The Changing Nature of Sailing & Cruising

Last summer we arrived at what we thought would be a remote harbour only to find that it was ‘developed’ as a family resort with restaurants, play areas, bicycling paths and numerous excursions. The nearby village had been ‘Disneyfied’. Most boats had families with several children aboard, the dog, and the cat. They were at most two days from their home port, for “that is all that the children can take”, and they would stay on the same spot for two weeks. The boats were all broad beamed with high freeboard designed for maximum internal space and comfort. Not what I would consider a good sea boat. We were in a holiday trailer park on water.P1020129

This made me reflect on where #sail cruising had come from and where it is going. Thirty years ago the cruising world looked very different and consisted of two categories. One was the couple or lone sailor who sailed the oceans seeking to stay as far away from civilisation as possible. The other was the annual 2 or 3 week excursion, usually all male, macho bonding affair. Both groups prided themselves on a minimalist approach. For them the essence was living in harmony with the elements, reading them and respecting their power and your limitations. Technology was primitive and had not much changed for many years. That was where the challenge and romance of the sea lay.

So what happened? Well technological, social, and economic influences came in unnoticed like the tide and changed it. Like everything in life there are advantages and disadvantages to all things; when we embrace the advantages we often do not think about what we are losing. So step by step things slip away until we wake up one day to what has been lost.

Boats started to be mass produced, like cars, with different materials that required far less maintenance. This had the effect of making boat ownership possible for more people with less time needed for maintenance but this meant that boats became ‘cookie –cutter’ designs aimed at a market that was large enough to support the set up costs and if it was not there then it would be created by marketing. That changed the nature of sailing.

Sales Image

Companies know that major expenditures are heavily influenced by the female in the partnership. A boat purchase is more likely to be made if the woman thinks that she will be involved in its use and that will probably mean bringing the children along. That changed everything because you start down the route of a bigger, broader boat with a high freeboard; a boat that needs a crew of at least two, even with electric winches and bow thrusters. What has slipped away in the process is the ability to slip down to the dock on a summer evening and go for a solo sail enjoying the solitude.

So individuality decreased and the lack of maintenance greatly reduced the personal and intimate relationship between an owner and the boat. I have a mental picture of every square centimetre of our boat because I have worked on it, so in the toughest conditions I have absolute confidence in her. Size has other disadvantages for in smaller marinas there are limited spaces for larger boats and one has to book ahead (if they take bookings). So the random freedom that is, for me, so important for sail cruising has gone. I understand that for many, and that is now the majority, they prefer the certainty of pre-booking but the problem is the uncertainty of the weather for with the whole family aboard they are fair- weather sailors.


This vision of #sailing is fine for those that want to go there but it is not mine. There is another way.

My Way of Sail Cruising.

I started sailing cruising before GPS, when positions were determined by dead reckoning and a landfall was always exciting because you had to identify where you were. There was a great deal of satisfaction to finding that offshore bouy or arriving at the spot you intended to. A skipper was kept busy plotting positions, allowing for tides, currents and drift. Getting a celestial position was a whole different challenge and I was never very good at it. My memory of our first passage using GPS in fog was little short of miraculous, After a 6 hour passage the target lighthouse loomed out of the fog exactly where is should be. I can remember the thrill all these years later.
Gradually more and more technology has crept in until now one can set a route, set the proximity alarms and go to sleep until you arrive. Not a recommended practice but theoretically possible; there is about that much challenge in it. Even though one would hope that nobody would be that foolish, the temptation is there to a greater or lesser degree. I still keep paper charts and plot my position but nowhere nearly so often.
So where does all this lead? A cruising couple should be conscious of all the trade-offs and make decisions that suit them, not buy into the image sold by a boat salesman. We made certain decisions because we wanted a free ranging, stimulating experience on little travelled coasts with prudent risk taking. Furthermore, we did not want any superfluous complication and no surplus ‘stuff’. The boat itself had to be capable of standing up to the worst that the sea could throw at us while being capable of being sailed single-handed if one of us was sick; after all this was a #retirement plan. The results can be seen at Our Solution
So the key points were;- not too big, no superfluous electric (electric winches and bow thruster), rock proof hull (to allow for skipper errors),stability in heavy weather. As for navigation we opted for an autohelm driven by a GPS, A separate, independent chart plotter linked to an AIS transceiver so that we can see all transmitting traffic and beacons (and they can see us). Now-a-days any vessel big enough to do us damage is probably transmitting. We deliberately did not install radar because it is of marginal value, and did not link the autohelm to a windex because we still want to use our judgement in sailing and not ‘sail by wire’. In the cabin we went for diesel central heating because we think that it is essential to have a warm dry place to keep up the morale. On the other hand we did not install a shower (lots of complication for marginal results) and similarly with a pressurised hot water system. When we are back on land for the winter we rather miss the foot pump!
Our type of cruising is still there to be found but it is not in the high profile places that you may think. Rather it is in the skerries of #Norway and #Sweden, the archipelago of #Finland and along the dramatic northern coast of #Spain. Finding Those Places The rule is; if it is easy to get there by land, sea or air, stay away!


Author: Old Salt

David Phillips and his wife June have sailed the European and UK coasts for 30 years, the last 14 in Enterprise. It has been a continual exploration , inspiration and growth of experience. They would not have missed a minute.

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