Dag Pike considers how to get the best out of a coastal cruise when time is limited
Coronavirus, delayed or cancelled launch dates and closed borders have put paid to many plans of long summers afloat this year.
If you have a limited amount of time in which to go on your coastal cruise, as many of us might at the moment, there is still plenty of adventure to be had.
In fact, if properly planned and considered, you may well find that having a strict time limit on your sailing can focus the mind.
As well as providing some new experiences which may not have revealed themselves if you have all the time in the world.
Half the fun of cruising is in the planning; looking at charts and maps and deciding where you might go next to explore – and we’ve all had plenty of that planning time recently.
CLOSER TO HOME
I’m often surprised once I get the charts out just how many spots there are to visit in our local cruising grounds.
And if you are on a compressed time schedule, just how close some destinations are when you start thinking about how to get there fast.
It’s generally pretty relaxing to sail in familiar waters where surprises are hard to come by, but all sorts of value can be added to a coastal cruise by exploring somewhere new.
There will be fresh challenges for sure, but who knows what unexpected rewards await us?
It’ll be more exciting for you and your crew, and anyway, it does no harm to extend ourselves, even if you’re not extending your range.
We might even learn something; I often do when sailing around in places not far from home but new to me.
If you are not going to be planning a long trip then the area in which you might be able to sail will be severely limited.
Especially if we are looking for destinations we can reach on a one-tide passage and avoiding overnight sails, which is how we usually like to plan our passages.
If you do want to get away from your home cruising grounds, but are still looking to squeeze your sail into a short time frame, then it is worth considering how to adapt your usual cruising in order to make the most out of the time you have.
Maybe night sailing is not high up on your list of likes, but it could be worth doing one or two in order to get to your destination a little quicker.
Overnight stops are a real killer in terms of passage times, so eliminating these is a great way to speed up your time to a destination.
Looking in terms of miles, the south of Ireland is roughly a 350-mile sail away from the Solent.
Without unlucky weather or wind on the nose the entire sail, this could be achievable in a three- to four-day sail.
That sort of trip is not for everyone, but it does go to show how close seemingly distant destinations can be for the sailor willing to put in a long journey to get there.
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Passage-planning skills come to the fore
If you are not looking for such a big undertaking then sailing to a destination over the course of several weekends to get your boat in place before your week off is a good option.
This extends the time you get to explore your destination of choice without placing a mammoth sail at the start or the end of it.
It also gives the option of several enjoyable weekends of sailing on the way round, without eating into your holiday.
USE YOUR DRAUGHT
If you do not have the time or the inclination for a long trip then discovering new cruising grounds near home can be a thoroughly exciting prospect.
And this usually means taking the road less travelled, finding anchoring spots far from the crowds and being a little more self sufficient.
One of the big limitations in finding places near us that are new, is that they are often off the beaten track and therefore more of an adventure to get to.
River exploration and the like offers a great deal of interest for the cruising sailor and can give a whole different complexion to an area of coastline already well trodden.
It is stating the obvious but the shallower the draught you have the better because a shallow draught can open up a lot more anchoring possibilities, particularly in creeks and rivers.
Even better is having a yacht that can take the bottom at low tide and then there will be possibilities in many smaller harbours, which can open up new horizons not accessible by everyone.
For the average cruising yacht with a draught of perhaps 1.5m you will need to exercise a bit more caution as you need a minimum water depth of something over 2m.
Or perhaps even a bit more bearing in mind that the yacht will swing around over quite an area when at anchor when the tide or wind changes.
GET SET FOR MICRO ADVENTURES
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 it is often water that 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 here so I have always carried some bottled water for drinking or to go with the whisky.
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.
They are only useable in certain wind directions, making it challenging to plan too far in advance.
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.
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 becoming increasingly difficult to find on charts these days.
For positioning you can 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.
Eyesight is one of the best as even the surface of the water can give clues about what lies under the water.
Of course 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.
GO WITH THE WIND
One of the major difficulties about having a short amount of time in which to sail, is that we can often feel under pressure to complete a passage and so take risks when the wind and sea conditions suggest that staying put might be the wise thing to do.
You can get a pretty reliable idea of what the weather will be like about three days ahead with modern weather forecasts, but after that you are entering the realms of uncertainty.
If you plan a cruise that is a simple out-and-back route you may find yourself at the furthest distance from your home port just at the point when your initial forecasts will be reaching the point of uncertainty.
It’s much better at the early planning stage to think about a route that will allow for several options, say a cruise across the Channel and along the coast of France.
This allows you to easily cut short and head back should the weather look like it’s taking a turn for the worse.
I would love to see weather that does exactly what the weather forecasts say.
Changes in the weather when you are out at sea are often quoted as the cause of a problem.
How often do you hear, ‘The weather was a lot worse than was forecast’ quoted in the yacht club bar?
Weather forecasts are strange things and in my experience most of the time the forecaster proposes worse weather than is actually going to take place.
He or she will get no medals for not forecasting strong winds and will have to make allowances for possible changes in the weather situation so they will tend to err on the side of safety and forecast worse weather than expected.
Forecasters are a bit like football goalkeepers. They get remembered for the ones they get wrong rather than the ones they get right.
So don’t take everything the forecaster says as gospel.
KEY FORECAST PHRASES
Listen carefully to the forecast for phrases like ‘increasing later’ or ‘stronger in the west’ or perhaps ‘veering later’.
The weather is a live, variable thing, constantly ebbing and flowing so don’t just pick out the forecast that looks best for what you plan to do but look carefully at the detail and try to keep something in reserve.
Rather than the forecast itself it is your interpretation of the forecast that really counts.
Be extra cautious if you are heading to sea in cold weather because that can bring extra risks to your carefully planned passage.
It’s the same when you are planning a passage.
Try not to leave yourself with the possibility of having to deal with a long hard beat to windward at the end of the day when the crew may be tired.
DON’T SET DEADLINES
Try not to set time deadlines.
More accidents seem to occur when crews have a deadline to meet and have to get the yacht back to a certain point on a certain date.
Try to give yourself options so you can relieve the pressure, particularly if time is tight.
Options and pre-planning several of those options are going to be a great help.
If you have limited time to go cruising, one key issue that will make life much easier is to make sure your boat is ready to go from the off.
It is not possible to prevent anything going wrong at sea, of course, but it is well worth taking the time to make sure that your boat is as fully prepared for sailing as it can possibly be.
Taking the time to thoroughly look over your boat is an important, if occasionally arduous task, and it will help you to troubleshoot should anything go wrong at sea.
It will also make it easier to spot little problems before they escalate.
All things being equal, you should have had a proper check over your boat prior to launching.
So you do not need to go through a complete fitting out checklist but key bits of kit will want a reasonably thorough looking over.
This is particularly important if you are going to be heading off on a long passage, or a trip where you are looking to anchor away from the usual marinas with their easy access to chandlers and professional help.
Inspect your anchor connection and seize the shackles if necessary.
Make sure that your anchor chain is marked every 5m, so you can easily keep track of your cable length.
There are purpose-made chain markers but coloured cable ties are fine.
The windlass is always the most exposed piece of deck machinery and needs attention.
If manual, check it’s working, then clean, check for wear, grease and tighten.
For powered versions, remove the gypsy, grease the drum, check the foot switch for water, clean the electrical connections and smear them with petroleum jelly.
You should also check your winches, ensuring you’ve stripped them down and re-greased springs and pawls before launch.
If you’re planning to spend time at anchor then check your batteries.
Make sure the battery tray is dry, tighten securing straps and ensure the gassing vent is clear.
Clean the terminals and coat with petroleum jelly.
Switch on the instruments and use backlighting to help reduce any condensation.
The key to cruising in a short time comes down to flexibility and planning.
Even if you only have a week you can get surprisingly far away from home if you are willing to overnight or sail down on the weekends preceding your trip.
If you want to stay closer to home, try exploring any undiscovered nooks and crannies – you never know, you might well find your next favourite anchorage.
Consider Making a change to your normal cruising pattern to get the boat further.
Delivery trips over two or three weekends could get the boat to a more distant start position for your week-long cruise.
Alternatively, consider a long passage that includes one or two overnights
You might normally sail alone or as a couple, but why not consider taking an extra crew member for the long passage?
They might appreciate the chance to build up miles and night hours, and you’ll benefit from a less onerous watch pattern.
It’s easy to play it safe when it comes to draught and not visit the places that need detailed tidal calculations.
- Use the opportunity to do some secondary port sums and sneek up a channel at high tide?
- In a bilge keeler, plan to take the ground at least once if you don’t normally.
- Many fin-keel boats can dry out alongside quays or drying posts. Is there somewhere local you could do this that you haven’t tried before?
- Staying away from pontoon berths increases the sense of adventure.
- Get the boat ready for being independent.
- Take spare cans of fuel and water and enough food to be self-sufficient.
- An extra cool box, or more dry or tinned food might help.
- Compare different sources for detailed pilotage, including almanacs, chart plotters and large scale charts.
- Be prepared to try anchorages about which there is little information.
- Observe local topography, water colour, wave patterns or even send the tender out ahead to scope out new spots.
- Use the fact that you’re not going as far to your advantage, and let yourself be predominantly guided by the wind.
- Don’t take on long passages that need good conditions to complete the return leg as this will add stress if you’re short of time
- Adapt your plans as the weather changes. It’s often worth sticking your nose out as the weather may not be as bad as forecast, but you should devise a fall-back alternative if it doesn’t suit.
Glitches with your boat can take a day or two to rectify, knocking a hole in the middle of a short cruise.
Give your boat a good once over before you go and buy any spares you might need to keep you cruise on track.
This should include:
- Batteries, connections and fuses
- Electronics, autopilots and chart updates
- Standing and running rigging
- Winches and deck gear
- Anchor, windlass and ground tackle
- Safety gear – lifejackets, tethers, jackstays, MOB kit, liferaft, fire extinguishers
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dag Pike has spent over 65 years at sea on yachts and motor boats, and has made a number of transatlantic record attempts.
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