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By Little Gidding - Published August 24, 2006 - Viewed 9581 times


August 24, 2006

A few days ago we received an e-mail from our friends Beth and Jim on Madcap, a sister ship of ours, whom we met when we first arrived in Belleville at the beginning of the summer. They just returned to their home in Ottawa after a shakedown cruise around Lake Ontario. It sounds like they had lots of adventures ("we are being very careful to call every mishap a 'learning opportunity'"). The aim of the exercise was for them to prepare themselves and their boat to sail away in another year. In Beth's words: "We are still planning our trip down the St. Lawrence to the Maritimes next summer and onward to the south if we can get everything else arranged (kids, dogs, parents, my anxiety level, Jim's work ...)". They invited us to visit them the next time we're in Ottawa (Eileen's home town) and promised to be a rapt audience if we would answer a "kazillion" questions they have about cruising.

It's funny how people assume we know something about cruising just because we've been doing it full time for the past twelve years. Of course, we don't do much to disabuse them of this notion. Five years ago this month we began writing these entries for the BoatUS web site. We were in Trinidad at the time, having spent seven years cruising the Caribbean and the Atlantic seaboard. In the over 200 stories we've inflicted upon our patient readers since then, we've pontificated on a number of topics related to cruising -- everything from how to catch fish to how to freeload with landlubber friends. A lot of our unsolicited advice has been admittedly trite, but buried in all those miscellaneous musings are a few (we think) more substantive suggestions.

Now we're back in Ontario, our place of departure when we started cruising in 1994. It's time to take stock. Beth and Jim's e-mail has prompted us to distill a few lessons from our live aboard experiences over the years. For the not-so-patient readers, we'll limit our dissertation to three main points. And we promise not to repeat it in the future.

Go Simple
Many would-be cruisers have the mistaken idea that the cruising life is all about boats and equipment. You can't really blame them; this myth is aggressively promoted by boat shows, marine manufacturers, and the boating press (which survives on advertising from the marine industry). The truth is that full time cruising is not something you buy, it's something you experience. Sure, you need a few basics (starting with a boat), but you can get by with a fairly modest vessel and a surprisingly limited amount of stuff. In our last entry ("Differences"), we mentioned a survey we conducted this past winter of the cruising fleet in George Town, Bahamas. With some exceptions, people were cruising on big, well-equipped boats. Almost lost in the crowd were a few folks on small boats who did NOT have fancy electronics, refrigeration, watermakers, and most of the other amenities now considered de rigeur by cruising pundits. And they were having the time of their lives.

Unless you're planning on crossing an ocean or spending the winter buried in the arctic ice pack, you probably don't require a bombproof bluewater passagemaker. Just about any production boat in reasonable condition will get you down the North American coast to warm water. In many instances, buying a big, expensive boat is not only overkill, but may be premature. If you have not already done a lot of cruising, you likely won't know at the outset what boat design features best suit your needs and wishes. And listening to opinionated pedants like ourselves will only add to your confusion. For every sailor who extols the virtues of an aft cockpit, you'll find one who insists a centre cockpit is the only way to go. Sloop rigs, ketches, and schooners all have their advocates. Monohull boaters line up against multihull boaters, "stink-pot" owners against "rag-baggers". The only way you'll discover what works best for you is personally to test the alternatives.

We met our good friends Pam and Glenn in the Bahamas the first year they were out cruising on Glenn's 35 foot sloop Colette. They knew Colette was more of a club racer than a liveaboard cruising boat, but at that point they hadn't committed themselves to the cruising life. They weren't about to trade in a perfectly good boat until they had a better idea of what they were getting into. Two years later, they were convinced that they wanted to live aboard full time. Moreover, they had compiled a shopping list of what they desired in a new boat, which led to their purchase of Anything Goes, a 42 foot catamaran.

The Ellis family with whom we crossed paths three years ago also recommended the incremental approach to cruising. Parents Pam and Graham, their three teen-aged kids Laura, Catherine and David, and golden retriever Holly had started cruising five years before on a very basic Hughes 29 sailboat. After a year exploring Florida and the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, they decided to move up to a CSY 37 and to buy some more equipment. Graham told us, "Our first boat cost only $10,000. If cruising hadn't worked out for us, we could have walked away and pursued other options. Don't blow your nest egg on outfitting your boat. Keep things simple. Don't buy expensive gear like a watermaker, wind powered generator or solar panels until you've found out that you really can use them."

Go Slow
In our first year of full time cruising, we had a bit of a late start leaving Lake Ontario and rushed through the upper state New York canal system with fallen leaves and frost on the deck. We slogged our way down the Intracoastal Waterway to Florida and hopped across to the Bahamas. We appreciated the clear water and balmy weather in the islands, but hardly paused on our relentless southward journey. We were Caribbean-bound, dammit, and we weren't about to be distracted in our mission. We got thoroughly beaten up bashing our way to windward through the Turks and Caicos islands and along the coasts of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico (they call it the thorny path for a reason). It was July before we arrived in the Virgin Islands, still wondering when the fun was going to start. The Anegada Passage and the long sweep of the Lesser Antilles island chain ahead of us looked daunting. We fell off the wind and turned south, arriving four days later in Venezuela. After ten months of almost nonstop sailing, motoring and motor-sailing, we finally relaxed. We didn't move for a month. But was it really necessary to endure all that misery in order to reach tropical paradise?

We've observed over the years that the primary reason some people gave up cruising earlier than expected was that they tried to do too much, too fast. Like we did in our initial year out, they felt compelled to meet self-imposed deadlines based on a preconceived cruising itinerary. It's a good formula for a mutiny, marital breakdown, or both. Living aboard full time takes a lot of adjustment and cruising from place to place demands a set of skills that can only be acquired through practice. It's a steep learning curve. Establishing overly ambitious goals at the outset invites disappointment.

We recall a couple on a catamaran we met during our first visit to the Abacos. We were the only boats anchored in a cove on a small, uninhabited cay. They were into the second month of what they hoped to be an open-ended cruising adventure. We had been out cruising for four years. He asked us what our immediate plans were and we vaguely replied that we thought we'd hang around for a few more days where we were and then make a decision based upon the latest weather report. "Really?" he said. "We've been doing two places a day and we have ten more to go, so that means five more days in the Abacos."

"What 'places' do you mean?" David asked.

He held up a copy of an Abacos cruising guide, the same book we had. "We're hitting every anchorage marked in the guide, one for lunch and another for overnight. We don't want to miss anything."

Sure enough, at first light they weighed anchor and were on their way. A week later we met them in a nearby town when we dropped in for fuel and water. They were at the dock, having been towed there the day after we had last seen them. They had run aground on a reef on the way to their second "place" of the day. Their props and steering mechanism needed some pricey repairs. Two months later, we heard they were back in the States and the boat was up for sale.

The moral of the story: you'll never see everything, so take the time to experience thoroughly what's immediately surrounding you. If we were to do it again, we'd take an entire year cruising the Intracoastal Waterway and exploring the Florida keys. The next winter we'd check out the Bahamas for a year, or two, or three. And then we'd think about the Caribbean, maybe heading southeast to the Lesser Antilles, or maybe going downwind to the western Caribbean and Central America. We'd keep our plans open and we wouldn't rush. That way we'd have a better understanding of the places we were visiting and, just as important, we'd have time to connect with people along way -- local residents and other cruisers. We'll warmly remember this extended network of friends long after the details of each island anchorage have faded.

Go Now
We commented in our last entry that the cruising community is aging. When David was thirty-something and cruising the South Pacific in the mid-80's, there were a number of other cruisers of a similar age out there doing it on a shoestring. When David was forty-something and we started our current cruising adventures, he again seemed to fit right in with the rest of the crowd. Now, at 53, he finds he's still part of the mainstream. Everyone seems to be aging together. Where are all the younger cruisers?

There are probably several reasons why people are apparently delaying their plunge into the cruising life. One is related to our earlier point about boats and equipment. Too often we hear people say, "We'll be ready to go as soon as we've bought and outfitted the perfect boat." There is no perfect boat. David started cruising on a heavily financed, older, no-frills boat. No furling sails, no electronic navigation, no refrigeration, no outboard motor on the dinghy. But it got him from the Pacific northwest to New Zealand and back.

And then there's the related matter of financial security. Once upon a time, we had a ten-year plan that promised us a comfortable investment income in perpetuity if we only held our noses to the grindstone for long enough. Halfway through that plan, David's Dad died suddenly from cancer, a disease that's prematurely taken three of the five members of his immediate family. On the way home from the funeral we decided that ten years was one hell of an assumption. We cast off the dock lines four months later. The consequences of leaving early have been that we've had to be more frugal than some of our cruising colleagues and we've had to work along the way. But we're doing it and we're still on the right side of the grass.

Another factor that affects when people feel they can go cruising is commitment to family. Understandably, many parents want to ensure their kids are grown and established in their careers before shutting down the family farm. We'd point out that there are families with children out there cruising that seem well adjusted, but not having children ourselves, we hesitate to recommend how others should rear their kids. We do know something about the other end of the family age spectrum, however. Eileen's father is 87. Five years ago he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Since then, we've spent more time each year in Canada visiting Eileen's parents and lending support. If we had put off our departure date in keeping with our original ten-year plan, those family responsibilities probably would have prevented us from leaving.

So, here we are, back where we started (more or less). Our cruising plans have evolved with our changing circumstances. We're still living on the boat, but we're tied to a dock. Although we plan to continue cruising, it won't be full time and we won't be going as far afield. It's pretty tough maintaining a regular cruising log when you're no longer regularly cruising. We've had fun on these pages. Our parting advice: life is short -- go simple; go slow; and, most important, go now.

See you out there!
David & Eileen

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