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


Ol Bill said...

Dear Scott:

Enjoyed your blog, thanks. I am a pocket cruiser sailor and enjoy 3 season sailing on a mountain rimmed TVA highland lake. Last Spring my wife and I spent a week and a few days out on an extended trip. Stayed on the boat a few of the days and camped on Big Island the rest of the time.

A highlight was walking on a trail identifying rare wild flowers and later trout fishing from the island. One night we were blessed with a hauntingly beautiful shimmering moon.

Happy Sails!

I moderate the Micro Cruiser's SubGroup if you would like to visit my pocket cruiser blog:

Ol Bill

Scott B. Williams said...

Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'll definately visit your Micro Cruiser's group and blog. By the way, I haven't updated here at Island Time Online in quite awhile, but I'm glad you found it anyway. For newer stuff check out my new Scott's Boat Pages blog: