Cruising Up On a Plane

By Tom Neale, 5/5/2005


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Searays, Bayliners, Silvertons, Carvers, Mainships—these are just a sampling of boats that can go fast, get up on a plane, have a lot of creature comforts, and are considered by many to be only for weekend or short local cruises. Wrong. When we first went to the Bahamas in the early 80’s we saw mostly sailboats and heavy trawlers on the ICW and over there. Now we see people cruising on all of the above and others of similar characteristics. We see them in anchorages and we see them in marinas. Many are good friends. Some first went over in sailboats. They’re having lots of fun.

There are some good reasons why these boats can be great for cruising. When we leave the Florida coast and head to the Bahamas, we want at least a 3 day weather window. This is because it takes us that long to get to what we consider to be the better cruising grounds such as the Abacos and other areas. We’re on a motorsailer that makes 7.5 knots. The faster boats can get to those destination areas in a good day. Waiting for a window that will last as long as 3 days sometimes requires that we wait for weeks.

The traditional cruising displacement hull boats are seriously affected by the Gulf Stream. It’s a mighty river in the ocean running from south to north between the Bahama Banks and the Florida coast. It can add hours to the passage of one of those boats, while a planing hull will hardly know it’s there on calm days.

Many prefer to cruise to the Bahamas in the summer months because the weather is generally gentler (no cold fronts or northers). Day after day can pass with calm seas. But there’s always the concern about hurricanes. A hurricane can be, in many respects, much worse in the Bahamas because there is limited shelter, most of the islands are low, and there is a lot of reef and rocky shore. But there’s another difference that many don’t think about. The Bahamas don’t have the infrastructure and assistance organizations that exist in the US. If you get hit while there, you will probably find much less help available. Cruising the Bahamas in a slow boat in the hurricane season presents quite a dilemma. Frequently you know about a hurricane or tropical storm heading in your general direction, but you don’t know what it’s going to do until it’s too late for the 3 or more day trip necessary for you to get back to the states. In a fast boat you can get back usually much quicker IF the weather’s good—and it often deteriorates well in advance of the storm. It’s never a good idea to flirt with a hurricane. Get out early.

There are special considerations when taking cruises such as this in a faster boat. Weather is perhaps the most obvious. We’re talking here about boats that are large enough for short ocean trips. But generally these boats are built lighter than displacement boats because they’re built to plane. This means that some may be less suited for heavy seas than some displacement trawlers or sailboats. Good weather and calm seas are very important. And since these factors can quickly change, it’s important to plan safe havens to bail out should things go sour. We’re not talking about long ocean crossings, but something like a trip to the Bahamas or similar area. Don’t go if it’s not right. “Nobody move, nobody get hurt.”

Fuel is another potential problem. As expensive as fuel is here, it’s more so in the Bahamas. Not only is it expensive, it’s more likely to have impurities. Fuel quality is affected by things like the cleanliness of the holds in the tanker that brings it to the island, off loading methods, and the tanks on the islands. Therefore it’s important to bring along many high quality filters. Filter pressure gauges help you to know when you might need to change the filters. We only use Racors, both on the mother ship and outboard for the tender.

Tips for Distance Cruising to Remote Areas in Planing Boats

1. Many fast planing boats have mechanical systems set up with the assumption that most service work will be done by a yard during down time. If something breaks while you’re far out in paradise, you may have to fix it yourself while the boat is being used and you’re living on it. (One common characteristic of “paradise” is that often there are very few yards, mechanics, and parts.) This means you’ll need the part and you’ll need to be able to get to the component to be fixed. “Getting to it” means more than just seeing and touching it. It means getting tools to it and getting an old part out and a new one in. Many fast planing boats have less space to carry spare parts and less space in which to work than do many displacement hulls.

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Fuel stops may be much fewer and farther between when you’re cruising in the Bahamas and other remote areas. A thorough knowledge of your range and careful planning of stops is critical. Be sure your fuel tank gauge is accurate and consider installing a flow meter so that you can closely monitor consumption. Never get too low because occasionally an entire island (or even an island chain) will run out of fuel. This is more likely to happen around major events such as the Family Island Regatta in Georgetown when there is an unusually high demand in the local area. In the islands, fuel comes by slow tanker—not by truck and pipeline.

Fresh water can be a major issue. Planing boats frequently don’t have large tanks because of the weight of water. In some areas of the Bahamas water is scarce and sometimes it will cost as much as fifty cents a gallon. (Water is more readily available in Grand Bahama and Abaco.) It’s always interesting to see a boat fresh in from the states tie up at a marina and hose down for an hour, not realizing what the water costs. If you want to go from marina to marina, you’ll find that there are enough of them that you’ll be able to keep the tanks topped up. If you want to anchor out some and not be so dependant on marinas, consider adding a water maker. It may not pay for itself in water bills, but will certainly pay for itself in creature comfort, the feeling of independence it gives you, and the assurance that the water you’re using is good water. Modern reverse osmosis units are no longer very difficult to maintain.

One of the best parts of cruising is anchoring out overnight. You have your own little island in paradise with all the comforts of home. But many planing fast boats aren’t set up well for anchoring, I assume because the builders think that the owners usually won’t use them that way. You may need to make some changes. A good anchor windlass can add to your safety. It’ll allow you to get it up time after time again if you’re dragging, without worrying about a coronary arrest. The cleats for the anchor rode should have a fair lead to the chocks or roller. The preferable rig is a bow roller (heavy and well supported for vertical and horizontal loading) on the stem so that the boat is more likely to point into the wind. The anchor gear should be such that you’ll be comfortable and relaxed sleeping at night, not worrying about dragging. Some gear seems to be made, in my opinion, to be used for day time anchoring only when you’re up and about, watching the weather, and alert to the fact that you may be dragging. Anchoring overnight when weather may come through, there may be reef around, and there are no tow boats readily available is a much more serious matter. You’ll want a good heavy duty anchor and as much chain as your weight (loading) limitations can stand. On my displacement boat I use all chain with a long nylon snubbing line, but many planing boats don’t have the room in the anchor locker or the tolerance for the weight. We use a heavy original CQR anchor and also a Fortress. The latter has passed many tests which show that it has amazing holding power for its weight, in good bottoms. You can take a really big one for storms and disassemble it and store it below and put it together very quickly and easily.

There are many other things that you can do and should do to make the lighter planing boats safe and comfortable for extended cruises to paradise. But you CAN do it, and when you do, you’ll find that you’ll get much more bang for your buck because you’ll be having so much more fun with your boat. When you come out here and pass me in my 7.5 knot boat, wave and know that I’m envying the fact that you’re going to be getting to the promised land of the Bahamas (or so many other great cruising areas) well before I do. Save a spot for the slow boat “Chez Nous.”

Copyright 2004-2005 Tom Neale