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Cruise Planning

Here are a few notes on general strategy for planning a small boat cruise. All of this is fairly obvious, but perhaps worth saying even so.

Firstly it must be said that plans for dinghy cruising are more weather dependant than for almost any other kind of holiday or outdoor activity. For this reason there is an limit to how much advance planning is worthwhile. You can find out in advance about the area you intend to visit and if you like you can research options for places to go sightseeing but detailed planning has to be postponed until you have a reasonably dependable weather forecast, ie a day or so in advance at the most.

Although you can never be sure of the weather you can be sure about the tide. Tides are predictable years in advance so there is no reason not to look them up before you start your holiday and to note down the times of high and low water in a clear format that you will understand even when tired after a lot of sailing. If you have an internet connection, which presumably you must have if you are reading this, then this is the easiest and cheapest way to get tide data. There are web sites which give the tide data and also calculation programs which you can down load to your hard disc to predict this data. Some of these tidal prediction programs are available for download free of charge, others have a one off or an annual charge. Unfortunately, as of February 2002, none of the free of charge programs will give tidal predictions for the UK, although there appears to be coverage for most or all of the rest of the world. Free data for the UK was available prior to that date but it seems that the UK Hydrographic Office now considers that free of charge tidal prediction computer programs infringe their copyright and they have forced the providers of these programs to remove the UK data - what a nuisance! As far as I can tell, you now have to pay at least £10 per annum if you want a tidal prediction program. Alternatively you can download free data from the Hydrographic Office own website but only for 6 days ahead which is insufficient for longer term cruise planning. The other alternative are the published paper timetables which are generally available from chandlers shops on a year at a time basis.

As a general rule, the most suitable tide times for coastal dinghy cruising are when high water is in the morning and evening. This is because you usually want to sail up some estuary in the evening and to leave in the morning and it certainly helps to leave on the ebb and enter on the flood. Indeed, with any other than a good sailing breeze you may not be able to get in or out of some estuaries without a favourable tide. In our sailing area this is certainly true of the Ore and possibly also the Deben. Another strong point in favour of evening and morning high water times is that you can pick an overnight spot nearer to the high water mark and this will almost always mean less muddy access to the shore and the boat can dry out overnight. But because the tides get about forty minutes later each day you cannot have morning and evening tides for the whole of a weeks cruise. You need to make the best of the tides when the times are right and somehow work around them when they are not - this can mean sailing at 'unsociable hours'.

If you are sailing to explore an estuary in detail rather than to cover distance along the coast then the best tide times are generally the reverse of those needed for coastal cruising. For this purpose you need high water around mid day or perhaps early afternoon so that you have depth of water to get to the head of the creeks and can use the flood to get up river and the ebb back down.

People sometimes discuss whether it is better to plan a cruising holiday for a period of mainly neap tides or mainly spring tides. There are points in favour both ways so it probably doesn't mater a lot on balance. If you plan your sailing carefully you should have the benefit of favourable tidal stream for most of the distance you sail so if the tides are springs you will benefit from the tidal stream being up to about twice as fast as at neaps. On the other hand, if you have an unfavourable spring tide for even a small part of a passage and the wind is unfavourable or light your progress may well be completely stopped for a time whereas you might have been able to continue against the tide at neaps. The upper reaches of estuaries are often attractive places to visit and spring tides will give you more depth of water to get to the upper creeks and a bit more time to spend in some waterside pub at the head of an estuary. On the other hand spring tides mean sand banks extending further offshore at low water and more difficult conditions crossing a bar at the mouth of an estuary or passing through one of the several tide races around the UK coastline. Finally, if you are planning to camp on the shore rather than on board your boat then you may find that some of the spots you might choose to pitch a tent are actually underwater at high spring tide but not at high neap tide. You may then wake to find your airbed afloat inside your tent - don't laugh it has happened.

You may well feel that you would like to cover a good distance along the coast during a cruise of a week or more and if the weather happens to be good there is no harm in giving this a try. Assuming that you intend to sail back to your point of departure it makes sense to try to cover as much outward distance on the first day or two of a weeks cruise, then perhaps to have a day ashore for a change of scene before making a gradual return stopping off to explore some of the estuaries you skipped on the fast outward passage. The reason for this strategy is that there is usually some kind of deadline to get back so it is better to have time in hand towards the end of the trip and to achieve this it certainly helps to have made good progress earlier on. Of course the weather can easily mess up this kind of planning and if the worst comes to the worst you will need to leave the boat and return by public transport to the point where you left your trailer then pick up the boat. For a holiday beginning and ending at a weekend there is a good chance that this return by public transport will need to be on a final Sunday when public transport is not at its best. Do not underestimate the time it can take to travel say fifty miles or more by local Sunday buses across country, then drive back to where you left the boat, then get the boat onto the trailer and finally drive home. All this can make for a very exhausting last day to your holiday and is probably best spread over more than one day if you can foresee the need arising. Also, you need to make sure that you can actually tow your road trailer without a boat on it. Most boat trailer number plates and lights are fixed to the boat rather than the trailer so you need an alternative mounting on the trailer. This alternative mounting needs to be secure since vibration on an unloaded trailer is horrific, lashing the light board in place with string is probably not good enough - I know.

Assuming you are trailing your boat to a planned cruising area by road rather than starting with the boat at a permanent base it may make little difference to total driving time which end of your cruising area you launch at. In this situation it makes sense to pick the starting point which will give you a fair wind on the first day at least. For example, if you have decided to cruise between Poole and Portsmouth and the wind is in the South West on the first day of your holiday it would be pretty crazy to begin by road trailing your boat to Portsmouth. Starting from Poole will give you at least one day of fair wind, probably enough to get you to the west end of the Solent so you would be in more sheltered water if the weather the next day is not so favourable. Then who knows, maybe by the end of the week the wind will have had time to swing into the East.

Where to stop for the night

Unless you feel sure that the night will be calm it is best to find a really sheltered spot to anchor for sleeping aboard. If you anchor in an exposed position and the wind gets up you will probably get no sleep because the boat will be rocking about, the tent will probably be flapping and waves may be crashing against the hull. In an extreme situation your boat might even be capsized with the tent up and you inside which would not be very comfortable.

If you need to sleep on board the boat in a fairly large area of water such as a wide estuary or large lake then unless it is calm it is best to anchor near the windward shore, both for shelter from the wind and to reduce the distance (fetch) which is available for the waves to build up. It also helps to be in the lee of any shelter from the wind. Trees are particularly good in providing shelter and a tree lined creek will be comfortable in most weather conditions. It also helps to anchor where the boat will actually dry out for most or all of the night, that way you will not be disturbed by the motion of the boat. This is only possible when the tides are suitable, high tide in the morning and evening is ideal. Drying out overnight also needs a patch of sea bed free of rocks or anything else which might damage your boat. Prodding under the boat with an oar will reveal an obviously unsuitable seabed but could only too easily fail to detect a serious boat sinker such as an isolated boulder, an old anchor or mooring block etc.

For convenience and security it is hard to beat a marina berth. You get a sheltered place to tie up with walk on and off access to the shore and normally a floating pontoon so you don't need to think about the effect of tide on fenders and mooring lines. You also get the shoreside facilities of the marina which normally include showers and sometimes a launderette. For this reason alone you may like to stop at marinas at intervals during an extended cruise. Most marinas have a minimum charge which applies to a dinghy the same as to a small yacht. This is understandable since the same facilities are available to a dinghy as to a yacht. A few marinas have some cheap berths for small boats which don't mind drying out. If you are tied to a pontoon which dries at low tide check that your boat cannot be trapped under the edge of the pontoon when the tide rises again, this can happen to low freeboard dinghies. Marinas are not available in all areas (which is fortunate since much of our coastline is at risk from over development). Also, a marina does not always provide the most attractive views from your boat. It is more pleasant to wake up to a view of the sun rising over an estuary than the back end of a motor yacht in an adjacent berth.