Bluewater vs. Coastal Cruising

Posted on Wednesday 22 March 2006

Recently, a friend of mine asked me what were the differences between bluewater sailing and coastal cruising, and which was safer. I thought about it for a while, and this is what I told him.

Bluewater sailing is very different from coastal cruising. Here are some of my thoughts on some of those differences.


Coastal cruisers are generally within VHF range of other ships, if not shore stations. Bluewater cruisers may be out of VHF and HF (SSB) radio range for long periods of time. Getting weather information, contacting family and staying in touch with the world is a bit more difficult for the bluewater sailor. Satellite and HF radio have increased long-range communications, but are still not completely reliable, and often quite expensive.


Many bluewater boats are missing some of the conveniences and comforts you find on coastal cruisers. The televisions, telephones, large berths, and spacious accommodations are all often signs of a coastal cruiser. Many bluewater boats are designed to be more seaworthy, and as such, will avoid large open layouts, which can be very dangerous in rough conditions. Bluewater berths are generally smaller, as the larger coastal berths become a hazard in rough waters.

The electronics, like telephones and television, are often shore-power dependent, and far too costly, in terms of electrical usage, to be considered on a bluewater boat. Refrigeration is also one of those conveniences that is often omitted from bluewater boats, although it is becoming more common, as the refrigeration units get smaller, more reliable and more efficient.

This is not to say that a bluewater boat has to be uncomfortable…but many of today’s boats are designed for the market, not for the open ocean. One of the boats I had been looking at originally has six berths. There is almost no chance that anyone would be making an extended voyage, either bluewater or coastal, with five other people on board on a 32’ sailboat. It isn’t feasible, reasonable, or safe. On a boat 40’ long, it might be possible, but not on anything smaller.


Bluewater sailors have to be far more independent, and self-reliant than do coastal cruisers because the ability to ask for and receive help is far more limited when you’re a speck on the open ocean. On the open ocean, if there are equipment failures, it can be much more important to repair them or have a backup than when you are only a short distance from a harbor.

Another area where self-reliance becomes important to the bluewater sailor is in terms of the boat. Electricity, fuel, and fresh water are scarce resources on a small sea-going sailboat. The ability to generate electricity without using valuable fuel is important, as is the ability to create or collect potable fresh water during a long passage. This is why you will see solar panels, wind generators and water makers on bluewater boats, but often do not see them on coastal cruisers. The battery bank on a bluewater boat is often a bit larger than that of a coastal cruiser as well.

Self-steering and the ability to work shorthanded is another thing common to bluewater boats. Many will have a windvane and/or an autopilot. Many bluewater passages are long and require little if any change of course, as the ocean winds are fairly constant. The windvane has the advantage of working without using precious electricity, and being far less prone to failure than the electronics-based autopilots.

Generally, a bluewater boat will have more spares, and more tools than a coastal cruising boat. A bluewater sailor will generally know more about his boat than many coastal cruisers, and have done more of the work on it personally as well.

Influence of Land:

A coastal cruiser needs to be very aware of his surroundings, as surprisingly large changes in weather can happen suddenly because of the land’s effects on the atmosphere. The awareness needed on the open ocean, where the weather systems are a bit more predictable—not influenced on a local scale by the neaby land features, is more macroscopic in nature.

The wind also tends to be less predictable when coastal cruising. Different landscape features can influence the wind in different ways. The wind on the open ocean tends to be more predictable.

Another problem is that some bluewater sailors, can underestimate the dangers of coastal sailing. The shallower water found near land complicates the interaction of wave and wind. The tide and the currents of rivers can also strongly affect the conditions found near shore.

The interaction of current, land, wave, wind and tide can often combine into extremely dangerous conditions, which are easy to misjudge. A good example of this is entering the Columbia River, in the Pacific Northwest—which is one of the most dangerous river entrances in the United States.


Many of the navigation hazards—like rocks, reefs, shipwrecks and sandbars—exist only along coastal waters for the most part. Navigation is also more of an issue for a bluewater sailor, as there are fewer reference points to use to locate your position—GPS, and dead reckoning and/or celestial navigation skills become far more important. This is not to say that navigation skills aren’t needed when coastal cruising—but that if you are coastal cruising, you have many more navigation options than the bluewater sailor does.


Coastal cruisers face a lot more traffic than bluewater sailors. The coastlines of most countries have shipping lanes with fairly high volumes of commercial shipping, as well as many other recreational boaters. Piracy can be another issue for coastal sailors in certain parts of the world. However, bluewater sailors still face floating hazards, like lost shipping containers, whales, and icebergs.


It takes more planning to avoid severe weather systems on a bluewater passage, as you can’t just drop into the nearest harbor to ride it out. However, the weather’s effects are often more severe in the shallower water near the coast—with steeper and taller waves. Unless the storm is truly horrific, it is often far safer to head out to sea, than to attempt to enter a safe harbor. There are some coastlines where the distance between the storm refuges are fairly great, making those coastlines very dangerous. A good example of this is the New Jersey coast, from Cape May to New York Harbor.

However, the waves can be much larger on the open ocean, without land to break up the momentum of the wind and water. This is one of the reasons the Southern Ocean is so challenging.


Many bluewater sailors have said that the long ocean passages aren’t the most dangerous part of the journey—it is entering and exiting the harbors that are the most dangerous. Ships and land don’t really mix well, and in the open ocean, there is little land to give you trouble.

The mindset and attitude that is required to go far from land is quite different from that of the coastal cruiser. In some people, there is an almost primal fear of being out of sight of all land.

The skill set of the bluewater sailor is a bit broader and more diverse than that of the coastal cruiser. The rhythms of bluewater sailing are different from that of coastal cruising.

2 Comments for 'Bluewater vs. Coastal Cruising'

    March 22, 2006 | 6:34 pm

    So which are you – blue or coast?

    March 23, 2006 | 7:34 pm

    Working on being a bluewater sailor… 😀

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