Shallow-water Beach Cruising in a Small Sailboat

Discovering the many joys of shallow-water sailing. Photo by Sean Carnell

Happiness is a NorseBoat 17.5, a tent and a Down East cove all to yourself. Photo by Sean Carnell

After wakingto a pink and blue West Florida sunrise, I reach for my backpacking stove and coffee mug and make some fresh coffee. Sitting inside my Sea Pearl 21 with my head halfway out the canvas cabin/dodger that covers the forward cockpit, I consider my route for the day. A steady 15-knot east wind will put me in the Marquesas Keys, some 20 miles beyond Key West, within four hours—four hours of sailing through crystal-clear water over fan corals and conch shells, with sting rays and sand sharks skittering out of my way as I ply the waters of the “Lakes Passage.”

Such a passage is possible because my Sea Pearl is a mostly open fiberglass cat ketch with leeboards that allow it to sail in less than a foot of water. It is a beach cruising or cruiser-camping boat that can access cruising grounds that those sailing boats with fixed keels can only dream about.

Less is More

I started sailing small shallow-draft boats after having owned keelboats for 30 years. Confined to the marked channels in the Intracoastal Waterway while nearby estuaries and shallow coves beckoned, I purchased a sailing dinghy to explore the marshes and mangrove mazes that make up a good portion of the Florida coast. I would tow my sailing dinghy behind the “mother ship” to Cayo Costa, and as soon as I was anchored, I would set off in the dinghy to explore the shallow waters.

It was during a month long trip from Florida to Maine with my friend Bob Wood on his 17ft Mud Hen sharpie that I realized just how much more sailing you can do in interesting waters with a shallow, trailerable boat that is easy to set up. I also realized that being able to trailer my boat quickly to interesting destinations made a lot of sense, especially for a person who was still working and had limited vacation time.

Soon afterward I sold my deep-draft sailboat and bought Whisper, my Sea Pearl 21. Now I could get to, say, Charlotte Harbor at the head of Gasparilla Sound in two hours instead of three days. This, in turn, meant I had that much more time to study the sea grasses flowing with the tide and count the crabs on the bottom while exploring the mangrove channels. My horizons instantly expanded—the vast swaths of shoal water off West Florida were now mine to sail. I had to give up some creature comforts, and the prestige that comes with owning a yacht, but I got back so much more in return.

Sleeping aboard a small open boat can not only be comfortable, it can also be fun. Photos by Sean Carnell

Sleeping aboard a small open boat can not only be comfortable, it can also be fun. Photos by Sean Carnell

Since those early days I’ve trailered Whisper everywhere from Canada’s North Channel to Pensacola and Key West. The North Channel of Lake Huron, in particular, was a revelation for a Florida boy like me who was accustomed to flat, sandy shorelines. The mountains to the north were made of milky quartz crystal and looked like snow-capped peaks. The only true fjord in North America, with vertical walls rising hundreds of feet on the way to Mary Ann Cove, taught me that small boats can navigate waters both shallow and deep. It was a sailor’s Valhalla, and I found myself yearning to share it with others.

With that in mind, after returning from this trip I founded a community of like-minded friends, which we named the West Coast Trailer Sailing Squadron ( At first our fleet was made up mainly of Sea Pearls, Dovekies and other shoal-draft boats, like the Hen Boats made by Florida Bay Boat Company and Nimble Boats. But all types of boats were welcome if they could sail onto a beach and be launched from a trailer, and the types of boats expanded to everything from larger sharpies to home-built one-offs.

Thin-water Adventures

Ida Little and Michael Walsh’s book, Beachcruising and Coastal Camping, became our bible of sorts (read their tips on coastal camping in “Nuts and Bolts of Sail Camping” on page 34), and we talked of exploring all the shallow places in South Florida that we had only previously looked at longingly from afar. If Ida and Michael could live in the Bahamas for months at a time with a sailing canoe and a Hobie Cat, I thought, then I could certainly sail the Ten Thousand Islands southeast of Naples and explore the Florida Keys and the Everglades National Park.

A Sea Pearl 21 in beach-cruising mode under sail. Photo by Ron Hoddinott

A Sea Pearl 21 in beach-cruising mode under sail. Photo by Ron Hoddinott

In their book, Ida and Michael talk about what they call “beachorages,” small islets barely above water at high tide that provide protection from the seas and a place to dry out at low tide. The ability to sit flat on their bottoms in one of these beachorages is a feature of many ultra-shoal-draft vessels. Now I too could actively seek out places to go aground instead of fearing them. Protected from the relentless waves to windward, I could sit in a beach chair in the shade of a lone palm and read a book or study my charts before turning in for a good night’s rest. The gentle rocking of the incoming tide would alert me that it was time to move to deeper water for a morning departure.

I also learned how you can navigate much of Florida Bay and other southern waters by studying shore birds in shallow water. If the knees of the herons and egrets fishing for finger mullet are visible, the waters are beginning to shoal. Beyond that, in addition to looking for telltale colors in the water, you can estimate depth by listening to a kick-up rudder pinging as it trips over a shell, or the scratching sound the leeboard makes as it drags through the coral sand.


There are usually navigation aids marking a favored route across a shoal-water passage, but an ultra shallow draft vessel like a Sea Pearl can pretty much ignore these. Following daymarks and buoys means larger vessels will be sharing their wakes with you as well. Some Florida fishermen wade for fish about 20 yards from the shore. Not wishing to disturb their pastime, I frequently sail between them and the shore. It does gather some unusual stares and waves at times. With a shoal-draft boat, adventure is everywhere. Every daysail becomes a voyage of exploration.

Most beach-cruiser boats have mostly open accommodations. There is nothing built-in to tell you where you should put the stove, or water, or head, or bed for that matter. A flat floor helps, as you think like a backpacker, small and light, and stow things with netting under the decks or under floorboards in boxes. A canvas dodger shelter, a self-inflating air mattress, tough water jugs, a port-a-potty or bucket, a few kitchen essentials and a small stove are all you need to get started. Putting these items to use and finding places to stow them requires creativity. As your experience increases, it becomes part of the fun.

Small boats

Again, as the Squadron has grown in size (it now numbers around 130 families) a variety of other types of boats have joined us on our adventures. These have included boats with more creature comforts, such as the 17ft 6in ComPac Suncat, which has a shallow keel and centerboard, but also a small cabin with two berths. Owners of some smaller Hunters with retractable keels or centerboards, West Wight Potters and MacGregor trailerable boats have joined as well. These are pocket cruisers as opposed to true beach cruisers, but following the lead of the true shallow-draft boats like the Dovekie and Sea Pearls, they can navigate the same waters, albeit after sometimes taking a longer tack to avoid a shallow sea grass savannah.

Hobie 16s

Hobie 16s

After the economic downturn of 2007 the number of home-built designs proliferated, and organized “gatherings” of builders and lovers of small boats increased. Many yacht companies also stopped building the smaller boats in favor of larger vessels with bigger profit margins, or they just went out of business. Therefore, sailors from all over the country began building their own boats in wood and epoxy with the help of plans and kits. Many of these designs have been tested and have proven fast and seaworthy in events such as the WaterTribe’s Everglades Challenge, or in “raids” and “mess-abouts” across the country. Although they are below the radar of most established yacht clubs, these events are growing. It’s not unusual, for example, for the small coastal town of Cedar Key, Florida, to host 110 small boats at the Small Boat Meet on the first full weekend in May. This event offers no planned activities or competitions, just sailing and gathering on the islands and talking boats with other sailors.

Close Encounters

Continuing on to the Marquesas, I am joined by three Sea Pearls and a sailing canoe, and we all cross the Boca Grande Pass together after leaving the shallow Lakes Passage. The pass is deep with a strong wind countering the swift current. Hanging on for a rough five-mile passage, we reach the calm shallows surrounding the Marquesas. Finding a nice beach on the west side of the island, we pull in for a rest and a swim. I’m just about to dive into the cool clear water when Paul Waggoner calls out to me, “You’d better not dive in right now!” Looking astern I see an eight-foot bull shark patrolling the waters just behind our boats. One of the great things about beach cruising and camping is being so close to nature—and it doesn’t get much closer than that. Another day, another adventure for this thin-water sailor.

West Wight Potter 15

West Wight Potter 15

Beach-cruising or sailing-camping boats come in all shapes and styles, ranging from one-design sail trainers like the Flying Scot, Hobie 16 and Wayfarer 16 to more cruising-oriented craft, like the Hobie Mirage trimaran series, the NorseBoat line or the UK-built Cornish Shrimperseries. When looking at a beach cruiser, the first things you want to ask yourself are:

Beneteau First 20

Beneteau First 20

1) do you want to be able to sleep aboard and 2) if you’d like to sleep aboard, is a cockpit tent sufficient, or would you like a cuddy?

The advantage to true sail “camping” aboard a dinghy-sized craft is that you can access the narrowest creeks and isolated coves. The advantage to sleeping aboard is that you can spend the night in spots where finding dry land is problematic, say, among the mangroves in the Florida Keys. Beyond that, anything goes.

Boats to consider are everything from open dories to the Sage 17, West Wight Potter 15, and the various different catboats out there, like those built by Com-Pac or Marshall Catboats, production boats like the Hunter 22, Beneteau First 20, Catalina 18, the MacGregor 26 or the Nick Hake-designed Seaward 26, which floats in just 15in of water.

–Adam Cort

 Sandpiper 27

Sandpiper 27

Read The Nuts and Bolts of Sail Camping here

Check out Camping Gear for Sailing

August 2015


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