Adventure stories peppered throughout sailing magazines have always held me in awe of the offshore sailor. When I finally got the courage to try it for myself, it was to sail an 800-mile path between Tortola, BVI and Bermuda. I had anticipated a much-magnified version of the coastal conditions we new Englanders endure—screwy currents and tides, fickle weather, and “perfect" storms. Call it beginner’s luck, but what I found instead was peace, consistency, and predictability (of all things).
Throughout the entire trip, our crew experienced only one short squall; and I was the only person who got seasick. There were no obstacles blocking our view, which was six miles out to a barely distinguishable horizon that circled around our boat. We could spot weather systems approaching and retreating, and the captain’s good sense in hiring and consulting a weather service helped steer us clear of storms.
Blue-black seas undulating with deep waves lacked the familiar coastal chop we experience here, at home. Once we hoisted and set our sails, they remained up for seven days. We sailed 800 miles on the same tack!
Our trip was so calm and windless that I made more headway knitting my granddaughter’s sweater than our boat did progress. Even the fish were lazy. Our efforts to catch dinner resulted in one ambitious Barracuda, whom we quickly cut loose. We dined instead on meaty meals—steaks barbecued off our stern, roast turkey with all the trimmings—and enjoyed occasional glasses of wine.
I must say have felt more risk of treachery sailing through Watch Hill passage on a foggy afternoon, or to Block Island in the rain than I did on this, my first offshore passage. Here at home we thread through pot-cluttered channels, fight crosscurrents and tidal pulls, and need to take care not to run aground on shoals or crash against elusive rocks. Coastal cruising means having to constantly pay attention to avoid colliding with anchored fishing boats, barges under tow, and sailboats blithely crossing our paths.
Had I opted to crew the Gulf Stream leg, known to be more turbulent, I’m certain my first impression of offshore sailing would be different. I know offshore sailing can be fearful, uncomfortable, and hair-raising at times—just like the magazines say; but what the stories don’t tell you is that mostof the time it is just plain boring.
Offshore boating presents a great challenge, not necessarily for what actually occurs; but for the threat of what could happen, especially to the unprepared sailor. All I can say is, once I arrived home, I found our first sail in our local waters of Fisher’s Island Sound pretty darn scary.
White pots, blue pots, green pots, yellow pots—all bob like little bald heads in the water waiting to ensnare our props. Some waterways are so populated it looks like a city of little pot people. They zigzag merrily across narrow channels and passages begging to be taken home with us. But we don’t dare do that or the fisherman who dropped them off to “play” will have us arrested for stealing his children. (Don’t tell him about the fellow at our marina who has more than once sailed into his slip dangling a trap and enjoyed lobster for supper.)
The worse kind are the stealth pots, no-see-ums that lurk just under the surface and wait to jump up in front of us causing us to quickly divert course. Pulled by current these bad boys ride threateningly towards us, disappear mysteriously under our hulls, only to pop up behind us-- as if to thumb their noses. Little pot heads cleverly disguised with seaweed hair peek out at us from wave crests and play catch with our propellers. It’s expensive to be towed into port and haul the boat just to undo a nasty tangle; and a real nuisance to don snorkel gear and dive under the boat to cut loose a trap before moving on. And isn’t it embarrassing to have reset your course to avoid an oncoming pot only to watch it flutter away?
Perhaps someone should develop a pot control pill? Now pots are a vital source of income for fishermen, so I do not mean to undermine their need to share our waterways. My beef is that too often they are a hazard. It is treacherous to maneuver through a skinny channel in fog or navigate a high traffic passage peppered with pots we can barely see. Why can’t more thought be put into pot placement and visibility? Perhaps they could be dropped in straight, predictable lines, or situated in less traveled paths. I find the few pots I see marked with flags easiest to avoid. We can spot them from a distance, even on radar, and have enough time to comfortably change course without risking a jibe or collision with another boat. How about requiring that all pots wear flags?
But if we did this, I wonder if we wouldn’t all miss the challenge of pot dodging, a skill we boaters pride ourselves on. “D’ you see that pot bow on?” “Wow, we just missed that one!” Just like counting license plates on highways, making a game of pot spotting can be a welcome diversion on those dull-trip days when the seas are silky smooth. But it’s not those times that pots are a problem. Sigh.
Staying in an anchorage is one of the magnificent highs of cruising. Perched high on our fiberglass thrones, we have a panoramic view of our kingdom and luxuriate in the feel of the gentle breeze, as our bow dances circles with the wind. It’s cool, private, comfortable, and bug-free. Here, we have everything we need. Everything, that is, until the dog whimpers to be walked; the kids tire of diving off the stern and beg to go shopping; and you remember you made dinner reservations. How will you get ashore?
You can, of course swim; but let’s be practical. You’ll likely seek water transportation—your boat, dinghy, or launch service. It’s fairly easy to take a small runabout boat to the dock, as long as there is room to tie up while you conduct business ashore. With this method, however, you risk losing your primo spot and may need to either find a new location or depart to a different harbor. To save your spot (and your sanity), it often makes sense to tow along the dinghy or plan to use a launch service.
Launch ServiceIf your harbor of choice offers launch service, you will enjoy the convenience. Consult the local waterway guide for information as to launch availability; or inquire by calling ahead to the marina or yacht club. Hail the launch using their channel on the VHF radio, or wave your arms or give the airhorn a couple of toots when you spy one nearby. Taking a launch into shore normally means you’ll need a ride back to the boat, so be sure to find out the operating hours. Should the launch stop running before you will be finished with dinner, you may find yourselves abandoned on the dock, late at night, looking longingly out into the anchorage.
Dinghy TransportTaking your own dinghy to shore is, by far, the most reliable way to ensure your return; although not necessarily the most comfortable. You will get wetter in a dinghy than a launch; especially if you are headed windward on a gusty day, the seas are up, or you got stuck sitting near the bow. Wearing a water-resistant, tunic-length jacket, preferably one with a hood will protect your clothing from salty splashes and afford you extra warmth later, when it is cool.
Pack UpIt’s risky to leave loose items in the dinghy while ashore; so unless your dinghy has a lockable or hidden storage area, bring along a tote bag or two in which you can stuff extra clothing, a flashlight, a towel, and other necessities for your shore trip. All boats accumulate dew, rendering them slippery and wet; so when you return later in the evening, the towel will come in handy. Unless you are surrounded by boating buddies who will protect your boat from unsolicited boarding, LOCK UP. If you use a combination lock, you will certainly need that flashlight to regain entry when it’s dark.
Another essential item that most boaters don’t think to pack for a dinghy trip to shore is a hand-bearing compass. This device will ensure you can locate your boat on moonless night, in crowded harbors, and when fog rolls in and you can’t see a dang thing. Note your magnetic course to shore, then add 180 degrees to that course and you’ll have mapped your return route.
Safety FirstWhatever you do, remember to put a life preserver aboard for each passenger; and if the dinghy has an engine, a license is required to run it. Keep the gas tank full and learn how to properly operate your dinghy. Carrying spare oars may be a nuisance, but don’t tempt fate and leave yours behind. Engines fail all the time, and it’s never convenient. An overloaded dinghy sits low in the water, which can suffocate the engine, so when you’ve got a crowd to transport, opt for making a second trip, rather than a risky one.
At the Dinghy DockOnce ashore, attend to your dinghy to avoid being left stranded. If you are a rower, secure the oars to the boat. People like to borrow them, and unless you’ve got long arms that can double as paddles, you could be in deep saltwater. Take the extra precaution to padlock your dinghy to the dock on popular weekends, when the dinghy dock is piled high, so it will be there when you return. Many dinghies look alike, especially late at night, and innocent mistakes are common.
Location, Location, Location?In a crowded anchorage, it’s important to be able to find your boat; so before you or any of the crew leave for shore, note your boat’s approximate location in the anchorage--north, south, east, west. Is there a reference number on your mooring ball? What are the names, sizes, and appearances of the boats nearby? Taking the launch? You’ll be asked where you’re headed. Many boats look alike, so the driver will laugh if you tell him or her yours is the white boat with blue trim. Be ready with specifics—make, model, special markings.
When visibility is poor, knowing where you moored the boat becomes critical. A trick many boaters use is to leave a light on inside the boat at night. A colored light, like the red lights used for night vision, will help distinguish your boat from others with lit interiors. Your trusty flashlight will assist you in finding your way back without tangling with someone’s anchor or mooring line or colliding with another’s boat. And, don’t forget that hand-bearing compass!
Finally, don’t let the prospect of a ride into shore spoil your enjoyment of being on anchor. It’s very special. As long as you are pro-active in preparing for any eventuality, you will easily manage any conditions you encounter on your way to and from shore. Well, Fido is pacing nervously and the kids are antsy, so you’d better get moving!
Hey there boating buddies! You’ve all heard of the Rules of the Road, which dictate on-the-water safety; but, I wonder how many of you are aware of the unwritten rules of boating courtesy? Your boat is identifiable by its name; and your reputation will follow you everywhere. Test your knowledge by answering these questions to find out whether or not you are behaving like a Doofus, i.e. an inconsiderate clod.
Are you a water hog? You are responsible for your wake, and any damage it causes. Yes, I know it’s tempting to rev up that engine and speed across the bow of a sailing or motor yacht; but, if by doing so, you have forced the vessel to change course or dance violently under your wake, you are behaving like a Doofus. Likewise, if you speed past a slower boat, traveling so closely that your wake causes it to flounder or risk going aground. Do you speed through marina areas, hoping no on will notice that it’s your wake that’s causing boats to rock merrily in their slips or on moorings? If you do, you’re a Doofus.
When crossing another boat, head for the stern and neither of you will feel as if you’ve survived a potential collision. When you aim to pass a slower boat, your wake won’t be as disruptive if you slow down and allow as much seaway as possible. You might even hail the other boat on the VHF to ask the helmsman to slow down further, enabling you to provide a wakeless pass. On the ICW, this is common practice. When nearing a marina or anchorage area, heed the posted speed limits—usually no wake--and other boaters won’t shake their fists and shout obscenities, as you pass through.
Are you a mooring grabber? When you are cruising for a vacant mooring, and spot one that another boat is approaching, do you race over to grab it first? If you do, you’re a Doofus. I once witnessed two boats actually fighting over the same mooring, boat hooks extended, trying to see who could pick it up first. The proper thing to do is to pick another spot. Moorings, as well as anchoring spots are first come first serve, unless assigned by a harbormaster. By the same token, unless you have permission, it is unwise to pick up a private mooring unless you don’t mind being kicked off at the least opportune time.
Are you a dock hog? When you pull into the fuel dock, do you take the opportunity to go shopping or to leisurely wash your boat? If you even think about it, you’re a Doofus. Unless the dockmaster has given you permission to remain at this dock for time beyond fueling up, seek a vacant slip for extraneous activities. Also, if you tie the dinghy up to a boat dock, in lieu of a dinghy dock, beware of blocking another boat’s access to any boarding ladders, fueling or watering areas.
My pet peeve is boaters who snug their dinghies so close to the dock that there’s no room for other dinghies to wedge in between. Doing this seems to be a new trend that I can only guess was begun by some neatnik who likes to see the docks look tidy. So, on this one, you’re only a Doofus if you continue to do this. We all love to go into shore, so please, when you tie up your dinghy, leave room for the rest of us.
Not sure how to do this? It’s easy. Just allow your painter to extend out 8-feet or so, permitting others to wedge their dinghies in between. A side benefit is that other boaters won’t need to crawl over your dinghy to tie up. And, if you tie the painter under the lines that precede you, it won’t be necessary for another boater to disturb your lines to free his dinghy.
Are you a dock nasty? Camaraderie among boaters dictates we help each other when necessary. If you pretend you don’t notice a boat coming into your dock that looks as if it needs a hand, you’re a Doofus. The larger the boat, the more complex it is to dock. A high freeboard may make it impossible for crew to hop off and tie up, and not everyone is adept at the task. Your offer to take a line can make all the difference to a newbie or a single hander.
Marina walkways are narrow. Only a Doofus would clutter the path with hoses, lines, and other paraphernalia. Coil lines and hoses, and stow barbecue grills and cleaning equipment to prevent a fellow boater from tripping over your stuff. If you haven’t proper storage aboard, invest in a dock box. Also, if your anchor extends into the walkway, tie a life preserver on it to alert passersby and prevent them clunking their head on it.
Like music? We all do, but not when it’s blasting in the wee hours. Only a Doofus would be inconsiderate enough to make undue noise. Run engines and generators at times when people aren’t trying to sleep or enjoy a quiet meal.
One of my bugaboos is people who use marine provided carts, and leave them stranded miles away from the parking lot. Come on guys, think about us new arrivals who must cart-hunt before unloading the car.
I’ve saved the worst dock nasty for last. Is the head on your boat so bloated that if you don’t pump it, it will blow? If you pump out in your marina or anchorage area, you are the King of Doofuses. Believe me, there is no stealth way to do this. Your neighbors will know who you are and ban you from all future cocktail parties. Head off the problem by hailing a pump out boat before the situation becomes critical. If this is impossible, take a long boat ride, at least three miles from shore per the marine dumping laws, to relieve the problem.
Are you the social butterfly from Hell?It’s great to be sociable; but not everyone wants company. Consider that a boat is a person’s home, while the surrounding waters or dock is their back yard. Only a Doofus would go into someone’s home uninvited. Therefore, it is crude and rude to hop aboard any boat without permission, even if these people are good friends.
Boats on moorings or at anchor are particularly vulnerable, and some relish their privacy. If you want to say hello or ask about their boat, always approach them from starboard, remaining at least six feet away. If the owner wants to speak with you further, he will invite you to come closer or to tie up and come aboard.
Say you and your spouse are invited to another boat for cocktails or dinner. You’re a Doofus if you arrive empty-handed. Offer to bring something, asking specifically what they would like—an appetizer, a side dish, beverages? At minimum, bring a bottle of wine, a six-pack of beer or some soft drinks. They will love you if you arrive with your first drink in hand. For brownie points, bring along a plastic bag to stow your returned dishes, and wash them on your own boat.
So, how did you rate on the Doofus scale? None of us is perfect; but if we at least try, we can avoid being a nemesis to other boaters. How ‘bout it?
People are funny. Why is it one of their first questions once they’ve discovered we own a boat is, “How many does it sleep?” So we stammer and stutter and choke out “six” when what we really want to say is “it depends on how well you can stack ‘em.” Have you ever noticed that as we graduate to bigger boats, the number of actual berths is still “six?”
By the time that 24-foot sardine can becomes a 45-foot dreamboat, it gets downright embarrassing to deflate that wide-eyed expectancy of the asker with the answer, “six.” Six? How can we explain to non-boaters the difference between a comfortable six and a crowded one? That we consider ourselves lucky to be sleeping without someone’s feet up our noses, or in a berth in which we can actually both straighten and bend our legs. We can’t.
My solution is to pick a large number, any number that strikes your fancy, and deliver it with a confident smile--“twenty,” say. Sure, almost anyone can jam in twenty sleepers on a boat if they are creative enough. Shoulders take space so alternate heads and feet to tuck more bodies into a berth. Kids and short people can usually wedge themselves sideways in a double berth--you can probably stack four or more of them across.
Don’t neglect floor space. Any flat surface can be a sleeping area when covered with an extra cushion or a fluffy sleeping bag. And what about all that wonderful deck space. The cockpit is always good for accommodating two or three folks, and the bow makes a great twin berth. Encourage unmarried couple to share space, they won’t mind squeezing close together--then sneak one of the kids in between them.
Are we at twenty yet? Opps, we forgot about the dinghy. Pump out all the water, remove the seat or place cushions over it, and there you have a cozy waterbed for two or more. If it’s rainy or cold, erect a canvas or heavy-duty plastic tarp over these areas and guiltlessly slink off to your berth. You know the one you have shamelessly saved for yourself and don’t plan to share.
So, you see, you can honestly answer, “How many does your boat sleep?” with any number you choose because somehow, someway, you will always find space for however many people you are entertaining overnight. And don’t worry, your secret will be safe, because few think to ask, “How many does your boat sleep comfortably?”