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Coastal Cruising 101

Many sailors are surprised to find how easy a bluewater passage (usually) is compared to a long coastal cruise. The variables in an offshore passage are few. Providing you’ve prepared your boat well, done your homework and are heading in the desired direction at the right time of year, you shouldn’t get any nasty surprises along the way. Coastal cruising, on the other hand, can be a complicated business that places even greater demands on a skipper than going offshore. Tides and currents, local weather phenomena, shipping traffic and the need to find a marina, mooring or anchorage each night can add up to a surprisingly heavy planning load. Fortunately, these same demands also make coastal cruising extremely satisfying.

Passage Planning

The purpose of detailed planning for a coastal cruise is not to come up with a step-by-step schedule for your daily passages. You can try to do that, but unless you’re a lot luckier than me, I can guarantee you it will never work out. You can spend hours meticulously working out your courses, distances and anticipated arrival times for each daily hop between anchorages, but once you’re under way all it takes is a change in wind direction or velocity, or any one of a number of other variables, to render your plan as obsolete as hanked-on headsails.

Rather, the point of a passage plan is to think the entire journey through, gain a big-picture overview of your cruise and identify potential problems early on, so that you always have a Plan B if Plan A doesn’t work out. Sometimes, alas, a Plan C comes in handy too.

Ambition versus reality

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There is a natural tendency to be too ambitious when you’re planning a cruise, to lose sight of the fact that the joy of sailing lies in the journey rather than in reaching a particular destination. Bypassing a perfectly good harbor just because you’ve planned to the spend the night at one 10 miles farther along the coast won’t endear you to your crew, especially if it’s raining or the wind is on the nose. By the same token, if you are in a harbor that begs to be explored, why press on just to keep to a schedule? Better to be flexible about these things.

If you’re lucky enough to sail in an area that is ideal for short daysails and has plenty of harbors or protected anchorages—the San Juan islands in the Pacific Northwest, the Chesapeake Bay, the Florida Keys, the North Channel on Lake Huron and the Maine coast all spring to mind—then you have the makings of a cruise that will keep the whole family happy, with no need for extended passages. You can anchor in a different place every night and explore ashore to your heart’s content.

Are we nearly there yet?

How far can you get in a day? You may as well ask about the length of a piece of three-strand line. If your boat will sail at 7.5 knots with a fair wind and power at 6.5 in flat water, you should plan your passage times accordingly, right? This almost never works out. If you are on a sea coast you will inevitably run foul of some contrary wind and current in the course of a full day of sailing, and these will sap your speed more than you think. If the wind is blowing from your destination and you have to put in a few tacks, there’s another delaying factor. If both wind and tide are against you, perhaps you’re better off cutting your losses and either staying put or ducking into a handy anchorage.

If you have, say, a 35ft cruiser and work to a 5-knot average speed, you will almost never be disappointed; given settled weather and good sailing breezes, daily runs of 20 to 30 miles—four to six hours—are easily achievable without wearing down the crew. Those joyous days when wind and current do fall into line, and you can make hull speed all day long, will be appreciated all the more when you make port an hour or two earlier than expected and crack open that well-earned beer.

How far can we get?

Given a seven-day time span, and depending on where and how you sail, you should be able to cover 100 to 150 miles without much trouble, sailing only during daylight hours and allowing for a day or two of shore time or just lounging around at anchor. If you are a committed sailor with a solid crew who are prepared to push hard and sometimes sail through the night, you could double that. This presupposes that the weather is settled enough that you aren’t stuck in harbor for a few days. It would be more realistic to plan on four actual sailing days out of seven for a family cruise.

In some cases there may be little choice other than to sail through the night. Examples are leaving southern New England to sail up the Maine coast, or down the West Coast from Seattle where harbors are both few and far between and difficult to enter in rough weather. This is where a coastal cruise turns into an offshore passage.

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The basics of planning

Our boat has a plotter at the helm and an iPad loaded with digital charts, but like many sailors I am a firm believer in planning a cruise on a paper chart, for the simple reason that it affords perspective. Being able to see your entire cruising area on one chart gives you a real idea of actual distances between your destinations, and any obstacles in your way. A computer screen won’t do that. In fact it can be downright dangerous to plot courses on a tiny plotter screen, where detail is lost or becomes insignificant. Many a boat has been lost or damaged because an inattentive navigator plotted a course over a shoal or reef—witness Vestas Wind in the Volvo Ocean Race, or the tragic loss of four sailors off California when their course-to-waypoint ran right through an unlit island.

Good planning follows a sequence

  • Establish the prevailing wind direction for the time of year. Along the Eastern seaboard it’ll be southwesterly in the summer; on the West Coast, northwesterly; there’s a southerly component to most of the wind on the Great Lakes in summer. You won’t want to be banging to windward for your cruising vacation.
  • Check out local sea conditions; often there are localized sea breezes that buck the general wind direction. These can either help or hinder you.
  • Good management of tides and currents is vital to efficient coastal passagemaking, as well as to choosing anchorages. There are a number of good tidal apps, and your digital charts will also have tidal info, but again there is nothing less susceptible to electronic collapse than paper. A copy of the NOAA Tidal Current Tables for your coast is $12 well spent.
  • Calculate the distances between your chosen stops, then work out the strength, duration and direction of the tidal current. A one-knot foul current can add an hour or more to a 20-mile passage. Conversely, if you time the tides right, they can knock an hour off that same passage. Catching a fair tide may mean a pre-dawn departure, but which would you rather?
  • Before you set off each morning, check the weather forecast and the tides. Wind with current is good; wind against current, not so good. This is why you pick a Plan B destination, in case the passage becomes too uncomfortable and you need to seek shelter. Your alternate destination should be easy to enter in rough conditions and well sheltered.
  • Don’t take forecast wind speeds too literally. These will err on the side of pessimism—for instance, if the forecast promises 10 to 15 knots, 15 knots is the maximum you should expect (excepting localized sea breezes or gusts) and you may well end up with less than 10 knots.
  • Factor your boat and your own skills into any decision to set sail in a Small Craft Warning—what’s an enjoyable romp in a well-found cruiser with an experienced crew may put an inexperienced crew in a poorly prepared boat off sailing for good.
  • Make sure you have plenty of fuel. There will be times when you have to motorsail in order to reach your destination.

Getting down to it

  • Your shopping list for coastal cruising prep should include:
  • An up-to-date pilot book for your area. A paper book; you can read paper even when it’s wet or after it’s been dropped a few times. Try that with an iPad or a laptop.
  • Plotting tools—dividers, parallel rules or a Portland plotter.
  • One large-scale paper chart covering your entire cruising area.
  • A Maptech waterproof chartbook for your area. At $50, this will serve you for many years, and it will be small enough to use in the cockpit. The large format chartbooks from Maptech and NV Charts are beautiful, and come with companion chart CDs, but take up a lot of space on a small cruiser. If you buy one, it will include one or two passage charts.
  • A digital navigation program and charts for your iPad or laptop.
  • A notepad and logbook.
    A blend of old and new techniques
    The more you sail along the coast, the more intuitive coastal navigation and pilotage will become. A few tips here from experienced cruisers:
  • Write down all your waypoints in your logbook, then copy them into your back-up handheld GPS.
  • When you’re plotting courses, don’t cut too close to headlands and shoals. GPS can give you a false sense of security. Better safe than sorry.
  • Read the pilot book—it will contain localized information that you may miss on your chart.
  • Set your waypoints three or four boat lengths on the safe side of channel markers or navigation aids. That way you won’t run smack into them in the fog when you’re steering to your waypoint—or collide with other boaters who’ve set their own waypoint right on top of the mark.
  • Keep your head out of the boat, as the racers say. In a cruising context, this means you shouldn’t be sucked into your electronic displays to the exclusion of all else. Take note of what’s around you and use the plotter to confirm your own reckoning.
  • If you’re making an overnight passage, write a list of the key lights you’ll be encountering along the way, with their characteristics, and tape it in the cockpit. This gives you a constant reference to your course and progress, checking against a paper chart in the cockpit without the need to stare into your plotter.
  • In daytime, you can also use numbered buoys and features on shore to gauge your position; this is where a good pair of binoculars is vital. It’s important to have more than one confirmation of your position.
  • Pay no attention to the “Time to Waypoint” value on your plotter display. It fluctuates according to speed over ground and its primary purpose is to dash your hopes and expectations.

A blend of old and new techniques

  • The more you sail along the coast, the more intuitive coastal navigation and pilotage will become. A few tips here from experienced cruisers:
  • Write down all your waypoints in your logbook, then copy them into your back-up handheld GPS.
  • When you’re plotting courses, don’t cut too close to headlands and shoals. GPS can give you a false sense of security. Better safe than sorry.
  • Read the pilot book—it will contain localized information that you may miss on your chart.
  • Set your waypoints three or four boat lengths on the safe side of channel markers or navigation aids. That way you won’t run smack into them in the fog when you’re steering to your waypoint—or collide with other boaters who’ve set their own waypoint right on top of the mark.
  • Keep your head out of the boat, as the racers say. In a cruising context, this means you shouldn’t be sucked into your electronic displays to the exclusion of all else. Take note of what’s around you and use the plotter to confirm your own reckoning.
  • If you’re making an overnight passage, write a list of the key lights you’ll be encountering along the way, with their characteristics, and tape it in the cockpit. This gives you a constant reference to your course and progress, checking against a paper chart in the cockpit without the need to stare into your plotter.
  • In daytime, you can also use numbered buoys and features on shore to gauge your position; this is where a good pair of binoculars is vital. It’s important to have more than one confirmation of your position.
  • Pay no attention to the “Time to Waypoint” value on your plotter display. It fluctuates according to speed over ground and its primary purpose is to dash your hopes and expectations.

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Write it down

Especially if you are new to coastal cruising and passage planning, it’s important to write down the details of your planned cruise beforehand. It gives you a frame of reference that will stand you in good stead. Plotting a course is easy—calculating what the weather and sea conditions will be is much harder. Passage planning is all about ensuring safe, hopefully comfortable cruising that takes advantage of wind and current to get you where you want to go. If a couple of hours poring over charts and pilot books achieves that aim, that’s a small price to pay. 

Planning a Freshwater Cruise

Passage planning for a Great Lakes cruise requires a different outlook from saltwater coastal cruising

One of the biggest misconceptions about the Great Lakes is that they are “protected” waters and can be simply treated as big ponds. They are, in fact, small oceans. Just like coastal cruising in most areas, weather is a concern. But on the Great Lakes weather planning takes on a special importance. Systems move with great speed over the lakes and can bring vicious changes in a matter of minutes. Many a big ship has foundered here—not to mention many a small boat. Weather on the lakes comes up hard, fast and mean, and seas can build to steep waves with short intervals.

Most of the Great Lakes coastline has harbors of refuge every 30 or so miles. Some are a bit rough with few facilities, but all offer a break from the weather and are a welcome retreat in a blow.

Any cruise on the Great Lakes should have a few weather days built into it. I’ve often waited for a favorable front to slingshot me up the length of a lake rather than bash my way into unforgiving head seas. The lakes are about 250 miles long—just the right distance to get in a nice two-day ride aboard a favorable weather system.

Sailors here are often in close proximity to freighters and ocean-going ships—especially in the rivers connecting the lakes. There is actually plenty of room, but it is a little unnerving to have the high, rusty wall of an ocean freighter glide by just yards away.

Without tides the lakes are blessed with little current, and the only real current to be found is in the rivers connecting the lakes. Such currents can run at up to five knots in tight places, but more sedate one to two knots is common.

Customs regulations between the US and Canada are much more strict post 9/11. If you plan on visiting Canada it would be wise to obtain an I-68 (or Nexus) customs form first. Be prepared for a Kafka-esque experience in dealing with the bureaucracy, but treat border crossings seriously—officials will make your life a living hell otherwise.

That said—welcome, and enjoy the best cruising on the planet right here on the Great Lakes! — Charles Scott

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