Pocket cruisers allow owners to go small, get there fast and arrive in style.
The proliferation of pocket cruisers has some people thinking of coastal cruising in manageable, efficient and capable boats of diminutive proportions. Some boat owners have decided not to haul around all that fiberglass — which raises the cost of fuel, dockage and haulouts — when they can have the same fun at a fraction of the expense and hassle. Is less really more? It can be for people who know their cruising style and know they don’t need the extra staterooms, heads and certain other features of larger boats.
Small boats are small no longer in terms of their features, systems, performance and capabilities. And while these under-35-foot designs have been around for a while and won’t be a fit for everyone, their appeal seems to be on an upward trajectory.
A review of any number of pocket cruisers at a boat show reveals some commonalities. Whether it’s a Ranger Tug, a Beneteau Swift Trawler or a sporty Back Cove, flowing layouts reflect how we live today. Many galleys are on the main deck in the salon or cockpit where the cook is part of the social action and the guests are part of the meal prep. Amazingly, on some of these boats, stall showers have been squeezed below so nobody has to wipe down the entire head after a quick rinse. Fewer level changes make it easier for kids, older folks and pets to get around the boat. And large hatches, windows and skylights bring in lots of air and light, so nobody feels cut off from the environment, which is why we’re out there in the first place.
The indoors flow nicely to the outdoors thanks to cockpits that are on the same level as the salon and clever doors and canvas separations that create climate controlled interiors, for all-weather boating. Some, including the Swift Trawler 30 and 35 (which replaces the 34 this year) and the Helmsman 31, feature flybridges that increase the exterior living space and enhance the view at cocktail hour. In general, layouts have become more open and inclusive, and that makes the boats seem bigger inside and out.
“It’s a lot of boat,” said David Rogge, owner of a Swift 30. “It’s just the perfect size for two.”
There’s little roughing it with these fully featured cruisers. Amenities such as flatscreen TVs, air conditioning and heating, plentiful LED lighting and plush seating ensure that comfort hasn’t been sacrificed. Many builders offer all these amenities as standard equipment or at least as upgrade options. And for stowage, every nook and cranny both inside and out is now accessible, enhancing storage capacity so owners can pack gear and provisions for longer outings.
Increasingly, the emphasis has been on luxury. Leather seating and trim, chrome handholds, folding glass and stainless doors, rich varnished veneers, teak-and-holly soles, and designer fabrics proliferate in this class of cruiser. Helmsman Trawlers bought the Camano 31 hull molds and took the older boat (now renamed the Helmsman 31 Sedan) to a new level.
“We’re building these boats with the same fit and finish and the same sturdy construction methods of our larger yachts,” said company owner Scott Helker.
Top-notch equipment such as Isotherm refrigerator drawers and Kenyon electric grills abound, just like on the big boats, and optional teak decking and bow sunpads make owners feel like they’re on their own little superyacht.
“The fit and finish rivals a 50-footer,” said Geoff Swing of Stan Miller Yachts, a dealer that represents Back Cove Yachts. “And that factors in the resale value as well.”
Exterior styling comes in one of two major flavors: classic trawler and Downeast lobster boat. For devotees of the salty trawler aesthetic, Swift Trawlers, Ranger Tugs, and Helmsman will be appealing. The Lindell 35 that will be introduced for 2019 even has a jaunty reverse rake pilothouse windshield, reminiscent of a workboat. For people who can’t quite wrap their head around parking one of these at the yacht club, Sabre’s Back Cove, Tartan’s Legacy, Bob Johnstone’s MJM and Fluid Motion’s Cutwater offer different lines, including swept-back windshields, low profiles and large cockpits.
“There are different aesthetics for different tastes,” said Jeff Messmer, owner of Ranger Tugs and Cutwater Boats.
Finally, there’s been a real emphasis on innovation. These little boats are clever — just look at the various origami seating options on Ranger and Cutwater models. Seats swivel, fold, turn, pivot and even pop out of the gunwales. Beneteau’s trick transom on the Swift 30 provides fold-up seats or opens out to create excellent access to the swim platform.
Smart modular components offer unique combinations such as a sink and grill on top and a baitwell below. A strong argument could be made that these smaller designs are more creative and efficient with their use of space than their larger siblings simply because they’ve had to be.
“There is a lot of innovation happening here, which has opened it up to a wider variety of boaters,” Helker said. “It’s not necessary to sacrifice comfort or features to enjoy the lower costs and easier ownership of smaller boats.”
Small doesn’t mean slow. In fact, most of these compact cruisers have a lot of get-up-and-go. Most will plane, and that includes Beneteau’s trawlers that have top speeds of more than 20 knots. Most pocket cruisers enjoy cruising speed in the teens, if not higher, which is important because speed is a major focus of the demographic that’s attracted to the boats. Many builders combine lighter vacuum-infused construction with smaller single engines, so fuel economy is excellent. Stepped hulls such as on Cutwater models help the boat get on plane easier, and laminar flow interrupters break the surface tension to make the process faster, which yields better visibility and fuel efficiency. Changes in hull shapes have provided lift, allowing boats to carve a turn rather than digging in or skidding, even at high speeds, and electric trim tabs take the guesswork out of optimizing planing and running angles, so the boats stay level and run efficiently.
“On our inboard boats we tuck the propeller and shaft into a tunnel,” Messmer said. “The tunnel protects the underwater gear and limits the draft to less than 30 inches. It also gives us a six-degree shaft angle, which is more efficient because it pushes the boat forward rather than a higher shaft angle, which pushes the boat up.”
Engine packages have become creative. Some builders, including Cutwater, offer the option of either an inboard diesel that is very economical, quiet and long-lasting, or outboards that are more affordable to buy and can be fueled and serviced in more places. Removing the engine and drive from inside the boat creates room for gensets, larger tanks, more batteries and stores. Outboards are also more easily replaced than inboard engines when it’s time to repower. Regardless of the motor, however, these boats get to where they’re going fast.
“Our upcoming 35 is expected to have a top speed of 45 to 55 knots with triple outboards,” said Brian Kott, president and CEO of Lindell Yachts.
Joystick operation has crept down to this level too. When a joystick is combined with bow and/or stern thrusters (which are standard on some models), docking a single-screw boat is easy. And joystick drives with double and triple outboards are now a thing too. Just to really take things up a notch, Ranger even offers an exterior aft steering station on its 31. See if your mooring neighbor in Catalina doesn’t envy you that.
Finally, some of these boats are trailerable, so if 20 knots isn’t fast enough, how about towing one to new cruising grounds at 60 mph? Ranger 29 owners Jim and Lisa Favors do just that. Their house is in Michigan but they spend much of their time in the Pacific Northwest. When the season is over, they tow their boat to Florida and use it as an RV along the way.
“We couldn’t have gone from Washington to Florida in our 40-footer without months and months spent on the water,” Lisa said. “Now we can go cross-country in a week and get a completely different feel in no time.”
Small but sophisticated. That’s the game, and pocket cruisers are amenity laden. Full-sized electronics with big touchscreens adorn the dash of interior and flybridge helms. Most pocket cruisers are wired for advanced stereo systems that are controlled via smartphones and tablets, and some even have Wi-Fi. Large banks of maintenance-free AGM batteries, solar panels and gensets power a lot of must-haves, including water-makers, underwater lights and loads of refrigeration. Some even opt for stabilization such as the new Seakeeper 3 gyroscope that targets boats in the 30-foot range.
“We find the people looking at the Swift Trawlers to be very adventurous,” said Barrett Canfield, owner of South Coast Yachts. “We’re loading them up with kayak racks, SUP holders, dive tanks and baitwells. These people don’t just do docktails. They’re out there fishing and diving and basically adventure cruising.”
Kott agreed. “Our users are active couples that like extreme adventures in more remote locations. These boats are SUVs: sport utility vessels.”
That moniker may sound strange, but Kott was by no means the only one to use it. “They’re luxury SUVs because they can do so much and go many places in style,” Helker said.
Who and Where?
Yes, adventurous boaters love these SUVs. They tow them from Lake Powell to Baja and they wind their way down the ICW and reach out to the Bahamas. They are young families that see these vessels as stepping stones into boating, but they are also very experienced couples downsizing from larger, more maintenance-intensive vessels.
“These are not just retirees,” Swing said. “They want speed so they can get to the fishing grounds fast, because some of them are still working and their time is valuable.”
Canfield, who sells a fair share of Beneteau sailboats, said he sees older sailing couples migrating toward the trawler set. “They’re tired of pulling lines and would rather push buttons,” he said. “It really couldn’t be easier.”
John and Ellen Hough, owners of a Helmsman 31, like that they received a lot of support from the builder when they bought their boat. “We had a lot of questions and few answers when we started,” John said. “We got lots of lessons from the company just as if we were buying a big boat.”
The couple moved up from a 24-footer and now cruise the San Juans and the Salish Sea. Although they were looking for boats up to 38 feet, they found the Helmsman has everything and handles beautifully. It even came pre-plumbed for a genset, if they want to add one later.
“We’ll venture farther as soon as we get comfortable with the systems,” John said. “And there are quite a lot.”
Pocket cruisers appeal to a wide demographic of people who have less time than money and want to do it all. Some also have children and grandchildren who get bored easily; keeping them on the move keeps them engaged. This segment speaks to a variety of people, because the boats are highly customizable and can be outfitted to whatever one’s sense of adventure dictates.
Messmer keeps a Ranger 31 for his own family cruising and quickly sums up the appeal of these small boats. “I love being able to get into places where a bigger boat simply cannot go. I love that our family of five can spend 17 days together and still like each other. I like that I can put our paddleboards on the sport rack up top. I love that I can hang on the hook for two or three days without a generator. We use large battery banks, and solar panels are standard on most of our boats. I love that I can cross the Strait of Georgia in a 15- to 20-knot blow and know that my family is safe.”
A lot of intangibles are mixed into the equation that explains why pocket cruisers make sense. First is ease of ownership. Smaller boats with the simplicity of shaft drives are easier to maintain and are ready to go in less time. “It’s not a big production to jump on one of these and go,” Kott said, adding that because they’re simple to operate, more people can stay in boating longer. “Older boaters and sailors don’t have to hang it up.”
Second is overall cost of ownership. There’s no way around it, owning a smaller boat means lower slip fees, lower insurance rates, cheaper haulouts, less paint, varnish and wax, and so on. Also, costs are usually lower with outboard power packages, so there are many ways to save money but give up very little.
Additionally, these boats can keep two to four people comfortable, fed and entertained for a couple of weeks at a time, and they’re pet friendly, so no one has to stay behind. “We’re adding a lot of grip flooring on the trawlers, because everyone seems to want to bring their dog,” Canfield said.
Service is a highlight for many boaters. Whatever the problem, the builders are standing behind their products and leading with instruction and training whenever possible. “The companies are understanding this market better,” Helker said, “and that lets them provide better support.”
Innovation means buyers can break out of the traditional mold altogether. Take for example the Aspen C100, a 32-foot cruising pocket catamaran. Not only does it deliver an almost 500-mile range at nine knots with a single engine, but with twin hulls it’s stable in a rolly anchorage, precluding the need for stabilization. Environmentally minded boaters have options too. The Greenline 33 has a 48v electric motor and an array of solar panels on the roof. It can go 20 nautical miles on clean and quiet electric propulsion at four knots, but it has a diesel engine, too, so the hybrid model can go much farther.
Another appealing aspect of this class of vessel is the community that the small boats have fostered. Like-minded people in similar boats tend to find each other quickly. “I don’t know if it’s the boat or the community, but we’ve met a lot of people, and sometimes we’ll see them on one coast and then the other as we all move around,” Lisa Favors said. “I also see a lot of women cruising. They’re more involved in the operation of the boat and some are cruising solo or with other women, and that’s nice to see.”
Like small houses, small cruisers attract attention. Their good looks, easy handling and myriad amenities make owners want to invite company. “It’s the ooh-ahh factor,” Swing said. Owners who invite someone aboard and show him around can almost see the wheels turning as he wonders why his boat doesn’t have this much stuff or, if it does, why it needs to be 20 feet longer.
With a single engine, this 32-foot catamaran has a 480-mile range (plus 10 percent reserve) at 2000 rpm and 9.3 knots.
Back Cove 30
Standard power is a single 315 hp Yanmar that will cruise at 20 knots, but four other power packages are available.
Beneteau Swift Trawler 30 and 34
Two economical trawlers from a powerhouse brand, these boats pop up on plane and offer great value.
The C-302 joins 28- and 24-foot (242) models in the Cutwater fleet with inboard or outboard power packages and Sedan or Coupe versions.
Billed as a hybrid, it can be powered by a diesel or 48v electric propulsion that delivers a silent range of 20 nautical miles at 4 knots.
Previously called the Camano 31 (or 28), this trawler brings the goods with 360-degree visibility, an interior helm and a flybridge.
Jeanneau NC 895
Hard chines, lifting strakes and twin 200 hp outboards get this boat on plane quickly and push it to near 50 mph.
The Downeast-style power cruiser is from naval architect Mark Ellis and sailboat builder Tartan Yachts.
Marlow Pilot 32
With the galley belowdecks, this compact cruiser opens the salon for socializing and entertaining.
MJM 29z and 34z
Downeast inspired, MJMs are designed by Doug Zurn and built by Bob Johnstone, and the 29z and 34z are a couple of the builder’s legacy models.
Ranger Tugs 31
With a 300 hp Volvo Penta D4 diesel, the Ranger delivers a 25-knot top speed at 3630 rpm, for a range of 263 nautical miles.
The well-known trailerable cruiser can accommodate single or twin outboards, or a single diesel sterndrive.
Built in Kokkola, Finland, this planing-hull design is powered by single or twin Volvo Penta diesels or a single 370 hp Yanmar.