shows by example how easily you can eliminate stress, become more independent, raise your children in a safer environment (while spending more time with them, instilling values not based on the mighty dollar) and avoid the traps of commercialism. Because we live and sail simply, we have been wandering for 11 years with no intention of stopping. This is not a trip for us; it is our life, and I hope to share our success with stories of laughter and tears, as well as how-to tips and DIY projects for preparing, sailing and making a boat a home, so that others can join us.

The Importance of a Lee

April 4, 2016

The wind had been blowing out the easterly quadrant for over a week. With gusts to 30 knots and no gradient winds under 15, we were hunkered down in the lee of Key Biscayne, waiting. We knew there was a possible weather window for crossing the Gulf Stream coming within a few days, and we wanted to fill our water tanks before we left the country, so we were watching for any break in the weather that would make it "possible" (our version of "possible," which really means "comfortable and safe") to take a mooring at Dinner Key Marina across the Bay. (In theory, we could have just gone to the fuel dock, but we also needed to pick up our mail. Yours truly messed up the timing on our documentation renewal, and we sort of needed that to get into the Bahamas. For all my organizational skills, sometimes I miss things.) While we waited, we listened to the horror stories on the radio from those on the moorings.

This was the GOOD day on the moorings.

Dinghies were snapping their painters, attachment points were parting from inflatables, the shuttle service from the mooring balls to the dock wasn't running because of the high winds, and boaters were uncomfortable (or even felt unsafe) taking a dinghy to shore in that mess. One look at a chart with an eye toward the importance of a lee could have predicted those conditions. That's exactly why we were where we were.

With winds out of any easterly direction, the mooring field is wide open to MILES of fetch. A week of 20-knot winds builds up a sea that is beyond uncomfortable and enters the realm of unsafe. Tucked up in our anchorage, within sight of the mooring field on the other side of the Bay, we had a few hundred feet of fetch between us and the lee. A small sea could (and did) still build, but it was nothing like the mountains in the mooring field. A lee is a wonderful phenomenon that not enough boaters take advantage of.

Rule of thumb

An easy rule of thumb (no pun intended) for knowing when you are in the lee of a land mass upwind of you is to use your thumb. Extend your arm in the direction of land, thumbs up. If the distance from the base of the land to its highest point is larger than the first knuckle on your thumb, you are in its lee. We first used this technique in the Caribbean when trying to determine if the wind we were feeling was true or if we were still in the lee of the nearest island. It also helps you determine whether you are getting the brunt of the easterly trades in the passes between islands or if one or another hunk of land is still providing you some lee. Sailing to leeward of Grenada, it is imperative that you stay far enough away to be out of its wind shadow, or lee, if you want enough wind to sail. How do you know? Use your thumb.

Our thumb was a tiny speck compared to the bit of Key Biscayne that was to windward of us. We were well within its lee. Why is this so important, besides not wanting to get sea sick at anchor? Once you are outside the lee of land and a sea can build, your ground tackle starts to lose its effectiveness. Have you ever watched your anchor chain when your bow is bucking? It jerks up out of the water, seriously lessening your scope at the exact moment that you need it most. In high winds you may already be pulling on your anchor, so this upward motion is essentially trying to rip your anchor from its holding. Not good.

The dry sand bars give us a lee from seas.

Even if your anchor holds and your crew will tolerate offshore conditions while at anchor, there are other safety issues to consider. Chafe is your enemy, especially when it comes to anchoring. Your snubber (or if you aren't anchoring from all chain, your rode itself) is under tremendous loads in high winds and the motion of a sea creates limitless opportunity for this taut line to chafe on something: the secondary anchor on the bow, the bow roller, or any other part of the boat that your rode encounters, depending on your anchor package. If you don't chafe through your rode or snubber, if your anchor doesn't drag, if your crew doesn't mutiny, it's still downright uncomfortable and unseamanlike to anchor (or moor) in adverse conditions when there is a perfectly comfortable lee a few miles away. We couldn't help but wonder, "Why are those people still on the moorings?"

At the tail end of the blow, when we knew it would be safe, though probably not yet comfortable, to be on a mooring at Dinner Key, and when we either had to go get our mail and water or lose this weather window, we left our comfortable lee and sailed over to join the uncomfortable masses. Oh my. It was so bumpy I missed the mooring pendant on the first pass (That's my excuse, at least. The fact that I've picked up only single digit moorings in the past 17 years of boating may have contributed to it, as well.) and we had to circle around and try it again. Once we were attached to the bottom (on someone else's tackle: that's just so unnatural feeling for me. I prefer to drop OUR anchor where WE want it, but that's another post) we looked around. Boats were still bucking so hard they were dipping their bows every few waves. Our bow pulpit went underwater several times that morning before the seas finally laid down. And this was on the GOOD day! It was so "good" that the marina shuttle was running. What must this have looked like during the worst of it? I think we can all imagine.

We are currently anchored off an unnamed island we have dubbed Wee Cay. (Knowing that "cay" is pronounced "key" makes it a much better name.) Wee Cay doesn't provide much lee from the wind, being wee, but it has sand banks that are exposed at all but the highest tide, providing us excellent lee from the seas. It blew 20 knots last night, and while Dave did get up once to check that we were still where we parked, it was the two boats anchored off a rocky lee shore, with little protection to windward, that he worried about the most. At sunset last night he had said, "I wonder if I should radio them and let them know what the wind is supposed to do?" We decided it was neither our responsibility, nor was it likely to be appreciated, so we didn't. Instead, I decided to write this post, to remind boaters of the importance of anchoring where you will have the protection of a lee, from wind or at least seas, for your safety and comfort. And to prevent mutiny.

MONDAY we'll share my favorite Christmas present. The gift that keeps on giving.


Connie McBride's work has been published in Good Old Boat, Sail Magazine, Small Craft Advisor, Cruising World, All at Sea, and Blue Water Sailing. As a full-time liveaboard cruiser for over 15 years, she has written several books and in her spare time, well, who has spare time?

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