cutter 19.

While waiting to catch a plane to Greece Chris Wilks “picked up a copy of PBO at the airport and spent the flight reading about the new Cape Cutter 19.”

To cut a long story short, he went on to buy a small olive farm over-looking Platanias and the Aegean Sea – and a Cape Cutter 19 and (later) a Lune Whammel 17ft gaff rigged open boat.

“Since then we have spent our summers day sailing in the Aegean and occasionally going further afield to Skopelos and Alonnysos. We find our Cape Cutter a fantastic boat, very secure feeling in a blow, well made and with the centreplate up we can approach and anchor at any beach in a few inches of water.”

Envious of this lifestyle? You can rent part of Olive Store Cottage and cruise surrounding bays as guests of Chris and Kathryn Wilks by visiting facebook.com/olivestorecottage.

Perhaps the most intrepid Cape Cutter 19 adventure was Mike Brooke’s solo 1,783 mile trip round Britain.

This took 86 days and he visited 60 ports. The voyage raised £43,000 for a Fast Light Scanner – and more – for Moorfields Eye Hospital.

Mike’s Godson, Theo, was born blind and this machine would help him and thousands of other children with the same condition.

And on a sportier level, Mike told me: “In the five Round the Island Races which I entered in the CC19 my results were 8,1,1,1,4. So yes, I won the Small Gaffers Class (Discovery Trophy) three times in a row (2009/10/11). My main opposition came from Cornish Shrimpers, particularly one from Poole which was very well sailed with lots of local knowledge.”

Bermudan rigs

Moving to Bermudan rigs, one of the most successful and yet overlooked designers of small trailable cruisers was Ian Proctor.

He’s famous for his many great dinghy designs – Wayfarer, Wanderer, Topper, Osprey et al. But Proctor’s Westerly Nimrod, Prelude 19 and Pirate 17 designs are all capable trailable pocket cruisers with above average performance.

A yacht with a red hull and white sails

Westerly Nimrod. Credit: David Harding

Westerly commissioned the 17ft 9in Nimrod as a starter boat for families moving on from cruising dinghies.

Most have a pivoting lifting keel, weighing 260lb out of an all up 1,050lb. The draught goes from 8in (up) to 4ft (down), while a generous sail plan combined with a slippery hull provides sporty performance.

The cabin is on the small side offering occasional overnight accommodation, while the long cockpit makes the Nimrod an ideal day sailer.

If you want a trailer-sailer that can live in your drive then give hours of fun afloat, this boat could be on the list.

Pirate 17

The Rydgeway Marine-built and Proctor-designed Pirate or Express Pirate (17ft 3in LOA) is of similar size but very different in character.

The drop keel version has a draught of 2ft (up) and 4ft 9in (down). Fin (3ft 9in) and twin keels (2ft 3in) were also offered.

The Pirate was a top seller and about 400 were built.

The fin and drop keel versions are obviously the quickest and – as expected from a Proctor designed boat – offer sparkling performance.

The three-berth interior, complete with compact galley, is surprisingly spacious although the cockpit becomes a bit crowded with three or more crew.

The Pirate’s ability to go to sea was dramatically illustrated by a cowman from Cirencester.

A man in a lifejacket sailing a small yacht

The Pirate 17 was available as a drop keel, fin keel and twin keel version. Credit: David Harding

Phil Ashwin sailed his fin keel Pirate Laynee 1,732 miles single-handed around Britain to raise money for ‘Help the Heroes’.

Farmers Weekly quoted him as saying “There were grown-up seas, wonderful wildlife – dolphins, seals and a whale – and tremendous scenery, but best of all there were great people all around the UK who couldn’t have been kinder, more helpful and interested in the project.”

On a YBW.com forum, Ashwin added: “Accommodation in a little boat is never going to be palatial, but on the above trip I lived on her for three months without any great suffering. Far more comfortable than a bivvi on a hilltop somewhere!”

The 19ft 3in Prelude was another top seller. Again, Proctor offered a choice of fin, twin and swing keel versions and all sail well.

Rydgeway Marine and Pegasus Yachts built around 500 between them.

A busy owners’ association (prelude-owners.info) provides valuable back up.

The Prelude adds good accommodation to her excellent performance.

There is a double berth in the forepeak (with a WC under) and two berths in the saloon, along with a galley unit and small dining table.

Extensive use of inner mouldings means that the boat’s interior ages well, and the well-styled coachroof gives ample sitting headroom.

A Prelude owner told the owners’ association: “Our Prelude, Pela, has a fixed fin keel. 15 years ago my wife and I lived aboard her for 14 months, sailing from Bristol to Greece and back. For a couple of weeks we even had four people living aboard while in Majorca. The first three days it didn’t stop raining, and the next three days it rained every morning until 1pm!

“With all our equipment, and the unnecessary items our two guests brought out with them, it was quite a character-building event… Still, that was the last rain we saw for 17 weeks.”

Lifting keel system

David Thomas designed the Hunter Medina that was an equally successful lifting keel cruiser-racer.

Following hot on the heels of his game-changing Hunter Sonata One Design, the smaller Medina 20 went into production in 1979.

At 19ft 8in LOA, 17ft 8in LWL, 7ft 3in beam and weighing 1,890lb, the Medina has a sail area/displacement ratio of 20.31 and displacement/LWL ratio of 153.94.

So a good yet steady turn of speed is assured.

Drawing 10in to 3ft 10in, the Medina’s lifting keel system is simple compared to some of her competitors.

There’s no complex worm jack – a rope connected to a braked trailer winch mounted on a removable alloy post lifts and lowers the keel vertically.

a yacht with white hull and blue sails

Hunter Medina Cirrus. Credit: David Harding

Provided the lifting rope (some owners fit wire) and winch are maintained in good condition, there’s not a lot to go wrong.

The top of the keel is wider than the foil so it can’t fall through its slot. Once lowered, screw-down bolts on the top hold it rigidly in place.

The rudder blade lifts vertically in a transom mounted ‘box’, making it removable for trailing or drying out.

You can find out more at hunterassociation.org.uk and huntermedina.weebly.com

The Medina is spacious for her size.

Her two settee/quarter berths and V-berth forepeak provide sleeping space for four while a simple galley looks after catering.

A chemical WC lurks under the head of one of the forward berths.

I was delighted to hear from an owner who still sails the Medina that his father and he bought new (as a kit) in 1982.

Paul Jarman said: “We looked at lots of other possible options, but the Medina stood out as a trailer-sailer.

“We crossed the Channel several times and cruised most of the south and east coasts. Melinda was towed to Greece and Croatia by my parents when they retired; and I remember a lovely holiday on the boat in the Sporades with my wife.”

Paul also enjoyed racing the Medina, telling me: “We sailed in the Round the Island Race several times when there was a fleet of maybe 10 Medinas. She was equipped for cruising; not stripped out for racing. We now keep Melinda on shore at Emsworth, sailing around Chichester harbour with my now grown-up children.”

Paul still owns his Medina 20 that is now 40 years old – and still going strong.

Pocket cruisers: Swift 18

The Swift 18 (18ft 0in LOA, 16ft 4in LWL and 7ft 11in beam; displacing around 1,500lb) also has a surprising amount of room below with space for four berths.

And thanks to a draught of around 9in with the pivoting keel raised it’s relatively easy to launch and recover.

Alan Murphy, owner of a Swift 18 called Tiger Lily, wrote: “I also have a pair of wheels, which means that I can get to faraway places pretty quickly. Crossing the Channel is no problem inside a ferry and getting to the Mediterranean takes two or three days. Sure beats those bigger boats that have to sail via Gibraltar.”

Over several years Alan and his family crew took Tiger Lily on trailer-sailing holidays to South Brittany, the Adriatic coast, the Costa Brava, Elba, Friesland, Limjfjord (Denmark), La Charente Maritime, the south-west Baltic and the Stockholm archipelago (as featured in newsletters on Swift18.org).

It just shows how many cruising areas versatile trailer-sailers can reach.

Pocket cruisers, Swift 18 yacht with orange and yellow sails and a white hull

Swift 18, Binary Even. Credit: David Harding

Alan told me: “In the Mediterranean my two daughters (aged 12 and 16), my wife and I lived on it for several weeks.”

On the maintenance front, Alan found that when drying out on a gravel shore the pivoting keel was prone to getting a stone caught when winding it down so he carried a spare mechanism, but never had to use it.

He reckoned any capable engineering company could make a replacement mechanism if given the old one to copy.

PBO contributor Jake Frith is also a Swift 18 owner.

He wanted to upgrade from a Wayfarer dinghy to “a lift-keeler with a bit of a cabin. But something that would draw next to nothing as I hate marinas… You can get into amazing places – we spent two nights tied up to the wall in Beaulieu a couple of years ago. Nobody came and hassled us for money – try that in a boat with a bigger fixed keel… And we can get up to the quay at Keyhaven, the rocks at Chapman’s Cove, and Wareham quay…”

He occasionally sails his Swift 18 cross-Channel in the summer – with a decent forecast.

Jake said the boat has aged well thanks to the inner mouldings. But he recommends checking the foam/balsa between deck and headliner before buying.

He also plans to find a way of reducing the turbulence in the keel trunking (often found on pivoting keel designs) and in the boxy skeg behind it.

As with any elderly yacht, a bit of DIY is often on the agenda.

Jake concluded: “I’m keeping the Swift for when my son gets a bit more interested. It’s the sort of boat that when he’s 15 or 16 I can let him and his mates go off, learn to sail and explore the Solent.”

The continental contingent also has a huge presence in the field of second-hand pocket cruisers.

Very few new pocket cruisers of this size are now imported by yacht dealers into the UK.

However there’s a plethora of older lift-keel Etaps, Firsts, Jeanneaus, Micro Tonners et al available from brokers or in the classified ads.

But more on these another day.

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