You’ve committed to ‘doing it’: leaving the rat race and setting sail with your family…but you don’t have a boat! Perusing boat listings can be a lot of fun, but it can also be a bit hellish. How do you find the best family cruising boat for your big adventure?

Here are 8 things to keep in mind when searching for your perfect-for-you boat:

1. What type of cruising do you want to do?

Do you want to sail across the oceans? On the coast? Between island chains? Down inland waterways, like the ICW? Your answer to this question will better define the type of boat you should be looking for.

If you see yourself cruising inland waterways and close to land, your mast height and draft will be determined by this. Most fixed waterway bridges allow for a 65 ft. mast height, but always check your charts & guides to make sure, so know that anything over that, and your only option will be to sail on the outside. This is not a bad thing, just something to consider when you’re looking.  Additionally the inner costal waterway (ICW) is supposed to be 7 ft. deep, but we’ve heard plenty of radio traffic identifying a boat aground in the channel with a 6 ft. draft. If you see yourself cruising the bay side of the Florida Keys, depth is an issue. Our boat’s draft is 4.5 ft., and when cruising ‘the inside’ we rarely saw more than 2 ft. of water below our keels. We found this uncomfortable, but we were tucking in from weather, so it was the best alternative. So…a shallower draft will give you more cruising ground options, but deeper keels allow you to sail at a higher point to the wind.

Will you ‘live on the hook’ and enjoy remote anchorages ‘off the beaten path’? Would you rather tie to a mooring or dock in well-known harbors? There are no right or wrong answers here. Your boat = Your way. But again, knowing the answers to these questions will better determine your right-for-you boat. If staying at a dock is important to you, boat length will be an important consideration, as you pay rates per foot. The wider your beam means that you will probably be limited to fewer slips that can fit you. For example, if you’re cruising in New England, most marinas weren’t built to handle multihulls, which means, if you’re a catamaran, you can only fit at the end of a dock, and availability might be rare. If you plan to live mostly at anchor, you’ll want to make sure you have a really good one and plenty of chain.

Another thing to consider is the cruiser equipment you’ll need for your type of cruising. For example, do you want to be self-sufficient, i.e. not rely on marina for water, power, etc.? Then you’ll want a water-maker, solar panels, inverter, generator, life raft, etc. This list can go on and on. Again, it all depends on the type of cruising you plan on doing! The good thing about cruising equipment; it can always be added later, but the cost of these items should be factored into the equation of your best family cruising boat.

2. What kind of sailor are you?

There are many types. Some pride themselves on rarely using their engines. Some have sails on their boats, but never use them.

Again, there are no right or wrong answers here: each family must determine what defines their best family cruising boat. My comfort level is coastal cruising and my husband is a racer, so we wanted a boat that was comfortable, but sailed well. This is not impossible! So, a follow-up question here is “what conditions will you be sailing in?” Will it be in a warm, humid climate, like the Caribbean, which will allow you to be outdoors and enjoying your cockpit? Or will you be wintering in cooler climates, like New England, which requires ample space below deck to stay out of the elements? Another factor is weather. We all watch it intently &, through experience, learn our ideal cruising conditions. (Ours is 15-20 kts of wind – for hubby; minimal seas and as long a swell duration as we can get – for the kids and me), but ‘weather happens’ and if you’re caught in a little ‘something’, knowing your vessel can handle it will help you sleep better at night.

3. How big is your crew?

Some things are obvious, i.e. how many cabins you’ll need. Many recommend giving each kid their own space, but this doesn’t necessarily mean each having their own cabin. If your kids are sharing a room, a curtain to pull across a bunk works wonders. Trust me when I say, that having a place where each crew member can go when they need some quiet alone time will make everyone much happier. BUT other things that factor into crew size…the number of heads. It’s nice having more than one, when something breaks (and it will), you still have a bathroom to use. Relating to heads is holding tank size. The more bodies you have, the more…waste. Being able to hold a few days worth of waste between offshore sails or pump-outs is important.

A different tank that also needs consideration here is the water tank.  How much water will your crew be using? It’s a hard question to answer until you’ve lived it, but bigger is better here, especially with kids. And, of course, stowage. The more people you have, the more stuff you’ll have, the more spaces you’ll need to store their stuff, and the supplies to keep them healthy and fed. All boats have areas to stow stuff, but are these areas easily accessible? Can your food provisions be housed near the galley? Will each family member be able to have a closet or cubby that’s just for them? Having everything stowed properly helps keep clutter contained, and this helps mommy keep her sanity.

4. What are you willing to spend?

This is pretty important. Figure out your range and stick to it. Yes, there are pristine boats out there with every single item on your ‘wants’ list, but are they affordable? My answer to this question was, no, not so much. This is a very personal choice and having the same range in mind as your partner is paramount. Differentiating between the purchase of the boat, and how much you’ll need to cruise is important too. You don’t want to buy the perfect-for-you boat only to have to turn around and sell it because you don’t have any money to enjoy it. Do you have an account that you’ve been saving to for the purchase of the boat? Are you planning on taking out a loan? What is your annual cruising budget? This varies greatly among cruisers. Some spend hundreds each month, others spend thousands. However you lived on land is how you’ll live on the water. Are you frugal? You probably won’t need as much. Do you eat out a lot? You’ll spend more on food and entertainment. These are all personal choices, and, again, there are no right or wrong answers. The big thing here being honest about your spending so you don’t find yourself in a difficult situation where you’re having to stop cruising before you’re ready.

Additionally consider maintenance and upgrade costs. These costs are closely related to the age of the boat, and the previous owners.  Some parts are expensive, but things are going to break and parts will be needed. A good maintenance routine is essential to your cruising happiness, and requires spending. Regardless of your agreed upon boat purchase price point, a few words of advice…buy the biggest, newest, and best family cruising equipped boat you can get for your money.

5. Monohull or cat?

There is no right or wrong answer here, but everyone has opinions. Both have pros and cons. Cats are more stable and have lots of space, but are more expensive. Monohulls are abundant and can point higher to the wind, but they tend to have deeper drafts. Where one excels, the other flounders, and visa versa. Again, this is total personal preference. Families happily cruise on both. I encourage you to get on a lot of boats and just see what feels right. I know that sounds terribly corny, but it’s the truth. Go to boat shows and stand at the helm. If you get the opportunity, go for a sail! The more experiences you have, the better formulated your opinion will be.

6. DIY-er or turnkey?

Although fixer-upper prices are tempting, believe me when I say ‘they’ll need even more work than you know’. If you get your boat for a ‘super good deal’, there is a reason for it. It will require work well beyond maintenance tasks, and as long as you’re handy and have time, maybe this is a good option for you, BUT know that there are no shortcuts, and your time is precious. So much prep work goes into moving aboard, and being ‘stuck’ at a yard for months on end fixing up a boat is not be the best way to start your family adventure. Even turnkey boats, once you move aboard and start using the systems, will ALWAYS present more challenges. If you’re handy, you will save a lot of money on maintenance because you won’t have to hire an expert and spend money on labor. And even if you do hire someone to do a job, it doesn’t mean that they’ll do the job right or quickly. Of course, this is not always the case. There are plenty of reputable yards and businesses out there, but knowledge is power. Factor this into your equation.

7. Maintenance ease?

This was not something we would have thought about had it not been for Tom Neal’s book All In The Same Boat: Living Aboard and Cruising. Boat maintenance is a part of cruising. Since you’ll be doing a myriad of routine tasks to keep all systems in working order, you’ll want to easily be able to reach all said systems. For example, you’ll be checking and working on the engine(s). Are they easily accessible or will you have to remove one of the mattresses off a bed to gain access? You’ll be working the seacocks on a regular basis. Can you reach them easily or do you have to become a contortionist to complete the task? If something is difficult to get to, you might let important tasks slide because it’s a pain to do and when the system fails, you’ll be in a world of hurt. Maintenance ease matters, it really does.

8. Kid safety?

This makes family vessels unique. The boat will have lifelines, but if you have very little ones, will you want netting as well? Admittedly, this makes kid boats pretty easy to spot in anchorages…but that’s not a bad thing! Will the kids be able to get on and off the boat themselves? The dingy? The answer to these questions can be both negative and positive. You want to make sure you’re not giving yourself a hernia lifting them up and over the lifelines, rigging, etc. BUT you also don’t want them to easily be able to wiggle off the boat, especially without your knowledge. Not sure this next thing qualifies as ‘safety’ but it’s certainly something to consider…what kind of heads does the boat have: electric with switch, electric with turning knob, manual pump, etc.? Flushing heads isn’t the most glorious of cruising duties (yes, I said ‘duty’, lol), and having to flush for all your littles would get old pretty fast.

Now, a CMB freebie!

You can drive yourself absolutely crazy ‘chasing dreams.’ I’d find, the perfect boat to realize it was WAY above our price point which would break my heart a little OR my husband would find a great sailing boat, but would be missing something mandatory, like beds. ha! Wish I was kidding, but I’m not.

The best thing we did to help us find our perfect-for-us boat was to  take the boat out of the equation. Whaaaat? Through the magic of spreadsheets, my husband and I built a criteria matrix that has two sections: needs and wants.  Potential boats had to have what we listed as a need to make it on the sheet. Then each boat was scored based upon the values we predetermined. There were additional equations added to help assess things like how a boat’s age would affect our maintenance load. Now…THIS is when the magic started to happen. Together, we’d look at a listing and assess each boat and…voila! The best family cruising boats were SO MUCH easier to see.

Sign up here to receive an editable copy of our weighted value matrix that you can customize with YOUR needs and wants to help you find YOUR perfect-for-you boat! You will also receive CruisingMomBlog.com’s weekly newsletter. And don’t worry. I won’t SPAM you. I don’t share your email address either. I only send you an email once a week that shares notables that every cruising family can use with top posts and timely tips that don’t necessarily get published on the site. Let us help you save time. We’ve done the work so you can just do what you love…spend time cruising with your family!

Want to read what other experienced cruisers have to say about finding your best family cruising boat?

I don’t know these guys and gals personally, but the information and perspectives they share are invaluable! Check them out:

  • Carla from Sailing on Mahi
    • Short and sweet. Not too detailed. Shares a few more things to ponder while looking at the ‘big picture’. 
  • John & Amanda from Mahina
    • This is a VERY detailed post about finding a cruising boat. Don’t get overwhelmed. Just read this article in chunks. Not specifically geared for families, BUT offers great ‘things to consider’. I know nothing about their consulting, but the information on this page is fantastic.
  • Behan & Jamie from Sailing Totem
    • Although this link doesn’t share ‘finding boat’ info, these well-known cruisers do have a business supporting new cruisers through big decisions. We did not use them, but their consultation services are highly reviewed throughout my Cruiser Learning Network. 
  • Sarah and Barrie from Sailing with Kids
    • Although this family doesn’t appear to be cruising anymore. They share a unique perspective,,,and they’re funny.
  • Nikki and Jason from Gone with the Wynns
    • This is from a well-known, yet kid free, crew, BUT their ‘buying a boat’ process shares another unique perspective worth reading.

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