Jimmy Cornell boat survey reveals how sailing has changed in 40 years

Cruising legend Jimmy Cornell reveals the results of his latest boat survey and compares the findings with those he first published in PBO 40 years ago…

‘During the past four years I have sailed through some of the major crossroads of the cruising world: Rhodes, Gibraltar, Antigua, Panama, Tahiti… and everywhere I was struck by the absence of the ideal bluewater cruising boats – the ones advertised in magazines and praised at boat shows. What, then, were the boats that real people cruise in?

‘In my search for the elusive ‘ideal’ cruising boat I decided to let the cruising skippers themselves draw the picture and so compiled a questionnaire, trying to interview all boats passing through Suva during September and October – when so many are on their way west to be clear before the hurricane season starts.

I set down 36 questions, referring not just to the boat but also to related matters like dinghy, navigation, system of watches…’

Those words are from the survey published in the October 1979 issue of Practical Boat Owner.

Much has happened in the sailing world in the intervening years, but many of the topics are still relevant, and it’s worthwhile to compare those findings to the current situation.

Once again I reverted to my tried and tested method by interviewing 65 skippers, made up of two distinctive groups.

Article continues below…


Sail the World with Me, book cover, by Jimmy Cornell

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Forty were seasoned long-distance sailors, most of whom had taken part in at least one of my previous surveys, while the 25 other owners were participants in the GLY World Odyssey 500, a round-the-world rally to mark the 500th anniversary of the first circumnavigation.

I decided to include this second group in the survey to obtain data and comments from sailors who are currently undertaking a world voyage.

Survey results

Among the first group 26 had completed a circumnavigation, and the average mileage sailed by each was 98,950, whereas the average mileage sailed by participants in the second group was 65,600 miles.

The average length of the boats in this first group was 47ft; in the second 54ft, with an overall average of 49ft for the entire fleet. This is a considerable increase from the average length of 39.8ft of the boats surveyed in 1978.

I remember that in those days a 40ft boat was regarded as large and even our modest 36ft Aventura was not considered a small boat.

Jimmy sailed the 36ft Aventura around the world from 1975-1981. Photo: Jimmy Cornell

The choice of boat lies at the core of a successful voyage, and was the subject of various surveys I conducted over the years. Though opinions on size differ, there’s a consensus that the choice of boat should be based on a realistic assessment of the planned route and capability of the crew.

In my very first survey, I asked the 62 skippers to rate the relationship between the size of their boat and that of their crew. There was a wide range of boat sizes, from a Columbia 24 to a Camper & Nicholson 78. The average length of the 62 boats was 40.5ft.

Most-satisfied sailors

The most satisfied owners were in the 35-40ft range, of which there were a total of 25 boats, with average crews of either two or three. It was interesting there were many more complaints about size both from skippers of boats under 35ft (12) and those over 45ft (16).

Several of the owners in the latter group complained about the difficulty of handling the boat with a small crew, with only a couple sailing on half of those boats.

Jimmy on his current boat Aventura Zero. Photo: Reuters/Marcelo del Pozo/Alamy

In comparison, the average length of the 66 boats in my latest survey was 49.8ft. This was a higher average than I’d expected and was influenced by the fact that among the boats taking part in the round the world rally there was a high number of catamarans over 50ft.

The average length of this group of 25 boats was 54ft, whereas the average of the 41 boats in the first group came out at a more reasonable 47ft.

Cruising hub

Las Palmas in the Canary Islands is one of the most important cruising hubs in the Atlantic, and welcomed a record total of 1,256 visiting boats in 2021. This number included 1,067 monohulls and 189 multihulls.

The average length of the former was 45.3ft and of the latter 45.2ft. I must have followed the trend towards larger boats myself because the first Aventura was 36ft, the second 40ft, the third 43ft, the fourth 46ft, the fifth 48ft.

Las Palmas in the Canary Islands is one of the most important cruising hubs in the Atlantic – pictured here during ARC 2014 preparations. Photo: Alan Dawson Photography/Alamy

The temptation to acquire a larger boat is hard to resist, as nowadays the same money will buy a much larger boat than it did ten years ago. Also, equipment such as electric winches, powered furling gears and bow-thrusters have made even large boats much easier to handle.

However, choosing the wrong size boat is one of the most serious mistakes you can make. If there is one single point to bear in mind, it is to ask, ‘Can I sail this boat with just my partner or, in an emergency, on my own?’

Two other features besides length that have significantly changed over the years are rig and hull material. In the 1978 Suva survey, exactly half the boats (31) were one-masted, among which 19 were sloops and 12 cutters.

Jimmy visited most of the boats featured in his early surveys at an anchorage in Suva. Photo: Reinhard Dirscherl/Alamy

Among the two-masted boats, 27 were ketches, three schooners and one yawl. And now? Among the 66 boats in the latest survey, there was only one ketch and all the others were one-masted, the majority having some kind of two-foresail arrangement, although few of them could be described as proper cutters.

Another interesting comparison was the hull material. In the Suva survey 33 boats had a fibreglass hull, 15 wood, five steel, four plywood, four ferrocement, and one aluminium. In the later sample, among the 66 boats 26 were fibre-reinforced plastic (FRP), 18 composite, 17 aluminium, three steel and two plywood.

Unsurprisingly monohulls were in those early days in the vast majority (61), with the other five trimarans and no catamarans. Monohulls still continue to be in the majority with 43 among the boats recently surveyed, followed by 22 catamarans and one trimaran.

Catamaran phenomenon

The proportion of multihulls among cruising boats is another phenomenon I have been following over the years. The number of catamarans on long voyages has been steadily increasing and this upward trend is proven by figures obtained from some key sources in 2022 compared to 2018.

Among the 628 boats that transited the Panama Canal in 2021, 17.2% were multihulls (105 catamarans and three trimarans). This was also reflected in the figures obtained from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. Among the 1,256 sailing boats that called at that busy port in 2021, 189 were multihulls, equivalent to 15%.

The start of ARC22 – over a quarter of the boats participanting are now multihulls. Photo: MItchell/ WCC

The trend was even more pronounced among the boats that took part in the ARC in 2022, with 26% (79) multihulls among the 310 boats, compared to 14% (35 of 259) in 2018.

Jeremy Wyatt, director of World Cruising Club, the organiser of the ARC rallies, made this interesting observation: “The obvious conclusion is that people are buying multihulls over monohulls for new boats.

“However, we do see a significant number of older well-built monohulls sailing in our events. Fourteen percent of the monohulls are over 30 years old and 20% are between 20 and 30 years old, whereas only 4% of multihulls are more than 20 years old.”

Energy usage

Power consumption and generation is of great relevance to anyone planning a longer voyage. Today’s boats are equipped to the highest technical standards for efficient performance, safe navigation, and comfort.

As a result, electricity consumption has grown exponentially and many sailors only realise once they are underway just how much their power hungry equipment is consuming.

Renewable energy on Aventura IV. Photo: Jimmy Cornell

We asked participants in the latest survey what their 24-hour power consumption was on passage, and also the total capacity of their battery bank. They were also asked to give details of their charging system and how it was shared among the main engine, diesel generator, solar panels, hydro and wind generator.

The average 24-hour consumption among the boats taking part in the survey was 295Ah, which was balanced against an average battery bank capacity of 515Ah. Both values were double the figures obtained in a 2018 survey. Unsurprisingly, the higher battery capacity was almost invariably on the boats with higher consumption.

This shows that most of those setting off on a long voyage realise the importance of having adequate generating capacity. Quite remarkable was the large number of boats equipped with lithium batteries.

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The Sail-Gen is a water generator developed for long distance sailing. Photo: Jimmy Cornell

Although not yet in the majority, several owners of the older type batteries, whether lead-acid, gel or AGM, expressed the intention of switching to the lithium-type when the time came to replace them.

More telling, however, were the details of the output of the various means of charging, as seen in the table below.

Looking at the primary source of power generation, what stands out is the diversity of choices.

Only two boats relied entirely on generating electricity with the main engine, but they were an exception, as the other 11 owners, who described their engines as their primary source of generation, also used other means.

Solar panels were described as the primary means of generation on 22 boats, 15 among them obtaining more than 80% of their electricity from that source.

An outstanding example was that of the yacht Teatime whose entire energy needs were supplied by its 2,000W solar bank.

Source Number of users per source: Voyage Planning Survey Percentage of energy output Number of users per source: World Odyssey Survey Percentage of energy output Mean percentage both fleets
Main engine 31 22 17 15 18.5
Diesel generator 20 15 18 16 15.5
Solar panels 30 51 24 53 52
Hydro generator 5 9 9 14 11.5
Wind generator 9 3 15 2 2.5

Huge progress

A total of 38 boats were equipped with diesel generators, but they were the primary source of generation on only seven boats. It is interesting that even on Anemis, a purpose-built hybrid boat, only 20% of its domestic energy needs was supplied by its genset, with the rest coming from a 1,000W bank of solar panels.

The overall number of hydro-generators was surprisingly small, but the 14 owners who had them were pleased with their performance. Even lower was the number of wind generators (11), which is probably explained by their poor performance when sailing downwind, and the complaints about their noise while at anchor.

By comparison, in the 1978 survey 48 boats used their main engine as the primary source of generation, 12 had a diesel generator, 15 a portable petrol generator, two had a towing generator, two had solar panels.

Whereas in those days only four boats in a fleet of 62 used renewable sources of energy, 44 years later 54 of the 66 boats produced more than half (52%) of their electricity needs from solar power, with an additional 14% produced by hydro and wind power. Now, that’s what I call progress.

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Jimmy Cornell sets sail on Aventura Zero, from Seville, Spain, in November 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Marcelo del Pozo/Alamy

In my own case, I never had a diesel generator on any of my five boats and on Aventura IV I relied on a combination of a D400 wind generator, Sail-Gen hydro-generator, and a 140W solar panel.

The average consumption while on passage was 465Ah and the system was put to a proper test on my return voyage from the Northwest Passage.

Soon after leaving Greenland the engine stopped working and, as I could not find the cause, we decided with my friend to carry on sailing rather than go back.

To my relief and surprise, that green trinity kept the batteries topped up, although we were continuously using the autopilot, chartplotter, instruments, Iridium broadband, VHF radio, refrigerator and, occasionally, also the radar, electric winches and electric toilet.

We managed to sail into Pendennis Marina in Falmouth where the fault was diagnosed as an airlock in the anti-siphon system. I must admit that I found it hard to believe that we managed to keep up with such a relatively high demand, and even now still regard it as almost a miracle.

The strong winds that we encountered, including two storms, may have had something to do with it, but it was still impressive.

Self-steering gear

One area where those predecessors were far ahead of the current generation was the extensive use of wind-operated self-steering gears.

Among the 62 boats, 42 had a wind self-steering gear, 28 had an autopilot, 14 had both, and six had neither. In the latest survey, 16 boats had a wind self-steering gear, and all had an autopilot, with several having a second as a backup.

One of the most common failures on an ocean passage is that of the autopilot. The most frequent cause cited by their owners was the autopilot not being sufficiently powerful to steer the boat under prolonged conditions of strong winds and high swell.

Whether because of wrong advice by the manufacturers or the need to save money, some sailors acquire an underpowered unit that is not suitable for the size and displacement of the boat, or is exposed to too much strain by the boat being over-canvassed or having badly trimmed sails.

One important factor highlighted in the latest survey was the essential role this type of equipment can play in an emergency situation, especially on short-handed boats.

Autopilot failure can be a major problem for short-handed crews and there have been examples of couples on a long ocean passage being prepared to abandon their boat when faced with such a situation.

Jimmy at the helm of Aventura Zero. Photo: Jimmy Cornell

The sheer exhaustion of steering by hand, day and night, in boisterous trade wind conditions had reached the point where they could no longer cope with it.

With the exception of three skippers in the survey, all others had thought of a solution in such an eventuality. On the boats equipped with a windvane the solution was obvious. The other boats either had a spare autopilot or some other arrangement had been prepared.

Peter Kotz on Blue Moon had ‘two hydraulic autopilots, one of them completely separate from the boat’s electronics and having its own separate power supply.’ Jeff Allen on Lazy Bones had ‘fully redundant dual autopilot systems attached separately to the quadrant.’

Bözse Domonkos on Teatime also had ‘a dual autopilot system connected to the rudder quadrant, but when the quadrant broke both autopilots became useless, so one of the autopilot’s rams was connected to an emergency tiller and it worked perfectly.’

This was similar to the solution suggested by Murray Atkinson. ‘On Salamander we had a Tillerpilot that could be attached to the Hydrovane self-steering gear.’

Owners of windvanes praised their reliability, such as Gary Goodlander, currently on his third circumnavigation. “Given a choice between an autopilot and a windvane, I’d always go for the latter. My Monitor steers Ganesh, a heavy boat, from 2.5 knots of boat speed and up to 45-48 knots of breeze.”

Those who wish to be entirely safe should take Erick Bouteleux’s advice: “Go for belt and braces, have both a second autopilot and a windvane.”

Such examples of ingenuity and the ability to find a solution in an emergency, so typical of long-distance sailors, was dealt with in the second part of this comprehensive survey when participants were asked to express their views on climate change and how this would affect their plans for the future.

Jimmy Cornell’s reflects on his original boat surveys

In every instance I interviewed the skipper myself and, whenever possible, aboard the boat in question away from the bar and other ears. This, I believe, has resulted not only in honest answers but also in fair comments, as hardly any of the skippers tried to impress me with his or her boat.

The question “What do you regard as your most useful instrument besides the compass?” drew surprising answers when I realised how many skippers forgot to mention their old friend, the sextant. Only 70% have the sextant as their most useful navigation instrument, the rest varied between log (16%), depth sounder (8%), radar and Omega.

Does this mean that they prefer to sail by dead reckoning and thus have more use for these instruments? The alarming number of wreckings caused by erroneous DR unfortunately could bear out this assumption. One skipper did not hesitate; he gave the bottle-opener as his most useful instrument!

There may not be such a thing as a ‘perfect’ cruising boat but a consensus did emerge from these experienced cruisers… No boat in the 35-46ft range with two crew was considered too difficult to handle, even in the worst conditions.

The crews were not that young either! By contrast, with three exceptions, every owner of a boat under 34ft wished for a more commodious boat. Long-distance cruisers usually spend more time at anchor than at sea, and that is when more space was desired.

Download Jimmy Cornell’s 1979 boat survey (3.8MB PDF)

Download Jimmy Cornell’s 1980 boat survey (5.5MB PDF)

What’s next?

In the next edition of this PBO series, I’ll continue the comparison between the two surveys, with a focus on navigation, communications, watches, and survival (meaning liferafts, or the absence thereof). My final article will look at climate change and its impact on voyage planning.


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