Tips for Prospective Blue Water Cruisers
Since we’ve been blue water cruising for over 7 years and 34,000 miles, we have had numerous people ask us questions as they prepare to go cruising.
Cruising is definitely not for everyone; It is a different lifestyle that comes with its own trials. Not every relationship can handle 24 hours a day 7 days a week in all kinds of weather. Purchasing and outfitting a boat is a tremendous committment and financial investment. Many fortunes have been lost in discovering it is not necessarily the most romantic mode of sightseeing. A Round the World ticket with a backpack can satisfy your desire to explore other cultures without banking your future on it, as can renting a charter boat for a brief period.
Once you go cruising, if you like it and stay out for a long time like we did, returning to the lifestyle you lived beforehand can be very difficult. I could write a book about that. Actually I have written a book about about that and our many zany adventures. It's called Tightwads on the Loose: A Seven Year Pacific Odyssey. Buy it here.
On a more serious note, here we’ll share a little of what we’ve learned about cruising. One could write a book to adequately cover this topic and several good ones already exist. While we’ve learned a lot from reading about cruising, much of what we’ve learned has come through using our boat and continually reevalutating what kind of lifestyle we want to lead and can afford. Note: Since we went on a small, old wooden boat with a tiny budget, take these tips with a grain of salt. Our learning experience was definitely a salt-encrusted one.
Please see other postings on this blog for information on boat preparation, the equipment we carried and what we thought of it, as well as communications, weather, and provisioning. And if you're just looking for stories of our adventures, there are plenty of those, too.
We'd suggest you find ways to experience cruising before making any committments to help you decided if the lifestyle is really for you. Chartering a boat without all the amenities and services for a period of 3-4 weeks can allow you to experience a more authentic look at the cruising lifestyle including getting your own fuel, provisions and water under various circumstances, generating your own power to meet your needs, laundry, repairs and navigation outside of home waters. A big part of cruising is being self sufficient and in modern society we have diverged a long way from that. Making an extended passage offshore can give you an idea of what life is like at sea and how you might adapt.
The most useful books we found for preparing to go voyaging were: Beth Leonard’s “Voyager’s Handbook” (very thorough and complete), John Neal and Amanda Swan’s “Offshore Cruising Companion” (specific practical information for getting your affairs in order and securing supplies), Herb Payson's "Advice for the Sealorn" and Steve Dashew’s “Cruising Encyclopedia” (a great reference available on CD). For all kinds of fishing, the “Cruisers Guide to Fishing” by Scott and Wendy Bannerot is a complete instruction manual. Cruising articles in the major sailing magazines are helpful but can be intimidating. In a perfect world . . . We continually remind ourselves that magazines are mainly funded by advertising and they want to avoid advocating anything that might be considered unsafe to protect people lacking in common sense.
It is impossible to have the perfect boat before you leave to go cruising since it is hard to anticipate everything. You have to just call it good enough and set off sailing at some point. Experience will teach you about your boat and your needs. Our nearly 2 month long shakedown cruise revealed many issues that we addressed before really leaving the conveniences of home. You may find it helpful to visit the section where we discuss the modifications we made to our boat before departing. Keep in mind that people have different priorities and each boat comes with its own set of strengths and weaknesses, so someone else's advice may not work for you.
Decisions about how to best prepare a boat for voyaging depend significantly upon individual lifestyle choices. We postponed several decisions about buying expensive items and have since added some and decided others were not necessary based on the way we live. Our list of modifications is always evolving based on how we are using the boat, deciding what is important to us and our evolving goals. We've found that planning stops once every year or year and a half in places where we can do a major boat overhaul helps us manage many problems until we can properly address our needs and helps keep maintenance from overwhelming us. (For example, we left with a brand new mainsail, but old jibs and staysails, since we weren’t really sure which we’d use. Once we got to New Zealand, we had a very good idea of what we needed and found good quality workmanship at lower prices than the U.S. Had we purchased sails before departing, we'd have made inappropriate choices).
There is no such thing as being finished doing boat work or to prevent having equipment problems. People joke about cruising being the opportunity to fix your boat in exotic places and that's not far from the truth. We are trying to keep sophisticated equipment (upon which we are often dependent for our safety) functioning often under very primitive adverse conditions. It is easy to break things when they get so much use, especially in a moist saltwater environment. A little oversight or mistake can cost big and that can happen more frequently when functioning on minimal sleep as you do on passages. Everyone experiences breakdowns and they can be time consuming and depressing, especially when you can’t deal with them properly. It can be frustrating and overwhelming sometimes trying to fix things in places that barely have a hardware store or a decent means of transportation. Electronics, watermakers, refridgerators and engines seem to be the most at risk items, but people have had problems of all sorts. The simpler the boat, the less there is to break and fix. Waiting for parts has put a major crimp in many a cruiser’s dream cruise. And lying with your head in the bilge or in the engine compartment, while never comfortable, can be twice as unpleasant in the heat of the tropics, especially when it entails ripping apart your full time home. If you believe you can’t live without it, make sure you have some kind of back up in mind so you can keep cruising anyway until you get a decent opportunity to address the problem effectively. We always have a project list and our priorities are always changing depending on the challenges we’re facing. To keep the list manageable,we try to schedule major overhauls each year or so in a location where we can get parts easily.
We also find it helps to do a little each day so we don’t get overwhelmed. Regular chores include important or easy repairs, getting and stowing supplies (food, water, fuel, parts), checking for and dealing with leaks, corrosion, mildew, wear and deterioration, laundry, varnishing, cleaning the galley and head areas, fridge, floor, rug, etc., making food and beverages we can't otherwise get (like bread,tortillas, ginger beer), polishing the stainless, scrubbing the waterline/bottom/rudder and transducers, scrubbing the dinghy, airing out clothing lockers, inventorying provisions and checking for rusting cans, punctured packaging and deterioration. The stainless rusts quickly in saltwater and can stain nearby cloth and hull areas. We’d recommend rinsing or or wiping down with fresh water any time you have an opportunity to prevent corrosion and using Wichinox with a generous freshwater rinse. One can catch fresh water to meet these needs. It is amazing how high spray can get and how it can permeate everywhere. Zipper cars will freeze if not rinsed with fresh water or protected, but they can be removed and replaced if necessary.
Make sure you have approximately a 1 year supply of regular maintenance items (like filters, belts and oil, stainless bolts and nuts and the like) and replacement parts for critical systems on hand. You can seal them in shrink wrap to protect these items until needed. Racor fuel filters have been a challenge to get in many locations. (Lucas CAV filters seem to be more available for a fraction of the Racor price in areas in the South Pacific.) Stainless steel shackles, pins and other hardware have been mostly unavailable outside of New Zealand and Australia and probably most major yachting centers, as well as line, electronics, most adhesives and sealants, boat specific electrical and plumbing parts, and of course, replacement parts for specific models of yacht gear. West Marine ships products all over the world and having a catalog on board is handy for figuring out solutions. Getting mail in some places can be difficult and import policies can delay your plans and create various hassles. (Make sure you have contact information for major suppliers of specialty gear you have, such as watermakers, autopilot, electric windless, etc. just in case you need them later.) Lead acid batteries and engine oil (but not always the kind you want) are available most places where there are larger towns. Machine shops are good in many population centers where there is light industry. Many boat yards and chandleries offer higher quality work and carry a wider variety of products in the more popular destinations and you can ask other cruisers about specific places. Planning ahead by making sure you have spares or doing preventative maintenance when you are in more developed areas can help minimize breakdowns and related hassles later.
Sometimes countries have more affordable quality products than the U.S. or cheaper labor rates. Talk to other cruisers for the current situation. New Zealand, for example, is an excellent place for doing work on the boat: Labor rates are much lower than the U.S. with highly skilled labor; Most local products are of decent quality; and importing products is quite easy they since waive all import duty for foreign vessels. New Zealand had good locally made mechanical items (epiglass, oars, stainless), although imported items and especially electronics cost more. Prices can vary significantly from store to store. Good quality sails and canvas work cost less due to cheaper labor rates (although most canvas dodgers we saw weren’t as attractive as ones designed and built in North America) even though materials often cost more. Australia is less ideal but offers another place to do a major overhaul.
How much it costs to cruise really depends on your lifestyle and expectations. Some think of cruising as living a simpler lifestyle and others think of it as a once in a lifetime trip and this attitude will influence how you spend money. The size of your boat and the sophistication of your equipment also makes a big difference in costs. As more yachts visit an area, while more services become available, prices also tend to rise. We are trying to live within a budget of about $1000 a month including boat maintenance and finding that a bit challenging. Some months we spend very little and others we exceed the budget significantly. Our biggest cost is boat repairs and upgrades. The simpler your boat, the cheaper the repairs will be. There are many boats out here on a far higher budget than we are and often locals consider all foreigners to be rich and charge accordingly. But there is plenty to do that doesn't cost - snorkeling, swimming, surfing, hiking and we try to focus on those things. Hanging around with people on your same budget can make sticking to your budget easier.
ATMs and credit cards work well in some countries but can be useless or expensive to use in more remote areas. Having travelers’ checks and a little cash (some single US dollars and $10 and $20 bills) is always a good idea to cover you in various situations. We’ve traded clothing and other items for things in some remote areas, such as northern Vanuatu, where money is of little value since there are no stores.
Setting up automatic bill paying can help you manage your money, but appoint someone you trust and provide them with a power of attorney and a checkbook to handle things that undoubtedly will come up because it is hard to anticipate everything. See Handling mail and business affairs for more info.
Getting paying work is possible on an informal basis in construction or boat maintenance/deliveries, teaching English or some restaurant work, but getting a work permit to work for a short time in an office position is much more challenging. Those wanting to work might need to stop for a longer period to find the job and then make it worthwhile for an employer to hire them officially. Often immigration visas specifically forbid one from working in a country so usually any work is done under the table. We have heard of people getting taken advantage of while working under the table since they can't complain. A trade or skill that might be useful to other yachties (equipment installation, sail making/repair, varnish/paint prep, rigging, electronics repair) could help earn some income. Many note these special skills on their boat cards. Yachties generally help one another gratis in the spirit of community, so approaching regular yachties on a work for payment arrangement should be done carefully. Megayachts with professional crew expect to pay for services.
Sending mail to General Delivery or Post Restante still works pretty effectively without any advance warning at all and can be collected upon presentation of some form of I.D. Often merely addressing packages: hold for U.S. yacht in transit can eliminate problems with customs and be adequate to keep people from returning packages if you are not sitting right there. American Express will collect mail (for a short time for cardholders) and many marinas, yacht clubs and hotels will accept your mail in advance of your arrival with warning, but due to misunderstandings can be returned. The cruising guides for each country give you an idea of where you can send mail. In some places, like Vavau, Tonga, people never got their mail, but this is a rare occurrence. Because we have someone at home handling our affairs, we can minimize mail forwarding to a couple of times a year and usually choose to wait until we've reached countries we've heard are reliable.There are mail transferring services that you can hire (listed in John Neal and Amanda Swan Neal’s book) and some will even manage some of your affairs with a limited power of attorney. You may want to consider setting yourself up automatic bill paying and checking your accounts online to minimize mailing issues.
Double check expiration dates on credit and membership cards, and request replacing them early while it is convenient. Note the international collect numbers for your credit card so you can contact them outside the U.S. (Also renew your driver’s license and passport early if you can to prevent inconveniences later.) Don’t carry everything in your wallet. You can’t use credit cards everywhere anyway, so don’t take the risk of losing them and having to replace everything at tremendous inconvenience. Make copies of everything you are carrying in case you lose it and leave it with someone you trust. Carry a copy of your passport in your wallet and often you can avoid having to carry the original, especially to cash traveler’s checks. Carry a copy of your boat documents as well and always keep the original on the boat. (This is your title to the boat.) On board eamil can be useful for managing affairs in remote areas. See the Communications section for more info.
Insurance for health and boat seem to present challenges to most American yachties, and few people seem content with their arrangement. Many Europeans are uninsured. Do some research beforehand and ask a lot of questions to make sure you are covered in any situation you might find yourself. Get an agent that is easy to reach by email and helpful in answering your questions. Policies have various requirements which could include: one or multiple surveys of the vessel, more than two people aboard for longer passages, restrictions for traveling in certain regions, and limiting the amount of time offshore in a calendar year. We've heard about insurance cancellation or lapses in coverage with little warning. Insurance is very expensive and we've heard stories of people paying nearly the initial purchase price of their boat in a matter of a few years. We decided to self insure by buying a boat that we could afford to lose or fix out of our own pockets. (The cruising book written by John Neal and Amanda Swan lists a number of insurers and has lots of other useful information included.) Health care is readily available and inexpensive outside the U.S. and usually of decent quality in major centers. There are doctors out cruising that can be consulted informally via SSB as needed and some services exist that offer formal advice via radio or email.
A laptop computer is handy for viewing electronic charts and receiving weather faxes, getting email aboard via SSB, with DVD’s for watching movies and CD burners for backing up files and storing digital photos. Few yachties are without a laptop on board these days and many add a second laptop for back up. We bought a cheap used one off the Internet and have stored it in a Pelican watertight case. A pelican case is a good investment to protect it from moisture and in case you need to take it ashore. We also found a laptop handy for preparing emails and logs in advance to send from a floppy when we get to a shore side Internet access location. Computers can draw a lot of power. Different laptops draw different amounts of power. When we bought a new computer, our power usage rose dramatically. Running the computer off of its own battery and then recharging it is a way to save power. The inverter can create a hum that interferes with weatherfax signals and also takes significant additional power to run the computer than would otherwise be required. We found a power cord (via Targus web site) that enables us to plug the old computer directly into a cigarette lighter and bypass the inverter. The new computer unfortunately can not use the same one but we were able to find one on the IGo site. (Note: many newer computers do not have serial ports, but they are still needed to hook into weatherfax demodulators, GPS for electronic navigation or Pactor II modems for onboard email. We bought a USB to serial port adapter. You can also buy a PCMCIA card adapter at many electronics stores for moving files, especially digital photos across computers.)
The dinghy is our car and as a result it is a very important piece of boat equipment which gets a lot of wear and tear. Each type of dinghy has its strengths and weaknesses and no one thinks they have the ideal dinghy for all situations. Inflatable ribs with engines are great for going places fast, but the engine better work because they can hardly be rowed even short distances. Being able to plane in the dinghy with 4 people can make for some great expeditions. Having bigger tubes makes for a drier ride, yet could make it harder to stow. Keen divers like to have big dinghies to hold all their dive gear and sometimes up to 4 people. Hard sailing/rowing dinghies can be great fun in flat water and last the longest with minimal maintenance but can also be hard to stow. We have a 2 part nesting, sailing dinghy which is very quick to launch and fun to sail and row. However we worry about it being stowed on deck in very rough weather and we are unable to plane with an outboard motor.
Stowing the dinghy on the boat so that it is easy to launch and safe aboard in rough sailing conditions is a challenge we all face, but most particularly on smaller boats. Stowing an outboard motor in a safe and inconspicuous location is another issue. Raising and lowering a heavy outboard between the big boat and the dinghy is easier with a hoist mounted on the stern rail. Every time we go sailing, we consider whether we should stow the dinghy or tow it for the duration of the trip. During short sails when conditions are calm, we sometimes tow the dinghy. But, sometimes the wind can come up unexpectedly and having a dinghy in tow can be a bit unnerving in marginal conditions. Having a good towing bridle with a back up painter is a good idea when towing, along with a floating painter to avoid wrapping it in the prop when backing down while anchoring. Being able to hoist the dinghy alongside at night can reduce bottom growth and the possibility of theft, yet if the wind comes up in the night or there is significant rainfall that cannot drain, a dinghy hoisted alongside can be precarious.
Many dinghy docks and landing areas leave a lot to be desired. A light dinghy can be easily beached above the tide line yet may not be as durable. Some buy wheels for the dinghy for landings when the dinghy must be moved far from the water’s edge. Native kids sometimes play in them while they are left unattended. Dinghies can bash against the dock or rocks in rough conditions or as a result of wakes and using a dinghy anchor can help to prevent that. (And the dinghy anchor is essential for most snorkeling expeditions.) A long floating painter or cable (with locking capability) enables yachties to fit a larger number of dinghies at a crowded dinghy dock and reduces some of the wear and tear on your dinghy where there is high traffic.
Each time we move the boat or go sailing we must consider how well we need to stow the boat for the trip. When we are stopped for long periods, we begin to move in. For short calmer trips, we may not be as well stowed, but might get caught by surprise. Preparing to get underway includes: getting out relevant charts/guidebooks, plotting a course, stowing solar panels, rolling up the awning, stowing the dinghy (stowing dinghy seat, oars, and sails below and placing the dinghy on foredeck, wiping down its bottom and tying it down), stowing items below (rolling up carpet and putting it in the v-berth and putting away any loose items from the shelves or counters), closing all hatches, removing sail covers, removing the line that dampens boom motion, turning on instruments/GPS, starting the engine, hauling up the anchor and washing it and the foredeck off, hoisting sails, and putting out the fishing line.
The heat in the tropics can be overwhelming at first. It is critical to have an awning to use while sailing. We can roll ours up and unroll it easily underway depending on how windy/sunny it is and how much visibility we need. Another larger one for in port is handy for keeping cool in still/wet conditions, but they can be a liability in unsettled conditions. Our large awning has thru hulls for water catchment which are useful, although we rarely use the big awning because we are rarely sit for long periods of time and we worry about the wind coming up unexpectedly. Shading for the foredeck can be nice in especially hot or rainy climates (so we can keep the hatch open while it's raining) and a foredeck awning can also be used to collect rain for filling your fresh water tanks. If they are deployed at lifeline level, unexpected wind can be less of an issue. Windscoops disintegrate rather quickly in the sun and wind but are useful for getting the boat cool.
You may want to make sure you have good ventilation inside the boat since it gets very hot in the tropics. We are lucky to have a hatch over the chain locker that we can leave open even when it is pouring rain. We also have a cockpit window that is usually protected by the awning in rainy weather. Fans mounted in the galley and near sleeping areas can be important for comfort. Figure what it takes to run these into your energy needs. Ours take about .3 amps each. Solar shower can easily puncture and deteriorate in UV, a buy a garden sprayer with pump for fresh water rinses after swimming. A hot tea kettle can heat the water to the ideal temperature in cooler weather, but usually tropical weather makes cool showers very refreshing. Polarized sunglasses are important for navigating through underwater reefs and saving your eyes from the glare on the water.
We found that summer clothes we wore in Seattle were too warm for the tropics. Regular t-shirts and polo shirts can be pretty hot in still conditions. Sleeveless t-shirts are good, as are large collared short sleeved loose dress (oxford or Hawaiian) shirts and, of course, bathing suits are standard cruising gear. Gauze type fabric is much cooler. Mexico, New Zealand and Fiji have a good selection of inexpensive bathing suits and decent summery clothes, sometimes of lower quality. You might want some UV protective, quick dry kind of clothing that REI, Columbia Sportswear, Ex Officio and catalogs like Travelsmith sell. Sometimes we are out in the sun without the awning for hours when navigating a tight lagoon or when we’re out in the dinghy and it is nice to have another way to stay cool and protected from the strong sun. Special, quick dry UV clothing (or nylon) is useful with the strong sun and all the wet dinghy rides. Men’s nylon swim trunks are perfect shorts for cruising, since they dry so quickly and let you air out without the need for underwear which can hold moisture. (In addition to beach landings, it is easy to get wet with waves splashing between the boat and dinghy as you are boarding.) Pareos/sarongs are handy to wear as skirts in conservative countries (even over shorts or bathing suits for easier dinghy landings) and are cool, as well as quick and easy to wash and dry. We see locals carrying umbrellas to keep the sun off in areas where hats and sunglasses aren’t as accepted. We bought hats at REI made by Sequel that were very well suited to the tropics, with a back flap to cover the neck, a strap, air vents to let air in the sides yet protect the scalp and a dark under rim to save the eyes and they came in sizes which means they fit us well.
We’ve found dry bags absolutely essential. A small one is handy for keeping things dry when taking the camera and a few items to shore for short trips. A backpack or hip bag is handy for carrying the day’s necessities – water bottle, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, money, camera, towel, hats, bathing suit, etc. A larger dry bag has been useful for keeping laundry or groceries dry or other larger items on wet dinghy rides.
You may want a nylon mesh bag for snorkel gear so it is easy to carry for day trips and can drip dry when hung from the lifelines or stern rail. Make sure you have good snorkeling equipment that fits and feels comfortable to wear. It is a great diversion and great way to cool off. Armorall can help protect your fins as well as other plastic items from UV damage. A shorty wet suit can keep the sun off and keep you warmer during longer snorkeling sessions. You may also want to exchange thick terry cloth bath towels for thinner beach towels, since they dry quickly and are much easier to wash without dedicating significant fresh water to the effort. We sent our bath towels home from Mexico and bought beach towels to replace them. We often use hand towels to dry off after a swim and have found a pack towel/chamois cloth to be especially handy for day trips since we can wring it out well after use.
Having a sewing machine onboard is very handy for sewing flags, clothes or slipcovers, as well as repairing clothing, stitching on awnings and dodgers (which only lasts 3 years), and sails.
Coin operated laundry is scarce in Mexico and the South Pacific, but laundry services are more readily available. We had a number of clothes ruined by them and a couple of things lost, so tend to approach the laundry services cautiously. The wash water and dryers are often very hot, heated by a wood fire in many cases, so separate your laundry carefully and provide specific care instructions along with a list of items included. The hot water will bake in any stains, so pre-treat any spots. Soaking laundry in baking soda or a great diaper product we found in New Zealand (and Australia) called Napi-san can brighten dull and stained clothes. If in doubt, ask for cold water and no drying. Only hand wash things with lycra/spandex and elastic, like bathing suits, stretch pants, biking shorts, or bras and even underwear if you can manage or the elasticity will be gone in a short time. And hand wash any special clothes or favorite items. For hand washing, a deep paint bucket with a mini toilet plunger works well, along with a fingernail brush to work on spots. Liquid detergent of most any kind works well in saltwater, although we tend to use a little more than in fresh water. I often use salt water until the final rinse and sometimes will do the final rinse at the tap on shore if I can to avoid using specially treated tank water that we have to haul. Bringing laundry ashore in a bucket or dry bag for a quick final rinse and wring can work well in some locations. We have been impressed with how much water we can catch with a small foredeck awning and make a point of doing laundry when we've been able to catch lots of fresh water. Our dinghy collects lots of water and (since we have no engine fuel can inside and it's usually relatively clean), we can use that for the wash cycle. Hand wringing can be tough on the wrists after a large laundry session; Wringers are handy but big to carry aboard the boat. Sometimes we make sure the stays are clean and use them to help wring.
Having 2 sets of washable slipcovers to protect the permanent cushion covers, saves them over the long run, especially on passages when they get abused. Salt from our skin and clothes inevitably gets on the cushions, as does oil from suntan lotions and mosquito repellent, and it’d be nice to be able to clean them more often and easily. Slipcovers can be softer on your bare skin and can be rotated if you have more than one set to keep things clean and looking good. Fleece is a great material that is soft on the skin. Bright floral patterns available in the tropics can brighten up the interior and offer a easy change of decor.
Fresh drinking water has not been hard to get in our travels. It is not available absolutely everywhere, but with a little bit of planning and water management is available most places and is good – and it usually tastes better than water made from a water maker. We treat our tank water with chlorine or Aqua tablets, but usually it is fine without. Having 4 jerry jugs on hand to haul water is critical since filling tanks alongside isn’t usually possible. Many fuel docks do offer free water as in the States sometimes only with fill up. We use saltwater for washing and bathing with a quick fresh water rinse and can live for 3 weeks on 50 gallons. Most boats carry more than this and a majority have water makers but water makers need special care and take fuel to run. Catching water on awnings can defray the hassle of obtaining or making fresh water and we are amazed at how much we can catch, usually enough for all our needs. We have cut a silver tarp (with a thru-hull and hose that run from it into jerry cans) that we have at hand in the v-berth area and set it up if it looks rainy and we need water. Others have some sort of deck fill system. Catching is the ideal way to get water, and although we found it rarely rained in Mexico and the Tuamotus, we could catch what we needed most everywhere else, and catching water makes a rain squall fun. Since we've started catching water we find we can be more free with our fresh water and don't need to rely on saltwater as much for washing.
Fuel docks are adequately plentiful in most major ports, although planning ahead is important. Sometimes fuel docks require Med mooring to a gnarly concrete fuel dock and filling with jerry jugs becomes more appealing. We only carry 18 gallons and have found that adequate, but we tend to sail more than most people and use our engine little for charging. Many boats carry fuel jugs on deck. UV tends to fade and crack them over time. (In rough conditions these jerry cans can be swept overboard taking the stanchions with them.) Fuel is usually much more expensive outside the U.S. Premix gasoline (sometimes called Zoom) for the dinghy outboard is also readily available.
Labels: Tips for cruisers