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Island Packet 31

2009 January 13

This comfortable, moderate-sized cruiser is just the ticket for an Abacos-bound retrofit

Your house is worth half what it was two years ago and your 401K is in a freefall with no bottom in sight. Is it time to buy gold and rations for when the lights go out? No way, it's time to go sailing!

Looking at our balance sheet, a bit of the boat fund is still intact. The round-the-world cruiser is out of the question, but we can handle a smaller boat and a season in the Abacos. We have about $80,000 to spend-we need a comfortable boat, shallow draft, maybe 30 to 35 feet LOA. Our tastes have always been on the traditional side, but we want a modern design and definitely one made of fiberglass. After a lot of probing around, we target the Island Packet 31.
The IP31 was introduced in 1983 and remained in production until 1989. The boat was very successful with more than 250 boats built, propelling Island Packet through the very shaky financial times of its day. The 31 has traditional lines, with a long sprit, full keel and a springy sheer. The hull design is a bit unconventional­-like all IPs it is beamy but the maximum beam is forward of amidships.

The 31 is not the fastest boat on the water, but let's be honest, no one buys an Island Packet, especially a smaller one, to win races. The boat delivers incredible interior volume and comfort, and even more important a smooth, soft motion in a seaway. We'll spend more time making our passages but we will not get beat up underway.

We looked at boats all over the southeast-a tired boat on the Gulf Coast of Florida, a decent boat in Oriental, North Carolina, and we finally found our gem on the Chesapeake Bay. The boat we finally chose, a 1989 (the final model year), was in great condition. The boat was the most expensive one we saw but in the best shape. Like the real estate mantra "location, location, location," with boats it is "condition, condition, condition." Being the newest boat of this design, the boat was in better condition. Island Packet tweaks the boats from model year to model year, and one of the differences we really appreciated were the stainless steel ports. With the soft financial world, we had some room to negotiate and settled at $63,500.
Our immediate goal is to sail off to the Abacos, so draft is a concern. The IP31 was available with a 4-foot draft shoal keel or with a centerboard that gets the draft down to 3 feet. We opted for a keel boat; 4 feet is skinny enough for us and life is a little simpler without a centerboard.

Our first order of business was to make sure our sails were up to snuff. To assess their condition we ran them over to our trusted sailmaker, Peter Grimm at Doyle Fort Lauderdale. To our eye the main seemed a little soft and the UV cover on the headsail was tattered. Peter explained that he could repair the sails, but that it was really time for a new suit of sails. He took a lot of time to understand our plans and to make sure that the sails will support those goals.

Grimm explained that the condition of our mainsail was due to UV damage and flogging, constant enemies on a cruising boat. The prior owner was not always careful to cover the main, and we all know that flogging is a frequent condition on the Chesapeake. Grimm had just the solution to these problems: He suggested a full-batten mainsail and a Doyle Cradle Cover to act as an automatic sail cover. The full battens offer better support of the main, helping to reduce the flogging, and as a bonus make the sail easier to flake on the boom. Grimm built the mainsail with eight-ounce low-aspect fabric from Dimension-Polyant. He explained that the heavier weight would last longer and that the low-aspect construction of the fabric was designed for a short, wide mainsail like ours. The Cradle Cover is essentially a sail cover integrated with lazy jacks. The lazy jacks and cover, in concert with the battens, gather up the sail as it is dropped. The cover also holds the mainsail when we are reefed-no more reef ties! The cover is a little bulky, and I get some gentle jabbing about it being my "third reef," but it has made life a lot better.

I was concerned that the extra weight of the fabric and full battens would make the main difficult to hoist. The old one was pretty hard to deal with, and this new one would be heavier. Grimm suggested the Tides Marine Strong Track system, a mainsail track that is easy to retrofit, relatively inexpensive and reduces friction almost equal to a ball bearing track system. Tides Marine custom machines the one-piece polyethylene track to fit your spar and then you just slide it in. The sail attaches with low-friction stainless steel slides and standard batten car fittings. The system makes the main very easy to hoist, and, just as important, when we free the halyard the sail just drops right onto the boom into the Cradle Cover.
Grimm specified a 120-percent genoa for our boat. I did not think this was large enough until he explained that our J measurement (the distance from the stem to the mast) was 15 feet, meaning our genoa is almost 18 feet along the foot-plenty big for a 31-foot boat. The genoa is constructed of seven-ounce cloth, light enough to fly nicely in light air but strong enough to hold its shape when we reef it down.

In most cases we won't need to reef the genoa since we have a handy little staysail right behind it. Grimm made our staysail out of the same material as the genoa. We can use it to add some horsepower when reaching but with the heavy cloth it will also be a bulletproof storm sail. Between reefing the genoa and unrolling the staysail we should have all the "gears" we need for cruising.

We spent a lot of money with Doyle but now have a very solid set of sails. We spent $2,375 on the main, $2,510 on the genoa, $980 on the staysail and roughly $1,000 each for the Cradle Cover and Tides Marine track system. Almost $8,000 of our refit budget, but a sailboat is not much good without good sails and handling gear.

Our boat is almost 20 years old and still had the original halyards. They were a little stiff and worn, and rope technology has changed a lot in 20 years, so we chose to replace all the halyards with new ones made of 3/8-inch New England Ropes VPC. VPC is a very cool rope-the cover is a tough Dacron twill and the core is blend of Vectran and polyolefin. The Vectran is there is to give strength and limit elasticity, and the polyolefin just bulks things up for handling. Polyolefin and Dacron are low-cost materials so this rope is fairly priced. In addition to looking good and handling well, the halyards are very inelastic. This allows our new sails to keep their shape, even in the puffs. We needed 275 feet of rope and decided to replace the hardware, too. This cost $360 for the rope, $120 for the shackles, and $60 for the splicing labor, for a total of $540.

When we were sea trialing the boat we noticed that the wind indicator did not work, we got a bit of money back for this flaw but our thought was to replace all the sailing instruments. We decided to go with the tried and true Raymarine ST60 speed/depth/wind package. The gear itself was $1,200 from Defender Marine and we installed it ourselves-most of the wiring was already in place from the old gear.

The diesel ran well but we wanted to have things looked over by a mechanic before we left on our cruise. Our mechanic checked everything and replaced all the maintenance items (filters, impeller, oil and coolant) for just $450; a great deal. We could have done this work ourselves but outsourcing it gave us higher confidence and more time to go sailing.

We intend to spend a lot of time anchored out in the Abacos, and we really like our creature comforts-lights, refrigeration and a movie now and again. These expectations can't be met with a standard electrical charging system. The boat has a good house bank and 100-amp Balmar alternator, but we don't want to run the engine to charge. Our solution was to harness the ever-present tropical sunshine with a pair of solar panels. We chose to mount two 50-watt Kyocera panels on top of our bimini. We looked to eMarine Systems in Fort Lauderdale to help us out. The company sells a full line of panels and regulators and have packaged a lot of flexible mounting systems. The entire system, consisting of the panels, mounts, charge regulator and wiring, cost us $1,630. The system puts out enough power to keep up with our refrigeration needs, and it allows us to keep the engine idle for two days at a time if we are careful with our other electrical loads.

Island Packet has great owner support and we couldn't help ourselves when we visited the factory Web site, we just had to pick up some IP logo items. We bought a couple of very nice caps, a set of cocktail glasses and burgee to show off our loyalty. This little splurge cost $100, but it was fun and made us feel like we were buying a brand new boat.

A solid investment in fiberglass and stainless steel is just the answer for these uncertain times. A good boat will hold its value and you will be paid back handsomely in sunsets and memories.