Passagemaking in a Trawler

As voyaging sailors who have made long offshore passages in a variety of sailboats from 32 feet up to and including 60-foot maxis, my wife Kathy and I knew what to expect at sea in a sailboat. We had certainly heard that the average trawler-type power voyaging boat can roll and pound uncomfortably in a seaway. But we were intrigued at the prospect of power voyaging and recently went along on an offshore trip aboard a 50-foot steel trawler owned by a friend, Wellington Bertolet of Fort Meyers, Fla.

At sea we’ve seen plenty of fishing boats with trawls and outriggers deployed, and an occasional sport fishing boat, but very few pleasure boat trawlers fewer than 50 feet. In fact, the further we get from popular inshore coastal cruising grounds the fewer trawlers we see. We know that the force of the wind on a sailboat’s sails combined with the ballasted keel usually holds a sailboat over to leeward, thus working to control rolling and pounding, providing a more comfortable ride. In our many forays in boatyards we’re always amazed when we view the underbody of trawlers and sport fishing boats with their screws hanging down below the keel. Clearly many of these are planning boats, not displacement hull passagemakers. (Wellington Bertolet calls them “rototillers.”)

Simply put, though they travel at about the same speed offshore, trawlers ride differently than sailboats. If we hadn’t known the boat and its owner/skipper we would have said “thanks, but no thanks” when asked by Bertolet to help him make a January delivery from Mexico to Florida on his trawler Vagabond. However, since Vagabond is a one-of-a-kind, extraordinarily well-equipped steel trawler piloted by a very experienced skipper who doesn’t like to be uncomfortable, we decided to make the trip. Bertolet is a former merchant ship owner with a lifetime of experience serving various ports in the Caribbean. Our passage was a different world from offshore sailing. Here is what we discovered:

Vagabond is a 1973 Coe M. Best-designed, 70-ton, 50-foot steel trawler with an aluminum superstructure and stainless steel rails built by Alden Hingle of Lacombe, La.; it has the lines of a steel shrimp boat. The draft is 6 feet with a beam of 17 feet without the “birds” deployed. The boat has every conceivable option to make it seaworthy and as safe and comfortable as possible. A four-cylinder, 125-hp Caterpillar D330 turbocharged diesel with 4:1 gear reduction swings a single 48-inch diameter screw on a 3 1/2-inch diameter prop shaft. Of course, the 1 1/2-inch steel keel hangs well below the screw.

The boat has a shaft generator, a 15-kw diesel generator and bow thrusters, full galley with a microwave oven, two heads with showers, and the list goes on. The trawler’s tankage is hard for a sailboat sailor to even conceive: 4,800 gallons of diesel, 700 gallons of water and a 1,000-gallon holding tank. Air conditioning and forced hot water heating are there to ensure comfort – no more voyaging with the wind and rain in your face. Cruising speed is a steady 7 knots in flat water or 6 knots in a big sea – not much different than a sailboat. Fuel consumption is about 3 gallons an hour at 1,450 rpm. Before leaving the dock, we noticed there was something different on the bridge and below in the salon; loose gear, books, computers and even the wastebaskets were not tied down. On our sailboat nothing is loose. We were convinced we would be picking a lot of loose gear off the deck once we left the harbor.

At sea we soon discovered the difference: “birds.�VbCrLf Like shrimp boats and fishing boats Vagabond has two outriggers, which are deployed at sea to slow the roll. Three-foot, triangular-shaped steel flopper stoppers, or “birds,�VbCrLf swim about 10 feet below the surface of the sea on 5/16-inch stainless steel chain hung at the end of 4-inch, heavy wall, aluminum, 21-foot outrigger poles. The outrigger poles are supported by a 4-inch, heavy wall A-frame permanently welded to the boat’s rail. The A-frame comes together above the cabin top. The topping lifts are fed from the apex of the A-frame. Stainless steel guys leading fore and aft support the rig when the birds are in the water. The birds, like everything else on the boat, are deployed and retrieved using electric winches on the aft quarter rails. We were very impressed. No wonder nothing was tied down. On the 570-nm offshore passage from Mexico to Texas across the Gulf of Mexico with the birds deployed, the boat rolled a maximum of 6� in a 4- to 5-foot sea.

It’s hard for a small boat sailor to imagine being inside a warm and dry bridge looking out and down at the sea, all the while rolling no more than 6�. We could even set our coffee cups down without fear of them falling on the deck. Before we left Mexico Kathy went around putting nonskid mats everywhere just in case; they were really not necessary.

Another difference lay in learning how to steer the boat. Steering Vagabond was totally different from a sailboat. After steering his Westsail 32 using a tiller, a sailor friend we know still hasn’t yet mastered the helm on Vagabond. The difference between conning a sailboat and the heavy steel trawler soon became clear. The sailboats we are familiar with have a very quick response to the helm and an autopilot is used only on long legs between waypoints. Vagabond’s helm is completely hydraulic and is steered by the Robertson autopilot course setter installed overhead on the bridge, reachable by the helmsman. The wheel has no feel at all; it reminds me of steering a compass course on a Coast Guard cutter years ago. After weaving around without the autopilot a few times, I finally got the idea: steer, wait for a few seconds for the boat to begin moving, then quickly apply counter helm. If it weaves too much there are always bow thrusters to straighten it out. It’s still unnerving to pass tugs with 200 yards-long tows in a narrow waterway by simply tweaking the autopilot 1� at a time.

We ran at night at sea, of course, and occasionally on the Intracoastal Waterway when we couldn’t find a convenient place to anchor. At the end of each day on our run eastward on the Northwest Gulf Coast ICW we valiantly searched for anchoring spots. We tried to get off the waterway at night and frequently nosed into the bank until the boat ran aground. When we discovered we couldn’t get far enough out of the waterway to avoid barge traffic, we simply backed off and continued on. Several times we simply put it aground and parked the boat with the anchor hanging limply from the bow. We did things we would never do with our sailboat. Tying up at a marina requires totally different thinking; 70 tons of steel boat could crush fiberglass boats like eggs. When we did find a marina of sorts, we always asked for an end dock.

Nearly all the mechanical gear is commercial grade, not yacht grade. Even the Robinson autopilot was new to us. Commercial gear is heavier and stronger than we are used to and is not found in familiar yacht supply catalogs. Fortunately the electronics, including the radar, are similar to ours. All navigation was done with the radar combined with a laptop computer set on the bridge in front of the helmsman. It showed our position on digital charts using a continuous GPS input.

Paper charts were never used; the chart drawer was never opened on the entire trip except to check average wind and sea conditions on the NOAA pilot chart for the month of January. (The existing multilevel chart drawer on the bridge will be moved aft to the salon at the next yard stop and will probably serve as an archive.) Watching our GPS position creep up the chart displayed on our computer screen was certainly appealing while we sat in a warm, comfortable bridge.

Despite my reluctance to do so I may succumb to digital charts on our sailboat, while still keeping a paper chart handy, of course. In the back of our minds we kept thinking a trawler like Vagabond could extend our cruising life 10 to 15 years. n

Dick de Grasse holds a master license for auxiliary sail and is a U.S. Coast Guard veteran. He and first mate Kathy live in Islesboro, Maine, when not cruising on their Tartan 34 sloop Endeavour in southern waters.

By Ocean Navigator