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Seamanship & Safety - Coastal cruising: planning for success

Bluewater boating may get the glory, but coastal cruising is the greater challenge.

Bluewater boating may get the glory, but coastal cruising is the greater challenge. Offshore, you set your course and, as long as your boat is capable, ride out the occasional gale or storm while keeping a good watch for shipping and large floating debris.


Cruising a coastline, however, presents an obstacle course for both boat and crew, so both must be equipped to assure a safe and enjoyable passage.

First, a definition. To me any voyage during which you are no more than 50 miles offshore and/or you can reach port in 24 hours qualifies as coastal cruising. In this sense, a trip of 200 miles from Cape May, N.J., to Block Island, R.I., would be considered a coastal cruise. As such, the passage would involve both shoal waters close to the coast and deeper waters where ocean conditions prevail.

Until you have cruised a coast, it is easy to imagine there is safety in the proximity of dry land. The reverse is the reality. Close to shore there are shoals and rocks. There is fog that hides both of these, in addition to

Read the other story in this package: Seamanship & Safety - Rough-water boat handling

other vessels. The seas can be rougher, with steep waves close together because of the shallow water. And currents that offshore would simply set you off course can, close to land, set you in harm’s way if you are unaware.

But coastal cruising has benefits that certainly outweigh the hazards. You can visit a new port or anchorage every night. You can choose to travel or to stay put — not an option offshore. You can even stretch your legs on a frequent basis. All you need to make the journey pleasantly memorable is a bit of preparation.

Plot your course

Well before the boat leaves the dock, sit down with your charts and plot a course. You know how much time you have for the cruise, and you know the speed and range of your boat, be it power or sail. Keep in mind that many powerboaters and sailors underestimate fuel consumption — especially when running at high rpm for extended periods of time. Careful and accurate fuel management is critical to a safe and enjoyable cruise.

As a rule, if you try to see how far you can get in your allotted time, your trip will turn into a delivery — mostly work and filled with the anxiety of navigating in unfamiliar waters. In addition to having less fun, you also are less safe when you crowd your cruising schedule into an unrealistic itinerary. So as much as the coastline allows, try to break your passage into short legs that can be managed, for example, in one day with time left once you are on the anchor or in a slip to enjoy your destination and unwind.

Before the trip begins review every one of the legs you have proposed. Check a recently updated cruising guide or two to be sure that where you want to stop has what you need — deep enough water but not too deep, fuel, supplies, protection from seas and wind — and whether anything’s changed since your last visit. And then create a list of waypoints — hand-written and triple-checked — for each leg. It’s always a good idea to have someone confirm on a paper chart the accuracy of the lat/long of each waypoint. After all the waypoints have been entered into the plotter or autopilot, read each lat/long entry back to your checker. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to juxtapose numbers.

And it is surprising how far off a waypoint can be if it isn’t triple-checked. Even a mistake of 1 degree in latitude is a 60-mile error. So check the waypoints before and after you have entered them into your GPS or plotter. And prior to departing, download the latest Coast Guard Notice to Mariners ( ) so that you have the most recent changes in navigational aids.

Paper charts are the touchstone for some boaters, while chart plotters are the choice of others. Both are good to have on board. (Don’t forget to bring pencils, a sharpener and extra reading glasses.) Electronics can fail, so paper is a great backup. But using a chart plotter can be quicker in an emergency than hauling out bulky, creased charts so, when possible, have both on board.

All chart reviewing and plotting — including routes, courses and speeds, navigation aids and anticipated hazards along the route — should be completed and checked prior to casting off. Put a straight edge from one waypoint to the next and carefully inspect the route for obstacles — navigational aids, if nothing else. You might have missed something when you planned the route. Once on the water, take the time to review.

Special considerations

Now is a good time to remind yourself that while making your way along a coast you still might be on the ocean. A couple of points should be kept firmly in mind. Ocean waves, obviously, tend to be larger than those in protected waters, though some of the steepest waves you’ll encounter will be near shore in relatively shallow water with wind against a strong tide. The movement of the boat will at times make keeping your balance difficult. This is of particular concern on a sailboat, where the need will arise to get to the foredeck. On my boat the rule is that on the ocean, no one goes forward without a safety harness that is clipped on to the boat. (In fact, we wear them all the time.) For those on powerboats or sailors not wearing harnesses and clipping on, I recommend donning a proper PFD whenever prudence and conditions warrant doing so.

And any time the wind is coming from abaft the beam, my rule also requires wearing a helmet for protection against the boom in the event of an unplanned jibe. While some may consider that overly cautious, mine has white paint on it from the boom, proving its worth. (Remember, bicycle helmets are inexpensive.) Even for a sailor in a helmet, a swinging boom can cause serious injury. When conditions call for it, rigging a preventer is good strategy.

And because you are on the ocean, your foul-weather gear should be substantial, capable of keeping you warm and dry. And you should have boots that will do the same. Warm feet make for a happy boater.

Of special note for sailors: Reef early and, when it’s warranted, before nightfall, especially if you’re shorthanded. Have a rule for reefing. For example, when the wind tops 12 knots put one reef in the main; 18 knots, two reefs; 25 knots, douse the jib.

Making port

The first time you cruise to a destination, charts and cruising guides alone cannot prepare you for making landfall. Things just look different from out there on the water. Your chart plotter could bring you directly to that green buoy No. 1, and still you may be unable to see red No. 2, which is supposed to be just over there.

Many inlets and harbors have fixed range markers and range lights to assist boaters. Check your chart carefully to determine if established ranges exist, the colors of lights and chartered courses. If you steer by magnetic compass, make sure the range headings are computed in magnetic.

How often you fix or determine your position should depend on your speed over ground and how close you are to potential hazards. At sea, every 30 to 60 minutes or more might be adequate, particularly for a powerboat. A slower cruising boat will be working on longer fix intervals. In close piloting quarters, a good rule of thumb for fix intervals is half the time it will take to sail or motor into possible trouble. For example, if a shoal is one mile (2,000 yards) away, the fix interval will be dictated by the time it will take you to travel a half-mile (1,000 yards).

In harbors and most inlets the seaman’s eye provides continuous fixing, using aids to navigation, depth sounder, radar, smell, sight, hearing — any and every navigational trick you might have in your seabag. And if two or more people are aboard, consider having the most competent person navigate while someone else steers the courses given by the navigator.

When possible plan to arrive well before dark, whatever the destination. And if conditions prevent that, prepare to heave-to or drop the hook in a safe anchorage until daylight. With this in mind, you would do well to practice heaving-to before beginning your voyage. Then, if the need arises, be certain you know the direction of any currents, and choose a spot far enough from land to keep your boat safe during the night.

There is nothing to prevent you at any point from stopping your boat if you are unsure of a situation. If the sails on a sailboat are set, there can be a tendency to leave them up rather than stop. Prudence may well dictate you haul them down and study your situation.

If you plan to travel through the night on your coastal cruise, you will have to keep a watch during the dark hours, just as during daylight. With two or more people on board, set up a watch schedule that relieves each of you after a couple of hours on deck. Nap during the day, accumulating as much sleep time as possible to limit the natural nighttime drowsiness that can overtake you in the hours before dawn and put your boat in danger of a collision. And make sure you’re carrying at least two different style anchors for the most common bottoms you’ll encounter and proper rodes for each.

Eyes, ears, electronics

Two pieces of equipment that are almost indispensable for coastal cruising are the autopilot and radar. Both improve your chances for a safe passage. An autopilot will steer the boat better than you can. Commercial fishermen who spend their lives at sea are not ashamed to hand over the work of steering to the autopilot. You can do the same. Among other benefits, the use of an autopilot allows you to pay more attention to the most important job of a coastal cruiser: keeping watch. Remember, in close quarters, relying on an autopilot to steer can be dangerous, so use good judgment.

Radar enhances your watch-keeping, making some passages possible when otherwise they would be unwise. In a fog so thick that a baseball pitcher couldn’t see the catcher, properly tuned radar gives you the bearing and distance of every object above the water that should concern you. With cloud cover so thick that you have no sun by which to steer, radar cuts through the murk and reveals the outlines of the coast, the locations of buoys, and the presence of shipping. Radar also is an excellent tool for fixing a boat’s position.

Know the sound signals for restricted visibility and be familiar with VHF-FM channel 13, the bridge-to-bridge working channel for commercial vessels. A waterproof hand-held radio in the cockpit is particularly useful for talking to approaching vessels.

A word of caution: Be very proficient at using your electronics before leaving the dock. You should thoroughly learn radar navigation and collision avoidance before cruising at night and before the fog sets in. An early-morning encounter with something large in the shipping lanes is not the time to wish you’d put more effort into mastering your radar.

And once under way, learn to trust your electronics. But also trust your compass and your eyes. When what you see and what the radar — or any other electronic device — shows you don’t agree, slow down or stop and sort things out. Your eyes and ears can play tricks on you, especially at night or in poor visibility. And electronics can fail or go haywire, too. Take your time and work through any conflicting information before proceeding.

Don’t forget to file a float plan with a family member, marina or yacht club before leaving, and update it as you go. The last and perhaps most critical precaution is to regularly monitor the weather. Check the forecast for the entire route and the time you plan to be under way plus a few days. Often, you may be forced to be out longer than you planned.

Keep in mind that forecasts are just that — forecasts. Have a good idea what sea conditions you and your boat are comfortable handling and plan accordingly. And, finally, enjoy yourself.