Cruising on small craft

This article is about travel by small craft, including both motor and sail powered vessels, where the vessel is owned or chartered by the travellers, and may be operated by the travellers. It does not include travel by large vessels, where the traveller is merely a paying passenger, and the operation and organisation is provided by the vessel's owners or operators; for that, see Cruise ships.

The solar panels on this 28' yacht can charge the 12 V batteries at up to 9 A in full, direct sunlight. Note also, the wind-vane steering system. Two people sailed her from Europe via the Canary Islands to the Caribbean and back in 1999–2000. She was self-sufficient in electrical energy and needed to re-fuel with diesel twice during the year.

The topic is not about whitewater canoeing and rafting, boat fishing, or racing of watercraft, though these are activities which may be included in the "Do" section below.

Cruising means different things to different cruisers, but all cruising shares the following characteristics: living on the boat, travelling, often extended periods of time. To reduce fuel expense, the most common cruising boat is a sailboat.

Cruising for a few weeks or shorter times is common. Not all advice here is relevant if your home harbour is within easy reach.

Some cruisers are "long term" and travel for many years, the most adventurous circling the globe over a period of five to ten years. Others take a year or two off from work and school to experience the cruising lifestyle.

Due to the transient nature of cruising, Cruisers form their own community. Cruisers commonly, upon anchoring in a new area, will stop by nearby boats (in their dinghy) to introduce themselves and say "hello". The classic icebreaker is to hail a boat in an anchorage and ask "where there's good holding?" Many cruisers leaving an area are happy to trade charts with boats going in the opposite direction.

Understand

There are several categories of small craft which may be used for cruising, including motor vessels and sailing vessels, both of which may operate over large ranges, and may cross oceans or circumnavigate the globe during a voyage, and smaller vessels, which may be used for day trips, overnight trips and short coastal and inland voyages. These include human powered boats, such as canoes and kayaks.

When choosing a boat you should usually try and see if the smallest would suit. Prices rise very quickly with size and it is easy to want a boat that is too big to easily handle. You don't want too small a boat when cruising the ocean; 36 feet (11 m) was thought by some to be optimal in the late 1960s. Look for quality instead of size; your space will be limited anyway (unless you opt for a ship), but a well planned boat will do wonders with the space available – besides being more reliable.

If you are going to charter your boat unmanned, i.e. if you are going to be the skipper yourself, you might have to show some proof of competence. Formal qualifications are needed to skipper your own boat in some countries. Check what is needed.

In Europe the main document of qualification is the International Certificate for Operators of Pleasure Craft (ICC), which may allow skippering sailboats or powerboats, at sea or in rivers and canals, up to a certain size. Nationals get the certificate according to national systems, while foreigners can get it from e.g. the Royal Yachting Association in the U.K. (RYA).

Sailboat cruising

With a sailboat you will usually not move quickly, but sailboats are often well suited for life on board – at sea. Cruising by the coast you will often leave in the morning and get to your destination in the evening, sometimes with overnight passages. Most long journeys are made by sailing boats, as you do not have to worry about fuel consumption.

If you are going to sail (some use sailboats hardly ever using the sails), you need some basic skills. The basics are easy to learn – you won't sail as fast as others, you will have to use the engine for mooring and in tight channels and you do not want to ride a storm by sail, but you will be able to learn more day by day. Invite a skilful sailor now and then and you will learn all the tricks also.

Open sailboat cruising

With an open sailboat you will probably not want to sleep or dine at sea, so you will have to find a harbour each night, even in good weather (and in bad weather you might want to stay on shore). On the other hand you can land almost anywhere and (with many open boats) easily take the boat on a trailer for land transport. Few people go for long journeys in open boats, but they are nice for exploring a lake or an archipelago once you are there.

Motorboat cruising

Hull speed boats

With a displacement or hull-speed motorboat your speed and pace will be about the same as if sailing. You will have less height and draught, somewhat more reliable timetables – and you will not sail. Some motorboats are for sheltered waters only, but some are suitable for the coasts and seas also. For oceans you need quite a big boat, able to carry enough fuel.

Recent designs often offer somewhat more speed – some considerably more – than sailing boats, with comfortable sea-keeping and a fuel economy not too much worse than with traditional displacement speeds. Some of these designs use long narrow hulls as a multi-hull arrangement.

It is not uncommon to use sailboats as hull-speed "motorboats". Most modern sailboats of decent size have adequate engines for motoring, and there are many more sailboats to choose from than motorboats suited for life at sea. Just do not use the sails – but keeping a few sails for pleasant winds, for stability in rough seas and for engine failures (and preferably learning to use them) is hardly a bad idea.

Planing boats

With a planing hull you will usually reach your destination more quickly. Typically overall distances will not be longer than with slower boats, but you will be able to go on quite long afternoon trips and spend more time at one-day destinations. And you might like the speed itself (but be considerate of those you pass). Fuel consumption and range will be an issue.

Some think a fast boat is good for safety: you can reach shelter in time when bad weather is approaching. Do not overestimate your speed though, rough seas can develop quite quickly, forcing you to slow down.

Kayak and canoe cruising

Kayaks and canoes can go almost anywhere. There are people who go for kayak or canoe journeys of several thousand kilometres. It is easy to skip less interesting or too demanding passages by taking a car ride. In the wilderness the kayak or canoe can be carried past rapids that are too wild and over short distances of land. There are a number of places in both Canada and the US where this was common in the fur trade era; their names often include "portage", from the French verb porter (carry).

There are several types. Sea kayaks are not good for rapids and white-water kayaks not for journeys on the sea; some kayaks are made specially for beginners. There is a whole lot of not always obvious stuff to learn about security. Making good use of a canoe or kayak requires a lot of training, but less demanding trips can be made after a short introduction.

We have a separate article on Sea kayaking.

Destinations

The world is your oyster. At least those parts which have enough water to float your boat. Travelling is usually by sailing or motoring from one place to another, but in some cases vessels are transported by ship, road or rail to the cruising area of choice, where they are met by the crew. This allows transit across otherwise unsuitable terrain, like mountains and deserts, or over distances or through areas unsuitable for the specific vessel. In some cases folding canoes are even carried as baggage on aircraft, then used as a base for waterborne camping trips at the destination. Often it is possible to rent a suitable vessel at the destination, which usually is cheaper than bringing your own over large distances.

In some areas, small boats are a major part of the local transport system, especially in areas with many islands. For example, they are a common way to travel in Indonesia, the Philippines and among the South Pacific islands. In other areas, such as the Greek Islands, larger ferries are dominant in commercial transport, but there are small craft as well. Small craft may also be a means of travel within a city, for example on the canals of Venice. Houseboats are found on the canals of Europe and are a common place for tourists to stay in Srinagar.

Ocean cruises

Hitchhiking boats focuses on working as crew on private boats. Ocean Cruising Club has a bursary (scholarship grant) program to help defray the costs for young sailors interested in getting onto a yacht for a major passage or ocean crossing.

A common route over the Atlantic is Spain/Portugal/Gibraltar to the Madeiras, the Canaries, the Cape Verdes, and across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. The return trip is often via the Azores.

Circumnavigation

At any given time there are cruisers who are actively circumnavigating the globe on their small boats. There are several potential routes. One follows the trade wind routes through the Panama Canal and remaining in the middle latitudes. Another takes the more extreme route via the five Great Capes. Stops in Sri Lanka, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, and the South Pacific Islands are other favoured destinations with mild or predictable weather.

Coastal cruises

North America

Cruisers on the East coast of North America commonly visit the north (e.g. Maine, Newfoundland) in warmer months and travel south on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) as far as the Bahamas in the winter. Some cruisers from the East Coast of North America make the winter trek South to the Caribbean and return north to the North America for the hurricane season. Others continue southward below the hurricane belt.

New England and New York especially Long Island Sound have a myriad of destinations for hopping the coast from the islands off Massachusetts (Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, The Elizabeth Islands) to famous Newport and Block Island in Rhode Island, and the Bays of Long Island.

The Chesapeake Bay is also a very popular cruising area. It is especially good for gunkholing, a form of cruising where each night one anchors in a different location. The Chesapeake, particular the Northern part is rich in gunkholes. Also the Cheseapeake Bay forms a part of the Intracoastal Waterway.

On the west coast, a popular route alternates the Gulf of California and Mexico in winter with the islands of Washington and British Columbia in the summer. This includes the popular San Juan Islands and Puget Sound in Washington State and the Southern Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island in British Columbia offering some of the most visually stunning scenery available to boaters in North America as well as many vibrant and historical towns that cater to guests arriving in their harbors.

Europe

Our article on Cruising the Baltic Sea focuses on cruise ships, but one could also travel there by private boat (in the summer – wintertime much of it freezes over). There is an abundance of guest harbours and towns worth seeing. The Baltic is also a safe destination, with well organized societies, short distances and no tides. The Archipelago Sea between the Baltic proper and the Gulf of Bothnia is the largest archipelago in the world, by count of islands and islets, with sheltered waters and short distances. The coasts of Norway, Sweden and Finland also otherwise have thousands of beautiful islands and well-marked channels.

The coasts of Ireland and Scotland, though challenging, are rewarding destinations for summer cruising: Ireland for the friendliness of the people and stark beauty of the landscape, and Scotland for the malts and mountains. The Netherlands, France and the Mediterranean are popular European summer cruising grounds.

Cruising on lakes, rivers and other inland waterways

Canada's Rideau Canal is a popular cruise, as is the Erie Canal in the US and the St. Lawrence River which is the border between the two countries from Cornwall-Massena westward. So are the Great Lakes to which all three connect.

There is an extensive canal system in Western Europe, connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic and the North Sea. The regulations are harmonised in the CEVNI (with the International Certificate of Competence used as proof of competence). Many routes are possible without certificates and with little experience, while the certificate is mandatory on others.

The Saimaa archipelago in Finland, with some 14,000 islands, is reachable via Vyborg in the Baltic Sea.

We have itinerary articles for several waterways in China, along parts of which it would be possible to cruise. See Along the Yangtze River, Along the Yellow River and Along the Grand Canal.

See also Felucca cruise on the Nile.

Get started

Manned charter

At many yachting destinations you can charter a yacht with crew, which means you can get the experience of cruising with small craft with no previous skills or knowledge related to boat handling. The skipper will probably also act as a guide. You will be able to visit many locations unsuitable for bigger tourist vessels.

Depending on destination and budget the crew may also be willing to take care of meals etcetera. A boat capable of comfortably lodging you, skipper, deck hand and cook is however quite big, so in many areas you might prefer to have a skipper only, have him quickly teach you the basics of boat handling and take care of deck hand duties and household work yourselves.

Yachting on your own

A skipper as guide is often nice, but you might want to go on your own also. For this you need skills, which only come with lots of practice.

Try it out in little steps. Many people are attracted to the romance of cruising, but find that they dislike the reality.

First, take a few shorter trips with friends or take a class in sailing (if you think sailing is the way to go). This will teach you the basics, and you'll see if you like to sail at all.

Next, buy a small dinghy (6–11 feet) with sails. Sail it regularly. If you keep wishing you could go farther, you might be a real cruiser. You could also settle for shorter trips, which is what thousands of boaters do. If you dislike the sails, have a motor boat instead.

Next, crew on a yacht, just for fun. Local yacht clubs often have boats looking for crew. It helps if you're a good cook, or good company. Try to get references, and look the boat over. Look for bad maintenance or safety problems. If you see any, go later with someone else. Never give your return plane ticket, passport or emergency money to other crew or the captain. Consider taking your own GPS so you can detect unspoken deviations from the itinerary.

If you still dream about long cruises, take a class in celestial navigation. GPS works, but careful navigators use a belt & suspenders approach: They keep a continuous dead reckoning track using a compass and a distance-measurement device called a log, and use coastal landmarks, GPS and celestial navigation to correct it. Careful navigation is needed to avoid stormy areas, shoals and other hazards. Currents can carry you into these without any warning, unless you navigate carefully.

Enjoyed the crewing? Buy a small boat, maybe 30 feet. This is small enough that you can handle it yourself, and big enough to take a family or your mate to anywhere in the world. Big boats are much more work; many rich people buy a big boat, and eventually sell it and get a smaller one because they are more fun.

Abandoned yachts are for sale cheaply in many distant places like the Panama Canal, Gibraltar, and Singapore – check the gossip. This happens because many people really do not like cruising, and thought they would.

Introduce your family to sailing with the most pleasant cruise you can arrange! Share the planning so everybody buys in to the trip. Share the chores fairly, among everyone (captain takes a turn!). After they're hooked, send your significant other to a class (your relationship will thank you). Let the others take your dinghy out alone so they can love sailing, too. Teach everyone how to manage all the parts of the boat. This way they can get around even if you get sick.

Bareboat charter

You can also charter just a boat at your destination. You need sufficient experience to handle the boat, but in easy waters some advice and sound judgement may be enough.

Chartering a yacht locally is often much cheaper and easier than to get to the destination with your own. It may even be cheaper than maintaining a boat of your own, if you are out only a few weeks or weekends a year. You may also want to charter different kinds of boats to try them before buying anything expensive.

In many countries there are rules about who is allowed to charter or skipper a boat of a certain size. There may also be specific rules for the waters in question, e.g. for a certain canal system. The rules about skippering a (foreign) yacht of your own may differ from those about skippering a chartered (domestic) yacht. The chartering business should be able to tell you about the local rules.

In addition to the requirements of the law you have to convince the folks at the charter business about your competence and handle any situation that arises on tour. For the former any documentation about competence or experience may help. Formal looking documentation may also help convincing the coast guard and police, regardless of formal validity. For the latter you will want to be honest to the chartering business. Many cater also to beginning yachters and they should regardless be willing to take at least a minor tour showing you how to handle the boat. Some offer to join you the first day or so.

Like when buying a boat, keeping it small may be advantageous. Big boats are more difficult to handle and in case of a collision or grounding, a smaller boat often means more modest damage.

Learn

There are a large number of training facilities throughout the world where you can learn the skills that are useful and necessary for cruising in small craft. These range from deckhand up to ocean navigation. Learning the skills of operating a sailing vessel is in itself often a reason for travel, as these schools are frequently in areas where the conditions are pleasant for a vacation.

The ability to cook a good meal at sea is highly valued in a member of the crew, as is ability to get recalcitrant engines to work, and cheerfulness when woken up in the middle of the night to stand watch on deck in a storm. The first two can be learned at schools or by experience. The third is something you either have or do not, and can vary from day to day.

Wikibooks has a manual for one yachting exam, the Yacht Officer Exam. Certifications are often limited to a particular jurisdiction and a range of vessel sizes; the linked book, for example, is for an exam required for "deck officers serving in all UK-registered yachts and sail training vessels of 24 metres and over in loadline length and under 3 000 GT". Of course, the training is useful even on other vessels, and a certification may help you get a berth anywhere.

In the US and Canada, various Power Squadron groups offer training for boaters; while not the only source of such training, they are the largest.

Money

Money is the number-one problem for cruises of more than a few months. Conservative cruisers have several years of savings, and plan to work about one quarter a year. Most have or acquire skills that sell easily in many parts of the world, such as nursing, doctor or dentist, accounting, boat-maintenance handyman, sail-maker, welder or diesel mechanic. Some cruisers make a little money shipping wines, jewellery and the like, but most can't compete with large commercial firms. Smuggling and other illegal incomes cause people to lose their boats. In 2002, very cost-conscious no-frills cruisers could maintain two people and a 28-foot boat on US$1000 per month. This rate roughly doubled when in a port, partying with other cruisers.

Equipment & tips

There are two rather different schools concerning equipment:

  1. I'm on vacation. Give me every comfort there is. I can afford it, and I can find a good mechanic if I have to.
  2. I want the simplest boat I can get, so it will keep working (so I can go), and cost less (so I can stay away longer).

Cruising long-term is a way of life, not a vacation. Those who think it is a vacation are often disillusioned. When you visit a destination for a holiday week or two, you are an observer. You flit from place to place, having everything done for you, and never getting a true sense of the local way of life. A cruiser is a long-term voyager who becomes part of the local community as soon as the anchor is dropped. You may stay a day or two if you don't like the place, a week or two if a place is reasonably appealing, and a month or longer if it speaks to you. In general though, when it comes to equipment, it's all up to you and there is a fair bit of work involved. So be prepared to fix it, replace it, or do without it if something fails while underway. There are usually no plumbers, electricians or mechanics to call in remote places or while underway, so the cruiser who can fix things is likely to enjoy it and succeed.

There are some areas of agreement between the two points of view. In general, it is most important to arrange your boat to be safe, so that heavy weather or a faulty engine are interesting adventures rather than disasters. See Stay safe.

Some conveniences are widely praised:

One humorous (but true!) way of thinking about a luxury yacht's equipment is to start at the icemaker and work out what's connected to it to make it work.

Here are some major comforts, eschewed by minimalists; the trade-offs are given in the way they look on the water. If there's a compromise, it's after the extremes:

Do

Sleep

There are two common ways in which boaters sleep. Either the boat is big enough to have bunks, or at least somewhere to lie down, or you have a tent and spend the nights ashore. Ocean cruisers will sleep on the way, while others with a vessel of at least moderate size can choose whether some continue sailing while the others are sleeping or whether the voyage is paused for the night.

Most yachts come with sleeping bunks, a campstove-equipped galley and primitive toilet facilities on-board. Thus you can choose to just pitch your anchor in a suitable place for the night or continue sailing. On coastal or river cruises such suitable places are not everywhere. One usual choice is to moor at a marina, which in addition to the berth may offer amenities such as fresh water, shore power hookups, wi-fi, showers and washing machines, often with shops and restaurants nearby.

If you want to sleep in your tent, you should check local legislation for camping in the wild. Camping sites are seldom where you want to have your boat.

Work

There are many opportunities for travel as a paid or unpaid crew member on a cruising boat. These range from skipper down to deck hand, depending on the skills, qualifications and experience of the member of crew.

Work at destinations doing maintenance and repair work on other cruising boats frequently gets by under the radar of the local work permit requirements, providing the vessels worked on are foreign registry.

Stay safe

Avoid falling overboard, as it is often fatal if you are not picked up – and picking somebody up in rough seas is a non-trivial feat. A safety harness should be worn when there is a high risk, and a life-jacket can keep you afloat for long enough for the boat to pick you up if they know you have gone.

Depending on your destinations and activities, see also diving safety, sun protection and cold weather. Note that, under Arctic conditions, someone who falls in and is not wearing an insulating suit will survive for only a few minutes.

Stay healthy

The most common health problem encountered by travellers cruising on small craft is seasickness. Seasickness might render part of the crew unable to work (but having work to do outside the cabin reduces risk of seasickness).

Keeping water and food healthy is an issue in warm weather even on quite high latitudes (refrigerators use lots of power).

For some destinations, Tropical diseases are also an issue.

Connect

Near the coast you usually have access to the mobile phone networks (GSM, CDMA etc.) and thereby Internet access of varying quality. When you visit towns you have access to the usual services, including phone, mail and internet. You can use marine radio for connections to vessels, harbours and marine authorities.

When you leave the coast, you often leave those means of connection. Mobile phones are generally limited to 19 nautical miles (35 km) from the base station, possibly extended in some areas. Goodbye most Internet connectivity. Marine VHF coast station connectivity extends to some 30–40 nautical miles (55–75 km) and offers emergency services, weather forecasts and the like, and in some countries connections to the telephone network. MF radio coast station services cover most seas and coastal waters of the oceans and HF also the oceans. At least for oceans satellite telephones are worth considering.

Snail mail

Mail is often received this way: Have all your mail sent to one address. Have all the junk mail removed, and have your mail-receiver send the rest in one package to a yacht club on one's itinerary. Yacht clubs are better than post offices because they know that cruisers can be delayed, and do not return the mail after 30 days. The single-package assures that you receive all of your mail, or none of it.

"Roaming"

Credit and debit cards, as well as mobile telephones, are often supplied with various 'roaming' restrictions in place by default for security reasons. If you contact your card and service providers before you leave and tell them about your travel plans, these restrictions can be lifted (or tailored to your needs). Your cards will work as normal in shops, chandleries, cafes etc as well as providing local currency from the 'hole-in-the-wall' ATMs in any town. A balance-clearing regular payment arrangement with your bank can ensure that your credit card is always paid before it incurs interest charges.

Mobile phones

See also: Mobile telephones

There are three or four technical mobile phone standards around the world. If your handset can cope with the local frequencies and standards, then with the provider's restrictions lifted, it will work too, albeit a bit expensively, when in port or near the coast abroad.

Check maximum fees: roaming data fees are often unacceptable and even calling fees may be so if the phone picks a station on international waters or otherwise outside the normal destinations. SMS is often cheaper than calls. You may have to disable automatic network selection, update services and other features connecting behind the scenes. Talk with your provider, but also read the fine print.

Options for telephony

See also: Telephone service for travel, Internet telephony

Although your mobile phone probably is your prime telephony option, there are others. You may be able to place calls through the coast radio stations (not all have this service), there are still pay phones available in many ports and if you get Internet connectivity you can use "voice-over-Internet" applications.

Any device with the ability to install software, a speaker, a microphone and a decent Internet connection can be turned into a telephone, making calls over the Internet. As long as you have acceptable Internet fees (as when paying per day or month instead of per byte or per minute) this is probably the cheapest option. You need the software for the device (typically a smartphone, tablet or laptop), a service provider (to be able to reach and be reached from the telephony network) and a headset (or similar, which may be already available in your device).

Internet and e-mail

See also: Internet access

Internet access, for e-mails and maybe for browsing your favourite weather-forecast web sites, is most economical from local Internet cafés, and these are easily found in almost every port. Some ports offer wireless internet included in the fee or as an option.

At sea, the mobile phone network is usable for internet access near the coast of many countries, but otherwise a satellite phone or other special equipment is needed. The marine radio frequencies offer much of the necessary service, but not general internet access.

Mobile phones (at least GSM) offer internet access via the mobile phone network, for the phone itself and usually also for using the phone as a modem. The speed may be high in or near towns, but is often comparable to a traditional modem (14 kbps) otherwise. Instead of using your phone, you can buy an equivalent separate mobile broadband modem ("USB dongle"/"connect card") for your computer. You can get them for free with some mobile broadband contracts, if so they may have to be unlocked for general use. Unless you get a SIM card with the modem, you have to get one separately – and changing to a local provider will mean getting a new SIM card regardless.

"Roaming" data fees are often ludicrously expensive, so check options by your provider. At least when staying for some time in one country, getting a local connection (prepaid or otherwise, available also for single days) is usually cheaper. EU is trying to become one country in this regard, but check the available deals.

For mostly text mode or batch communications you can also dial a traditional modem at your workplace, at your university or at a separate provider (or even at home). To avoid long-distance calls you can sign up with a provider with dial-up numbers for most or all of the countries you plan to visit. Just remember to reconfigure your dial-up settings as you move on. The speed is usually 14 kbps with a mobile phone, 14–56 kbps with a land line, but in KB/dollar it may compete with 3G access. The technical user may want to use a shell account (with text mode browser and e-mail client) or special filters to reduce unnecessary transfers.

Sailmail is a non-profit email service for yachtsmen operating via their network of SSB-Pactor radio stations or any Internet connection you have. They have a custom email transfer protocol, designed to be used on high-latency low-bandwidth connections, and associated Windows client software. Mail sent to Sailmail addresses will be filtered and compressed before download (the radio links allow about 60–2700 kB/week, enough for text email updates to family and for the boat's need). Using the Pactor service requires a suitable modem and marine radio license. $250 yearly membership fee.

Read

There are hundreds of books on the subject, and large numbers of websites and internet discussion groups dedicated to every aspect of small craft cruising.

Books

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