It is shorts and T-shirt season now, but for two days a chilling northerly with winds gusting to 25 and nighttime temperatures in the 40s have dictated that we're better off waiting it out in a North Carolina creek rather than heading into shallow, choppy Albemarle Sound. In the distance off my transom, boats are heading north on the ICW while I swing on two anchors, reminding me that cruising on big boats is different from cruising on small boats. Differences in volume, equipment, and attitude separate us.
At 32 feet, my 1977 Endeavour Dream Weaver is not always the smallest boat among the coastal and long-distance cruisers I encounter, but there are not many of us out here this size, and most seem to be in the 40-foot range. Nonetheless, Dream Weaver has been my magic carpet for more than 5,000 miles since leaving our home port in Burlington, VT, and sailing to Havana, Cuba, the Bahamas, the Florida Keys, and back along a good chunk of the East Coast south of New York Harbor. I have been sailing solo since Miami, bringing the boat back home for the first time since 1998.
Sailing a small boat alone over long distances has fostered some lessons about what works and what doesn't in terms of gear and attitudes. For those who face a choice of going with a small boat or not going at all, I have compiled my thoughts. To begin with, I regard a "big" boat as one that has several things I don't have:
Enclosed cockpit This wonder allows the skipper and his charts, binoculars, eyeglasses, and electronics to remain dry when it rains or the wind pipes up. I get wet and so does everything else, despite a dodger and a bimini on Dream Weaver. So, running in the rain or spray is miserable, and considering that visibility shrinks, it can also be dangerous. Sailing solo, I really can't go below to get warm or make a pot of coffee. And because charts get wet, despite protective covers, I consequently try to avoid running in bad weather.
Electronic chartplotters These allow one to find the marks in rough weather (and good weather, for that matter); however, I have no space for that equipment in the cockpit and can't leave the helm to use it below decks, so I rely on entering key waypoints in one of the two low-end GPS units the night before I head out.
Refrigeration For a cruiser with an ice chest, the quest for ice is constant, but at least with a drain in the bottom I can tap off the melted water where the beer cans live and use it for dishwater, a convenience more important in the Bahamas than in US waters. On the plus side, I do not suffer from refrigeration PMS (Power Management Syndrome), which over the long run usually leads to owning a wind charger, solar panels and, eventually, a small gas generator. We avoid anchoring near boats where a big, noisy generator is a prominent piece of the deck equipment.
Onboard shower Sun shower bags do work, but rarely do you have the privacy for a thorough shower. Jumping overboard to soap up with a shower rinse is fine, but in areas with alligators or, worse, saltwater crocodiles, one does not linger in the water. So we carry a supply of those little wipes used to clean up baby bottoms, and wipe down.
We don't go into marinas very often; but when we do, we arrive early to allow as much time as possible to deal with showers, laundry, trash, ice, and provisioning. The best situation is to find an anchorage with a friendly marina nearby that will sell you dinghy dockage, showers, and trash-removal facilities. As I write this, I am laying over in Dowry Creek near Belhaven, NC, with spotlessly clean and friendly Dowry Creek Marina just a short dinghy ride away. This turned out to be a perfect spot to wait out a northerly that has howled for five days.
Over time, solo cruising on a small boat provides some lessons that evolve into a philosophy of sorts. The underpinnings of this philosophy were learned on my first cruise as a crew member aboard the boat of liveaboard friends. They were passed along by a couple who had cruised for seven years:
"We are here to have a nice time, not to get scared or hurt or damage the boat. We don't have a schedule to keep, so we can wait out bad weather."
With this in mind, I have stopped trying to rendezvous with crew at ports a few days down the line. When I arrive at a rendezvous like my next one in Baltimore, I call to let the new crew know I'm in port and if you can meet me, great. Many of the serious situations I've found myself in have been the result of trying to meet someone's shore schedule. I just don't do it any more.
Finally, it is great to have a buddy boat that travels at the same speed. Since beginning this piece in North Carolina a buddy boat and I have arrived in the Chesapeake and are now in Cockrell Creek off the Great Wicomico River, near the fishing village of Reedville, VA.
We limped in, Dream Weaver
towing the buddy boat. After starting the engine to reduce sail, it failed to pump water, overheated and a northerly hit us on the nose. We were barely making two knots into the wind during the tow and dark clouds were forming along the cold front. Solo, these situations are terrifying. With a buddy boat, one at least has some hope that assistance is nearby. The 200 feet of half inch yellow poly tow line, purchased in 1998 after a grounding adventure in New Smyrna Beach, FL, had never been wet before, but it was great to have a line that floated and was easy to spot.
Stuck here by the weather and mechanical problems, we are seeing the real Chesapeake. Reedville is the home of a menhaden fishing fleet and a processing plant. Across the creek at Fairport Marina, the owner and his son unload bushel baskets of crabs from their crab boat and the locals gather for the fried chicken, potato salad, and biscuit lunch special ($4.95) at the small marina restaurant. There is a parking spot reserved for the pastor of the church, and it is occupied. You can keep your boat here at a slip for $70 a month.
Next door at Jennings Boatyard the lift is hauling a sailboat for repairs, the hull of a working boat has just been laid in the shed, and some of the restaurant crowd wanders over to see it now that it is turned right side up. "She should be able to stand up to a blow off Smith Point," one waterman observes. That is a serious compliment. You can store on the hard here for $2.00 a foot per month. It is tempting to leave the boat here and spend a lot of time cruising the Chesapeake. After all, large boat or small, we're here to have fun.
Small Boat NecessitiesIn the minimalist world of small boat cruising you acquire systems that you learn to love, some that are profoundly mundane. Here are some of those that I keep aboard:
A simple rig with roller furling and a fully battened mainsail equipped with lazy jacks. Four anchors: CQR as primary, Danforth hung on the bow pulpit, and a Claw that lives in the lazarette. I have set these three numerous times, occasionally all at once, but the fourth, a folding grapnel, has never been wet. Clamps, in a variety of sizes, like those used by woodworkers. They keep the chart pages from blowing around, hold things being glued back together, keep laundry on the life lines in heavy breezes and, most of all, allow me to clamp screens over the hatches and companionway. The tiny bugs called no-see-ums that inhabit the southeastern coast of the US will go right through a normal screen, so I bought several yards of bridal veil material at a big box store and I clamp that into place on hatches before the first one shows up. That stops them. Reflectec, an insulating material available at home supply stores. It is a sandwich of air bubbles between layers of foil film and it's rated for R16 insulation. I cut three sheets to fit the top of my ice chest, which is huge, and layer them over the ice and groceries. It nearly doubles the life of the ice. Meat and cheese always find their way into the water at the bottom, so I keep them in a plastic box with a hinged lid. It is about the size of a shoe box and cost me one dollar. My pots and pans. One is a pressure cooker, of course, which is the largest pot on board. The others are the Ingenio line made in France by T-Fal and available at department stores. These have detachable handles that make storage and washing up simple, and they also have snap-on lids for storing leftovers. The stove is a two-burner Origo, which has proven to be a good choice. Pocketmail and a cell phone. Pocketmail is an e-mail device (about $100) like a Sharp Wizard personal organizer with a built-in acoustic coupler. Pocketmail is a service with a monthly fee of about $15. The fee includes access via an 800 number. You can send and receive e-mails up to about 4,000 characters from any phone, including digital cellular phones. So there is no need to hunt for an RJ11 connection to hook up the computer, you can do your e-mails anywhere you have a cellular signal. It is not an internet connection, however. (Find out more at www.pocketmail.com.) An inverter. This small black box costs around $50 and converts DC battery power to AC power so you can plug in and charge up your drill, computer, and hand-held VHF, or operate the boom box from the boat's batteries. We also have a black and white TV with a five-inch screen. It plugs directly into a cigar lighter plug. Pillow shams. These pillow covers are available in bed and bath stores and are a great place to store sweaters, fleece clothing and extra bedding, and turn them into back rests. Autohelm and hand-held VHF, both essentials for sailing alone.