joshua line drawing

Line Drawing of Jean Knocker’s Joshua 39, sailed by Bernard Moitessier. One of my all-time favorite boats, rarely available, now quite old.

In a few hours I fly to the Pacific Northwest to inspect five prospective Figure 8 Voyage boats. This article describes the search to date, including how my thoughts have evolved since this summer’s Northwest Passage.

“The best boat is the one you have,” is often quoted to illustrate a basic truth about voyaging: as vital as dreams are to adventure, too much dreaming, planning, revising, and perfecting can kill a cruise. At some point improvement is nothing but delay, and one must get going or risk not going at all.

In my case, however, the old saw is wrong. I have a boat, a much adored, 31 foot, full-keel ketch, named Murre. She has proven her abilities by safely transporting me over large reaches of the open Pacific (see Murre and the Pacific, one boat, one guy, two years on a big ocean). But the differences between a mostly middle latitude voyage of 15,000 miles and a 40,000 mile voyage that will spend half its time in high latitudes is vast. Compare the physical requirements on a plane flying from San Francisco to New York to a space ship’s flight to the moon. Both are technically difficult feats, but one is orders of magnitude more so. Murre is the jumbo jet in this analogy; she’s just not designed for the rigors of the Figure 8 course.

murre line drawing

Line Drawing of Murre, a Mariner 31.

Much of my focus in recent months has been on defining the characteristics of the right boat.

And what are those?

Succinctly put, the vessel must be:

  • Fast: able to maintain enough speed to get me around the Figure 8 course in one season.
  • Capacious: have carrying capacity for a year’s supplies and lots of fuel.
  • Simple: laid-out and rigged so as to be handled easily by one person.
  • Maximally Seaworthy: capable of weathering extreme ocean and ice environments.

While these are interrelated requirements, the last is far and away the most important and has been the cause of the much recent contemplation.


Here are two visual examples of the extremes a Figure 8 boat must survive:


Sir Robin-Knox Johnston singlehanding the Southern Ocean aboard Suhaili in 1968. I keep a small copy of this painting above my desk.

gjoa in ice

From this year’s Northwest Passage, pictured here is well-found yacht Gjoa, trapped in the pack ice of Bellot Strait. Credit: Nick Walker.

And how I’ve thought about these characteristics has changed dramatically of late. It may be helpful to know that the idea for the Figure 8 came to me while reading of Matt Rutherford’s solo of the Americas in 2011. His impressive passage was accomplished in an unlikely vessel, an old, fiberglass Albin Vega that survived both the Arctic and the Horn. Murre is also made of fiberglass; it’s a material I’ve worked with extensively during her restoration. Thus, until recently, my Figure 8 focus has been on a range of vintage, heavy-displacement, fiberglass boats, like the Westsail 32.


Westsail 32 Line Drawing–inspired by the Colin Archer designs and similar to Knox-Johnston’s Suhaili, pictured above.

This is a design I’ve admired for years. Built throughout the 1970s in Costa Mesa, California, Westsails are legendary for their heft, their robustness and ability to survive even the most ridiculous of dirty weather. One now famous example is that of Sartori, the boat caught in The Perfect Storm of 1991 (you’ve probably seen the movie or read the book), which survived being rolled and abandoned only to wash up on a New Jersey beach intact.


Sartori, after the storm.

And boats like this are not unheard of in the Arctic. Cloud Nine, Fiona, Saint Brenden, Belzebub, Dodo, and Gitana are different boats of different sizes but have two things in common: they’ve all completed the Northwest Passage since 2009, and they are all made of fiberglass.

So, during the spring of this year I researched a number of stout fiberglass designs. I combed marinas in my area, flew to San Diego and Florida, and inspected vessels like the Westsail 32, 39 and 42; the Valiant 40, the Corbin 39, the Lafitte 44, the Noresman 447.

This search was interrupted by the summer’s Northwest Passage adventure with Les and Ali on Arctic Tern, and here I learned first-hand that one year in the Arctic is not like the other. In 2011, when Matt Rutherford completed his Northwest Passage, ice extents along the route were at historic minimums, and this allowed Matt to work through with relative ease. Ditto for yachts in 2012. But in 2013 the course was choked with ice much of the season, and all fiberglass yachts starting in 2014 turned back, their skippers judging conditions to be too dangerous for their vessels’ design.

Seeing the Arctic in person and feeling the immense force of ice against hull convinced me to shift gears. Since my return, I’ve been exploring only boats with hulls of steel or aluminum.

But how big? Of what design?

Let’s go back and explore the four requirements.


To complete the Figure 8 course in one season will require that I maintain an average speed of 115 miles a day. (More on the course and mileages here.) This may not seem fast to you (it is, after all, only 4.79 miles an hour), but it does to me. Keeping up solid daily runs over time can be hard work. By way of comparison, Murre has made three, month-long Pacific crossings, and her average speed over the total of those 8,000 miles was 110 miles a day. The emphasis here is on average speed over weeks and months, as with wind-ships one day is rarely like the next.

For keel boats, speed’s limiting factor is boat size. Given similar conditions of wind and wave, larger boats can go faster than smaller ones, and size, where speed is concerned, is usually expressed as the boat’s length at the water line. This isn’t the place to get into the calculation, so let me jump to the result: the Figure 8 needs a boat whose minimum waterline is 33 feet, plus or minus, and this equates to a boat of about 40 feet in length overall.


We’re not talking cupboard space here, but rather the balance between the overall weight of provisions (the payload) and the boat’s ability to safely carry weight (carrying capacity).

These numbers add up quickly. For ship’s stores (food, beverage, galley supplies, etc.), I’ve used Niger Calder’s “Personal Increment” calculation (See Cruising Handbook, p. 13), which provides, among other things, an estimation of the weight of supplies one person requires per day of voyaging. This number, plus 100 gallons of water and 300 gallons of fuel (a range of 1000 miles under power in the Northwest Passage is not unreasonable), brings my payload to around 5,500 pounds for a year’s voyaging.

It’s not just any boat that can carry so much weight and be safe on the high seas. Again, I’ll forgo the details of ballast, displacement and their ratios and say here that this payload requires a moderate to heavy displacement boat of around 40 feet overall, and bigger would be better.


Though smaller boats are often easier to manage, simplicity is more a function of how the boat is arranged and outfitted. Here are just a few examples:

  • The rig must be designed or adaptable to singlehanding. This does not mean she must be a ketch, though I have a preference for that rig, but it does mean that the larger sails of a cutter or sloop must be engineered for solo work. Headsails will be roller furling, for example, as could be the main.
  • Line arrangements (sheet, halyard, reefing) should be as short as possible. Halyards and reefing lines should stay at the mast rather than be run to the cockpit.
  • Cockpit winches must be within reach of the wheel or be movable to such a position.

Below decks, the layout must allow for comfortable and efficient living. Where soloing is concerned, these two terms are almost synonymous and, for me, include features like:

  • The ability to stand watch from below via a cupola or raised cabin.
  • Easy access to the galley and a pilot berth from the cockpit (galleys well forward and king sized beds make for a poor experience at sea).

Mechanical systems must be easy to access and reparable anywhere. This excludes boats with devices like saildrives and dedicated hydraulic steering.


This is a can of worms. Don’t believe me? Then I’d recommend you retrieve from your local library Seaworthiness, The Forgotten Factor by C. A. Marchaj. It’s a serious work, as indicated by the header quote to Chapter 1, “The Nature of the Problem.”

“I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account there of in the day of judgement. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by they words thou shalt be condemned.”

Matthew 12:36-37

This book is 372 pages of no foolin’ around, but before Marachaj gets into the mind-boggling math, he lays out the definition simply and clearly:

“Seaworthiness–strong durable and watertight construction, structurally sound rig, good survival characteristics in extreme weather conditions.”

Given my destination (see graphics at the top of this article), this means two specific things:

1. Stays upright: the ballast, displacement, and capsize ratios yield a boat with maximum stability in large seas. If capsize occurs (far from impossible), the boat does not stay inverted. Why is this important? Here’s a good reason.

2. Survives collision: hull construction must withstand heavy ice impacts and severe groundings; better if it has watertight bulkheads fore and aft. Overhangs should be minimal; bow sprits and aft hung rudders (easily damaged by ice) are to be avoided.

Clearly there’s much more to seaworthiness, but for the Figure 8, these are the core design characteristics.

So, to summarize, the Figure 8 boat will be of steel or aluminum, about 40 feet long, medium to heavy displacement, bullet-proof, simply laid out and rigged for single handing.

Well that was easy.

Except for one thing.

In the States, the market for boats like this is small. Relative to production glass boats, few are made, and fewer still are available used. Thus far my internet research has taken me to such disparate places as Malaysia and the Netherlands, Cape Town and Turkey. I’ve looked into designs with names like Amazon, Atlantis, Boreal, Damien, Dix, Garcia, Koopmans, Kanter, Offshore, and Van de Stadt.

The cluster of boats to be inspected next week in Washington and British Columbia are the nearest to home I’ve found and include two Amazon 44s, a Waterline 38, and a Kanter.

Wish me luck!

Here are two of my favorite designs to date:

The Amazon 44

amazon44 line drawing

Amazon 44 line drawings. This design by Graham Shannon meets all the Figure 8 criteria, but is she too large for me to handle?


An Amazon 44 in steel available in Washington. Note mast furling main. Right sail for the Southern Ocean?

aluminum amazon

An Amazon 44 in aluminum available in British Columbia. Lots of freeboard. A rough ride?

atlantis line drawing

Caroff designed Atlantis 400. Note relatively low profile, swing keel and (unprotected) twin rudders.

Atlantis 400 on the hard

Atlantis 400 in Aluminum available in Malaysia.

twin  rudders

The twin rudders of the Atlantis 400 do not appear to be protected from ice flowing under the boat. This boat is designed for high latitudes. Am I missing something?



9 Comments on “FINDING A FIGURE 8 VOYAGE BOAT: The Backstory

  1. KUDOS – you are making excellent progress on your Figure-8 quest so will add my 2-cents in hopes it is of benefit to you…
    1) Had you not made a NWP on ARCTIC TERN you would of missed learning that steel is a fantastic yacht building material – now make sure you figure out how to properly prepare and protect that surface including proper electrical wiring grounding and anodes etc – if you do – it will last a lifetime.
    2) Do you build or buy second-hand? If you have the cash on hand it still is a hard decision because unless you embarrass yourself with your offer you have paid to much – cash is king! Consider a new A40 for $200K ( for all of the benefits of a custom new yacht without wear and tear – take the time to shake-down. On the second-hand side I’d recommend you consider a Bruce Roberts design in steel – pay attention to workmanship and good insulation along with plenty of fuel tankage – a big difference between 200 gallons and 800+ gallons – especially with your goal of a long range route and keeping to a schedule – diesel propulsion makes that a good reality. Remember the small horsepower yachts are the ones that became beset in the NWP ice – when you need a push you need horsepower – don’t under estimate this requirement – you don’t need to run a 150hp engine hard to make 6-7kts and likewise the fuel burn will also be low IF you can consider outfitting a CP prop for optimum performance and economy.
    3) Last but not least – don’t be in a rush to buy and get out of the water… you will know when the right vessel comes along… for me it had dry exhaust, nibral keel cooler, a full boxed ballasted keel using 1/2″ steel… which design protected the prop and rudder from ropes and groundings… not if but when…
    4) Remember you are buying a tool for a particular purpose… keep a spreadsheet list with each boat across in a tabular comparison – makes it easy to see the diamond among the semi-precious wannabes.

    Smooth seas,

    Douglas Pohl

    • Thanks for the feedback, Doug. All great comments. Blurry-eyed from boat inspections today. More later.

        • Interesting. Am at SEATAC and on the way home now. Whirlwind boat tour–Seattle, Port Townsend, Victoria, Friday Harbor–and had no more time on this excursion, but think I will be up to the PNW sooner than later. I have been thinking of Mark Schrader quite a bit lately. He came up again at my
          Friday Harbor stop as Steven Roberts, the Amazon 44 owner, did some consulting for Ocean Watch and has Mark’s signed survival suit hanging in his lab. I met David Thoreson a while back; he was frequent crew on Cloud Nine and was crew and photographer on Ocean Watch. His advice re weathering this recent Northwest Passage warmly was gratefully received. I could use Mark’s advice for my Southern Ocean loop in particular. Will work on a connection. Thanks for the suggestion…

          Re the Roberts 50–I have previously passed it over due to its size. In my experience a Roberts 50 is a BIG 50…and even a small 50 is a big boat for me. 🙂

          • Wait, Ocean Watch is a S i x t y F o u r foot vessel. Capn Pohl, what you doing recommending a 64 for a singlehander weighing less than 160 pounds. 🙂

  2. You really don’t think the size of the boat has anything to do with enjoying your planned voyage do you? A well rigged boat be it 64 feet will ride better than any of the 40 footers… I single-handled my 55 for more than a 1,000 river miles including more than 50 dam-locks – preparation is key! Its time to consider what you are willing to spend vs what you can buy… OCEAN WATCH would be fantastic – have you considered a voyaging crew helping out?

    • I agree that a large, well rigged boat can be singlehanded…sure! Think BOC, etc. Think this guy:

      But as boats get larger, hardware also gets larger and systems often more complicated. Bigger winches, heftier ground tackle, longer electrical wiring runs, more deck to paint, bum to scrape free of its ooze, more gallons of water to bail if all hell breaks loose.

      I have not considered a crew. This is a singlehanded exercise … that’s my passion.

Leave a Reply