The Cruisers Triangle

For about 10 years now we have been traveling up and down the ICW. We do not do the trip every year, but have 5 round trips under our belts. If you leave early enough from the Chesapeake in September or October, you will have enough time to make side trips in North and South Carolina and Georgia to see new sights before the cold sets in. If you are pushing South because you left too late in the season and are being chased by frost, slow down when you hit the Florida border.
One particular year we left later than we planned, not getting away from Baltimore until the third week in October. Granted, we had better weather than expected for the most part with very little frigid cold stuff, but still wanted to press on before the every-three-day-front pattern started. We always feel like once we get to Fernandina Beach, we can slow down a bit. This seems to be a sentiment now shared by many and, as we discovered this trip, a new trend has begun. Folks will bounce from St. Mary’s, Georgia to Cumberland Island, Georgia to Fernandina Beach, Florida and back to one or the other places for weeks on end. None of them are more than 8 or so miles apart and can be reached within the span of an hour or two, depending on how you hit the tides.
We have always stopped in Fernandina Beach because we have friends who live there. We discovered many years ago that we do not, however, like to be in the anchorage in a good blow. An open fetch from the north or south and strong currents can make for anxious hours or days at anchor. One experience with others dragging down on us was enough. We now head upriver to St. Mary’s, which is much more protected, should weather be an issue. When the weather has passed, we simply up anchor in St. Mary’s and arrive back in Fernandina in under 2 hours (closer to 1 if the tide is right).
Since on this trip we arrived from an easy overnight offshore run from Beaufort, S.C. and were anxious to see our friends, we went straight to the Fernandina anchorage and had a nap before getting together with our friends for the evening. After looking at the weather forecast for the next few days and realizing 25-30 knot winds were forecast, we decided it would behoove us to run upriver for a few days until the winds died down and we could resume our visit. We left the next day for St. Mary’s. We didn’t time our trip upriver very well with regard to the tides, but it really didn’t make too much difference as it is about 8 miles. We arrived in St. Mary’s and anchored just past Lang’s West, the second marina, on the North side of the river in about 8 feet at low tide, in a good holding mud bottom. Don’t forget the tides in this area run about 7 feet.
St. Mary’s, Georgia, claiming to be the second oldest city in the country, is a quaint little town at the very edge of your waterway chart. Although Native Americans and Spaniards passed through this area as early as the mid 1500’s, St. Mary’s was not established as a town until done so by the British in 1787. St. Mary’s has a population of about 8,000 people and lives up to its reputation as a quiet village on the Georgia/Florida border. It is notable for its shops, restaurants, submarine museum and historic homes which line the waterfront. The Howard Gilman Memorial Park opened in June of 2001. This attractive waterfront park lies just above Lang’s Marina West. There is a fountain, swinging benches, brick walkways and a gazebo in the center inviting you to stroll or just sit and hold hands with your honey on a swing under a vine covered trellis. St. Mary’s is only a 30 minute ride from Jacksonville International if you have folks flying in and only 9 miles off of I-95 if you have guests coming by car. (See for a walking map with points of interest.)
The group of roving sailboats planned to have their 3rd annual Thanksgiving dinner in St. Mary’s. While anchored here, we were asked on at least 2 occasions if we needed to provision, do laundry or fill propane tanks. Folks who had procured rental cars or had friends in the area wanted to make sure everyone had what they needed. This was a refreshing experience having become a bit jaded by some earlier uncruiser-like behavior on the way down. We were also asked to stay for Thanksgiving, but had plans further down the road so bid our farewells.
After a few days in St. Mary’s, folks would up anchor and run downriver for the 5-6 mile jaunt to Cumberland Island. This pristine, stunning island is only accessible by air and water. There are no roads or bridges leading to Cumberland. One anchors, then dinghies to shore at the designated docks. Don’t forget your $4 park entry fee when you go to shore. One can hike the miles of trails on the island or walk the long, sandy beaches and hunt for shells. Camping on the island is also permitted at designated sites for stays of no longer than 7 days and you must reserve in advance. You must also bring everything you need with you If you don’t feel like taking your boat to Cumberland and want to leave it in St. Mary’s, you can simply take the 45 minute ferry ride to the island for $12 per person for adults, $9 for senior citizens and $7 for children 12 and under. There is also the $4 park entry fee for ferry riders as well.
Cumberland Island is a diverse ecosystem. The inland side is saltwater marsh teeming with life. Continue further toward the ocean and you will enter a live oak forest draped with Spanish moss. In their shadows, ferns abound as well as raccoons, armadillos and other animals rustling in the underbrush. The National Park Service provides a map which indicates the paths to the beaches and other points of interest. Please note the areas that are off limits to the public. The contrast from the dense green forest to the white, bright sand beach will take your breath away. The beach runs for an impressive 17 miles and wild horses can be found on the inland side beaches.
There are also a few structures on the island. The ruins of Dungeness, built in the late 1700’s, are not open to the public due to being unsafe structurally as well as being inhabited by diamondback rattlesnakes! There are 2 manor houses on the island, Greyfield and Plum Orchard Mansion. Greyfield is private property, but Plum Orchard was donated to the park service by the Carnegie family. The First African Baptist Church still stands near the North end of Cumberland Island, having been built in the late 1800’s and rebuilt in the 1930’s. Take your camera to shore as there are photo ops at every turn. Our trip South this year did not allow time for a stop in Cumberland, but gazed wistfully at the island as we drifted by on our way back to Fernandina.

Much of the Fernandina Beach waterfront is docks used for commercial ships, shrimpers and pleasure boaters. The Fernandina Harbor Marina is right on the ICW and has fuel and dockage alongside an extensive pier. Fernandina has the bustling Centre Street running perpendicular to the waterfront. It has much more activity and shops than does St. Mary’s and is a good place to begin your Christmas shopping on your way South. Although any major provisioning is quite a distance from the marina, most folks seem to be able to catch a ride with some nice locals who take pity on them as they were once cruisers themselves. Downtown Fernandina encompasses a 50 block area with many homes and B&B’s listed in the National Registry of Historic Landmarks. Much of the architecture is Victorian. It boasts a whopping 25 restaurants within walking distance of the marina. For more information on this friendly town and the surrounding area go to
Having spent time in each of these three places, we fully understand the current trend toward staying in “the triangle” for weeks and enjoying the slower pace the South offers. So if you are heading South for the first time in the Fall or making a repeat passage, talk to other boaters on the VHF and find out what you can bring to Thanksgiving dinner in St. Mary’s or who is going to Cumberland to stroll the beach and join in the fun!

Wadaya Need To Go Cruising?

I think that anyone that reads any cruising publications is asking that same question and looking for the answer. But is it really that simple? There are still those out there that will tell you all you need is a stout ship, a well-built sextant and a wooden bucket and paradise is yours. Why, they will tell you that you don’t even need one of those noisy, smelly, infernal engines. And that is wonderful…..for them. For the rest of us, a little creature comfort and some additional equipment to enhance the experience and make our passages a little easier and safer is what we are looking for. Now I don’t mean for those of you with unlimited resources. That is a whole other article. Most of us are of average means and if we want to cruise then we really have to watch the cash flow.
Over sixteen years of living aboard and cruising have taught us many lessons and fine-tuned our requirements. Some things we have learned we can’t do without and others we really never needed. The first consideration was the boat. That choice will depend on where you plan to cruise and when. Running the ICW and coastal cruising will demand one type, while crossing oceans and even short offshore hops to the islands will require something entirely different. For us it meant a heavy displacement cruiser. We knew we would never be the first into the anchorage, but comfort, seaworthiness and above all sound construction was more important. Another big consideration was storage. When you consider a cruising boat, there is a very special exercise I like to perform. Sit down in the cabin and begin to mentally place everything you own on this vessel. See how quickly you run out of room. It helped us to decide NOT to buy some so called cruising boats and later proved to be a good exercise.
Once we decided on the boat, we were lucky in that the previous owner was one of those that didn’t need any extras. As a matter of fact the only cooking equipment on board was a very large gimbaled microwave oven and an electric frying pan. He seemed insulted that we wondered why there had never been a stove on board. The point is that a vessel like this will allow you to add the equipment you want in the manner you want. We have installed every piece of equipment on board. The reason being, if there is a problem, the installer is always on board. We have always done the installation according to manufactures recommendations and within safety standards. Sometimes it took a lot of studying and research in advance, but it always paid off later. So wadaya need?
Living on a boat shouldn’t be a lifelong camping experience. Our first installation was a propane stove. We considered other sources. Kerosene, diesel, and others. None gave us the convenience and familiarity that propane presented. We installed all the required safety equipment including automatic shut offs, sniffer sensors and a sealed locker vented to the outside of the boat. All met current safety standards. The next area was the head. We decided on a manual one since we did not want to increase our electrical demands. The shower was next since bucket baths on deck with salt water didn’t appeal to either of us. The hot water heater was already ten years old and that is about their shelf life. It was replaced with a stainless unit that would allow us to heat water with the engine. This was preferred since we don’t like to spend all our cruising dollars on marina stays. Being at anchor somewhere is what we believe cruising is all about. The addition of a Watermaker made staying at anchor in remote areas and not worrying about long showers more of a reality.
Every cruiser is concerned with the boats electrical demands. That and anchors is usually the topic of discussion whenever two or more cruisers get together. Our 110-volt needs are light. The TV and DVD player, a low watt microwave and occasionally hand power tools are about it. We opted for a 12-volt to 110-volt power inverter instead of a generator. We didn’t want another noisy, smelly, high maintenance system aboard. A 1850-watt inverter has worked well for us for many years. It is quiet and maintenance free. If you need lots of 110 for refrigerators and AC units then a generator is a must. We have never felt the need for AC when at anchor and we have spent most of our time in the tropics. A good sun awning and well-placed cabin fans went a long way to keeping us comfortable. Our refrigeration unit was originally an engine driven unit. It was another system that we removed even though it worked perfectly. The decision to go to 12 volt DC was to cut down on the need to run the engine at least twice daily and sometimes more.
The refrigeration decision changed our 12-volt DC needs dramatically. For quite some time our mizzen mount wind generator along with the engine alternator served our needs quite nicely. Now our daily amp hours almost doubled. We then added three a solar panel to try and make up the difference. It was adequate for a period of time. On long offshore passages where the autopilot, lights, computer and radar were running constantly it was not quite enough. Our engine alternator also proved to be too small. After a trip up and down the east coast, through the Bahamas, and the Turks and Caicos, Dominican Republic and the south coast of Cuba we returned to the states to add a few things. That included two additional solar panels. We installed the largest we had room for and could afford. When the sun is shining they are silently charging our batteries with no muss or fuss. We also increased our alternator size to the largest our engine would accept. These additions so far have proved to more than meet our demands. If I could add more it would certainly be additional solar panels.
That brings us to the second most popular topic, anchors and ground tackle. Many of our cruising friends carry a gigantic storm anchor for those ultimate conditions. We considered this also, but decided on another approach. Instead of one large anchor, we added three oversized ones for the length and displacement of Sea Trek. Our primary and secondary are plow types and a back up danforth is stored aft. Being able to use any of the three or all of them at any given time made more sense to us than carrying around a big storm anchor we might never use. But having the three oversized ones still gave us pretty good confidence in just about any conditions we encountered. This has included ten hurricanes and four tropical storms. Did we mention Sea Trek is a storm magnet? Since much of our cruising is around and near coral and rocky bottoms we chose mostly chain ground tackle. Again, the largest our electric windless and anchor locker will allow. Nylon anchor rode will chafe through in a matter of hours on rocky or coral bottoms under the right conditions.
For us, staying in touch with both cruising and land based friends and family is important. In the beginning…we carried a portable SSB receiver to get weather reports and listen in on the many nets. After our first trip to the Bahamas we found we wanted to also talk with the folks we met and have access to any types of weather resources. A SSB transceiver was the next step. Then we arrived into the computer age. The wonders of a laptop for space, programs that brought us weather fax off the SSB, and navigational software that gave us real time plotting from the GPS (we have two) were new toys we couldn’t leave the dock without. Being at the dock introduced us to the Internet and email. Suddenly we were junkies. How could we ever go cruising without email???? At first we used and were very happy with the then new Pocketmail. We stayed in touch and got a regular email fix. Life was good. But as we wondered further away from home there were some drawbacks. Connecting in foreign countries was difficult, expensive and sometimes impossible. Then we discovered HF email and the wonderful Ham operators that would provide worldwide availability for no more than the cost of the equipment and a license. Replacing our perfectly good SSB with a new transceiver that had Ham capabilities was a must. Adding a TNC modem opened up the world to our daily email. The communications officer, after much studying and anguish, passed her Ham exam and now has the appropriate license. The safety issues of this type of set up are also very comforting.
Safety is important to us. Sailing short handed offshore should never be taken lightly. ALL of the crew should know how to get the boat to safety if they are the only ones able to do so. The equipment we carry reflects our serious approach to this issue. We installed a life raft on deck in it’s own cradle prior to our first offshore passage. With research, we purchased what we believe to be one of the best. This was one area we decided that price should not enter into the equation. Jack lines from bow to stern are always attached. We decided on inflatable life vests with a built in harness. This has encouraged us to wear them any time we are out of the cabin offshore. They are reasonably comfortable and allow us to always be hanked on. We always carry the required flares, distress signals and additional safety equipment. A regular inspection tells us when they need replacing.
Creature comforts are also important to us. We truly believe that this enhances the whole experience. While we were still in northern climates we installed a diesel cabin heater. It is plumbed to our main fuel tank so no additional fuel sources or tanks are needed. Fortunately we have not needed it for years. A TV and DVD player is great for those like me that need a regular TV fix. We carry a large selection of DVDs since we have the storage space for them. We started collecting CD’s after a replacement of our 12-volt stereo system. We still have lots of cassette tapes. Sun awnings with water catchers built in and 12-volt fans throughout the boat serve as our air conditioning system. Add what you feel you would like to have.
Electronics have improved with leaps and bounds since we started cruising. We started out with a GPS, VHF, wind instruments and a SSB receiver. Today we carry two GPS receivers, one at the helm in the form of a chartplotter and one at the nav station. The nav station is connected to the laptop which has the latest navigation software installed. Electronic charts are wonderful and we use them extensively. But the paper charts are sitting directly under the computer for planning, reference and regular plotting just in case. Radar was another invaluable addition. We sailed without it for years. Once we installed it, we wondered how we ever got through it all. It is great for tracking weather and avoiding those odd squalls and also an invaluable tool for night passages. It will pick up anything else out there with you and sound an alarm to let you know if anyone is getting too close. We still have the wind instruments. I don’t have to explain to anyone the value of a good autopilot. Again, do some research before buying. One comment we heard over and over again about a very popular brand was that it had a wonderful service department. Almost every owner made the same comment. Naturally we avoided that one. Look at the recommended size for your vessel and go to at least the next size larger. This will really pay off in more difficult conditions. It also means that it will work much less. The wear and tear need for maintenance and breakdowns will be fewer. Power consumption will also be less.
The family car (Dinghy) is another consideration with lots of choices. We went with a ridged hull inflatable. We started with a fiberglass dinghy, which lasted all of a couple of weeks. After almost capsizing it a couple of times and many dings to the hull it quickly went away. We next went to a straight inflatable. This was convenient for storing on deck but hard on the dinghy when landing on rocky beaches. The RIB was a good compromise. We also added davits on the stern to carry it. It never spends a night in the water and we seldom have to do any serious cleaning to the bottom. It is also much more secure, since we can easily chain it to the mother ship. An appropriate size outboard is also necessary. It needs to be able to plane the dinghy with at least two people aboard and a reasonable amount of equipment or supplies. The larger the tube size and the higher the rise in the bow will help determine how dry you will stay in those choppy conditions.
Last but not least, one addition we added after our first trip up and down the ICW is one of my favorites. That was an anchor wash down system. We no longer have mud streaming down the decks and the hull each time we up anchor. It is a simple, straightforward installation. All you need is a salt-water pump, some fittings and hose. Another thru-hull is not really needed. You can tee into an existing one that is forward on the boat. It is also great for washing off fish parts when you catch this evenings’ dinner. Fishing is another subject.
I don’t mean to imply that this is the definitive answer to what you will need for cruising. This is what has worked for us over the years. Each boat and crew will have their own requirements and needs. Do what works for you. We are about to begin our next cruise and feel pretty good about our decisions. I am sure several of these points will be argued along the way. But then again, that is also part of the experience. We hope that whatever choices you make your voyages will be both safe and memorable. Fair winds.