So far itís been a very long, hard winter. A broken gaff ended my sailing season early, in October, but the cold set in almost immediately afterward anyway. And then, just as I began getting hooked up for iceboating, a thaw melted all the ice. Even the snowbirds have had a tough winter. A drought in Florida has lowered the levels of the inland lakes so much that it's not even possible to launch a daysailer in many places. But now that April is just two months away, the time has come to get serious about planning the big cruise for the next season.
Last summer I jumped across my first patch of open ocean, the 17 nautical miles between Montauk and Block Island. Technically, those waters are called Block Island Sound, but for someone whose sailing had been confined to bays, it was a great ocean passage.
Block Island could again make a great destination for my annual summer cruise. But Iím not ready to settle into a habitual cruising pattern yet. There are too many irresistible routes and locales still to explore. Small groups of islands are scattered all along the northern shore of Long Island Sound, and at the westernmost end of the sound there is the ultimate island, Manhattan. In the opposite direction, there is the legendary Buzzards Bay, with nearby Cape Cod, the Elizabeth Islands, and Newport. All places where a lifetime of sailing couldnít exhaust the possibilities.
Before settling on destinations, however, a review of the big lessons from last yearís cruise is in order:
- Plan the return route as carefully as the outbound route
- Get a small-scale chart that shows everything in the area
- Round up crew members, especially for the longer passages
Last year, Iíd planned to simply backtrack for the return trip, but made a last-minute decision to take a different, longer route. I didnít have a small-scale chart to show everything in that area and wound up confused about the identity of several islands. The chart I did have didnít show the first of a string of islands, and since I had never cruised there before, the landmarks were unfamiliar. The result: I was nearly swept into the Race, at the eastern end of Long Island Sound, a channel with very swift currents that would have led me far off course.
It was at that point that I realized I needed to carefully plan all possible routes and make sure I had the charts for all the surrounding areas. It also convinced me I needed a better pair of binoculars than the inexpensive, folding pair of 8x21 that I had. A crew member to help sort out the confusion and provide some period of rest would also have been welcome during the long slog to windward.
This year I plan on towing the dinghy. Last year, I hadnít wanted the bother of it. But once I was anchored in Block Islandís New Harbor and realized that a dink would have made the ocean beach and the village accessible within minutes and would have eliminated the dependency upon water and land taxis, I regretted not having it.
Equipment upgrades this year will be minimal. Last year, provisioning had been a matter of stepping up from daysails in the bays to extended cruising. This yearís shopping list so far includes the following:
- A GPS data power cable
- A decent pair of 7x50 binoculars
- Local charts, guidebooks, and the 2001 Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book
The major purchases last year were a base-station VHF with DSC (digital selective calling) capability, and a GPS. (For more on DSC and the advantages it offers mariners, check out the sidebar.)
As for binoculars, my last good pair were lost overboard when kayaking. Since then, I have stuck with a pair of folding 8x21 binoculars that usually serve their purpose in the familiar bays where I sail most of the time and are no big loss if dropped and broken or lost in Davey Jonesí Locker. They cost less than $20.
In the bays, just picking out the buoy itself, let alone its color or number, is usually all thatís needed. Cruising in new watersócongested with other boat traffic, islands, channels, and unfamiliar landmarksóis another matter. A good pair of binoculars is vital. Image stabilizers, digital compasses, and nitrogen-purged waterproof cases would be nice, but tend to bump the price into the $1,000 regions. Good light-gathering glass, found with either BAK-4 Porro prism lenses or roof prisms, and with coatings to cut down glare, are available at prices in the $200-600 range. Given my record with expensive handheld items, and my limited budget, I chose the Fujinon 7x50 Mariner XL binoculars.
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Beyond gear considerations are the navigational materials. A number of guidebooks and charts, both large and small scale, are necessary to cover all the areas I might want to cruise in. These make alluring wall decorations, where I can dream of gunkholing in Buzzards Bay or of steering a careful course through the East River and around the tip of Manhattan.
The real goody, though, is the Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book. This little yellow paperback volume, with the handy nautical miles scale along the spine and the hole drilled into the top left corner for tying the book to a fixed position on the boat, is packed with the weather and current and tide information necessary for timing a cruise. It also contains just about every kind of reference data that a cruiser needs, such as distance and speed tables, emergency first aid, and lights and fog signals.
Finally, cruise planning involves some wining and dining. Skippers with local knowledge from years of cruising need to be loosened up for all the tidbits of experience that can make the difference between a pleasure cruise and a nightmare of unexpected difficulties and disappointing destinations. Crew members need to be courted as well, won over, and coordinated with the overall cruise planóas if you needed a mid-winter excuse to get together with a sailing buddy in a nice restaurant to swap lies and enjoy a good meal while the snow flies and the boat awaits under a tarp.
The coming season is here as soon as you begin planning for it. Iím already remembering the sensations of a warm sun on bare skin and the delight of the occasional spray over the coaming.
Another Approach to SOS
Sailors who are seeking another option for signalling that they're in trouble will be glad to hear about the potential for combining their GPS unit and VHF radio (those equipped with digital selective calling). A free registration service, offered by Boat/US, allows sailors to program their number into a databank for Maritime Mobile Service Identity. Once the registration number is programmed into the radio and the GPS is connected, a distress signal with your exact location and MMSI registration data can be continuously broadcast with the push of a single button.
A data power cable is needed to connect the GPS and the radio. Select the NMEA output interface from the GPS setup menu, program the radio with the MMSI number, and it's good to go. Practicing the steps necessary to program the MMSI number is advisable. Some radios allow only two programming attempts in a very short period of time. If you fail to get it done in either attempt, the radio may have to go back to the factory for programming.
While the Coast Guard will not be able to directly handle digital selective calling (DSC) calls for several years, other boats and rescue facilities with DSC equipment can receive the signal and help with rescue. Thousands of boaters have already registered since the service was made available in December. And Boat/US says that it will relay DSC distress signals to the Coast Guard.
Using DSC also makes it possible to call another boater privately and digitally with an MMSI using Channel 70 on the VHF. Hereís where the DSC operates like caller ID, capturing the MMSI numbers of boaters trying to contact you, alerting you to the calls, and displaying them so that, if the MMSI is known, you can see who has been trying to contact you. Once connected, however, the callers are automatically switched to an open channel.