Tecktalk - Going South?

Telltale Article - by George de Witte.

It is almost 3 years ago since Whiskeydream returned from her voyage south, but we still get asked on a regular basis re tips for such an undertaking. It seems that a good number of NSC members are dreaming about the big adventure, so Lesley and I will attempt to leave a record of all our learning experiences along the way.

For starters however I must acknowledge the standard reference book for all Caribbean cruisers: Bruce van Sant’s “The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South”. Bruce has 100 times more experience than we can claim to have. His book is full of practical tips on passage selection, navigation, weather and long term living aboard. However the book seems to be aimed at the American market and assumes that somehow you have made it to Southern Florida .

So in this article I will attempt to provide some additional tips on heading South assuming you are leaving from Eastern Ontario.

US Regulations

If you are leaving from Ottawa , the most common itinerary takes you from Kingston across Eastern Lake Ontario to Oswego . >From there through the Erie Canal across northern New York State, down the Hudson River to New York City, around New Jersey, the Delaware and Chesapeake Bay and finally the Intracoastal Waterway to Southern Florida.

So as a Canadian registered boat and resident you have to deal with US regulations. The clearance into the port of Oswego is straightforward. Oswego is an OARS port (Outlying Area Responding Station), which means that boaters can do the formalities by videophone, which is located near the Municipal Dock. Contrary to standard international clearance procedures both the Captain and crew need to go the videophone with passports and ships papers. If everyone is Canadian you will be given a clearance number and most likely a permit to stay in the US for 6 months. If you travel on a passport from a Visa Waiver country (most Western European countries), the latest rules say that they will clear you with a stamped I-94 waiver form. However my personal experience is that the US Border Protection people make up their rules on the fly and don’t be surprised if you need to be “stamped in” by an in persona CBP officer.  So try to arrive during regular working hours. At least you don’t have to pay the overtime fee. Just a small hint if your boat has more than 2 litres of alcohol on board: declare it all as “regular ship stores” and no further questions will be asked. Also a word of caution re the zero tolerance policy on importing illegal drugs: your boat will be confiscated and you may wind up in jail or face some very stiff penalties.

Another caution regarding re-entry. If you make an offshore passage like going around New Jersey or skipping a section of the Intracoastal Waterway , you are technically deemed to have left the country if you went more than 3 miles offshore.  We kind of forgot about that since all American boats seemed to enter the Atlantic inlets without stopping at customs. But in principle you can get in serious difficulties if you are caught.

There is a good chance that the US Coastguard will board your vessel for a safety inspection. Generally speaking if you meet the Canadian regulations, you should be ok, but there are a few extra’s. The first one is the decal stating that overboard oil discharge is strictly prohibited. Since Whiskeydream was a US manufactured boat, it had to be somewhere, but it took a while to find. Secondly you need to have an orange flag in your kit of visual distress items. Of course we did not have one, but a dark yellow Q-flag did the trick. They are also very keen on the position of your marine head waste discharge valve. On inland waters and within 3 miles of shore it needs to be closed. I even read that in some states it needs to be sealed.

A different subject: propane tanks. They need to be equipped with an OPD or Overflow Protection Device. The OPD can be recognized by the shape of the shut-off valve handle: if it has the shape of a 3 pointed star it is fine. If it is round it is not. Propane filling stations refuse to fill the old style tanks, but once you are in the Bahamas you are fine.

There is also a rule re spare fuel tanks. To carry diesel it needs to be yellow, but we found that most marina operators looked the other way.

Erie Canal Transit

Before we left on our trip I had actually never heard of the Erie Canal . It was built originally to connect NY City with the Midwest and it is said to be responsible for New York City ’s meteoric rise as a world financial capital. The original implementation was merely a ditch with a towpath and manually operated locks, where mules hauled barges from Lake Erie to Albany . The current canal is a third generation facility that used the Mohawk River , Lake Oneida and manmade canals to allow steam powered craft to cover the distance. It has a large number of electrically operated lock stations that were built in the 1920’s. For a while in recent times the locks were in poor repair but the NYS Thruway Authority is now responsible for the canal and the locks are one by one being renovated with excess revenues from the NY Thruway.

The transit of the Erie Canal has a couple of implications for you the boater. For starters the clearance of bridges is only 25 ft, which means the boat has to be dismasted. Since you are leaving from Kingston presumably, it hardly makes sense to step the mast and then take it down again in Oswego . So the mast needs to be lashed across the boat for the transit of Lake Ontario and the Erie Canal .  However Eastern Lake Ontario is known to kick up a nasty swell, so make sure the supports for the mast and boom are solid. In other words do your planning and carpentry at home before you leave while you still have access to decent tools and transportation. Mast stepping can be done once you have reached the Hudson River . We used the Castleton Boat Club, a friendly bunch where a couple of volunteers gave us an extra hand during the critical moment.

No mast usually means no VHF, since the antenna is down. However with some advanced planning we made a temporary antenna rig. This is important as you really want to be able to talk to lockmasters.

The other precaution involves transiting the locks. A lot of the lock walls are rough stone or concrete covered in slime and filth that you definitely don’t want anywhere near your baby. So cover the fenders with surplus ladies stockings, to be discarded at the end of the canal trip. Also fashion a so-called fender board: a 6-8 ft length of 2*6, with a few holes drilled in it, which can be hung from the lifelines to protect the fenders from the abrasive and filthy lock walls.

There are really two aspects to communications: emergency and social and both are almost equally important. Let me deal with emergency comm.’s first.  In Canada and USA the VHF radio is adequate, as you can raise the Canadian or US Coast Guard everywhere as long as you stay within about 20-30 miles of the coast. We could hear the USCG well into the Bahamas , a distance of over 50 miles. You need an operator’s license (ROC-M), but no station license is needed in Canada or US. In theory you need a station license in most Caribbean countries, but nobody does. It would put all restaurants and taxis out of business. However once you go offshore you will need something in addition to the VHF. If money is no problem, you can get a satellite phone and be done with it. Otherwise it is wise to invest in a marine SSB (Single SideBand) or Amateur Radio (Ham) shortwave setup. The installation will set you back some $2000-$3000, but once you got it, operation is free. To become a licensed amateur, you will need to pass an exam which involves radio knowledge and a 5 wpm Morse code test. More information can be obtained on the Radio Amateur Canada website. To install a Marine SSB on a pleasure vessel no Radio Station license is needed in Canada , but you need a station license for the USA and other countries. The license is straightforward to obtain as long as your equipment is type approved. To operate the SSB the ROC-M you should have for the VHF is sufficient. Note that SSB is really a type of radio modulation, which is used in both Ham and Marine shortwave bands. But quite often the term SSB is used to refer to the marine band allocations in the shortwave spectrum (1.8-30 MHz).  There are cruiser nets on both Ham and SSB. I did not find them all that useful, but some people like it to stay in touch with cruiser friends or get early warnings about approaching weather.

The attraction of shortwave is that on the right frequency band, depending on the time of day and sunspot activity, worldwide coverage is possible with only a 100 Watt of transmit power. However if you select the right frequency band, reliable communications can be established 24 hrs a day over distances of 500-1000 miles. If you don’t want to invest the time and money in a shortwave system, you should at least have an SSB capable shortwave receiver. That way you can receive the offshore weather forecast from the USCG and listen to the worldwide broadcasts at night from sources like Radio Canada International, Radio Nederland Wereld Omroep, the BBC and National Public Radio.

We opted for the Radio Amateur approach. One of the compelling reasons was that the Amateur community operates a worldwide Winlink network, which enables you to transmit and receive email via shortwave. Since amateurs by law are not allowed to charge for communications services, Winlink is free. So we used Winlink just about every day to swap emails with family and close friends, which we found to be very important as we were away for a long time. Another bonus we discovered partway through the trip was that with Winlink the text version for your cruising area of the USCG offshore weather forecast from their station NMN could be downloaded. This was a big improvement as NMN broadcasts only 4 times per day and then it takes about 45 minutes to cover the entire Atlantic Coast from Labrador to Texas . Just to put it mildly, receiving and interpreting NMN is an acquired skill.

 As you may guess I am dealing now with the social aspects of communications. The same technology that Winlink uses for email is also available on SSB. It is run by an organisation called Sailmail and you need to open account. It costs US$250 per year. Apart from the expense aspects, Sailmail has a much smaller network than Winlink. Another option for email is Pocketmail. You need to buy a PDA like device, which has an acoustic coupler. From a payphone you can dial an 800 number and upload your prepared emails and download any incoming emails. It costs about $150 per year including toll free service in US and Canada .  However once you hit the islands, you need to pay international long distance rates and you are always on the hunt for a working payphone which in most islands is the exception rather than the rule. Still most boaters I talked to were happy with the Pocketmail service.

The final option for email is land based internet access. In the US internet cafe’s are pretty well a thing of the past, but in the islands they can be found in the major centres. Back in the US however we found that every town of a reasonable size has an excellent public library with free use of internet connected computers. It is great for doing some PC banking or online shopping for elusive boat widgets.

A word on cell phones. They work practically everywhere as long as you are in sight of land. Be aware though that there are two incompatible technologies around. Rogers/Fido use GSM and Bell/Telus use CDMA. So check the roaming coverage of your provider if you intend to venture offshore into the islands.

Finally a word on EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicator Radio Beacon). If your draft is more than 6 ft, you cannot use the Intracoastal Waterway and you have to make a deep-sea transit from Beaufort NC to Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands . For such a voyage an EPIRB is highly recommended. An EPIRB can be triggered manually or automatic when it is floating. It has a beacon in the 406 MHz band which NOAA through satellite technology can use to identify you and your position. Although many false alarms are triggered due to EPIRB’s being hit by a slosh of water, the authorities will launch a rescue effort and many lives have been saved with this simple device.

Boat Preparations

If your bottom paint is the popular VC17, you need to cover with VC-offshore or replace it with stuff that is intended for saltwater. This is a topic for an article on its own, so I’ll leave it at that. Just make sure that you also paint the prop and prop shaft.  If you don’t the growth on the prop will throw it out of balance resulting in excessive vibrations when under power. Creatures also like to make home in the log impeller area which sooner or later just stops working. So practice with your crew at home to replace the impeller housing with the dummy plug to remove the uninvited growth. If you get it down to 4 litres or so, you are ready to go. The transducer for the depth meter also tends to suffer from slime build-up, but just dive on it and one swipe with a rag will restore its operation.

Your engine is going to clock some 1000 hrs or more. While you may have been told that diesels run trouble free forever as long as you change oil, it is not true. So I would recommend that if you lack the skills, have a competent diesel mechanic do a thorough check of the engine before you leave. Make sure that at least the injectors are checked for injection (pop) pressure, spray pattern and carbon deposits. Remove the exhaust mixing elbow and check for carbon build-up. Take a course so you have the competency to bleed the fuel system, replace fuel filters, replace thermostat, replace pump impellors and V-belts, do Valve Clearance adjustments and engine alignment.

Battery Power management and alternate charging source are an important topic as well. However I have covered it in detail in a previous article on the simple Ammeter, which is now archived on the NSC website. Suffice to say that we also ignored the good advice of experienced cruisers and were installing a solar panel before crossing over to the Bahamas .

Fresh water supply becomes a challenge once you leave the US , where you can fill up for free in most marinas. However in the islands fresh water is relatively expensive ($0.10-0.25 per litre) but worse: often you need to ferry it to your boat in the dinghy. So start your preparations by buying at least 4 collapsible 20L water carriers. They are readily available in camping supply stores. You may want to think about installing a seawater faucet in the galley. Caribbean seawater is extremely clean in most places and can be used for many purposes to cut back on fresh water consumption. Tee-ing the seawater intake into one of the existing thru-hulls is usually not a good idea. So you need to add a 0.5 inch Thru-hull to your boat. Do it before spring launch of the year you are leaving. The remainder of the plumbing can be done later in the season.  If you are able to spend a week in a remote paradise anchorage without running out of water, send me a thank you note for the fine advice (on your wireless email).

You must have a safety harness for each crew, a tether and jack-lines, so people can attach themselves securely to the boat during all but the calmest crossings. My brother once did an experiment on the mid-Atlantic in a choppy sea: an object thrown overboard was out of sight in seconds and could never be found again. Don’t even think what happens if you slip at night and go overboard while your crew is sound asleep.  We used low stretch 2 inch webbing after consulting a specialist at one of the local mountain climbing sport stores. The attachment points need to be super strong. We used the forward and aft mooring cleats and removed the jack-lines when not needed. A lot of boats install 3/8 inch SS U-bolts. Make sure they have a hardwood backing plate to take the strain when needed.

There is an endless list of items you can equip your boat with for creature comfort.  Things like radar, chart plotters, TV, water makers, windlass, freezer and refrigeration, bow thrusters and electric winches come to mind. Think about it if you really need them. They are all hi tech items and in the salt environment tend to fail a lot more than you bargained for. We have seen a lot of boaters looking for hard to find specialist mechanics or waiting for replacement parts to be expedited instead of enjoying themselves.

If you made it as far as Ft Lauderdale and plan to carry on with the adventure, here is the place to stock up on all things nautical. If you can’t find it in Ft Lauderdale, it does not exist. In particular this is the place to stock up on nautical charts, cruising guides, and Q and courtesy flags for all the countries you plan to visit. If you can’t wait till Ft Lauderdale, Annapolis and St Augustine are also fine places to do some nautical purveying. In particular the “pre-owned stuff” stores in both cities are a must visit.

Crew preparation

Before we left Lesley and I had extensive discussions on how to deal with some worst case but realistic scenarios.  One of them was the Captain turning deadly sick in the middle of nowhere. So both before and during the initial portion of the trip we made sure that she could handle all aspects of sailing, radio procedures, GPS and instrument operation, weather forecasting, navigation, docking and anchoring (single handed). Your macho image won’t do you any good if you are down.  I am happy to report she passed with flying colours. But I am still working on her to do an oil change. I’ll buy the bar a round of beer when that happens.


There are a whole bunch of other topics which could be covered like weather forecasting, spare parts inventory, Baja fuel filter, pest control etc, but they are all covered in a light hearted but thorough manner in Bruce van Sant’s book. So if you are serious about the big adventure, read the book cover to cover at least three times before you go. A final suggestion: many boaters almost sink their vessel on the Gulf Stream crossing, because they are overloaded with American provisions. They mistakenly believed that Bahamian supermarkets are expensive. It is actually not true and in many places the boating community constitutes a substantial portion of the local economy. We need them as much as they need us, so don’t overstock State-side. It is completely unnecessary and part of the adventure is to experiment with local cuisine and ingredients. Bahamian Kalik beer is actually superior to most of the import brands.  And this is a statement by a connoisseur raised on Heineken and Stella Artois .

I know of at least two NSC boats that are currently headed south. If you have any updates or enhancements, feel free to speak up. That way we can make this a living document on our website for future NSC adventurers.

As you may have noticed I did most of the talking. However Lesley, my beloved spouse and competent crew made a solemn promise to author a follow-up article to talk about the more female aspects of the adventure. Stay tuned.