Setting out on your first cruise can be a dream adventure if you follow a few simple steps.
Planning is the key to any cruise, whether it’s an overnighter to a nearby island or a vacation-long voyage. Not only do you need to plan your itinerary, but you need to prepare your boat, your crew, and your own skills to handle the challenges and opportunities ahead.
Where To Go?
The obvious first question: "Where shall we go?" The best answer is equally obvious: "not too far." Many first-time cruisers try to do too much too fast, and wind up feeling frustrated. Select a destination not too far outside your normal boating area, which will enable you to hone your skills encountering surprises beyond your experience.
Four hours of running time is probably farther than you’ve been, but not so far that it seems like a foreign land. If, for example, your boat cruises comfortably at 25 mph, then you can look for a destination about 100 miles away.
That time and distance will give you a sense of having accomplished something on your cruise, but you won’t be exhausted when you get there. It will also allow you to settle in and explore your destination, and give you a margin of safety if you encounter bad weather and have to run slowly.
Preparing Your Boat
Now is the time to have your engine tuned and checked, because you’ll be using it more than normal and you don’t want your cruise shortened by problems. Charge the batteries completely, and check your electrical equipment to make sure the system is in tip-top shape. Don’t overlook the navigation lights - you’ll want to know that your running lights are working after you’ve enjoyed sunset on the water.
As a precaution, you should carry spare parts for common problems: engine belts, light bulbs, engine and transmission oil, etc. Your needs will vary depending on your boat and engine, so check with a local boating store or your mechanic for recommended stow-aboard spares. And, of course, your tool chest should have all the necessary items to install those spares.
Planning the Trip
Once you’ve picked your destination, it’s time to get serious about planning your voyage. Simply climbing aboard your boat and setting out is the fastest way to get into trouble.
Your first task is to buy a chart of the area you’ll be cruising. You may have a nifty GPS with all the built-in charts, but what happens if the batteries go dead? Always bring a chart of the waterways wherever you cruise.
Study the chart to see what sorts of obstacles may lie between you and your destination. There may be headlands to go around, shallow waters to navigate, or perhaps you’ll be venturing out of sight of land for much of the trip. If you aren’t sure of your navigational skills, now is the time to take a U.S. Power Squadron or U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary boating course for an extra dose of confidence.
A large chart may be cumbersome on a smaller boat, so look for the chart to suit your needs. There are Small Craft charts that fold up neatly, or you may prefer a chart book that reproduces government charts in a convenient book form. Familiarize yourself with your voyage before you cast off any docklines. It’s a good idea to plot your course, mark any important areas with Post-It flags, and pencil in the various magnetic (compass) courses so you’ll have them ready when you need them. A parallel ruler, divider, and a few pencils are useful tools for working with charts.
Even experienced boaters often overlook contingency planning. Just as an aircraft pilot always has alternate landing fields in mind in case of trouble, you should have alternate destinations chosen (and charts available) for harbors that you can use if the weather changes or you need to alter your plans.
Navigation is both challenging and fun.
Your most important navigational tool is a compass. All the fancy navigational gear and stacks of charts are worthless without an accurate compass. "But," you say, "I’m going to be following the coastline to our destination - why worry about the compass?" What if fog rolls in or you get delayed and have to run at night? Your compass should be properly corrected (called "swinging") to balance out any magnetic or metallic influences aboard your boat. Knowing the course you’re steering is essential not only for reaching your destination!
What To Wear
It’s often hard to plan ahead for the vagaries of boating weather. A summer weekend may require everything from a bathing suit for a mid-afternoon swim to a foul-weather jacket for that evening thundershower. Although you’ll want to be ready for weather shifts, good advice is to take half of what you think you need. You’ll probably find that you still took too much.
The three things you’ll want to avoid on your cruise are being wet, feeling cold, or getting too much sun. A waterproof jacket can take care of spray or rain, and it can double to keep you warm. Layer your clothing so that you can either peel off sweaters or jackets as the day heats up, or you can add them for evening chills. And don’t forget plenty of sunscreen and a hat, because reflection on the water increases your chance of sunburn. A good pair of polarized sunglasses can take the squint out of afternoon water glare, too.
Of course, your boat is already stocked with PFD’s to match the size and weight of every person on board.
There’s an old nautical saying: "Never take your boat somewhere your brain didn’t reach five minutes earlier." When it comes to your cruise, make that days earlier.
As an example, if your destination is a quiet cove, you might be anchoring for the night. To keep from dragging your anchor (and to give yourself a good night’s sleep without having to check the anchor every hour!), you need to plan ahead. You should know what type of bottom (mud, rock, grass, etc.) the cove will have and, even more important, if you have the right anchor to bite securely in that bottom. If not, plan to buy or borrow the right anchor. You’ll find that anchoring information marked on your chart, or noted in a guidebook.
A good cruising guidebook can be helpful in answering many of these types of questions, as well as providing information for things you might not have known. For example, at Catalina Island off Southern California, for example, not only is there an unusual method of mooring to buoys, but the absence of dock space means that you’ll need a dinghy to get ashore if you’re sailing.
You can often get a lot of useful information by contacting the visitor’s bureau or local chamber of commerce at your destination beforehand. Not only will you find out about attractions and sights to see, but they may even provide discount coupons for shore-side entertainment.
You can make a game of "thinking ahead" with your family by talking through your trip. "We arrive in the harbor and anchor the boat, so we need the right anchor and enough rope. Then we go ashore - Do we need a dinghy or is there a water taxi? Once we get ashore, we need to check in with the harbormaster - Where is that office?" That sort of planning - going down a list of "what-ifs" - will take the guesswork out of your trip.
Living Aboard, Peacefully
Soon, you’ll be actually living on board your boat. Rules and organization make all the difference here because, after all, even a large boat is still small when compared to a house. Having the family aboard a small boat for a weekend is an experience that will generate a lifetime of memories, as well as enough tall tales and laughs to fill conversations for years to come.
There are plenty of jobs on board, and having each person participate makes the difference between having good crew members or a boatload of mere passengers. Letting your family members choose their preferred "tasks" is the best course-whether for galley-duty, pick-up, navigational help or planning games and fun.
Ship-shape is the basic rule - and one that everyone must abide. Everything has its place and must be in it. Leaving worn clothing or shoes strewn on the floor is not only dangerous, but likely to be a nuisance to someone else on board.
I’m hungry, Dad...
It’s been said that more cruises are ruined by bad food than by bad weather. It’s also said that everything tastes better on a boat. For many boaters, a good cruise has more to do with eating well than it does with exploring, and appetites often increase after a day outside, so it’s important for everyone to get this part right.
A starting point is to simply ask your cruise mates-whether family or friends-what they want to eat. If the unanimous vote is hot dogs on the barbecue (don’t forget charcoal and matches!), then you’ll have a more enjoyable time if you leave the recipe for veal marsala at home.
Remember that you probably won’t want to cook while underway, so plan your meals accordingly. Sandwiches and finger foods are perfect snacks to eat while cruising, and you can make those items ahead of time to save yourself time in the galley.
Try to make foods do double-duty, too. Leftover chicken from dinner can turn into sandwiches for the next lunch, and an extra dinner steak is great with eggs for breakfast.
Food storage is always a concern, particularly if you rely on ice rather than a refrigerator. If you have room, an extra ice chest in the cockpit can get all the soft drinks out of the refrigerator to make room for more perishable food, and they’ll be handier there, too.
Don’t Forget Fresh Air
Since a boat is designed to be watertight, it stands to reason that it doesn’t have many openings. The result is that you have to make sure your boat is well ventilated, which is one of the necessities of living aboard.
Warm weather can be uncomfortable unless you have opening ports and hatches that provide breeze, but remember that you need protection against evening showers, too. Investing in a wind scoop can make it comfortable as well as dry on the warmest evenings.
Serious cruising - to places where there are no docks or marinas, and you’ll be anchoring off-shore- means you’ll need a dinghy. Inflatable dinghies have advantages, but are pricier than fiberglass. Whichever you choose, know how to tow or store it before you set out.
At night, tie your dinghy close to your boat since it’s nearly invisible to late-arriving boats. A good place to do this is at the stern, since tying it alongside the boat can make noise if your boat moves or wakes bounce the dinghy around.
Rain, Rain, Go Away
Despite postcard-perfect days, it’s a good idea to prepare for clouds during your cruise.
The most important thing to remember is to check the weather forecasts before departing, and to bring a weather-radio channel on board. Cruising is fun. Slogging through growing wind and waves is not. So don’t be shy about saying "nuts to this" and heading either for nearby shelter or back to your home port.
It is always - Always! - better to be on shore wishing you were out on the water, than to be on the water wishing you were on shore. Wise seamen always head for smooth water and a safe harbor when conditions deteriorate - follow their lead.
The same applies if you happen to have bad weather on the day you planned to return. Plans can be changed and, at worst, you can always leave your boat and get a rental car home if you have to be at work in the morning. Return the next weekend and retrieve your boat rather than taking risks in poor weather.
The Fun Stuff
Now that you’ve heard about the basic precautions and warnings, it’s time to talk about the reason we cruise: the fun stuff.
First of all, be sure to take some games along. Staging the Inter-Galactic Monopoly Championship can fill an entire evening, and board games are a good way to spend a rainy afternoon. Cards are easy to stow, and there are plenty of games such as charades that don’t take up any space at all.
A tradition of cruising is relaxing on deck or in the cockpit to enjoy sunset and dusk. Whether it’s cocktail time or soft drinks, bring out the munchies and admire your surroundings. If there are boats nearby, invite the folks aboard to join you, and you’ll find yourself making new friends and picking up great cruising tips.
Smell the roses. If you’re anchored off a beach, don’t miss out on the simple pleasure of beachcombing for shells. If the shore is rocky, look for stones or driftwood as reminders of your cruise.
Be mysterious. Tapes of classic mystery tales from old radio shows can be an evening delight. You might have someone read from a book of short stories, and ghost stories are always a tingly way to end a pleasant day.
One Final Word
For first-time cruisers, the most important advice is to keep your sense of humor. Boating is an escape from the everyday world. So what if the anchor doesn’t bite on the first try? Who cares if there’s a little drizzle in the morning?
Shake your head, grin, and enjoy your cruise. If it were perfect, you wouldn’t have any good stories to tell, would you?
Submitted by Boating World Magazine, www.boatingworldonline.com.