Over the years, I’ve made dozens of boat deliveries from New Jersey to Florida, utilizing both the ocean route and the infamous Intracoastal Waterway. On some trips, a fast boat and good weather made it possible to cover 1,000-plus miles in four long days. But my longest journey required three weeks, even though our actual run time was just a week. The problem with boat deliveries is that they are on a set schedule. If you’re on a vacation cruise, it’s easier to enjoy each day, provided you and the crew are comfortable and safe aboard.
Whatever the program, I love traveling by boat, not only for the reward of being on the water, but also to enjoy the freedom that land travel cannot match. To be sure, not everyone is made to go by boat, but with the right crew and a vessel set up for a long-distance trip, there are opportunities to make lifetime memories that linger like salt on a bow rail.
Planning is imperative, because long trips require more physical and mental effort. It begins with a reality check: Is your boat ready for the journey, and are your skills up to the challenge? A short day on the water, is not the same as a 10-hour stand at the wheel while negotiating sloppy seas and trying to make a port you have never been to.
A good friend related this cautionary tale: He once chartered a sailboat for a Caribbean vacation with his wife and another couple. He was offered the option to have a licensed skipper aboard, a person with local knowledge who could take on the navigation and sailing responsibilities. He decided his experience would suffice, with a little help from the others aboard. But after his group got underway, the weather became a formidable foe. The winds were relentless, the seas were heady, seasickness was prevalent, and what should have been a wonderful vacation was an expensive and exhausting nightmare. My friend now says he’d never do another bareboat sail charter in the Caribbean without a licensed skipper aboard. His mistake was not that he overestimated his experience but that he lacked local knowledge. Had he been aboard his own boat, he would have come home in better spirits, and with a better story.
Cruising long distances aboard your own boat can be one of the most satisfying experiences on the water, but it also requires more responsibility on your part to ensure the boat and its systems are ready for the voyage. My pre-trip routine includes a bow-to-transom inspection, from the operation of the windlass to the stern light. I also find room to carry an extra anchor and rode, and a retrieval ball for pulling the anchor should the windlass fail. I make sure the engines and generator are plumbed with fresh oil and filters, and spare parts are inspected and sorted neatly. Electronics are tested, nav charts are loaded into each unit, and paper charts are stowed aboard as well. Registrations and log books are carefully placed, and safety gear (including a robust first aid kit) gets a thorough going over.
I prefer to start a cruise with fresh primary and secondary fuel filters because it helps remind me to restock two sets of spare filters for the trip and any engine oddities. Before topping off my fuel tanks I take the boat out for an hour-long sea trial and confirm that the gauges are working properly. I check to ensure the engines turn up to their full RPM to avoid any surprises once my trip begins. After fueling, another engine room check satisfies me that all is well and that the boat is mechanically ready to leave.
I recommend you buy the latest cruising guides for the waters you plan to traverse. The guides will provide you with current and local information and often alert you to a specific phenomenon to avoid or to be especially cautious about—inlets that get particularly nasty when the wind is against the tide, for instance, or bridge openings that operate on specific schedules. Long hours of cruising can be boring for some passengers, so it can help children and others to know that there will be plenty to do and see at that evening’s destination. Cruising guides also include compass headings and distances, which can build the skipper’s confidence when visiting new areas or transiting in bad weather.
Although onboard satellite communications with Internet and television are popular on cruisers of all sizes, not every boat is so equipped. Close to shore, your cell phone should work, as well as the VHF radio, but it helps to call ahead to alert a marina you are coming. When entering strange inlets, I often call the Coast Guard on VHF 22 and ask if all of the aids are on station. Whenever you are navigating in new territory, know before you commit. That “red on the right” should never be the extent of your marine knowledge.
Although you may be competent leaving and returning to your regular slip, when you are cruising you will encounter different docking arrangements, such as fixed or floating docks. Be aware of ambient current and wind direction, speed zones, smaller vessels, paddle boarders and anything else that often shows up unannounced in an unfamiliar marina. If you want fuel, as you approach the dock, ask the dock master over the VHF if you can get it in the slip or if there is a dedicated fuel dock. I always prefer to fuel up immediately when possible, especially when I plan to leave before first light. Have lines ready because some fuel docks have them, but not all do. In addition, have fenders and stern lines at the ready.
Always be certain the electric is off on the dock pedestal before connecting your boat’s shorepower cord. Boat appliances are sensitive to power drops and surges. I generally shut everything off at my breaker panel inside the boat before flipping on the dock pedestal breaker and switching to shore power. Only then do I turn the breakers back on, one at a time. Get in the habit of checking the boat’s powercord plugs at both inlet and outlet fixtures. Warm is okay when the air conditioning, stove and water heater is drawing power, but hot or a sizzling sound could indicate a problem, such as a bad internal connection from the boat, shore or both. Outlets at transient docks are often subject to misuse so be forewarned.
Since you filed a float plan before you left, be sure to reach out to your contacts and let them know you arrived safely and what your plans are for the next day. If you like to sample the local fare, ask the dock master for suggestions. And, be sure to tip the dock master and his crew for their help.
After a long cruising day on the water, nothing compares to falling asleep in a cozy bunk listening to the lullaby of water lapping against the hull. Perhaps the only thing better is knowing you can do it all over again the next day.
This article was originally published in the December 2022 issue.