Many sailors, said Jahn Tihansky of the J-World Chesapeake sailing school in Annapolis, "are dreamers by definition," but finding the dream sailboat is a rigorous exercise in practical reality.
Tihansky, a life-long sailor, will teach a series of seminars at the United States Sailboat Show in Annapolis Oct. 7-11. His topic is "Pick the Right Boat for You."
"People might think it a waste of time, because I own and run J-World and, of course, I will simply recommend J/Boats," said Tihansky, who has sailed aboard everything from Optimist dinghies to maxi-boats to a square-rigger.
"But I am not a boat manufacturer or a boat salesman. I teach people to sail."
Over the past seven years with J-World Chesapeake, Tihansky said he has shared the experiences of new and intermediate sailors who have chased the dream rather than the reality.
"Too often people figure out 16 or 18 months after they have bought a boat that it wasn't at all what they expected," he said. "That big, heavy boat they bought to go over the ocean horizons a few years down the road is, in the interim, just a dog for the light and intermediate winds on Chesapeake Bay."
In Tihansky's opinion, the business of picking the right vessel is largely an honest evaluation of a prospective owner's intended use of a boat.
"I like a boat that sails well and responds quickly to the force of the wind," said Tihansky, "and I am willing to sacrifice some creature comforts to have it.
"That beautiful boat with the teak interior and the tile baths might look great at the dock, but you are going to spend a lot of time motoring around -- and a sailboat doesn't make a good trawler."
For many years, the most popular size of sailboat has been in the 30- to 35-foot range with prices ranging from about $70,000 to $130,000 for a reasonably equipped production boat.
According to Tihansky, some 75 percent of sailors are cruisers and occasional racers, giving rise to many boats advertised as cruisers-racers.
"But that term is an oxymoron, something that appeals to people who want to have it all in one boat," Tihansky said. "You can't have a racer-cruiser that is going to have everything. It ain't going to happen."
So, he said, make the first choice -- race or cruise.
If the choice is race, he said, start by checking the "design pedigree" to determine the background and success of a given naval architect.
"For example, if it is a Farr design, you can bet it won't be a dog," Tihansky said. "Take the time to investigate, because there are good designers and good boats out there."
A key to potential performance is the sail area/displacement ratio, which can begin to tell whether the sail area (horsepower) is large enough to drive the weight of the boat.
Keel depth and shape are good indicators of upwind performance, and in shoal-draft configurations the engineering of the keel is especially important.
Then check out the standing and running rigging to determine if it is of good manufacture or a bargain brand, and whether the show models have standard or optional gear. Deck layout should be clean and functional, and the cockpit should be unobstructed and large enough to allow freedom of movement during tacks and jibes.
"You need to know how many dollars -- if any -- it will cost to get it right after buying the boat," said Tihansky. "How well set up it is, is directly related to how well it will sail."
The interior also will give an indication of whether the boat is suited to serious racing -- not that below deck areas must be stripped out like an old Whitbread racer.
"But interiors can add a lot of weight, especially in those boats with elaborate forward cabins," said Tihansky. "Typically when there is a problem with weight, the excess comes out of somewhere, and ballast is the easiest place to get it. But you end up with a boat that is less stable and nobody thinks less stability is a good thing."
And then there is the matter of money and whether the cost of improvement can be justified.
"How hard-core are you as a competitor, or are you mostly a day sailor happy with a bucket of chicken and a cooler of beer on a Saturday afternoon?" Tihansky said. "Is it worth it to spend an extra 30 to 40 percent to trick out the boat if you're satisfied with being 14th or 16th in fleet?"
Cruising boats, too, require a turn of speed and the ability to sail well to windward.
"Again the choices are determined by how far and how often you will sail your boat," he said. "Do you want a dockside condo in which sailing from Annapolis to Whitehall Bay is an adventure, or do you plan to take weekend or week-long trips or extended cruises to Europe or the Caribbean?"
The dockside condo might have multiple cabins, storage for water toys and all the creature comforts imaginable, he said, but a true cruiser must first be a sailing boat.
"One of the things I notice about many boats is that there is too much inside space for the time people spend below," said Tihansky. "It probably is 80 percent to 20 or even 90 percent to 10 outside time to inside time, unless you are living aboard."
Expansive cabin space often comes at the expense of cockpit area, where most of time will be spent aboard. Small cockpits are preferable for bluewater cruisers, but Chesapeake Bay cruisers will benefit from more room above decks.
On deck, there should be freedom of movement and the running rigging should be well led for ease of access and use. Furling systems can make sail handling easy, but equipment should be well manufactured and reliable.
Dodgers, biminis or cockpit awnings must be installed so there is excellent visibility in all directions from the helm.
And again the sail area/displacement ratio should be suitable for the type of cruising to be done.
"A trans-Atlantic boat won't move well on the bay," said Tihansky. "You may want something more performance-oriented here. The deeper the keel and the taller the rig, the better sail you are going to have on the Chesapeake."
Often buyers make mistakes, especially with their first boats, before they have realized how and when their vessels will be used, he said.
"Sailors are dreamers by definition," Tihansky said. "But to get the most for their dollars, they need to think about what they will do over the next two or three years -- what they are really going to do."