I can vividly remember watching a whole string of sailboats, under full sail, following the leader in the Exumas, Bahamas. Exuma waters are notoriously shallow and reef strewn, and they were headed toward an area of coral heads. I called with a warning on VHF channel 16 and quickly received a brush off — they were following someone who “knows what he is doing!” I watched the whole fleet sail close by the dangers, and they did miss everything, but only by a few feet.
Group-think can sometimes be a dangerous thing. It happens when members of a group, in this case voyaging sailors, stop analyzing situations for themselves. Maybe everyone is talking about crossing the Gulf Stream to get to the Bahamas and the consensus is to go when the winds are light and the seas down. What if you have a boat that sails well, but has a weak engine? Can you motor fast enough to arrive during daylight hours? You might be better off going when the winds are higher and the sailing is better. What if yours is the smallest boat of the group? Chances are you’ll be moving more slowly and it will be a struggle to keep up. What if you’re on the fastest boat? Are you going to want to be the leader that everyone follows, waiting for the slow pokes to catch up?
Kids change everything
However, having kids on board changes everything. There should be a kids-boat radar system so we can home in on other boats traveling with children. When in harbor, kid boats attract each other like magnets, and before long you’re traveling in company, whether you like it or not. And if you have teens on board, the magnetic attraction increases exponentially.
Having discovered this law of nature, we’ve had to adapt ourselves to sailing in company with other boats. At first we tried to do our own thing as much as possible, while still arriving in the same ports around the same time. That is a good way to begin a buddy-boating relationship. You get to know the folks on the other boat without having to modify your sailing routines. You will still need to do some coordination. Set up a VHF channel that you’ll both monitor if it is just a day sail, or set up a schedule on the SSB or Ham radio if you’ll be farther apart.
Keep in mind that when the VHF radio is on, you should be monitoring channel 16 for any priority or emergency traffic. Most radios have a “dual watch” capability, allowing you to monitor two channels at once. However, monitoring more than one channel can sometimes be confusing, so the best approach is to carry out the conversation on a working channel and then switch back to dual watch. For these reasons we prefer to simply monitor channel 16 when under way, adding channel 13 when in U.S. waters near major ports, or other channels that are used for commercial traffic in certain harbors around the world. Before you leave port, set up the working channel for your buddy boat, and then you can just say “switch” when you make contact on channel 16. This keeps clutter off the airways.
Many voyagers monitor various SSB and Ham nets around the world. Right after the net is a great time to schedule a contact with your buddy boat, though the airwaves may be crowded then. We also use e-mail to stay in touch with buddy boats. Many voyagers send and receive e-mails on board using Winlink or Sailmail via Ham or SSB radio equipment. We use an Iridium phone set up for data communications. On most boats e-mail would not provide immediate contact, but it can be a great way to send detailed messages that are hard to transmit over the radio. For example, I much prefer e-mail for trading latitude/longitude waypoints and sailing directions — it is too easy to make a mistake when copying down this information from a scratchy radio connection. Also, e-mail is a lot more private than a broadcast that every boat within radio range can hear.
It is a good idea to have a contingency plan in case your buddy boat doesn’t show up. It can be as simple as, “Don’t worry, don’t alert the Coast Guard, we’ll have decided to go someplace else.” Or, it could be a phone number that you’ll call if there is a change of plans. I have always told my family not to worry unless they hear from me, because I have found that sailing plans are subject to drastic change at any moment. I don’t want rescue authorities fruitlessly searching for me while I repair a broken water pump in some alternate port. However, if you’re the worrywart type, voyaging in company is a good way to make sure all of your departures and arrivals are duly noted.
The cruising radio nets provide a good way to keep track of other boats and to announce your own departure and arrival. Popular destinations frequently have local VHF radio nets that usually operate in the morning either before or after more regional SSB and Ham nets. Many of these nets become cluttered with the same boats checking in day after day, and it can be quite time consuming to monitor the net every day, particularly if you’re just waiting to hear from a particular buddy boat. Propagation problems can prevent communications on SSB or Ham. When in the Southwest Caribbean, we found we frequently had difficulty hearing the Panama nets, while we could easily hear the Northwest Caribbean nets, which were much farther away. E-mail makes a good backup when trying to maintain contact over long distances.
An unlikely trio
The next level of buddy boating is to try to leave and travel in company with the other boat or boats. This can get tricky. Unless your pals have the same or very similar boats, chances are good that you will travel at different speeds under different conditions. We found this to be the case when we traveled in company with two other kid boats from the San Blas Islands in Panama to Providencia Island, then Honduras. Our boat is a Finnsailer 38 motorsailor, and we were traveling with a Venezia 42 catamaran and a Bowman 57. The three boats couldn’t have been more different.
We were the tortoise of the lot, so we left the San Blas a few hours early, and the other boats caught up to us around nightfall. At that point the wind was a stiff 20 to 25 knots on the nose, with rough seas and an uncomfortable cross swell. We found that we could keep up with the 42-foot cat close hauled. However, the Bowman disappeared off into the night. By morning, the wind had eased off a few points and the catamaran took off at speed. To make it in before dark we had to motorsail hard, arriving a few hours behind the two other boats after a passage of about 280 miles.
Subsequent short day hops and overnighters had a similar pattern: we could motor as well as the other two when the winds were very light. If the wind was hard and on the nose we could keep up with the cat. We were not the ideal three boats to stick together, but we made it work so our kids could stay together. We also enjoyed the advantage of having friends nearby in case something happened. One night we were traveling through waters off the coast of Nicaragua where there had been recent reports of possible piracy. A few days earlier some friends had been stopped at night, boarded and inspected by the Nicaraguan Coast Guard. It was a scary experience as the boat approached with no lights and no radio contact. Other boats in the area reported close contact with suspicious boats, often at night. When our three buddy boats were approached at night off the coast of Nicaragua, we closed ranks and kept in close radio contact. As far as we could tell, the suspicious boats were just fishermen, but it was nice to know help was nearby if something happened.
Trusting the leader
On our trip we also found that it was great following another boat into tricky harbors, when you knew and trusted the boat ahead. Generally, I am very reluctant to follow anyone through a difficult or unfamiliar passage unless I know the boat draws more than ours. Never follow another boat blindly! I always monitor the navigation closely, no matter who is leading the way. Once inside, we would anchor near each other, providing extra security when leaving the boats and at night. Proximity can’t always be relied on as a deterrent — in Utila, some friends of ours had their boat robbed while they were on a nearby boat enjoying cocktails — so it is best to maintain all normal security procedures, but the extra eyes and ears can’t hurt.
There are other advantages to having well-known friends nearby. Several times our three buddy boats got together to make tricky repairs, utilizing everyone’s talents, spare parts, and tools. If one boat is having trouble communicating via radio, often another boat can get through. Maybe one boat has radar and can alert everyone to approaching storms or shipping. Sometimes you can’t get your ATM card to work at the bank, but your buddy boat’s card does work. Multiple boats often gather information from different sources, making it easier to find out the latest harbor regulations, which marina is best, or where to find the best eateries.
Of course, the biggest advantage is simply the camaraderie of traveling in a group. It is always great to arrive in a harbor where you already know people you like and with whom you share similar interests. We found it was great, and sometimes cheaper, traveling inland in a group. In Guatemala we rented a van to take two families to the Mayan ruins at Tikal, and the total cost was less than if we had purchased eight tickets on the public buses. Plus, we had a lot of fun together!
John J. Kettlewell is a marine author, editor and photographer. He’s cruised the waters from Labrador to the Caribbean for 30 years. He and his wife Leslie are co-authors of the Intracoastal Waterway Chartbook: Norfolk, Virginia, to Miami, Florida, and The Intracoastal Waterway Chartbook: Miami, Florida, to Mobile, Alabama.