By this time in summer we’d expected to be approaching the Caicos, but we’re having too fine a time, and we’ll probably not reach them until next summer. We’re five months out of Miami. We’ve made 30 camps on 14 islands, sailing about a thousand miles. Just now we’re slowly exploring the Exuma Cays.
Most people, yachtsm’n (women and men) and island natives included, consider us absolutely crazy! Their reasoning might seem plausible on the surface, in that we are cruising the Bahamas in a 17-foot, plastic sailing canoe. We claim quite the opposite — that far from being foolish daredevils, who are enduring a hardship cruise, we are two, fairly simple, easygoing folks who enjoy the pleasures and comforts of cruising beautiful shores.
It's a different type of life, sweet and leisurely. Sailing back after hunting in the reef.
Sailing our 40-foot ketch along the West Indies was nothing compared to this cruise in our little canoe. We now can put into the most remote, unharbored beaches rather than sailing through weather to share an anchorage with other ships. Our Manatee is soundly beached while we rest, or play, or walk on a steady shore, while others roll and yank at anchor. We have few maintenance labors or expenses. It takes us just a few minutes to raise sail and be off while others do well to get under way within an hour. We sail to get water, to get our food in a reef or at a store; we sail to meet and transport our guests from local airports. Most often, we sail to sail!
Our inspiration for such a cruise comes in part from our own disenchantment with cruising a heavy, five and a half foot draft, large sailboat. Because of the problems mentioned earlier, we found ourselves anxious and tired much of the time. We wanted to sail closer to shore and see what we were cruising more than just a harbor here and there; we wanted to go diving in reefs that are difficult to reach in a small dinghy. We wanted to enjoy sailing an easily-handled, shallow draft boat that would take us up to uninhabited, ill-charted islands that we could then explore on foot.
Hereshoff, in his senior years, was asked, of all the yachts he’d designed, built and sailed, which one did he most enjoy. Without qualification he was sure it was the 15-foot centerboard dinghy he’d sailed along the Connecticut shore as a boy. And he wasn’t being romantic! Then, in the early 1900s, Fred Fenger designed, built, and sailed a 17-foot wooden canoe named Yakaboo among the Windward and Leeward Islands. He wrote of his journey in the book, Alone In The Caribbean. Later, Mr. Fenger took his bride on a cruise in a larger sailing ship over the same waters. His description of tins second, big-boat cruise did not seem to have the quality and liveliness of spirit which excited us about his canoe cruise. So, though we started big and got smaller, our own intuition and the examples of these adventurers were our inspiration.
We load Manatee for the Bahamas; the lush foliage of the Cays surrounds her.
But it takes more than inspiration. As we hadn’t the know-how, tools, or desire to put time into designing and building a boat of our own imagination, we began casting about in the fall of ’73 for a commercial make that would suit our purpose. We hoped to be in the Bahamas by midwinter to enjoy the favorable winds and cool climate. The qualities we sought in a boat included: light weight (enough to be lifted or rolled onto a beach by one or the both of us); propulsion by sail or paddle (no fuel or engine hassles); water-tight (to keep stocks and bodies moderately dry), minimum weight-volume carrying capacity (for us — 300 pounds; five gallons of water — 50 pounds; food — 100 pounds; clothes, shelter, books, typewriter, tools and miscellaneous — 50 pounds . . . all adding up to at least 500 pounds minimum!)
Our next step, then, was to test out various boats and camping equipment. We paddle-canoed in the Canadian Quetico and went beach camping by crewing aboard yachts among the islands of Cape Cod. Soon it was boat show time in Annapolis; we were psyched for it, knowing that if there was any boat commercially available for our puqiose, it would be there. So much for hoping. We found nothing suitable. The boats were heavy, devoid of stowage capacity, or too fragile on account of fixed leeboards. We left feeling sweaty and disappointed. At least we knew what we didn’t want.
The problem, then, was to find some positive goal — the right boat — and to go after it. Since the Yakaboo lingered in our minds, we fixed on the idea of a canoe. Grumman dissuaded us from considering their sailing canoe because they did not think their boat applicable to our adventure. The Old Town Canoe Company had, by this time, sent us a catalog . . . we looked over the wide selection of canoe styles, shapes and sizes. Canoe covers. Sails. Flexible leeboards. Everything we needed and light-weight too. We chose a canoe and called Mr. Deane Gray at Old Town. He reasoned with our enthusiasm and convinced us that 75 square feet of sail is too much (after we've handled thousands!) and that their 17-foot, ABS plastic Chipewyan canoe with 55 square feet of sail would suit our purposes well. This particular design has the most freeboard and the highest bow and weighs only 75 pounds. Two weeks later, a red sailing canoe, complete with lanteen sail, leeboards, snap-on spray cover, paddles, life-jackets and aluminum rudder, arrived at our door.
Sitting among the suns reflections in the water and enjoying the privacy of small beaches.
We thought, since we had sailed a 40-foot ketch, that sailing a 17-foot canoe would be simple. T’ain’t necessarily so. Surprisingly, the canoe is a delicate instrument that we had to learn to play. The balance is like dancing! One slip and we’re on the floor—wet. A-sail you’re finger tipping the sheet and tiller all the time. In all, it’s play. But, we learned to watch the weather least the play lead to fear and loathing. With two to share the play, it was more fun, and less work. One balances the canoe by sitting on the gunnel while the other does the fingertip dance.
Now, this brings to mind a strong caution. For every 100 pounds of weight balanced on the gunnel of a sailing canoe, there are 25 pounds of water weight at the ends of the leeboards. Until we learned this, we caused several leeward brackets to fracture and paddled many miles unable to sail without the boards. Now the hoards and brackets will support about 80 pounds of weight at the ends — enough so that the two of us can hike out on the gunnels without causing leeboard damage. Anyone contemplating sailing a canoe had better test the boards by hanging at least 50 pounds at the end of each leeboard. This is easily done by turning the canoe on its side (on shore) and putting six gallons of water hung in buckets from the end of the board.
I don’t know of any commercially available leeboard-bracket combination that is made to take even this modest test. Old Town Canoe Company is currently designing one, but any small shop or handy canoe sailor can come up with modifications to strengthen the leeboards and mountings. We opted for triangular boards rather than the more traditional dagger-board style. These cause less stress on the mounts and cut our draft from three feet to one foot. And we brace out boards against the sides of the canoe with a side bracket into which the boards slip.
This is our campsite on the reef-ridden remote north shore of Little San.
The other non-commercial item we can recommend to the inventory on a sailing canoe, and one we have yet to make, is a small storm sail. Our 55-square foot lanteen is too much for heavy weather and quite improbable to reef. Considering that a 20-knot wind will drive us at four knots without any sail, a 5x3 triangle of Dacron would serve us well. But only once has our weather eye failed.
And in truth, it didn’t fail us. We knew it was blowing hard for a long open passage. And we knew that these same 20-knot northeast winds that had been blowing for five days would have kicked up a heavy sea between Little San Salvador and Eleuthera. However, there was an equally heavy dope raid going on at Little San, complete with guns and nasty tensions. So, between police dramas and high seas, we chose the latter. The wind was on our stem quarter, and we could count on a two-hour passage at six knots. We knew the reefs off Eleuthera; once there, we could snuggle behind the reef and surf our way onto shore.
With our full 55-foot sail we cleared West Bay in minutes. Soon we were surfing on eight-foot rollers before Eleuthera was even in sight. Exciting and fast. Probably surfing at eight knots. But hard to control. And we did broach, jibe, and capsize. Both of us dropped into the water in hopes of not taking on more water. Robert released the halyard while I started bailing. Because our stocks filled the canoe and were enclosed in plastic bags or hard plastic Nalgene containers. the canoe couldn’t hold much water and floated with three inches of freeboard. After a long half hour we were fully afloat and paddling at four knots. Sometimes we surfed, but now in frightened control. A short storm sail would have made such crossings easier.
How did we ever get across the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas, you are probably wondering. I am tempted to describe more hair raising drama, but the truth will come out. We crossed as passengers on the luxurious M.S. Starward, a cruise ship of the Norwegian Caribbean Lines with Manatee as deck cargo in the forward hold. We could have been more patient and found passage on one of the yachts out of Coconut Grove, or more daring and tried the crossing alone. We weren’t crazy though, and thoroughly enjoyed the contrast between the luxuries offered by the fine cruise ship and the canoe luxuries. Canoe cruising isn’t really roughing it but rather a slower, more simple luxury — casuarine pines provided wind-songs. We’ve enjoyed intimate contact with the sea and air; diving for the crawfish and groupers; watching the island birds and double rainbows.
After our arrival in the Bahamas, we made some long and potentially hazardous passages. A long passage to us was one during which we were at anytime out of sight of a landing. Though we charted our courses to minimize these, there was no way of avoiding some. The crossing from Rose Island to Eleuthera was rough because the shallow water and strong currents caused a bad chop. The crossing from Eleuthera to Cat Island via Little San Salvador became tricky when the winds calmed and the tidal current began carrying us out to sea. The longest passage thus was from Eleuthera to Ship Channel Cay, Exumas. This one was some 30 miles to westward, that is with the prevailing winds. We didn't have to wait long from our “jumping off” camp on Gibson Creek for a gentle southeasterly breeze. In fact, the wind was too gentle. Though we sighted Highbome Cay after an easy four hours, we paddled into Ship Channel Bay just an hour before dusk. That night the wind howled!