Go Small, Go Now: A Cruising Couple and their Micro-Cruisers
If you had told my wife, Mindy, and me 28 years ago that someday we’d be sailing from Florida to the Bahamas and back in a boat little bigger than a dinghy, we wouldn’t have believed you. Back in 1986 when we began dating, the most adventurous thing we had done together on the water was sailing on the Hudson River in Wet Feet, my leaky 13-foot wooden dinghy.
This is not to say that we never thought of sailing beyond the brackish waters of the Hudson, but as cash-strapped students we had more urgent priorities. Still, we thumbed through boating magazines, admiring photographs of exotic places accessible only to those who had their own yachts, and we often spoke about someday sailing off to distant lands.
But this was about as far as we got with our youthful pipe dreams. We moved to North Carolina after college, far from the sea, and buried ourselves in work, reading about other peoples’ sailing adventures while still dreaming of one day having our own. In the process we discovered our favorite authors, many of whom made incredible voyages in modest boats. We were especially fond of Lin and Larry Pardey aboard the 24-foot Serrafyn, who extolled the virtues of “Go simple, go modest, go small, but go!” We were also inspired by solo circumnavigator John Guzzwell in his self-built 20-foot yawl, Trekka; and we were astonished by Gerry Spiess, who sailed his diminutive 10-foot sloop, Yankee Girl, across the Atlantic. We sensed that someday we might follow in their wakes.
Then in February of 1991, two black-and-white magazine photographs of a miniature yacht grabbed our attention like nothing before. It was only 15 feet long, lug-rigged, and sported a large pilothouse. The caption noted that the boat’s owner, Matt Layden, hailed from Connecticut and had spent the fall working his way slowly up to Cape Cod for the winter. We were so intrigued by the design we eventually contacted him. Little did we know this encounter would forever change the way we thought about cruising.
We traveled 1,300 miles round trip to meet this sailor, but our effort was rewarded when we learned he had spent the last three years cruising aboard the flat-bottomed sharpie he called home. He had sailed as far north as the Bay of Fundy in Canada, a place notorious for its enormous 40-foot tides, and on a previous boat he had survived a capsize in the turbulent waters of the Gulf Stream while en route to the Bahamas.
He had accomplished all this entirely under sail and oar, and prided himself on being able to cover up to 50 miles a day without trouble in this, the third such boat he had built. Since Matt was close to our age, we had many common interests, and we enjoyed corresponding with him over the following year. In 1992 we made another long trip north, but this time it was to pick up the miniature cruiser we had come to admire.
The pint-sized yacht was a tough and well-conceived cruiser. Her bottom was built of 1 inch plywood to serve as both ballast and protection during hard groundings. Her centerboard, unlike those in most sailboats, was all the way forward in the bow. This allowed for an unobstructed living space and formed a solid partition to which a folding dinghy could be secured. Up to 2 inches of foam insulation provided positive buoyancy in the event of flooding and kept the interior feeling dry and comfortable in almost any weather.
She had large fresh-water ballast tanks that could be topped up through hoses connected directly to drains along the toerails. They would prove valuable when sailing far from civilization in places where only rainwater is available. We also noted the enormous space under the floorboards, great for storing cans of food. Strong latches held everything securely in place, guaranteeing nothing would shift in the event of a knockdown. Since the majority of the boat’s ballast was its stores, it was critical to keep it all in place. We marveled at the luxury of being able to steer from inside a pilothouse, and we replaced all the running lines that fed neatly inside the cabin. Under the navigator’s seat, which doubled as a chart table, there was a small stove on gimbals. After everything was made to look new, we christened the boat Little Cruiser.
Soon we began taking trips to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Little Cruiser’s 9in draft made it easy to sail in the shallows and navigate by eye around the shifting sand bars. Over the next year we gained confidence in our ability by handling the boat in a variety of conditions in Pamlico Sound and decided to take a little vacation for some more ambitious cruising.
In January 1993 we towed Little Cruiser 600 miles to Cedar Key, Florida, to join Matt for two weeks of sailing. We had a memorable time, bumping and scraping our way along the shallow coastline. We were often stuck on muddy bars and unseen oyster beds, but Matt always seemed to find deeper water. He was expert at interpreting the subtle changes in the water’s color and little disturbances on its surface to gauge what hid below. With time we hoped to do the same.
Next we headed to Everglades City and spent a week in the 10,000 Islands National Park on our own. We soon found ourselves in a labyrinth of twisted channels created by the countless mangrove islands. Without the aid of well-spaced nav aids and our GPS, we would have been hopelessly lost. On the positive side, there were plenty of secluded spots for us to explore. Each morning we woke to the loud cacophony of birds, and at dusk we watched them return to roost in the surrounding trees. Sometimes, when we awoke to find Little Cruiser hard aground, we amused ourselves by watching crustaceans emerge from their muddy burrows. There were a myriad of comical pinching crabs, armies of jumping shrimps and colonies of squirting clams. Probably the most important part of the excursion was that we took the time to relax.
The next step was to cross the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas, so we towed Little Cruiser down to Miami. Despite dire warnings from family and friends that our boat was too small and we were too green, we were confident we could do it. The Gulf Stream greeted us with some formidable waves that at times appeared as tall as our 14-foot mast. Because our sail was frequently blanketed by waves at the bottom of the troughs, we ended up motorsailing to counter the strong current. Just after sunset, after 14 hours at sea, we arrived in a protected anchorage off Cat Cay.
The next morning we cleared customs on North Cat Cay and rode the current 12 miles to North Bimini, where our tiny boat soon became the center of attention. She looked like a dinghy compared to the 40-foot yachts around us.
We next decided to sail the 75 miles across the Grand Bahama Banks and just beat a cold front into the anchorage in Mama Rhoda channel. We made new friends and acquaintances among the cruisers in the shallow anchorage and at the Chub Cay marina. We discovered we had much in common with these sailors who had given up frenzied lives back home to enjoy a slower-paced existence out here. We also took the time to visit some of the smaller deserted islands north of Chub Cay that could only be reached at high tide. There we found the virgin beaches and spectacular sunsets that we had imagined years before.
Eventually, though, our furlough was over and we had to head for home. We said goodbye to all our newfound friends and plotted a course back across the Banks and Gulf Stream. After clearing customs in Miami, we loaded our little boat back on its trailer and followed the spring blossoms all the way back to North Carolina, where we resumed our landlubber lives.
SEARCH for ADVENTURE
It didn’t take us long to sense that something deep inside us had changed. Our expectations of life had been transformed. During our two-month break we had felt a sense of freedom we could only fulfill by living afloat—and we longed to feel that way again. Therefore, we decided to leave work at the end of the year and go sailing, this time for three months. We knew there would be no guarantee of being able to return to the same jobs afterwards.
By the beginning of the new year we had returned to Florida. Meanwhile, our old friend Matt spent six weeks sailing his new micro-cruiser, Paradox, down the Intracoastal Waterway from Connecticut to join us. As soon as the weather forecast was favorable, both boats headed out through the Molasses Reef Channel into the night. Our itinerary over the following weeks was governed by the wind and current: North Bimini, Chub Cay, the Exumas, the Jumentos again. Life was simple. Life was good. And then all too soon it was time to think about heading west again.
Matt headed first to the Abacos before jumping across the Gulf Stream on his own, then scooted his way back along the ICW to Connecticut. We backtracked to Key Largo to pick up our car, and drove home. Thus ended our second trip to the Bahamas. We found part-time work and started planning yet another trip for the following year.
Over the next eight winters we made five more voyages to the Bahamas in Little Cruiser. Along the way, we gained more confidence in our sailing ability as we pushed ourselves and our micro-cruiser farther and farther. We experienced high winds and big seas far from the protection of a safe harbor. We perfected propelling the boat with our yuloh, or sculling oar, after a broken outboard left us stranded in the middle of a trip.
In 1995 we explored more of the Berry Islands and the Abacos. Starting at Sandy Point on Great Abaco Island, we made our way up through the barren Bight until we exited through the narrow man-made cut in Little Abaco called “the haulover.” We then followed the well-established route taken by most cruisers down from Allans-Pensacola to Green Turtle Cay, Man of War Cay and Hope Town. During that frigid winter we learned why it is best to visit these places in the warmer months. The water was too cold for swimming and our progress was interrupted by frequent winter storms.
In 1996 we revisited the beautiful waters of the Exumas. Two years later, we sailed from Florida in the spring rather than the winter so we could enjoy the Family Island Regatta in Georgetown and have plenty of time left over to cruise. By this time most of the seasonal cruisers were gone, the more popular anchorages were vacant, and the weather was more settled. In 2001 we visited Little San Salvador, which is now a private island, and had a fine time sailing in the lee of Cat Island. Then we rejoined the “wintering fleet” in Georgetown. That year we also made our first visit to Andros, where we discovered the unspoiled natural beauty of the Bights. The blue holes captured our attention and we vowed to return there again. In 2003 we focused entirely on Andros, and we circumnavigated the whole island, including the seldom-visited West Coast. We explored the three large bights that bisect the island and spent more time swimming in the blue holes and observing the wildlife around us.
In 2006, after a year-long refit, we stayed closer to home. We stripped Little Cruiser down to a bare hull and sheathed her in fiberglass and epoxy. We replaced everything that looked worn from years of hard sailing. By the time we finished, we were too tired to sail far, so we explored the Outer Banks. We launched from our usual spot in Cedar Island in April and headed down the Core Sound to Cape Lookout, where we anchored in sight of the lighthouse. From there we headed over to Beaufort, NC. We sailed and sculled our way through Adams Creek, which forms part of the ICW, and reached the Neuse River. We visited the quaint sailing village of Oriental, then headed upriver to Pamlico Sound and arrived at Swanquarter before dark. Another 70 miles north on Pamilico Sound brought us to Roanoke Island, and then we anchored in one of our favorite spots in Silver Lake harbor on Ocracoke Island. When we were done, we had covered 275 miles in three weeks. Long trips were now routine.
JOINING the WATERTRIBE
By 2008 I was inspired by Matt to try some marathon adventure races organized by a group called the Watertribe. Competing his tiny home-built cruisers, some as small as 8 feet long, Matt had consistently placed at or near the top in these events. The concept was remarkably simple: participants launch their boats from above the high-water mark at the start, then they paddle or sail to the finish. Some Watertribe events were as short as 65 miles, or could be as long as their 1,200-mile race around Florida. If you met the safety requirements and you or your crew could drag your craft into the water, you were good to go!
Since I knew I could not move Little Cruiser’s 1,600 pounds off the beach by myself, I bought one of Matt’s older micro-cruisers to race. This boat, Enigma, weighed only 180 pounds unloaded and was just 11ft 10in long. In September of 2009 I surprised myself by winning the inaugural 90-mile North Carolina Challenge race in the solo sailboat class. In 2010 I entered the 300-mile Everglades Challenge, from Tampa to Key Largo. After finishing all these races, my confidence as a solo sailor had grown considerably, and I thought it might be a good time to revisit the Bahamas in tiny Enigma.
After months of planning and preparation, I left Key Largo in March last year. The seas were particularly calm, but as usual there was a lot of shipping traffic to avoid for 17 hours until I reached a safe harbor in North Bimini. After 24 hours at anchor, I realized that an anticipated cold front had stalled; and I thought I might make it across the Grand Bahama Bank before it arrived. However, the front caught me 30 miles out from the Berry Islands.
Luckily, my little boat handled the turbulent conditions valiantly and none of the lightning bolts that struck nearby made contact with us. After waiting out the worst of the squalls, I arrived at Mama Rhoda Cut before nightfall. By the next morning, the weather had settled sufficiently to cross the New Providence Channel to Nassau. There I replenished my meager water supply before proceeding on to Allans Cay. This turned out to be my fastest passage yet to the Exumas. From here on I was on “island time.”
I spent several relaxing days at Shroud Cay, where I enjoyed Easter with some fellow cruisers—but meanwhile the wind turned southeasterly, which was exactly the direction I needed to go. My progress down-island became very slow, and I spent time relaxing at anchorages that I had sped past on our earlier trips. In Georgetown I decided not to stay on another week for the Family Island Regatta, but made my way back to Staniel Cay, where I sailed east over to the tiny uninhabited island of Green Cay and then to the entrance of South Bight. From the picturesque settlement of Lisbon Creek, I sailed and sculled through South Bight all the way to the unspoiled west coast, past large schools of game fish and frequent bales of sea turtles. There I stayed until the steady trade winds began to fade and hordes of biting flies appeared, whereupon I retreated to the east coast to avoid the worst of them. Next I sailed on to Moxey Town at the mouth of Middle Bight to watch the local fisherman harvesting sponges. Fresh Creek was my next stop, where I reprovisioned and sent emails home.
Eventually, I navigated my way inside the barrier reef all the way up to Morgan’s Bluff, where I spent a week with several other visiting boats who were waiting for a perfect weather window to cross back to the States. When it came, we all left within hours of each other. My passage across the Bank went swiftly, but without my wife to help steer, I needed to take a break during the 140-mile passage. After only a few hours rest on South Cat Cay, I was ready to cross the Gulf Stream. This final leg of my trip was going perfectly until the wind died 12 miles from land. The next several hours were spent sculling to reach a safe harbor in Fort Lauderdale. Six weeks had gone by, and I was 15 pounds lighter.
After sailing all of these years in micro-cruisers, some people might ask why we never got a bigger boat. The simple truth is our tiny boats have met our needs, from the time we were a young couple searching for an escape from our hectic lives until more recently, when our interests have shifted to other things like racing.
In the beginning, we thought bigger would be better and that we had to travel farther to find happiness. Eventually, though, we realized we find joy simply in sailing, whether it’s on a nearby river or as far away as the Bahamas. Our tiny sharpies have allowed us to reach these goals easily. We’ve never found any other small sailboat that was as economical to own, as easy to handle, and as secure in rough conditions. Now all we have to do is plan where to go next.
Photos courtesy of David and Mindy Bolduc