Dugong’s shallow draft opens cruising grounds

by Michael Walsh


My cruising companion, Ida Little, and I were in Key West, Florida, not long ago on our monthly pilgrimage to civilization from our anchorage in the Marquesas Keys — to collect mail, water, rum, visit the library and see bright lights and city traffic. As we walked along by the water we admired a beautiful, brightly varnished stoop that was tied to a seawall. Her homeport was Mattapoisett, Massachusetts.

As we gazed, a man trudged towards us, toting two full, heavy-looking water jugs.

“Hi,” I said. “We’ve been admiring this beautiful boat. Is she yours?”

“Yep,” he grinned. “I tell folks I don’t have a lawn to mow, so I varnish. Are you on a boat here?”

“We’re on a boat,” said Ida,“but not here. We’re anchored in the Marquesas.”

“The Marquesas! They’re surrounded by shoals!”

“We only draw six inches,” I said.

“Six inches?!” He was incredulous.

“Well... loaded down with a month’s supplies, I guess it’s more like nine,” I conceded. Now it was my turn to grin.

“What on Earth is it?” he asked, wearing an expression of disbelief.

“A twenty-six-foot canoe cruiser,” I said, “with decks, leeboards and a spritsail rig.”

“Wow!” He still couldn’t believe it. “Ever take her offshore?”

“Not this boat,” I said. “We tried offshore cruising in our previous boat, a 40-foot ketch named Sheldrake. We sailed to Bermuda, through the West Indies and to South America in her. But we’re not blue-water sailors anymore. We trailer Dugong to wherever we want to sail and spend as long as we want coastal cruising.”

Several days later we were back at our camp in the Marquesas. We never did tell our friend exactly where to find Dugong. We didn’t want our small anchorage to become popular. And anyway, with a draft of six feet, it wouldn't have been wise to lure him over the shoals and wrecks in our anchorage.

It has been 10 years since we were forced to abandon Sheldrake, after running aground on a reef in the Bahamas. We were shaken, yet in a strange way, relieved—grateful to be alive and free of the burdens the big boat had imposed on us. We'd feared her extravagance might have attracted intruders, and her deep draft kept us from shallow, secluded bays where we might have found privacy and security. Indeed, she was most happy making long ocean passages, on which the calms and storms alternately bored and frightened us.

When the sun rose the morning after our shipwreck, we surveyed the scene around us. Crystal seas in a blue lagoon were calmed by the reef on which Sheldrake lay. A wide beach backed by coconut palms ringed the lagoon. Grouper and crawfish hid among the scattered heads of purple-red coral. Silence reigned. It was just the kind of peaceful place we'd been searchingfor. That brief recognition inspired us to plan a return visit with a boat capable of sailing over the reef to land us, fully equipped for a long stay, on the beach.

We returned to the States knowing what kind of boat we wanted. But in our search through books, magazines and marinas we could find no production sailboat that could satisfy our needs. Eventually, we turned to Phil Bolger to design the boat we wanted.

Now we have Dugong. She sails along gently at six knots with a load that keeps us comfortably independent for as long as 30 days. That’s about as long as we care to go without calling for mail and letting loved ones know we’re alive and well. Aside from human contact, our limiting factor is water. We carry 40 gallons, which adds 320 heavy pounds. If we weren’t addicted to an evening bath and to sunset cocktails, we might be able to stay away from civilization longer. As it is, we’re comfortable with 30 days of independence and solitude.

*Dugong’*s cabin is outfitted for dalliance and sleeping. Her five-foot beam provides enough space for books, tapes, clothes, lighting and snacks that support our night life on board. Thick sleeping pads, no-see-um-proof ventilation and a weatherproof shell assure us of pleasant dreams: Yet because our days are so exclusively spent ashore, we consider ourselves campers as much as sailors. Like us, Dugong is aground more often than afloat

Every morning, while I change a set of batteries in the solar charger and turn it to the sun, Ida puts water on the propane stove. Over coffee she records the preceding day's activities in the log: