WAYPOINTS WITHIN REACH
Ever since the first time Sir Bartholomew Boater grabbed hold of a king spoke, waved to the throng of envious masses on the dock and exclaimed, “Well, I’m outta’ here ... see ya when I see ya!” the intrigue of exploring the great beyond has beckoned many a curious seafarer. Famous “reach” destinations with romantic names like Fiji, Patagonia and the Faroe Islands advertise themselves as the world’s best-kept secrets for voyagers who’ve been drawn to them for ages—whether in reality or as a missing notch on an ambitious bucket list.
But as fall sets in, with most parts of the country’s attention still consumed by a rather inconvenient pandemic, many long-range die-hards have been resigned to downscale their adventuresome spirit as they seek to revisit worthwhile destinations closer to the safety of home. The good news is that sometimes the most unexpected thrills can be found right under your transducer, or at least within a manageable distance.
No multimillion-dollar, ice-class nautical transport at your disposal? No problem. We hope you'll find these rich—and reachable—cruising grounds still worthy of a tank of fuel and an electronic chart update or two.
BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS: A Reachable Dream
By Chris Caswell
I was sprawled on our flybridge in a quiet cove in the British Virgin Islands, gazing at the brilliant stars dotting the black sky, when suddenly I wondered if a young sailor, perhaps on the verge of raiding a treasure galleon lumbering down the Spanish Main, had watched these very same stars from this cove and hoped he would survive to see another night.
So much would have been the same: the tug of the anchor in the warm trade winds, the smell of the damp island, the soft sound of waves shushing onto a sandy beach.
But I had satellites in my night sky. My companions, sharing rummy drinks with clinking ice, delighted in pointing out each one as it slid across our velvety sky.
The BVI are arguably as much of a dream destination as the volcanic peaks of French Polynesia’s Mo’orea for trawler skippers, and much more accessible to those in North America. The BVI also have become a bareboat mecca because of the generally calm waters, line-of-sight navigation and well-marked hazards. For most skippers, the worst thing to befall them is a regretful morning after one too many Painkillers at Foxy’s sandy-foot pub on Jost Van Dyke.
Centuries ago, these waters were frequented by Spanish galleons and the pirates who preyed on them. Today, you’ll find tiny Dead Chest Island (yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!) as well as a cave at Norman Island (supposedly Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island) whose treasure is no longer hidden gold doubloons, but squadrons of brightly colored fish that peer into your snorkel mask.
Sir Francis Drake Channel runs the length of the BVI, protected on each side by delightful islands, just as New York's Times Square has attractions left and right. Tortola is both the main port of entry for yachts as well as home to the international airport. It’s where boaters will find supplies and repairs, and it’s the base for many of the charter companies.
The usual routes to explore the BVI are so well traveled that I’m surprised there isn’t a rut in the sea to follow. Go clockwise or counter—the choice either way is great.
A favorite first night is at Norman Island, if only to dream of gold in the swimmable cave, but the spot also has the Willy T, originally a pirate-ish ship that was lost in a hurricane and now revived as a floating nightspot for wild jumps from the upper deck powered by alcohol. Moor far away if you plan to sleep.
Hurricane Irma in 2017 trashed the BVI, but spots like The Indians (off Norman Island) and the wreck of the mailship Rhone (off Salt Island) remain for snorkelers and divers alike. And it would take more than a mere hurricane to change The Baths, a pile of boulders seemingly tossed by a giant to create eerie caverns and pools to explore.
The famed Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda is making a comeback, now as a marina and soon with its yachtsman’s restaurant and lodgings. This is the jumping-off point for Anegada, the farthest of the BVI at 15 miles away. It draws skippers for one thing: buttery lobsters.
Jost Van Dyke, named for a pirate, is notable for beach bars like Foxy’s and Soggy Dollar (from swimming ashore, right?) with island food, potent potables (Foxy’s Firewater Rum is well-named) and good anchorages. Nearby Sandy Cay is everyone’s vision of a flawless tropical island: palms, sandy beach, no civilization and warm water.
Heading back to Tortola, either to reprovision a trawler or return a bareboat, don’t miss Soper’s Hole, now recovered from Irma with colorfully cheerful buildings. Have conch fritters at Pusser’s, and wash them down with Bushwhackers (don’t say we didn’t warn you!) while you start planning a return to the BVI.
MAINE'S PENOBSCOT BAY: Classic Cruising in the Northeast
By Kenny Wooton
I distinctly recall the first time I laid eyes on Maine’s Penobscot Bay. I was making my inaugural visit to a friend who had moved to a rustic spread just inland from Camden and Rockland. The drive from Boston took me from the heavy vacation traffic of Interstate 95 down to iconic Route 1 and then northeast along one of the most alluring shorelines in America.
As a young sailor obsessed with boats and maritime history, I saw that part of the Maine coast as a dazzling Disney World of decadent delights. Its craggy coves, historic harbor towns and old-school shipyards, and the hills rising dramatically above it all, embodied my ideal of what a seacoast should be: an area that takes no work to love, nor any work to find a place to enjoy cruising.
The Maine coast is divided anecdotally into four regions: southern Maine, adjacent to New Hampshire, which includes the resort town of Kennebunkport; Casco Bay, upon which the city of Portland lies; Mid-Coast, which encompasses the western shore of Penobscot Bay; and Down East, which touches New Brunswick and includes Bar Harbor.
Penobscot Bay is named for the Penobscot River, which empties into it. The bay is roughly 40 miles long and 30 miles wide. It is studded with charming mainland towns including Thomaston, Rockland, Camden, Rockport and Castine, and some 200 islands, which range in size from the larger Vinalhaven, North Haven and Islesboro to rocky humps a few hundred yards across.
Since that first visit, I’ve enjoyed the pleasures of Penobscot Bay many times, by land and by sea. Naturally, the seaborne adventures have netted the greatest rewards.
As with any cruising grounds in the northern latitudes, the prime season is July and August when the weather is friendliest. Moorings and slips can get crowded during that time, but there’s plenty of room to move. Hazards do abound for the careless, though. A hilly, rocky shoreline may be great for knee-weakening scenery, but it can be hard on the running gear if you get it wrong. The same goes for the countless lobster pot buoys and lines that trail down to the traps that collect the coveted, clawed crustacean, Homarus americanus. And short of the occasional effects of a warm Gulf Stream eddy, Maine waters range from cold as hell to frigid, which can generate fog in summer.
But those hazards are what makes Penobscot so appealing. They are a trifling for the pleasures that await intrepid cruisers.
The variety of experiences one can harvest in Penobscot Bay is legion. After awakening to the rising sun in an island cove of your own, you can try to grab a slip or a mooring in one of the small towns for a great lunch and a stroll. My favorite landside attraction is Mount Battie in the Camden Hills State Park. The overlook there offers sweeping views of the bay and islands. It’s a hike from town, but worth every footstep. On the way out, you can grab some lobsters to drop in the pot or toss on the grill. If you’re a fan of lighthouses, the bay hosts more than 15, many of which are visitable.
America’s maritime heritage is evident all along the coast. The cultural remnants of several centuries of seafaring can be seen in the many boatbuilding and repair yards scattered about the bay. Lobstermen and other commercial fishermen ply their trade year-round, and in summer, the Camden schooner fleet is out and about providing throwback views on the horizon and amid the islands.
Penobscot Bay is quintessential Maine coast cruising. As I do today, you’ll remember the first time you laid eyes on it.
SAN JUAN ISLANDS: Gems of the Pacific Northwest
By Belinda Breyer
My side of the family likes to think our Norwegian blood is of the Viking variety. Almost every nautically inclined family member has been to the Pacific Northwest for the legendary cruising. Last summer, my dad, husband and I got the chance aboard our recently purchased 40-foot DeFever Caliente.
“Hey Dad, where are we going to go?” I asked as we sat on board in Anacortes, Washington, the day before we were scheduled to get underway.
He handed me the Waggoner Cruising Guide and a spiral-bound book of charts and said, “You tell me.”
The next morning, after a meander through the 107-year-old Marine Supply and Hardware—ye olde curiosity shoppe of hardware stores—we headed for Sucia Island on some of the glassiest, calmest seas I have ever seen. Sucia is horseshoe-shaped, with Echo Bay in the deep U. It’s home to small islets that are barely more than outcroppings, with a couple of trees and a tiny cabin or two. One of these places would be the perfect retreat to write the next great American novel.
On the north side of the island is Shallow Bay, where we picked up a mooring. “Mother Nature must have really had boaters in mind when she made this place,” Dad said, looking out at the beauty of the rock formations and the calm seas. We explored ashore the next day, hiking and strolling on the beach, and then I headed to the galley to start dinner.
“Honey, come up here and bring the binoculars!” my husband called out. “You’ve got to see this!”
Along the tree line, an osprey had a big fish in its talons. A bald eagle swooped down from above, and the osprey took a hard right and dove. They rolled, dove, stalled, climbed and dropped in a five-minute dogfight. Finally, the osprey tired and dropped the fish. The eagle swooped in and grabbed it in midair.
Apparently, Mother Nature had birds in mind when she made this place, too.
That night, I awoke to the jangling of lines against the mast of the sailboat anchored next to us. The wind was up—and boy can it get up around here. It really started blowing around 2 a.m. and was still at it come morning.
We hung in at Sucia Island for two more nights, and then headed for Westcott Bay on San Juan Island. The wind followed us; we stuck it out on the flybridge for maybe 45 minutes getting drenched in spray, and then Dad went down into the wheelhouse to navigate from there. We sensibly followed his lead.
At San Juan Island, Roche Harbor was packed like a sardine tin with fancy yachts. We made our way around White Point and cruised through Garrison Bay before arriving at Westcott Bay, where we liked the looks of the anchorage between Bell Point and the peninsula housing Westcott Bay Shellfish Co. We were just in time for lunch: a feast of oysters with lemon slices, hot sauce and chardonnay at a picnic table. That night, it was paella with fresh clams and mussels back on the boat. We ate in the golden glow of the long sunset in a truly happy moment.
Whidbey Island, where we have family, was our next stop and a great place to stretch our legs near Fort Casey Historical State Park. We explored the old military buildings and climbed the stairs of the picture-perfect lighthouse to take in sweeping views of the Strait of Juan De Fuca and Marrowstone Island.
Dinner was at Orchard Kitchen in Langley, where the restaurant is on a small farm, grows its own fruits and vegetables, and has laying hens and honeybees. We secured seats at the counter, looking into the open kitchen, and got to observe the construction of the beautiful courses of food. I loved that they offered a cheese course in lieu of dessert (or both if you thought you could handle it). Everything was so local that one of the cheeses sourced from the mainland of Washington was labeled imported cheese.
The next day brought a picnic near Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, on a miles-long beach strewn with driftwood, close to grassy bluffs above early settlers’ cabins and outbuildings. We skipped the hiking trails and saved our energy for an evening in the quaint waterfront village of Langley.
Prima Bistro, whose menu is heavily French, offered steak tartare, escargot and local Penn Cove mussels with waterfront views. The mussels were the plumpest, most delicious ever.
We decided that we could almost move here just for them.
FLORIDA KEYS: A World Unto Itself
By Chris Caswell
It is a self-declared republic, but neither a passport nor a visa is required. You can get there by boat easily from anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard or the Gulf Coast. You can provision at a local supermarket, your U.S. greenbacks are gladly accepted, and the natives speak English (more or less). The local dress code runs heavily to cargo shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops.
This is, of course, the Florida Keys, a boating destination par excellence.
The Keys have been called the 51st state, and there’s truth to the idea. Like a grudgingly adopted child, they bear little resemblance to the rest of the country. The Keys are as much a state of mind as a string of islands, populated over the centuries by smugglers, pirates and scalawags.
The attraction of the Florida Keys is that you can have the best of the Caribbean or South Pacific without leaving U.S soil. Coral reefs teem with tropical fish, tall palm trees shadow the beaches, the water is bathtub warm, and the locals are friendly. You can spend weeks exploring this necklace of approximately 800 islets without duplicating any. Some boaters are so enchanted, they never leave.
Our adventure started at Key Largo, which is nicknamed the “Dive Capital of the World” because of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. A word to the wise: Throughout the Keys, watch your chartplotter and depthsounder carefully, as shallows abound. Another dive delight farther along is Sombrero Key Light on the barrier reef (the third-largest living coral reef in the world). This site is a sanctuary with no anchoring, no spearfishing, no kidding.
Throughout the Keys are dozens of marinas for every size yacht. Islamorada, nicknamed the “Sportfishing Capital of the World,” is home to fleets of charter boats for ocean and flats fishing. We treated the kids to Hawks Cay Resort and Marina, which let them pet tame dolphins. You’ll pass the Seven Mile Bridge; Big Pine Key in the lower Keys is a refuge for miniature Key deer that have come back from near extinction.
Key West is best described as part carnival, part tourist trap, part history. Once home to literary greats Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, not to mention music idol Jimmy Buffett, Key West offers skippers a choice of several marinas, often connected to resorts with all the amenities.
Do the tourist stuff: see the Southernmost Point Buoy, marking the southernmost point in the continental United States; get your picture taken next to mile marker 0; and watch the sunset at Mallory Square until you’ve seen all the street performers, magicians, jugglers and vendors who arrive for the last rays. Pub crawl Duval Street starting at Sloppy Joe’s, or check out the Hemingway House with his beloved six-toed cats.
Once you’re dosed (or overdosed) on Key West, you might cruise over to the Dry Tortugas about 70 nautical miles west to enjoy the silence of an anchorage. There, you can explore Fort Jefferson, an 1800s fort that blockaded Southern shipping during the Civil War.
Heading back to the mainland, you can set a course for the west coast of Florida, including Pine Island Sound and the shell-laden islands of Sanibel and Captiva.
If you prefer to return to Hawk’s Channel on the Atlantic side of the Keys, Moser Channel is a deepwater (7- to 8-foot) pass under the Seven Mile Bridge. A good overnight spot nearby is Faro Blanco Resort & Yacht Club.
Once you’ve cruised the Keys, you can declare yourself a Conch and fly the Conch Republic flag (motto: We Seceded Where Others Failed). Just don’t miss the annual Conch Independence Day celebration in Key West. If you thought Mallory Square was crazy at sunset, well….