In the annual migrations along the East and Gulf Coasts, thousands of cruising sailors are faced with a choice between an offshore passage or meandering down the ICW. Mark Matthews and Tom Wood explain their radically different approaches to sailing from here to there.
In Defense of the Offshore Passage
by Mark Matthews
The allure of sailing is more than just getting from point A to point B. The natural and psychological scenery on the voyage towards the destination is the real attraction. When the diesel finally chugs to a stop and the wind fills the sails, most people sail simply because using the natural force of the wind to move across the water is a fulfilling experience.
An offshore passage merely amplifies this. For starters, the beauty of an offshore passage is hard to top. The sight of a whale swimming by is a mind-blowing thing. Who would trade front row seats for a moonlit horizon-to-horizon panorama under wheeling stars and the phosphorescent trail of visiting dolphins? Coddled by legions of channel markers leading the way to cable television hook-ups, and the all-important electrical umbilical cord, modern day sailors motor up and down the coast by the hundreds and miss these chances, opting to crowd the same harbors on the way to the big jump down island. Yet beyond the sheltered shores of land, the spectrum of experience, like the view, simply expands.
When land fades to a small smudge, and then disappears, a vessel and its crew are buoyed by the constantly changing scenery of wave trains and flying fish, unchanged since time began. Small pencil marks on the chart plot a vessel's progress over submerged mountain ranges and trenches, and attest to our infinitesimal existence amidst the grandeur. Occasionally, inhabitants from these submerged lands swim up to reach the ceiling we sail upon. Some of the fish species even flop around the cockpit and stay for dinner. Boring scenery? Not if you're armed with binoculars, a star chart, bird and marine mammal books, and the right fishing lures.
Waterway voyaging requires vigilance for its many navigational hazards. Shoals, rocks, and an increase in commercial traffic are just some of the many hazards a sailing vessel faces, as are ranks of the ubiquitous, lawless, polluting, and down-right annoying PWCs encountered on a nearly constant basis. Then there is the ceaseless anchoring and re-anchoring, sail raising, and furling, if there's enough breeze from a steady direction to allow sailing along a meandering route. Progress can be further hampered by bridge opening schedules, and swiftly flowing, contrary currents.
The best sailing is likely to be found in the steadiest breeze. Land introduces all sorts of thermals, wind-blocking land masses, and buildings, that can cause wind shifts. If we are sailing, this makes for constant sail trim and helming. The breezes beyond the buoys, past the breakwater, and usually just over the horizon, are steadier and make fewer demands on a sailing crew. Here, a vessel is more likely to be at hull speed under sail, with plenty of sea room on its way towards its destination
The learning curve is continual in sailing. Offshore passages present challenges that eventually teach better sailing skills. Even with the best forecast, in the back of the mind of the offshore passagemaker is the thought that any number of things could go wrong and he or she will be pressed, and hopefully prepared, to meet adversity. Whether up against fatigue, gear failure, or deteriorating conditions, eventually the offshore passagemaker will be forced to dig deep to prevail, and become a better sailor because of it.
An around-the-clock sailing itinerary will inevitably include stormier times. And while no one likes being tossed about the cabin, there is a beauty in stormier times as well. The subtle shadings of an approaching squall are never duplicated in photography or painting. Storms can bring every kind of cloud imaginable across the sky in an hour, send birds gliding backwards, and whip the emerald-green tops of waves as the sun shines through them and the ocean changes from a placid sea into a mountain range. Wishing for the wind to stop howling and the sun to come out, and the sheer relief felt when it finally does just that, is a powerful, prevailing experience.
The offshore passage is best left to the prepared boat; there is a reason the vastness of the ocean remains largely untracked, and that a small percentage of sailboats ever made, bought, or sold will ever venture beyond the marina and out this way. Inland, we run the risk that the song of the diesel engine and making good' time take precedence over the song of the wind. With the right conditions, heading out into blue water is easier and more effective than pigeonholing from bay to bay or clinging to canals and waterways. A 24-hour sailing operation allows a direct passage while a daylight-only regimen makes for a fragmented itinerary.
Slowly, With the Flow
By Tom Wood
There is an urge in all of us to sail over the horizon and luxuriate in far-distant lands. When those urges overwhelm us, a long, offshore passage is often necessary to gain this desirable destination.
Open-ocean passages have charms of their own and every sailor should have the ability to enjoy at least a few. The shipboard routine of constant, four-hour watches, the wonder of arriving in a strange place after days of a vacant horizon, and the satisfaction of a successful voyage are all admirable goals on their own merits. A few sailors will be hooked for life by their first crossing, and will need to have a bluewater wake reeling out behind them forever. After all, we own cruising boats in order to travel, to explore, and to soak up the ambiance of strange, new places.
Much like seeing the forest for the trees, however, it is common for sailors to focus on the destination, ignoring all of the features on the chart between where we are and where our hearts lie. In our haste to get there,' we often forget that the greatest discovery of all may well lie just a few miles around the next bend in the shoreline.
Aboard the half-dozen boats on which we have lived, we have enough blue water miles under our keels to be comfortable with the familiar routines offshore. During our passages, a line from an old rock 'n' roll song has sometimes popped into my head. "The ocean is a desert with its life underground," must have been written by a fellow sailor after a few days at sea staring into a never-ending horizon when the sight of a bird, a porpoise, or even a lowly insect can cause quite a stir onboard.
We've come to discover that the hard stuff around the edges, where land and water meet, has almost all of the interesting things that attracted us to cruising in the first place. It has been with great pleasure that we have shed the need to hurry out to the featureless blue yonder to our next destination, and have shut the door on the notion that only real sailors go offshore.' When an opportunity to wend our way slowly by river, lake, and canal to our next major port of call comes along, we take it.
Because the Intracoastal Waterway is the epitome of going to see,' we take it whenever we can. Here is where herons fish endlessly for frogs, where pelicans and eagles soar overhead practicing kamikaze fishing techniques, and where deer come down to the river to quench their thirst. While we think of the U.S. East and Gulf Coasts as being crowded, urban areas, we are always amazed by the vast stretches of untamed wilds that border this original blue highway.
From New York to the Mexican border, man has left innumerable tracks across the sands of time, littering the path with a parade of museums, plaques and statues. Here is where we have encountered some of our most enduring characters, whether nautical or lubberly. And with our leisurely pace have come our favorite memories: the soaring monuments of Washington, DC, soft evening strolls soaking up the charms of the Old South, fresh Florida lobster and grouper, the morning cry of Louisiana roosters, and the friendly high spirits of the Texas coast.
True, all of these experiences require some extra time. And also true that a few bridges, boats, and buildings require more attention to seamanship than an open-ocean passage. For us, the rewards of the sights, sounds, and friends we gather along the route make the extra effort worthwhile. More important, taking the extra time allows us a civil cup of coffee each morning to greet the sunrise and a proper cocktail ceremony to celebrate the sunset. It permits us to stop and smell the roses, and to assimilate and appreciate the interesting things that appear around the next point of land. And who knows what we'll find just around the next bend of the Waterway?
So when we are stateside, you will find Sojourner anchored off a nearby Waterway village. We'll probably be ashore learning to bait sand fleas from the neighboring fishermen, studying the town's historical monuments, and dining on some regional dish that has never crossed our palates before. At sunset, we'll raise a glass of the local brew seaward in a toast to all the hurried cruisers bashing around offshore in the dark and limitless desert.