This Article appeared in the June 15, 1993 issue of MESSING ABOUT BOATS (re-edited 10/2000)
CRUISING IN LITTLE CRUISER
By David & Mindy Bolduc
is our 15 foot lug rigged sharpie designed and built by our friend,
Matt Layden. She is 4-1/2 feet wide and draws a mere 9 inches with
the centerboard up. There is no cockpit as this would take up
precious space on such a small boat. Instead, you stay below out of
the spray and the wind, steering and handling all the lines from
within. She is water ballasted, and her tanks can be automatically
filled whenever it rains. This is accomplished by the toe rails,
which channel water into holes in the deck that lead to the tanks
below. Our little boat even has a galley and plenty of stowage under
the floor boards for everything that is needed to go cruising.
Heavily built of exterior grade plywood, Little Cruiser can stand up
to the rigors of cruising, and she has proven to be the perfect boat
In January of 1993 "Little Cruiser" was trailered from our home in North Carolina to Cedar Key, Florida, where we joined up with fellow sailor and friend, Matt Layden. Matt had just completed a year-long cruise in his modified Balboa 20, which drew only 10 inches. During the next two weeks we enjoyed cruising together in the shallow waters on the West coast of Florida, and daily groundings were a common occurence. However, whenever we got stuck a simple push was all that was needed to get us moving again. One of the things that impressed Mindy and I the most about this area was the abundant bird life. We had to borrow Matt's bird guide to keep up with all the new species we saw daily. Of all the birds seen, we thought the most unusual was the Anghinga, a close cousin to the cormorant. This bird has an elongated snake-like neck, and catches fish by spearing them on it's long sharp beak. Sometimes we would see them on the riverbanks with fish skewered like a sishkabobs.
Our daily explorations carried us up creeks and rivers. One day we decided to sail 15 miles up the Swannee River to visit Manatee Springs. We had been told by the locals that in the winter time the manatees hung out there in the warm waters. Since we had never seen a manatee before, we thought this would be a good opportunity to see some of them. However, when we reached the pools there were no manatees to be found, so we headed back down river to poke our bows once more into some creeks. After spending the night in one particularly narrow creek, we awoke the next morning to the splashing of a large alligator who had slept nearby. We decided then and there that there would be no swimming for us. All too soon, though, it was time to move on, so we said our goodbyes to Matt, and we trailered "Little Cruiser" to Everglade City to explore the 10,000 Islands National Park.
This large park, which had just recently been reopened after Hurricane Andrew's disasterous visit, proved to be another ideal cruising ground for our shallow-draft cruiser. We quickly found out that the 10,000 Islands really should have been called the 10,000 Mangroves. We explored many of these tortuous shallow water passages that led way back into the Everglades, and got lost too many times to remember. Believe us when we tell you that it's hard to tell one mangrove creek from another since they all look the same unless you're an experienced guide. Even though we did not see any more alligators in the park, we kept to our ritual of not going into the water until we got to the Bahamas. Often times, while anchored out in the mangroves, we were left high and dry in the mud when the tide fell, and we were amazed at how many creatures emerged from that muddy ooze. There were plenty of pinching crabs, armies of jumping shrimps and legions of squirting clams. Of course the bird life was just as impressive as in Cedar Key, and we added the Great White Pelican to our list of new birds seen. Though the Everglades had proven quite interesting, we were now anxious to go to the Bahamas. However, before leaving we went to visit a little boat that Matt had told us was lying on a dock in Everglade City. Nicknamed the "Bathtub," this 8 foot sailboat had crossed the stormy Atlantic in 1962. The boat was very small and bare, and it made "Little Cruiser" look like a luxury yacht by comparison. If you are willing to suffer you can cross the ocean in just about anything.
The most challenging part of the trip, the crossing of the Gulf Stream, was next to come, and we drove to Miami to stay with some friends and prepare for our trip. We had read so many horror stories about this treacherous span of ocean that we were a bit intimidated considering the size of our boat; therefore, to boost our morale we visited fellow sailor Hugo Vihlen, known for his crossing of the Atlantic in a six foot sailboat called "April Fool" in 1968. Living in nearby Homestead, Hugo invited us over to his house after talking to him briefly on the phone for the first time. When we got to his home we got to see not only "April Fool", but also his latest creation, "Father's Day", a 5 foot 4 inch sailboat. This really tiny cruiser was very sophisticated,nonetheless, in design, and it reminded us of a space capsule. Onboard there was a GPS, a watermaker, a VHF radio and even a SSB/Ham radio. We were really amazed at how much stuff could fit aboard such a small boat. He told us that the following summer he would attempt to cross the Atlantic for a new World Record. That summer (1993) he succeeded in sailing from NewFoundland, Canada to England). After telling us about his boats, Hugo encouraged us with our own adventure, and he gave us sound advice on the crossing.
The next day we launched Little Cruiser in Miami, and we sailed over to Key Biscayne in preparation to leave from Cape Florida. On the way down the Intracoastal Waterway towards our departure point, we were passed by a large catamaran whose skipper hollered in jest, "When you get a real boat, get a cat!" We enjoyed passing him at the first low bridge. We lowered our mast, ducked under the bridge, and waved good bye. No hour-long wait for us! There are advantages to being small!
A day later, we left Key Biscayne in light airs, which was a nice change from the strong Northerly winds that had been blowing at thirty-five knots for the last few days. It wasn't long, however, before we were met by large Atlantic swells which had been kicked up by the storm. Though not particularly steep, the waves appeared to be as tall as our mast, and we were swallowed up in the troughs and completely blanketed from the wind. Therefore, we sheeted our sails in tight, and we motor sailed the next 14 hours to reach the Bahamas. Our landfall was Cat Cay, but we couldn't see much since it was already nighttime. In addition, there were few lights onshore as much of the island had been damaged by the full brunt of Hurricane Andrew. Not wanting to risk hitting any reefs, we anchored near the shore and rolled uneasily until daylight.
Nothing can prepare one for the Bahamas after the bleakness of the open ocean. From the dark magenta water of the Gulf Stream, you are welcomed to paradise by the crystal clear turquoise waters and the fine white sandy beaches of the Bahamas. Clearing customs was not a problem since there was a customs officer at Cat Cay. It even proved to be a bit comical since the portly officer that came to clear us was afraid to inspect such a small boat. We insisted that he come onboard, but he refused, fearing that his ample weight might tip over our diminuative craft. So, in no time, we received our clearance papers, and we headed off towards Bimini, our first major town in the Bahamas.
The rest of our trip proved to be one happy adventure after the next. We made friends wherever we went, and the weather and the winds determined our route. The only problem we discovered was with docking since we often times we were too small to tie up to the tall rough pilings at the marinas. Instead we would raft up to a large yacht that was already there; and for this, we were often refered to in jest as that yacht's dinghy. To make matters worse, at night our sleep was sometimes disturbed as strangers would stop by the dock and debate loudly with each other as to whether Little Cruiser had been sailed over from the United States or had been simply towed by another yacht. Sometimes, we would surprise these would-be admirers by popping our heads out of the hatch and by telling them of our adventure.
Some of our favorite cruising
grounds in the Bahamas were the shallow less traveled areas. We
explored the mangrove creeks on the west side of Bimini known as
Bonefish Hole, where we saw giant sting rays and the occasional
shark. Another of our favorite hotspots was in the Berry Islands
where we found the most beautiful deserted beaches to picnic on. Many
new friends were made while cruising this area, and one of our
favorites was the McGregor family. They were traveling on a fantastic
37 foot proa called "Cimba," built by Lew McGregor and his
friend the designer, Russell Brown. Though spartan in comparison to
the typical forty footer, this polynesian craft was extravagant next
to our own. Over the course of the next three or four days we spent
much time together swimming, fishing and sharing meals. Combining our
food made for more variety and several interesting recipes.
Throughout our trip, we discovered that we had much in common with
most of the cruisers who had given up the hectic life ashore to enjoy
life one day at a time. It was this kind of camaraderie and the
unexpected adventures that made our trip especially worth while and
Though most of the cruising was a lot of fun, one of the scarier times we had was on a 75 nautical mile passage between Chub Key in the Berry Islands and Bimini. Accurate weather forecasts are harder to come by in the Bahamas, and we made a mistake in interpreting the weather for that day's crossing. We started out in 15 to 20 knots of wind that over the next few hours grew to at least 40 knots. Apparently a cold front was passing over the area. In the darkness, the boat did hull speed down wind (5 knots), and this was with our last reef tied in! There were breaking seas and the boat was surfing regularly. To make matter worse, the skipper became so seasick that he couldn't steer, so his mate (and brave wife) had to take over. Fortunately "Little Cruiser" handled the conditions well, and it wasn't too long before we were nestled in Bone Fish Hole once more in a foot of tranquile water. The trip had taken 17 long hours.
In retrospect, cruising in our micro cruiser allowed us to see many places that larger boats could not even reach, and being a little different opened up so many doors. Two months of cruising taught us to look forward to each new day, and the new and unplanned events added to the excitement and fulfillment of the trip. All in all, we found that the most important thing about cruising was having fun doing it.