When we first decided to try out sail camping, we already knew how to sail and camp. However, there remained the question of a boat with which to explore the shallow, clear waters and white sand beaches of the Bahamas, where we had recently wrecked our 40ft ketch. From our experiences cruising aboard a deep-draft boat intended for ocean passages, we knew what we did not want. But knowing what you don’t want still leaves you with a lot of choices.
Our primary requirement was for a light boat that we could pull out of the water, either for exploring during the day or setting up camp on a beach each evening for a worry-free night’s sleep. We also wanted a boat that could take us over shoals to secluded nooks and crannies, right up to shores where the adventure could continue. Having been in the Bahamas—and because this was the early 1970s—we knew there were countless uninhabited shores where we could cruise without ever having to worry about running out of interesting places to discover; same thing with New England.
Fred Fenger’s Alone in the Caribbean inspired us to try a lightweight sailing canoe similar to the Yakaboo aboard which he’d had his adventures. But we found such a craft had too little space to carry our tent, bedding and clothes bundled in dry packs, water jugs, food, tools, hardware, hard cooler with typewriter, books, paper and guitar, as well as us and a sail rig on a cruise of indefinite length.
Then one day we watched a Hobie Cat sailing by and decided a Hobie 14 with our canoe in tow would be the way to go. Not long after, we set sail for Elliott Key in Biscayne Bay to test our multi-boat rig and camping gear. The learning curve was steep, with plenty of opportunities to learn how to recover from a capsize, but it worked. A spray cover kept our gear dry, and there was ample room for the two of us on the Hobie’s trampoline. For a week we practiced camping and sailing, so that by the time we freighted our two boats across to the Bahamas, we felt confident we could deal with the uncertainties of finding water, food, supplies and tent sites.
While cruising, we soon came to recognize that a good campsite includes a gently sloping shore, shade, and space for a tent and the boat. With the help of no-see-um proof screening, self-inflating insulated sleeping pads and a couple of folding beach chairs, camping ashore becomes both comfortable and secure, with no having to worry about rolling waves or dragging anchors.
Today we cruise a full-size 19ft aluminum sailing canoe in which we can stow enough gear for three weeks when sailing in protected waters. A spray cover keeps most of the water from shipping inboard, with the help of splash guards on the bow. For further safety and security we stow all gear in waterproof bags and pails. We also both wear a comfortable life vest at all times, while a handheld VHF radio and cell phone serve as our emergency gear. A handheld compass, waterproof charts and road maps take care of our navigational needs. Preferring to look at where we are going and then aligning what we see with our charts, we rarely use our GPS. We get a kick out of figuring out where we are and don’t mind getting lost for a while.
Once we started sail camping, we never looked back. After cruising in the Bahamas for years with our Hobie Cat, we built a Phil Bolger-designed 26ft canoe cruiser that expanded our cruising areas beyond beach camps. Though we could have selected an open boat and adapted a simple, easy-to-erect boom tent arrangement for sleeping aboard, we elected instead to give our boat a dry, sleep-aboard cuddy cabin. We enjoy cruising for months at a time, so for us the choice of a built-in sleeping berth made more sense than a boom tent that we would have to erect each night. Though too heavy to haul ashore, the boat’s 6in draft and flat bottom left us level and secure on the ebb. To protect our boat from things that can poke through a vulnerable cold-molded hull, we added a very hard UHMW plastic sheet to the bottom. To get ashore easily we learned to look for anchorages that would dry out at low tide, or where we could snug up to the shore in protected bays and tidal rivers. Because the very comfortable, dry, sleeping cuddy allowed us to sleep aboard, we could cruise where there was no possibility of camping, yet a universe of solitude and nature. Searching maps online for isolated areas with shallow bays or reading small boat forums opens up worlds of cruising possibilities.
Whether we cruise in an open boat with a cockpit tent or a tent we pitch ashore, or aboard a boat with a cuddy, the joy of sail camping is that we can do it at little cost, with little equipment and in a lot of places that aren’t accessible to big boats. Best of all, we can do it right now, as opposed to having to figure out the logistics of cruising aboard a larger keelboat. Within minutes we can be under way. Within a day or a week we can be cruising in Prince Edward Island, the Everglades, Cape Cod or Martinique, all places we have relished cruising over the years.
With a small stove, food, water, sleeping gear, change of clothes, charts, pliers, crescent wrench, duct tape and a VHF radio or cell phone, the world is our oyster. The sky and our mood let us know when it’s time to head for a nearby shore with new and exotic realms for exploration. In short, we enjoy the very kind of freedom that prompted many of us to take up sailing in the first place.
Ida Little and Michael Walsh are veteran coastal cruisers and co-authors of the classic Beachcruising and Coastal Camping; for more on their book, visit beachcruisingandcoastalcamping.com
Photographs by Ida Little and Michael Walsh