It’s pretty accurate to say that boats are better used than stored, as stuff breaks or stops working when it sits. I don’t know why exactly, but that is the way it is.
For this and other reasons, cruisers opt to not winterize their boats and head south as the weather cools off. Spending a winter south of North Carolina means generally much warm weather, finer outdoor living, and for those who have the time, enjoying life as if on one long vacation.
Done it a couple of times, and it is addicting.
Preparing one’s boat for a thousand-mile trip down the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) isn’t quite the ordeal of preparing for an ocean crossing. You are never out of sight of land, which is the point of the ICW. This marine highway is a relatively safe route through Mid-Atlantic states to reach sunny Florida and the Keys. The trip offers a wonderful cruising experience, always something new, stopping every night to anchor in a remote creek or tie up at a town dock or marina, with food and fuel nearby.
I offer these tips for preparing your boat for the trek south. They also fit anyone planning the Great Loop, or several months exploring in the Pacific Northwest. They are important ways to ensure successful extended cruising when you want to get away and be self sufficient…and safe.
Go over the boat, and tighten everything that moves
Sometimes the boat speaks to you. One morning as we cruised quietly along, enjoying the morning view of the Low Country, we heard the sound of a bolt bouncing off fiberglass. It then fell onto the flybridge settee. Laurene and I exchanged glances…where did that come from? A quick inspection revealed it came out of one of the Bimini fittings, so over the next half-hour I walked around the flybridge tightening all of the hardware. I never thought to check them. I wrote a post about this general subject: https://www.followingseas.media/blog/2018/3/28/righty-tighty
Bring spares for all single points of failure
Go over your boat and identify every piece of equipment that is a single point of failure. This means any critical piece of equipment, that if it stops working, it takes out the rest of the system. A water pump, for example. Within a week of one trip, the fresh water pump quit. That pump provides all of the pressure water in the boat. But I had a spare pump aboard and was able to remove and reinstall the pumps that evening.
The same goes for the fuel delivery system. Relying on just one fuel filter is asking for trouble. Any water or dirt in the fuel will eventually clog the filter and shut down the fuel delivery system and the engine. That is why many smart cruisers, sail and power, have switchable fuel filtration so one simply turns a lever and fuel is directed to a clean, second filter element.
Of course, if we were preparing to go offshore this list would grow exponentially. Some critical systems, such as the boat’s autopilot and hydraulic steering, would include spare motors, control boxes, or completely redundant systems. Along the ICW, however, it is less critical. And if you can live without pressure water, if you have a way to pump water manually. For a time anyway, until you reach a town with a marine store.
Load test your boat’s batteries, and replace them if they might not be good for the entire trip. Carrying spare batteries isn’t one of my tips here, but rather making sure you don’t need to.
Equip your boat and crew with the proper tools
I suggest a separate pair of binoculars for each crew member, clearly labeled. It gets very old sharing binoculars, constantly readjusting them for individual preferences and settings. If everyone on the boat has his/her own pair, it is better anyway because if someone sees something in the water, for instance, others can help identify whether it is a partially-submerged log or whatever.
Make sure you have a damn good horn (as in LOUD), as you will definitely use it. If traveling on a faster powerboat, there will be many times you will have a situation, especially in a narrow stretch of waterway, where you approach a slower boat, sailboat or trawler, that is chugging along at five or six knots. On sailboats, especially, they are often not listening to the VHF radio down below, so your call is unheard.
And on so many trawlers and other powerboats, the owners store their dinghy vertically on the swim platform. There is no way to read to name of the vessel to hail them as you come up on them. A loud horn will get their attention, and once you make eye contact, you can use hand signals if necessary to let them know which way you plan to pass them.
Speaking of VHF radios, I am a big fan of two VHF radios, ideally two fixed radios with a third handheld radio. In some stretches of the ICW, you are sharing the water with commercial traffic. Having two radios on your bridge or at your helm allows you to monitor a commercial working channel, while the second radio is tuned to Channel 16 or even a bridge channel. I have found this almost a necessity on my more recent trip on the ICW.
And even if you don’t plan on it, you might meet some nice folks along the way on another boat, and do a bit of buddy boating for a portion of the trip. Having a second radio on Channel 68 or other channel gives you the ability to stay in touch as you cruise together. That adds to the entertainment value big time during the day, as you share sights and plan tonight’s dinner without switching back and forth on Channel 16. I can attest that it is much more social than sitting alone in the cockpit or flybridge. Especially when you pass the pink giraffe…
Measure your actual air draft. While many 65-feet bridges have replaced older low bridges, it is still a very good thing to know for certain what the height of your boat is, to the tippy top of the mast, antenna included. What is your height off the water when you lower all antennas and perhaps the radar arch?
Always have a second or third way to navigate
I’ve never known a problem-free boat. On Growler I used a laptop running Coastal Explorer. It was fine for quite some time…until the motherboard failed.
Just into our trip on Spitfire, we lost the flybridge Raymarine E120 chartplotter. It began to flicker then went blank. I later swapped the working unit at the lower helm with the dead plotter on the flybridge to keep us in the game. When the second Raymarine chartplotter started to blink on and off in light rain, I wondered if we might be on the verge of losing our electronic navigation. As the Raymarine units were already considered obsolete, I asked a technician before we left what would be a good backup system. He suggested the Garmin 740S. Self contained with an internal GPS and preloaded charts, it could do all we needed and more. So when this E120 started flickering, Laurene made some phone calls to find the nearest West Marine from where we were on the Waccamaw River. She arranged for us to stop at Osprey Point Marina, where we got a ride to the Myrtle Beach store. That evening I installed the Garmin unit, and we were good to go.
Today I would have an iPad onboard for navigation backup, using a Bad Elf GPS Pro for its outstanding accuracy of position information, which can be shared among several devices and smartphones.
Kind of wish I was headed south again this year…
I’ll continue the discussion of the ICW trip south next week. Keep checking that Cruisers’ Net website (https://cruisersnet.net/174385) for the latest information on the ICW and marina status after Hurricane Florence.