Micro Cruising Guide




Mindy and I have sailed aboard Matt Layden's Little Cruiser for close to ten years now (over 20 now), and we have learned a good deal about micro cruising during that time. Though many people would consider this fifteen footer to be a little Spartan for two, we've found that the boat's small size is one of her strongest virtues. We've trailered her long distances with our aging four cylinder Honda Accord, and we've found it easy to launch the boat at any ramp due to the boat's 9-inch draft. Little Cruiser is simple to sail and to maintain, and her flat-bottomed hull along with her robust construction has proven itself over 10,000 miles of sailing in all kinds of weather. Most importantly, this miniature yacht has carried us safely six times to the Bahamas. We have enjoyed gunk holing in the shallow and incredibly clear waters in this sailor's paradise, and we have explored many pristine islands and beaches not easily accessible by larger craft. However, having a good boat is not the only thing that is needed to have a successful trip; therefore, we'd like to share our experiences on how to plan for a long trip along with how to cruise long distances safely in a micro cruiser. 

We've found that it takes a good amount of time to get ready for our trips. Not only are there a lot of chores to do to prepare for the trip itself, but there are the day-to-day things that need to be taken care of while you are gone. Unless you are retired, you will need to figure out how to take time off from work, whether it is for a leave of absence or simply for your upcoming vacation. Then, when you are away, you will have to have someone handle your mail, pay your bills and look after your property. In our case, we work part-time jobs that allow us to leave for our trips when business is slow; and while we are gone, a neighbor picks up our mail and watches our place, while our parents tend to the bills. We realize that not everyone can leave for three months like we do and that most sailor will have to plan their trips around their own time schedule.

Once you have figured out how to get enough time off, you will then be able to begin your preparations in earnest. The first thing you need to do is to make sure that your boat is in tip-top shape. Before you start packing, go over the boat carefully and tighten up any loose nuts and bolts, and inspect everything for cracks and leaks. Look over the gudgeons, the pintles, the rudder, the centerboard, the handrails, the tiller and especially the spars. If anything needs to be repaired, this is the best time to do it now since it will be harder to do when you are on the water. Also, don't forget to have a look at your trailer and it's bearings; and whatever you do, make sure the lug nuts on the wheels are on tight! Don't laugh. We had a wheel fly off at 55 miles per hour when we forgot to tighten up one side sufficiently after repacking the bearings. Needless to say, it was scary riding down the road on just the hub, and we were lucky to come to a stop without jack knifing the trailer. Little Cruiser sure lives a charmed life.

When all the inspections are completed and your repairs are done to your satisfaction, it's time to actually start packing. Since our trips last nearly 3 months, we try to bring everything we need to maintain the boat and ourselves. We have found that half the fun in preparing for a trip in a micro boat is seeing how much stuff you can fit in the boat. However, keep in mind that in Matt's sharpies most of the ship's stores make up the ballast; therefore, you want to place the heaviest items like cans down in the bilge while the lighter things need to go higher up. Of course, as you eat through your stores, you will have to shift things around again or add weight to maintain proper ballasting. Many sailors are amazed by the amount of gear that we can carry aboard LITTLE CRUISER. At times we even amaze ourselves! Packing it all away in such a tiny boat is an art. We try to choose our equipment and stores carefully, keeping in mind the available space and where it will all fit. When we buy can goods we are constantly aware of the fact that our maximum bilge space is 5 3/8" amidship while the minimum depth is 2 ¾" up forward. This means that we can only fit so many tall cans in the deepest part of the bilge while the smaller cans must fit elsewhere. Somehow we manage to pack everything in. The many shelves and bins offer secure placement for books, glasses, sun tan lotions, radios and the like, while the hanging nets are for our clothes. All our equipment is arranged securely since we don't want items flying around the cabin or rattling down in the bilges when conditions get rough outside. We can't tell you how annoying it is to hear things banging for hours on end while you are making a long passage. Also, while we are packing, we make up a list that tells us where everything is located. You don't want to unpack your whole boat just to find that lonely can of beef stew! In the end, it will take patience and time to get it all in, but eventually you will discover the best way to do it. On Little Cruiser, everything has a place and there is a place for everything.

At the same time you might want to start thinking about where you will be headed on your trip. We often look on the internet for ideas, and we talk to other knowledgeable sailors on where they have been. Cruising guidebooks also have a lot of useful information. For our cruises south, we use the "Yachtsman's Guide To The Bahamas." There are also equally helpful publications like The Exuma Guide, On and Off The Beaten Path, and The Abaco Guide by Stephen Pavlidis. However, our favorite way to find new and exciting cruising destinations is by simply looking at our charts. We use a chart kit by BBA Products, which pretty much covers the whole Bahamas. The kit which is a spiral bound collection of regular charts measures 17" x 22" in dimension. We've folded our copy in half to fit it more easily aboard Little Cruiser. When we pour over our charts we concentrate on those shallow areas where the average boater might not want to venture. Of course we take notice of any reefs or other dangers while plotting our course there. However, the trouble is usually worth it since it is in these locations where you will often find the nicest anchorages with the most secluded beaches. Surprisingly enough, we have found that some of the most interesting places are where the charts show dry land at low tide!

Since you will have a finite period of time to work with, it's a good idea at this point to figure out how far you might want to go and how long it will take you to get there. Usually our expectations are a little too ambitious; and we seem to think that we can travel a lot further and that it will take us a lot less time than it does in the end. To make matters worse, the weather isn't always very cooperative. As is often the case, the wind seems to blow from exactly the direction you need to travel, and this raises havoc with all your carefully made plans. Nonetheless, past experience has shown us that we can comfortably cover around 800 miles in the 2 ½ to 3 months that we cruise for. This works out to about 10 miles a day, which isn't very much. However, a fair amount of time is spent enjoying our new surroundings and waiting for good weather. We've found that making a 30 nautical mile passage in Little Cruiser is a relatively easy thing to do in a day under normal conditions. We can cover this distance in about 7 or 8 hours. Sailing from Florida to Bimini, on the other hand, takes around 10 to 14 hours. The Bahama Banks crossing requires 15 to 20 hours to cover the 75 nautical miles from Bimini to the Berry Islands. Of course either one could take you much longer if the winds died or the weather became uncooperative.

Eventually, all the planning will have to come to an end, and you will need to get going. When the big day arrives, remember to strap your boat down securely on the trailer. Give those lug nuts one final tightening, and check the chains. Drive as carefully as you can. This will probably be the most dangerous part of the whole trip, so stay alert! You don't want all that planning to be for nothing. Leave a little extra space between you and the next car since it takes a little longer to stop with a trailer and a boat. When you get to the ramp, rig the boat while it is on dry land; and try not to launch your car with the boat. Some of those ramps are mighty slippery! Once the boat is in the water you probably want to do some test sailing before you begin your cruise. We usually spend about a week in the Keys while we wait for the right weather. This gives us an opportunity to tune the boat and to run to the local West Marine for any forgotten items.

Maybe we should have called this part "Simple Cruising" because that is what sailing in Little Cruiser and Paradox is really about. Nothing about sailing these boats could be called difficult or stressful. These are well-behaved and docile little craft. You sit and steer them from within the safety and comfort of the cabin, and the lines lead right back to you for easy handling. With no jib to contend with, all you have to do is adjust the main sheet once in a while. The lug sail is extremely forgiving of trim; and even if you sheet it in too hard, the boat will continue to sail reasonably well. Of course for best performance upwind, it's better to let it run more freely than you would a sloop. Now to reef, you release the halyard and pull on the reef line(s). That's it. This usually takes about 20 seconds. A total beginner would feel at home in these little boats don't you think? They track straight, and they will pretty much take care of themselves. Things don't tend to happen too quickly either. If you make a mistake, like an unintentional jibe, nothing horrible occurs. Nothing breaks, and nobody goes for a swim. In addition, these boats don't seem to make a lot of fuss while going through the water. This is probably because they are so narrow, small, and frankly, pretty well designed. What we find most amazing, though, is that we regularly have an easier time going to windward than larger cruising vessels. Because we are so short, we can often fit in between the wave troughs that larger boats aren't quite able to bridge. The bigger boats find themselves crashing through the waves that we merrily sail over. One of our favorite features about Matt's boats has got to be the pilothouse with the large sliding hatch. Sitting inside gives one the feeling that they are driving a "convertible." When it gets rough, you just close the hatch, and you keep on going. For this reason we carry no foul weather gear on board.
Over the years we have thought about moving up to a larger boat to get a little more elbowroom so to speak. However, after watching other sailors handle their big sailboats, we probably won't change a thing because it looks like too much hard work. Cranking on those big winches while tacking back and forth could give us some real nasty blisters, and hauling in those heavy anchors might strain our backs. Moreover, coming into a dock with a large boat could be a real nightmare when there is a foul current running or a strong breeze blowing. You'd better have your fenders and lines ready when you need to stop a few tons quickly. We usually just fend off with our feet and hold on with our hands. Running aground looks like another real headache too. If you can't get free right away, you'll have to jump into your dinghy, lay out an anchor, and kedge off while using your sails to heel the ship over. If that doesn't do it, and you're not in any danger, then you have the pleasure of sitting out the tide on the side of your boat. No, we prefer just stepping off our tiny craft and pushing. Come to think of it, this is the worst job aboard Little Cruiser, which we call "wet duty." "Honey, it's your turn to push. NO IT'S YOURS! " Last of all, we really appreciate our 9" draft which allows us to wander around pretty much wherever and whenever we want to go.

When it comes time to leave, we try to depart early enough so that we will arrive at our next anchorage well before dark. If it is a challenging passage like the Gulf Stream crossing , we pay special attention to the weather. We monitor the weather forecasts on NOAA, or we listen to it relayed by the WRCC net on our short wave radio when we are in the Bahamas. If we had a barometer, we'd use that too. However, we mostly rely on our own senses, and we try to use good common sense to make up our minds. We stare up at the sky in search of the telltale signs of an approaching cold front or a storm. We feel the strength of the wind on our cheeks,and we peer out over the water to determine the sea state. When it looks like a good day and the forecast seems reasonable, we go for it. If within the first hour or two things start getting unusually rough, we consider turning back or we may choose an alternative destination. In all honesty, we have aborted a few Gulf Stream crossings simply because conditions deteriorated or they didn't look quite right. In one instance, the winds were forecast at 20 knots out of the South, but by the time we got 10 miles out from Key Largo, the winds were gusting close to thirty knots and seven foot waves were routinely washing across the foredeck. We turned around, and headed back in. Two day later it was blowing less than 10 knots out of the north, and we had a comfortable and safe passage to Bimini. To us there is nothing to be gained by punishing ourselves. However, there are times when you are caught out or you simply have to make the best of the conditions that are available.

Every boat handles differently in heavy weather, and Matt's boats are no exception. We've found that in most conditions Paradox and Little Cruiser are quite easy to sail, however, as the wind picks up,
things do tend to happen a little quicker. If you reef them appropriately, these little boats just keep sailing along happily even in quite heavy breezes. One thing to note is that they can roll a bit while going downwind in heavy weather because they are narrow and cat rigged. If over pressed with too much sail, Little Cruiser has been known to dip the end of her boom into the water from time to time. Though not dangerous, it does mean that it's time to reef. We've found that shortening sail under these conditions is best achieved by turning back upwind since releasing the halyard while sailing downwind may allow the sail to balloon out like a spinnaker before the reef can be pulled in taught. While on the topic of downwind sailing, we've noticed that these flat-bottomed boats can surf quite easily. With 8-foot seas and 25 knots blowing from right behind, Paradox and Little Cruiser can probably surf at 8 or 9 knots in short bursts. To take advantage of these conditions, you need to stay alert to catch and ride the best waves. Generally, as a decent size wave approaches, it lifts the stern and the boat begins to accelerate. It is at this time that you should apply a little corrective rudder to keep your boat centered on the wave. In Little Cruiser, we've noticed that the direction of this action is opposite to the way the boat wants to go down the wave. With a little practice you can surf along and really make up some time.

When it comes to sailing upwind in rough conditions, we've always been amazed at how well these little boats perform. One would think that their flat bottoms would pound like crazy; but the truth is that they slice into the oncoming waves like the proverbial hot knife through butter. Once heeled over, their narrow beams and their hard chines present a sharp V to the oncoming waves. This along with the boat's low windage and their hefty weights, allow them to maintain momentum while still sailing nicely upwind. Surprisingly enough Matt's boats seem to point reasonably well in spite of their low-tech rigs or whether they have chine runners or a centerboard. Some people have wondered about the performance benefits obtained by using a centerboard in Little Cruiser over the chine runners in Paradox. It has been our observation that after sailing together with Matt for several months , we cannot tell which boat can point higher. This leads us to the assumption that both methods work equally well on Matt's designs. However, we did notice that the chine runners do have a definite advantage over a centerboard in really shallow water where a centerboard can't be lowered sufficiently to provide adequate lateral resistance.

We have no doubt that we would have little trouble clawing off a lee shore even in inclement weather because we've always been able to go to windward even during frontal passages and strong squalls. Just this past year we completed a 26-mile passage to windward in such conditions from Morgan's Bluff, Andros to West Bay, New Providence. The wind was blowing a steady 22 -27 knots,as measured by our digital wind meter at deck level, and we had to sail right into eight-foot seas in the Tongue of the Ocean to reach our destination. Though pinched the whole way, Little Cruiser averaged over 4 knots. One thing we did do to help our boat sail her best was to sit on the cabin sole and to tie our spare fuel container and our 2-½ gallon water jug next to us. This helped us to carry more sail area so that we could power into the head winds and the waves.
In regards to whether these little boats are tough enough for cruising, well they are! Even though they were only designed for coastal sailing, they are more than adequate for making dayhops across open bodies of water if the conditions are reasonable. Of course almost any deep water can get rough if the wind start to blow hard. But when that happens, it's usually a good time to go exploring the more protected bodies of water that can be found almost anywhere. Just think about it. How big can a wave get in a few feet of water? To this day, I can remember the look of surprise on that yachtsman's face in Sampson Cay who spotted us sailing by his anchorage in well over 30 knots of wind during a frontal passage. We kept to the shallow banks and to the protected creeks, and the waves never got more than a foot or two. For the sailor in a deep draft yacht to venture out that day, he would have had to sail through out a tricky cut and out into the ocean where he would have met some rather ugly seas. This cruiser was wise to stay in port while we splashed around like ducks in the shallows, having no more to worry about than the occasional uncovered sand bar.

Another advantage to cruising in small flat-bottomed boats is that with a 9" draft there are many more cruising grounds available to explore as well as many more anchorages to choose from. An anchorage that might not have enough water for a larger boat will often provide a secluded spot for our pint-sized yachts. The waves tend to be smaller in the shoals, and it is often times possible to dry out on the tide. A small creek is an ideal location to wait out a frontal passage, a gale, or even the "storm of the century." If you must use a large and crowded anchorage, it is wise to anchor in as shallow water as is possible because should a large vessel break free, it will likely run aground before it reaches you. Believe it or not, this actually happened to us in Morgan's Bluff a few years back, and we were relieved when the heavy 45-foot sloop stopped fifty feet from us. Luckily, when the storm abated they were able to re-float themselves. Anchoring in closer to land also makes it easier to wade ashore, which is necessary if you don't have a dinghy.

While on the subject of anchoring, make sure to invest in a few decent anchors. Since they will be relatively small and inexpensive for a boat the size of Paradox and Little Cruiser, don't be tempted to get ones that are too small. Here size matters, and bigger is better. We use a 9 pound Danforth with 15 feet of ¼" chain as our everyday hook. It is stored below the floorboards when not in use. Our second anchor is a 4-pound fortress on 10 feet of 3/16" chain that rides on the bow roller for quick use. Our storm anchor is a 25-pound take-apart Luke with ¼" chain that serves as ballast most of the time. However, we have used it a few times in difficult anchoring situations where there was a lot of eelgrass or where the bottom was especially scoured out. It's nice to have the ultimate anchor when there are sharp rocks and reefs nearby. Our three nylon anchor lines are between 3/8" and 7/16" thick, and they vary in length from 75 feet to 150 feet apiece. There really is no need to use anything heavier since you want them to stretch a bit to reduce the shock loads. Most of the time we ride to two anchors if there is room. We usually set them out in a "V" shaped arrangement according to the way the wind is blowing. However, if we are in a creek, a river or a channel we use a Bahamian Moor, which involves placing one anchor upstream and one downstream. Some people may say that using two anchors on such a tiny boat is overkill, especially in the shallows; but we seem to sleep a whole lot better at night knowing that all is secure. We guess it kind of like locking both the handle and the deadbolt on your door at home before you go to sleep.

Over the years, one of the nice things we've noticed about having such a small boat is that you simply use it more while you are out cruising because it is fun to sail. These boats handle as easily as a dinghy, and the shallow draft is perfect for exploring up creeks and rivers. Running aground is never a problem when a simple push is all that you need to get going again. We can easily pass under low bridges by dropping our mast to reach new cruising grounds, and we can even land on deserted beaches for a picnic. We've noticed that the typical forty-foot cruiser one sees in the Bahamas tends to drop their anchor and to stay put until they make their next passage. And who could blame them? It's a lot of work to get all that ground tackle down and then back up again. We often move around daily to enjoy the scenery, and we have the luxury of choosing any anchoring spot we like most of the time. In the end, we'll probably just keep cruising along in Little Cruiser because she's easy to handle and she gets us where we want to go with the minimal fuss, the lowest cost and the least effort.

Small Emergencies

Little boats generally have little problems. Things that break usually are not too expensive to fix, and most repairs can be done oneself in remote locations. We carry lots of spares as well as a pretty complete repair kit for just about everything that is critical. See our list here . Of course there are things you can’t readily mend while on the go. One of these items is a broken drive shaft on an outboard motor, and this is what sheared on our 10-year old Evinrude one windless night a year ago in the middle of the Great Bahama Bank. At the time, all we could do was drop anchor and get some rest.

In the morning we accepted a tow from a passing sailboat since the forecast was for calm winds. Fortunately, we had an uneventful ride to Morgan’s Bluff next to their dinghy which appeared to be almost as big as our own boat. Incidentally, you don’t want to accept a ride from just anyone. A cigarette boat with 900 horses that is in a hurry to get home might not be your best candidate unless you wanted to convert you little ship into a submarine. Also make sure that you tie the end of your line to your bow cleat in such a way that it can be released easily if a problem develops. When we got into port we gave our benefactors a bottle of wine and some honey from our own bees in exchange for their kind gesture. Then, a few days later, we sailed over to Nassau, the capital, where we bought a new and reasonably priced outboard motor. We’d hate to think what a large inboard motor would have cost to repair or to replace in the islands. On the other hand, if we did not have sufficient funds for a new engine, we could have always continued under sail power alone, using our dinghy paddle as our auxiliary. Of course, next trip we will remember to bring our yuloh along since we can scull a lot faster than we can paddle.

By and large, the most common problem we encounter in Little Cruiser is bumping into things. The worst are the reefs, which tend to make nasty gashes on our 1” thick bottom. This damage is relatively minor and easy to repair with underwater epoxy, and it doesn’t need to be attended to immediately since the scrapes rarely go more than a ¼ inch deep. Over the years we’ve also bumped into other things like rocks, pilings, docks, pipes, sunken engine blocks and pretty much anything else that has been thrown in the water. When you are routinely sailing in a ¼ fathom of water, you tend to hit a lot of stuff. On the other hand, sometimes other boaters bump into you.

Several years ago we had a 42-foot power cruiser hit us when were tied up at Weech’s Dock in Bimini. It happened when an inexperience captain got caught broadside to the strong current that sweeps through the crowded marina, and he slammed right into Little Cruiser. We heard the loud crash from a hundred yards away, but there was little we could do. To make matters worse, the motor cruiser became wedged between Little Cruiser and an adjoining dock. In an attempt to free himself, the frantic boater used Little Cruiser as a fender, while he repeatedly applied power in forward and then in reverse from his boat’s powerful twin diesels. We watched in horror as he continued to batter our little craft with the swim platform that extended off the stern. When we finally made it back to Little Cruiser, the motorboat was just about free. Of course, we half expected to see some significant damage, but instead we only saw some ugly dents and some missing paint. Though not typical of the average cruiser, this fellow offered no apologies, and we remember him distinctly saying, “If your boat sinks, I have insurance!” Right. We probably wouldn’t even have met his deductible.

To add insult to injury, a day later we were hit by another boat, this time a 17-foot fishing skiff that was traveling at high speed in a nearby creek. We encountered the skiff in a blind bend where there was room for only one boat. Since Little Cruiser weighed more than the Bahamian boat, the lighter craft ricocheted off our vessel at the level of the starboard windows and went bounding into the mangroves and then back into the creek behind us. Nobody was hurt, thank goodness, and our faith in Little Cruiser’s stout construction and her lexan windows was further bolstered. None of these collisions, resulted in any serious damage to the boat, and all of the cosmetic damage was quickly repaired with the fillers and the paint that will bring along for just this purpose.

Another thing one has to watch out for in our tiny boats is severe weather. This is especially true while sailing in the Bahamas in the wintertime when there are frequent cold fronts passing through the area. Even though we try to avoid storms, it is not always possible to escape them all. Sometimes when one is making a long passage the weather can deteriorate quickly or an offshore squall may be encountered. We’ve found that the best course of action is to reduce sail promptly and then to proceed ahead more slowly. We usually close the hatch and secure any loose gear that might fly around the cabin. If the wind is on the nose we fall off a few degrees to keep the boat moving. When we are being driven downwind in gale-force winds and rough seas we reef our sail sufficiently to prevent surfing. Though our salty little boats can handle these sea states, it can be tiring to steer for hours on end while racing along in a storm tossed sea. Staying calm is important. You can keep up your strength up by eating and drinking regularly and by taking a break from steering should you have a crew member aboard to take the helm from time to time. If the tempest continues to increase in intensity a closer port may be chosen as a destination; or if one is too weary to continue, you can deploy a parachute anchor and rest for a while.

Be especially careful while entering a cut or a channel from the ocean when there is a large sea running because the waves will often break heavily as they approach land and “feel the bottom.” Usually the deepest water in a channel is your safest route. In addition, a strong ebb tide can cause the already turbulent ocean to get worse so timing your arrival is important. This condition is known as a “rage” in the Bahamas, and it is prevalent during strong onshore winds off of Whale Cay in the Abacos. There are times, however, when you can simply drive your little craft safely into sheltered water if the soundings change more gradually, as is the case when approaching Bimini from the east across the Great Bahama Bank.

Though this has by no means been a complete guide to cruising in Matt's boats, we hope we have shed some light on how it can be done more safely. We realize that despite all our efforts to dismiss some of the fears associated with micro cruising, there will still be some who remain convinced that the whole enterprise is foolhardy and that we have been very fortunate indeed to have traveled so far and for so many years in our diminutive craft. In the end, however, we believe that we have taken adequate precautions to reduce the dangers through careful planning and through good seamanship. We would also like to think that when our luck ran low and our judgment was not the best, Little Cruiser picked up the slack by doing her best to protect us and to carry us to the safety of the shallows which she knows is her home.