For the past three years my partner Barry Miller and I have taken the Intracoastal Waterway from Annapolis, Md., to the Bahamas on our 43-foot Irwin ketch. During those six-month cruises, I sometimes felt like I was living in a basement. We also wanted more comfort along the way. So after 60 collective years of sailing, we decided to join many other snowbirds and leave the perch on our sailboat for a trawler.
We had been eyeing trawlers for some time, since they checked off many of the wish list items: a boat with a view and light, space, and the feeling of living on top, not under the water. After some research, we took a deep breath and started searching. We focused on a size range of 35 to 40 feet to handle the challenges of a blue water crossing.
Like any boat, trawlers offer many options, all involving some kind of compromise. For example, if we chose an aft cabin, we wouldn’t get a cockpit or, at least, not much of one. One engine is less expensive, but two offer a backup. How strongly did we feel about a center queen bed versus a v-berth? And on and on. In the end, a decision is based on the most important amenity for the buyer. Go to trawler fests, and ask questions. The more research and education a shopper has about trawlers, the better.
We looked at many boats, each time thinking we had the right one. The Eagle 40, Monk 36, Grand Banks, Mainship, Marine Trader and Sabreline; each had features we really liked. We even looked at a power catamaran, but it was too expensive.
In the end, we picked the Albin 36 for its combination of a large cockpit for entertaining, with a direct walk-out from the cabin and a single engine with bow thruster. Overall, the Albin has a very open and bright interior, a top priority for us.
We are beginning to realize the differences between a sailboat and a trawler. First, trawlers are easier to live aboard because there is no rigging for sails and a mast, to stumble over. On the other hand, it’s essentially two stories high, making it difficult to single hand, since running up and down steps to handle lines when docking can result in losing your balance and other potential troubles.
After years of driving a sailboat, driving a trawler is not intuitive. The Irwin has a cable throttle which accelerates in direct proportion to how much it is moved back and forth. The Albin has an electronic throttle, which is more sensitive but hesitates when put into gear, making a novice think that it needs to be moved up a notch. That can be a very bad idea during docking, since a 450-horsepower engine can take off like a spaceship. Crashing into a dock, which we did in the first month after buying the Albin, can be a very expensive fiberglass job, not to mention a bruising to the ego.
Sailboats have rudders for steerage. Trawlers, on the other hand, depend more on speed to control their direction. Without forward motion, the wheel doesn’t turn the boat and it begins drifting sideways. It can be pretty frustrating to pick up a mooring, anchor or even dock, until you learn to “back and fill,” (a little power forward followed by a little power backward). Bow thrusters are great for tweaking the boat in a direction but not for major maneuvering. Thrusters are also prone to burn out from overuse so it’s good to use them sparingly.
I would strongly recommend hiring a trawler trainer to go out with at first. We waited too long to do this but when we did, it was worth the money.
A trawler requires major preventative maintenance on its diesel engine. While they are work horses, diesels are very unforgiving if neglected, and 80 percent of owners do just that, according to marine surveyors. On this subject, we were naïve and if we had it to do over we would get a separate engine survey. The cooling system for a diesel has a dizzying number of components, which can develop serious problems if not monitored and serviced regularly. Take a diesel maintenance class before buying, to understand what is about to be taken on.
We bought the Albin last summer, but never made it to the Bahamas this year, which turned out to be a good thing. The work to bring the boat up to speed took almost four months at a yard in Florida. Having to deal with that in a foreign country would have been a nightmare.
So, now, after eight months of owning a trawler, would we do it again? Absolutely. Its comfort is close to that of living in a mobile condo. And after all the surprises are over, there is no boating as undemanding as motoring in a trawler. It is far less stressful than a sailboat and after a day on the water we are not exhausted, but almost ready to begin again.
At the end of a day, there is nothing like a glass of wine on our “back porch” or enjoying a 360 degree view up high on the bridge while listening to some Bahamian music and thinking about next year.