June 23, 2008

Equipping Yourself for Cruising

We all read lots of articles about how to best equip our boats for the rigors of the cruising environment. This is important stuff: communications gear, sails, safety equipment, clothing, etc. But what about preparing the most important things aboard: you and the crew?

Along with the check lists of spare parts and new equipment, it is even more important to understand and prepare your mind and body for what can be a very challenging experience. Here is a list of five things to do that are critical to an enjoyable voyage over the horizon: 

1. Learn to fix stuff! I have spoken to many people who have abandoned the cruising dream, and they almost always say it was the breakdowns that did them in. We all joke about fixing our boats in exotic places around the world, but it is literally true. Not a boat arrives in port after a trip of any length without at least some important things on the "to do" list. Boats are not cars. Even production boats differ greatly from unit to unit, and cruising boats soon become modified extensively. There are no shop manuals to go by. There are no standard parts lists. No chains of cheap repair shops. Each repair is a custom job.

You can't simply bring a boat into the shop for a quick fix, no matter where you are cruising and how much money you have. The reality is that you will be at least overseeing repairs, even when there is a shop to bring the boat to. In much of the cruising world there are no shops. You might be hard pressed to find a fuel dock, let alone a repair dock.

In addition to all the spare parts you can carry, you need to be prepared to install the parts. That means bringing the proper tools, knowing how to use them, and understanding the concepts that determine how things work.

How do you acquire this do-it-yourself mentality? I strongly urge anyone contemplating cruising to spend at least several years with your boat prior to taking anything more than a local cruising trip. It is a lot easier to learn these skills if you do it within reach of the Internet, parts stores, and repair shops. Even brand new boats will go through lots of teething troubles. Don't just bring it to the dealer and say fix it. Study the parts, figure out why they don't work, analyze what tools you would need to do the repair yourself, buy the manuals or books you might need, and try to watch over the repair job if someone else is doing the work.

I've never purchased a new boat--in fact every boat I've owned was very old and I needed to fix a lot of stuff. This was great training for cruising. Working your way up from smaller to bigger boats, repairing everything along the way, is perfect practice for the time when you can take off. Tackle every job you can carry tools for onboard--you'll be doing that when you're out cruising. This will likely include repairing sail tears (do you have sail thread, a sewing palm, and replacement sail slides?), replacing rigging (do you have bolt cutters and spare rigging terminals?), rebuilding your alternator (do you have at least one spare alternator and a set of diodes?), fixing a crack in the hull or keel (underwater epoxy?), troubleshooting wiring (spare fuses, wires, bulbs, crimping tool?), fixing your freshwater pump (rebuild kit, spare pump, extra hose clamps?), rebuilding your head (toilet repair kit, or two?). The list is endless.

In general, the rule is if you can't fix it onboard, you must have at least one complete spare. Some things are beyond the skills of all but the most proficient skippers: electronic repairs and fuel injection pumps come to mind. I look at sails as a back up if my engine fails, and most of the sail system is repairable onboard. However, if the GPS goes out there is little I can do, so I carry at least three units, all different so I can't be tripped up by a single Achilles heel.

2. Learn to work with the weather, not against it. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Yet, all too often I see new cruisers set out with a landlubbers mentality toward weather. On land we watch the report on TV and then head out based on a prediction of what the next few hours will be like.

Yes, we have wonderful prediction tools and communications technology onboard to transmit this information, but when cruising you are dealing with periods of days, weeks, or months. All the technology in the world won't save you if you fight the seasons. You have to go with the flow. Heading out unnecessarily into rough conditions has often lead to the final straw that broke the rigging, strained the engine mounts, or banged the crew's head. I don't care how big and strong your boat is, it won't be pleasant out there in bad conditions and there will be extra wear and tear on the boat and crew.

Lack of this skill is probably the number two reason why some give up cruising. I have frequently talked to different folks on different boats, after making the same passage, and their tales of the trip are sometimes diametrically opposed. One boat talks about the wonderful passage and the other talks about sleeping on the floor so they wouldn't be thrown from their bunks. The difference in arrival time is often only a matter of a few days, sometimes just a few hours. 

One boat left when the tide was with the wind, flattening the seas, while the other left with wind against the current building up a rough chop. Or maybe one boat left before dawn to catch the morning light air while the others slept in and dealt with the afternoon blow. Or on passage, one boat sailed across the Gulf Stream fast in order to get out of the maximum current before the big winds arrived, while the other boat smashed along in the Stream making great time but hanging on for dear life.

Sometimes this means changing your destination in the middle of a trip--if the wind and weather make it too hard to get there, go somewhere else. The best trips are the ones that were the most flexible. Bad weather, spend an extra day in port. Unfavorable current, wait until dawn to enter. Change in the wind, head to another port. Cruising that is about getting to points A, B, and C on schedule are almost always fraught with tension and frequently calamity. I'm sorry, but if you are on a strict schedule you aren't cruising. You might get away with following a schedule for awhile, but it just doesn't work in the long run.

You can tell the "real" cruisers. They're talking in terms of seasons, not dates. "We'll be at the Canal before the rainy season." "We're moving north before hurricane season." Very simple tools to get in this mindset are readily available and highly accurate, yet are dismissed by many. Pilot charts for every cruising area provide historical averages of the wind and weather that can be expected in every season. Go with these averages, based on observations since the 19th century, and you will have solved most of your weather prediction problems. Start with the pilot chart for your seasonal planning and only use weather forecasts for your final departure planning. In other words, don't try to sail around the Caribbean during hurricane season or cross the North Atlantic in November. You just won't win those games.

3. Live and let live. I'm serious. Without the right attitude towards this life you won't have fun. If you are the controlling, type A personality, who demands perfection and expects everyone to hop to, you simply won't like cruising. Oh sure, some driven folks like this are out there, but they are generally miserable and making everyone miserable around them. They may last a year or two, but they usually retreat to land where they can control their environment. Items one and two above illustrate how you have to go with the flow or you won't really get anywhere.

When cruising you are at the whim of nature and entropy--the weather changes, and stuff breaks down. That's just the way it is and always will be, no matter what technology or strategy you employ. For one thing, unless you stay awfully close to home, you will be encountering people and environments that are new and different. That is why we go cruising. It might be possible to simply pass from harbor to harbor, never going ashore, but you will still have to deal with local officials, new weather patterns, and political whirlwinds you probably have no control over.

If you don't like people at home because of the color of their skin, the language they speak, their religion, their customs, or the way they do business, you will be really upset when you go cruising. These folks will be coming on your boat to check your passports, selling you food in the market, telling you where to anchor or not anchor, and telling you what their local laws allow and don't allow. 

You will have to change your travel plans to avoid dangerous areas, or to include areas that people are talking about. This can be upsetting to the most easy going person, and if you are not easy going you will be in constant anger at the unpleasantness of it all. And, you cant go around telling everyone how they should be doing things. I loved a bumper sticker I used to see in South Carolina. It said, "Don't tell me how you did it up north." Southerners are proud of the way they do things and I can guarantee you it is the same around the world.

That is not to say you can't help people out when they need it. We always have various small presents onboard for the myriad children you will encounter. Kids everywhere are curious and more open to new things. They may ask to come aboard when their parents remain aloof. Or you might wake up one morning to knocking on the hull by a canoe load of children. Invite them aboard, learn from them, tell them about your home, ask them about their homes. If you are in poor areas you will find that the needs are certainly larger than any gifts you can provide, but small tokens can bridge big divides.

We found that once you've broken ice with the children you will probably soon break ice with the parents. My daughter, Heather, gave a small stuffed animal to a young girl in a canoe. Weeks later we were on an island in the area and a whole gaggle of kids ran up and surrounded us. They had heard of the generous gift and wanted to meet us. Soon the father of the girl insisted we come to his home to meet his family. He proceeded to get us drinking coconuts and we all chatted as best we could.

You have to be open to this type of cultural exchange and unexpected event or you will not enjoy cruising. You can't be rigid in your habits or your plans. Are you a strict vegetarian? You might have a tough time eating in a lot of places. Many areas of the world do not grow or import the wide variety of vegetables we are used to in North America. In the San Blas Islands of Panama we found almost no vegetables available in many stores. You will be invited into homes and asked to join in meals that will include some meat, and people won't understand if you refuse.

Do you always go running each morning? There are lots of places you simply can't do it. I remember going dizzy watching someone run around and around a tiny island that was the only possible place to run for miles. He managed, but there were many other lovely anchorages where this wasn't possible.

Do you have to stay in touch with someone on a regular basis? It might not be possible. Yes, there are satphones, email via SSB and Ham radio, and even satellite Internet, but none of these systems are as fast or as reliable as what we have on land. I can guarantee you that they will fail at some point, and if you absolutely have to reach your stockbroker that will be the day everything breaks down.

On the other hand, the person who delights in seeing and experiencing people and places that are different will be constantly entertained. You need to laugh when the restaurants don't open until after dark. You have to be prepared to do without your accustomed cocktail. You have to delight in seeing someone of a different color wearing different clothes running things differently than you've ever seen before. If you don't like things different, stay at home.

4. Learn about the places you are going. Again, this sounds silly to some, but it is not at all obvious to others. There are modern cruisers who arrive in harbors, fire up the generator, close the hatches, and put on another video, while nearby there are pyramids to explore, different foods to experience, museums to visit, and scenery that you will never see anywhere else.

You need to educate yourself about what there is to see. Buy every guide to the country you can get your hands on, and not just the cruising guides. The tourist publications will alert you to many things that are not in the boating books. This includes studying the local languages, art, music, film, literature, etc. You will find that there are no better stores to buy this stuff than you will find at home. Keep in mind that even if you do find a bookstore in a new area the chances are they won't have books in your native language.

And, studying and learning new languages is extremely helpful too. English is very widely spoken and understood almost everywhere, at least to some extant, but you can gain a lot more if you also know the local language. At the very least you should learn a few simple phrases that can go a long way towards breaking the ice. "Please," "thank you," and "good morning" will work wonders to get by that ornery customs official. Language skills are also necessary when you are inevitably hunting down that part or welding shop, as you will be doing everywhere.

In addition to guidebooks to the area I like to purchase land and road maps so I can find my way around. Every cruising boat should carry a detailed world atlas. Road maps are an exception to the purchase-at-home rule. Often there are local maps that are much better than something you can find at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Even if I can't talk or understand the local language I can usually point out something on a map and get some directions.

Similarly, visual aids are a great way to find historic places or even outboard motor parts--show someone a picture of something and they get the 1000-word idea. In some cases you will find that local nautical charts are also better. Even if the charts use a different language you can often figure out everything you need to know, as most nautical symbols are universal. There may be local cruising guides too. You can never get too much information about a place you are headed or a place you've just arrived. 

The cruiser's grapevine, often in the form of SSB, Ham, or VHF radio nets, is invaluable for advice. And, you can ask questions! Where is the best fuel? What harbors are dangerous? Where can I get some local cash? What are the best harbors? People often ask us if we were worried about security. The boater's grapevine provided security information faster than any news or government service--frequently in real time. When someone up ahead encounters a poorly marked channel they warn everyone behind. When a boat is robbed the whole harbor finds out the next day and takes action. If someone is lost they call for help and several people respond with advice based on their own observations made recently.

Of course the Internet is both a great source of information and a way to get horribly mislead. It is possible to get great information and advice on a country, or to be turned off by one person's bad experience broadcast on some Internet forum. This is no different than what you will hear on the radio, but somehow it carries more weight being in print and on your computer screen. We have seen particular harbors panned that we thought were great, and other harbors praised that we didn't care for. Customs officials routinely come in for criticism, yet your own experience may vary by quite a bit. 

The Internet gives a disgruntled person a wide audience, but it doesn't necessarily provide the context to fully understand a situation. My best advice is to consult as wide a variety of sources as possible. I read Fromer's travel guides, magazines, and cruising guides. I search the Internet, chat on forums, and listen in to the radio nets. Often the best advice comes from someone you know and trust who has been there ahead of you.

5. Be adventurous. Can you train yourself to be adventurous? Yes! Let's say you've got two islands up ahead and you only have time to visit one. Choose the one where you don't know the language. You can always head north to sit out hurricane season, but why not head south instead? Get below 10 degrees latitude in the Caribbean and you're guaranteed a hurricane-free season. Everyone is headed to Barbecue Island--why not head for Isolation Cove instead?

When planning where to go and what to do you need to question every step of the way. Deliberately choose to go against the grain, with the proper planning, from time to time. One problem with all the information we've gathered in item four above is that there is a vast and well-charted conventional wisdom out there. Boaters travel in herds from one favorite haunt to another. This is both good and bad. You can get your fix of cruising friends in the popular harbor, but then you know that if someplace is not well described there will be nobody there.

Some folks go so far as to recommend using the coastal pilots, which often describe harbors of mostly commercial interest, though I have found them of somewhat limited use. In general, purely commercial harbors are dirty, busy, more prone to crime, and often lack interesting and safe things to do ashore. The bottoms of commercial harbors are usually filthy and covered with debris waiting to snag your anchor.

There are exceptions that are worth visiting. New York harbor is intensely industrial, with every negative factor briefly outlined above, but it is also one of the most thrilling places to visit by boat. You will never forget passing by the Statue of Liberty or under the Brooklyn Bridge and up the East River through Hell's Gate. Keep in mind that in this day of heightened terrorist warnings you may find yourself not welcome around commercial places like oil and gas terminals, or freight docks. Commercial harbors will often have traffic control systems that must be followed.

Don't just take the conventional wisdom as your guide. Charts often indicate interesting islands that have no description in the guidebooks. There may be offshore reefs that can be approached safely in calm weather where you can anchor and swim with no land in sight. We have dropped the hook in the Bahamas on offshore banks with no land in sight except for the bottom, seen through 20 feet of crystal clear water.

Being adventurous does not mean being foolhardy or taking unnecessary risks. It means trying things that deliberately get you out of your comfort zone so hopefully you can find a new, expanded comfort zone. Leave harbor before dawn. Maybe sail overnight just for the pleasure of the overnight passage. One of my favorite things is to be out on the ocean with a full moon illuminating the night--weather permitting and well charted hazards all under control.

It doesn't mean ignoring the warnings of local crime problems or diseases. It does mean dodging around the crime-ridden, pestilent harbor to get to the beautiful cove that is infrequently visited.

Being adventurous also means going it alone at times and not just following the herd. Several times I have sat at anchor in Florida, waiting for the proper weather window to cross the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas. This is not a trivial matter. The Gulf Stream can get very nasty and dangerous when a strong north wind opposes the northerly current--boats are lost every year trying to fight the stream. However, a group think soon develops in the harbor. Everyone talks about weather, and certain gurus soon take over the bulk of the analysis.

Many grow to depend on the weather prognostications of the few, and finally, hopefully, the day comes when boat A says it is time to go. Everyone goes. Of course, boat A may travel slower or faster than boat B, may have a better or worse motion, or may be able to motor better or worse in calm winds. Other times, the boats don't leave for weeks. Every day has some possible weather scenario that might not be right for one of the boats in the fleet. The weather gurus become more and more cautious as more and more people depend on them to get it right. Some people have sat like this for months waiting for the day. The right weather for one is not the right weather for all. Don't let the group make your decisions for you. Be adventurous.