Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Expectations, Experience and Equipment: A Recipe for Successful Cruising?

A while back, I wrote a blog post about two separate boats whose cruising dreams came to an end for various reasons.  I received a comment on that post that rang so true to me and I have been ruminating about expanding on it ever since.  The commenter noted that the two misadventures I highlighted in my post could be attributed to three things:  expectations, experience and equipment.  While I don't know enough about the two boats and owners mentioned in my post to agree with him in regards to those situations, after much thought I absolutely do agree that those three "E's" - expectations, experience and equipment - are three key ingredients in the recipe for happy and successful cruising.

I have always said that realistic expectations are crucial to enjoying a life on the water.  If you think that sailing off into the sunset is going to be a magical cure-all for whatever ails you, well - you have another think coming.  Yes, it can be incredible, inspiring, beautiful, magical, eye-opening, empowering and wonderful.  But it's also very challenging and requires a lot of hard work and sacrifice.  It is not an "endless vacation" like so many perceive and it is certainly not easy.  People who sail off into the sunset unprepared for the stark realities of cruising often find themselves quickly disillusioned and lamenting out loud, "I had no idea it would be this hard!"  Realistic expectations are key to enjoying a life of cruising.  This is not to say that there is no place for positivity, because how you handle the ups and downs of cruising are also significant to success.  There is definitely something to be said for a "can-do" attitude and hoping for the best, but there is a difference between being positive and being completely naive.  Keep it real and you will enjoy the experience much more than if you idealize it.

I have written before about what sort of experience I think is helpful for cruising, but there are plenty of folks who have cast off their dock lines with almost no knowledge of boating whatsoever.  Sailing is NOT rocket science.  We've met our fair share of folks on the water and some of these "cavalier" cruisers are incredibly impressive in their ability to learn on the fly and become excellent mariners while others have made us wonder how in the heck they are still afloat.  Then there are the truly experienced cruisers; circumnavigators, folks who've sailed oceans beyond oceans who will get struck by lightning, hit a reef or some other awful calamity.  No one is immune.  We all rely on a fair amount of good, old fashioned "luck" out on the water, but for it to be all you have on your side is not advisable.  While you certainly don't need spend gobs of money to complete every offshore sailing course, read a gazillion books on the subject of sailing and crew on every boat that crosses your path - a little know-how can go a long way.

That said, if you don't have much in the way of experience - I would recommend starting with baby steps...I have said many times that I think a large part of why Scott and I were successful in our transition from landlubbers to cruisers was because we allowed ourselves a very gentle learning curve (which I realize is an oxymoron when it comes to cruising) as we honed our skills.  Sure, we were experienced sailors beforehand, which helped a lot, but daysailing and racing are very, very different from live-aboard cruising and taking baby steps was really the biggest factor in making the transition smooth for us.  We left from our home port of Chicago, sailed the Great Lakes, traversed the ICW while also popping in and out to experience some Atlantic ocean sailing, cruised the Bahamas and every new "land fall" from there to Trinidad gave us opportunity to learn our boat, fine tune its systems and build on our skills at a comfortable pace.  Sure, there is something to be said for "just going for it" but when it comes to cruising, you will probably find you have a much more pleasant time starting small as opposed to trying to cross an ocean when you first head out.

Lin and Larry Pardey - two modern day cruising legends - have a very famous quote and give this advice to wannabe cruisers: "go small, go simple, go now."  While I do agree this is good instruction for some (but not all), I think it is often misconstrued.  I believe some read this quote and think it gives them license to buy the cheapest boat they can find (often ill-equipped for long-term cruising) and shove off.  Then the problems arise.  The engine fails constantly.  The sails tear beyond repair.  The halyards bust at the worst possible time.  Energy management is a constant problem.  The rigging gives way to the wind.  The electronics work only some of the time.  And then they learn the awful truth that fixing these things on a boat takes 2, 3, or 4 times longer than expected.  Sure, these things happen on even the most "prepared" cruising boats, but usually not all at once.

While there are some that truly enjoy cruising on spartan, simple boats with few to no integrated systems (other than the systems to make the boat move) - I don't believe the average person would enjoy living like Slocum or Moitessier (I certainly would not).  Scott and I are among the types of cruisers who believe that the more comfortable you are, the more pleasant the experience.  Yes, this does mean more money and more maintenance but it's a trade off that we are able and glad to make (having a very handy husband helps tremendously in this regard).  Of course this is our perspective;  like anything, what is "comfortable" to us might not be for you.  Our standards could be seen as downright basic and primitive to some, or maybe luxurious and unnecessary to others.  Everyone has different requirements.

We love our high output water maker and the ability to wash our boat or shower as regularly and freely as we please, we love having a cockpit mounted chart plotter with AIS overlay (although always carry paper charts as well), we love our sound system and the fact that all lines lead aft to our cockpit making our boat very, very easy to single-hand (a necessity if you sail with a baby on board unless you plan to take on extra crew all the time).   Our windlass has made life so much easier and we sure do enjoy the benefits of being able to re-locate without having to haul up over 300lbs of ground tackle manually.  We love our water toys and our RIB dinghy with powerful outboard.  We personally love our generator and the ability to make a bunch of power on the days our solar panels can't keep up.  None of these things fit the bill as "simple" - and many, many boats happily cruise without this stuff - but we'd be hard pressed to do without them.  To us, comfort is synonymous with happiness when it comes to cruising and sometimes that means having equipment.  It may or may not be the same for you.

Budget, of course, might dictate that you can have only a couple or maybe even none of the above systems/gadgets or toys - and that is okay too.  There are many ways to make your boat "comfortable" without having to spend a ton of money on fancy equipment and "bonus" gadgets.  But making sure the equipment you do have (sails, running and standing rigging, plumbing, wiring, engine, ground tackle etc.) are functioning properly and viable before you head out is key.  It is inevitable that things will break down so having the adequate spares for those systems (more equipment) and the manuals or know-how to fix them on the fly is also important. A big component of successful long-term cruising - in my opinion - is preparation.  Ya gotta have equipment, baby.

So there it is...

There's a business saying that clients can have something good, fast, or cheap.  They can choose two, but can't have all three.  You can have quality and speed, but it will not be cheap.  You can have fast and cheap, but the quality will be lacking.  You can have cheap and good, but it will not be done fast.  You get the picture.  I believe this can apply to other areas of life as well - including cruising - and perhaps the three "E's" fit into this somewhere.  Life is all about balance.  Perhaps if you have two of the three E's you'll be gravy, but if all three are lacking - you will suffer?  I don't have the answers but what I do know is that in order to follow and live your dreams, there has to be a little give and a little take.

Thoughts?  What would be your recipe for happy cruising? Can you boil it down to a few key attributes or is it more complex?


Anonymous said...

You write so well that it has me thinking you should be publishing a book of your cruising tales someday. Your consistently perfect prose, cogent like few other sailing blogs, makes any effort at a full length book, in combination with your refreshingly sunny attitude and great onboard life a must read for the sailing community and beyond. You could probably knock off the first draft while raising twins, keeping Isla in miles of smiles, and making your husband proud & content as a clam as usual. Best wishes for an even better 2014, fill with good health and joy.

JP said...

That's a pretty good summary and there's not much more to add, though could suggest (which you might have elsewhere):
- do a qualification (e.g. in the UK the RYA do series building up from Competent Crew to Yachmaster)
- crew other yachts where ever can so you know what you're getting into
- experience as many different types of boat as possible so you know what equipment you need and what you might want

SailFarLiveFree said...

Well done, Brittany. To me, a recipe for happy cruising must also include contentment and patience. Both are very elusive, but helpful in so many endeavors. If I could master those two traits life would be much easier!

Unknown said...

Love the inclusion of the three E's perspective.

Diann and I just bought a 1997 Gemini catamaran in New Bern NC. It will be interesting to see how well we fit the prescription.

Alex in Hickory NC

Unknown said...

I love this. It is exactly how I plan to start my cruising life. Baby steps in Caribbean to start and then off I go. I'm from Chicago too so hoping to find a great boat here and do as you did to get to the Caribbean. I'm all for the comfort too. People's outlooks can certainly be improved when comfort levels are improved.
Can't wait to be put there.
Sail Away Girl

Skelton Crew said...

As someone who generally doesn't handle change very well, I couldn't agree with you more on the baby steps part. For me, knowing (at least somewhat) what to expect and how to handle the boat will go a long way in giving me a smooth transition when we leave in 2015. ~Jackie

Courtney - SV YOLO said...

Great blog! We're about 9 months out from departure, so this information is very helpful! Keep up the informative posts. Hope y'all aren't frozen.

Anonymous said...

“One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” ― Andre Gide


Ana @ CuracaoRentalHomes said...

These three E's are crucial, indeed. I also have to agree to the fact that it's good to have realistic expectations or no expectations at all.

Unknown said...

Thanks, I enjoyed reading and my mind set is akin to yours. Perparation and baby steps. With each sail out I come back and make improvements based on my experiences.

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