It isn’t always possible to sail to a plan; you need to look at the big picture.
When I started cruising, in 1992, I jumped in with both feet, literally. I’d just bought a 1976 Bristol 24, and in early September I left my home in New Jersey, bound for the Great Lakes, where I’d leave the boat for the winter. I planned to head west the following spring, then south to the Gulf of Mexico via the inland waterways, and back to New Jersey on the Intracoastal Waterway. I was sailing solo, which I’d never done before.
The first day out I ran aground. The next morning I tacked too close to an oncoming garbage barge, inspiring shouted expletives from the skipper. Later in the afternoon, I leaped for a dock in Jersey City and ended up in the drink next to the float, dock line in hand, the Bristol bobbing happily nearby. It was an inauspicious beginning, to say the least.
By the grace of Neptune I made it to Lake Ontario, though it was clear my planned adventure cruise was unrealistic, given my lack of experience. I took the boat back to New Jersey and sailed locally, gradually building up to longer offshore coastal passages. Eventually I bought a bigger boat and moved aboard full-time. Along the way, developing safe and enjoyable cruising strategies became second nature. Here are some that worked for me and may help in your transition from local to coastal sailing.
Starting with a big plan seemed good in theory, but I’d have been better off honing my skills in home waters before plunging straightaway into a long-distance cruise.
Pursuing the Big Plan was like drinking from a fire hose, adding stress and danger to my voyage. I came back to New Jersey a better sailor than when I left, but I paid a price for it in the anxiety I experienced, which ultimately detracted from my cruising experience.
When I started cruising locally, I realized it was just as rewarding as the push to Lake Ontario—possibly more so because I was playing rather than pushing, and I learned more every time I set out. The sunsets, the varied harbors, and being able to sail with the wind instead of making a forced march under power to predetermined waypoints, got me more into the spirit of cruising. Sailing locally also helped me polish my navigation, anchoring techniques, and other seamanship skills while still remaining close to known mechanics and suppliers in case the engine acted up or something broke.
Best of all, when the weather turned bad, it was always a short sail home. You can’t just bail out of a cruise when you’re hundreds of miles away from home base. But being able to bail out locally won’t leave you feeling stuck, and that’s important if you’re new to cruising and aren’t used to spending weeks or months on the boat. Eventually, my desire to cruise long distances reappeared, and I set my sights on Maine.
As a skipper, I initially felt anxious about what could go wrong in tight docking situations and with the weather, the boat, or the anchor. By the time I extended my cruising horizons, my anxiety levels had decreased. Instead of being worried, I was cautious.
A port too far
With both boats I’ve owned, I found that boatspeed is very important when planning longer passages. The Bristol made only 4 or 5 knots in flat water under power or in more boisterous conditions under sail (my wife, Liz, called it “pokey boat”). My math told me a 50-mile, 10-hour passage in one day was about the most I could hope for. In practice, we found passages of no more than 25 miles were best. We adhered to this “shorter is better than longer” rule after one of us asked the other “Are we there yet?” one too many times. Sailing shorter legs allowed extra time to deal with foul tides, wind and seas on the nose, or creeping through fog.
Knowing how fast your boat really goes under power in flat water, how it handles foul tidal currents under power and sail, and how well it goes to weather in head seas under both power and sail is important. With this in mind you can make better decisions when figuring the optimal number of hours you want to be under way between ports. Factoring in weather and tides on the day you leave is also important, as is being flexible about changing plans if necessary.
Naturally, if you have a fast boat, a beefy crew, and a reliable autopilot, your cruising range between ports can be greater than if you have a slow boat, no autopilot, and just a husband-and-wife crew. I almost never sail with a full crew. It’s usually just the two of us, and fatigue is a key concern because tired sailors make mistakes. We try not to push too hard. After all, cruising should be fun, not an endurance test.
• Boat speed and handling characteristics
• Distance between available ports
• Weather windows
• Tidal currents
• Wind direction and strength
• Sea conditions
• Size and experience of crew
• Working the weather
When we sailed our second boat, a 1981 Pearson 36 cutter, south in the fall, we knew the best time to make miles was right after a frontal passage killed the prevailing southerlies and ushered in brisk northwest winds. We often waited at anchor, praying for fronts. Beating hundreds of miles didn’t appeal to us. In the spring, we waited for the prevailing south winds to kick in before heading north.
Planning around typical weather conditions for a given area can mean the difference between a swift, comfortable passage and a wet windward bash. In the Northeast during the summer, the prevailing southwesterlies usually increase in the afternoon. If we were sailing south, we usually left early in the morning and tried to make port before the wind got up, and if we were sailing north, we’d sleep in and wait for the sea breeze to fill in, making the bulk of the day’s passage in the afternoon.
Afternoon thunderstorms are frequent from Florida to Maine during the summer. If conditions looked ripe for T-storms, I shortened passages to ensure we were anchored by 3 or 4 o’clock. Running for shelter in the midst of a thunderstorm isn’t a good idea. If you’re in it, it’s too late to hide and it’s better to stay away from land. However, I always identified harbors along our routes as optional safe harbors. If a T-storm threatened and I thought we had time to get to safety before it hit, I’d seek shelter immediately.
Fog is common in some areas, and it can appear suddenly. Often, we just dealt with it, but if an easy-to-enter port was handy, we’d duck in. Identifying potential safe harbors was always part of my daily cruise-planning routine. Listening to NOAA Weather Radio was helpful. I also checked forecasts on several commercial radio stations and, if WiFi was available, I logged on to The Weather Channel’s weather.com for additional information.
Know when to fold ’em
Sometimes retreat is the better part of valor when cruising. I recall one late-September day on the Sassafras River, Maryland, when I disregarded that maxim. We were anxious to head down the Chesapeake. A wicked south wind piped up the bay and created a short, steep chop. We should have stayed put, but we left anyway. Two wet and arduous hours later we’d made little progress. “Forget this,” I said to Liz, and put the helm hard over. With wind and waves behind us, we sped back to the Sassafras, where we waited for the weather to improve.
It’s tempting to buck Mother Nature, especially if you’re cruising on a schedule. Planning short legs at the end of a cruise is a good strategy to reduce stress. You can wait out bad weather or even sail in the wrong direction if the wind is on the nose. I used to stubbornly keep to my itinerary, fighting wind and tide, when it would have been smarter to modify the itinerary instead. Now I try to go with the flow.
Eventually, we all must hide from storms. Early on, I’d run for the dock or rent a mooring because I was paranoid about anchoring in a blow. If a storm isn’t bad, both are good options. If it’s really bad, tidal surge can raise docks over pilings or lift moorings off the seabed. Boats can break loose from moorings and docks and collide or end up on the beach. Wind can blow water out of shallow rivers or bays, leaving the boat to hit bottom.
I now prefer anchoring in coves with good protection from all quarters and excellent holding ground, though I wouldn’t stay aboard if a hurricane threatened. You can still get in trouble at anchor, if you or your neighbor drags. But if you pick the right spot, anchoring is often a better option than an exposed marina or mooring field.
David W. Shaw is the author of seven nonfiction books, including Flying Cloud.