|Motoring away from our home port in Chicago for the last time September 2010|
Ten (okay, eleven) Things Freshman Cruisers Should Know Before Shoving Off
- Fixing your boat is going to get old. We've all heard the cliche, "cruising is doing boat work in exotic places!" Yawn. Yes, it's true. But not all of us are slaving away on our boats every single day chasing down problem after problem. Just like everything in life, some have it harder than others. How much work you end up doing depends on a couple things, namely: your boat and how well you maintain it. If you left the dock two days after buying a boat on Craigslist for a song, you will most likely be doing a lot more work underway than the person who put a little more money and work into their boat before leaving. But no matter what, no one gets away Scott-free. Stuff will break. You will have to fix it. This will get tremendously annoying from time to time and, yes, it will get old. The more handy you are, the more you will enjoy cruising. There is a direct correlation in my opinion, so get a how-to book and start practicing!
- Do not underestimate the value of good cockpit cushions. Bottom and back! Seriously, if you are going to be spending a lot of time on your boat, you'll spend a lot of time in your cockpit and a little added comfort goes a VERY long way for your tush. On our last boat we had foam cushions covered in Sunbrella which were great but got wet and required drying out after a rough passage or wet weather, this boat came with closed-cell foam cushions which are - bar none - the best. No maintenance, all the comfort. We also have four "outdoor" throw pillows that live in the cockpit as well, and despite the fact that Scott scoffed at having throw pillows on deck ("this is a BOAT, Brittany") he has since changed his tune and thanked me for them on more than one occasion. Our cockpit is comfy-cozy.
- Beware of advice from others. Take it with a grain of salt. Take some (particularly that from the anonymous "arm chair" pundits) with a bucketful of it, in fact. I'm talking about all advice here: advice on forums, advice from peers, from other cruisers, and - yes - even advice you read on this blog. Cruising is so very much like parenting, nobody does it exactly the same - and there are about a million ways to do a million different things. Best cruising grounds, what sort of cruising gear to get, best boat model, type of safety equipment, how to organize, when and where to go, what to make for dinner...the list is endless and everyone has an opinion. Do your homework, use your boat and figure out what is best for you.
- Baby steps, people. For those of us who leave from the East Coast, we have a huge advantage in that there is a natural progression of difficulty as you head south and east. The route we went first took us through the Great Lakes - which was fun and helped us get our feet wet. Then, we traversed the Erie Canal - got some experience with unstepping and stepping our rig, introduced us to locks and acquainted us with running our engine and the regular maintenance that requires. From there, we did the Husdon River which soon gave way to the Atlantic Ocean. Sailing offshore on the East Coast was challenging (we got our first lessons in how inaccurate weather prediction is!) and exhilarating (big winds, big seas) and from there we found ourselves in the Intracoastal waterway which introduced us to anchoring and the wonderful world of currents and tides. From there, we cruised the Bahamas which is without a doubt the beginning cruisers dream. It's easy sailing, easy anchoring, no long passages are necessary and you're never too far from facilities and help should you need them. After the Bahamas, things got more challenging. More attention had to be paid to the weather, we dealt with much bigger seas, longer passages, more overnights, more challenging anchoring scenarios...the list goes on. My point is this: each stage was a milestone that, once graduated from, prepared us better for the next. We feel very lucky that this is how we got our start. Though I have zero experience with it, I would be hard-pressed to suggest any new sailor hop on their boat and cross an ocean. I'm sure it's been done, but I think the learning curve we experienced was a beneficial one. Baby steps. Rome was not conquered in day, and you have nothing to prove to anyone.
- Recognize the difference between wants and needs. This is a big one, especially if you are doing a refit. I could go on and on, but my bloggy friend Behan wrote an excellent piece on this subject. Read it. The jist is this: make sure you don't spend a fortune on the wants (i.e. new corian countertops for the galley, recovering interior cushions), when you should really be investing in the needs (i.e. rebuilding engine, replacing standing rigging). I admit that this can be hard to do, but it is important to always be mindful of. After all, the goal is to cruise, right? Not to have the prettiest boat.
- Have realistic expectations; about cruising, about the islands, about your plans. This is a huge one. Expectations can have a huge impact (positive or negative) on your trip. I cannot tell you how many people we have met who were "disappointed" by cruising or by certain places because they simply didn't match their expectations. So many people shove off on their boats and expect their life to be a gypsy-veiled dream. They expect the islands to be beautiful, pristine and postcard perfect. They expect steel drum bands, swim up bars and fun little beach shacks to grab a burger and a beer. While this type of scenario does exist, the only places we have seen it are the ones that have been overrun with tourism (and many people avoid these types of islands for just these reasons - to each his own - we enjoy the touristy stuff from time to time). Many islands are far from postcard perfect. We had some friends who were so excited to go to Dominica because they heard so many good things about it only to be really disappointed because it was (their words) "a total dump". Do some homework so that your expectations are realistic and understand that just because the majority of cruisers "love" a certain place, doesn't mean you will. There is a tremendous "herd" mentality out here and lots of folks jump on bandwagons just because. The same goes with cruising, make sure you read about the dark sides as well as the good because if you are too idealistic, you will be sorely disappointed. ALSO, be FLEXIBLE about your plans. Be ready for them to change. In fact, count on them changing. Think you're going to circumnavigate in two years? Sure, it's possible...but it's also really unlikely. Set goals, make plans and prepare to change tacks from time to time. I don't think we know a single cruiser who's cruising itinerary followed exactly what they had envisioned before shoving off. I know for certain ours hasn't!
- When selecting an anchor, go bigger. This is well documented advice all over the place, but it bears mentioning. Your anchor is one of the most important pieces of gear on your boat - it can keep you safe and even save your life. Don't skimp on it (or them). We have three anchors on our boat; a 73 lb. Rocna as our primary, a 63 lb Mantus as our secondary (sidenote: we LOVE Mantus Anchors, review to come!) and a 35 lb Mantus for our stern. Also, if you can swing it, a windlass is your friend. By no means a necessity, but definitely nice to have!
- Do NOT skimp on you dinghy/outboard setup. When we left Chicago on our first boat the whole dinghy/outboard thing was a total afterthought. We had a thirty year old Johnson 2-Hp motor and an equally old inflatable and this setup was not ideal. It was incredibly limiting and we stayed back from many excursions and outings because we simply didn't have the propulsion to get there. That dinghy died (a blessing in disquise?) and we got a new one (including an outboard!) for $300, which should have been our first warning. That dinghy was no better (in many ways, it was worse) and for about five thousand nautical miles we cursed the fact that we didn't invest in a better setup from day one. We now have a 15 HP Yamaha and a 10 foot RIB and love this set up. We can get to far flung beaches, and faster than a snails pace. Think of your dinghy as your car, you want something reliable, practical and useful. Choose wisely because it can really open up a world of possibilities for you.
- Invest in good paper charts and cruising guides. I am so alarmed by the number of cruisers who rely only on their chart plotters for navigational information. This, my friends, is NOT prudent boating for a myriad of reasons. For one, they can die...and then what? You gonna bust out that old sextant Uncle Joe got you from a garage sale? If you are, good on you. But the majority of us do not know celestial navigation and trying to figure it out when the "bleep" hits the fan is not advisable. Furthermore, chart plotters have been known to be wrong. We met one unfortunate cruiser who's boat was a complete loss because he went through an "inlet" that was clearly marked on his chart plotter, but in real life was actually land. Land, people. Buy paper charts. Also...don't underestimate the good ole Lonely Planet guidebooks. Great for land-based tips and up-to-date info. Not every book you own must relate to cruising and cruising alone.
- Prepare for serious ups and downs. This life is not one of "moderation". I know, I know...I am beating a dead horse here - but it's true, be ready to feel a little bipolar from time to time. I've said it before and I will not stop saying it as long as we are blogging: high highs and low lows people. There will be days you will curse your boat, this life, the islands, your spouse, the weather...whatever. You will dislike cruising from time to time, you might even hate it sometimes. But... in between, there will be many moments that will enrich your life in ways you never imagined, you will learn more about yourself than you ever thought possible and - most important - you will collect a lifetime of stories to color your soul. You might do this for a while and find it's not for you - and that's okay too. At least you gave it a try and collected some great stories along the way. And who doesn't love a good story?
...and one more for good measure: you WILL screw up. Many times. Hopefully, (because you are prudent with boat maintenance, watching weather and being cautious) your screw ups will not be of the "colossal" variety, but of the minor to major annoyance or even the "wow, that was embarrassing" type. Embrace these hiccups. These are the times you will learn the most. You will be humbled (which is always a good thing to be at sea). You will be scared. Frustrated. Enlightened. And the learning curve? It never ends. Cruising is like golf, it can never be "mastered" and as soon as you think you are on top of your game and get a little cocky, you can rest assured that the Universe will find a way to knock you down a peg. Respect your boat, respect the ocean, keep your mind open and hang on tight because it's one crazy, beautiful ride.