Archive for the ‘liveaboard’ Category

How to anchor

24 June 2010

A cruising boat spends most of its time relying on either the anchor or the self-steering. Someone said that, I can’t remember who, but I do remember thinking what a sedentary life I was leading at the time as my boat spent most of its time either on a drying mooring or in a marina berth. And so she does again at the moment, but for a glorious time, she and we lived the cruising dream. We spent weeks or months in each good landfall, getting to know the local culture, and a few locals, socialising with other cruisers in the anchorage and planning our next trip, whether that would entail a day-sail, and overnighter or weeks at sea.

Once we left the English Channel, we vary rarely paid for a marina or harbour berth. Everywhere we went there was a large, sheltered anchorage where you could drop the hook for free and dinghy ashore. These anchorages were usually busy with a scruffy-looking bunch of liveaboard yachts sitting on the blue. After a while, we found we regularly came across old friends in these places – people doing a similar trip to ourselves and following a similar timetable. Once the anchor is down, the boat becomes your home and the dinghy becomes your ‘car’: You use it to visit friends on other boats and to go ashore, people can tell if you’re ‘in’ by checking for its presence (like looking in your driveway). Those who visit you tie their dinghies alongside yours at your stern, and you can tell where tonight’s party is developing by checking out all the dinghies behind someone else’s boat.

So, anchoring is not an optional extra for the cruising life, it is where a lot of the main stuff happens. Most commercial boats come from the manufacturer equipped with an anchoring system that is suitable a ‘lunch hook’: it is suitable to hold the boat in a quiet bay while you and your guests sit aboard and have lunch, before heading back to the marina before dark. This is a different usage and a different mindset to that required for long-distance, long-term liveaboard cruising. If you intend to leave the boat for hours at a time while you explore the shops, restaurants and bars ashore and if you intend to sleep soundly, night after night, without mounting any ‘anchor watch’, then you need something altogether more substantial. Add to this the absolute fact that if you spend a year or more living aboard your boat then the will be times when the wind gets up, thunderstorms pass and gales blow, wherever you are in the world. The anchor (and your seamanship, if these things happen on passage) will just have to cope; it’s no good saying, “Well, I didn’t expect that”.

How big

Unfortunately there is no simple formula for calculating the ideal anchor and chain size. Even if you can predict what dire weather may blow up, you can’t tell what the bottom and the holding will be like on that day, or whether there will be a boat behind that prevents you veering out your full length of chain, or whether meter-high waves will build up in the anchorage and make your boat snatch at the anchor while she pulls. Even calculating the forward-on windage of your boat, mast and all its rigging doesn’t count for much if she turns out to have a habit of slewing around to one side and then the other in a blow. Most boats do, and this presents side-on windage to the gale, which is far worse. Every boat I’ve seen drag its anchor has done so by not swinging onto the other tack one time in the slewing process. Staying almost beam-on to the wind they heel over and drag back through the other boats, “with all the grace of a randy elephant”, as someone else said.

There has to be some compromise, for example, there is no point in sizing your ground tackle to cope with the windage of both boats after one of these rogue ‘elephants’ has drifted down onto you and entangled her tackle in yours. On the other hand, to cope with the rest, a rule of ‘as big as possible’ might be assumed. Unfortunately, manufacturers’ recommendations are less than helpful. The majority of anchors are sold into the lunch-hook market and manufacturers compete with each other. No one wants to be recommending huge, heavy things when their competitors are offering shiny, lightweight options that claim almost supernatural technical features. If the man in the chandlery says, “This will be fine, we sell a lot of these”, try asking him what it will be like with gusts to Force 9.

Some chandleries are more clued up than others. West Marine specify a range of boat sizes for every anchor that serves the long-distance cruiser well at one end. We have a 35 lb CQR and Rusalka Mist is 28 feet on deck. It has survived everything mentioned here, including a Force 9 thunderstorm in Spain, and never dragged. West Marine recommend its use from 26 feet and upwards, and that is even more conservative. Her manufacturer’s original 25 lb model put us in the middle of West Marine’s recommended range (16 – 32 feet), which was fine for general use. Using information like this from people who have a bit of experience, and whom you trust, is about the best you can do.

Which type

Beware the yacht-club bore who has an almost religious conviction that he alone has found the perfect anchor design (and its either half the price, or double the price, of everything else on the market). With diagrams, bluster and salty tales many people have strongly-held beliefs about anchor shapes. Anything that’s heavy will hold a boat in light winds; nothing will hold a boat in a gale if it’s not dug deep into a good bottom, or hooked firmly on rock; anything will foul on a suitable obstruction. Indeed, given enough force, any anchor will bend and distort, and some will actually break.

I’m not going to tell you which is the best all-rounder. We have a 35 lb CQR, which I chose for its forged strength, its pointy, penetrating hook and its hinge, as well as its deep galvanising. Others swear by the Bruce for its ability to put a lot of force onto a lot of mud, and then there are all the others. I would avoid “this year’s revolutionary new idea”, light aluminium alloys and anything that can take your finger off while you try to stow it.

If you upgrade, don’t get rid of the old one. When you depend on anchoring, you can’t have too many. If you ever have to tie a fender to your rode, cut, and run for any reason, you will be glad that you have spare anchors and rodes so that you can come back in the morning, anchor again and sort the problems out. Have a couple of different designs. If after the fifth attempt, your main anchor won’t hold on some bottom somewhere, then changing to a different design may be just the thing.

The rode

There are still people who swear by nylon rope anchor rodes, but they are in the very small minority. When you get to a busy anchorage, we’re going to talk about finding a good spot and fitting in with everyone else. If one person has anchored to rope and all the others to chain, then swinging circles and neighborliness gets a whole lot more difficult around them. If that one person is always you, you are giving yourself an unnecessary headache everywhere you go.

Get chain that suits the oversized anchor you chose. I chose 3/8 inch chain (roughly 10 mm), whereas the boat had been supplied with 5/16 chain (roughly 8 mm). Anchors break out of the ground as soon as the pull on the chain starts to lift the shank of the anchor off the mud. Therefore the heavier the chain, the more boat-force it will absorb before disturbing the set of the anchor. Get the heaviest chain you can.

How much chain? Well, again the answer is, as much as the chain locker will comfortably hold. For us, that’s 60 meters. People have different formulae for calculating the length of chain to put out. I’m going to explain why I use 12 x √depth in a minute, but suffice to say here that 60 = 12 x √25, so it appears we can use that in 25 meters of water. We spent a few nights anchored in 20 m off the coast of Portugal, in steady 20 kn trade winds, but most yacht anchorages are 5 -10 m deep. On the other hand, when the wind pipes up, extra chain sitting in the locker is doing no good at all – let more out provided there is room behind and around for swinging room. The evening when thunderstorms in the mountains behind the town brought 45 knot (Force 9) winds across a Spanish anchorage, I let out all the chain we had, and we were one of only a handful of boats not to drag. Several boats were badly damaged and a few people were killed that night (I think they were out in the bay in a RIB, not yachties).

Don’t forget that you are going to handle all this on a windlass, so this must be calibrated chain. I know that is the most expensive, but this is going to be a major part of your cruising experience; don’t be a skin-flint.

The chain will need marking for length. I used two tins of paint, and laid it all out along the roadside at home. I borrowed a sport-teacher’s long tape measure, and put cardboard under the chain to protect the road while painting. You can get various plastic things that mean you don’t need paint, but you still need to lay it out and measure it accurately. I used one red mark, about 4 links long for 10 m, 2 red marks for 20 m, etc up to 6 red marks for 60 meters. In between these I used a single yellow mark for each of 5 m, 15 m, 25 m etc. The paint has now worn off  for 5 and 10 m, and so needs redoing sometime, but that’s not bad for 12 – 14 years.

The windlass

There is no way you are going to pull all this up by hand. The choices appear to be between a manual or an electric windlass, with either a vertical or a horizontal axis. I looked a little deeper and found that a surprising number of commercial models actually relied on a short loop of ordinary steel bicycle chain to provide the final drive to the gypsy. That put me off, so I started looking at which ones used machined bronze gear-wheels to provide the drive. It’s true that, once anchored, you will take the strain off the windlass with a snubber rope. On the other hand, while actually raising or lowing the chain, the boat will be anchored by the windlass alone. Sometime anchors need raising in a hurry at the height of a storm because the wind has veered, or because someone else has dragged and fouled it. It struck me as useless to have all that expensive heavy chain and then to rely on a piece of (probably) rusty bicycle chain for the last bit. On the the other hand, I have never heard of anybody suffering a breakage in this area, so maybe I was overcautious.

Another horror story haunted my decision making too. Somewhere I read, and I’m sure saw photographs, of a boat that had been left at anchor, with a snubber, to an electric windlass. Sometime with no one aboard, something had shorted out by itself and started the windlass, which dutifully pulled in all the chain, casting the boat adrift. Worse than this, no one told the windlass to stop, so after the anchor was in the bow roller, it carried on pulling until first it damaged the roller and fibreglass, then finally it caught fire, melting the battery and really wrecking the boat. Now, maybe that is an urban (or a seafaring?) myth, but, along with the expense, hassle and space required for an extra battery or very heavy wiring, it was enough for me. I chose a Simpson Lawrence Sea Tiger 555 manual windlass, and have never regretted it.

I should give the cons as well as the pros. Neither my partner nor I find any great hardship in pulling up the ground tackle this way. There are two gear ratios and the slower one is so powerful that Nicky has successfully raised a whole aluminium roof girder from a Caribbean seabed without any difficulty (the remains of a hurricane damaged beach-front cafe had fouled our anchor). The lack of power consumption means that we do not feel that we need the engine running and so can happily anchor under sail, and leave the same way if we choose. The fact that you are doing it means that you can raise or lower the anchor fast if there is urgency, or slow if there is leisure. This is unlike electric jobs which carry on infuriatingly at their own pace whatever the circumstances. On the other hand, the clutch/brake arrangement which is meant to control the lowering of the hook, is a bit badly designed so that there is a tendency to get ‘too fast’ or ‘jammed stopped’ as the two speeds, rather than ‘just right’ and ‘ahhh’. Lastly, just this year, after about 12 or 14 years of use, all the white paint has decided finally to come off the cast aluminium body, leaving a nasty mottled grey. I think the problem has been electric currents set up by the electrolysis of all the different metals – aluminium body, bronze gears, bronze gypsy holding zinc galvanised steel chain attached to zinc galvanised iron anchor resting on stainless steel fittings on pulpit. Perhaps if I had not left the chain around the gypsy winter and summer year in year out, it might have looked nicer for longer.


Finally, with all the best equipment money can buy, carefully fitted, we get to an anchorage… Very often there doesn’t seem to be any gaps, or the only spaces are in what are obviously not the best areas – too near the wall, too near the open sea. The first thing is not to rush. Tootle around the anchorage for a few minutes, having a look from this side and that. Too often, the relief of having arrived, coupled with some kind of idea that people are watching and we don’t want to look like we don’t know what we’re doing, makes us want to rush. No, have a look around, wave and say hi to a few existing residents. Have a look at the compass and see which way the wind might change if the present forecast comes true. Look at the depth sounder and do 12 x √d in your head. Add a bit for high tide later in the day and do it again. There’s no rush.

Trying to imagine what your, say, 36 m of chain will look like when out, plus guessing how all the other boats will swing when the wind changes is usually too much for me to visualise. So we pick two boats that have a bit of space behind them both, motor up until our bow is roughly between their two sterns and drop the anchor there. If you lay out the chain and find that you don’t have anybody close behind or beside you, you did OK. If you do, pick it all up again and pretend that you always have a practice run like this.

If it all looks OK for space, engage reverse gear and find a side-transit. Put on a bit of revs gently and watch the transit (try not to use another boat, they all move all the time). Your backward motion should stop. Crew on the foredeck may put a foot on chain and should feel no vibrations or jerking. If things are not right, pull it all up and repeat. Keep repeating until everything is just right.

Laying out the chain is a bit of an art. It helps if the foredeck person has an idea what the depth is before going up there. If it’s 6 m, then shortly after the 5 m mark on the chain disappears below the surface, they can imagine that the hook has reached the bottom. A glance to the side should confirm  that we are already drifting backwards. If not, hold it there until we are. Then start laying out chain until we reach about two or two and a half times the depth (12 – 15 m for 6 m deep). At this point there should be just enough for the hook to start to set. Maybe hold it there for a few seconds and see if the boat swings bow-to-wind a little. If so, good, let the rest out, roughly at the speed that we are drifting back. Having some idea that the hook may have caught and set correctly early on is a comforting thought.

When everything is settled and the hook has been dug in and tested, it is time for a snubber. Many boats have a dedicated rope for this, often with a special hook spliced into one end. I don’t like those hooks, they look to me like they are going to damage the chain link that they bear on if enough force is put on. There is always somebody wants to make a commercial opportunity out of every little need. I use an ordinary mooring warp, preferably one of the nylon ones as they have a bit of stretch should the whole anchor chain catenary pull tight, although I don’t think it ever has yet. I have a curved rope-roller one side of the forestay, and an angular roller for chain the other side, so this takes a minute to think through. Figure-of-eight one end of the mooring warp to a large foredeck cleat and pass the other end out through the stem-head rope-roller. Loop it around outside of the forestay and bring it back aboard above the anchor chain. Somewhere between the bow roller and the windlass, tie a rolling hitch around the anchor chain, with the two loops towards you, to pull up the chain in the end. Then release the brake on the windlass again and let the whole thing out until the rope takes all the strain and the chain is hanging slightly slack. Put the brake back on, just in case, and we have a locking pawl that really does prevent the windlass from turning.

Lastly, we have a stainless steel rod that goes across above the two rollers to stop both the rope and chain from jumping out. I know it’s a long-shot, but the bouncing wake of a passing fishing boat may just dislodge these one day, and without the fair lead the chain could do some damage, so I always lock this back in. It is attached by a short lanyard to the pulpit so that I don’t lose it overboard.


There are risks when handling anchoring gear. The anchor itself is heavy and you don’t want it on your foot or shin, so make sure you are well braced before trying to lift it in or out of the stem-head roller. The real accidents, though, happen between the chain and the gypsy: NEVER under any circumstances lift the chain away from the gypsy, with your fingers wrapped around the chain, when the anchor is not secured right there on the foredeck next to you. If the boat pulls and your fingers get trapped twixt chain and gypsy, they will be mangled and cut off. Don’t ever risk it. Ever.

Another issue is securing the anchor for sea and ocean passages. Many boats come with some kind of clip to keep the anchor in the bow roller. Some people buy a beautiful expensive anchor and then drill a hole in it to pass an existing metal rod through. We remove the anchor from the roller and securely lash it to sturdy hooks welded inside the pulpit for the purpose. I lash both ends twice, using two separate short ropes at each end for double security. I really don’t want it starting to come free in a deep-sea storm and either crashing a hole in the bow somewhere, or needing me to edge all the way up to the pulpit to re-secure it in a howling gale.

Lastly, the Sea Tiger 555 has a great big hawse hole through the deck, but comes with no way to block it for sea. I have a large slab of 2″ thick glass filled nylon (don’t ask, I may tell you all about why one day). I carefully made a piece that would fit quite well in the hole, with a lip so that it can’t go through. I fixed a large hook into this from below and so the anchor chain,  detached from the anchor can be hooked on here and its weight keeps the plastic lid in place. I only bother with this for long ocean passages likely to take weeks. The anchor locker drains into the main bilge, which is easy enough to pump, it’s just that the less you have that’s actively trying to sink the boat, the less you have to worry about. The foredeck definitely gets very wet on passage, and can go right under on occasions, so this is worth thinking about. I have heard that stuffing the hawse hole with rags works too, but I had the time, the tools and the raw materials once, so I did my best.

How much chain

People have very complicated formulae for the amount of chain needed – 3 times depth, 5 times depth, not just 3 times at this depth, never less than 25 m, more to be on the safe side, etc, etc. It was a while ago, and I can’t remember where I found it, but I looked into the equation for a catenary curve, which is what an anchor-chain makes half of, just at the point where it is about to lift the sank of the anchor and dislodge it. I found that the relationship between length and depth is a square-root. This is why people have all these complex rules and sub-rules to remember. Then I got lots of people’s recommendations and tried to work out what the constant would be that covers most of them. I came up with 12. So lay out chain to twelve times the square-root of the depth, 12 x √depth. This has never let me down, when combined with the other rule, “If it gets windy, spare chain sitting in the locker is doing nothing to help, and it costs nothing to put it all out”.

You don’t need a calculator to do the square roots from the helm: You already know enough fixed points: √4 = 2; √9 = 3; √16 = 4 and √25 = 5.

Depth Sq. root Chain
4 2 24
9 3 36
16 4 48
25 5 60

You can of course extrapolate other values either in your head, or by making up a little table and taping it up somewhere aboard.

Anchor buoy

I only once ever used an anchor bouy, in La Coruña in Spain, and within a week a French boat picked it up and started tying up to it, potentially casting us both adrift. It was an unusual, small, hard red ball that I had decorated with felt-tip anchor symbols and the name of the boat. It had only a thin line on it, but there’s always someone, somewhere who wants to tie up to it.

I never used one again, and never had an anchor foul anything that we couldn’t lift, secure with a rope and unhook ourselves from before dropping it back in. I did foul a fisherman anchor once, when I was a kid, by dropping it into a seabed of large granite boulders and getting it stuck between them. Luckily it was above the low-tide mark, so I just buoyed it and walked down to get it the next day at low tide. Most places have a scuba diving club and many cruising yachts carry scuba gear. I think if I ever lost an anchor again, it would be easy enough to get someone to dive to retrieve it. Maybe some money would change hands, maybe a meal out for the diver and their partner would be more fun.

Some people say that they like to see where their hook is by the buoy, others say that their buoy is fouling another part of the anchorage over which they should really have no claim. I’m more worried about people lifting it. I have seen people keep about 1 meter of floating rope attached to the front of their anchor with a bowline loop in it. The idea is that this is too short to foul anybody’s propeller, but long enough that they can dive to it themselves using just a snorkel, and pull it out if necessary. I’m not sure about this. I think that the compromise is likely to fail – either it will get in somebody’s prop one day, or be so far down, or so heavy, that free-diving won’t be possible, or do any good, on the day when it may be needed.


How to spend your money

7 November 2009

You would think that parting with money is one subject that few of us need any help with. Fitting out a cruising yacht can be a very expensive undertaking. In the bright lights of the chandlery, many shiny things can seem very attractive. You need some ways to classify your needs to help you separate the vital from the important, the essential from the necessary.

I wrote some time ago that, “A boat is not like a car, which comes from the manufacturer ready to use and fairly well complete. While a yacht may be sailed out of her manufacturers slip, she needs an lot of other fittings and work to be done before she becomes a long-distance cruiser and a home for her crew.”[1]

Safety of life

The highest priority purchases are those concerned with maintaining and possibly saving the lives of yourself, your loved ones and crew and possibly other people you may come across in your travels. No expense should be spared in this area and no compromises made.

Keeping the boat afloat is top priority, and involved in this is every single fitting that could fail and by so doing sink the boat. This includes the hatches, the lockers, the windows, the seacocks, the exhaust fittings, the prop shaft and its glands, the toilet etc. You may separate the ‘safety of life’ aspects of these things (like the doubled hose clamps on every toilet pipe) from the mundane (like the finish on the toilet seat), but safety of life items should be perfect in every way with no room for improvement. For me this included through-bolting the cabin window fittings rather than relying on self-tapping screws. Are the catches and hinges on the cockpit lockers up to ‘safety of life’ engineering standards? They need to be, as nothing will sink a boat much quicker than an open cockpit locker in a full gale while everybody is below decks feeling ill and perhaps injured, with the hatchboards bolted in place obscuring the view.

Then comes the question, if the boat is sinking, what next? I have a French kit that includes rubber gloves and some two-part underwater expanding foam that you’re meant to stuff into a major hull rupture. I have no idea if that would do any good, but there are some more sensible things to have. At least two manual bilge pumps, one operated from below decks and one from above is a wise suggestion. I added a large, high power electric pump too, but it would only fit alongside the engine so has never been wet for testing yet. Being able to re-use below-decks locker covers as nail-on replacements for broken windows probably only applies to wooden boats, but is worth a thought. Another on the same lines is having some long pieces of wood on board that can be used to brace back outwards a section of caved-in GRP below the waterline: Dinghy oars? Boat hook? etc. Of course, you know about rigging a sail under water against the hull from the outside to reduce leakage from such a dosh, don’t you?

So far, expenditure on keeping the boat afloat has been minimal, but I want to stress the importance of looking again at everyday things like hinges, toilets and exhaust pipes and maintaining, or ‘engineering’ them to the highest possible safety standards before spending money on nice-to-haves.

Clearly there are some things to buy for safety’s sake. A liferaft with excellent, accessible mountings is right up there, alongside a large and interesting first aid kit. We had three of those attache-case sized plastic boxes stuffed full by the time we left, with every advice taken from doctors, medical friends, books and magazines. Apart from normal everyday usage, we brought most of it back unused, thank goodness. One case-full remains on board for shorter local trips and still remains mostly pristine. On the back of the boat are the ‘yellow goods’: one or two horseshoe buoys with attached drogue, whistle, light and possible dan-buoy. We had a towable life-ring with floating rope and a weighted, throwable bag of floating line too. All of these things should be marked with the boat name; the horseshoe buoy is a good place to display the name where marina officials can actually see it to help them spell it correctly. The thought has sometimes crossed my mind as to the use of these things to a singlehanded sailor. It is true that once I am overboard, there will be no one left to throw anything to me. On the other hand, a singlehander is as likely as anyone else to be first on the scene when someone else is in the water, whether this is as a result of answering a mayday call or of following another boat into harbour.

Electronics saves lives too, especially VHF radios on channel 16 (carry a spare handheld and take it with you on dinghy trips ashore) and the satellite EPIRB. Make sure the EPIRB is properly registered, in-date and tested. Mount is sensibly in the cockpit and consider the extra expense of a mount that deploys automatically after the boat has sunk in case you forget it. Never put to sea, further than across the bay without it assembled, in its mount, and ready to deploy.

Jackstays, harness points, lifejackets with harness and crotch straps and tethers are all part of an essential system to keep everybody safely attached if they do go over the side. These, like the liferails around the boat, must all be full-strength, no-nonsense fittings, preferably bolted through backing plates behind the fixing points.

Apart from the things that could save your life, what about the things that might try to kill you? Rusalka Mist has oversized standing rigging on a short mast that we know has survived hitting the water in at least one knock down. You must decide what makes you believe that your mast won’t come down in a Force 8 – 10, as you cannot tell what may hit if you put to sea for days or weeks on end. If it does come down, you will need some wire cutters designed for stainless steel rigging to cut it free before it knocks a hole in the side of the boat. Remember, none of this will happen in a calm sea when you feel your best.

Fire on board is a very serious issue. What can catch fire? The cooker, the gas locker, the engine, the fuel tank. If you’re going to smoke in bed or light candles or oil lamps, the list just got longer. Over-equip yourself with fire extinguishers at all ends of the boat, including at least one automatic one in the engine space. Fit a gas alarm. Maybe a carbon monoxide alarm too. Oh, and a smoke alarm.

Electrics cause fires and also drive everyone nuts when they stop working at the crucial moment. There are two cures to these two problems: first do not connect anything to the electrics without a proper circuit breaker and the correct gauge wire, properly installed where it won’t chafe. Second, apply silicone grease to each wire in every electrical connection you make, from the masthead light to the chart light, from the anchor windlass to the starter motor. Grease is an electrical insulator, but you will tighten the connection hard enough that all the grease will be squeezed out from the metal-to-metal contact points, but then those points will be encapsulated in pure grease to keep the moisture, salt and humidity away from them for decades afloat.


When I was buying equipment for our long-distance travels, the process at times became like an interlocking 3-D jigsaw. First, everything important should have a backup, so the windvane steering does the same job as the electronic self steering and the old tiller pilot can replace the new one if needs be. But also, if possible, things should be dual purpose if it can be arranged, so the covers for the cave lockers behind the two main bunks double as bed-boards for the ‘centre bunk’ that makes those two into a double.[2] Extra safety-rails around the cockpit become mounting points for the solar panels.[3] The spare anchor rode with 60 m of nylon line also doubles as a potential towrope for the storm drogue. The rollers on the stern will reduce chafe when towing a drogue as well as when lying to dock ropes in a marina berth.

Very often, the backup option also involves more input from you, the human. If the electronic chart plotter fails, you will have to plot the positions on the paper chart. If the horn fails, you will have to blow into the manual fog-horn. Just make sure you also have the pencils, rulers, fog-horns, matches, sextant or whatever it takes to take over if important equipment fails.

There is one last class of equipment that stands outside of this – gear that does something you could not do if you didn’t have it. Nothing can see through fog like radar, for example. It used to be that nothing could pick up weather forecasts or allow you to speak half way across an ocean like HF radios (aka shortwave, SSB or worldband), but now there is satellite communication too. With these things you have to decide, if you need that, buy one, if you don’t then live without it. You can’t improvise one, or make something else double for one in an emergency. If you didn’t buy one, do without.

Life as we know it

Finally we get down to living aboard. This, don’t forget, is the whole point of cruising, but there is no point in having every comfort laid on for when you reach harbour, if you don’t get there in one piece. That said, we had all kinds of nice things on board from a television to nail files, from solar showers to a 12 V coolbox.

Life aboard in cold climates is made much more comfortable by Tilley lamps. They burn pressurised paraffin and provide plenty of heat as well as light on cold dark evenings. High-latitude summers have enough daylight for our two solar panels to power all our toys, day and night, under way and in port. Tropical days are much shorter, and the nights correspondingly longer, so that we were running out of electrical power when underway. The backup, of course, was to start the engine to provide charge, but I felt a lot happier after we bought the towed generator to provide extra charge at sea. I don’t have a wind powered generator aboard as, to me, they look very likely to turn into another ‘thing that is trying to kill you’ in a rising gale. They can also be noisy and transmit vibrations throughout the hull, so personally, I’d rather find room for more solar panels than fit one at the moment.

In addition, there is room aboard for hobbies. This, for us, includes books, cooking equipment, a laptop computer and, for me, tools. Really, I wonder if you’re really suited to the cruising life if your hobbies do not include making and mending things. I know people who cruise with a steady stream of local workmen coming aboard to fix and fit things. To me, doing those things myself is part of the joy. On the other hand, it is important to know your limitations: I am not a diesel engine expert, and sometimes the reliability of that engine is fairly essential, so I have people who have been on training courses and who have easy access to all the right spares parts look after that for me. My partner, Nicky, enjoyed sketching, pastels, water colours and even got into cross-stitching while we were away. Some people have a sewing machine on board and even make a bit of money from it. We found that skill-bartering worked well for us: my electronic skills helped me fix someone’s self-steering and their underwater dexterity meant that they could scrape our weedy bottom clean in half a day.

How to buy a boat

4 November 2009

The first step to a cruising life is to choose and buy your boat. Or maybe build it, but even if you’re planning to do that, you have to choose the design first too. Many sailors already have a boat, and so the advice for them is to look at it afresh and decide if it really is the one for you, and your companions, and for the lifestyle you have in mind.

The two main differences between local day sailing or day racing, and cruising is that you  spend many more hours on board, both sailing and anchored or tied up, and you may end up sailing in weather or sea conditions that you did not specifically choose.

Starting with the hull, the most important thing is that it is a seaworthy shape. Seaworthy is not the same as fast.

Plan form

If you look down on a yacht and it looks like the front half of a much bigger boat, then what you have may well be fast, it may even plane in a calm sea with a huge spinnaker up. The trouble is that when it heels, it will tilt bow-down. It will be a real handful in a blow, needing a skilled and alert hand on the helm. That wide aft-section has a huge buoyancy and when following seas come up under it, it will be picked up and swept to the side, again needing quick, agile and accurate actions from the helm to prevent broaching.

When you look down on a sea-kindly yacht it looks like a boat, tapering in nicely at both ends with the widest beam around midships.

It should not be too beamy either. I have seen a diagram that shows a normal ocean swell passing under three different boats from the on the beam. One is an old-fashioned design called a lead-mine, which was very narrow with a heavy lead keel very deep below (hence the name). Due to the circulation of water within every wave, this design actually leaned into the oncoming wave as it approached and then tilted its mast after it as it departed. A flat-bottomed racing, planing design sits flat on the water and is tilted in the opposite way by the approaching water bulge – away from the approaching wave, then away from it the other way as it departs. The third boat, nicely proportioned in a classical, boaty kind of way, just goes up and down vertically without leaning either way.

Now, real waves are not the exact right size or shape for any boat and if there is such a beam wave that does not make Rusalka roll at all, there are enough of them that do that I’ve never noticed one in a rough sea. None the less, I’m sure there is some truth in that diagram, and that beamy boats  feel much worse when wallowing in a big sea.

‘Wallowing in a big sea’, you say? Well, don’t sit there wallowing, get some sail up and get moving! When she’s planing along with a white wake behind, you won’t be wallowing, you’ll be skimming over the top of it all as she was designed to do. Well that’s thinking like a racer again. What about when there’s no wind for three days, just a big swell on the beam? What about when you’re cooking and eating, or when you and your partner are both tired and no one  wants to hand-steer? What about if one of you has just fallen down the companionway, or burnt your hand while cooking and first aid is required? When you’re cruising, you can’t just retire and head back to the clubhouse when something goes wrong, or radio the safety boat to come and take a crew member off. You need a boat that will look after itself and all on board all the time, no matter what happens. You need a seaworthy boat, and that’s one that’s boat-shaped.


There is no doubt that the best lift to drag ratios come from high aspect ratio foils. That means that a long, narrow wing is more efficient on an aircraft and that a deep, narrow keel and a similar rudder are more efficient underneath a racing yacht. This underwater layout is also very handy in a crowded marina – the boat will be instantly responsive to the helm and you will be able to turn sharply into any tucked-away berth. This design also goes with the beamy, bummy plan form described above. When she gets twitchy in a blow with the unbalanced hull causing you to veer off course with every wave or gust, then the highly efficient steering will allow the highly alert helmsman instantly to correct every twitch and veer.

Yeah.  Well you can see where this is going, can’t you?  What about when the helm is exhausted, or when the self-steering is not at its best? Do you just accept broaches and rounding up as par for the course? Of course not. You need a boat that has inherent directional stability. Stability is an interesting subject. A coin on a table is ‘stable’ no matter whether is sitting on its side or balanced on its edge, but it is much more stable lying on it’s side. Fighter jets with anhedralled wings (sloping down as they leave the fuselage) are inherently so unstable that a human cannot fly them straight and level without the aid of the fly-by-wire computer. On the other hand they can twist and turn in flight so sharply that they hope to out-manoeuver any adversary.

A long-keeled yacht has a large tendency to want to keep going in the same direction, for the same reasons as the flights on the back of a dart or an arrow keep it predictable in flight. This can be a nuisance in a crowded marina, but can be a life-saver in a storm with exhausted or injured crew, with no one on deck for hours at a time, in a big following sea, under electronic or windvane self steering, etc, etc. In short, when cruising.

Having the aft end of the long keel attached to the bottom of the rudder not only makes the rudder much stronger, but also helps keep ropes and other debris out of the propeller, and stops floating things getting between the keel and the rudder to ruin your day that way too.

Berths and accommodation

The first thing you’ll lose without that big back-end is the stately aft cabin. It’s useful when all your family or friends want to come and stay in a marina, but it’s no use at sea and quickly becomes a junk storage area when living aboard for any time. When people came to visit us in distant places we booked them in a local hotel and took them for day sails around the bay. Sea berths are easy to get in and out of, are narrow and they have lee cloths or lee boards to keep you in place whatever the boat does. Double bunks are nice in harbour. Design a liveaboard boat for the people who are going to live aboard, under way and at rest. Liveaboard yachts are not holiday clubs or floating hotels – booking a hotel room ashore helps the local economy and gives both you and your guests space to relax and enjoy the visit.

Big, open spaces in a boat at sea are dangerous spaces. The narrower the walkway, the less far there is to fall. Falling into a something a foot away hurts, falling against something that is two or three meters away can easily break a bone, and a broken bone 800 miles from land can be a serious problem.

Other considerations

Apart from the main items discussed above, most of the rest a boat can be altered and adapted if they’re not quite right already. It’s worth thinking about a few points, though. If too much needs altering or adapting, it may alter the price you would like to pay for a given boat.

You’re going to want a big anchor, lots of heavy chain (or nylon rode) and a windlass to pull it all up with. Make sure that if these are not fitted already, there’s plenty of room for them, and not too fiddly to access and operate.
Guard rails
Nowhere is it written in stone that a yacht must have wire guard rails, but a power boat can have welded steel rails. I had a local stainless steel fabricator weld two 1″ tubes coming up off the top of the pushpit curving along beside the cockpit another 9 inches above the top wire and then curving down to replace the first stanchion, just ahead of the cockpit. These make the whole cockpit much more safe and secure, give me something to hold when standing staring out to sea, and gave me a place to mount a couple of solar panels, like solid dodgers.
The cooker must be on gimbals, so that it can be used at sea. There must be a bolt to stop it swinging around, for example when opening oven door, in port.
Windows and hatches
There is a story of one of the early ocean yachtsmen taking a hammer to the boatyard and smashing all the windows in his newly built yacht to prove to the builders that they weren’t strong enough. That’s probably over the top, but there is also a story here in Jersey of a powerboat coming back from France getting caught in overfalls where the tidal flow, the wind and the uneven seabed combine to cause large standing waves. It had the whole cabin top ripped off and sank in no time, losing all on board. I have seen yachts with very silly patio doors or french windows that didn’t look like they would stand the first boarding sea. Think in terms of wheelbarrow-fulls of water travelling at flying-through-the-air speeds. It certainly sounds like a hammer-blow when you are below.
Also think about securable hatch covers on the companionway and on all internal and cockpit lockers. You must not lose a companionway board in a storm and you do not want your woodwork tools all over the place inside after the first knockdown. I knew someone who cut 10-inch round holes on their cockpit coamings to fit big, weatherproof loudspeakers out there for the stereo. I don’t think those speaker cones are wheelbarrow-proof, and once ripped away, those 10-inch holes will sink the boat in a few hours. I hope he’s still OK.
You do not need a fridge on a boat. If you have one, providing it with power will come to dominate your life. Poor people living in hot countries – and that is a very large proportion of the whole human population – do not have fridges. Learn to shop and eat like they do. In the Caribbean we ended up going ashore about every other day. When ashore we treated ourselves to visits to cafes and bars. When shopping we had to discipline ourselves only to buy enough for the rest of today and for tomorrow. Anything fresh would be going off after that. We are used to milk in tea, but we soon got introduced to the joys of a kind of chai – tea bags, cinnamon bark and sugar all in a teapot and left to stew. Most meat we ate was in local eateries; afloat we made vegetable curries, lentil stews, ate fruit, and enjoyed the odd slices of ham or local cheese. It really wasn’t a hardship by any means. We have a fridge, but switching it on is a luxury, not a routine necessity.

In the end…

All of the above is not to say that perfectly successful long-distance cruises can’t take place in fast boats, or that people cannot live aboard boats with no guard rails or with huge aft cabins. These are just thoughts about the kind of things that may not be obvious, but that individually or collectively may make life a little more comfortable or a little safer in some circumstances.