Planning, Preparation and Practice on a Long Coastal Cruise

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A peaceful sunset on Cumberland Island, Georgia

A peaceful sunset on Cumberland Island, Georgia. Photo by Tom Zydler

Like many sailors, my wife, Cristina, and I cruise our local waters on the Chesapeake every chance we get. Like many sailors we have also long dreamed how wonderful it would be to one day just keep on going and not return to the marina on Sunday—that someday we would be able to head south down the Intracoastal Waterway and see new sights and meet new people in different towns, far from our home base. Then, unexpectedly, we found we had our chance. One day I was going to the office in a jacket and tie, as I had for 40 years. The next I was only weeks from Hawaiian shirts, shorts and sandals.

As we planned this transition, we made lists in three categories.

  1. Planning: Budgets, logistics, equipment.
  2. Preparing: Dealing with the house, organizing mail and bill paying, scheduling doctors and dentists appointments, installing new equipment, checking, servicing, upgrading and repairing existing systems.
  3. Practice: Get out there and cruise for a couple of weeks using all the systems and equipment onboard; push every system to the max to be sure it is fully functional.

Cristina and I were already well into our practice list when we learned about SAIL Magazine’s 2014 Snowbird Rally down the Intracoastal Waterway. The ICW would be a new experience for us, and we knew both of the co-leaders. This would be a good opportunity for us to learn from the best experts on this route. Traveling with the SAIL group turned out to be an excellent decision, and allowed us to observe and compare notes with other cruisers who were also headed south. How did they plan and prepare for this adventure?

 Soutbound cruisers make their way down the ICW. Photo courtesy of Jane Messer Whitten

Soutbound cruisers make their way down the ICW. Photo courtesy of Jane Messer Whitten

Planning begins with budgeting; both time and money.

Time Budget: There is so much to see and explore that to rush down the ICW would be a shame. It is about the journey, not the destination. If you want to race down the ICW you can make it from Annapolis to Miami in less than a month. But keep in mind the old truism—“There is nothing more dangerous to safe cruising than a schedule.” Your schedule must be flexible or you will push yourself to get somewhere when you are tired, the weather is bad or a piece of important equipment is not functioning properly. This, in turn, will leave you vulnerable to a number of possible failure modes. Your time budget should allow only five days of travel per week. If you get ahead of your plan that is fine, but be realistic. Running eight to 10 hours every day and rushing to get to your destination will wear you out.

Financial Budget: Your income level is going to change. What income streams can you access after moving aboard your boat? What expenses can you minimize or eliminate? Many people seem to have a pretty strong portfolio right now, and several ralliers we met had chosen to retire early and receive social security or pensions before they were fully vested. Four couples were still working from their boat as the fleet moved south. One couple was actively running a consulting business and a high-tech company. Other onboard workers included consultants, writers and a medical transcriptionist. Clearly, you do not have to completely drop out of your workaday world. If you want to or need to stay involved, Internet connectivity is fairly reliable all the way along the East Coast.

For most cruisers, the biggest expense and the biggest challenge is deciding what to do with the house. Many elect to postpone any decision until they have been cruising for a year: it is comforting to know you have a familiar place to return to. After a year, though, as the boat becomes home, the decision to sell may become easier. Nearly half of last year’s rally participants had sold their houses and were aiming to either move closer to kids and grandkids or look for a winter home in Florida.

Marina dockage fees and meals at restaurants will be the biggest variables in your cruising budget. Marina stops are needed to provision, do laundry, get fuel, take on water and pump out your holding tanks. Some cruisers can afford to stay in marinas every night, but most of us budgeted for one night a week in marinas. There are several free docks along the way, but on average the boats in our fleet were in marina slips two nights a week. Yes, cruisers have done the whole run from the Chesapeake to Florida with only six or eight nights in marinas. However, a more realistic expectation and a minimum budget would be two nights a week at $2.00 per foot. In our case we stayed in marinas far more frequently than we planned, but the convenience of shore access made it worth the expense. Don’t shortchange yourself. At least for your first time down the ICW, give yourself the luxury of frequent nights in marinas, and while you’re in them be sure to take the opportunity to explore their towns.

What we Learned: During the course of our rally down the ICW the importance of proper planning was made clear. However, within the fleet were also some crews that had been so focused on planning and preparing both their lives and their boats that they had failed to go cruising and put in the necessary practice. This resulted in anchor windlasses that failed to retrieve anchors, wind generators that did not generate power and chartplotters that could not be understood. There were also badly fouled fuel filters, recalcitrant outboards and failed refrigeration. One boat headed down the ICW with a non-functioning depth sounder. Ironically, while they made it all the way to Fernandina Beach, Florida, without once running aground, they were able to field test the new depthsounder the very next morning after it was installed by parking their 5ft keel on a 4ft shoal. The new sounder confirmed that they were, indeed, hard aground.

There are three P’s to this trip and each one is essential: Plan, Prepare and Practice. This is true for every extended coastal voyage, not just one down the East Coast via the ICW.

 At anchor in Beaufort, North Carolina

At anchor in Beaufort, North Carolina

Putting Cruising Plans into Practice

Everyone’s dream is different, and the issues in people’s lives vary. Your cruising style will affect your planning. Be careful about accepting the “common wisdom” when planning. The following items should be considerations on everyone’s list.


Financial and calendar planning is essential. However, remember that a budget is a plan and not a rule. Budgets must be flexible as you gain new information.

Charts and guides

You may find that you use more than one cruising guide. However, for this rally, the CruiseGuide for the Intra Coastal Waterway (ICW) put together by co-leaders Mark and Diana Doyle was essential and required reading. A flip book of charts, such as the Kettlewell Intra Coastal Chart Book, is also excellent and conveniently sized. A few carried the Maptech books, but they are too big to be conveniently used in the cockpit.

Your engine is your best friend when you’re cruising the ICW.

Your engine is your best friend when you’re cruising the ICW.


Learn to do some of your own maintenance—changing your oil, filters, etc. Replace your own fuel filter and bleed the fuel system.
Sign up for a towing service

If you don’t already have it, get a gold-level towing package. Several cruisers found this to be most helpful.

AIS and Radar

Neither is essential, but AIS is now very widely used and is strongly recommended for this trip.


In the 2014 SAIL Snowbird Rally seven dogs and two cats came along for the ride. One boat had two malamutes, another had a large golden retriever. The consensus is that the pets were generally very happy aboard. There was never a day where the dogs could not get ashore at least two times.

Make sure you have plenty of rode for your anchor as you will be using it frequently

Make sure you have plenty of rode for your anchor as you will be using it frequently


To prepare for anchoring along the ICW many cruisers added more chain to their anchor rodes. Almost all of the cruisers had electric windlasses.

Internet connection

E-mail and text messaging is important to stay in touch with family. Many cruisers use a MiFi or an air card for those times when Wi-Fi is not available. Finding unsecured Wi-Fi is very rare these days.

A good cockpit enclosure keeps you warm during cold days and nights

A good cockpit enclosure keeps you warm during cold days and nights

Cockpit enclosure

You will be travelling south in the short cold days of late fall. We’ve noticed that anyone who heads south without an enclosure on the first trip will have rectified that by the second trip.


Often family members can accept, sort and hold your mail and forward it to you along the way. Other cruisers like the convenience of a mail-forwarding service such as St. Brendan’s Isle.

Boat cards

As you wend your way down the ICW you will meet other cruisers. Your paths will cross time and again. A business card for your boat is a quick and easy way to exchange contact information. The cruising community looks out for its members. One day in a anchorage when you need help it will be nice to know the names of the couple on the boat anchored next to you.

A dinghy that is easily deployed is a great help

A dinghy that is easily deployed is a great help

Dinghy, choice and deployment, outboard type

A dinghy must be easy to deploy or it will not be used. Cruisers who store their dinghies on the foredeck are often dependent on others to go ashore. How big of an outboard? Most cruisers with outboards that will not plane the dinghy get a bigger outboard the second time around.

General things to consider

Does your boat have heat? There will be frosty mornings, and it will be nice to be able to take the chill off when you get out of bed. Do you want to carry a bicycle? As is the case with a dinghy, if it is hard to deploy a bicycle will not get much use. Some experienced ICW travellers would not go without one. Other experts have never carried one. In any case a bicycle that is not well protected from the elements will become yet another system requiring your time and maintenance. s

Practicing what they preach, Tom and Cristina Hale will once again be journeying south with SAIL’s 2015 Snowbird Rally down the ICW.

Read Southbound with the Snowbirds by Mark & Diana Doyle here

Read ICW Snowbird Rally: Dismal Swamp Canal

Want to join us for the 2015 Snowbird Rally? Sign up at

August 2015



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