Wayne and Elizabeth Gilham bought a used 43-foot centercockpit sailboat in 1998 as a long-distance cruiser to take their family on a dream voyage to the Bahamas and beyond. Since then, the sailboat has morphed from a boat for four to what the couple considers the perfect retirement boat for two.

The Gilhams bought the used 43-foot center cockpit Irwin in 1998.

“We originally wanted to take a year off and cruise with our teenage son and daughter,” says Wayne Gilham, 62, a yacht broker from Gig Harbor, Wash. “So we needed a real cruising boat with plenty of room for all of us. It was a challenge.”

Yacht broker Ed Morris of Yacht Net in Annapolis, Md., where the Gilhams lived at the time, recommended the Irwin 43, one of Ted Irwin’s many successful designs. The couple looked at a 1985 Irwin 43 Mk II, an updated version of the popular model from the 1970s. “We were looking at 36- and 38-footers, and this seemed so big,” says Gilham. “But it had all the Irwin amenities: lots of storage, a separate shower stall, three sleeping areas and a good separate galley. I didn’t know Irwins at the time but understood it had a reputation as a good sea boat.”

The couple kept looking but kept coming back to the Irwin. “It was in good shape. It hadn’t been sailed very hard over the years, and the engine had only 500 hours on it after 13 years,” he says. The Gilhams bought the boat for around $90,000. The parents used the big aft cabin, with its en-suite head, and the teenagers bunked in the forward cabin and quarter berth bunks, sharing the forward head.

With the cruise completed, the Gilhams decided to put the Irwin up for sale, but it didn’t move.

“There were several other Irwins out there at that time, and it was a down market in general,” says Gilham. So they kept it. “We realized at one point that we had already bought our retirement vessel,” he says.

Wayne and Elizabeth Gilham

They moved to Gig Harbor, where Gilham became a yacht broker, and now call the Pacific Northwest their home waters. “We typically spend several weeks going north, as West Coast sailors do,” he says. “We head for the Canadian islands.”

The cruising conditions are a bit different in the Northwest, with a lot of light-air work, says Gilham. “We do the majority of our cruising by motor,” he says. “We went out for five weeks and only had five really good days of sailing. That’s just the way it is in the Pacific Northwest — there’s either no wind or it’s on your nose. Fortunately, the boat motors very well.”

Hakuna Matata still runs on its original 56-hp Perkins 4-154 Series 200 diesel. “In 2,000 hours, it’s been problem- free,” says Gilham. Cruising speed is 7.1 knots at 2,800 rpm, and fuel use is about 1.7 gallons per hour. “As a sea boat, we consider her stiff and quite stable,” says Gilham. “The flared bow rises to the seas, and that helps keep the deck dry. She does hobbyhorse a bit in rough seas, but she never pounds, because of her deep forefoot.”

The centerboard is not only helpful in shoal waters, but it helps balance the boat. “You can move the center of lateral resistance fore and aft to counter the center of effort of the sails,” says Gilham. “She seems to take any combination of sails well.” The center cockpit is large and set low, so occupants feel a gentle motion in high seas. The Gilhams mounted a hardtop dodger with a Plexiglas windscreen to protect the cockpit. “It’s virtually invisible and it’s delightful — nice and warm in cold weather,” he says. “Eventually, we’ll enclose the rest of the cockpit with canvas.”

The deck has high bulwarks for a “real sense of safety,” says Gilham. “It has wide side decks, and the shrouds run into the cap rail, so it’s easy to move about.”

So far, the two cruisers have gotten as far north as Desolation Sound, at the north end of British Columbia’s so-called Sunshine Coast. Further destinations beckon. “I have yet to find a boat that gives us the comfort, space, brightness, the solid construction and ease of handling for two people that this boat does,” says Gilham. “We love it. It’s a winner.”

WALKTHROUGHIrwin 43 Mk II specifications
Designed for bluewater cruising, the Irwin 43 Mk II shows a sturdy profile. The tall bow is flared to shed seas, and freeboard is ample. Below the waterline, the deep forefoot is joined to a shallow fin keel, which houses the centerboard. (A deeper keel without the centerboard was available.) Ballast is 7,000 to 8,000 pounds. The spade rudder is skeg-mounted.

On deck, the Irwin 43 Mk II carries a high-aspect cutter rig with twin headstays, giving the boat a variety of sail combinations. There’s also a sloop-rigged version. The large, open foredeck and wide side decks leave plenty of room for sail handling and anchor work. The center cockpit is mounted well abaft the trunk cabin and sits relatively low.

Below, starting at the stern, the aft master cabin is equipped with an adjacent head with a separate shower compartment. Over/under berths are placed to port alongside the cockpit companionway. The saloon has seating to starboard and an L-shaped settee/ dining area to port. The galley down is to starboard beside the companionway. There’s a forward cabin closed off behind the saloon bulkhead, with a V-berth and its own adjacent head and shower.

snd_logoxsm Steve Knauth is a contributing writer for Soundings Magazine. This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue.