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Voyagers pick five voyaging essentials

Jan 1, 2003

When we're bored — as we definitely were by day six of waiting for weather to transit from Eleuthera to the Abacos — the crew of Kotchka, a 38-foot Hinckley, often plays "what if" games. On this occasion, it was, "What five things would you absolutely, positively not leave home without?"

This was a pretty open-ended proposition, so we narrowed it down to apply only to the kind of sailing we've done on Kotchka during our two years as full-time voyagers. Year 1 entailed sailing Kotchka from Maine to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, then down the U.S. East Coast to the Bahamas and back to Maine. Year 2, back down the East Coast then on to the Bahamas, where we revisited some favorite spots from Year 1, then ventured farther afield to the out islands of Cat, Long, Conception and Little San Salvador.

Over the past two years, we've developed our own ideas as to the essentials of voyaging. Plus, over the evening sundowner ritual, we've listened to a lot of voyagers discuss the pros and cons of every conceivable piece of boat gear. We also decided that the type of gear most modestly equipped coastal cruisers would have aboard — VHF radio, GPS, life jackets, etc. — are not to be considered for our top five. Nor did we consider listing charts and guides, as we could not imagine anyone heading out without them. Ditto for a reliable engine and the appropriate spares, filters, etc. This top-five list is over and above the basics. The big-ticket stuff. So, with all the usual caveats, Kotchka's five things we'd say don't leave home without:

1) Massive ground tackle. Forget the charts that say for X-size boat you need Y-size anchor. Get the biggest anchor that you can reasonably manage to drop over the side and get back aboard. At least one to two sizes up from the aforementioned charts. On Kotchka we carry a 45-lb CQR. This is one size up from the recommendation. If it did not require rebuilding the bow roller, we'd probably opt for an even bigger CQR. Anchor type is far less critical than size. Bigger is better. Attach all the chain you can carry. You'll also want to carry another anchor or two with rode and/or chain attached, although 95 percent of the time you'll ride to just one hook. It would be best if a second anchor is bow-mounted and ready to deploy, but this is not always practical. As for anchor type, we feel that choice is strictly personal preference. While cruising the East Coast, we see a lot of Bruce anchors, while in the Bahamas, the CQR and plow types prevail. Most boats seem to have a backup Danforth and/or a big Fortress stored somewhere.

2) Single-sideband radio receiver. If financially feasible, we'd suggest a full-feature SSB. This will enable you both to receive and transmit. If you need to cut costs, then an SSB receiver will at least keep you up to date with news and weather information. When voyaging outside the United States, our SSB provides the best source for weather forecasts and news. We can listen in on the NMN offshore weather forecast, Herb Hilgenberg's South Bound II net, BASRA's (Bahamas Air Sea Rescue Association) weather net and/or David Jones' Caribbean weather net. We can also keep up to date on world and financial affairs, as our SSB can receive BBC and American Forces Radio. We also use the SSB to stay in touch with far-flung cruising friends. In some parts of the Bahamas, weather forecasts and news are available via VHF radio. News and weather can be heard on the George-Town and Abacos cruiser nets every morning. In Nassau, weather is broadcast over VHF each morning. When cruising the Exumas, the marina at Highbourn Cay and a sailor named June, from Overyonder Cay, will relay the Nassau Met office forecast. June's forecast is terrific, as she incorporates her opinion based on years of experience. This is wonderful, as the Nassau Met office forecasts are simply inadequate and often way off the mark.

3) Autopilot and/or wind-vane self-steering gear. Some type of self-steering gear is a must-have, as it releases the crew from the tyranny of the helm. Whether a short day hop or multi-day passage, the ability to get away from the helm can be the difference between pleasure and agony — particularly with a short-handed crew. The choice between a wind-driven or electronic autopilot comes down to personal preferences and sailing style. A voyager making shorter hops with a few overnight passages will be well-served with a robust electronic autopilot. Voyagers making longer passages or a voyaging boat that is more amp-sensitive will appreciate wind-vane self-steering. On Kotchka, we have both. We tend to use the wind vane while sailing, even for short day sails. We switch on the electronic autopilot when motoring.

4) Comfortable sleeping berth. This seems simple and obvious, but those boaters making the transition from weekender to full-time cruiser often overlook this. Many boats, including Kotchka, raided the cruising funds not long after moving aboard for new sleeping cushions. Our V-berth cushions were fine for weekend overnights and occasional week-long sailing vacations, but fell woefully (and painfully!) short on comfort for every-night use. You would probably not sleep on 2 to 3 inches of foam over a slab of plywood at home, and your boat is now your home. Don't skimp on this one, your back will love you for it.

5) A big dinghy and engine. When voyaging on the U.S. East Coast, our small, inflatable tender with a 4-hp outboard worked well. For folks who like to row, a good hard dink would also work. The distances to a dinghy dock are typically modest, and the anchorages are usually well protected. In the Bahamas, however, the rules change. The distance to shore or town can be a mile or more, and a dinghy dock is a rarity. There are also strong currents, wind and waves to battle. In George-Town, Exumas, for example, the lee-shore anchorages off Stocking Island are more than a mile from town. Since it is such a haul, we tried to squeeze as many chores as possible into a single trip. As a result, we were quickly overloaded with fuel jugs, water, groceries, laundry and various supplies. It only took one wet trip of soggy crew, groceries and laundry before we were ready to sink the little boat and get something bigger. Our little dinghy also proved inadequate for snorkeling and exploring. Many reefs were simply beyond our range, and the threat of slow, wet rides discouraged us from exploring others. In the Bahamas, a 9- to 10-foot planing inflatable driven by a 10- to 20-hp outboard would be just the ticket. One of these will soon be trailing behind Kotchka.

J and Marci Kolb have been full-time liveaboards for three years, cruising the East Coast, Bahamas and beyond, onboard Kotchka, a 1969 Hinckley 38.