Planning to spend the night away from crowded waters can 
be truly rewarding but preparation is essential before you go wild cruising, says Dag Pike

These days there are many ways to go cruising. The actual sea passage part of a cruise will remain much the same whatever you do, but it’s where you plan to spend the night that can make a significant difference.

Marina hopping, sailing from one marina to the next and tying up for the night, makes for a safe and secure night alongside the pontoons from where you can walk ashore to the pub, restaurant or yacht club.

There are still harbours that do not have a marina and where visiting yachts need to pick up a mooring and use their tender or the water taxi to go ashore for the evening.

This is a halfway-house type of cruising where it is still sensible to stay sober for the inevitable journey back on board by tender.

a yacht anchored in Canada

Getting away from crowded waters is the big appeal of wild cruising. Credit: Graham Snook/Yachting Monthly

Then there is wild cruising, where you ignore the luxuries and facilities that most harbours offer to yachtsmen and go back to the basics of cruising that was the norm perhaps 60 years ago.

This is where you find an anchorage for the night in some sheltered spot and perhaps even catch, but at least cook, your own food and listen to the voices of nature rather than the voices of your neighbours.

Imagine waking up to a knocking noise on the hull only to find seals in the water alongside waiting for their ‘breakfast’.

A grey seal sitting on rocks at the Farne Islands

Wildlife encounters are one of the big draws of wild cruising. Credit: Steenbergs/Wikimedia

There can be a magic to wild cruising that is lost when you enter harbour and it could be defined by the saying, ‘shaking off the shackles of the shore’.

For wild cruising you need to be self-sufficient in a way that is not always easy to achieve in these days of electronic safety nets where help can be just a phone call away and where yachts are not always designed to be self-sufficient for several days.

You not only need to be self sufficient, you also have to be self-reliant and sort out your own solutions when things do not work out as planned.

The rewards are worth the effort and wild cruising is like a return to nature, turning the clock back to the days before marinas.

The weather will play an important part in your seagoing life and seamanship skills will be much more important.

Weather

Weather will play a much more important part in your cruising life.

It is not just having good weather for the point-to-point cruise but anticipating what the weather might do through the night when you are at anchor. A change in the wind direction can ruin a comfortable anchorage and force a move in the middle of the night.

While you may well have access to mobile internet most of the time, there will be remote locations where you are away from sufficient reception to check the forecast online.

You can revert to more traditional sources of weather forecasts, such as Coastguard VHF transmissions and the twice-daily shipping forecast on VHF and Long Wave radio, but you’ll need to be able to interpret them to get the level of information you need.

Cloud formations

Understanding clouds and what they mean in terms of likely weather change is a valuable skill. Credit: Dag Pike

Wind shifts are the key thing to anticipate when wild cruising as they can change your comfortable anchorage into an exposed lee shore.

The wind direction usually changes when a frontal system passes through, so listen to the forecast carefully, looking for any forecast wind shifts, not only in your area but also in adjacent areas.

The thing often missing from forecasts is timing, but if you analyse the forecast you can get a much better idea of when a frontal system may be passing through your area.

If you can track the systems progress by watching the changing cloud patterns, you can be your own weather forecaster.

It is a huge subject and most weather books for yachtsmen explain these signs so you can get a much better understanding of the timing of weather changes.

They are vital to your enjoyment of a quiet anchorage.

Finding an anchorage

Most of the time you will not know what is likely to be a safe anchorage until the day before, because most anchorages are weather dependent, in that they are only useable in certain wind directions, making it challenging to plan too far in advance.

There are some magic anchorages such as Acairseid Mhor on Rona and Loch Tarbert on Islay in Scotland where you can find shelter in any winds but such places tend to be few and far between and only found in more remote locations.

On most wild cruises you will be looking for an anchorage that provides reasonable shelter in the prevailing wind so you want the wind off the land.

A good spot will often be found tucked up inside a headland, but take care here because although you are directly sheltered from the wind and seas, waves have a nasty habit of being refracted around a headland.

This means that the swell coming in with the wind can change direction as the inshore end slows down, causing the swell to impinge on your ‘sheltered’ anchorage.

North Haven, Skomer

Finding a spot with shelter from most wind directions means you are often looking for bays

You can also get this effect in the lee of an island when the swells come round each side.

If there is high ground immediately to windward of your anchorage you may get quite fierce squalls coming down off the mountains and hitting you in the anchorage.

We had to shift anchorage quickly when violent squalls caused us to start dragging in what looked like a nice sheltered anchorage in the Kyle of Lochalsh.

You also get similar squalls in the Mediterranean where the wind can sweep down the steep-sided valleys between the mountains.

You don’t have to go to these more remote locations to find a quiet anchorage. Even on the busy South Coast there are quieter spots such as Hope Cove inside Bolt Head or Cadgwith inside the Lizard, both with pubs that can be reached by tender. Further east there are potential anchorages in Torbay or off Weymouth but these can get busy in the summer.

With all of these a great deal will depend on the wind direction and possibly the legacy swell from an earlier storm, so you need short-term planning combined with good weather anticipation.

Navigation and charts

The problem with wild cruising is that you may be trying to find an anchorage in a remote area and so you have to always question just how up to date the chart information is.

In rocky areas the sea bed does not change too much, but if the survey was done by single point soundings in the past then it is possible that some rocks may have been missed.

I found a rock with just 5m over it close in by the Eddystone Light that was not shown on the charts.

On the sandy East Coast the seabed is more fluid and so it can change even in the short term, so when entering any anchorage you must take precautions.

Of course you need the sounder going but that only shows the depth underneath you and does not give advance warning.

There are ‘look-ahead’ sounders but personally I am not convinced they can give adequate warning of trouble ahead.

Innovation

Large scale charts are good for data inshore

My advice is to revert to the basics and if the water is clear then one of the crew peering over the bow should be able to see the seabed or signs of kelp that can warn of rocks.

Another option is to use the technique of the very early navigators and have a sounding pole in the bow dipping the water.

Large-scale paper charts are usually good at showing the detail inshore but much of this detail can be lost on electronic charts.

I had planned to take a yacht into what looked like a good sheltered cove off the coast of Tunisia but when I looked at the electronic chart it showed no detail of what lay under the water there.

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The paper chart was a little better but it did not give me enough confidence to anchor there.

Information about the seabed can also be helpful to find reliable holding ground but it is getting harder to find on charts.

Isles of Scilly-Great Porth Bay

Information about the seabed is vital to assess if you have found a good spot to drop the pick.

For positioning of course you use GPS but you may still be able to use transit lines from objects on the shore.

The thing with navigating into remote anchorages is to use all of the systems that you have available, and eyesight is one of the best as even the surface of the water can give clues about what lies under the water.

You also need to allow for the height of the tide.

Once anchored you can use the electronics to set an anchor alarm whilst you sleep peacefully at night.

The right boat for the job

It is stating the obvious but the shallower the draft the better because a shallow draft can open up many more anchoring possibilities, particularly in creeks and rivers.

Even better is having a yacht that can take the bottom at low tide.

Flensburg Fjord

Generous fuel and water capacities can be useful

There will also be possibilities in many smaller harbours that can create new horizons for wild cruising. For the average cruising yacht with a draft of perhaps 1.5m you will need to exercise a bit more caution as you need a minimum water depth of something over 2m.

A yacht anchored by a waterfall in Canada

Although you can gather water from streams and waterfalls it is a good idea to carry bottled water too. Credit: Graham Snook/Yachting Monthly

Bear in mind that the yacht will swing around over quite an area when the tide or wind changes so you may need even more.

Trailer sailers are another option for wild cruising possibilities. Generous fuel and water capacities can be very useful. If you can avoid having to refuel on a week’s cruise that can be
a bonus but water can pose more of a problem.

On the West Coast of Scotland I have taken a large plastic container ashore to fill up with water from a stream but there is no guarantee about the quality.

I always carry some bottled water for drinking or to go with the whisky. You could also collect rainwater by rigging a sheet of plastic.

On a practical note it might pay to bite the bullet and go to a marina to top up fuel and water on a week’s cruise. You could also have a proper shower instead of swimming over the side.

For food it would be lovely to have a freezer on board but then you need serious electrical power.

You may be living out of tins or freeze-dried food more than normal but this is no real hardship. It is always nice to think that you might be able to catch fish to supplement your diet.

Solar panels or a wind generator can help with electrical power, at least enough to charge mobile phones and keep the GPS running and perhaps enough for lighting at night or maybe even a fridge.

Equipment

You are going to be self-sufficient for much of your wild cruising so bear this in mind when stocking up.

Collapsible water containers, hoses, a good reliable tender and a secure ladder for climbing back on board after swimming should all be considered.

While wild cruising you will be relying heavily on your anchor and chain for security so check that all of the shackles are moused.

A dinghy by the side of a yacht

A decent dinghy is an essential piece of equipment. Credit: Dag Pike

Anchor chains wear in the ‘nip’, the part where two adjacent links rub together where wear is not normally visible. Open up the chain when it is slack and look for any wear in this area.

The basic ingredient for wild cruising is seamanship.

Where to go wild cruising in the UK

It may take you out of your comfort zone and into areas where it is up to you to use your judgement and skills to stay out of trouble.

The benefits are clear; you get the satisfaction of being self-sufficient, you get to enjoy magic moments that you never find in a marina and to a large extend you are going green.

But it is the magic of sunsets at anchor, the sound of silence and of being at peace that are the really big rewards.

5 wild cruising spots overseas

A yacht anchored off Jersey

Although busy in the summer, it is still possible to escape the crowds in the Channel Islands. Credit: Will Bruton

1. Oslo Fjord

A beautiful cruising area but crowded in the summer months.

2. Wadden Sea

Cruising amongst the shallows inside the line of off-lying islands off the Dutch coast, but many areas are restricted by nature reserves and marine farms.

3. The Channel Islands

Strong tides and a big tidal range make this a challenging area, but it is a beautiful wild-cruising spot.

4. Quiberon and Belle Isle

An area of contrasts for cruising but can be busy during the summer.

5. Île de Ré and Île d’Oléron

The historic port of La Rochelle makes a great base for cruising this popular area.