Sea Savvy November 2006 - Soundings Online

Sea Savvy November 2006

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Finding good anchorages and marinas

Guide books are a good tool but shouldn’t be your only source when deciding where to put in for the night

Finding good anchorages and marinas

Guide books are a good tool but shouldn’t be your only source when deciding where to put in for the night

 

We’d been in the Bahamas only a few days. It was our first winter there, and we were overwhelmed with the beauty. We were soon to be overwhelmed with fear. We’d crossed the Great Bahama Bank and carefully picked our way through the narrow, reef-lined channel leading to the shallow water between Frazer’s Hog Cay and Bird Cay. The guide books said there was an anchorage. We reached it and put over the CQR, watching it through the clear water as the strong current pulled Chez Nous back and the anchor disappeared into the soft sand. It dug in deeper still as we backed down. Perfect.

A front blew through early the next morning, with rain and winds gusting to 40 knots. As the wind clocked around to the north, it funneled down between the two islands. At first the current flowed with the wind and we rode comfortably, our bow to the waves. In the early afternoon the tide changed and began racing against the wind. Chez Nous sailed up on her anchor chain, leaving the hook still buried in its original spot but off astern, with the chain looping around over the bottom. We lay between the wind and the current, beam to the waves. The rolling was merciless. The guide books had left out this feature.

I couldn’t see the anchor as the water clouded with sand from the waves, and I began to worry about how well it remained set. If I’d known more I would have worried less, but this was my first Bahamas trip. I put on my flippers, mask and snorkel and jumped in, swimming astern to check. The anchor was fine, and I began swimming back. I stopped and looked up to our stern where my wife, Mel, and our two daughters anxiously watched. I could see their mouths shouting, and they were pointing behind me. I treaded water and turned. The water rippled as something huge moved; I saw a fin. I kicked so hard toward the boat that I lost a flipper, losing much of my swimming power along with it. I grabbed a rope that Mel had thrown into the water and hauled myself up the ladder, hanging on as the boat heaved from side to side.

“Let’s get out of here,” we all agreed. We pulled up anchor and headed back out the passage toward Chub Cay Marina. We’d passed its entrance as we came in. It was blasted through rock, with a dogleg to keep out surge. When we entered, all was calm. We asked for a slip. “No problem, mon.” We spent several relaxed days there, waiting for the weather to settle before heading to Nassau. Almost every year since, we’ve stopped at that marina. Now it has new owners and a fancy “rebuild,” and prices are too high for me, so I probably won’t stop there again. The hunt goes on for anchorages and marinas.

Bad anchorages often have led us to good marinas, or we’ll stop at a marina because there’s simply no place to anchor. But we’d rather find good anchorages and good marinas by choice. Here are some of the things we consider.

Finding good anchorages

We all like a pretty anchorage. But unless we look for other important features we may wish we’d never seen that anchorage. We still don’t always get it right, as those of you anchored in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., perhaps noticed last spring when we reanchored five times in one evening. But we try.

A good guide book can be a great tool for finding anchorages, as well as for other information. But it shouldn’t be your only source of information, as descriptions of anchorages may have been written by someone with a very different boat than yours. A smaller boat can safely fit into an anchorage that might be too tight for you; a larger boat might find ideal a relatively open anchorage that could be too rough for you.

Some reports might be from well-intentioned people trying to be helpful but who lack experience. Their pleasant stay might have been more a matter of good luck than a good anchorage. Their boat may have swung nicely up and down the deep water passage as the tide changed, not finding the shallow banks on both sides. With the wind blowing briskly off one of those banks on another night, a boat might have swung into the opposite bank as the tide turns, leaving it stranded high and dry as the tide drops. And if the guide book has an accurate description, the anchorage will probably be full of other boats, all following the lead. Overcrowding makes any anchorage bad.

It’s also important to realize that just because a guide book is said to be “updated annually” doesn’t mean that every anchorage has been personally checked out every year. This would take a great deal of time and expense. The fact that the guide book incorporates reports from readers doesn’t necessarily help with this for the reasons noted above.

Use a good guide book but also use your common sense. If a guide book says that an anchorage is good but “you must squeeze by a shoal coming out from the north side of the entrance,” assume that this shoal may now be all the way across or that the entrance slot is much shallower. Change is constant on the water, so buy updated guide books every year.

Consider the circumstances

Desirable characteristics of a storm anchorage might be totally different from what you need if you’re looking for a scenic view on a flat calm night in settled weather. A place to hang for a long period of time could have different requirements than a dawn-to-dusk stopover spot. An anchorage where wakes likely will roll in from boats in a nearby channel might be acceptable if you know the wind is going to point your bow into those wakes — I never seem to get this right — but it’ll be awful if you’ll be lying abeam to them.

Study the charts

Observe the topography, particularly if you’re expecting bad weather. You want to anchor, if possible, with high ground between you and the wind. And you certainly don’t want a long fetch from the direction of the wind forecast. Check to see if your prospective spot is up a river or a bay that will have a tidal surge, and if that high water will cover part of the ground that you’re relying on for protection.

Look for charted shoals. In many if not most areas, shoals shift and change. Study them in relation to the type of bottom and the direction and amount of water flow to assess whether they may have built out from charted positions.

Consider current. A shallow anchorage might have less current than a deep one. A bend might have more current than a straight, wide stretch. A relatively narrow stretch through which much water flows likely will have strong current. We once were caught by weather and darkness and tried to anchor in South Carolina’s Winyah Bay with two anchors (a mistake). After we buried our CQR, we tried to deploy a Danforth with chain. It swam out on the current and never reached the bottom. Thankfully, the CQR did fine by itself.

Observe the shoreline

If I’m expecting a storm, I don’t want to anchor upwind of a shoreline studded by old pilings, docks, rocks or other damaging material. Also, I avoid anchoring close to shorelines with houses, particularly if I’m going to hang out for several days or more. I don’t want to invade other people’s sense of privacy any more than I want mine invaded when someone anchors too close to me. Even if I’m just stopping for the night, I try to stay as far away from people’s homes and yards as possible. I might have the right to anchor in the navigable water, and people who build houses on the shore should expect to see boats in close proximity, but I see no point in invading privacy unless it’s necessary.

And there are other shores I avoid. I don’t anchor close to a shoreline with mangroves unless I have no-see-um netting. I avoid shorelines downwind of highways or industrial areas unless I want to spend the next day cleaning oily grime from the decks and Bimini top. And I always avoid anchoring downwind from cow pastures.

The bottom

On a late afternoon in August some 30 years ago we found the perfect anchorage — or so we thought. It was in a secluded cove off Indian Creek on the Western Shore of Chesapeake Bay, between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. Forest grew on the banks rising over the sheltered waters. We sat in the cockpit in the evening, listening to the tree frogs and crickets and the gentle breeze rustling the leaves around us.

During the night the breeze began to pick up. I felt a slightly different motion in the boat and got up to look out the porthole. Those pretty trees were almost over the boat, reaching out for the mast. We were dragging. We pulled in the anchor, covering the foredeck and me with a mess of mud and stinging nettles. We motored to the upwind side of the cove and set the hook again. I was very thankful for the shower so I could get all the mud and slime off my body before I crawled back between the sheets, exhausted.

Less than an hour later we were on the move again, heading toward those beautiful trees. Again, we clambered on deck, started the engine, pulled in the slime-covered mess of rope, chain and anchor, and set it upwind. Another shower — this time cold, and the smell of bottom mud lingered on me as I crawled between the sheets. The scene would repeat itself two more times before we finally felt our way out of that perfect cove, headed up the creek, and found an old fishing dock to lie alongside.

The type of bottom obviously is critical when you’re looking for a good anchorage. But unless you’re in exceptionally clear water, such as that in much of the Bahamas, you can’t see it. But you do have clues. In the anchoring nightmare described above, we overlooked the fact that while some of the prettiest anchorages are in wooded coves, for centuries trees have been dropping leaves into those coves. And often there’s been little current all those centuries. The leaves settle to the bottom and turn to watery mud that’s so deep even a good anchor with plenty of chain will have difficulty reaching the thicker mud or sand far below.

Carrying more than one type of anchor on board can give you more options as to the bottoms that will hold you. We carry a CQR, two Fortresses and a fisherman’s anchor, the latter for temporary emergency holding over a rocky bottom. The Fortress is more likely to hold well in hard-packed sand than the CQR, while the CQR, set in good mud, is less likely to be tripped by a reversing chain if a strong current reverses direction in the night.

But even the best gear won’t do well in a bad bottom — for example, soupy mud, shale and rock. Some of these bottoms may hold temporarily, but that’s not what you want. One well-known advertisement depicts an anchor hooked on a rock, as if this is good. All it would take with that scene is for the rock to break (they often do) or for the wind or current to change, causing the anchor to pull from the opposite direction and slip loose. My favorite bottoms are composed of thick mud and/or gray clay (the latter requiring extra work to dig in but holding really well once you’re hooked), soft sand or a combination of mud and sand and/or small shells.

In addition to the suggestions from guide books, carefully study charts for indications of bottom makeup. Although we’ve seen variations of symbols, usually “S” means sand, “R,” “Rk” or “Rky” means rock or rocky, “Grs” means grass, and “M” means mud. Further, “sft” or “so” means soft, “hrd” or “h” means hard, and “sy” or “stk” means sticky.

As you approach, look at the nearby banks. If it’s rocky, there likely will be rocks below. If it’s forest, there may be mud below, soupy or perhaps thick if there is current. If it’s a flowing river or creek, there may be sand below, depending upon the area you’re in. In many areas along the East Coast, such as the lower Carolinas through northern Florida, rivers and creeks often have good mud bottoms. However, there are significant exceptions to what you may expect. For example, many areas in New England have rocky shores but good holding mud on the bottom. If there’s another boat, ask what the bottom composition is. If the skipper doesn’t know, consider moving to another anchorage.

When backing down on your anchor and rode, watch the chain. A chain rode, in addition to its many other good features, telegraphs bottom characteristics well. If it jumps about, it’s probably dragging over a rocky bottom. If it pulls back smoothly, there’s more likely to be mud or soft sand. You often can hear the bottom talking to you along the chain, as the swish of sand or the clank of rock. I also put my bare foot on the chain to feel these signals. For example, sand will often send up a vibration. Be careful: If the chain isn’t secured well or if it snags suddenly it could crush a limb, foot or hand. If you still aren’t reasonably sure, pull up your anchor and see what’s on it. A clean anchor usually means hard sand, while a muddy anchor speaks for itself.

Finding good marinas

One of the reasons we’ve been able to cruise for so many years is that we don’t stop at marinas every night. Dockage fees can eat up a budget with a vengeance, and in recent years the fees have gotten so high that it’s been difficult for us to stay at marinas. We’ve made numerous trips up and down the East Coast without stopping at a marina except for fuel. We’ve remained at anchor in the Bahamas for months at a time, going ashore by dinghy for supplies and fuel. So when we do stop at a marina, it’s a special experience for us and we choose carefully.

We’ve gone to a marina because there wasn’t a good anchorage nearby, as was the case at Chub Cay, to escape bad weather, or for supplies or repairs. Sometimes we’ll stop to see special friends, to enjoy the locale, or simply to relax since you’re never really off-duty at anchor. Your specific reason for stopping at a marina should influence your choice. But regardless of the reason for stopping, we always look for certain things. Because of this, some of the nicest, most memorable times we’ve had cruising have been in marinas.

Viva la difference

I recently read a news article in which a young developer was quoted as saying that boaters want the same things in marinas that travelers want in motels, night after night. I don’t think so. It’s great to find a marina with a unique perspective, which may come from its locale, its view, a nearby restaurant, or perhaps something as simple yet important as the people there. Unlike highway travelers, we bring our beds, bathrooms, kitchens and “sitting rooms” with us. If you’re traveling in a smaller, open boat (a great way to go) you may be looking for a nice motel at the end of the day, but these are seldom operated by the marina itself.

Running a good marina well is getting tougher every day, for many reasons: environmental restrictions (maintaining a profitable fuel dock can be like flying a lead balloon), skyrocketing costs of doing anything around the water, vulnerability to weather damage, and the fact that more and more people are getting into boating without a clue as to what they’re getting into. It isn’t uncommon for someone to bitterly complain because the shore power burned out while the boat had two hair dryers, a galley stove, two air conditioners and a hot water tank all sucking in the juice. But a few marina operators simply don’t do a good job, either because they don’t have the budget or don’t seem to care. Dirty bathrooms, corroded shore plugs, entrance depths shallower than reported, and unpleasant dock personnel are high on my list for bypassing a particular marina. But we find that these are in the minority.

Personnel

Marina personnel can make a huge difference. A friendly, helpful, knowledgeable dock hand or office manager is invaluable. People who understand boat handling and docking issues are hard to find or train. (Many would say it’s also hard to find skippers who understand these things.) Then there are some dock personnel who seem to think they’re doing you a favor to let you come in. We’ve noticed this particularly in the areas where boaters will spend anything just for the chance to hang onto a piling, not realizing there are other options.

It takes knowledge, training and skill to be a good dock person. The work can be both difficult and dangerous. If a skipper guns the engine at the wrong time when a dock person is cleating a spring line, the person could lose his hand. Helpers can be crushed between boats and piers when the skipper does something wrong while a fender is being inserted. When a skipper insists on docking and getting help during lightning storms, all are in severe danger.

There’s often the potential for dangerous disconnect, because the skipper might not know the dock person’s degree of competence and vice versa. I look for marinas where I’ve had good experiences with dock personnel and I always tip dock personnel, unless there are good reasons to not do so, which is rare.

Shelter and approach

With decreasing waterfront access, we’re seeing marinas in areas where a few years ago no one would have considered building one. Unless we’re really sure about the weather (and we seldom are) we avoid marinas with open fetches. When considering a marina’s exposure to open water, remember that docks that are protected in normal weather may face miles of open water if, for example, the protection comes from low land or marsh that becomes submerged during a storm or a full or new moon.

Shallow water, a narrow-entrance channel or current sweeping across the channel are some of the things that can make an approach difficult. You might be cruising an area where all the marinas have a lot of current, at least across the entrance channel. Better marinas will have a plan to help you. Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor in St. Augustine, Fla., for example, is a first-class marina within a protected basin, and it’s accessed from a fast-moving river, a characteristic endemic to the area. The marina has a navigational range to help you to line up with the channel as you come in, jetties to help slow down the transverse current, and many channel markers close together within the jetties.

Anytime there may be an entrance issue, check the charts and aerials in guide books for as much information as you can find about the approach. Call the marina and ask specific questions.

Elbow room

As developers try to squeeze more docks into less space, room to maneuver is becoming a serious problem. And we’ve often found that when we ask inexperienced marina personnel in advance, some don’t appreciate maneuvering issues. Tell them your boat’s length, and whether it has twin or single screws and a full or short keel. This is not the time for the “modest mariner syndrome” (understating the length of your boat because you’ll be charged by the foot). If the marina is new to you, check additional sources.

Turning basins within a marina can make it easier to maneuver. A few marinas we’ve come across with good turning basins are Morehead City Yacht Basin and Bald Head Island Marina in North Carolina, Harbour Town Yacht Basin at Hilton Head, S.C., and Beach Marine in Jacksonville Beach, Fla. Camachee Cove in St. Augustine not only has a large turning basin but a specially modified pushboat to help if needed. Once, after completing what I thought was one of my best docking jobs, I stood up to modestly receive compliments from those on the dock. I followed their gazes to see the pushboat backing away from my starboard quarter. It had done the hard part, despite my feeble attempts.

Current

There are many areas where current at the docks can’t be helped. Docks on the banks of rivers almost always have current to some extent. You should know just by looking at the chart. When you talk to the marina personnel, ask about the current at your expected time of arrival and departure, and for instructions. You’ll usually be able to tell whether they’re familiar with the issues and will be helpful.

Some of the most current-plagued marinas we’ve encountered have had personnel who were so skilled and knowledgeable that they made docking a pleasure, including Beaufort Docks in North Carolina, Charleston City Marina and Beaufort Downtown Marina in South Carolina, and the Fort Pierce City Marina in Florida. (Most of the exposed docks at the Fort Pierce facility were destroyed in Hurricane Frances, but the plan is to rebuild, and the inner docks are open for business.) Wentworth by the Sea Marina in New Castle, N.H., has a turning basin and some current at its docks when the tide is running, but it also has two Avon pushboats to help if needed.

Ease of fueling

Some marinas have fuel docks that are stuck in a corner and almost unreachable except for very small boats. Others, like Midway Marina in Coinjock, N.C., Beaufort Docks and Camachee Cove have fueling stations at many of the slips. Camachee Cove also has easy-access fuel docks that run both east/west and north/south to give options for different winds.

Access to what you want

Look for a marina that’s close to the things you want or that will help you get to where you want to go. It’s great to find a marina that’s next to a good chandlery, a huge grocery store, five-star restaurant, your favorite fast-food place, a Home Depot, a historical landmark and the view of a lifetime. However, it doesn’t happen unless the marina has a loaner car, and this is becoming more common.

Camachee Cove has two loaner cars, and a healthy walk gets you into the heart of the St. Augustine Historic District. The Kingfish Grill, a very popular restaurant, is on the premises. Wentworth by the Sea Marina has three loaner cars, and a water taxi and trolley stop there. Beaufort Docks has courtesy cars. Morehead City Yacht Basin has a courtesy minivan, and restaurants and practical shopping are nearby. Charleston City Marina has a pick-up van that’ll take you around the city, like your own private taxi. Bluewater Yachting Center in Hampton, Va., has a launch that takes you to the heart of downtown Hampton.

Many marinas are within walking distance of special attractions or tourist destinations. For example, Harbour Town Yacht Basin is itself a famous resort destination, with shops, restaurants, and exceptional golf and tennis. The world-famous ocean beach of Fort Lauderdale is just a short walk from the Las Olas Marina, as are the restaurants and shops of Las Olas Boulevard, which attract tourists the world over. And unlike many resort marinas, you also can access an immense network of marine repair and service facilities from here. (See Page 46 for more on Fort Lauderdale.) The West 79th Street Boat Basin (with moorings) in New York City is a few blocks from Broadway, Central Park and numerous museums. All along the East Coast you can cruise to rejuvenated city waterfront areas with nice marinas, including Baltimore, Norfolk and Portsmouth, Va., Jacksonville, Fla., Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga., Washington, D.C., Miami and Boston.

When you’re cruising and need a boatyard rather than a luxury marina, it’s nice to find a place that has both, like Bluewater Yachting Center, Camachee Cove or Thunderbolt Marina in the Savannah area. Importantly, the work areas in these facilities are separate from the transient docks.

One thing I always want — and this seems to be true of most cruisers — is WiFi at a marina. This is immensely helpful for many things, such as doing business and finding out about the next stop. Many people have told us that this is a major consideration when they choose a marina. It isn’t very expensive for a facility to install a system, and we’re finding that many that offer this service don’t charge their customers for it.

Research

How do you find out what’s ahead if you don’t already know? Before you cruise, ask friends who’ve been there for their recommendations. And guide books can be of value if their reports are current and written by experienced people. Aerial photographs can help you evaluate access, maneuvering room, dock layout and many other features. Some guides have heavy advertising, and this also can be a great help. You can’t expect the writers of any guide book to literally give a surprise visit by boat to every marina every year. Some, such as the Waterway Guide, assign contributors who travel the covered areas every year, and have ad sales people visit. But even with this degree of thoroughness it’s still difficult to stop and evaluate every spot every year. We also like to hear the story from the marina itself through its ad.

Use the Internet. Because space is relatively cheap on a Web site, you may find more information there than in print ads. It’s easy enough to check out marinas from your home. Many have live webcams so you can see real-time images. And it’s getting easier to get online from a boat — even smaller ones. We regularly go online while under way using a Verizon KPC650 air card, the DA SBR 400 cell signal amplifier system by Digital Antenna, and the KR1 EVDO router. Unfortunately some businesses tend to neglect updating sites once they’re up, so it’s important to follow up by phone. Use the cell or telephone to ask detailed questions. Marinas can’t give out much business information on the VHF, nor can they tie up their radios with long conversations.

The final analysis

Before you enter a marina, stand off for a few minutes — if it’s safe and practical to do so — and give it a good visual checkout. There’s nothing like seeing first-hand what it’s really like. Use binoculars if it’ll help; it usually does. Look to see if Chez Nous is in there. If she is, it’s probably because we like it. We travel thousands of miles every year and have checked out a lot of marinas. Of course, it may be that we’re there because we just blew another transmission.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at www.tomneale.com .