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Mothership Kayaking


By Craig Jungers

Copyright 2009

Mothership kayaking has become increasingly popular in the islands of Washington state and Alaska and the province of British Columbia in Canada. For the most part these motherships are large by yachting standards. Often comprised of former fishing boats or outdated commercial vessels they start at 50 feet in length and go to 80 or 100 feet. Some of them are old fisheries or coast guard patrol boats. They all have one thing in common: they are essentially floating hotels that paddlers use to access waters that would otherwise take too long to reach during a normal holiday.

So while a kayak mothership is a boat equipped with kayaks, not all boats with kayaks can be considered paddling motherships. Along with the rise in popularity of paddling sports has come a general increase in the number of boats whose operators also take a kayak along on their trips. But the kayaks are an afterthought; just something to do while boating. With a kayak mothership the kayak is the reason for being on the boat and the boat that carries the kayaks is the afterthought.

As the baby boom generation ages the active sports that are most popular also change. In the 70s tennis was the fastest growing sport. In the 80s it was bicycling. But once people reach their mid-50s and early 60s (and beyond) simple practicalities can limit the choices of active sports. A person in his (or her) 40s might not think twice about being in wilderness for two weeks of paddling around a remote BC archipelago but for people in their 60s and 70s safety is a consideration. Members of the baby boom generation find themselves playing “what if” games in their heads when they contemplate their next vacation. What if I have a stroke? What if I have a heart attack. What if my wife has a health problem? What if I run out of beer? With a mothership returning to civilization can be as easy as starting the engine and driving back out of the wilderness.

I have lately been thinking more about just how nice mothership kayaking would be. However paying room and board on a commercial mothership for a month or two each summer, no matter how appealing it might be, is simply beyond my pocketbook. After all, these folks charge $3000 and up per person for a week of commercial mothership kayaking. And they book up solid every season. Then there is the simple fact that I paddle very responsive and specialized kayaks that are not likely to be found on a commercial mothership in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness; I’m just not ready to paddle any old boat (go ahead, call me a snob). So, because I have a history of messing about in boats somewhat larger than kayaks and canoes, I figured that there might be a possibility I could afford to acquire my own modest mothership. And I was right. But first I had to scout around a bit.

Visit one of the big boat shows, as I did in Seattle, and the prices of small cruising boats will knock your socks off. Talk about sticker shock! It’s not at all unusual to see a 25-foot cruising boat with outboard engines going for $100,000! And up!!! And the interiors of these boats are not mahogany and teak. Oh no. They are plastic and fiberglass with a bit of teak trim here and there. The manufacturers claim they do this for “low maintenance” but in reality the sheer expense of using exotic hardwoods like teak and mahogany (not to mention the skilled craftsmen to put it together) would drive the already-high prices even higher. Fortunately for those of us without deep pockets there is an alternative.

The golden age of powerboating in the USA was the 1970s with cheap gasoline and the advent of fiberglass building techniques. Thanks in part to the fact that fiberglass is practically indestructible, by 2007 there were literally thousands of gasoline-powered mid-sized powerboats cluttering the marinas, storage lots and backyards of homes all up and down the Pacific Coast and elsewhere. That and the happy coincidence of free advertising venues like craigslist.org has made shopping for a potential mothership relatively easy and acquiring the mothership itself downright cheap; and sometimes free!. On any given day there are literally dozens of perfectly adequate boats available up and down the west coast of north America. There are some lemons, of course, but a lot of these boats are owned by people who have either moved up to a larger boat or moved out of boating altogether. They are no longer interested in making money on their old toys or even recouping their investment; they are now interested in just getting it out of the backyard so the wife can plant her garden. A big plus for paddlers is that these older power cruisers were not built to be maximized for interior room so they don’t have slanted decks and cocktail patios. The cabins might be cramped but the decks are easy to walk around on and the cockpits are roomy and uncluttered by built-in tables and wet bars. They may not come with microwaves and LCD tv sets (although you can install them) but, unlike many modern cabin cruisers, they do have large windows that are perfect for watching the scenery.

Prior to the rise of the free advertising web sites boat owners had to either pay for advertising in a local newspaper, in an advertising circular, or list the boat with a broker. All of these had downsides. An ad in the local newspaper can be limited in geographical area and almost always costs money. Some of the free advertising circulars have created area-wide coverage but an ad in them still costs money. A broker might only be interested in putting effort into selling a boat that would repay his efforts more handsomely than a 1976 single-engine (gas) cabin cruiser would. Especially if that cabin cruiser needed a little TLC. So the happy combination of aging cabin cruisers and trawlers and free and simple advertising on Internet web sites has made finding and acquiring a decent boat easier than ever. All you have to do is decide what you want and then go look for it.


A kayak mothership is certainly not for everyone. Paddling a kayak and navigating a power or sail boat are very different skillsets so don’t assume that kayaking around, say, Vancouver Island will qualify you to safely operate a 28 foot cabin cruiser. Here are just a few of the potential pitfalls a kayaker may encounter.

A cabin cruiser can routinely operate at speeds 5-times that of the fastest cruising kayaker and it takes some time to get used to this. Landmarks and navigation aids zip by much more quickly than at a kayak’s pace. A momentary lapse in attention can result in overshooting a critical turnpoint and setting you and your family into danger. Navigation, a part-time chore in a kayak, is a full-time chore at 20 knots in the San Juan Islands. And an area that offers a week’s worth of paddling can be covered in just a few hours in a powerboat which can mean that you will become bored with an area that would have kept you enthralled for days before your mothership.

In a kayak we can have a tendency to not be too aggressive about the legalities. In most states we don’t pay registration fees, we aren’t required to have navigation lights (other than a flashlight) and we are often exempt from any insurance or training requirements. Not so with a power boat. As the skipper of a vessel powered by mechanical means you will be expected to display navigational lights, use appropriate sound signals when passing, keep a watch on channel 16 and basically do everything any ship’s captain does. Some paddlers do all this now and some power boaters never do any of it at all, but you’ll be safer if you learn and pay close attention to these details.

Plus there is a tendency lately for some states (and Washington is one) to require some boater education and a “boater’s safety card” before operating a power or sailing vessel. Kayakers are exempt from these boater’s cards but depending upon your age and where you cruise, you will probably need  one before you get behind the helm of your mothership.

Other than the basic act of navigation, skills for a boater are entirely different than skills for a kayaker. For one thing, boaters almost never have to drive their boats through the surf onto a beach (or drive it off). In your  mothership you will have to learn to anchor or else you’ll be relegated to the poor majority who either stay at the dock, stay at a reciprocal yacht club dock or – and these are the brave ones – pick up a mooring at a state or provincial park (which might not be as secure as they think; more on that later). Now, there is nothing wrong with staying at docks and/or picking up a mooring but the best places (with the least people) are those in which you have to anchor. And don’t worry, the skill of sleeping lightly enough so that you’ll wake up to check the anchor if the wind or current changes is one you will learn quickly. Docking, launching, retrieval, and operating your mothership in tight places will all be new experiences and will require new skills.

But not everything is harder. Navigation on a cabin cruiser is a LOT easier than it is in a kayak. You can plot a course, mark a position, read the depth from the depthsounder, chat with other cruising buds on the VHF and even check for traffic on the radar. Some of these are downright impossible from a kayak. Of course, using these tools requires at least some education and in some cases (and I’m thinking specifically of the radar) quite a bit of education. And because you can get into a lot of trouble on a cabin cruiser very fast if you navigate badly, using all these tools becomes second nature for most boaters. As a kayaker you should already be able to read charts and figure out how to get from point A to point B; often routing yourself close to interesting rocks and shallow bits.

I think that the two most significant advantages for a mothership are the extended cruising range for adventuring and the warm, dry place to cook, eat, sleep and use a potty. Of course, no rule says that you have to sleep and eat aboard your boat and, in fact, there are mothership paddlers who use their cabin cruisers as a transportation device only; once they are in the paddling grounds they anchor the boat securely, ferry everything ashore in the dinghy, and set up a comfortable camp. I say “comfortable” because even a small, open runabout type of powerboat can carry significantly more gear than a kayak so the camp can have more luxuries like a toilet enclosure (complete with toilet), cook tables, chairs, bigger tents and that cushiest of civilized benefits; a camp cot with a thick self-inflating mattress.

Others use their motherships to get to remote areas and then tie up to a slip in a local marina and head off for a week’s kayak adventure; returning to their mothershp ready to head home on their own schedule and itinerary.

And let’s not forget that it would take a very determined grizzly bear to get at your food stash when you’re anchored 200 yards off the beach; even in the wilds of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska. There are quite a few of us who would look at that as a very great advantage. And the hordes of mosquitoes and other bugs that can invade any camp in the wilderness seldom venture more than a hundred yards off the beach. While a group camping ashore might be wearing head nets and huddling around a smoky campfire a mothership paddler can be comfortably reading a book and sipping a hot cup of tea.

My wife is a fantastic cook who specializes in dutch oven cuisine when we are off camping. She doesn’t do that much paddling and definitely prefers the quiet type of paddle as opposed to the exciting type and is often happy just hanging around camp with the grandkids while the rest of us brave the elements. A mother ship makes it that much more likely that she will be along (and that we will eat better!) even if we only use it to carry more comforts of home to isolated island campsites.

There are other advantages to a mothership too. Better safety and first aid equipment close to hand. Increased communications facilities. Plus the possibility of rapid evacuation in the event of sudden illness or accidents and bigger, more accurate, and easier to read navigation equipment. Even on a relatively tiny powerboat you have a carrying capacity that’s 3 to 4 times as much as a single kayak. And a 22 to 26 foot cruiser can literally carry the kitchen sink. A mother ship with an inverter (or generator) can also handily recharge VHF radios that are carried by the paddlers. The more powerful (25 watt, usually) marine VHF radio – or perhaps even marine SSB or ham radio – on a mothership with higher-mounted and increased gain antennas can reach help farther than just a handheld and can listen for calls from the paddling fleet better.

And the mothership can provide a more stable platform for fishing or even a new interest in that activity. No rule says that your mothership has to only be used to transport kayaks. Fitted out with downriggers and modern fishfinders a mothership can do double duty as a fishing boat and put food on the family table. Hey, you may have bought the boat for one thing but it can help pay for itself by doing extra duty.

So, ok… maybe it’s not the rugged adventure some people demand but even if you do have a mothership who says you can’t just leave it home and take off for a week in the wilderness; just you and your kayak? Mothership kayaking can give you more control over where you kayak, freedom from ferry schedules and crowded campgrounds (and their fees), and a known level of comfort but it doesn’t have to tie you to one particular facet of kayaking. It actually frees you to choose from even more options!


First of all, this is aimed at the kayaker who wants to augment his (or her) paddling with a larger boat. If you have a boat and want to simply add a kayak for the occasional trip around the harbor then not all of this will be applicable.

You should also think hard about the type of kayaking you do and the kayak you paddle. If you simply cannot do without that 18-foot brit-boat then this will have some impact on the size of the boat ou use to transport that kayak. Remember that if you have to carry the kayaks high then the will also be a weight impact. A long, heavy kayak will mean that you will probably not be able to use a small boat as a mother ship. But if you use skin-on-frame (SOF) kayaks – which often weight under 30 pounds – you can get away with placing them higher on a smaller boat.

The type of boat you buy also depends on what you want from your potential kayak mothership. If you want little more than a dry bed and a sheltered shelf for your camp stove then a 20 – 22 foot express cruiser powered by an outboard would fit the bill nicely; especially if you plan to use an inflatable or folding kayak. But if you want a warm sofa, a hot shower, a queen-sized bed, and baked meatloaf for dinner then you might be looking at one of the 70s trawlers in sizes ranging from 30 feet to 45 feet. There are drawbacks and pitfalls to every type of potential mothership as well as advantages. And if all you want is basic transportation for you and your equipment into the wilderness then a runabout or even an inflatable RIB (an inflatable with a rigid fiberglass or plastic hull) is all you’ll need.

Most of these cruisers are best suited to protected waters like Puget Sound or the Columbia River (what we often refer to as “coastal cruising”) and not the open ocean of the north Pacific (except when the weather is settled). An exception to this would be the cruising sailboats and the larger (30 feet and over) converted fishing boats, trawlers and sport fishing boats. If you intend to spend a lot of time cruising the western shoreline of Vancouver Island in BC or the Queen Charlottes (Haida Gwai) then you need to choose your mothership for sea worthiness in these waters. We’ll be talking about this in later chapters.

Sail or Power?

As a former long-distance sailboat cruiser (or “yachtie”) my first inclination was to find a good cruising sailboat and use that for my kayak mothership. There are, however, some downsides that make sailboats somewhat less desirable (in my opinion, at least) than a powerboat. First of all there is the problem of where to stow hard-shelled kayaks on a sailboat. If the sailboat is much smaller than about 35 feet long kayaks are usually either lashed to the lifelines forward (port and starboard) where they interfere with visibility and are vulnerable to head seas or they are lashed to the cabin top just aft of the mast where they interfere with access to the cabin via the companionway hatch and still interfere with visibility. If you are using folding or inflatable kayaks these problems are, of course, mostly eliminated but there is still a stowage problem. And while there is an enormous amount of living and storage space aboard a 35 foot sailboat making living aboard while on a paddling adventure comfortable or even luxurious, you find yourself living mostly below the waterline with your view of the anchorage through relatively small, sometimes tiny, windows or portlights.

The second disadvantage – again, in my opinion – is the relatively slow speed of a sailboat. While a 40-foot trawler may be fitted with one 150hp diesel engine a similar sailboat would more likely have a 60hp diesel. This, along with the considerable windage of the mast and rigging, tends to limit the speed of a sailboat under power to less than 7 knots. And while 7 knots is not a terrible speed with which to enjoy the surroundings, it’s good to have some reserve of speed for times when making a harbor is more important than saving fuel. The combination of relatively low power and lots of windage can make powering to windward a slow and uncomfortable process. With 20 years of sailing under my belt, I don’t mind cruising at 7 knots but want 20 knots just in case I need it. For this reason I chose a 25-foot powerboat with 230 horspower. You might see things another way.

A distinct advantage to a sailboat is sea keeping ability. Virtually all sailboats are capable of handling a heavier seaway than most powerboats with a more comfortable motion. This is especially true in a following sea (more on this later).

Trailerable sailboats, being a compromise, generally are less comfortable for living and because of size restrictions (and weight restrictions) on trailers have even less room for stowing kayaks on deck or below than regular sailboats and generally use an outboard engine. It can be done, however. A sailboat powered by a diesel auxiliary engine can cruise efficiently at 4 or 5 mph while consuming much less than a gallon per hour. Our 32 foot cutter cruised at 4 knots burning about 1/4 gallon of diesel fuel per hour! That’s an average of about 100 nautical miles per day on less than 6 gallons for a fuel efficiency that rivals a car and beats the heck out of most motorhomes.

Trawler Hull

Trawler hulled boats generally offer roomy accommodations and very good fuel efficiency. Depending upon their size they can have staterooms with queen-size beds, teak cupboards, full galleys, heaters and air conditioners, showers (or even tubs!) and more. The layout generally includes a foredeck (over the forward vee-berth cabin, a pilothouse (which may include the salon and galley), a generous aft cabin (usually on trawlers over about 34 feet in length) a patio-sized aft deck, a small stern cockpit, and a flybridge with a secondary steering area. Many (if not most) of these boats were built in the Orient (Taiwan and Hong Kong) in the 1970s and 1980s and are festooned with teak decks and lots of teak woodwork inside. The designs, mostly by DeFever, Monk and Garden, are based on the scandinavian-style salmon fishing trollers and seiners common along the west coast of the US in the 1950s and 1960s and are generally very seaworthy. Trawlers under about 35 feet are commonly equipped with a single diesel engine with the propeller and shaft protected from floating debris by the full-length keel.  But while trawlers offer room and comfort they do not offer speed. Even with two engines a 40-foot trawler would be hard pressed to go faster than about 10mph at full speed. Cruising speeds are more in the 6 to 8 mph range but their fuel consumption at those speeds can be as low as 1 gallon per hour (per engine) making their fuel efficiency quite attractive. If you have the time available to cruise one of these to Alaska you will be doing it at a fraction of the cost of cruising a similar-sized Tollycraft, Fiberform, Carver or Bayliner to the same areas. Plan on all summer. On the downside, these boats often have a history of deck leaks which can rot the coring material (usually plywood) in the decks. Repair of these can be difficult, messy and costly but if you get the boat at the right price it can still be a good deal. Teak decks (and the fasteners used to secure them to the deck) installed with poor sealants are often the culprit.

The Larger Cabin Cruiser

There are many different configurations of power boats so categorizing them can be difficult. Cabin cruisers that are over about 28 feet and up to about 34 feet are too large to be easily trailered but aren’t really trawlers. Equipped almost always with twin gasoline engines, these boats fall into a category of their own and can often be found for sale at impressively cheap prices; even with fiberglass hulls. While they might not feature aft staterooms they usually feature roomy salons with full galleys, comfortable dinettes, inside steering and private toilet facilities. They can also often show an impressive turn of speed: up to about 20mph;but their fuel consumption at those speeds is also impressive. Some of these advantages (including the cheap initial price) can be offset by the necessity of mooring them in a slip. The slip, in fact, can be the most expensive part of these boats over a few years of ownership. They do, however, give you a lot of room for carrying full-sized kayaks and a lot of bang for the buck. And sometimes the cheap initial price can be worth it.

The Ex-Fishing Boat

Since the 1970s there have been thousands of commercial fishing vessels made redundant through various buy-back schemes. These were implemented in order to reduce the fleet size and thereby increase the profits for those fishing boats left in the hunt. British Columbia (Canada), Alaska and Washington State participated in these plans to a greater or lesser extent but the biggest was B.C. In some cases these boats can be made into excellent kayak motherships but not, usually, without a lot of work. The smaller fishing boats remaindered in these schemes were gillnet boats, trollers, and seiners. Of those three broad categories the largest boats are generally the seiners which can run around 50 feet in length. Trollers usually run between 30 to 40 feet and gill-net boats 25 to 35 feet. Most of these boats had (and have) wooden hulls and diesel engines.

The living quarters of fishing boats – especially smaller fishing boats – are notoriously spartan but the boats themselves are very seaworthy. Trollers in particular survived years of spending months of 7 to 10 days at sea, replenishing with ice and fuel at an isolated delivery port, followed by another week to ten days at sea again. These boats are often of a very attractive (to my eye, at least) line and their design can be traced back to scandinavian roots. Earlier models were often double-ended which can offer some advantages crossing river bars and in following seas but later versions, especially those built in fiberglass (more rarely offered for sale) tended to be square-sterned.

Advantages to buying and using an ex-fishing boat as your mothership include a built-in diesel engine, seaworthy design, good size for living. Disadvantages can include having an ancient wooden hull with all that implies, the necessity of converting the fish hold into living quarters, relatively low cruising speed, and the pervasive smell of diesel fuel. Almost all ex-fishing boats require a slip; only the gill-netters are generally trailered.

The trailered boat.

The simplest criteria revolves around whether or not your mothership can be trailered. Some paddlers believe that only a trailerable boat can be an effective kayak mother ship. Certainly the trailered boat offers expanded versatility when it comes to gaining access to good waters to paddle.

In practical terms there are limits to how big a trailerable boat can be. Sure, you can buy a tractor and semi-trailer rig and tow a 40-footer around (I actually bought a tractor and towed a 32-foot 19,000 pound displacement sailboat on a home-built trailer from Baja California to Seattle) but it’s not simple and not easy and certainly not cheap. So if you want a boat you can trailer you will be limited to a boat about 26-feet long (or less) and about 8-1/2 feet in beam (or less). The limit on beam is mandated by most states; anything much bigger than 8-1/2 feet will probably require special permits, some oversize signs and maybe even a chase car as well as time and weather constraints. You can’t move oversized loads through metropolitan areas during rush hour, for instance. And you may be restricted from towing an oversized load during high winds or over mountain passes during winter storms. And boats over about 25 feet in length begin to gain weight quickly as they increase in size to the point where you might have to buy a specialized vehicle (like a diesel pickup) to tow it at all. So keeping the weight under 5,000 pounds might be important.

The advantage of having a trailerable boat is, of course, the savings in cost by being able to keep your mothership in your driveway or backyard when you are not actually using it for boating fun. If you live in an apartment and drive a Prius, however, you might begin to think that having a boat on a trailer could be more of a handicap than a benefit. The proliferation of mini-storage areas around the US and Canada can solve the storage problem but then there is the added cost. Storing a 25-foot boat can cost $100 a month or more and you’ll still have to find something to tow it with just to get it to a launching ramp. But there are always rental trucks for this job (which eliminates the need for paying parking fees at that launching ramp).

Many marinas either offer “dry” storage on land as an adjunct to their in-the-water moorage and a few are dry storage only. The prices for these facilities are not as cheap as your neighborhood storage lot. In fact they usually mirror ver closely the charge for keeping your boat in the water at a slip. But the facility usually includes several launches and some, like Dagmar’s near Everett, Washington, will have your boat in the water and waiting for you if you give them advance notice. It’s not very romantic spending a weekend on your boat high-and-dry but, then again, it’s almost impossible for the boat to spring a leak and sink while you’re on a business trip to Wyoming. But the boat will be more exposed to changes in temperature without the moderating effects of surrounding water. In reality, most boat owners put heat in their boats – or at least a 100-watt light bulb – in the winter anyway.

But the single biggest advantage to the trailerable mothership is that the only restriction to where you go adventuring is how much gas you can afford to buy for your towing vehicle and whether there is a suitable launch ramp handy to the area you want to visit. Lake Coeur d’Alene in Idaho, Lake Superior, the Florida Keys, the Bahamas (launch in Miami), Maine, Santa Catalina Island  (launch in Los Angeles), the Sea of Cortez; all of these are within reach of the trailerable mothership. And you can camp in your boat when you stop for the night on the way to your chosen cruising grounds. Many other things are simplified too. Loading the boat is a matter of handing stuff up to a person in the boat who puts the things away; no long walk from the parking lot down the docks pushing a loaded cart. Add water from your home water supply. Pull into a supermarket for food supplies and stow them away properly while you’re still in the parking lot. Fueling is cheaper because you simply fuel the boat at the same time you fuel your towing vehicle and not in a marina where they may add $1 or more to the cost of a gallon. With a trailerable mothership you can now plan a paddling vacation on distant waters and still fit it into a two-week period. Crossing International borders (like to Mexico or Canada) can also be simplified when you are towing your boat as opposed to crossing in your boat.

Another advantage to trailerboating is that your towing vehicle is probably going to get better gas mileage than your boat; making longer trips much cheaper under tow than under boat power. For instance, I can tow my boat to Prince Rupert, BC and launch it there for about 50 gallons of diesel fuel to get my boat within range of the Queen Charlotes and home again plus the cost of fuel to cross to the islands themselves (50 more gallons or so). If I launch in Bellingham, WA or Vancouver, BC I would be facing well over 400 gallons of gasoline costs for the round trip on the water plus marina fees if I chose to stay overnight. Plus the extra 10 days of travel. Of course, the travel itself can be its own reward.

Disadvantages of a trailerboat include the hassle of launching and retrieving the boat; often at an unfamiliar ramp where you may have to pay exorbitant fees for putting your boat in the water and then more exorbitant fees to park your towing vehicle in an area where, despite the expense, there might be little or no security. In addition, almost all launch areas require you to move your boat away from any docks adjacent to the launch ramp within minutes of launching in order to make way for the next customer. Private launch ramps are often next to visitor docks where you can tie up and get access to water and electricity but the price is often more than a motel room; even for a smaller boat. Public launch areas may be crowded and occupied by locals fishing or swimming from the launch docks and can come complete with intricate and difficult to comprehend rules about which lanes are for launch and which are for retrieval. And god forbid you should get it wrong! Much of this hassle can be avoided by providing adequate anchoring gear and learning how to use it.  More on this in a later chapter.

Then there are the added costs to having a vehicle for towing in an era when most people prefer an economical vehicle. At some points in the economical cycle large pickup trucks with powerful engines are cheap but at other times their popularity soars and they can be expensive. We justify the extra by using the truck for family and friends to help them move, to take larger garbage loads to the dump, and as a delivery vehicle. But insurance and licensing costs remain even if you find other uses for the vehicle. The smaller your trailerable boat the easier it will be to find double duties for it. And there are always rental trucks.

Keeping your mothership in a marina slip.

When your boat is moored at a marina’s dock space it’s almost immediately available to take out for a cruise. Simply add kayaks, fuel, water, food and people and off you go. And you don’t even have to leave the marina to have fun. Because a boat stored in a marina can be bigger and more comfortable than a trailered boat, you can often live comfortably right at the dock and use that as a paddling base. You’ll have electricity and water along with cheap (or even free) parking. And modern marinas even offer playgrounds for the kids and convenient restaurants if you don’t want to use the galley. You will likely feel right at home in the marine environs and any liveaboards (people who live full time aboard their boats moored in the marina) you befriend can be counted on to keep an eye on your boat and your mooring lines. And if you choose a covered moorage you have the benefit of keeping your boat in a dry, protected environment where it will age less and be more valuable later and require less maintenance.

If you choose your marina carefully you could find yourself occupying a nice place close to incredible cruising and paddling grounds; or even right in middle of the best paddling grounds. Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands is a perfect example. Park your car at the terminal just west of Anacortes, walk onto a ferry and 30 minutes later walk off the ferry and turn right and walk a further block north to the marina and down to your boat if you’re lucky enough to find moorage there. With restrooms, grocery stores and restaurants all within walking distance there is really no need to bring your car and the limitations on parking give you good reason not to. You could easily spend a comfortable week living at the dock every night and your paddling out of this well protected harbor every day.

Of course, there are downsides to marinas too. The biggest (for me) is the expense. Generally, the more convenient the marina is the more expensive it will be. And the harder it will be to get a slip in it. Sometimes the only way to get a slip in a marina is to buy a boat that is already occupying one and transfer the moorage. Some marinas won’t allow this, however. Expect to pay about $300 and up to keep a 30-foot boat in an open slip in a marina. Electricity will cost extra. Don’t expect to live aboard your boat at the marina unless you get permission from the management first and then expect to pay a hefty extra charge for the privilege. Some marinas will rent your slip out when you are off adventuring and rebate a portion of that fee back to you to help cover the fee while you’re gone. The only problem with this is that it only works well during the summer because during the winter most people aren’t looking for transient moorage. They’re off skiing or shoveling snow in their driveway; or on a paddling vacation to Baja.

In addition, unless you are lucky enough to get a slip in a marina very close to your cruising and paddling grounds, you can expect to pay extra to move your boat and gear through the water to get to where you want to paddle. Boats generally do not get as good gas mileage as cars do so if you find a slip in Everett (north of Seattle), for instance, budget enough fuel and time to get you the extra 40 miles or so up to the San Juan Islands.

Another disadvantage to me for a marina is that I soon get bored with the environment and want to move on. I’ll have visited all the restaurants I want to visit, paddled to all the places within reach more times than I want to repeat, and lived through the interminable voyage to where I really want to be too many times. In addition, marinas come complete with a long list of rules including, nowadays, rules against doing any maintenance on your boat while it’s in the water at your slip. Sometimes driven by environmental regulations but just as often driven by a desire to sell more trips to the ship yard the marina owns and operates, these rules can go so far as to specify no sanding or painting and no use of power tools which might disturb the neighbors or the wildlife. Virtually all marinas now demand proof of liability insurance on the vessel (your car insurance often covers liability when towing your boat).

Of course, you can also rent a slip for your trailerable boat and get what many people think of as the best of both worlds. With the boat in the water you can just take the car and kayaks to the marina, load up and head out. And if you want to go further afield, hitch up the trailer, load the boat onto it and off you go. But if you have opted for a boat bigger than about 26 to 28 feet then a marina is not just a choice for you; it’s probably a necessity. Even so, spending a weekend on your boat in a marina slip is still more fun than mowing the lawn at home. Think of it as your beach cabin.

Keeping your Mothership on a Mooring or Anchoring.

At one time in the United States there were few marinas and most private yachts were kept on “moorings” which were, essentially, buoys connected to heavy weights. These were often set in geometric lines and owned (and leased) by yacht clubs which also operated small water taxis to take boaters to and from their boats. There are still areas of moorings; particularly on the eastern seaboard of the United States where it has been historically common. On the west coast, however, moorings are less common and, where they exist, are highly regulated. The days when a boater could simply set a mooring and tie up his boat to it are pretty much gone in the lower 48 states unless you own the shoreline immediately adjacent to your mooring and apply for – and pay for – a permit.

Besides the regulatory minefield there are other downsides to leaving your boat on a mooring. Unless there is someone who can keep an eye on the boat it will be exposed to dangers from heavy winds and seas, collisions, vandalism and theft. In addition, if you want to go do some work on it you will have no power (unless you provide it), no fresh water (except that in your tanks), and no convenient access. This last point is more important than you’d think because unless you can leave your dinghy ashore safely or there is a water taxi available you will have to bring a dinghy (or your kayak) with you on every visit.

In addition, unless you are in a USCG designated small craft anchoring area (highly unlikely – there are not very many of them), you will have to display a night anchoring light during the hours of darkness and a day shape (a black cone) during the day.

Leaving your boat on its own anchor offers many of the pitfalls of a mooring combined with even more exposure to damage. Because they are temporary, however, you might have better luck – from a legal standpoint – anchoring than trying to install a mooring.

Be especially wary of buying a mooring or paying to have one installed unless you fully understand the legal consequences and requirements.

Outboards, Inboards, Diesels and Gas.

Before the early 1970s virtually all cabin cruisers and sailboats under about 34 feet in length used gasoline engines for propulsion. Gas engines are smaller, lighter, and much less expensive to buy than diesel engines and the fuel is easier to find; but diesel engines are more robustly built, last longer with less maintenance and burn their fuel with greater efficiency. So by the mid 1970s small diesel engines manufactured by Volvo and Perkins began to find their way into sailboats and powerboats. It was not uncommon for a 2-cylinder Volvo diesel to propel a 20,000 pound sailboat at 5 or 6 knots and burn about 1/3 of a gallon per hour. Diesel engines on smaller (24 feet) powerboats were less common but they can be found.

Gasoline is much more volatile than diesel fuel and one must be extremely cautious to avoid getting gas fumes into the bilge of the boat lest a stray spark blow the boat sky-high. For this reason gasoline powered boats have engine space blowers to evacuate fumes overboard as well as spark arrestors on the carburator. Fuel injected gas engines were rare until about the mid-1990s on boats.

Diesel is almost not flammable at all but it has some of its own disadvantages. There are actually bacteria which can thrive in diesel fuel and additives must be added to impede the growth of these little critters. The bacteria multiply in the fuel lines and clog them and the filters and must be cleaned out by disassembling the fuel system. Diesel also does not like to be stored over a long period of time.

Modern gasolines, on the other hand, have their own problems. If left for a long period of time gasoline can deteriorate into a varnish that coats the interiors of carburators which must then be cleaned before the engine will start. Today’s gasoline contains alcohol additives has an affinity for water and even a full tank left over the winter in a damp climate can acquire a fair bit of water mixed in with the fuel. Some fuels with ethanol can even separate into zones of mostly water and low octane (ethanol increases the octane rating of gasoline and takes the place of MTBE) fuel. Additives reduce these problems and should be used regularly.

A diesel engine gets more power out of the available BTUs of its fuel than a gasoline engine does. In addition, the diesel fuel can be used as a safe heating fuel for inside the boat even when the engine is not running. And while most boats use either alcohol or propane cooking stoves, a diesel stove can do double duty as both a heater when its cold as well as keeping a pot of coffee hot for as long as you want it. Of course, this may only be desirable in cooler climes; a diesel stove running all the time in the tropics would make for an uncomfortable cruise. Diesel engines also tend to be more robust than their gasoline counterparts, requiring much less maintenance and running thousands of hours routinely. But perhaps the greatest attribute of diesel engines is that they are much less prone to fire than their gasoline counterparts.

For many people the chief downside of a diesel engine is the smell of diesel fuel that seems to seep into the living quarters no matter how careful one is to keep the fuel isolated to the engine itself. Another downside is the expense of a diesel engine which can easily cost 3 times that of a gasoline engine. For this reason alone, diesel engines on cruising powerboats under about 35-feet are rare unless it’s a trawler-hull. The rare diesel powered cabin cruiser will often cost you several thousand dollars over an identical gasoline powered model and unless you plan to spend your time going back and forth between Puget Sound and Alaska it’s difficult to justify the extra expense. Just as an example, my Carver Santa Cruz 25, made in 1974, set me back $3500 with a freshly overhauled 350 cubic inch gasoline engine. An identical boat powered with a Volvo Penta diesel was for sale at the same time for $18,000. I figure I can put a lot of gasoline through my gas engine for the price difference.

For a smaller, trailered mothership an outboard motor can be a perfect choice; especially if it’s a 4-cycle model. It’s rare to find a 1970s boat with a 4-cycle outboard but it’s not at all rare to find one with a crapped-out, no-longer-running 2-cycle outboard. Since you’ll have to buy a new outboard anyway you should consider buying a 4-cycle outboard replacement; especially if you can find a decent one second-hand on the Internet. Outboards, especially twin outboards, can be found on boats as large as 25 or 26 feet.

The most common power for a 1970s vintage cabin cruiser will be the Inboard/Outboard (I/O) with a gasoline engine and a Volvo, OMC or Mercuiser outdrive. There are many engines for these and most of them are marine variations of truck or car engines like 318s, 327s, 350s, etc. Because the engine blocks are essentially identical to the automobile engine models of the same size, parts and labor to overhaul these engines are reasonable and even, if you’re mechanically inclined, within reach of a backyard mechanic. Boats under about 28-feet tend to be powered by a single engine while boats over that are more often powered by a pair of engines. Even the twin engines are more likely to be of the I/O variety. Steering for an I/O is by directing the thrust from the power unit in a different direction by turning the outdrive itself in the manner of an outboard. They seldom have rudders. The outdrive part of these combinations can be more complicated and require more maintenance; certainly more than a direct-drive inboard through a gearbox would need. However by careful attention to changing gear lube in an outdrive the maintenance problem can be mitigated somewhat.

There are also some weight distribution issues to deal with. An inboard engine is generally installed in a more central location from a center-of-gravity point of view. On a boat, weight at the farthest ends of the boat creates a tendency for the boat to “hobby horse” or pitch up and down in a seaway; particular in short wind-driven waves. Obviously an outboard at the far back end of the boat is weight at one end… and water tanks – so often placed under the vee-berth in the bow – can exacerbate the problem. Centrally mounted engines also improve vessel handling but the installation is often done at the cost of room in the cockpit or cabin. However, it must be said than many effective ocean-going fishing boats dangle dual outboards of large size and weight off the stern and operate perfectly fine in a seaway. Nevertheless, the generalities remain.

Older wooden boats, and you should not automatically count these out, and the trawlers tend to be powered by pure inboard engines with transmissions and shafts connected to propellers hung from struts below the hull. Steering is by moving a rudder (or rudders, in the case of twin engines). These are simpler systems without the extra complexity of the outdrives and they can be more economical to run because the power from the engine is more directly sent to the propeller. When the powerboat has a deep keel under the water to protect the propeller from floating hazards (logs, etc.) this power arrangement can be ideal. Trawler hulls with single engines are a perfect example of this. However, when there are twin engines the propellers are often unprotected and floating debris can, and often does, inflict damage on the supporting struts and propellers themselves. Outdrives are somewhat better because they can swing up when they hit an obstacle plus there is generally a fin that extends below the propeller that gives it some extra protection.

Fiberglass versus Wood

There are a lot of bargain wood boats for sale on the Internet. Older Chris-Crafts, Owens, Tolleycrafts, Grandys, and other classic makes are available in various designs and configurations for as little as $3,000 complete with radar, radios, and covered slips ready for transfer to a new owner. Most of these boats were built in the 1950s and 1960s with a few dating from the 30s and 40s and the occasional 1920s antique. Whether they are suitable for service as a kayak mothership depends on several factors; not the least of which is the condition of the wood.

One great advantage of a wooden boat is the ability to repair it relatively easily; unfortunately there is considerable skill involved in the process. The one biggest disadvantage to wood is that it’s susceptible to both rot and attack by marine organisms (teredos or wood borers). Extensive damage by either of these will render a wooden boat not just unsuitable but hazardous. Fortunately, it’s not that difficult for a surveyor to determine whether or not any specific boat is seaworthy. For anyone contemplating the purchase of a wooden boat I would strongly advise you to have it surveyed by your own professional marine surveyor and not just accept the “certificate” of the former owner’s surveyor.

A wooden cabin cruiser can make a warm, comfortable, eye-catching mothership with plenty of room for the owner and guests at a price far below what you’d pay for a new fiberglass boat of similar size. What’s more, I think they look better. But they must be stored in such a way as to reduce as much as possible the risk of fresh water making its way into the decking and interior of the boat. Dry rot spores live and reproduce up to seven times better in fresh water than in salt water so for that reason I used to regularly sluice salt water over the decks of my wooden sailboat. Old fishing schooners which stored their catch salted and stored below, never had problems with rot around the fish hold areas. But other areas were always under attack. I advise that you keep your wood boat under cover in a boat house and in an area where the docks and boat house materials are not old wooden structures. In some old marinas you could actually smell the musty aroma of dry rot in the docks and boathouses.

But speaking strictly in terms of bang-for-the-buck an older wooden cruising powerboat is difficult to beat. You can find 30 and 40 foot woodies for under $4,000 in genuinely decent condition and although most of them are too large to trailer, they give good value for the dollar when you consider that the money would barely pay for two people for a week on a commercial mothership. After two weeks of paddling and cruising you’ve more than paid for the boat!

One trawler hull in wood deserves special mention. The Grand Banks line of trawlers were first built in the 1960s with wooden (often teak!) hulls and it wasn’t until the mid-70s that the line began to turn out boats with fiberglass hulls. Brand new Grand Banks trawlers go for several hundreds thousands of dollars depending upon the size. The 32 foot Grand Banks is, I think, especially attractive for a kayak mothership. In fiberglass a used 32 would sell for $100,000 up to $300,000 depending upon age and equipment. But a woodie 32 is typically $40,000 to $55, 000 and is often well preserved due to the diligence of GB owners (covered moorage, regular haul-outs, etc.). If you find a GB wood hulled trawler at an attractive price and it fits your idea of what you want in a kayak mothership I encourage you to look at it. And if you buy it, please put it under cover. Fresh water falling as rain creates an environment that dry-rot spores (which really like wet) prefer.

Aluminum Hull Motherships

A less common hull material for motherships is aluminum but there is a lot to be said on the positive side for this material. Light yet strong, aluminum can be formed into the compound curves of a boat relatively easily and because of their lighter weight it takes less horsepower to drive an aluminum-hulled boat onto a plane which translates into more efficient cruising. Two types of aluminum hulls are common: welded and riveted. Of the two, the welded variety tends to be more expensive with 32 foot models typically being offered for over $100,000. But riveted aluminum cruisers like the Starcraft line of boats are available for well under $6,000; and often under $3,000.

The light weight of an aluminum hulled cruiser makes it easy to tow, launch and retrieve. I had a 21 foot Starcraft Express for years and it would regularly plane at 14 mph giving me excellent fuel economy. The 21 foot model comes with outside steering station (often with a Bimini fabric cover) and a “cuddy” cabin consisting of a counter, sink and stove (usually alcohol) with space for a porta-potti across the aisle and a comfy vee-berth forward for sleeping. They are most often found with I/O power (the venerable 120 Mercruiser based on the 4-cylinder Chevrolet engine) but occasionally show up with outboards.

A larger all-aluminum cruiser is the Marinette produced in the 1970s. The Marinette line of 27 and 32 foot express cruisers (no flybridge and no inside steering) are too big to be trailered but offer the other advantages of an aluminum hull including light weight and corresponding fuel economy.

There are some maintenance warnings about aluminum hulled cruisers including being careful to monitor stray currents for corrosion and to ensure that dissimilar metals are protected from each other. One must also be careful to use the proper bottom paint as the heavy copper in some bottom paints can create corrosion in aluminum.

Also, because aluminum has the ability to transfer heat quickly and efficiently make sure that your boat is well insulated. The plus to this is that if you are in cold waters you can make a cheap cooler by putting your beer next to the uninsulated hull. Marinette cruisers commonly sell for prices around $30,000.

Features that make a good Mothership.

I mentioned earlier that the boat you are looking for depends upon how you want to approach mothership kayaking. However there are several details in common and probably the most important is how you plan to carry your kayaks. In my opinion it’s important to ensure that the kayaks you carry aboard do not interfere with safety and especially the helmsman’s ability to see. Safety also includes carrying the kayaks so that they will not be a danger in a seaway because there is always the possibility that you might steer yourself into a situation where waves will come aboard your mothership. What you do not want is to have the kayaks come adrift from their lashings and either get washed overboard or, worse yet, begin to bash around on the mothership creating a hazard to anyone who tries to lash them back down or even pounding a hole in the hull! So a secure, safe, mounting area needs to be created.

Boats with long flat cabin tops with steering stations at the forward part of the inside cabin are perfect for creating a kayak carrier similar to what you might find on your SUV. You can even use off-the-shelf kayak saddles as long as you make sure that the cross bars are the same size and shape as the bars your saddles were designed to be mounted upon. Wooden uprights (teak is preferred due to its ability to withstand the salt environment) can be created to blend in with the style of the mothership and support the cross bars (and kayaks).

If your mothership has a flying bridge you can fabricate a supporting structure using the aft end of the cabin top as the forward supports for the kayak rack and the after end of the boat (or the transom) as the after support. Cross bars placed strategically on this structure could easily support 4 or 5 kayaks while still leaving room for access to the flying bridge control area. Again, ensuring that the cross bars mate with whatever saddles or J-bars you use will make it easier to use the same equipment you normally use on your automobile when you transport your kayaks. This structure could also do double duty by providing the framework for a cockpit cover giving paddlers a dry or shady area aft of the boat to relax after a paddling adventure. Just make sure to give enough headroom. The downside to this system is the weight aloft creating possible balance issues for lighter boats and the stress on the structure caused by moving through a heavy seaway. Some people simply choose to avoid the problem by carrying and using folding or inflatable kayaks. Since these come in their own packs you can keep them somewhere out of the way on almost any boat.

The Express Cruisers with no hardtop anywhere out of the helmsman’s line of vision are more difficult. You could fabricate a hard top shell over the helmsman’s seat and use that for kayak mounting. You could also have a stainless steel framework fabricated so that it bolts to the superstructure of the mothership and holds the kayaks high above the helm position while leaving room for the helmsman to stand up if necessary during maneuvering. Unless the voyage is short and you have confidence in the weather and sea, I would avoid the temptation to simply lash kayaks to the lifelines next to the cabin windows or to the cabin top directly in front of the helmsman. Remember that kayaks can offer considerable windage and/or water resistance and try to mount them so that they will create the least problems should they come adrift.

And finally, the runabout with a cuddy cabin is the most difficult of all to carry hard shell kayaks. After all, a 19 foot runabout is not much longer than an 18 foot kayak. Your choices may boil down to buying shorter kayaks (14 or 16 feet) or even going to folding or inflatable kayaks. The runabout, often equipped with a soft convertable top (or “bimini”) and a cuddy cabin with only a vee-berth is the most basic of motherships yet can still give you considerable mobility over and above paddling alone and at cheap rates, too.

Another feature that many of us want on our mothership is a protected area for cooking and sleeping and a relatively private place for a porta-potti. A full galley with stove and oven, private head compartment, sink and dinette is a common feature of 25 to 28 foot cruisers but seldom found on 21 to 23 footers. The smaller boats will have made some compromises in their accommodations. There may be a stove on one side and a sink on the other and a porta-potti stowed under the vee-berth filler or there may be only a counter top and a vee-berth in the cabin.

In colder climates it might be desirable to have an inside steering station; preferably close to the heater. This is a common feature on boats with a “flybridge” configuration. The flying bridge offers a secondary steering position (and protection for kayaks carried on racks over the after cockpit area) for fine weather or for improved visibility when things are getting “interesting”. But the protected inside (primary) steering station is really worth its weight in gold when there is a cold wind and lots of spray. Pounding into a head sea is no fun no matter where you sit, but it’s lots less fun when the spray is hitting you square in the face and diluting your coffee with salt water. For me an inside steering station was a must when I chose my kayak mothership (a 1974 Carver Santa Cruz 25, pictured on the front page of this blog – look for “muthah ship” postings). The inside station also puts important items like the VHF marine radio, the depth sounder, and the switches/breakers for all the electrical items close at hand.

Another safety consideration for me was an adequate bow railing. So many 25-foot boats have low bow rails that seem better suited to tripping you or getting in your way than to keeping you on board and safe. Some work on the bow is inevitable on almost any boat so it’s important that you have a safe place to stand while setting or retrieving the anchor or handling lines.

The express cruiser configuration is also very popular in 1970s era boats. This configuration places the steering station just forward of the cockpit with glass windshields and coamings installed to offer the helmsman some protection from the weather. Sometimes there is an “alaska bulkhead” at the after end of the steering area to provide better weather protection for the helmsperson. The main cabin with its galley and heater is entered through a companionway door through the bulkhead on which is mounted the steering wheel and engine controls and, if there is anyone in that cabin and the weather is cold, the door will be almost certainly closed. While there is some protection from weather for the helmsman (and often covered with canvas), it’s certainly not as much protection as the inside steering station of my Carver (located right next to the red-dot heater).

One Engine or Two?

There are those who say that two engines provide a safety factor that a single engine just can’t match. And they could be right. However one thing is certain: two engines are twice as expensive to run and to maintain as a single engine and give you twice as many things to go wrong. Ok, that’s three things. Anyway, I’m not a big believer in twin engines because one engine is quite enough complexity for me, thank you very much. And a twin-engined boat operating under only one engine is often almost unmanageable due to the offset nature of the thrust when only one engine is operating. It’s also not unusual to see a twin-engine boat being offered at a give-away price because only one of the engines works. Nevertheless, there is always the chance of that single engine refusing to work properly at what will be, almost certainly, the least opportune time so certain precautions should be made.

If you are using your sailboat as your mothership then you already have a secondary means of propulsion. Actually, the sails are probably the primary means of propulsion because the engine is almost always called the “auxiliary” power plant. Indeed, with a decent wind almost all sailboats can go faster under sail than by using the often low powered diesel engines with which they are fitted.

If you have room on your transom for a “trolling motor” then by all means install one and use that as your secondary engine. There are all sorts of ways of mounting a trolling motor and even means of linking the outboard to the outdrive so that you can steer from your regular helm position. And a 4-cycle (also called “4-stroke”) engine can be operated from the same fuel tank as your main engine.

One other solution is to fit your boat out with a dinghy and outboard. The dinghy can be carried on the swim step or platform which most power cruising boats have mounted on their transoms or, if you are going slow enough (like in your trawler) you can simply tow it behind using a sturdy rope. Make sure it’s securely attached. One day while I was changing clothes underway in a chartered 41 foot trawler I happened to glance out the aft windows of the stateroom only to watch the inflatable dinghy slip its mooring and drift astern before my very eyes. I notified the helmsman and we immediately turned around and retrieved the dink but that could have been an expensive experience had I not chosen that very moment to look outside.

A hard shelled or inflatable dinghy with an 9hp to 15hp outboard mounted can easily tow a 25 to 30 foot mothership in to a secure anchorage or even to a marina where a mechanic could be summoned to work on the main engine; depending upon the weather, of course.

Another rationale for fitting twin engines on a power cruiser is that two engines are supposed to make it easier to maneuver a larger power boat. By operating one engine forward and the other astern it’s certainly possible to turn a relatively large vessel completely around almost in its own length. And because a single-screw boat has a tendency to wander one direction or the other because of the way the propeller thrusts water to one side of the other while going astern, it is often easier for a novice boat handler to back a twin-engine boat into a slip (or out of one) than a single-screw vessel. Nevertheless, I feel that the complexity and expense of having two engines running all the time coupled with the fact that the props of twin engines lose a great deal of hull protection from floating debris make twin engined boats more of a minus than a plus. Besides, anyone can easily learn to back a single-screw boat into a slip and even turn it around in its own length; thereby impressing all the onlookers who have yet to master that skill.


Remember when I said that some people just want the boat they have out of their lives or out of their yard? Here’s an example taken off www.craigslist for Bellingham, Washington:


His price for a 22 foot cruiser with a running mercruiser I/O is $1500!!!

Or how about this one from the Portland, Oregon craigslist:

1976 26′ mk7 Clipper Craft Dory w/1991 Wheel House Radar,gps w/ west coast chip new marine radio depth/fish finder galley fresh water enclosed head dinette, heater, birth, sleeps 5 newer 4.3 ltr 190 hp with freshwater cooling cannon down riggers very well maintained. can view at City Port. 30 ft trailer avalible $15000.00

A Clipper Craft Dory is similar to a C-Dory and others but in a wooden hull… inside steering, flat roof ideal for holding 3 or 4 kayaks. A C-Dory will go for $80,000. The ClipperCrafts were famous for their fuel mileage and excellent handling in rough conditions.

Or this one from Everett, Washington featuring a classic older wooden Express cruiser:

27 foot Fairliner Cruiser…Come on out to the Everett Marina where it is moored under cover and take a look. This is a 1963 soft top 27′ Fairliner Express Boat. Gas Engine runs and wood hull is in good shape. Clean Interior & functioning head. Newer custom canvas with stout frame installed in 1998 for $7,000. Canvas covers entire aft cabin. Marine radio, depth finder, and marine BBQ included. Needs a new coat of paint and other minor work – would make a great “flip”. Boat has been moored under cover at the Everett Marina for the last four years. Boat has been used only a handful of times in the last 2 years due to the increasing time commitment of youth sports. Our family has enjoyed going out while working on the boat as we have been slowly restoring it. We have not had a weekend free for some time and would love to sell the boat to someone who wants a functioning cruiser and is looking for a rewarding hobby of owning an older boat.

The price for this: $2,500 and there is even a reasonable chance you could get the covered slip without spending two years on a waiting list. Yes, it’s wood hulled and yes it might not last more than ten more years. But that would be ten years of good mothership paddling for about $250 per year plus the cost of the slip. And you definitely would want to keep this classic under a covered slip.


A “project boat” can be a scary business. Often boats are advertised as project boats because it’s going to take more work than the owner is willing to put into the boat in order to get it back on the water. A project boat can be anything from something that is barely recognizable as a boat to a beautiful vessel that only needs work on an engine or outdrive. Regardless of the condition of the boat you get, almost every kayak mothership is going to be a project because there are virtually no boats which are designed to carry, launch, and retrieve kayaks and their associated gear (paddles, PFDs, etc.). The job of customizing a cabin cruiser to be a kayak mothership depends on the configuration of the boat you start with and how you intend to use it for paddling. Of course, if you are just going to buy a runabout and toss folding or inflatable kayaks in the back or want a sailboat with kayaks strapped to the lifelines forward, there will not be much customizing to do. For those of us addicted to our high-performance hard-shelled kayaks it’s a different story.

There are not many configuration differentials that are spelled out for powerboats like there are for sailboats (sloop, ketch, yawl, etc.). There are trawlers, sport fishers, runabouts, and cabin cruisers. But inside those labels there are myriads of different configurations (especially for the cabin cruisers) that meant different things to different manufacturers and designers. You can find boats labeled “flybridge cruiser”, “express cruiser”, “Euro Cruiser” and more. One of the most common labels is “express cruiser” which is a label coined by Chris Craft for one of their boats back in the 1940s. Nowadays the term “express cruiser” is often used to mean a powerboat with a raised steering station aft of the cabin that is open to the sky and rear and often not protected at all except for a windscreen; there is no “inside” steering station and generally no flybridge. The express cruiser reserves its cabin space to living quarters exclusively and therefore often offers the largest bang-for-the-buck in living room (dinette, galley, salon, forward cabin, head, etc). But because the steering station is just an extension of the cockpit there is no “superstructure” and no place to mount radio antennas, radar antennas or kayaks and unless the owner has installed a “bimini” fabric cover over the steering area there is precious little protection for the operator. In warm climates this is not a big problem but in the Pacific Northwest of the USA (Pacific Southwest of Canada, I suppose) it can be a major issue.

A cabin cruiser with an inside steering station and another steering station on a flying bridge above the cabin is often called a “flybridge cruiser” but it can also be called an “express cruiser”. It just depends on who is doing the describing. This configuration is, I feel, ideal for cruising the Pacific Northwest with hard-shelled kayaks. The inside steering station does rob a certain amount of room from the living quarters but the flying bridge is ideal for warm weather (plus it’s usually above the spray) and also offers a mounting point for a kayak rack over the cockpit (more on this later). The flying bridge is also a convenient place to mount antennas and navigation lights and in fine weather it gives passengers a place to get away and enjoy reading a book or watching the scenery go by.

Another term you’re likely to encounter is “sedan”. This used to refer to a boat with an inside steering station at the forward end of a cabin that runs along the boat to the rear cockpit. No flying bridge and no after steering station. Like most power boat terms this has changed to mean mostly whatever marketers wanted it to mean. There are sedans with flying bridges and after steering stations and both! Only in the trawler community is the term “sedan” useful where it refers to a trawler style hull without an after stateroom. Often a trawler “sedan” will have two staterooms forward of the cabin which contains the inside steering station, the salon, the galley and a dinette.

The “dory” is a popular cabin cruiser format nowadays and, although they tend to be somewhat expensive, they are great sea boats and their hard cabin top is a good place to securely mount hard shelled kayaks above most of the weather and spray. Clippercraft, C-dory, and the homebuilt bartenders are examples of this form. Bartenders are especially seaworthy in areas where a boater must cross a rough river bar (or entrance). Double ended, light and maneuverable, the bartenders are popular projects because their design is simple and straightforward with extensive use of plywood. A disadvantage to a bartender is that the steering station is just an extension of the cockpit and there are precious few points to secure hard-shelled kayaks; or to keep the operator out of the weather (unless the area is enclosed by a fabric bimini). Another issue is rot; almost all bartenders have been built from marine plywood and unless the builder used epoxy and fiberglass to seal the wood well, there can be issues with dry rot. Inspect any prospective purchase carefully. Prices can range all the way from $15,000 for a second hand bartender up to $100,000 for a 26-foot C-Dory with diesel engine. Of course, you could just get the plans and build one yourself.

The sportfisher is characterized by a large cockpit aft of the cabin, an inside steering station at the forward end of the “salon” and another steering area in a flying bridge above the cabin. Sportfishers are, as their name implies, aimed towards fishing and so they usually have a large cockpit aft of the cabin for the mounting of fighting chairs, bait tanks, etc. Because sportfishers are designed and built to go offshore they are well built and seaworthy and often, depending upon length, can even offer several “staterooms” and bathrooms (heads). For a kayaker a sportfisher can carry hard-shelled-kayaks mounted on the long cabin-top forward of the main cabin although this can interfere with visibility. A kayak rack structure can be fabricated to go over the cockpit area aft of the flying bridge and this would probably be the best area to carry them because it’s so well protected from waves and spray.

As cabin cruisers get larger the differences between them become more blurred. This is partly due to the fact that one of the main characteristics of a cabin cruiser is its ability to get on a “plane” and thus move much faster than its “hull speed” would generally allow. In contrast, a trawler almost always moves at hull speed (or slower) and doesn’t plane. But once a powerboat gets much over 40 feet any ability to get on a plane is suspect unless the boat is equipped with a huge power plant so, for all intents and purposes they become trawlers. These boats, with prices in the hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of dollars are beyond the scope of this book as our intention is to give some advice about making an economical kayak mothership. But for those of you who want to actually live on your mothership (or put it into commercial use) I recommend that you do some extensive research. If you can get into financial trouble with a 30 foot cabin cruiser (and trust me, you can) just imagine the trouble you can get into with a 70 foot model!

At the other end of the size range you’ll find the runabouts and inflatables. Modern (e.g.: 1990s and 2000s) runabouts tend to have open foredecks with extra seating for passengers and are usually used for towing water skiers, tubers and wakeboarders. With some caution these boats can also be pressed into duty as motherships but their size means that you’ll have to either be very creative in how you mount hard-shelled kayaks or take along inflatable or folding kayaks. There have been some cabin runabouts in the 19 to 21 foot range with inside steering. The hard shelled cabin does make a good place for carrying kayaks but one must still be cautious about what waters (and weather) you operate in. Due to the smaller size and lower freeboard the kayaks mounted on these boats tend to be more vulnerable to waves and heavy spray in a seaway. About the only advantage I can see to buying one of these (given the low prices of larger boats) is that the smaller size and weight offers ease in towing and they can do double duty as a family water-ski recreational boat.

Inflatable powerboats, especially those with hard shelled bottoms, can be very seaworthy but offer almost no place for mounting or carrying a hard-shelled kayak. They are popular as dinghies, however, and they are fast and maneuverable. For carrying inflatable or folding kayaks to a campsite they can be very useful and economical but they can pound and generate a lot of spray in heavy weather. Inflatables are very good as rescue craft for groups of paddlers, however, and can function well as a “sag wagon”. However their tendency to “pound” in a seaway with corresponding spray and cold can be a handicap to paddlers who might already be exhausted and hypothermic.

The “project” part of a project boat depends upon the physical condition of the boat itself and the modifications you intend to make (or have to make) to accommodate your adventures. Since you don’t have to do much to a runabout or inflatable we’ll ignore those. You’re just going to throw your gear into the boat and get underway.


Power boats come in several different engine/propulsion arrangements but they can generally be divided into: direct drive straight from the engine through a transmission to a strut-mounted propeller; vee-drive through a transmission mounted forward of the engine and then aft to a strut-mounted propeller; and I/O where the transmission and propeller unit resembles the lower portion of an outboard motor; and, outboard power.

Of these configurations the older yachts, built before about 1960, usually have inboard engines mounted somewhat forward of the transom coupled to a transmission which is connected to a drive shaft that exits the hull through a “gland” box to the propeller. The weak link in this arrangement is often the gland box which makes a “hole in the boat” aft. These are set up to use water as both a lubricant and coolant (after all, the shaft rotation generates friction) and as a result they “drip” into the bilge. Newer glands can be “dripless” and I recommend that, if you buy an older powerboat with an inboard engine in this configuration, you install one of these glands. One of the big advantages to a boat with this type of inboard engine is that steering is accomplished through a rudder mounted aft of the propeller. In the hands of a skilled helmsman an inboard boat with a rudder is marvelously maneuverable. A disadvantage is that there is a rudder hanging out there vulnerable to damage and corrosion. In addition, because the propeller shaft goes down at an angle and because the propeller rotation inevitably moves water to the side as well as to the front, inboard boats with rudders can suffer from a “walking” effect in reverse. Again, in the hands of a skilled operator, this walking effect in reverse can be taken advantage of when maneuvering in tight places (like the fairways of a marina or next to a dock). For a novice, however, it can be a nightmare trying to back up.

The “vee” drive was invented to allow the engine(s) to be mounted further aft but still have a propeller shaft and rudder. The “vee” is essentialy a transmission which accepts a drive from aft and transfers the rotation to another shaft running aft and down at an angle; hence the “vee” (named after the shape). Vee drives also use a drip gland box where the propeller shaft exits the boat’s hull at the stern along with whatever advantages and disadvantages it may have. This type of installation allows for more room in the cockpit (or aft stateroom) but adds considerable complexity to the drive system and any repairs.

In general, inboard boats with transmissions have less trouble than inboard boats with I/O (Inboard/Outdrive) powered boats.

By a large margin, cabin cruisers built after about 1970 are powered by one or two I/Os. The I/O boat has its engine(s) mounted fully aft just forward of the transom and power is transferred through the transom to an outdrive that is bolted to the outside of the transom. The outdrive has the look of an outboard motor without the top motor part. The advantages of this system include no drip gland for a propeller shaft (all exits from the boat are above the waterline) plus the outdrive can be raised and lowered to reduce its exposure to saltwater. This tilting can also give the outdrive some protection from floating debris. It also facilitates maintenance on the propeller which is accessible from the surface when the outdrive is raised.

In general and because of its relative complexity, an outdrive system presents more opportunities for maintenance problems over an inboard with a transmission and strut-mounted propeller. They are much easier to fit onto a trailer, however. As to which is best I can only say that they all work and I would not base my purchasing decision on the power plant configuration alone.

The gas engines on cabin cruisers are pretty predictable. They’re sized according to the length and weight of the boat they are to drive and are generally marinized versions of popular automobile and truck engines. Common engines include Chevrolet 350, Ford 351, Dodge 318 V-8s. Many of the smaller boats use the older Chevrolet 4-cylinder 120hp engines but replacements for these are getting harder to find. They make excellent and reliable marine engines, however. Because these marinized car/truck engines are so ubiquitous parts and maintenance are not difficult to find and a 350 engine with a new overhaul is often advertised on craigslist for $1,500 and less.

The classic or antique wooden cabin cruisers built before the 1960s were powered by gasoline engines that were popular in their time and finding parts for them can be difficult. However a lot of the boats you find on sale were repowered with the more popular modern gasoline engines or even with efficient diesel plants.

Boats with diesel engines also tend to use the same engines; those that have been successfuly modified for marine use are installed in a large variety of vessels. Smaller boats with inboards often use GM 4-53 diesels marinized with a transmission. Trawlers are often powered with a single or twin Ford Lehman engines or a Perkins 4-108. V-8 diesels are rare. Because a diesel engine has a different power curve than a gasoline engine you cannot just base a judgement on horsepower alone; a 120hp diesel will often out power a 250 hp gasoline engine. Diesel engines are more efficient in their use of the fuel and last a lot longer between overhauls but an overhaul can cost lots more than buying a couple of newly rebuilt gasoline engines of equivalent power. Diesel fuel also has a tendency to emit an aroma that many people object to. The aroma can permeate every crevice of the boat!! Diesels need much cleaner fuel and so they are fitted with special filtration units that remove dirt, sediment and water from the fuel before it goes through the fuel pump and on to the injectors. Sometimes there are several levels of filtration; especially on high-rpm large diesel powered yachts.

No matter what type of engine your boat has, there must be some method of keeping it cool. The operation of an internal combustion engine generates a large amount of waste heat which, unless it’s dissipated somehow, will damage (overheat) the engine and could even set fire to the vessel. While there are some air-cooled marine engines most engines are cooled by liquid circulated through the engine. Air cooled marine engines are only found on smaller boats which operate at very low speeds.

When it comes to liquid cooled marine engines it is preferable to have an engine that is cooled by its own fresh water cooling system (FWC) rather than one which merely circulates sea water through the engine and then overboard for cooling. However it’s not at all uncommon for diesel engines that power sailboats – even quite large sailboats – to be raw water cooled. But because sea water – being salty – is so corrosive it’s critical that the engine be properly prepared to be cooled with raw water. This usually means using special gaskets and other parts specifically chosen for their ability to withstand salt water. A fresh water cooled engine is what you have in your car (most likely) and because the system is closed there is a limited amount of coolant available; once this coolant is heated up by the engine it no longer works efficiently. This means that something has to cool the coolant. A radiator exposed to the wind does the job on your car. On a boat this is usually done by a heat exchanger which has raw water on one side and the fresh water coolant on the other; the cold raw water is pumped from outside the boat through the heat exchanger where it absorbs the heat picked up by the FWC coolant and then pumped back overboard.

There is a form of cooling that has no intake of raw water from overboard. This system pumps the engine coolant through pipes that are exposed to the salt water along the keel of the vessel. Called “keel coolers” they have some serious downsides including the fact that they are exposed to damage from debris in the water as well as the corrosive effects of salt water. But they can greatly increase the amount of coolant the engines are using. Keel coolers are normally only found on commercial vessels such as tugboats and larger (over 40-feet) fishing boats where speed is not great and the cooling pipes can be installed in a position where they are protected as much as possible by the keel of the vessel.

Regardless of whether the boat is cooled by fresh water or raw water, unless the boat is “keel cooled” there is inevitably going to be some method of drawing sea water (or raw water) from outside the boat into the boat either to cool the engine itself or to cool the engine coolant. On a “true” inboard (with a transmission and propeller shaft) this will mean cutting holes in the hull and fitting sea cocks to them and then hoses to the appropriate places on the engine. Since any hole in the hull is a potential point of weakness many people are reluctant to drill more than what is absolutely necessary. On some larger vessels there is a single source of raw water in a manifold and anything which requires that water draws it from there. However, on most smaller (under about 50 feet) inboard powered cabin cruisers the sea water is pumped in through one hole in the hull and expelled out through another so maintenance of the sea cocks can be important.

Of course, the hoses which connect to the through-hull holes are the weakest link in this chain. By far the most common cause of failure in these systems is the hose. It’s probably a good idea to replace all through-hull hoses when you buy a second-hand boat unless they’ve been replaced recently. It’s also important that through hulls have adequate means to shut the water off. Older boats often have “gate valves” which are like the water faucet on the outside of your house. Gate valves are notoriusly prone to failure in the marine environment and I advise that you replace any you find on your boat with properly-sized ball valves (which have a lever, not a round handle) made, preferably, of bronze.

Boats which are powered by the inboard/outdrive (I/O) system draw their raw water coolant through the outdrive; the only “hole” in the hull is that in the transom on which the outdrive portion is mounted. This can be advantageous in several ways: no extra holes in the hull and an easy way to introduce coolant water (with anti-freeze if necessary) while the boat is on a trailer by means of “ears” which attach to a hose and cup around the vents on the outdrive. Another advantage is that any time the boat is not being propelled the outdrive can be tilted to raise it above the water so any failure of the coolant system will not result in the sinking of the vessel.

If the vessel uses an outboard motor there are more advantages as far as cooling is concerned. The outboard, because it sits on the transom and not inside the hull of the boat, will not spill raw water into the boat if there is a failure in the coolant system. It can also be tilted like an outdrive. Even more convenient, it can be removed completely from the boat with relative ease. I say “relative” because a 200hp outboard is not a simple device to carry around. A serious drawback to an outboard is that it puts a lot of weight at the extreme end of the boat which can contribute to “hobby horsing” (the tendency of a boat to pitch more violently due to weight at the extreme ends); especially if a lot of weight is also concentrated at the bow (fresh water tanks, anchors, anchor chains, etc.). More on this in a later chapter.

Because no system is perfect, every system will have some advantages and disadvantages. We all have to weigh the consequences, make a choice, and live with the results.


There are people who make a hobby of restoring old boats to as-new condition and then reselling them and using the funds to get another boat to restore. Ebay and craigslist have made that hobby much easier and, in truth, it’s a worthy endeavor because there are lots of neglected boats out there that have classic lines and putting them back in pristine condition saves them for the enjoyment of others. There are boat shows, organizations and clubs for those who enjoy restoring boats. Port Townsend, Washington just north of Seattle has its own Wooden Boat Festival each fall where classic boat lovers and boat restorers congregate to show off their boats and trade ideas (and boats, often enough). There is an organization on Lake Union in Seattle that specializes in training people to work on and restore wooden boats and uses the boats they’ve restored as rentals to attract new people into the “sport”. There is a magazine for wooden boat lovers called, appropriately enough, “Wooden Boat” that features how-to articles, ads for tools and materials, features for those who have recently completed a project, and a classified section offering wooden boats (and the occasional classic fiberglass boat) for sale. I think that craigslist has filled a niche that is vital to the acquisition and configuration of a kayaking mothership because it has not tried to limit the items for sale and because it relentlessly enforces a private (not commercial) and local nature.

While the classified ads in Wooden Boat or the ads on ebay will feature boats from every locality in the USA and Canada, craigslist is most likely the one to feature a boat from the guy down the street. Because craigslist has a web page for many individual localities it makes it easy to search for a boat in, say, Kennewick, Washington or Monterrey, California on a web site that looks virtually identical but contains only “local” ads. Of course, nothing prevents you from looking for a boat in Bellingham even if you live in San Diego but you normally have to go to the Bellingham craigslist site to look. There are search engines that will look through multiple localities of craigslist but the craigslist people work hard to cripple these; they think that their “localized” ads are too important to their mission and don’t want external links interfering with that.

The localized nature of craigslist is critical to the nature of a “project” boat because, by its very nature, a project boat is seldom found in an operable condition. Even if you find the perfect project boat for you in San Pedro, California this nature will make your project a lot more difficult if you live in Spokane, Washington. But it means that you are less likely to have to compete with a rich Hollywood executive for that perfect project located next door to you; thus saving you money and maybe your marriage if you don’t have to commute to San Pedro to fix up your new project.

Let’s take a look at a couple of actual project boats offered on craigslist and talk about how this might affect your kayak mothership.

24′ Tollycraft with trailer – $4000

This fiberglass boat was located in Tacoma, Washington (near where it was built in 1969) without an engine but with a working trailer. The boat is a Royal Express Hardtop cruiser which doesn’t have a flying bridge or an “inside” steering station, but does have a hardtop above the helm station for carrying kayaks, mounting radar scanners and other antennas. The seller represents the boat as having “plycore” construction which is a sandwiched fiberglass technique using foam as the core (which, conveniently enough, doesn’t rot). The stringers, often made of wood in other designs (which are prone to deterioration) are also fiberglass. Stringers, fore and aft structural members which add stiffness and strength to the hull, are critical to the boat and are often difficult to replace without tearing out the entire interior structure. The seller also stated that the transom had been re-fiberglassed to 2″ thick and the engine and outdrive (I/O) have been completely removed.

The manufacturer of the boat, Tollycraft, is famous for quality wooden cabin cruisers in the decades leading up to the advent of fiberglass. Tolly struggled hard with the change to glass because their wooden boats, like those of another famous manufacturer Chris Craft, were high quality and in great demand. They were, understandably enough, reluctant to change a winning combination. Eventually, however, they were forced by market demand to move into fiberglass and this model was one of their early versions. Built prior to the oil crisis of the 1970s and when fiberglass material and polyester resin was relatively cheap, Tolly could afford to build an exceptionally strong hull. The use of foam core in an era when most manufacturers (including Carver) used plywood core is an indication of the thoughtfulness they put into this design.

In many “express” style cabin cruisers there are few options for carrying kayaks. You either strap them down on the bow, port and starboard or carry them on the cabin deck. Either way you interfere with visibility and your ability to move around on the deck when docking or anchoring. The hardtop on this version gives a paddler another option. The hardtop is not very long (maybe six feet) and it would probably have to be strengthened a bit before strapping two or three kayaks to it, but it does give you a place to start.

The interior is typical of boats in this size and from that era. Entering the cabin from the aft door there is an enclosed head to port and a long counter to starboard. The counter functions as the “galley” and has a two-burner stove (usually alcohol but occasionally propane) and a sink. Storage and a cooler or, more rarely, a small refrigerator is under. To port, forward of the head compartment is a dinette with enough room for four close friends. Remember that people tended to be smaller in the 1960s so it’s probably more suitable for two adults and two children nowadays. The dinette makes up into a comfortable single berth for one adult or for two children and features storage under the seats. Finally, forward of the dinette and galley, there is the vee-berth sleeping quarters with a “filler” that makes it convertible from two singles to one double bed. Ahead of the vee berth is the “chain locker” where the rope or chain from the anchor is stored. Below the vee-berth is typically the fresh water tank holding about 35 gallons of water.

The stern section of the Tolly cockpit has a raised engine enclosure flanked by two seats port and starboard. The forward portion of the cockpit is the steering station with raised pedestal seats port and starboard underneath the hardtop. The helmsman’s position is protected from spray and sea by a windshield and the hardtop but it’s not heated and, unless you build one, not protected from rain entering from the rear. Of course, if you’re anchored, rain is unlikely to be blown in at the rear but if you’re at a dock you might find yourself wishing you had some weather protection. It would probably not be too hard to add a complete enclosure to this area.

A working trailer for the boat means that the buyer does not have to worry about getting the boat home or to his workshop. If he has a suitable towing vehicle he can simply hook it up and go. This particular Tolly was relatively light and without an engine should be less than 5,000 pounds including the trailer. This is well within the towing specifications of even some imported cars.

The big missing item in this otherwise great kayak mothership is the engine and drive system. The seller has removed the engine and outdrive and even glassed over the hole where the previous outdrive was mounted. The good news is that the added glass to the transom almost certainly adds stiffness (and safety) to the stern sections. The bad news is that you will have to design an engine and outdrive mounting configuration and buy and install the engine and outdrive. This is what makes this a project boat. A good engine choice for this boat would be a Chrysler 318  or Chevy 350 with an appropriate outdrive. Either of these engine/outdrive combinations can be found on craigslist for under $5,000. But because there is no engine at all, the new owner has the option of installing a volvo diesel system for a little more money and still be under about $12,000 for a diesel kayak mothership. Even if you don’t do all the work yourself, you have the basics of a versatile and comfortable and safe boat that will last for years.

Carver Santa Cruz

In the 1970s Carver produced several models of their Santa Cruz cabin cruiser in 25, 26.5 and 28 foot lengths. Nearly all of them were powered by Chevrolet 350 or Ford 351 V8 engines with OMC outdrives but a few were powered with a single volvo diesel and duoprop outdrive. These were very popular cruisers that make, in my opinion, good kayak motherships and appear frequently on craigslist at prices ranging from $5,000 to $28,000. The price doesn’t always reflect the condition of the vessel but a combination of condition and desire to sell. The 25 foot and 26.5 foot models are easy to trailer and launch but weigh over 5,000 pounds not including the trailer so a pickup truck or large SUV would be required to tow them. Lots of these boats did not come with a trailer and are moored in slips.

With the 350 Chevy V8 a Santa Cruz will cruise comfortably at 20kts and top out considerably above that. They also cruise well at trawler speeds. The flying bridge design offers dual steering stations but the inside steering station requires the helmsman to perch at the end of the galley counter. A folding seat is usually fitted.

One of the features of the Santa Cruz that makes it a good kayak mothership is the spacious rear cockpit which gives room enough to store a smaller kayak with the bow supported on the rear of the cabin structure or even across the cockpit (athwartships). Larger kayaks can be lashed to the excellent railings alongside the cabin or supported alongside the flying bridge. Care must be taken not to put too much weight up high as these boats, because they are trailerable without extra permits, are very susceptiable to negative effects of poor load balances. If your tastes run to folding or inflatable kayaks then the large cockpits make a good place to assembe or inflate your ride. After the kayak is in the water you can arrange folding chairs and tables to provide you with a good view of the action in the harbor.

The Santa Cruz interiors are not that much different from the interiors of any boat of similar size and era. There are a few quirks however. The cabin door is in two pieces and folds, accordian style, against the ladder leading to the flying bridge. The window next to the door folds down to open the cabin up for better ventilation in hot weather. Moving forward from the door the head compartment is to port. The size of the enclosed head varies from model to model but it is generally spacious and offers standing headroom of about 6 feet. The compartment includes a sink. Some models also included a shower system with the floor as a pan to catch the water. Mine doesn’t; I use a plastic garden sprayer filled with warm water from the stove and hand pump faucets to both conserve water (no one likes to pump) and electricity.

On the starboard side across from the head compartment is the galley counter which extends forward to the steering station and helmsman “perch”. This counter features a stainless sink and either propane or alcohol two-burner stove with storage behind (sliding door cupboard). Below the counter is storage in cabinets and drawers as well as a cooler (or refrigerator). The inside steering station is on the starboard side at the forward end of the galley counter with footroom for the helmsman as long as he (or she) is sitting at the end of the counter. There are lots of areas that would be ideal for installation of the espar or furnace-type heaters. The room for installing bulkhead mounted heaters is somewhat limited, however.

Across from the steering station and forward of the head compartment on the port side is the dinette which varies in size dramatically from model to model and length of boat. In the 25 foot version the dinette seats two comfortably and sleeps one or two children when the table is lowered and a cushion inserted. On longer (and wider) models the dinette is larger and more comfortable.

Forward of the dinette and steering station is the vee berth which can sleep two adults in all size versions. However in the 25 foot version the sleeping space of the converted dinette intrudes slightly on the head room of the person in the port side of the vee berth. A common alteration to these boats is to move the forward vee-berth bulkhead four more inches towards the bow. This has the downside of restricting the space in the anchor locker, however.

On the 26.5 and 28 foot versions there is a hanging locker immediately forward of the steering station and the sleeping room in the vee is not included in the sleeping room of the dinette. However the 25 foot version is lighter and more maneuverable and I find it perfectly comfortable for one or two adults.

Prior to about 1976 the Santa Cruz models featured a lot of exterior teak trim but as teak began to be more expensive Carver, along with many other boat builders, eliminated almost all exterior teak. I like the teak look but the all-fiberglass versions look good too. One problem with the teak windows is that water can pool in the window slides and, over time, create a rot problem. Alterations include reforming this and protecting it with epoxy. The forward windows on all models open and in the early versions with a lot of wood this can cause more problems with rot. Again, protection of the area with epoxy is recommended.

Unlike Tolly, Carver did not core its decks with foam but used plywood instead. Over the years water intrusion from poorly installed railings or fixtures has penetrated into some of these decks causing soft spots. They can be repaired using new plywood and, again, epoxy but it’s better if you find one that hasn’t got the problem in the first place.

Even though a boat’s hull may be constructed of fiberglass, they often also incorporate what are called “stringers” to help stiffen the hull. In the 1970s these were often made of wood glassed into the hull port and starboard on either side of the bilge. These are susceptible to rot if water makes its way into the wood. They can be repaired by grinding the stringers out and then glassing in new ones (preferably with a foam core) but this generally requires the entire interior of the boat to be removed first. There is another method for such repairs which involves drilling holes in the fiberglass covering and digging out the rotted wood material with a hook and then pouring in an epoxy slurry which hardens and provides the necessary stiffness. Transoms, also, are often cored with wood and also are often riddled with dry rot. They are easier to repair but the engine and outdrive (if fitted) generally must be removed first. The epoxy slurry method can be used in a transom repair as well; remove the outdrive and the transom supports for the outdrive and then use a hook to pull the rotted wood out of the transom. When it’s all out, pour in the epoxy slurry and let it harden.


As I’ve mentioned before, craigslist tries hard to be localized so if you are looking for a specific item you will have to search through several sites; there is no way to easily search multiple sites within the craigslist system. Sellers have managed to get around this by posting their ads in different “cities” with slightly different wording. The downside to the craigslist “localized” paradigm is that there may be exactly what you are looking for but on a site that you haven’t thought to search. The plus is that you are far more likely to find an item close enough to you to go pick up than you are on national auction sites like ebay.

Once you start looking at craigslist regularly you will begin to discern a pattern. An ad on craigslist will be “up” for quite a long time but, depending upon how many ads are in a category, once it has passed beyond a few hundred other entries in that category it is less likely to be noticed. Sellers learn this quickly so they will repeat their ads often; sometimes every day. Sometimes several times a day. You can watch the history of an item and you can begin to see which sellers are more desperate to sell than others. If the desperate seller is selling something you want you can turn this to your advantage in the negotiation of price.

Craigslist also tries to be non-commercial; meaning mostly that brokers are discouraged from using it as their marketing tool. Inevitably, of course, some commercial boat brokerages use craigslist to advertise the boats they have for sale. Brokers, because they exact a fee for selling a boat, are more likely to ask for a higher price than a private seller would be. In fact, if you look at boat prices in the print media (the freebie magazines they give away at local marinas and West Marine, for instance) you will notice that the prices asked by the brokerages tend to be considerably higher than the prices asked for similar (or even the exact same) boats offered by private sellers. It can be somewhat disturbing to call on a craigslist ad only to find that some broker is really behind the sale. Craigslist offers a way to “flag” these ads if you are disturbed by them; and every now and then you’ll see a posting by someone complaining about some broker’s overzealous use of craigslist to hawk his fleet.

Even so, a boat at a good price is still a good price whether it’s the broker or not and there can be state laws which apply to brokers but not private sellers that can actually protect buyers from being cheated. So it’s up to you as a prospective buyer to be cautious about how you buy and who you buy from.

Private sellers who repeat their ads every day do so in the belief that their ad is more likely to be seen by a new buyer if they do it this way. And it might even be true. But what it certainly does do is give the impression that they are desperate to sell. And it’s often annoying. But by watching a pattern of ads in a location you can certainly see what boats are selling and what boats are not.

There are also unwritten rules about craiglist that most sellers and buyers have agreed upon. In general, if you contact a seller first about an item you are going to be in first position to buy unless someone shows up with the cash and you can’t. Even so, my experience with craigslist sellers has been almost uniformly positive. For instance, a gentleman in Port Townsend was offering a Webasto (now Espar) diesel furnace for sale for $400 complete. This unit sells for over $1200 new and often for $800 or more second hand. The Webasto heater can keep your boat toasty warm for pennies a day and even operate from a thermostat. Needless to say, the ad attracted attention (in December!) but I was the first to contact the seller. Now Port Townsend is a considerable drive from where I live in central Washington and to complicate the deal there were some major holidays coming up. I was first on the list but the seller was risking turning away real buyers if I turned out to be a flake. In the end (amd after we exchanged numerous emails) we agreed to a method of purchase. I sent him a personal check for the item which he held until I could drive there; it turned out that I beat the check by about 5 hours and he kindly tore it up. Both of us took a risk but it turned out great and he turned out to be a super guy who offered me a place to stay the next time we had a kayak seminar in Port Townsend. This is how friendships start in the 21st Century!!!

If you are actively looking for your mothership you need to check craigslist at least once a day; but if you are looking for parts you need to check craigslist as often as you can. Popular parts like CQR anchors, GPS units, depth sounders, diesel furnaces/heaters, teak wood, auto pilots, and the like often get sold quickly and there may be no dickering over price. If you pride yourself on your negotiating skills and being able to get things cheap, you might find yourself out of luck when it comes to buying something on craigslist. In general, if the seller is asking a fair price for his item I don’t try to negotiate him (or her) down in price. I might save a few dollars if I do but it’s also likely that I’ll lose the piece to someone else.

But if I have several different models of boat and I’m in contact with the sellers, I certainly do negotiate. In addition, if they tell me they have a buyer who is willing to offer more I encourage them to sell to the other buyer. Unless it’s a spectacular deal, there will almost certainly be something just as good offered at a better price soon and it’s not worth it for me to be stampeded by a seller trying to get a few extra bucks. But I don’t try to “steal” the item either.



Salt water is hard on almost every metal and the copper wiring used on most boats is no exception. After several years in the marine environment the wiring on a boat can deteriorate to the point where only one light can be turned on at a time. Several people advise to pull all old wiring and replace it with new, tinned, wiring that conforms to ABYC standards. This can be a laborious task because the wiring will be routed through spaces which ony your 3-year-old can reach. A good method might be to determine how many “pairs” need to be replaced, make a good drawing of where they all go, and then use the old cable to pull the new cable through into the cabin (or into the engine space, depending upon the direction). It’s especially important to increase the capacity of the positive and negative wires that connect the positive and negative “bus” in the cabin and engine space.


Boats built in the 1970s and 1980s did not com with sophisticated electrical systems. The wiring is not marine standard, the alternators are automotive type, and the lights are all incandescent. What this means is that if you do nothing else, you should at the very least spend some time bringing your electrical systems up to some modern standard. On my boat the interior lights would work if you only switched on one at a time. This is caused by the old wiring becoming corroded, the connections loosening through age, and/or any soldered connections aging. What it means is that the poor connections result in a high resistance system and even though the voltage reads 12vdc on a voltmeter, any load on the system can only draw enough current through the it to light one device. Turning on another device (light, for instance) reduces the available voltage to below the minimum required to light even one device; let alone two.

There are several ways to remedy this situation. You can pull brand new marine-spec wire (tinned copper) of the correct size, make new connections, and wire up a new positive and negative busbar. You can also replace your interior lights with LEDs. The current draw of an LED is so low that, on my boat, I can light every light on the boat with the same wiring that previously would only allow one light to be turned on. You should replace every light – navigation, interior, running, courtesy – on your boat with LEDs. This has only become practical over the past 2 years because there are now direct LED replacements for the bayonet-type lamps you’ll find throughout your boat’s system.

For lights that must remain on during night operations you should buy combination red/white lights or install a red-only light for lighting the steering station, navigation station, etc.

Alternators and Charging Systems

The alternator that comes installed on your engine is an automotive type in that it is designed to provide a high current charge for a few minutes and then taper down to  no charge relatively quickly. This is because the alternator is designed for starting systems where the load on the battery is high for a few seconds (until the engine starts) and then zero and there is a constant charging current afterwards. But on your boat you will be running lights and radios as well as possibly running microwaves, computers, and music systems. You want a charging alternator that will recharge your batteries at a reasonable charge-rate until they are fully charged. This is why you might have to replace your alternator and voltage-regulator system with marine-type units which either offer greater charge time or allow you to select the current for charging. We modified our voltage regulator on our sailboat to be manually controlled so that I could select the charging current. One must be very careful doing this as it’s easy to boil the water out of a battery and damage it beyond use. There are many manufacturers that are providing devices that are more suitable for cruising use.

Shore chargers that operate on 120 VAC power from outlets on the dock are also popular. It’s important to buy a real marine charger and not try to get by with just a land-type battery charger of the sort you’d use in your garage or shop. A “trickle” charge left on your boat batteries will usually boil the water out of the electrolyte in the battery and cause severe damage. The charger you want to get is one that “floats” the battery (or batteries) it is connected to. These chargers detect the battery’s state of charge and keep it at the proper level without damage. Some are available that will float-charge a bank of 2, 3 or 4 batteries. I highly recommend one for any boat with battery systems.


At least two batteries should be installed on your mothership with a switch to select between them. One of these can be a “starting” battery and the other a “deep cycle” battery. This requires the operator to be disciplined about making sure that the switch is set to the battery for the proper purpose. An isolator system should be used to ensure that both batteries (or all batteries) are charged while the engine is running. If you have more than one deep cycle battery you can use a battery switch to choose which one will be running the house lights while saving the other for a backup. Many marine battery chargers that operate off of AC mains (such as at a marina dock) offer the ability to charge three (or more) batteries while isolating one from another. This isolation is important to keep a bad or failing battery from discharging the good bank. Battery size is relatively important depending upon how much you use electrical power. One thing to keep in mind is that many of the marine engines are marinized versions of truck engines which can require a lot of starting current. Use a deep cycle battery (or batteries) for the “house” and a starting battery for the engine. The deep cycle battery is designed to provide steady current over a longer period of time while a starting battery is designed to provide a lot of current for starting.

There is a lot of blarney about batteries. Twenty years ago the term “deep cycle” was discovered by battery marketers and has been grossly misapplied. The common “group” ratings really are only an indication of the physical size of a battery and not its use; even though a battery with more capacity needs to be larger than one with less capacity, the physical size of the battery is not necessarily an indication of the quality of the battery or its ability to provide appropriate power. The term “marine” has also been bandied about in an inappropriate way and the term “maintenance free” is almost always misapplied.

The main difference between a “deep cycle” and a “starting” battery is the thickness of the plates which, in turn, determine how deeply the battery can be discharged. A true deep cycle battery has plates approximately 1/4 inch thick while starting batteries will have more plates which are substantially thinner. A true deep cycle battery will tolerate a discharge of about 80% of its charged state without damage while a starting battery seldom can be discharged to more than 50% without damage. Many batteries sold today as deep cycle are really not much better than starting batteries.

Another measure of the capacity of a battery is in “amp hours”. This is simply a calculation of how much current can be provided by the battery for the number of hours. The “D” ratings of batteries (4d, 8d, etc.) are supposed to be based on the amp-hour rating of the battery with a 4d battery having about 125 AH and the 8d about 250AH.

For most motherships in the 20 to 28 foot range, one or two 4D true deep cycle batteries are sufficient to provide power for lights, communications, and the occasional alternating current device powered through an inverter (more on these shortly). These are functions that marine engineers refer to as “hotel” functions. A good 4d deep cycle battery will cost around $300. Anything less will almost certainly be less in more ways than just money.

Your starting battery is also important but its capacity for our mothership function is not as great assuming you do not start your engine only to run it for 15 minutes repeatedly. A Rolls (which is a high quality battery) with 90AH rating will cost more than $100.

Solar Panels

One way to keep your boat’s batteries charged is to use a solar panel system. This works a lot better when there is sun! While we were cruising our 32 foot cutter “Kibitka” in the tropics we had two 33 watt solar panels we used (along with a wind generator – more on this later) to keep our boat’s batteries up to snuff while we were living off the grid (and on the hook) for months and years at a time. Because we were on the boat full-time we did not use a regulator system; when the battery voltage as measured by a digital voltmeter reached 15vdc we took the solar panels out of the sun. When the battery voltage reached 12.3vdc we put them back in the sun. This only works for people with no other life. For the rest of us our solar panel systems should include a regulator to keep our expensive deep cycle batteries from being damaged.

Maximum output in terms of current from solar panels depends upon the angle at which the solar rays impact the silicon panels. The best angle would be having the panels lay perfectly flat at noon when the sun is directly overhead. Any other angle will reduce the current output. For panels which are being used to replenish a system that is under a heavy load then it’s important to keep a watchful eye on how the panels are pointed. Since solar panels that have a useful output are large it’s difficult to find a convenient place on a small boat to mount them in such a way as to make changing their orientation easy. On our sailboat we just leaned them against the mast when at anchor and secured them to a place in the cockpit when underway. If your kayak mothership has a flying bridge then the task of finding a convenient mounting place is made somewhat easier. But it’s still a chore to keep them aimed.

Wind Generators

An anchored boat’s position in relation to the wind is often easy to determine; the boat usually points more-or-less into the wind. Unless there is a current, of course. But it’s not difficult to install a wind generator that can rotate to allow the wind to drive the generator to its maximum. Again, unless you live on the boat full time, I recommend that you use a voltage regulator to keep from overcharging your batteries. It’s also important to have something that will slow or stop the generator’s prop in the event of very high winds. While we were cruising I simply tied a line to the tail of the generator and if the wind got too high I tied it off so that the generator pointed 90 degrees away from the wind.

Inverter Systems

Invariably, despite the availability of 12vdc devices, someone will want to use an appliance that will only run on house current (120 volts ac). Up until recently the only way to do this was to run a AC generator operating either off the engine or from its own internal combustion engine. Today we have devices which take the direct current electricity from the batteries and convert them to alternating current suitable for operating some common appliances; these devices are called “inverters”. There are, however, some issues with inverters.

Alternating current of the type you can plug into at your home uses a scheme in which the voltage moves from 120volts positive to 120volts negative 60 times each second. The transition from positive to negative is smooth and sinuous following a line called a “sine wave”. Inverters use semi conductors to switch the direct current battery voltage but because these work as on-off switches the voltage curve they create is a modified sine wave. A modified sine wave is similar to a sine wave for most purposes but some appliances, like clocks and computers, require a real sine wave. So a more complicated system creates more of a stair-stepped wave that is then smoothed out by a system of capacitors, inductors and resistors and ultimately so closely approximates a true sine wave that all ac appliances will work when connected to it.

Thus inverters which create what is, for all intents and purposes, house current on a dc-only boat were invented. But even these have their problems. The main problem is one of expense. The added circuitry and – for all I know – patent payments mean that true sine-wave inverters cost a LOT more than the inverters which create modified sine waves. So a 1000 watt MSW inverter can be bought for about $80 but a true sine wave inverter with the same power rating will set you back about $500!

There are some fine print issues you should know about, too. The most important is what engineers call “idle current”. This is the power the unit draws when it’s doing nothing useful; just sitting there waiting for you to use it. It’s the price you pay for having it ready and, like most things, the most expensive units have the least idling current. In fact, it’s pretty much of an eye-opener. One 3,000 watt inverter costs $1,000 and uses “40 watts” of idle current… ohm’s law says that this is about 3 amps of current all the time even when you are off the boat! Yet another 3,000 watt inverter only draws 0.4 amps of idle current. But the catch is that the second one costs $1,500. So 50% more to have an idle current of about 90% less. Is it worth it? Well…. ya if you keep your inverter on all the time. But if you have any brains at all you will keep your inverter off until you actually need it. An inverter that has its power switch turned off uses zero idle current no matter whether it’s a cheap one or an expensive one.

You might be tempted to just buy the pure sine wave device in the power range you need and be done with it. If so, send me money because you clearly have more of it to burn than I do. The devices you’re likely to carry on your mothership which absolutely require a pure sine wave generally don’t require much current so a lower power inverter can be used. What many people do is use a less expensive inverter with a high (say, 3,000 watt) power rating for most things and a smaller (say, 300  or 500 watt) pure sine wave inverter for the devices that require it. Sure, it’s two devices but now you have a spare and you probably haven’t spent much. Plus you may even have saved space. Just remember to keep them turned off unless you need them. Install the 3kw MSW inverter close to your battery bank to minimize electrical loss due to the resistance in the wires.


When a kayaker talks about communications he (or she) is most likely talking about marine VHF. But there are many modes of communications available to the paddler who owns his own mothership. We will begin with the marine VHF and then go from there to systems capable of getting onto the Internet.

Marine VHF

It wasn’t so long ago that kayakers seldom carried a VHF radio and many had no experience whatsoever with them. Today, with the introduction of inexpensive water-resistant hand helds “walkie-talkies” you are likely to see more than a couple of marine VHFs in any gaggle of paddlers. If you own a hand held VHF there is no reason you can’t just use it on your mothership and thereby save yourself a bundle of money. But there are some advantages to having a marine VHF base station on your mothership.

With a regular marine VHF installed on your mothership you can now use your mothership’s vessel-name and state registration number to apply for an FCC station license and, at the same time, your own personal FCC Restricted Operator’s permit. The base station will give you a legal call sign that will identify you to the FCC; the operator’s license will let you operate it legally; and the two of them together allow you to legally use your radio(s) in a foreign country. Namely, Canada or Mexico or the Bahamas. You can also now use the base station vessel’s name and call sign as “unit 1”, “unit 2”, etc. instead of just saying “This is kayak such and such”. While this may be no big deal to those who kayak in, say, Chesapeake Bay, it’s more important to any of us who frequently travel across the northern border to kayak with the “eh team”.

There are some other safety advantages to having a mothership marine VHF. For one thing the antenna is bigger and probably higher so you can be heard farther away or more clearly heard over interference. The power output is also considerably higher. These two factors can make a big difference when you are assisting in a safety situation. In addition, modern marine VHF radios can interface with on-board GPS systems to automatically report the exact position of the vessel in terms of latitude and longitude. Again, this can make a huge difference when involved in a safety situation; especially if a child or inexperienced adult has to make a safety broadcast. (This is more common than you might think.)

So for an investment of about $300 in radio and another $150 in antenna and mounting hardware you can significantly enhance the safety of your paddling group; especially if someone is sitting back on the mothership enjoying hot chocolate and a good book but also standing by ready to relay any requests to the Coast Guard. 🙂

Family Radio Service and GMRS Service

You can buy these little walkie-talkies everywhere now; from your local supermarket to your sporting goods store to Wal-Mart. They are cheap, they are ubiquitous, and they work. They just don’t work quite as well as their marketing indicates. Even though the Family Radio Service (FRS) and the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) are separate, they are often – and almost always lately – combined in the same handheld radio device. One of them (FRS) doesn’t require an operator’s permit or a station license while the other (GMRS) requires both. Interestingly enough, the paperwork that comes with the radios themselves seldom mention this. And it may be a moot point since I’m not sure that the FCC is actually enforcing it. But if you hold any other licenses (pilot’s license, for instance) you are liable to enforcement of that license if you are found in violation of another so the rule for me is to stick strictly to the law until it all becomes more clear.

The GMRS side of these radios is allowed to use more power and so has (at least theoretically) a longer range. The longer range is seldom as long as the marketing dialog would have you think unless you use it (as I have) in the cockpit of a sailplane talking to someone else in another sailplane.

There are other rules and regulations which you should probably familiarize yourself with; such as a prohibition against using it as a “ham” radio, for instance. Nevertheless, we have in the past used FRS hand helds successfully to keep our paddling group more-or-less together. They are seldom water resistant but their cost is so low that they are practically throwaways. One caveat is that no one officially monitors the FRS or GMRS channels so if you have a safety issue it’s unlikely you will be able to summon help using one of these units. I suggest that you have at least one person carrying a marine VHF in your group.

Cell Phones

Now that everyone has one it’s likely that almost everyone in your paddling group will have one too. Depending upon where you paddle, it’s possible that it won’t do you any good if there is no compatible cell system within range; cell phones cannot communicate with each other unless there is a cell system to go through first. For years the USCG claimed that cell phones made poor safety communications devices but lately they’ve changed their tune. While you do need a cell system to communicate, if you do have a cell phone in a system you have a potentially powerful safety device. If you plan to carry your cell phone while paddling I suggest that you also carry the phone number of the appropriate USCG communications center and not rely on 911 operators who may not be trained in maritime emergencies.

Of course, you don’t need a mothership to use your cell phone but maybe standing higher on the flying bridge will make it work better. And there are cell phone “amplifier” systems available complete with external antennas with higher gain. Look on the Internet or at your local boat show.

One other advantage to your mothership is the availability of 12vdc to keep your cell phone charged up. Of course, this could also be a disadvantage if it means that the office can still call. My job as a network engineer requires me to be available to my clients even when I paddle. The upside to this is that I often bill for services performed (consulting) while sitting in the cockpit of my kayak somewhere on the waters of Puget Sound. Not a bad office.

A recent advantage to some cell phones (the 3G and 4G models) is the ability to use the Internet through the cell system making it easy to check email at your regular Internet provider not just at the cell provider. An even more recent innovation is known informally as “tethering”. This allows you to interconnect the cell phone and your laptop together so that you can use your regular laptop computer on the Internet with the cell device as the conduit. No longer required to use the miniscule keyboards of your cell phone you can now do as I do and run entire networks from your boat’s cabin anchored in the San Juan Islands.

Make sure you’re communicating through your own system (AT&T, Sprint, Verizon or whatever it is) and not roaming through another system and especially not roaming through a Canadian system. There are horror stories about people with US cell phones connecting through a Canadian provider (roaming) and getting charged thousands of dollars for only a small amount of data. (In fairness, there are horror stories of Canadians roaming on US cell systems and being over charged too.)

WiFi Internet

This sounds bizarre but there is one Internet provider, Broadband Express, that will give you Internet access at nearly one hundred different locations (mostly marinas) in Washington and British Columbia for about $250 per year. You don’t actually have to be in the marina physically but you do have to be in WiFi range and it helps to have an external antenna. One big advantage to this system, as explained on their web page, is that you can get a Skype account for about $30 a year and use that to avoid cell phone roaming charges.  Simply forward your cell number to your Skype number and you can get your calls over your computer in any marina (or environs) covered by this provider.  Their WiFi ESSID is “bbx” as I write this and the coverage seems excellent. Google for it or look for their ads in the local boating magazines.

You can also find several marinas with free WiFi access (Anacortes’ Cap Sante marina is one).  In Oak Harbor, WA you can walk a few blocks to the library (Sno Isle Public Library) and use their WiFi access for free. But if you want (or need) reliable Internet access for whatever reason then you should seriously consider the Broadband Express WiFi Internet package. I know I am.

Satellite Telephones

If you need true global telephone access then you need to equip your mothership with one of the satellite telephones. If you regularly travel to the Queen Charlotte’s (Haida Gwai), the west coast of Vancouver Island or remote places anywhere but still need regular telephone access, then one of these units is your best bet. The prices have come down to around $1000 for the basic telephone plus charges for access to the system and then charges for each telephone call that could amount to over $1 per minute. Some of these phones also work digitally giving your computer internet access for email and web browsing if you absolutely have to check your stock portfolio after paddling the Broken Group. For occasional adventures into the wild beyond you can rent these phones for reasonable prices and there are often second-hand telephones available on the Internet. Prices for second-hand satellite phones depend upon the popularity of the service.

Marine Single Sideband

Using the high frequency bands, marine SSB (only available if you have an FCC vessel radio license and an appropriate operator’s permit) can be used to make telephone calls (through marine operators – for a fee), communicate with other vessels that have marine SSB radios, and safety communications with the USCG over hundreds and even thousands of miles. The radios used for this service are more expensive than satellite telephone systems and the antennas required can be bulky and require automatic antenna tuners. But for some boaters, especially those who may be boating up in Alaska, a marine SSB unit could be the ticket.

Amateur Radio

One of the most reliable long-distance communications systems is also probably the least expensive but also requires some knowledge and experience and taking a test. However the old requirement of learning morse code is no longer in force. Various licenses give operators different privileges on frequency bands that routinely work over hundreds and even thousands of miles. In addition there are groups of “repeaters” that can provide extended communications abilities that allow a hand held radio operated from a kayak’s cockpit to talk to someone hundreds of miles away. Systems are available that allow digital email access and there are networks of operators that transmit weather information, position information, and relay messages to and from areas all over the world. Many “ham” radio operators are well trained in emergency services and networks of hams are routinely used in national emergencies (like hurricane Katrina). My wife and I are both ham radio operators and we found that many of our cruising friends also had ham licenses. This let us keep in direct contact with them over thousands of miles. More information on amateur radio can be obtained on the Internet at www.arrl.org.


Of course, you no longer need a large boat to use satellite-based navigational systems. I still have one “transit” system (one satellite fix every few hours – or whenever a satellite in a polar orbit wanders by) packed away and I had a loran C system until I tossed it into the dumpster. And my original, $3,000 hand-held (floating) GPS unit from Magellan is little more than a curiosity now. We won’t even talk about my Tamaya sextant or HO 249 (no, “HO” is neither a model train nor a working girl). Almost all paddlers now own at least one hand held GPS unit but there are some advantages to having a mothership with a more sophistacated system. And the charts to plan a paddle every morning.

Using a “notebook” computer (which is subset of the laptop type) along with a GPS receiver that can connect via a USB cable, you can have a computer that will act as a navigational system on your boat. Nobeltec offers charts and external devices that will convert your notebook into the equivalent of a $2,000 nav system. But if you want to do it on a budget you can download free navigational charts for the USA from noaa.gov and another free navigation utility (Sea Clear) and get decent functionality for free. There are also free tide programs available from the Internet.

Depth Sounder/GPS Combinations

Even though you may have a GPS system for paddling, it’s unlikely that you have a depth sounder on your kayak. But with a mothership you almost certainly have a depth sounder (one of the major tools in navigation; more on that later) so it’s not all that unreasonable to combine a depth sounder display with a GPS display. This gives you an unbeatable tool for finding your way around without getting into trouble. Well, too much trouble that is. In order to stay away from other boats you may need one more tool….

You should know, however, that most GPS manufacturers have made the charts an “extra” which you will have to pay for over and above your plotter and GPS receiver. Oh, they have a “base map” but it’s rarely of much use in navigation (although you can certainly plot the latitude/longitude of your position on a chart). The very charts that NOAA will let you download for free will cost you money… and sometimes substantial money… for your GPS plotter. And they won’t accept the free NOAA versions either.

Depth Sounder/GPS/Radar Combinations

Since the dashboard space on our 1970s cabin cruiser is limited (there really weren’t that many electronic gizmos available to install back then) it makes sense to concentrate as many devices as possible into one display. Now several manufacturers are producing devices that communicate via a network so that they don’t need their own display; they display their information on a remote display. So, for about $3k a paddler can have a system that does all of his navigation for him. But it’s certainly not cheap unless you find one at a good price on craigslist; like we did.

Computer Based GPS Plotting

The USA is one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t claim a copyright on its public-owned documents. It makes sense because the information, produced with public money, belongs to the public. But it seems that this idea, except in the USA, is taking a long time to gain a foothold. Several companies have made available digitized US charts (often of foreign waters) that can be downloaded free and displayed on a free chart display application. For the low cost of $99 a GPS sensor (the antenna and processing unit of the GPS system – without a data display) that connects to a laptop via a USB connection (which also powers the unit). So now, for about $100 plus the cost of a laptop one probably already owns, the paddler has access to a chartplotter system that rivals those sold for over $1,000. Plus it does a lot more besides; after all, it’s a laptop.

But wait, there’s more. Maptech offers a “pro” version of its free chart navigation system that interfaces with radar scanners, autopilots, and more using the NMEA0183 marine instrument networking standard. Garmin offers a 24 mile scanner for about $1,000 but if you’re a careful and patient shopper your old friend craigslist will eventually cough up an equivalent unit for less.

Even the free chart reader offered by Maptech give you the ability to quickly swap out charts as you get closer to your destination (you might not appreciate this if you haven’t scrambled to the chart table and rummaged around for ten minutes trying to find the detailed chart of some harbor that’s just around the bend), the ability to quickly add a trip with multiple waypoints and crossing multiple charts (a trip planned on a large scale chart will automatically show up on the detailed charts), and that gives you headings and distances for each leg (that can be moved quickly with a mouse). This is the FREE version, folks. The $500 version does even more (include interface with radar scanners, depth sounders, weather receivers, autopilots and other devices with NMEA0183 access).

And the Sea Clear navigational utility does almost everything for the cost of a simple download over the Internet.

Digital Electronic Compass

Ok, I can hear you asking me what in the world am I doing putting a digital electronic compass in here ahead of a regular magnetic compass? The answer is that I’ve owned two KVH 1000 digital compasses and I’d buy another one in a heartbeat. There are several reasons for this but one is accuracy: the KVH reads to 1 degree while almost all yacht compasses read to 5 degrees. Now it might be difficult sometimes to read a compass to 1 degree on a small boat in a seaway but the KVH does a better job of this than most. The second major reason is that you can offset it. Every magnetic compass needs to be mounted directly in front of the helmsman in order to be accurate and it has to be set so that it’s oriented accurately to the bow. The KVH, uniquely as far as I know, can be mounted off to the side and at on an angle and still retain its accuracy. And anyway, when was the last time YOU steered by a magnetic compass, huh? With a GPS and all the other gizmos available on a boat the magnetic compass, like those on airplanes, has been relegated to a standby device.

The KVH 1000 also has an NMEA 0183 output so that it can interface with your GPS Chart Plotter and Radar display. With Garmin GMR radar scanners having a heading indicator will let you use the collision avoidance ability of those radar systems. This allows you to see where your target will be in a selectable period of time. If your heading line intersects with his heading line then you are at grave risk for collision. The KVH also will interface with autopilots… which brings me to the next device…

Automatic Pilot

My wife and I have sailed thousands of miles and I can tell you that I don’t think we could have done it without some form of automatic steering. On our sailboat it was a wind-powered vane with an electrical tiller pilot on occasion. Whatever it is, nothing is more soul wrenching than a week of watch-on, watch-off hand steering. Except two or three weeks of it. Go read any of the books by Eric Hiscok who, along with his wife Susan, sailed around the world 3 times and made a few side trips almost all without any type of automatic steering device at all; just a radium treated compass (glow-in-the-dark) and you’ll soon get the idea. So if you intend on going across any significant open water, I encourage you to consider an automatic pilot. Those available today can interface with an NMEA 0183 digital compass and an NMEA 0183 chart plotter to follow a course plotted in advance and make the correct course changes at the correct time. While you keep a good lookout for other shipping, floating debris and uncharted volcanic islets rising suddenly out of the sea.

Are these autopilots expensive. Well yeah, they are. But you’ve saved a bundle by buying your boat on craigslist, your engine on craigslist and you get your charts for free. You can afford to buy a brand new autopilot…. hey wait… you can probably buy that on craigslist too.

Fuel Flow Meter

It’s like a torque wrench… everyone thinks they can tell you exactly where 25 foot-pounds is but no one can demonstrate it. It’s the same with fuel efficiency; boat owners all think they know the most efficient speed to run their boat but almost no one can demonstrate it. Well, with a fuel flow meter you can. It’s a simple device. Inserted between the filter and the engine a fuel flow meter measures how much fuel has passed its insertion point in whatever time interval you want. Gallons per hour, liters per minute, mililiters per second, practically all of these can be set up. The most common in the USA is gpm, of course. For a piddling sum, around $200, you can have one of these tell you exactly what speed is the most efficient in terms of fuel usage. For less than $500 you can have a version that replaces your dashboard tachometer and interfaces with the engine for RPM, the fuel flow meter for GPM and the GPS for MPH giving you the point at which you get the most speed for the best fuel economy. Don’t be caught without one.


On a ship the functions of keeping the crew warm and fed and their cabins clean is referred to as “hotel” functions. That’s probably too fancy a term for what happens on a 26-foot mothership. But it is quite amazing just how many modern conveniences can be installed on even the smallest boat now in comparison with even a decade ago.

Heating and Cooling

There are geographic areas in which a heater is a mystifying device. While cruising in the tropics on our sailboat we had many people  ask us if the drip-diesel heater that was installed against the forward bulkhead in the salon was a stainless steel espresso machine. They can be forgiven for their questions because that Taylor stove (which we ordered from the UK) had valves and tubes and a little drip tube and really could have been an espresso machine. Those who asked us probably never had seen a heating device on a boat… or maybe even in a home. But where we cruise, Puget Sound near Seattle and up the inside passage to Alaska, a heater is not a luxury; a heater keeps you alive. What we don’t need is cooling. But if you cruise the Chesapeake, Florida, or even the Great Lakes in the summer, some sort of cooling may not be needed to keep you alive but it’s sure needed to keep you comfortable.

There are three basic heating fuels available for a mothership. Solid fuels such as wood or coal, propane gas or compressed natural gas, and diesel or kerosine fuel. Each has advantages and disadvantages but they are all found on boats.


Heaters which do not draw cumbustion air from outside the vessel (probably the majority of bulkhead mounted heaters and virtually all solid fuel heaters) can quickly deplete the oxygen in a tightly sealed boat cabin. Make sure you have good ventilation. I know this seems to be contrary to what you want (e.g.: no cold air coming in when, after all, you have the heater on) but trust me, it will keep you and your family alive. Furnaces like the Espar (Webasto) or the Wallis (not the stove) are usually vented out of the hull

Solid Fuel Heaters

A solid fuel heater is basically a wood stove mounted somewhere inside the boat that burns wood or coal or some other solid fuel in order to keep the interior of the boat warm. The advantage to a stove that can burn coal or wood to keep you warm is that your fuel supply is often as close as the nearest beach. Whenever you run low on fuel you just send a dinghy ashore to gather up some driftwood. This can be a huge advantage while cruising wilderness waters. The disadvantages, however, are abundant. That wood has to be stored somewhere and it’s usually in the cockpit. And there is a possibility that bringing wood aboard will also bring aboard critters that have been living on or in that wood and will become stowaways living on and in the wood of your boat. A live fire can also be a hazard on aboat where sudden waves and movements can cause embers to be ejected from a fireplace and land on flammable material in the cabin or sparks can rise up the chimney and set fire to something on the deck. So most boaters with a solid fuel heater use it more as a stove than a fireplace with the live fire safely hidden away behind a closed door. The device requires vigilance, nevertheless. There are several varieties of solid-fuel stoves that do double duty as cook stoves allowing you to keep the teakettle near a boil in the cozy cabin. These stoves must be vented outside as they produce considerable quantities of carbon monoxide during the burn process. They can also consume large quantities of oxygen so an open cabin is a good idea. Since many people don’t want to open up their boat’s cabin during cold weather using a solid fuel heater can be hazardous and requires good judgement.

Propane or CNG

From a boater’s perspective the difference between these two compressed gas fuels is simple: propane is heavier than air and available everywhere; and CNG is lighter than air and difficult to find except in the big cities. You can use these gas fuels for both heating and cooking as many stoves are either built to use them or can be adapted to their use. The advantages are ease of use; the disadvantage (of propane at least) is its tendency to pool in the vessel’s bilge if it leaks… where it can explode at the slightest spark. CNG is much safer from that standpoint but it’s expensive and difficult to find and that would require large storage tanks when headed off into the wilderness.

Propane heaters and stoves are very common on both power and sail boats but the wise skipper takes some serious precautions to make the vessel safe. A vapor-proof container vented overboard is a minimum requirement. It’s also smart to install a shutoff solenoid that can be operated remotely at the galley. This ensures that the gas is shut off at the source (the tank). It’s also a good idea to install a gas warning alarm in the event that the system leaks gas into the galley itself or the stove connectors are leaking. Remember that if propane leaks into the bilge of your boat and pools there you will be riding around in a bomb just waiting to explode. Nevertheless, I much prefer propane as both a cooking fuel but not so much as a heating fuel.

Both CNG and propane heat systems usually require a lot of manual operation. They are very seldom automated and virtually every step of the heating process requires manual input. Turning on the gas, lighting the gas, regulating the flame, and turning the gas off when the cabin is warm are all done manually. Propane also tends to burn wet; it releases large volumes of water when its burned and that water condenses on the cold inside surfaces of your portlights and cabin sides. Condensation is a big enough problem in colder climates anyway (we, too, emit copious quantities of water in our breath) and adding even more just doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.

Diesel or Kerosine

We used a drip-diesel heater which is, essentially, a pool of diesel oil that is on fire and fed by occasional drops of fuel to keep it from going out. As long as you are there to watch this operation and regulate the number of drips of fuel per minute this is an excellent system for heating a boat. It is, however, unwise to go off and leave the fire going and even going to sleep with the stove going is scary to me.

Dickenson, a stove manufacturer, is famous for the installations of drip diesel cookstoves installed on literally thousands of commercial fishing boats. The Dickenson stove looks very much like the type of wood stove that might have graced the cabins of gold miners in the Klondike. It’s solid cast iron with a flat cooking top and a drip regulator that controls the amount of diesel fuel fed into the burning chamber. Turn the fuel up and the stove gets hotter (and the cabin gets warmer). You can cook meals on a Dickenson stove as well as heat your boat with one. But they are big and bulky and require a certain amount of space around them to protect surrounding counters from catching fire. They also require some electricity for the fan that is used to circulate the heat around the inside of the boat.

The Wallis stove/heater is a smaller offshot of the Dickenson. Offering no oven, the Wallis has a solid stove top and a cover that contains a fan system to circulate the heat. Like the Dickenson it runs on pooled diesel or kerosine oil set aflame which then heats up the stove top. The Wallis can be installed in almost any boat with a countertop but they tend to be very expensive.

The diesel furnace heaters heat air which is then blown through ductwork into different compartments of the boat much like the furnace in your home. Webasto is one of the most famous but Wallis also manufactures one of these. Of all the systems, the furnace type lends itself to automated operation and can be hooked up to a thermostat to provide a regulated interior temporature. This is because the furnace type uses an electrical combustion to atomize the fuel in a small firebox which has air circulating past it. The furnace type heater needs to be plumbed to the exterior of the boat for both its air intake (for combustion) and its exhaust (Carbon Monoxide). Once the furnace type has been installed properly the boater can simply dial up the most comfortable temperature and as long as there is electricity the warm air will keep you toasty day or night. The flame is also relatively safe, too.


My cooking needs are relatively simple. I could get by with a sterno stove and enough water to soak into a Cup’O’Noodles packet. But there are several approaches to using a cookstove. Some cruisers use the same device for cooking that they use for heating (their Dickenson or Wallis diesel/kerosine stove). Some use the same stove on a boat that they’d use ashore at a campsite. And others demand a stove that they can use for making full meals and baking bread.

Diesel Cook Stove

We’ve covered how these works (under heaters) and a little bit about how they can be used to prepare meals. The cook simply turns the supply of diesel fuel up until the stove’s surface (or oven) is hot enough to cook on. If this drives the rest of the crew outdoors, then that’s the price they pay. The Dickenson and Wallis can be used pretty easily and are relatively safe but they can produce a lot of heat when they are cooking food.

Kerosine Stove

My wife, bless her heart, cooked for five years on a kerosine stove while we were cruising. Each burner had to be individually primed with alcohol until the burner was hot enough to volatize kerosine and produce a nice blue flame. She also had to ensure that the fuel container was full of fuel and that there was pressure (she pumped it up) enough to move the kerosine to the stove burners. The stove made quite a racket when it was running and it also left a fine layer of soot on the overhead caused by the brief moments when the burners were not fully volatizing the fuel. Nevertheless, it was reliable and produced a lot of cooking power. Ours was also gimballed so that whatever tack the sailboat was on the stove (and the contents of the pans on top) were level. She used stainless fiddles to hold the pots in place anyway. Kerosine stoves are not much in demand any more but can be bought cheaply at second hand marine supply stores. A kerosine stove must first be “primed” with liquid alcohol in the burner’s cup. We used a fireproof wick in that cup to contain the liquid which can slosh out in a seaway. The liquid alcohol is lit (we used a bbq lighter) and allowed to flame until it is almost out. At that point the burner should be hot enough to turn the liquid kerosine into a gas and it will then burn with a nice blue flame.

Camp Stove

Since most kayakers already have camping gear which almost certainly includes some sort of cooking device, there is no reason you can’t just cook on that inside your boat or out back in the cockpit. The disadvantage is that a boat is not the same sturdy platform a boulder might be and one must be careful to ensure that the stove and its flame do not tip over and set something alight that could ruin your entire trip. You must also store it and set it up again, and take the same precautions with its fuel (especially if it’s propane which is heavier than air and can sink into the bottom of your bilge only to surprise you one day) as one might with a marine stove. Even so, your camp stove is certainly a viable option; especially on smaller (19 to 22 foot) motherships with some counter space but not enough room for a built-in cookstove.

Alcohol Stove

An alcohol stove used to be standard equipment on virtually all sailboats and powerboats in the US because, at one time, it was considered the only “safe” cooking fuel for boats. This was based on the assumption that you can put an alcohol fire out with water while a oil-fueled fire takes more sophisticated measures. However, in my view, the fuel has too many drawbacks to be used as a fuel for cooking. For one thing, alcohol produces an acrid fume which annoys me to no end. Now, to be fair, not everyone notices this so it might not be a problem for you. Alcohol also has fewer BTUs by volume than kerosine or propane so its flame is not as hot and it takes longer to cook food. This is not an insurmountable problem unless you insist upon cooking in your boat at elevations of around 10,000 feet. Nevertheless, to me it’s an annoyance. I also object to the expense of alcohol which often comes in flimsy plastic containers suitable more for distilled water than a flammable liquid. And, finally, I don’t like the fact that an alcohol flame is so difficult to see in bright light (like on a sunny day) that there have been several cooks severely burned when they tried to relight an alcohol stove they thought had gone out.

However there are some very good alcohol stoves for boats. Origo makes both single-burner and double-burner stoves that can be mounted into counters or set on top of them. The Origo stoves have a fuel canister that releases alcohol vapors that reduce the need for “priming” which has historically been one of the major factors in alsohol stove explosions.

Propane Stove

When we got rid of our kerosine stove I installed a propane stove in its place. This was after considering the advantages and disadvantages of using propane on a boat. Because propane gas is heavier than air it will sink into the bottom parts of a boat special precautions have to be taken. Namely, the tank must be contained in a vapor-proof locker with a vent tube leading directly overboard and there must be a remote shutoff to the tank so that the fuel hoses do not carry any gas under pressure. The remote shutoff must be fail-safe so that, in the event of power failure, the gas valve closes. This was relatively easy to do on our boat and my wife was very happy with the change. Propane is easy to get almost anywhere in North America but must be treated with utmost respect.

Charcoal Briquettes

There are several barbecue stoves available for boaters. Some are propane but a lot of them just burn charcoal. Most of these can be mounted so that they hang ove the side of the boat over the water and any coals or sparks will probably simply drop into the water and be extinguished. Cooking with a charcoal briquette stove can be risky in several ways. Never cook with charcoal inside the boat as the carbon monoxide such burning releases combined with the amount of oxygen the burning process consumes can be deadly. Always cook outside and always over the water. Just watch out when you are throwing that steak onto the grill.


Like life in a tent,  living on a mothership depends on the size of the vessel you’ve chosen. But even with the largest practical mothership it’s never quite like home. This is because a boat has some essential characteristics that form what are “unlivable” spaces. The bow is generally reserved for anchoring gear (chain, rope, etc.) and the stern usually has a cockpit and an engine (or two). On a 25-foot powerboat you will have maybe 18 feet of livable space that will be about 8.5 feet in width.  This gives you about 153 square feet of living space. But it’s not space that equates to a condo or apartment or even many tents. This is because the volume changes. The vee-berth area (almost all boats have one sleeping area – often the *only* sleeping area – that is in the bow and shaped like an upside-down “V”) is often wide at the after end (where your head will be) and narrow at the forward end (where your feet will be). Underneath you’ll find some storage but often there will also be the water tank. Overhead there will be the foredeck which can be very close to you depending upon the size of your vessel.

Part of living on a small boat is the “move it around” syndrome. Items placed in one part of the boat – a part unused at the moment – will have to be moved to another part as you begin to use that area. For instance, your personal items will probably be stowed in the vee-berth and you will eat and sit and navigate in the main cabin. But when it’s time to go to bed you will be moving your personal items from the vee-berth over to one of the seats of the dinette (for instance) and as you undress for bed your clothes might go onto the pilot’s seat. The head compartment might be used to stow drysuits as they dry out from the day’s paddling but if you need to use the toilet you might find it necessary to move those out temporarily so you’ll have room.

The smaller your mothership the more you will have to “move it around” but even on 40-foot trawler yachts you’ll discover yourself moving things around now and then. Especially if you have guests aboard who need the forward “vee berth” stateroom where you’ve stowed all that paddling gear in duffel bags.

Toilet facilities aboard boats have changed radically over the last 30 years. At one point we just pumped everything overboard. As more and more people began to anchor in the same areas someone discovered that the “stuff” floating by was objectionable. The cost of a marine “head” varies widely from a bucket (not illegal to use but it is illegal to just dump it out over the side) to a porta-potti to on-board holding tanks to macerator-chlorinator systems to composting toilets. The price can be anything from $10 to well over $1,000. On our mothership we have opted to use the porta-potti system which seems to provide enough capacity for several days for two people or up to a week for just me alone. Most marinas now have a facility for emptying a porta-potti and it is considered poor form to simply dump it out over the side (not to mention illegal).

I like a separate head compartment if only because getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom doesn’t require me to make my partner get out of the cabin while I go. Many 22-foot cruisers keep the porta-potti under the vee-berth which is where you will be sleeping (presumably). You could go over the side but the tell-tale tinkling will tell everyone in the anchorage (or on the beach) what you are doing (and what you are doing is probably illegal). We hang drysuits and fleece paddling garments on hangars in the head compartment and one vent of the diesel Webasto heater pipes warm air into that area to help dry things out. When we need to go we either duck around the garments or move them temporarily. We also have a small sink and fresh water pump in the head compartment. When we take a shower the head compartment can be used for that or we can stand up in a fairly large dish washing container.

Galley facilities vary from a shelf for a stove to a full kitchen according to the size of the boat and the inclination of the owner. Most boats over 22-feet long offer a galley of some sort often with a built-in stove (see the section on stoves, above). Sometimes there is a sink with a hand-pump for fresh water. We generally save water by doing our dishes first in salt water and then rinsing with fresh water from the tank (and heated on the stove). We do have a refrigerator on the boat but it is for use at the dock only. Otherwise we use coolers and ice. Soft drinks can be placed against the hull in areas where water temperatures are low.

Dining is often done in the stern cockpit in fair weather. One advantage to anchoring or taking a mooring is that the boat generally lies with the bow into the wind so the cabin structure provides a nice wind break and it’s quite pleasant to sit in our folding chairs and watch the drama of a typical anchorage unfold around us. We also have a portable propane-powered grill which we set on the engine cover so we can barbecue outside in the cockpit as well as eat there. During inclement weather we retire to the dinette which seats two comfortably; usually we have to move whatever has been placed on the table first (see the “move it around” syndrome, above).

We sleep in the vee-berth and generally use sleeping bags. When we lived on our sailboat, Kibitka, we made this berth up with sheets and blankets for a more homey feeling but it’s not so important to us when we have a home and bed to return to. On Kitibkta we had drawers for our personal items but on the mothership we have to use duffle bags and these must either be mounted high along the inner sides of the hull so they are out of the way of sleeping area or “moved” to the dinette when we go to sleep.

We do not watch television while we are boating now. Partly because where we go there really is not much television reception, partly because the best programming is no longer on the broadcast stations but on cable or satellite, and partly because finding a place for a television on a small boat is not easy. And even a small TV can suck down a surprisingly large amount of power out of your batteries. Even worse if you are using an inverter. However there are several excellent marine sterio systems available that operate on 12vdc ship’s power. The advantage to this is that you can use your mp3 player for your own music. You can also take advantage of satellite radio. And, of course, you can watch movies and videos on your computer or hand held device. Camping versions of many games like Monopoly and Scrabble are available that sometimes have magnets in them to hold everything in one place while your boat dances around beneath you.

For a shower we either take one in a handy marina or use a garden sprayer full of warm water. Either way the showers tend to be short because you have to keep pumping money into the marina showers and there is only so much water in a 1 gallon garden sprayer. With the sprayer we wet down first, soap up and scrub, then rinse. Two of us can get a decent shower out of one gallon of water as long as there isn’t a lot of long hair. I have no hair but make up for it by having to shave. Biodegradable soap is best for showering aboard unless you have a gray water tank for storage. If your shower water simply goes overboard then biodegradable soap is important.

Heat is usually only found on the larger (30-foot and up) boats but our little 25-footer has an installed Webasto diesel furnace which we can switch on to ward off the chill. Two people in a small space can generate quite a bit of warmth anyway so a heater is really only needed on cold winter days. Our powerboat has a lot of windows so sunshine (if there is any) can warm it up quickly. There can be a temptation to use the cook stove for heat but one should be extremely cautious about doing that. Both propane and alcohol stoves give off a lot of water vapor when they are burning and this can quickly coat the windows and hull sides (inside) with condensation. One of the side effects is that your sleeping bags could be soaked by the water on the inside of the hull running down. These stoves also emit carbon monoxide gas as a byproduct of combustion and this can replace all the oxygen in the cabin if your boat is well sealed. Finally, the stoves themselves burn oxygen and can consume all the oxygen in a well sealed cabin. In general, don’t use a stove to heat your boat. ‘Nuff said on that!


If you paddle a kayak you know that anything that floats can be blown around on the water by the wind. If your little kayak – which may only sit 10 inches above the water – can be affected so much by the wind just imagine what your mothership – with its gigantic superstructure including picture windows and flying bridge – does in the wind. Each type of boat is affected differently by the wind so we’ll spend a little time talking about windage and how hull shape and superstructure affects it.


A sailboat generally has at least one mast. Let’s ignore any of them with two masts for now, and think about wind on a sloop or cutter with no sails set. If you look at your sailboat from the side you will notice that the mast is not set exactly in the middle of the boat. In fact, the mast is set more towards the bow than towards the stern. Now imagine that you can see the bottom of your sailboat under the water from the side and your mind’s eye will see a keel that is almost always set aft of the bottom of the mast. The mast and the keel work together to form what engineers call a “couple”. When the sailboat is moving forward under sail the keel offers resistance to sideways (“lee”) drift which helps the sail generate “lift”. But when the sailboat has no sails up and is not moving forward that same “couple” works to make the bow “fall off” the wind; that is, left to itself a sailboat with no sails set will point downwind. This is because the wind blows against the mast (which offers quite a bit of “sail area” all by itself) but sideways movement is resisted by the keel. Since the keel is aft of the mast, the “couple” created by the combination of mast and keel will encourage the bow to move downwind. This will happen regardless of the position of the rudder.

Now sailboats with several masts (a ketch, a yawl, or a schooner) or a sailboat with a swing keel may act somewhat differently. But in general terms, with no sail set a sailboat will rotate so that its bow will be facing downwind. This explains why so many sailboats “hunt” when at anchor or on a mooring buoy; that is, they move left and right over and over. One way to stop this is to set some sail aft; something to counteract the wind resistance of the mast. But that’s an entirely different subject.

Power Boats

I gave you the little essay on sailboats in wind to help you understand how the boat’s hull shape (the part in the water) and the boat’s superstructure (the part above the water) make a difference in how the boat will react in the wind. And why we can’t just make blanket statements about how a power boat will move when the wind is blowing and there is little or no forward movement. Just think about the “couple” between the part exposed to the wind and the part that’s in the water and where the bits with maximum resistance might be located in relation to each other. A power boat with a high forward steering area and cabin will probably tend to move downwind and a boat with a high steering and cabin aft will tend to point into the wind. If you’re really lucky you will have found a boat that is relatively neutral; but you can depend upon the fact that at some point in wind strength that neutrality will end.

Backing Down

For the newbie, that’s “going in reverse”. If you’re used to backing your car out of the driveway you are in for a shock when you try to back a boat out of a slip. The reason is that the propeller of a boat doesn’t just move water straight back or straight forward. The propeller is designed to operate best when the boat is going forward. When the boat is going in reverse the propeller inevitably moves some water to the side as well as in the desired direction. This is most pronounced on an inboard boat with a propeller shaft that is slanted downwards from the engine to the propeller and less pronounced – but still present – with I/O drives and outboards. Now that you know what to expect, take your new boat out to a quiet spot, set a few buoys (milk bottles with rocks attached will do) and try to back around them. I could sit here and type up all sorts of explanations to tell you which way and how much your boat will “walk” to the side in reverse but nothing will do it as well as practice. Set up a lane of buoys and try to back down the middle. Set your buoys to simulate a dock and try to come up to it. Resist the urge to leap off with a bow line, though.

Turns in the Fairway

The “fairway” in a marina is the area between the docks; the waterway down which you move on your way to and from your mooring slip. To a marina the fairway is a lost revenue opportunity and they are often not much wider than the boats in the slips along them are long. So if you have a 30 foot boat and the fairway is only 40 feet wide, how do you turn your boat safely in little more than its own length? If you have two engines you use “asymmetrical thrust” with one engine in reverse and the other forward you can turn the boat much quicker than just by going ahead. If you have a bow  or a stern thruster then you just turn it on and move the bow or stern in the desired direction. But boaters managed for years to maneuver their single engine vessels without bow thrusters; how did they do it?

Experienced boat operators use the tendency of a boat to “walk” in reverse to their advantage and turn the boats 90 degrees in little more than its own length using power bursts. Here is how it works. If your boat backs to starboard in reverse (that is, tends to turn to starboard when backing up) and you need to make a 90-degree turn to port to get lined up down the fairway from your slip you are in luck. As you back out of the slip the stern of the boat will begin to turn starboard so use only short bursts of reverse to minimize this tendency until the bow is clear of the docks and any neighboring boats. Then throw the helm hard port (for a turn to port) and add a burst of forward power to start the bow swinging left. As it turns left shift to neutral and then add a short burst of reverse to stop any forward movement; if you have an I/O or outboard throw the helm full starboard for this but if you have a rudder don’t bother. Repeat these moves until your bow points down the fairway and you can move ahead safely. Remember that you don’t want any actual forward or aft motion of the boat, you only want rotation. Use the burst of power to keep the rotation but not enough to move the boat ahead or reverse.

What do you do if your boat “walks” in the opposite direction of your desired turn? Well, you could go through 270 degrees in the easy direction; I’ve actually done this when there was a wind that made it difficult to turn away from the normal propeller wash. But surprisingly enough, if there is little wind or current you can use the same maneuver to make the turn even against the normal “walk” direction.

If your boat has an I/O or outboard you might find it more difficult to make a 90-degree turn in a fairway. I like to initiate the turn while still moving slowly towards the slip and then use reverse to move the stern farther around. This requires a certain amount of wheel spinning while you have the helm in one direction for forward and another for reverse (an old “spinner” knob on the wheel can be a real help, here). Doing this with the wind blowing (it always seems to be blowing) complicates things as the lighter I/O boats can be blown about more easily than the deep-keeled trawlers and sailboats. Knowing what your vessel will do in the wind is a great advantage.

The best thing to do is experiment in a quiet waterway using your milk bottle buoys to simulate a fairway.

Line Handling

Your spouse, your children, your friends and sometimes anonymous passersby become “line handlers” when they take a line to help you dock or undock your boat. Sometimes these folks actually know what to do. Often, however, they have little idea of the physics of a boat moving slowly in a confined area. My wife and I once moored our 35 foot wooden sloop, Hedonic, across from the fuel dock at Skyline Marina in Anacortes, Washington. One of our favorite entertainments was to sit in the cockpit with a drink and watch the “bareboaters” try to get their boats up to the fuel dock. Often they’d throw a line to some innocent person on the dock and then engage in a tug-of-war to move their 20,000 pound powerboat up to the dock; sometimes against wind and current.

Here’s a tip: take a turn around a cleat before you pull on a line. Once you’ve put one turn of that line around one end of the cleat you have much greater control over the boat than you would have if you had just stood there and pulled on it. Assuming someone on the boat has had the same foresight to take a turn on a cleat on his end, that is.

One of the many benefits of taking a turn on a cleat is that you can easily secure that line with another turn or two and then move to another line. If you need to slip line out it’s easy to do. But if you absolutely have GOT to stop that boat then only a turn around the cleat will do it.

Another tip: discuss what you plan to do with your crew before they have to read your mind when the boat is headed for a disaster.

Docking and Undocking

It takes a lot of nerve to sit here on my sofa and explain to you in a few sentences how to dock and undock your boat. But I’m going to do it. So hang on tight.

The first rule in docking a boat is to keep your speed under control and do not think, for even a moment, that you can use “reverse” to stop your boat. Most of the time you can use reverse to stop your boat, of course… but if you rely upon it and approach the dock too fast eventually your use of reverse will bite you. Use reverse to control your speed, of course, but don’t come in fast thinking that the reverse gear is your brake.

The second rule is to know what the wind and current will do to your boat to affect its controlled collision with the dock. Ok maybe you can’t “know” what it will do, but at least pay attention. Pay attention to BOTH ends of the boat when you’re docking. Beginners have a tendency to focus on the bow but the stern is the part that moves first when you try to change your heading.

The third rule is to understand how your boat reacts to applications of power in both the forward and reverse directions. If you have two engines, then you need to know how the boat will react to “asymmetrical” thrust; that is, with one engine going ahead and the other going reverse.

The fourth rule is to apply power in relatively short “bursts” to control both speed and direction. It’s a mistake to just drive ahead and then ram it into reverse. See rule one.

If your boat has a rudder it will be steerable even with the transmission in neutral as long as the boat is moving. If you have an outboard or an I/O then there will be little -or no – rudder effect and when the transmission is in neutral there will be almost no steering unless the boat is moving relatively quickly; too quickly to be safe. Since almost all the smaller cabin cruisers available use I/O drives then this is an important point to remember.

I like to dock with the engine in neutral most of the time using bursts of power (either forward or reverse) to keep the boat going in the desired direction at the desired speed. If your power is I/O or outboard then you will need short bursts of power to maintain directional control as well. If you have a rudder it’s easier because the rudder will work even at low speeds. Practice your maneuvering skills as described above.

If you are moving into a slip make your turn in the fairway as described above and then move slowly ahead into the slip. If you have line handlers position one of them slightly forward so he/she can jump nimbly off the boat and walk forward with the line to keep the bow under control as the boat moves into position. Never get the boat moving so quickly that you will do damage if reverse fails to stop it but use reverse and forward to get the boat positioned in the slip with the help of your line handlers.

If you are leaving the slip have the line handlers cast off lines but retain control over the boat until they have to jump aboard. They can just hold the lines if the mother ship is small or the wind and/or currents are not a factor but I recommend taking a “turn” around a handy cleat. It’s ok to move to another cleat farther along as the boat moves. Try not to leave without your line-handlers unless they don’t want to go! Use the technique for turning in a fairway, above. Remember to use bursts of power to keep control over boat movement and direction.

Approaching a side-tie dock is common for boaters who often use “transient” docks for overnight visits to new area. This can be like parallel parking in your car except that it feels more like a dump truck and the dock is lined with people ready to laugh at any mistakes you make. Note the current and always move with the bow into the current if at all possible. If the wind is against the current then choose to put the bow into the currentunless the wind is extremely strong. Put a line handler on the dock (with a line) as soon as practicable. Try not to back suddenly as the line handler jumps from the bow (this happened to me and I made the fastest exit from Puget Sound water known… my wallet didn’t even get wet). Approach at an angle designed to keep you away from any boats that you pass on your way into your parking spot. Add power in bursts to control speed and direction. Use the line handler to take a turn on a dock cleat to help keep the boat in position fore and aft while you use the engine to draw the stern in closer to the dock. Once you are secure don’t forget to use “spring” lines in addition to the bow and stern lines. These will be used to secure the bow aft to the dock and the stern forward to the dock and will immobilize the boat if the are used correctly.

Picking up a Mooring

The Puget Sound area is fortunate in having numerous state and provincial parks which offer both dock space and mooring buoys (both at a price) for transient recreational boats. A mooring is supposed to offer a secure connection to the sea bottom; like an anchor but better. What it really is will be anyone’s guess. Picking up just any old mooring buoy and connecting your mothership to it can be the height of folly; for all you know that buoy is fastened to nothing more secure than an old automobile transmission. I’ll explain in a bit why an old automobile transmission, even if it’s heavy, is probably unsafe for you to use as a mooring.

Picking up a mooring from a large vessel with room on the bow to move around safely is straightforward. Station a crewmember at the bow with a boat hook and a ten foot line with one end attached securely to the boat, approach the mooring buoy from downwind (or downcurrent) slowly using bursts of power from the engine to maintain directional control. As the bow gets close to the buoy the crew person can use the boathook to catch the ring in the center of the buoy and pull it up. At this point it’s important to ensure that the boat is stationary in relation to the buoy; that is to say, “stop the boat here”. The crew person can then use a bowline knot to attach a bow line to the ring and then lower the ring. It’s probably better if the other end of the bow line is secured to a cleat or other fitting on the bow of the boat. Now the engine can be stopped and the attachment to the mooring buoy can be adjusted. You can then apologize to the crew member you sent to the bow for yelling at her.

This is where we explain buoyancy and its relationship to a mooring. The bow of a boat, both sail and power, is designed to rise to a sea so it has lots of what marine architects call “reserve buoyancy”. Since buoyancy is what keeps a boat afloat, reserve buoyancy is extra buoyancy that is used to overcome conditions that would tend to sink the boat if you didn’t have any buoyancy in reserve. If you and a couple of friends stand out there on the pointy end of your boat you may notice that it doesn’t go down very much. Take note of how much you all weigh and it might be 400 or 500 pounds (we really need to paddle more often, don’t we?). The bow of almost any boat can easily lift a thousand pounds straight up; like when a wave goes by or the tide comes in. Now, if you’ve cleverly attached your bow lines to a mooring buoy that is secured (?) to the bottom with an old automobile transmission just imagine how your bow could lift and drag that transmission around depending upon the wind and current when wave action causes your bow to tighten the mooring line and jerk on that transmission.

So, once you’ve attached a bow line to the buoy and shut down your engine, apologized to your wife for yelling at her and made preparations to be secure at the mooring, it’s time to adjust the attachment to the mooring itself to be safer. First, don’t pull that ring up and tie it off to the bow cleat. Give yourself ten feet of “rode” between your boat and the buoy plus whatever height your cleat is from the surface of the ocean (probably 3 more feet). Never just pass the line through the ring; tie it with a bowline knot. And never use just one line; attach a line from each side of the bow through a fairlead to the ring. Try to keep them equal. Make sure you can cast off thost lines in the event you must leave the moorage quickly. If you have a ring in the bow of your boat (like the ring that your trailer winch attaches to) that is lower than the bow, attach a line to that and secure that line to the mooring buoy ring as the primary line. This will lower the angle of pull on whatever it is that is holding that mooring buoy in place. Use a method of attachment that will allow you to release the line quickly.

Ok… now let’s explain some of this. One night in a hurry I attached a bow line to a mooring buoy ring by passing it through the ring a couple of times and then bringing the end back to the bow of Kibitka (our 32-foot cutter). In the middle of the night, during a windstorm, the line parted and we blew ashore only to be rescued by friends who towed us off. Examination of the line showed that friction from the boat hunting around in the wind caused the line to heat up (just like a boy scout makes a “bow” to rub two sticks together and make fire) and literally burn apart. From then on I used two separate lines, each attached separately to the mooring ring.

Since a mooring is an anchor of sorts, it’s important to keep the angle of pull against that anchor as parallel as possible to the floor of the ocean. If you keep a line attached to the ring in your bow that you use to haul it up onto its trailer you can then use that line to secure yourself to a mooring buoy ring and thereby lower your attachment by several feet. But make sure you have secondary attachments to the bow so you can easily untie the boat from the ring if you need to beat a hasty retreat.

Anchors and Anchoring

Anchoring is something of a point of honor for cruising sailors and like most of them I have a lot of anchor stories. Such as the powerboat whose stern hit the bow of our sailboat one night in San Diego. The occupants of the powerboat, aroused from sleep by our yelling at them as we stood on the bow of our boat and fended off the stern of their boat, showed up bare naked in their cockpit and the first thing they wanted to know was, “did you drag down on us?”. Kinda hard to drag upwind.

Another story is of the yachtie who bragged to us at a party about his anchoring skills. We smiled politely. This was the same boat who had entered an anchorage we were already in and stopped next to us. A crew member went forward, picked up the anchor, chain, rope rode and all in one big ball, dropped it overboard and yelled back that the “anchor is down”. Then the expert on anchoring shut down the engine and cracked open a beer. We hauled anchor and left for fear that they’d drag onto us during the night.

Then there was the tropical cove we entered and prepared to anchor in. The occupant of the only other boat in this cove, which often held 5 or 6 boats, warned us that his anchor rode was right where we were going to drop our hook. We moved over. Again, the anchor was “right under” us. Two more moves and we dropped the hook anyway. We figured he must have let out a mile of line all over that cove and if there was a storm he could sort it out after we left.

Anchors are strange contraptions. To a landsman an anchor is a large weight to which you secure your boat. In reality, almost no anchor is heavy enough to stop a boat’s movement; they all rely instead on their ability to “dig in” to the seafloor. Most anchors are designed with a surface area which uses the weight of the mud or sand to hold the boat in position; as well as the tendency of the anchor to dig in deeper when pulled in the right direction. The downside to these anchors is that when pulled in the wrong direction they pull out; and if they didn’t you wouldn’t be able to pull them up in order to move your boat to another location. So the trick to anchors and anchoring is to select an anchor that will “reset” itself if the direction of pull changes but will also release when pulled straight up. In order to make an anchor efficiently use its tendency to dig itself deeper you set out what sailors call “rode”; which is simply extra chain or rope to help keep the pull on the anchor as parallel to the seafloor bottom as possible. There are some rules of thumb on how much rode to let out with most experts recommending 6-to-1 (a ratio of rode length to water depth) for rope and about 3-to-1 for all-chain. This is called “scope”. The term for all of the above – the anchor, the chain, the rope and all the attachments –  is “ground tackle”.

So in order to anchor safely you must take into account several factors:

1. Depth of the water. If you anchor in a tidal area you need to have enough water at low tide so you don’t bump disastrously into any rocks and enough “rode” so that at high tide you still have sufficient “scope” to remain safe from dragging.

2. Currents. Almost eveywhere has some current. In many cases the current is negligible but in some places the current is a factor to be reckoned with. Strong winds against fast currents can create some truly bizarre behavior in anchored boats.

3. Bottom type. Anchors hold best in a seafloor that is sticky but not too hard for the anchor to dig into. Grass, seaweed, rocks, coral, garbage, or almost anything will interfere with the holding power of an anchor. If you have a good depthsounder you can often determine, with experience, how well an anchor ground will hold.

4. Type of anchor. Fluked anchors (the Danforth types) are not well known for resetting themselves when the direction of pull changes. The “plow” anchors, on the other hand, do much better. However two (or more) fluked anchors pulling in opposing directions can have enormous holding power. Still, a plow-type anchor is unquestionably better under most circumstances. And there are newer and better plow-type anchors out there that reset and hold better than ever. Oddly enough, the most common anchor I see on power boats is a fluke (Danforth) type. I find myself wondering how much time they spend at anchor.

5. Type of Bay or Cove. An ideal place to anchor would be a cove that is completely “land locked”. This is a term that means no storm-driven waves can enter the cove because it is shaped in such a way that all entries would be blocked. This usually means that you had to make at least one turn in a narrow channel to get into the anchorage. Not many bays are completely land locked but many are safe enough due to the prevailing winds being blocked. Of course, the prevailing winds are not guaranteed to prevail 100% of the time so some judgement must be used to select an anchorage based on the predicted wind and weather. You will still have to deal with wind-generated waves inside that bay or cove, however.

6. Fetch. A term which describes the length of unbroken distance the wind can blow. If you anchor two miles off the beach and the wind blows from the beach then there is two miles of fetch. The longer the fetch the greater the waves and the more stress on the anchor gear.

7. Scope. The term describing how much anchor line and chain you have laid out. Generally 6:1 (180 feet of rode in 30 feet of water) for rope rode with 15 or 20 feet of chain connected to the anchor itself or 3:1 (90 feet in 30 feet of water) for all chain rode. This ensures that the angle between the seafloor and the bow of your boat is as small as possible. There are tricks to help improve this number; such as connecting the anchor rode to a padeye at the waterline instead of to the deck fittings.

Small boat operators tend to use two types of anchors: fluked anchors and plow anchors. Of the two, the plow anchors are unquestionably the best for most circumstances. But the majority of power boaters use fluked anchors. Interesting, huh?

So, with all all that in mind, I recommend that your primary anchor be either a plow-type or scoop-type anchor such as a Rocna, Manson Supreme, a Bruce or a CQR in an appropriate weight; about 20 pounds for a 26 foot trailerable boat. A 35 pound CQR held our 20,000 pound (displacement) yacht under all sorts of conditions for five years and dragged exactly twice. One of those was in a named tropical storm (that’s one step below “hurricane” for you non-sailors) in Mexico. A plus for these is that plow-type anchors are easy to carry ready to deploy in a bow roller. Attach 50 feet of 5/16″ chain and at least 300 feet of 3/8 inch nylon (NOT polypro – you want it to stretch and ease the load on the boat’s attachment) anchor rode and secure the bitter end of the rode to something sturdy on your mothership. All of the rope and chain should be carried in the line locker at the far pointy end of your boat. It’s important not to oversize anchors and anchor chain on a small boat. A lot of weight concentrated at the ends of the boat can create a condition called “hobby horsing” where the boat bow and stern bob up and down strongly in a seaway.

The primary advantages of the newer anchor designs are holding power in soft sand and soft mud; neither the Bruce nor the CQR anchors are well known for their ability to hold well under these conditions. The Rocna and Manson Supreme anchors are of a more modern design and have been tested to set, reset and hold better in different types of bottom than the Bruce or CQR older designs. They are more expensive, however. But, as a cruising friend once observed, “If your anchor is dragging you can’t just throw $400 into the water and have it hold.”

Your primary anchor should be secured at the bow in a bow roller in such a way that you can easily, quickly – and safely – deploy it in the event that something goes awry. Sooner or later, things will go awry. There is not much worse than trying to free your primary anchor from the lines and fenders and other items in the locker that are wrapped around it. All while your boat drifts towards a reef and the engine *still* won’t start.

Your secondary anchor should be a 12 pound Danforth hi-tensile fluke-type anchor which you can keep handy somewhere at the stern of your mothership with about 20 feet of 1/4″ chain and as much line as you can store conveniently. This anchor will be the one you deploy to keep you and your boat from driving ashore if the engine fails at a critical time. It’s also the anchor you’ll use – deployed from the stern in combination with the bow anchor – to keep the boat in line when anchored in a very crowded or very small cove. The advantages of the fluke-type anchor is its tremendous holding power once it is set; even in soft mud and loose sand. The disadvantage is that it will almost never reset. I use fluke-type anchors as second anchors (set from the stern, for example) or a “lunch hook” where there is little chance of conditions changing before you simply haul the anchor up and get going again.

Add a third anchor as an insurance policy. Another Danforth or two can’t hurt as long as you have a place to store them where they won’t bounce around.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to make a mooring. If you are going to spend a few weeks in one area but plan to spend every night in one secure and snug anchorage you can either anchor and re-anchor every night or you can make a mooring. At least, if you make it, you’ll know what you are connecting to. I made a mooring in La Paz, Baja California, Mexico that we used on and off for a year. It was right on the edge of a current eddy and by making a mooring I could keep the boat out of the current but still in deep enough water to be safe. I’ll explain what I did and how.

The mooring I used was a three-leg star pattern using three 12-pound Danforth hi-tensile anchors with 30 feet of 3/8″ chain on each anchor connecting to a swivel in the middle. The swivel had another 30 feet of 3/8″ chain connected to the other end and that led to the surface where I filled an old tire with foam and plywood and installed a ring connected to the chain. This gave us 60 feet of “rode” in 20 feet of water; more than enough with chain especially since 30 feet of it was almost parallel with the ocean bottom. I then used 15 feet of nylon bow line attached to the ring at the bow of Kibitka (5 feet lower than the deck). With this three-leg star pattern no matter what direction the current or wind came from we had two anchors sharing the load at least some of the time (remember that saiboats cast about or “hunt” around their anchor). The mooring was in very protected waters so we didn’t need more nylon line to absorb load but we could have added more if we needed it. Remember that nylon line stretches under a load so that it can act as a shock absorber. Polypro line does not stretch much and can create shock loads on your equipment if you use it as anchor line.

Anchoring and setting an anchor is a simple but often poorly understood technique. At its most basic, the anchor digs into the sea bottom and the line connecting the anchor to the boat holds the boat in place. Getting to that point can be arduous.

The first step in anchoring is to choose a place to anchor. It must be protected from ocean waves and swells and preferably out of the wind and in an area of low current. The bottom should be of sand or mud that is free of rocks and sea grass or weeds. It should not be too deep but must be deep enough to keep your boat from hitting the bottom at low tide. Hey, that’s all simple enough!!

In tropical waters we would to send a diver down to check on the bottom to see if it was a good holding ground but in the Puget Sound area with its 45F water temperatures it’s a lot harder finding a volunteer. Fortunately navigational charts often give you a decent idea of what the bottom of an anchorage is likely to be.

Once you’ve selected your spot you can “drop the anchor”. But don’t drop it!!!  Lower it. And make sure you take note of when the anchor hits the bottom. I like to lower the anchor hand-over-hand while keeping count of how many “hands” went out. If the anchor hits bottom at the count of ten, for instance, I can then count out enough to get a satisfactory length of rode. Experts recommend a “scope” of 3 to 1 for all-chain rode and up to 7 to 1 for rope rode. So for a 3-1 scope if I counted to 10 and the anchor hit the bottom, I have the helm person slowly back down while I count another 30 “hands”. If it’s all rope I count out another 70. Actually, I almost never set that much scope for rope; I usually do 5:1; but I can always let more scope out if conditions change.

I often pause with half the scope set out to allow the anchor to settle into the bottom somewhat. This pause can greatly increase the chances that your anchor will set well the first time. Rocna and Munson Supreme anchors are said to set quickly and well but we’ve also had no problems with our CQR and Bruce anchors.

Now that the scope has been set out in the direction from which wind or current is most likely to come, it’s time to “set” the anchor. Continue to back down slowly until the anchor stops the boat. You can detect this by watching the shore line or the helm person can check it on the GPS. If the anchor does not stop the boat while going slow astern then you must reset the anchor. Once the boat stops I ask the helm person nicely to increase the power astern while holding my hand on the anchor rode. By touching the rode I can feel whether the anchor has set or if it’s moving or skipping across the bottom. I am not interested in increasing power to the point where it tears the anchor loose but I am interested in pulling it hard enough to ensure that it’s well set into the sea bottom. Once it is set we’re ready to move to the next step.

If my anchor rode is all chain then I want to put some sort of elastic between the chain road – which doesn’t stretch – and the boat. What I use is a 20 foot section of 3/8 inch nylon line called a “snubber”. This line is connected to the stainless steel ring on the boat that I use to tow the boat up onto its trailer and the other end affixed to the anchor chain either by a chain hook or by a prussic knot. More rode is then let out so that the strain is taken by the anchor snubber which will stretch a bit and ensure that no sharp stress spikes are applied to the boat’s fittings.

I don’t use fancy gizmos like running a weight down the rode because I’ve never needed them but you’re free to experiment and write your own book. The point of lowering a weight down the rode is to make the portion of the rode nearest the anchor lie more flat against the ocean bottom. Any loads will then tend to make the achore dig in deeper instead of pulling out (upwards).

Pulling up the Anchor

You’d think this would be pretty simple, wouldn’t you? Once an anchor is well set it can be difficult to un-set it; depending upon the type of bottom it’s set into. If the anchor is well set in a clay bottom then getting it to release might be a struggle. This is becaugs almost any anchor has tremendous holding power in a clay bottom. Unsetting can be complicated by the ability of plow and scoop anchors to reset; if you pull from an opposing direction they will often simply turn around and reset. The trick is to get directly above the anchor and apply slow and constant pressure using the buoyancy of your mothership to break the anchor out of the bottom. Once you are directly above the anchor you take a turn on a cleat and let the natural movement of the water (waves, wakes, etc.) slowly work the anchor loose. If there are no waves then you can motor slowly ahead and then back until the anchor comes free.

Because anchors are designed to pull straight along the direction of the shank it stands to reason that if you pull in other directions it’s quite possible – and even common – to bend or otherwise damage your anchor. Since you’ve paid several hundred dollars (or thousands if you have a big boat) you will probably not want to shell out more money for a new anchor to replace the old one you’ve just bent. So the rule is to never try to twist your anchor out. Always pull direction against the flukes. And always be sensitive to the amount of force you are applying to that anchor.

If the anchor refuses to release it could be that it has set under a rock or is caught in an obstruction. Homo sapiens (e.g.: us) has been prolific in adding garbage to the oceans and bays of our world and your anchor could be caught up in some. There is a limit to what any ground tackle will hold and if you’ve sized your anchor and rode to your boat properly you can probably exceed this limit. Rather than do that, if your anchor is irretrievable then you have only a few options.

1. You can try to pull your anchor from 180 degrees opposite the direction in which you set it. The danger here is that if the anchor is truly dug in under a rock or other obstruction you are more likely to damage it than to un-set it.

2. You can wait for a different tide (usually lower) so that you get a better angle for pulling or you can see what is holding the anchor.

3. You can dive down on the anchor and try to release it by hand that way.

4. You can dive down on the anchor and attach a line to the anchor directly above the flukes (most anchors have an attachment point for just this purpose) and then have a much better angle for pulling the anchor straight back or up. This has the advantage of making it least likely you will damage the anchor since there will be very low – or even no – forces on the shank.

5. You can buoy the anchor and come back with better equipment for retrieval.

Some boaters attach a release line to their anchor before even letting it go over the side. I don’t like this arrangement because there is a greater chance of tangling the anchor line up in the release line; thus making it more difficult to retrieve the anchor almost every time.

At any rate, un-setting the anchor is not always the simple procedure you may have imagined. It can take skill and imagination to bring that anchor back up undamaged. But given the price of anchors today, it’s worth the trouble.


If the primary use of your mothership is to carry your kayaks then I suppose we should deal with that here and now. There are actually two problems with kayaks and motherships. The first is where to store them safely and the second is how to get in and out of them safely.

Kayak Stowage

There aren’t many choices available on a small (say, under 35-foot) mothership. The options are: on deck, against lifelines, against the side, athwartships and overhead. Whether the choice you make is safe and handy depends on the boat you chose. I think that it’s important to carry your kayaks so that they will present the least interference in operating your mothership as possible. This means that they should be securely tied down in a position where they are not likely to be carried away by a wave. Of course, the size of a wave you are likely to encounter depends upon the waters you intend to cruise. But you should at least pay some attention to keeping the boats safe.

Many years ago, as a merchant marine officer working on tankers moving between San Francisco and Valdez, Alaska our ship encountered a more serious storm than usual. In those years before the Exxon Valdez incident it was unheard of for a tanker Master to not leave Prince William Sound when scheduled; regardless of the weather. Ships were often carried far out of their way by nasty weather and were seriously damaged by the huge seas generated in the Gulf of Alaska in the winter. When the Valdez oil port first began. the entire transit of Prince William Sound (outside the “narrows”; the entrance passage to Port Valdez) was “pilotage” waters and a pilot had to be taken aboard at Cape Hinchinbrook at the entrance to the Sound and carried all the way in to the docks and then taken aboard when departing and let off at Cape Hinchinbrook. The problem with this was that in poor weather the pilots often couldn’t get off at Hinchinbrook and had to be carried all the way to San Francisco – at full pay – and then had to be flown back to Valdez; at the ship’s expense. This got a bit spendy even for the oil companies so they convinced the Coast Guard to alter the pilotage waters to include only the narrow entrance (“The Narrows”) to Port Valdez and the Port itself . This is how a young 3rd mate could pilot a 900 foot tanker among ice floes in waters bounded by islands and reefs; namely, Bligh Reef. Thus were the seeds of the Exxon Valdez disaster laid.

Anyway, this one storm was a doozy but did it dissuade tanker Captains from setting out? Heck no. They are made – or at least, were made back then – of sterner stuff. One ship, and I forget which one, was boarded by a huge sea and the lifeboat on one side came adrift and began banging around. The Chief Mate (2nd in Command on a tanker and in charge of the deck crew) and the Bosun (highest ranking sailor) went out to secure the boat and never came back. Another huge sea carried both of them and the remains of the lifeboat away.

This is the major danger posed by mounting your kayak; you can never tell what you’re going to get into and if you just lay them on deck and hope for the best you’re likely to be ok on Lake Union and Lake Washington and probably in the San Juans in the summer. But at some point it’s going to bite you. Kayaks should be well secured in their mountings in order to keep your boat and crew safe.

So let’s get started.

Carrying the kayak on deck.

Doing this presumes you have, say, 16 feet or so of relatively straight deck. You can straighten out some of the kinks by creating hull supports and tie down points but there are two drawbacks. The first is that the helmsman is probably going to have to see over or around these kayaks somehow to check where he’s going now and then. The other is that the foredeck of any boat is the most vulnerable place on the vessel when the boat gets into heavy seas. But if you can get the kayaks above the foredeck somehow and secure them well enough you can probably get away with it.

Tying the kayaks against the lifelines.

You are likely to see more of this than any other method of carrying kayaks simply because almost all boats – both power and sail – have lifelines and a walkway alongside the cabin. If you can keep the kayaks along the cabin they at least are not likely to interfere with the ability of the person at the helm to see where he (or she) is going (unless the inside steering station is inside the cabin – like my boat). And jammed between the cabin side and the lifelines the kayak is less likely to come adrift and whack around in a sea. Of course, if it does come adrift and whack around it’s likely to whack a huge hole in the cabin creating even worse problems for the boaters. Another serious downside is that the kayaks would present a barrier to the free movement forward and aft along the walkways on each side of the boat. This could be a safety issue under certain circumstances; especially docking and anchoring. Another potential problem is that, on many boats, the lifelines are not exactly secure. In fact, often they droop. And the lifeline stanchions are very often only attacked to the deck in a flimsy way (three #8 screws into the deck, for instance).

Carrying kayaks against the side of the vessel.

I’ve see a few boats that were modified to carry kayaks mounted fore and aft along the port and starboard sides of the vessel. The modifications included fabricating mountings that fastened to the supports for the bimini tops. The advantage to this is that they don’t interfere with the visibility of the helm person; the bimini takes care of that pretty well anyway. Another advantage is that if the kayaks come adrift and endanger the boat they can just be cut away and dropped into the sea where, if you’ve cut all the lines, at least they aren’t likely to batter holes in the hull at precisely the wrong moment. Nor do they interferre with fore-and-aft movement along the decks. This mounting method may present a problem when trying to secure the kayaks in place as they are not exactly convenient for holding them in place while tying them down.

Carrying kayaks athwartships.

I’ve been tempted to do this myself. Just tie the darn things across the stern cockpit from the port side to the starboard side. The cockpit is probably the least likely place to be boarded by a wave in a seaway as long as the powerboat is moving ahead. Plus there isn’t as much superstructure around the cockpit for a kayak that comes adrift from its moorings to damage. The real downside is that kayaks are almost always longer than the 8-1/2 foot wide powerboats which can be carried legally on trailers without requiring special permits. In my case the kayak I paddle most is just 16 feet long which would mean that I’d have about 3 feet of kayak hanging over both the port and the starboard sides of my 8-foot-wide cockpit. This seems to be unsafe to me; if not to the mothership at least to the kayaks and especially as you first begin to move away from the slip and out of the marina. This scheme would also make it difficult to move about on the boat; at least at the stern. But once you’re away from pilings and docks and such it would be relatively safe depending upon the sea and the speed of the boat.

Carrying kayaks above the helm position.

If the mothership has a hard top over the helmsman’s position then it’s certainly feasible to fabricate a rack that would hold the kayaks securely upon it. They would be relatively protected from boarding seas and their ability to withstand high winds would depend upon the strength of the hard top and the kayak supports; both of which could be enhanced. In addition they’d be unlikely to interfere with the visibility of the helmsman and they would present no barrier to the free movement around the vessel. For this reason I think that a mothership with a clear cabin top coupled with an inside steering station would make an excellent mothership.

Carrying kayaks on racks above the rear cockpit.

This option is possible on any mothership with a long enough rear cockpit. Often these cockpits are ten feet long which would put a significant fraction of the kayaks hanging over the back of the boat (and might create problems trailering the boat with the kayaks mounted) but if they are high – and they would be under this option – then there would be little danger of them creating a hazard. One factor might be mounting the kayaks high enough over the cockpit to allow enough headroom to move around back there unrestricted. A boat with a flying bridge makes this easier because the bridge superstructure offers some protection for the kayaks from wind as well as offering a secure forward mount point. Well constructed, such a rack could be fitted with off-the-shelf Yakima or Thule saddles and J bars. The only major disadvantage to this method is the difficulty of getting the kayaks high enough. This, however, could be easily solved by the addition of a mast and boom arrangement (supported by the cabin superstructure) or even a lifting strut at one corner of the cockpit. Another problem would be the interference with any sort of canvas cockpit enclosure; but a real paddler don’t need no cockpit enclosure.

However, a downside of carrying kayaks high on a small boat is that weight can dangerously overbalance the boat; especially if someone goes up to the flying bridge to steer. If the mothership is a trailerable boat with only 8-1/2 feet of beam, then placing 300 pounds of weight 6 feet high might not contribute to a positive stabililty curve. I would be especially careful making turns with a boat loaded too high.

Semi-Cockpit Carry.

Carry the kayaks with one end at the end of the cockpit and the other end secured against the top of the cabin. If the kayaks aren’t too long this might work ok but it would seriously interfere with movement about the cockpit and perhaps reduce visibility for the operator.


One might be tempted to tow a kayak in much the same way one tows a dinghy from a sailboat. There have been conflicting reports on doing this. Some paddlers have reported that the kayak has a tendency to practice rolls without a paddler in attendance; especially if it’s being towed by the bow. If, however, you can make some sort of bridle that evens out the stresses on the kayak then it might be possible to tow a kayak; at least at lower speeds. Be aware that in a following sea the kayak might enjoy surfing on the waves so much that it will pass your mothership.

Carry Straps.

Finally, an option thought up by a friend is to use wide straps to secure the kayaks alongside the flying bridge port and starboard. This has advantages in keeping the decks and visibility clear but still puts the kayaks up high and also creates a possible problem keeping them secure while not introducing much weight from any structure. It almost goes without saying that this method would require that you secure the kayaks so that they don’t flop around in a seaway.

Carrying inflatable or folding kayaks.

All that’s needed for this is enough room to stow them somewhere safe and secure. If you already paddle a folding or inflatable kayak then you have few problems that involve the issue of carrying the kayaks. The only issue facing you is the one the rest of us face next; namely, getting into the kayak and back out of it safely from the mothership. This is the ideal solution for a smaller mothership but it can mean getting used to a folding or inflatable kayak not to mention the significant expense of buying them.

Entering and Exiting the Kayaks

If you think getting into and out of your kayak at a dock is hard, just wait until you try it from a boat. Even a boat with a swim step aft (that is a small platform mounted on the transom) offers little security for moving into and out of your kayak. There is nothing to hang on to and no where to move to. Commercial motherships, blessed with large size, carry a platform that can be secured alongside and supported at just the right height above the water to allow relatively easy access to the kayaks. But even they are sometimes reduced to the expedient of seating paddlers in the boats first and then lifting both them and the boats off the deck and into the water with a crane. It helps to be a converted fishing seiner, I guess.

There is also the problem of how to get the kayaks from their storage area into the water and then back to their storage place. The higher the storage place the more difficult this can become. If you are fortunate enough to be driving a trawler you are likely to have a mast and boom which you can use to just hoist the kayaks up to their mounts. The rest of us have to make do with blocks and tackles, rollers in the right position, and superhuman upper body strength. There are lifting davits which are made from stainless steel and mount at one aft corner of the cockpit. These are often made to be six or seven feet high and have a manually operated winch. Just winch the kayak up, swivel it around, and drop it into place. Be careful how you attack the kayak to the lifting wire; it’s best to have some sort of cradle and not just rely on the hardware at the bow and stern of the kakyak.

If you can store it, then a platform about 28 inches wide and 36 to 48 inches long alongside the boat will make it easy to get access to the kayaks for even infirm paddlers. This platform would be supported by lines holding the inner sides of the platform extending down from the gunwale and from more lines extending at angles to the outer side of the platform. The angle to shoot for is 45 degrees. This platform has to be large enough so that these supporting lines will not interfere with the access to the kayaks and it has to be strong enough so that you only need these lines at the forward and after ends. Soft rubber pads against the hull would also help. As would a line draped down strategically for support.

For athletic and fit paddlers, the swim steps are not impossible as long as there is some support above the paddler to hold on to as he/she lowers their body into the cockpit. If you have fabricated a kayak rack over the rear cockpit then it would not be too difficult to add a support structure that could be removed for transit or storage.

Another method would be use an inflatable dinghy, carried athwartships on the swim steps, to be used as a boarding platform. Just put the dinghy into the water, secure it to the sides of the mothership. and the paddlers could enter the dinghy first, and then have the secure and stable thwart of the inflatable to use as a support for entering the kayak’s cockpit. The dinghy is probably a good idea anyway even if it’s only used as a safety vessel. Put a 10hp outboard on the transom of the dinghy and it becomes another method of propelling the mothership in the event of engine problems as well as a fast rescue boat. Inflatable dinghies can be towed relatively easily depending upon the speed of the mother ship. Most people take the outboard off for towing.

If the cockpit of your kayak is large enough you can use a boarding ladder along the side of the mothership.

And, of course, if you’re tied to a dock it makes everything that much easier.

A hard dinghy could also be used but not for entering the boats alongside. Just tow the kayaks to shore with the dinghy, get into the kayaks on the beach, tow the dinghy back to the mothership and secure it and then go off and paddle.


At some point in your kayaking career you will encounter bad weather. With luck you’ll have anticipated this and either be anchored in a snug cove or tied to a marina dock enjoying the view of big waves and spray through the picture windows of a cozy restaurant. There is really no good reason not to anticipate most bad weather in the 21st century with satellite information, VHF radio broadcasts, weather fax, and television weather girls. Yet every year some bad weather sneaks through this gauntlet.

When my wife and I were cruising we had a rule that any time we neglected to put the awning away (in tropical areas) we’d have a midnight squall drill. This did not deter us from going to bed with the awning still up now and then, certain that the existing fair weather would continue. Sometimes it did but we had midnight drills often enough to think up that rule. The rule should be, “anticipate every possible way things could go wrong and prepare for it.” With experience you can actually anticipate a lot of things that go wrong.

Midnight Anchor Drills

We anchored our 32-foot sailboat, Kibitka, almost every night for five years. A few times we left the boat at anchor and went off for a few days to visit friends. Once or twice this was, in hindsight, foolish because the places we left the boat were subsequently devastated by bad weather but we got away with it. In all this time the anchor dragged twice and only one was avoidable. The first time we dragged was in a named tropical storm (not quite a hurricane) in Mexico. We were in a protected harbor that was still quite a big bay (Pichilingue near La Paz at the tip of the Baja Peninsula of Mexico) and anchored in 50 feet. This is quite deep – we mostly tried to anchor in water about 30 feet deep). The anchor dragged in the afternoon and we noticed it when the bow of the sailboat moved so it was no longer pointed into the wind but 90-degrees to the wind. This is often the first sign that your anchor is dragging; the boat no longer lies to the wind as it usually does.

The second incident occured at night in an isolated cove (also near La Paz). When a squall hit us I got up from bed to do an anchor watch. This is where you sit up for several hours – or however long it takes – to make sure your boat (and family) are safe. When we anchored I had taken a round of bearings on several prominant points of land around us and logged them. Using these bearings I periodically checked that they did not change appreciably. At some point one of them began to “walk”, indicating that we were moving in relation to the point. At this point I woke the Chief Mate (my wife, Susan) and we reanchored.

Today’s plethora of electronic devices allow the modern boat operator to determine his (or her) position within a few feet and then set an anchor watch on depth sounders, radar displays, or GPS units so that any movement of the boat beyond any preset limits will sound an alarm to alert the skipper. Nevertheless, I recommend that you use good judgement to keep yourself safe and the best way to do that is to have someone keeping watch when you’re anchored during storms or squalls. Even if you’re anchored in a snug, safe harbor the occasional check can spell the difference between a nice trip with some interrupted sleep and a setback to your voyaging. After so many years of cruising I find that I sleep lightly with my body tuned to the motion of the boat even on the most pleasant of nights.

If you drag then the first step is to start the engine and then let out more scope; don’t be stingy… let out a lot more scope (as long as it’s safe). Then watch to see if the anchor has reset. It sometimes helps to motor slowly into the wind to allow the anchor time to find a soft spot to settle into (as opposed to dragging quickly right over it). If you drag again you usually have little choice but to pull the anchor up and re-anchor. Motor into the wind to ease the strain (and make the operation quicker and safer for the person up on the bow) while pulling in the line. Then continue to motor into the wind to an acceptable spot, lower the anchor until it touches, then allow the boat to move downwind while paying out line. I count the number of times my grip changes as the anchor goes down and then multiply that by 6 (for chain and rope) to determine scope. When about half the scope has been let out I snug the line and let the boat set the anchor by wind alone. Keep a finger or hand on the rode as it goes over the bow to be able to feel any motion or jerking which will indicate that the anchor has not set properly. Once the boat has stopped and the anchor sets you can let out the full scope and perhaps use the engine in reverse to gently set the anchor firmly without ripping it out of the bottom.

This operation often occurs in the middle of the night and while you are in your pyjamas (or less). If your mother ship has a locker where you can grab some foul weather gear during your mad scramble on deck then that would be a plus. On smaller boats, 25 feet and below, you can often do much of this standing on the vee-berth with your torso out the forward hatch. This can be a safety hazard if the wind is blowing hard enough to create a sea that is boarding your boat over the bow. Use some caution before you just sit up and open up that hatch on a stormy night. If the vee berth has become a “zero gravity training area” (you’ll know if it has) then opening up a forward hatch would probably be a bad idea.

You may, on some nights, see other boats dragging anchor. Use your VHF, your horn, your loudhailer (if you have one) or just yelling to attract the attention of the people on board. If all fails you can try to use a dinghy or other boat to go over and lend a hand but make sure that the operation will be safe. All occupants of any dinghy in foul weather should be wearing a PFD and appropriate clothing. Keep a close eye on your own boat as if one boat has dragged it’s likely that another might too. The tradition of the sea is to lend a hand to a vessel in distress but not if it risks your own vessel unduly. Do, however, standby for rescue operations if there is no one else available. Contact the proper authorities (Coast Guard, port captain, local police department, etc.) if it becomes clear that the situation is deteriorating.

Handling a Boat in Heavy Weather

At some point you may have to operate your vessel in storm conditions with heavy seas and high winds. This is not something you should take lightly or without some experience. Some boaters purposely go out in windy conditions in order to learn how their boat reacts in a seaway with wind. In general the biggest threat to a small boat under power is not the wind but the waves. It’s common to hear sailors brag that because they sailed in, say, San Francisco Bay, that they are already prepared for heavy weather. This is not necessarily the case as the wave action in almost any bay rarely can get above 9 feet. In the open ocean or in areas exposed to the open ocean waves can easily top 20 feet and higher (as a merchant marine officer I have seen waves measured – using wave-rider buoys – at 70 feet). While the winds are certainly a significant factor, it’s the waves that do the real damage. Kayakers usually understand and appreciate the power of wave action and there are parallels between operating your mothership in waves and kayaking in waves.

The first thing to do is secure all gear and equipment on deck, in the cockpit and/or flying bridge and in the cabin before you get into the serious seas. Kayaks, anchors, fishing equipment, coolers, tarps and anything left loose can be hazardous in a seaway where it can act as a weapon wielded by the wind or boat motion or just as an inconvenience when your attention is best focused on the problems of handing your boat. Be sure to close all windows and ports and doors and secure them as well as possible. Check the opeation of bilge pumps in the event that a sea is taken and finds its way below. Be absolutely sure that the forward hatch is closed and secured!! Have passengers seated in such a way that they can keep themselves safe and secure from sudden and violent movement. Have flares and safety equipment at hand, put everyone into their PFDs, and make sure your VHF radio is in good working order and you have your position available. Do not allow anyone on deck unless they are secured and safe. The motion of a small boat in heavy weather is impossible to describe to anyone who has not gone through it. Suffice it to say that it’s often impossible to sit without holding on; heck, sometimes you can’t even lay down without holding on!!!. If you are in a secure anchorage do not underestimate the discomfort and danger you will be facing should you decide to leave (or are forced out for some other reason).

Boats are generally easier to control when slowly heading into the waves. Commercial fishermen call this “jogging” into the wind and waves and do it with judicious applications of engine power. It is very important that your boat not slide backwards into the troubh of the waves so increase power up the wave face and decrease the power down the backside. Moving your boat at right angles across the waves risks capsize and should be done with extreme caution. It is often safest to move to the side slowly and gently while jogging into the waves until you are confident of the behavior of your vessel. Keep in mind that wave heights and steepness varies considerably and can change abruptly.

Turning your boat around in a seaway can be extremly dangerous if not done carefully. Sailboats, with heavy keels acting as a counterweight, are safer to maneuver in this way. The risk is twofold: 1) Risk of capsize if caught broadside on a wave face; and, (2) Risk of surfing down a wave face and driving the bow into the trough at the bottom. It is often recommended that a small craft deploy either a “drogue” or drag warps. A drogue is a device designed to act as a sea anchor from the stern and will help slow the boat down and keep it from surfing down the steep faces of the seas. Warps are long “U” shaped lines dragged from the stern and serve the same purpose. Both of these will help keep the boat from “broaching” or turning broadside to the seaway suddenly. Judicious use of power can keep the boat safe with, oddly enough, more power if the boat has a tendency to broach and less power (to slow down) on the backside (or “up” portion) of the wave. Speed control on the wave face is of paramount concern.

Choose a safe haven carefully and with good judgement. The inclination is to run for cover and get into the first place available. However there are considerations of wind, currents and waves that will make one haven more safe than another. Wind driven waves can “wrap” around headlands and points and still present significant wave heights even when “behind” a headland or island. Any current exiting a channel can combine with the opposing winds and waves with the result that the wave heights and steepness are enhanced.

Approaching a dock in high winds presents a hazard both to your vessel but also to the dock and to any other vessels at the dock. Approach slowly but with enough steerage to keep your boat under control. It’s not unusual to encounter gusts making the wind go from  essentially calm to full gale in a moment. Understanding how your boat reacts to winds will make the docking operation much safer. Approach the dock into the wind if at all possible and station someone on deck with lines ready to jump to the dock and take a turn on a cleat as quickly as possible. Use a “spring” line to help the engine move the boat up to the dock under control. If other vessels are at the dock you can expect any occupants to quickly come lend a hand; if only to protect their own boats.


Many paddlers are understandably leery of operating their kayaks after dark so it’s understandable that many boaters are likewise reluctant to operate their boats after dark. Because it’s harder to see in the dark the rules for safe operation change. You must take extra precautions with navigation, maneuvering, keeping watch and ensuring that your boat can be seen. It’s also wise (and required by law) to operate at a speed that allows you to see and avoid danger before you end up deep in it.

Your navigation lights (port, starboard, stern and – if motoring – a white light aimed forward) are required for marine operations between sunset and sunrise and during other periods of reduced visibility (fog, haze, smoke, etc.). On a power vessel of less than 12 meters  (39.4 feet) in length you must display, at a minimum, a combination red/green (port/starboard respectively) light at the bow and a white all-around light high amidships. If your powerboat is longer than 12 meters but not over 20 meters you must display a “powering” light high amidships which does not show astern, and a stern white light that does not show forward in addition to the red/green sidelights. The navigation lights on your boat should be mounted in such a way that they do not interfere with the helmsperson’s night vision; in other words, the lights should not be overly visible from any steering station.

As a paddler you may have become conditioned to staying well out of the way while paddling at night. In your mothership the idea of “out of the way” is somewhat different. Instead of hugging the shoreline as you might do in your kayak, you will be hugging the outermost edges of the navigable channel. If you are in an area that has a vessel transit system then you really should be in contact with, or at least listening to,  traffic control and following the applicable rules of the VTS area you are operating within.

The International Collision Regulations are most probably the rules of the road you will be following if you are operating on salt water. If, however, you are operating on a fresh water lake which is not under the jurisdiction of the appropriate Coast Guard you will be subject to the laws and regulations of the state or province or other municipality that has jurisdiction. The rules of the road are not always the same for inland lakes and rivers as they are for navigable waters under federal jurisdiction. That said, in the USA you will most likely be subject to the “Navigation Rules” of the USCG. These rules have some things specific to say about night operations.

You must keep an efficient watch both by sight and by hearing at all times when underway. You must also utilize all appropriate equipment on boad. You must not interfere with a large vessel in a channel. Your speed must be commensurate with the visibility but in general, at night, you should be opeating at a reduced speed.

Loss of equipment or passengers overboard at night has a greater urgency than it would if it happened during daylight hours. Gear should be well secured before you leave port because it may not be apparent to you that the gear is coming adrift in the dark. Passengers should not be out on deck unless they are well secured inside the confines of the vessel or are secured to the vessel. Anyone moving around or working on deck should be wearing a PFD and be dressed for immersion as appropriate for the water temperature.

Entering dark harbors or bays at night can be difficult without radar. If you do not have radar then you can use your GPS in combination with your depth sounder to help you find your way in. I have often followed the 10-fathom curve (plotted on many charts) to get safely in to an anchorage in fog or darkness; long before we had GPS or small boat radar units.

When you anchor at night you should take – and log – bearings on lights and points of land (it’s easier to see them than you think) once the anchor is set. I have used a hand bearing compass that has an internal light over the compass function. These are commonly known as “hockey puck” devices because they are round and flat. But they are extremely handy for night operations.

Interior lighting should be kept to a minimum when operating at night from the inside steering station. I have installed a red LED instrument light for the steering console instruments and a combination red/white light over the dinette table (just to port of the steering station) to allow the navigator to use navigational charts on the table. Many boaters rely on their GPS map systems for navigation. I prefer to use both the GPS and paper charts; especially at night. Caution should be used however because a mothership is capable of traveling at speeds high enough that a few minutes inattention looking at charts could set the vessel into danger. An autopilot would be nice, wouldn’t it?


The combination of a kayak and a powerboat does not have to be hazardous. I know that many paddlers consider all powerboaters to be either idiots or madmen – or both – but like so many things it’s the operator not the equipment. If you do your homework and pay attention to detail you can use a powerboat – or sailboat – to enhance your enjoyment of kayaking. And maybe give you the opportunity to introduce other members of your family or extended family to kayaking by providing them a safe place from which to start.

Craig Jungers
Moses Lake, WA