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Small-boat cruising - Less is more

It’s all about simplicity, independence and exploration for this sailor

It’s all about simplicity, independence and exploration for this sailor

After 30-odd years of sailing Chesapeake Bay, one of the better lessons I’ve learned about boats is that less is more: A smaller boat means less cost, fewer repairs, and more time out on the water. In other words, more boat doesn’t necessarily translate into more boating.

Read the other stories in this package:   Small boat - great adventure   Small-boat country

Having owned a series of daysailers and very small keelboats, I graduated several years ago to a 26-foot Island Packet. The smallest IP model built, it’s been out of production for two decades. But for me — given the local waters, what I want to find out there, and the time and resources I have available — it’s the perfect boat for the Chesapeake, and I’ve used it a lot.

In just the past couple of years I’ve logged about 1,500 miles through five states: circumnavigating the Delmarva Peninsula; sailing from Annapolis, Md., to Norfolk, Va., and back; and looping south into the Intracoastal Waterway and Dismal Swamp Canal. Sandwiched around these voyages have been lots of shorter trips closer to my mid-Bay homeport of Galesville, Md., exploring the more remote parts of the Eastern Shore. This sturdy little boat of a certain age (almost 25 years) has taken me and my various crew the full length and breadth of the Chesapeake and beyond — from Delaware Bay to Albemarle Sound.

In fact, precisely because of its size, Bearboat has provided adventure and fun that would have been impossible to experience with a bigger boat. Since I ultimately view the water as one of the last truly wild places, what I want is a boat that’s big and tough enough to handle the inevitable heavy weather; small and shallow enough to sneak into anchorages I’d otherwise never reach; and dependable and well-engineered enough to do so with safety and comfort (to the extent the weather permits comfort).

I don’t expect or even want luxury in a boat. In my contrarian view, the more toys I bring, the more they will break or get in the way. For reasons both practical and philosophical, I want simplicity and reliability in a boat — and those are far more likely to be found on a small boat.

Why this boat

Although the average depth of the Chesapeake is around 30 feet, the most beautiful and intriguing parts to me have always been around 3 feet deep. The Bay’s best anchorages and most private gunkholes are to be found in the shallows.

Over the years, as I’ve gotten older and the cabins of my other boats managed to keep shrinking, I realized I needed the biggest small boat I could find — one with as big a cabin and cockpit as possible but also drawing as little as possible. It also had to be pretty — whatever time I have left cannot be spent sailing a homely boat.

The IP-26 scored high in all essential categories. Bearboat is very beamy (10 feet) and its cabin quite spacious for its length. It even has standing headroom for its 6-foot, 1-inch skipper and sleeps three adults with ease. With the centerboard up, it draws only 2 feet, 10 inches, so it can slip into most of the places I want to go. And with its classic lines, bowsprit, full keel and expansive use of teak, it has a beautifully traditional look.

It also is strongly built, something Island Packets are known for. I accidentally demonstrated this during my Delmarva trip, when we managed to run aground on the north side of Delaware Bay and spent almost a half-hour bouncing across a sandbar in 3-foot waves and healthy winds, slowly lurching back to deep water under full sail and power. Not many boats would take that punishment for that long without damage; my little bear of a boat only lost some bottom paint.

Given Bearboat’s age, it took a good bit of work and money to bring it back to prime condition for serious cruising. But I have the skills and interest to make most of my own repairs, and the experience taught me a lot about the boat and its systems. Spreading the work out over a few years also made the costs affordable and allowed me to make the modifications I wanted, rather than having to live with earlier alterations.

Cruising logistics

One of my mottos on the water is, “We’re not out here to suffer” — even though Bearboat, by design, doesn’t have all the comforts of home. Here’s how we manage without luxury.

The boat has no radar or autopilot, which saves thousands of dollars on complex electronic and mechanical systems and also prevents a significant drain on the batteries.

The boat has no refrigeration system, another big expense and substantial electrical burden. During long cruises, we use multiple ice chests (with extra insulation): a big one for food, a smaller one for beverages, and a third for extra ice. (“No warm beer” is another motto on board.) This arrangement holds the ice for three days or more, which typically has been long enough to resupply. While this takes up some real estate in the cabin, the ice chests can be tucked nicely out of the way. Dry goods are stored in the cabin’s built-in icebox.

The boat has no hot water or pressure water system, although it does have a small inline electric pump that provides hands-free fresh water in the galley. Having heard countless stories of failed hot-water systems, I’m happy to simply heat water on the stove when needed; our on-board shower is the solar water bag left on deck.

Bearboat has a two-burner alcohol stove and barbecue but no oven or propane, so I don’t have to worry about leaking gas. For heavy-weather dinners under way, I pack frozen bags of gourmet one-dish meals, cooked and vacuum-packed at home. At sea, the sealed plastic bags are simply dropped in a pot of boiling water to heat before serving.

The three electronic devices I depend on are a color GPS chart plotter at the helm, an accurate depth-sounder, and a waterproof hand-held VHF radio. They get a lot of use.

Learn the boat

More than any equipment or upgrades, the biggest factor that prepared me for cruising was learning the boat. I needed help in three areas in particular at first.

• The diesel: Having never driven any vehicle with a diesel engine, I signed up for a weekend-long, hands-on course on the basics of marine diesel repair, held in a mechanic’s shop. Obviously, I’m still no expert but I can identify problems fairly quickly and (so far) have fixed them myself. Self-reliance is a priority on the water, so learning basic engine maintenance was an essential skill.

• Docking: Another essential skill to learn was docking and backing a boat with a single-screw inboard. For this I researched boating books and Web sites, consulted experienced skippers, took a day-long course in docking, and practiced. Now, I usually dock my boat stern-first in the slip without trouble (wind and current permitting); docking has become a routine instead of a drama. Also extremely useful is knowing how to warp a boat — using dock lines to spin the boat around a piling, for instance, in a tight fairway.

• Rules of the Road: As my cruising horizons expanded, so did my potential for sailing into new kinds of trouble: crossing busy shipping lanes (the mouths of Delaware and Chesapeake bays); dealing with oil tankers and chemical barges (Delaware Bay); and threading past swarms of armed Naval security boats (Norfolk Naval Base). Perhaps the biggest danger is other boaters who don’t know and couldn’t care less what they’re supposed to do (or not do) on the water. Since ignorance can be deadly out here, I had to improve my knowledge of the Rules of the Road.

A small boat’s big benefits

Of all my adventures in Bearboat, it was last spring’s voyage down the Chesapeake and into the Dismal Swamp Canal/ICW that repeatedly demonstrated the big benefits of a small boat. First, we were able to go more places. On the Bay, our boat was big and strong enough to handle gale-force conditions without problem, yet in the Dismal Swamp Canal our small size and shallow draft allowed us to explore the narrow, 3-foot-deep feeder ditch up to Lake Drummond and the heart of the Great Dismal Swamp — a wild and remote place only canoes and kayaks usually go.

Second, the boat is affordable to operate, even with fuel at $3 a gallon. We consumed a little more than 10 gallons of diesel during our five-day, 140-mile circuit from Norfolk down the Dismal Swamp Canal and back up the ICW — an amount that would barely start the engines on some of the megayachts that thundered past on the ICW.

Lastly, Bearboat provided simplicity and independence. Quite a few of the big boats we saw on the ICW were operated by paid delivery crews, rather than owners, who upon docking would immediately plug heavy-duty umbilical cords into shore power. Bearboat doesn’t use dockside power because it doesn’t need it. And its size means it’s nimble, can be single-handed, and is taken out on the water frequently — by its owners and their friends, not paid employees.

Although there are no hard statistics, this difference in usage between small and big boats has been noted by others who spend a lot of time around boats.

“Small-boat owners typically use their boats more frequently than big-boat owners, but the duration of time they’re out on the water is less,” says Donna Schlegel, wife of one of the family owners of Hartge Yacht Yard, the largest marina in Galesville, Md. “A small-boat owner can usually go out by himself, but with a big boat it’s almost a necessity to have crew.”

Mind you, I have nothing against big boats; they’re great fun to charter and crew, if someone else is paying the bills. If I had lots of money and time, I might even own one.

But I don’t. So until then, we’ll keep having great adventures in our big little boat.

Steve Blakely is an editor and freelance writer in Washington, D.C.