Personal Reflections on Becoming a Sailing Snowbird
By Ken Kabb - Yacht Shalom

Ken Kabb - looking forward to another sailing adventure.

I've been a sailor for thirty five years, mostly on the Great Lakes. A handful of short charters, diving trips and sailing courses introduced me to salt water, and whetted my appetite for more. Business and family obligations kept me occupied for several years and, with my nose to the grindstone, 60 years snuck up on me. I had an inkling that I was due for a change years ago. I was getting worn out from the daily grind but hadn't a clue how to change it. After all, work is what men are supposed to do, right? Mid-life brought with it a sense of restlessness and boredom with the routine. Aches and pains reminded me that I had been sailing a desk through a sea of stress for too many years, and neglecting that part of me that just plain enjoys sailing and adventure.

I decided to return to school for a year's program of self exploration at Case Western Reserve University Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio during 1996-1997. I had hopes of taking my career and my life in a more fulfilling direction. After weeks of casting about for something to do with the next decade, I kept coming back to the one activity I've always enjoyed so much that I lose track of time doing it: sailing. Rather than do a conventional business plan, I hit upon the idea of planning a sailing sabbatical as a class project. I started a sailing school to test whether that might be a fun career, and to apply the entrepreneurial skills I learned in the business program.

After three years teaching sailing and navigation it was time to untie the dock lines. I decided to go off sailing for a year aboard Shalom, my cutter rigged Cape Dory 27, or until I got tired of it, and see what came up. My daughter was ready to handle my law practice, and the sailing school was successful and largely running itself. I'm en route cruising solo down the east coast, heading for the Florida Keys and Bahamas. After four plus months, the sabbatical looks more like retirement every day.

This is not a travelogue. More experienced cruisers than I have written excellent cruising guides. This is a personal sharing of things I've learned (some the hard way) in hopes of encouraging other cruisers. The things that made me ready were some personal losses, age and health issues, and the realization that time becomes more finite and precious as we grow from one stage in our life cycle to another. 

Where I planned to go, and where I am along the way.

I read a number of cruising books, as we all have, and began to wonder what my own cruise would look like. I recognized some limitations from the beginning: I'm 60, in reasonably good health, not extravagantly wealthy, and don't want to cross oceans single-handed in a small boat. I began to hate Ohio winters, love to see the sun and warm water, and a week or two wasn't enough. Diving and fishing go along with sailing nicely, as do photography and writing--all things that I enjoy. I planned a cruise through the Erie Canal, down the east coast to Florida, across the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas and beyond if time and energy permit. I purposely left the timetable and itinerary open; single handing a low powered sailboat is a slow process, limited by wind, current, weather, and fatigue. 

So far I have traveled Lake Erie from Cleveland to Buffalo, motored the length of the Erie Canal with mast unstepped, sailed down the Hudson River to New York, waited out hurricanes in New York, sailed out around Sandy Hook and down the New Jersey shore, ducked back inside at Cape May, took the Cape May Canal to Delaware Bay, and sailed up the Delaware to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal which connects the two important bodies of water. From there it was down the Chesapeake Bay to Annapolis for a refit, rest and relaxation.

While in Annapolis I spent time at the boat show, purchased a new life raft and other gear, and discovered boating resources that simply didn't exist in Ohio. Whether it was teak, boat gear, expert advice, or Maryland blue crabs, it was all there. I spent a delightful week cruising the eastern shore of the Chesapeake with my son Aaron before heading south to Norfolk, Virginia and the Intracoastal Waterway. The ICW took me through some amazing countryside, beginning with the huge navy yards in Norfolk, Virginia. North and South Carolina offered an ever changing mix of wildlife and vegetation, and of course beautiful Charleston, South Carolina. 

Then My path wandered south through the winding rivers, sounds and cuts of Georgia. Many people don't like the long winding countryside. I found it all delightful, with miles of unspoiled salt marsh, large flocks of waterfowl and birds of all kinds, dolphins and lots of uncrowded anchorages. The compensation for the long days motoring was often an incredibly black night sky with brilliant stars and planets.

Along the way I heard another cruiser remark that it was far better to be inside wishing to be out, than outside wishing to be back in. The weather gave me ample reason to appreciate the shelter of the waterway. There were days when not even the pelicans would venture out into the wind and cold. We too huddled at dockside when the thermometer dropped and the wind howled in Edisto, SC. I found some rough water in the mouth of the Potomac, and in some of the larger sounds along the coast, but mostly it was fairly tame compared to a Great Lakes or ocean gale. There were a number of cold fronts, some really strong, that chased Shalom and me along the way south. The electric heater and warm sleeping bags were very welcome. Once I got to Florida the weather improved. The winding rivers gave way to broad shallow estuaries, with wind driven currents and their own nasty chop. I got to watch a space shuttle launch from the boat in Kennedy Point Marina in Titusville, Florida, as well as being entertained by dolphins and manatees in the harbor. 

Advice I got and didn't follow.

I heard lots of advice. Many thought I was crazy to do it at all. I was reminded that Shalom is a small (27') boat, under powered (8HP max) and that there are storms, hurricanes, strong currents, etc. I was advised to buy a larger boat, citing safety and creature comforts as well as speed. Some people thought I was a bit daft to do it largely single handed. I was leaving two businesses, family and friends. They were right, of course, and certainly well meaning. I went anyway. I made it to Florida without anything more serious than a couple of soft groundings and some engine repairs. I experienced all kinds of weather, from hot to freezing, and winds from zero to 40 plus. It all made things interesting. There were days (and nights) when I thought about trading it for a ticket to Ft. Lauderdale and a luxury motel. When the weather got bad enough, I found activities aboard or ashore.

Big boats and little boats.

Large boats definitely have advantages. More room, more power, greater speed and a few more luxuries (inside steering for bad weather, more battery banks, etc.) They also have a few drawbacks. Dockage, fuel, and repairs cost more. Deeper draft means running aground more often. Many people find boat loans and mortgages to be a financial burden, especially with lots of unexpected repair bills. By going small, I have been able to afford marina space most of the time, eating out one meal a day, and adding equipment when needed (or just wanted) without feeling too much of a pinch. On balance, Shalom is big enough. One very important feature of a small boat is maneuverability--I can get Shalom into tight places easily, and have learned to handle her with skill. I've only run aground a couple of times. Everyone does, until you learn to really read the water. I have occasional trouble with strong currents, but have learned to play the tides and currents to advantage rather than always powering through. And besides, finding another boat, refitting and repairing it and learning to sail it well would have delayed the adventure another year, at least. It was time to go. There are always reasons to go later, but later often becomes never. In the end, it becomes a matter of personal choice. All boats are small boats--it's only a question of how small and how soon.

Going solo and finding crew.

Here is where I give away a few secrets. The best crew is someone you can live with, whether for a week or a year. The best sailor can be a difficult person to share a small space with. I would opt for confident, easy going people with a sense of humor and an appreciation for the special experience of living with nature daily. I have found crew through cruising organizations such as GLCC and the Seven Seas Cruising Association. Both have web sites and publications. There is an organization called Travel Companion Exchange in Amityville, NY that helps people locate traveling partners. Personal networking is another good source.

Some cruisers do it as couples. That works well if both enjoy it and are equally available. What has worked best for me are short stints with crew, alternated with weeks of solo sailing. I have met many great people along the way, and have rarely been lonely. I enjoy the solitude of single handing and the confidence and skills it builds. I enjoy the help and company of crew also. I meet other sailors (and power boaters) along the way and enjoy a dinner or a week together. Currently, another single hander and I have been sailing together on two boats, sometimes with crew and sometimes without. We have become good friends, adding immeasurably to the comfort and safety of the cruise for both of us.

What worked and what didn't (high tech and low tech.)

There are no absolute guidelines here. I use a mix of high tech and low with good results. The more complicated a piece of equipment is, the more failure modes it has. You can take that to the bank. And you will when repair bills come. I have a 21 year old Yanmar diesel engine that had a top end overhaul five years ago. I added a heat exchanger, pump and plumbing for fresh water cooling and that became my single biggest headache. The heat exchangers would crack at the joints from vibration, allowing coolant to leak out and the engine would overheat. The manufacturer finally acknowledged that the first two were defective, and made me one of heavier materials. Then the second raw water pump failed due to sand from a grounding. I removed it all and went back to raw water cooling and haven't had a bit of trouble since. 

Electronics are a headache, guaranteed, in salt water. I have trashed hand held VHF radios aplenty. The battery packs won't stand up to constant use, and alkaline batteries have very limited life. I finally went to a new Standard Horizon Intrepid with remote cockpit mike which I like a lot. It is waterproof, and the mike can be unplugged and brought inside easily.

Autopilots have been another headache. I have had two fail outright, one fatally, and never got the performance out of any of them that I should have. Raytheon and I have become intimate telephone partners, but I finally got a Navico out of sheer frustration. The Autohelms wander 15-20 degrees off course--very inconvenient in the narrow channels of the ICW! I moved the autopilots away from any possible magnetic influence. The final chapter hasn't been written yet on this subject.

My Super Cold Machine, ailing for years, finally packed it in. A new frig, more reliable than the old model, came last week. After a few hours of work in my pretzel mode, I have ice cubes again. What joy! Refrigeration is nice, but not essential. Shalom's ice box is in the engine space (poor design!) and the engine heat from constant motoring melts the ice despite added insulation. The frig helps to offset the engine heat gain, and is great in port. Here in Florida it keeps the fresh squeezed orange juice nice and cold.

Communication is sometimes a gift, and sometimes a problem. I started with an AT&T cellular phone because they advertised a national one rate plan with no roaming charges. What they didn't say, was that they don't have roaming agreements everywhere, so that their network then became inaccessible--usually at the worst possible times. They advertise their cellular service for emergency use, but during hurricane Floyd the towers were out, and I was often out of range of their network. I finally got rid of the AT&T service and phone and purchased a QualComm 860 and Air Touch Cellular service and have been reasonably happy with that combination. Email can be a very effective way to communicate, if you can find a phone jack to plug into. Some use Pocketmail with pay phones. HAM radio has not always been very satisfactory to me. For quite some time the bands were too noisy to hear. There are some cruiser nets, but I can't take the time to sit on the radio below when I'm under way. For the odd times when cell phone coverage was nonexistent, the Maritel VHF telephone system worked effectively.

One high tech system that has performed surprisingly well has been electronic charting and navigation using my laptop computer. I have seen The Cap'n, but purchased Nobeltec's Visual Navigation Suite; both are good. The Nobeltec software is excellent for routing, and has visual tidal height and current displays which can be animated over a 24 hour time period.

I have used the electronic charts a couple of times when I didn't have paper charts, although I don't recommend it for routine use. The learning curve was surprisingly fast, and the company was quite willing to talk me through the few rough spots via cell phone. My GPS, even with differential beacon receiver, is not accurate enough to keep me in the narrow channels of the ICW, but works fine for more open water. It feeds current position and navigation data to the Nobeltec display screen. Using the laptop in the cockpit hasn't presented any problems in good weather, except that the screen is hard to see in bright sun. When it rains, I move it down below where I can see it through the companionway.

One recent addition to my bag of tricks is a Palm Pilot IIIe. It organizes my calendar, and replaces all the little scraps of paper and business cards in my wallet with addresses, notes, and shopping lists. It synchronizes easily with my laptop, and is very easy to learn. My cruising buddy and I occasionally beam navigation memos to each other over breakfast. It's just like Star Wars!

Charts and cruising guides.

There are numerous sources of information which can lead to confusion at first. I purchased a number of relatively useless cruising guides covering New York State. The Erie Canal Authority sells a chart kit which looks pretty good, but I used an old guide for the western half and the NOAA recreational chart kit for the eastern. There is a waterproof chart covering almost all of the Hudson River that was adequate until just a few miles above New York City. 

The BBA Chart Kits are all pretty good. It takes several spiral bound sets to get you from New York to Florida. Kettlewell's ICW Chartbook covers Norfolk to Miami and works well with Moeller's Cockpit Handbook of the ICW. I prefer larger format charts of the ICW, and used the Maptech until I got to Florida. The BBA Region 7 Chartkit is organized backwards for those going south, and becomes confusing to follow. I purchased the few NOAA ICW chart folders and prefer them in Florida.

There are a number of excellent cruising guides; here are some that I found useful. Maptech's Atlantic Coast, Chesapeake Bay Magazine's Guide to Cruising the Chesapeake Bay, Mid-Atlantic Waterway Guide, and Southern Waterway Guide. Two additional resources are Skipper Bob's Marinas Along The Intracoastal Waterway, and his Anchorages Along the Intracoastal Waterway. There is no one guide that does it all. You have to look at them together, and ask other boaters about local areas. Not all of the information is completely reliable. Much is subjective, and channels change. There were days when the navigation aids we saw bore little resemblance to the charts, especially in channels subject to shoaling. Just remember red right returning, and follow the magenta line in the ICW (most of the time--but not where it conflicts with the buoyage!) and you'll be okay. 

Kens 27' cruiser, Shalom. I was reminded that it was a small, under powered boat ... Some people thought I was a bit daft to sail largely single handed. They were right, of course, and certainly well meaning. I went anyway.

Going aground.

The question is not whether you will go aground, but when and where. The ICW is shallow in some areas, with some very narrow cuts. There is almost constant shifting of sand and mud bars with storms, especially with this past summer's hurricanes. Project channel depths of 12 feet evaporated several times. A good depth alarm is helpful. So is the knack for reading the water which comes with experience. Most groundings are only temporary inconveniences. It's hard to damage a sailboat on sand and mud, or a powerboat unless you are going awfully fast. There are a few places in the ICW where the channel edges are rock, but careful attention to steering is all that is needed to stay out of trouble. Getting off often only requires waiting for the tide to rise, or passing boat wakes to bump you loose. Rocking or heeling (using sails) helps, as does powering gently back and forth with or without a kedge anchor. There are times when you can just mush through, but more often it's wise to stop the boat immediately and make a plan first. You can always call SeaTow or TowBoat/US, but you might have to wait for them to get to you. Above all else, follow your own good sense and take all advice with more than a grain of salt. One towing operator actually approached me, offering instructions based on his "local knowledge" that sent me aground. That company is apparently under investigation for sending people aground, either through incompetence or to drum up business. Don't let any of this deter you. Everyone learns to keep from going aground. There are towboat operators almost everywhere, and very few groundings in the ICW are serious. Do upgrade your towing insurance to unlimited--you will be glad you did!

Anchoring versus docking.

I like both. What you do depends upon where you are, what's available, and the weather. In the Erie Canal, each little town competes for boater business by offering low or no cost docking along improved canal wall sections. There are almost always free overnight tie-up walls near the locks. These usually have no water or electric, but often good train watching. There are marinas which I used occasionally when strategically located, but mostly I just tied up along a wall at the end of the day and enjoyed the peace and quiet. Waterford, NY, at the eastern end of the Erie Canal has a free improved wall and docks with a visitor center and transportation available.

The Hudson River offered more dockage than anchoring, but there were some very nice anchorages in its upper reaches. Farther down the Hudson, marinas became the way for me. In New York, I stayed at Liberty Landing Marina, across from the World Trade Center with ferry docks at both. Lower Manhattan with its wonderful restaurants, shopping and cultural sites was a fifteen minute ferry ride away. I arrived at the beginning of a ten day festival in honor of San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples, and enjoyed wonderful Italian food and the carnival crowds. Not to be outdone, the Asian area nearby offered excellent Chinese and Vietnamese food. While in New York waiting out Hurricane Floyd I visited the Shackleton South Pole expedition exhibit at the Natural History Museum. Now there was a man with weather problems that made mine pale in comparison!

There are many marinas along the way that offer good facilities and services at reasonable prices. Some are expensive ($2.00/ft) but most are about half that. Many offer lower weekly and monthly rates. Not all mechanics are competent to handle repairs. I heard horror stories about delays, incompetence and overcharging. It pays to investigate carefully before contracting for expensive repairs. Laundry is a never ending chore, exacerbated by boat repairs, muddy anchor chains and inclement weather. Most marinas offer washers and dryers. Diesel fuel contaminated by particulate matter, micro-organisms or water can be a problem. I use a biocide and diesel fuel conditioner, and put nothing into my tank that hasn't been through a Baja filter.

The winding ICW offers countless anchorages along the way. Many are foul with tree stumps and other junk, but below the swamp areas it's usually a sand bottom with good holding ground. The Chesapeake offers countless scenic anchorages with good holding in mud. Gunk holing must have gotten its name there, because the gunk that comes up with your anchor and chain has to be experienced to be believed. Here is where a 12 volt deck wash pump becomes necessary. The vast salt marshes offer some wonderful anchoring. The holding ground is usually good in clean sand, the wildlife and seclusion a welcome change from large city marinas, and the night skies absolutely sparkling with stars, moon and planets.

Tides and tidal currents.

Yes, Great Lakes sailors, these have to be reckoned with. Just get the tide tables and tidal current tables and follow the instructions. Some surprises: high tide and slack water don't occur at the same time, and you can play the time delays to advantage. For example, I carried a strong flood current from early morning at Cape May all the way up Delaware Bay to the C & D Canal, making an extra 2-4 knots over the ground all day. Tides farther south become progressively stronger, reaching almost eight feet in Georgia with correspondingly stronger currents. Wind against tide in the larger bodies of water can develop a nasty chop. At the mouth of the Delaware in Chesapeake Bay, Shalom and I got a thorough thrashing, beating into 30 knot head winds and a 4-5 foot chop that had to be experienced to be believed. I was amazed at how much water Shalom took on with waves coming over the foredeck and cabin top, heeling 45 degrees under double reefed mainsail and storm jib.

The currents have to be respected in the narrow cuts between rivers and sounds in the ICW. For example, Elliot Cut south of Charleston, SC can only be run with a fair current in a sailboat. In many places along the ICW, the currents alternately help and hinder, depending upon location in relation to inlets and the state of the tides. None were very much trouble, even with Shalom's small one cylinder diesel engine. The tidal ranges weren't too much trouble either. Almost all marinas in these areas have floating docks. Currents in rivers and near inlets can be very strong, and make docking complicated. You have to plan approaches carefully, and accept that the learning curve requires a package or two of epoxy repair putty. Use lots of big fenders, and have an extra one handy for the crew to place between boat and dock if things go awry.

Problems and gifts.

The gifts far outweigh the problems. Let's just say that there is a learning curve, and let it go at that. The gifts however are many. First is the sense of competence that comes with mastering a new challenge, and the sense of surprise that yes, I managed to do that all right today. Being in touch with nature in a unique way makes you more aware of weather, tides and the cycles of the moon. Watching the night sky as stars and planets slowly wheel around Polaris must have engendered the same feelings of awesome beauty millennia ago. The absence of stress is one of the greatest gifts. It's not that some times aren't stressful; it's just that the stress has a different quality and isn't constant. Weather can produce both mental and physical stress, but there is always a change in the offing. There are wonderful people to meet along the way. Those who travel this route find each other's company enjoyable, and help is usually not far away in time of need. True, there is the odd power boater who can't wait to barge ahead of you under a bridge or in a narrow rock walled cut, and becomes abusive when asked to wait or slow down. There is also a sort of rough justice, as I found out when one of those turkeys ran aground ahead and had to sit for hours before being towed off. Patience is something I'm learning every day. This is not a criticism of power boaters, by the way. All but a very few have shared the waterway with consideration, and have become valued cruising companions as well. 

The greatest gift of all has been the sense of health and well being that I enjoy almost daily.

Would I do it again?

Yes, absolutely. There is a saying that procrastination is the deadliest form of denial. I have met liveaboards along he way are still bogged down in a preparation of years duration. They seem always to have one more thing to do before heading out. I suspect some of them never will. I have known people who grew too old to cruise they were ready. 

If I can impart one idea, it is this: go when you feel the urge. Other things can wait. There is no convenient time to leave a career. None of us are so important that the world can't run itself for however long we choose to go. The extent of the cruise depends on our circumstances and abilities. We aren't all super macho blue water single-handers; there is often wonderful cruising right in our own back yards. I believe it's important to set realistic (and very conservative ) goals. It's better to succeed at a modest plan than to fail at an unrealistically ambitious and difficult one. Cruising is like reefing: the time to do it is when you're beginning to wonder if it's time.

Would I do it differently next time?

I might change a few things. Perhaps a slightly larger shoal draft sailboat with more storage capacity and greater cruising speed would be nice. I would definitely do more anchoring out. I might also go to a hard bottom inflatable dinghy when the Avon Redcrest wears out. More horsepower capacity would be useful in tidal inlets. Mainly, I think I would do it just the way I did. It worked for me. Each of us develops his or her own cruising style. That kind of independence is the greatest of the cruising gifts. I hope to meet some of you along the way.

Ken Kabb lives aboard his boat and is a freelance writer.