Monday, June 20, 2005

Small Boat Sailing & Beachcruising

Dealing with hurricane evacuations, boatyard haulouts and bottom jobs, not to mention monthly slip rentals sometimes makes me wonder why I ever quit kayaking and small boat sailing and "moved up" to a boat with a deep keel that has to be kept in the water all the time. There's a lot to be said for a boat that can be brought home on a trailer and forgotten about when it's not needed between trips. Here's an article I recently wrote about the appeal of sailing these kind of boats on multiday camping trips. Some people call this kind of sailing "Beach Cruising."

Beachcruising Under Sail

Mississippi’s barrier islands, lying just at the edge of visibility across the sound on a clear day, are an irresistible lure to owners of all types of boats along the mainland shore. Since camping is permitted on the beaches of all the islands in the Gulf Islands National Seashore except for West Ship Island, you don’t have to have a large boat with sleeping accommodations to spend a weekend “on island time.” Many powerboaters already know this, and on fair weather weekends it’s not uncommon to see dozens of small boats of every description either beached or anchored near shore, with tents and sun shelters erected on the sand nearby. Although I have personally made dozens of extended trips to the islands by sea kayak and aboard my 26-foot cruising sailboat, some of my most memorable trips have been on small open sailboats more commonly used for daysailing near shore. Using such a boat for extended overnight trips is often referred to as “beachcruising,” because you can get in close to shore in shoal waters other sailcraft cannot reach and you use the beach for camping at night.

The variety of small sailboats suitable for beachcruising is almost endless. Some of the smallest daysailors, of course, don’t have the load-carrying capacity for this kind of sailing, but almost any sailboat that can carry 2-3 people can be modified for beachcruising, provided the basic design is seaworthy enough to handle a chop. Open sailboats without decks provide no built in storage for gear or shelter for the crew, but can still be suitable for beachcruising with the right gear. Today’s ultralight camping gear and the absolutely waterproof “dry bags” that have been developed for sports such as sea kayaking and whitewater rafting, make it possible to carry everything you need for comfortable camping in an open boat with assurance that your sleeping bag, clothing and food will still be dry when you arrive at your campsite. With this sort of gear it’s even possible to beachcruise on boats as spartan as the ubiquitous Hobie Cat catamaran by lashing the dry bags to the trampoline. Long coastal trips have been made by adventurous sailors using such an arrangement, so an overnight trip to the barrier islands is not out of the question for most open sailboats.

Some small sailboats are designed specifically with beachcruising in mind, and come with built-in watertight storage areas and at least partial decks to improve seaworthiness and make it easier to carry gear. These boats are optimized for overnight traveling and despite the lack of a cabin have many of the safety features found on larger cruising boats, such as self-bailing cockpits and ample ballast for self-righting. Some are even designed for sleeping on board under a boom tent or other collapsible shelter, which still qualifies as beachcruising because you can usually anchor such a small boat right up near the beach in the shallows that other boats can’t enter.

In addition to a seaworthy boat, basic camping gear and a way to keep it dry, you will need navigation and safety gear such as a hand-held GPS receiver, a compass, a hand-held VHF radio, an anchor or two, oars or a small outboard for back-up propulsion if the wind dies, signal flares, PFDs for everyone on board and other basic boating gear.

The catamaran shown in the photos is a simple, yet seaworthy and fast James Wharram design that I built myself several years ago. It is 17-feet wide with a 10-foot overall beam and weighs only 250 pounds unloaded. It has a load-carrying capacity of 550 pounds of crew and gear, and can sail at speeds up to 12 knots in the right conditions. The hulls are segmented into multiple storage areas by watertight bulkheads, adding to the safety of the design and allowing one to carry everything needed for extended beachcruising trips. On board this boat I have sailed to all of the Mississippi barrier islands as well as explored areas of Florida’s coast. There’s nothing quite like skimming along at speed over the flats north of the islands, knowing you can go anywhere you like with a draft of only 12 inches.

There are many excellent resources available in print and on the web for those interested in learning more about beachcruising. Two excellent books are Douglas Alvord’s Beachcruising, International Marine Publishing, 1992, and Ida Little’s Beachcruising and Coastal Camping, Wescott Cove Publishing, 1992. The Small Craft Advisor is a print magazine for small boat sailors with an informative website at: For more information on James Wharram catamarans go to

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Preparing your Boat for Hurricane Season

(Note: I wrote the following article for South Mississippi Outdoors and Recreation)

If you own a sailboat that is too large to easily bring home on a trailer and you must keep it in the water year-round on the Gulf Coast, you need to seriously consider what you will do when the next hurricane approaches. Boats often fare worse than buildings when these storms strike the coastline, getting seriously damaged, sunk, or destroyed. You can minimize the chances of this, however, if you take the time in advance to make a plan and to equip your boat with the storm survival gear you will need.

In most marinas, particularly those located “out front” on the Mississippi coast, it is not safe to leave your boat tied up in the slip during a hurricane. The marina will require an evacuation of all boats if the forecast suggests a strong enough storm is approaching. In such a storm the water will rise several feet above normal levels and boats in marinas are subject to damage by breaking waves that wash over seawalls because of this water rise. The other danger is from the docks and pilings themselves, which can quickly destroy boats that are slammed against them in storm conditions. Plan to evacuate your marina early at the approach of a hurricane.

The first step in your hurricane plan should be to have a list of everything that is necessary to move your boat and make sure these things are on board before hurricane season arrives. You will need full tanks of fuel for your auxiliary engine, fuel for your cooking stove, drinking and cooking water, food and snack supplies for the time underway while evacuating, and such supplies as batteries and spare parts for all important systems on board. You should equip the boat with supplies for a trip of at least a week, because after a hurricane hits the area, it is often impossible to return to the marina for several days in the aftermath.

With these basic supplies on board, you now need to think about how you will secure your boat in the storm. Even in a protected bay or bayou you may experience strong winds that will tear your boat loose from your standard cruising anchor. You should have on board no less than four anchors of the appropriate size for your boat. The anchors should be designed for the bottom conditions where you expect to take refuge. Some are best for mud and sand bottoms; others are designed to work well in grass or rock. At least one of these anchors should be a greatly oversized storm anchor.

Each anchor should be accompanied by its own dedicated anchor rode, consisting of the right-sized nylon rope or chain, or a combination of both. If your boat does not have an adequate number of sufficiently strong cleats for securing all these anchors, be sure to install them before a hurricane threatens. All cleats and deck hardware should be reinforced with backing plates under the deck. Many well-anchored boats are lost because hurricane force winds tear hardware right out of the decks.

In addition to the anchors and rodes you have on board, you should have several extra-long lengths of heavy nylon line for securing your boat to trees and other solid objects ashore. These lines cannot be too long. Even in a wooded bayou, your draft may prohibit you from getting close to such objects on shore. I suggest carrying four such lines at least 200 and preferably 300 feet long for a hurricane evacuation. You will also need anti-chafing gear, which you can make yourself from pieces of an old plastic garden hose. Without some protection against chafe, even brand new lines can quickly wear through and part at their attachment points on deck in the extreme strain they will be subjected to in hurricane conditions. Otherwise well-secured boats are often lost this way.

All these anchors, extra lines and supplies cost money, but if you keep your boat in a place likely to get hit by a hurricane, look at it as the best insurance money can buy. The important thing to remember is to act early. These items should be a part of your vessel’s essential gear. Don’t make the mistake of waiting until a hurricane is bearing down across the Gulf to go out and shop for extra anchors and line. The shelves of the marine and hardware stores will be cleaned out by all the unprepared boaters buying this stuff up in a panic and you’ll wish you had gone ahead and spent the money on it when you could have.

The recent threat of Tropical Storm Arlene was a wake-up call and a test-run for many boaters on the Mississippi coast. If you’re not prepared already, now is the time to get it done before the real thing comes.

Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season

Even before the official beginning of hurricane season we've already been under the threat of a tropical storm on the northern Gulf coast. Last weekend, despite being sick for two weeks with some kind of chest congestion I was afraid might develop into pneumonia, I had to rush to Biloxi to secure Intensity as Tropical Storm Arlene was bearing down across the Gulf.

Last year's monster storm: Hurricane Ivan, understandably has made a lot of folks along the Gulf coast nervous about hurricanes, but some of these people over-reacted regarding the relatively insignificant threat Arlene posed. Arlene never quite reached hurricane status, and stayed right on the predicted track across the Gulf to make landfall around the Alabama/Florida line. Since it passed well to the east of the Mississippi coast, we barely got any rain out of it and just a few strong wind gusts of maybe 30-40 knots. I stayed aboard Intensity in the marina, as did many of my neighbors, and with doubled-up dock lines felt I would be fine there if if a storm of this strength made a direct hit.

The Friday before Arlene arrived a lot of folks panicked, and the marina where I keep Intensity ordered a mandantory evacuation. Evacuation was not really an option at such last minute notice for a lot of us who live far from the coast. Feeling the way I did from two weeks of coughing and not being able to work, I knew I wasn't going to be able to make a frantic dash for Back Bay and the bayous and go through the routine of setting four anchors, tying off to trees, etc. I felt confident the forecast track was correct and waited until Friday night to drive down. I found that several of the liveaboard boat owners in the marina refused to evacuate as well, and by the time I got there the harbormaster had unofficially retracted the evacuation order, as by then everyone was confident that Arlene was not going to be a serious threat.

Hanging out down below during the light rain the next day that was all we felt as Arlene passed by well to the east, I put together an article for my monthly piece in South Mississippi Outdoors and Recreation about preparing your sailboat for a hurricane evacuation. In my experience during these storm threats, I find that only a small percentage of boat owners actually have the gear on board that they will need to secure their boats, and many do not even think about it until it is too late. Nothing on board is more important, in my mind, than proper ground tackle and other gear to secure your boat, especially if you keep it in a hurricane-prone area like anywhere on the Gulf of Mexico. Keeping a boat in such a place can be a real headache during hurricane season, but it will be a lot less stressful if you and your boat are prepared in advance.