Call For a Tow

April 1, 2007
Portsmouth, Rhode Island
41 ° 37.25 north
071 ° 16.12 west

Mailbag From Portsmouth, Part 1 of 3

By Bernadette Bernon

As we write our final logs from our cruising journey aboard Ithaka, we’ve been receiving a few very sweet letters from readers. To those who’ve gotten in touch, thank you for taking the time to write to us, for trusting us with your questions, for expressing your own cruising dreams, and for letting us know your thoughts about our stories. It means the world to us, especially as we transition from the world of cruising into the world of land-dwelling once again.

We try to answer, personally, all the letters we receive, and every few months we select a few letters with questions we think would be of broad interest to BoatUS readers – both powerboaters and sailors. Those, we like to answer in our BoatUS log so the dialogue can be shared. This week, we’ve selected two questions, and answered them here. In our next two logs, we’ll carry on with this question-and-answer session, taking this opportunity, while we still have the privilege of doing this BoatUS web column, to address thoughtful questions. Thanks for your input. We’ll miss that.

Preparing The Boat

Among other things, cruising is always about spares and sharing them. Two days after our blades snapped during a ferocious micro-burst of wind, we traded our spare bearings to another boat that needed them in exchange for three blades.

FROM STEVE N., IN ANNAPOLIS MD: “My wife and I are getting ready for our first offshore voyage, to Bermuda this summer. We have you two to thank for that, really, as we never would have thought we could do this if we hadn’t been reading your logs for the past few years. You made us believe we could do this too. We’re so excited, but we’re nervous. We’ve completed a major refit on our boat, a Bristol 42, and we think we’ve thought of everything. But, just in case, can you give us any advice about critical gear you think we should definitely make sure we have aboard before we set out?”

FROM BERNADETTE: Congratulations on moving along with your dream of cruising. Not knowing what gear you have aboard your boat, I’ll answer your question this way: Before we set off on Ithaka, we got some excellent advice from a cruising friend, Alvah Simon. He and his wife Diana circumnavigated, and wintered over in the Arctic. He told us to set a goal, before taking off, that every single system on the boat must have a manual backup. So if something happens to one system, it’s easy to switch to the other. This useful concept changed the way we looked at our boat and, consequently, how we prepared her.


We were religious about straining our fuel through a Baja fuel filter; with that precaution and two fuel filters we never once stalled our diesel due to dirt or water in the fuel. If one filter started to clog, we just switched over the other, without having to bleed the line.

For instance, on Ithaka we had spares for every single system, such as alternator, regulator, starter, injectors, lights, fuses, belts, impellers, and on and on. Plus:

  • The pressure water system was backed up by foot pumps – salt and fresh
  • The watermaker was backed up by water-catching systems built into the awnings, and jerry jugs in case a tank got fouled
  • The lifelines were backed up by loads of hand holds, and we always wore harnesses at night or in foul weather
  • The mast-top VHF antenna was backed up by a spare antenna that was on our radar pole but not hooked up to the back of the radio. We figured that if we were dismasted, we could still use the radio to holler at any vessel that came near.
  • The wheel steering was backed up by an emergency tiller that fit right into the rudder head
  • The sails were backed up by storm sails
These are some of the contents we stored in the life raft canister. While Bernadette looks comfortable in this raft, its easy to smile on land. Even a six man raft is mighty small and uncomfortable when its bouncing on waves.
  • The boat’s rudder was backed up by the Monitor’s rudder
  • We had both a Monitor wind vane AND an autopilot, and the autopilot was backed up by a second autopilot
  • The depth sounder, which is critical when you’re sailing in reef-infested waters, was backed up by a second transducer in the hull so that if one went out we could just swap wires to the second one, which of course happened. We also carried a lead line and a hand-held battery-operated depth sounder.
  • The fuel filter was backed up by a second in-line fuel filter to which we could switch over within seconds.
  • The computer and single-sideband radio, both of which we needed to download our weather information every single day, was backed up by a recording barometer

This photo, taken during Hurricane Katrina, is a sight no one ever wants to see in person. We drew down weather faxes regularly. Before going cruising, its worthwhile to spend some time learning the NOAA weather symbols on their charts. Its one less item on a steep learning curve once you set out.
  • The GPS was backed up by a sextant, knowledge of celestial navigation, and three more handheld GPSs. By the way, one was encased in a metal box – a faraday box – protected in case we got hit by lightening. Another was in our ditch kit.
  • The ship’s compass was backed up by a hand-held compass, and a compass in our binoculars
  • The VHF was backed up by two other hand-held VHFs, one of which lived in the ditch kit.
  • All electronic charts were backed up by paper charts, which we updated with our track at every change of watch
  • We had four different anchors on board. Each was oversized for our boat, and we wouldn’t have less.
  • For charging batteries, we had two alternators, a wind generator, and solar panels.

So, you get the point. Think through every piece of gear, ask yourself what you’d do if it stopped working, because it will stop working, no matter how new it is or how much you paid for it. Gear that has to live at sea takes a beating from the elements, corrosion, salt, and sun, and it will break at the least opportune time.

There is always fish to be found, and we rarely had to rely on canned protein. Many of the cans of meat with which we left the United States, we hauled back on shore years later. We learned a simple rule of thumb regarding provisioning. If you didnt like eating it on land, it wont taste any better at sea.

The Emotional Journey

FROM CHASE A., via email: “First congratulations on your successful adventure.  I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.  Without getting personal, I feel like I have come to know you both very well, and it’s been a pleasure.  Second, I’m very curious what you will do next.  Is there another cruise in your life?

“Third, I have a question about extended cruising.  I’ve noticed that most websites of cruisers tend to end precipitously. The day comes when the voyage is over, the boat is for sale and then the reader is left hanging as to what happened next.  I have also noticed that many voyagers undergo a subtle change in what they include in their diaries as their trips progress.  At first the emphasis is on sailing -- the boat, the wind, the engine and all its nuances, the cooking... life at sea.  But over time, it’s more concerned with the places visited, the people met and the cultural experience. The boat evolves from being the reason to be at sea, to being a transport vehicle to get from one place to the next.

“In your experience, do extended cruisers go through a psychological journey that changes the nature of the experience over time?  What is it (apart from necessary funds) that leads them back to shore, and often to selling the boat and turning away from the experience?  Is it simply ‘been there, done that’ or is it something about the nature of being alone and away from one's roots for an extended period of time?”

Bernadette and Douglas are shown here in their formal attire, now that they are back on land.

FROM BERNADETTE: There are many things Douglas and I want to do next. We want to resume the parts of our work life that we loved most. For me, that means writing professionally about the personal side of travel, and writing about people, their stories, and what makes them tick – most likely for magazines. For Douglas, it means seeing selected patients, and being a supervisor/mentor to other psychologists. For adventure, we’d like to do some land travel by motorcycle and on foot in the mountains of South America. Both of us also would like to work with a relief agency overseas, in particular with refugees. We have lots of plans and hopes for all these endeavors, and we’re slowly working our way toward these new goals.

You’re totally right that voyagers undergo a subtle change in their writing and thinking as their trips progress. This was true for Douglas and me. At first the emphasis was certainly on the boat, and all the technicalities of the cruising life. For a year at least, that aspect is overwhelming to most new cruisers, as there is so much to learn. But then, as you become more comfortable in your new life, you begin to look outward, becoming far more interested in the places and the people you meet along the way than you are with the sailing itself. For most cruisers, it’s the intensity of the relationship building that becomes the addictive element of cruising.

What leads cruisers back to shore is different for everyone. For many, it’s the desire to become re-engaged in meaningful work, to become involved in something a little less self-indulgent and self-focused – after a time, these became important factors for Douglas and me. For other cruisers, it’s a growing boredom with the boat life, paired with a craving for the conveniences of land life that draws them home – neither was the case for us. For yet other cruisers it’s a feeling that, wow, now that we’ve done this, what else is there in this great world we want to see and do? Definitely, Douglas and I feel that there are many more things we want to do in life – personally and professionally -- and we felt itchy to get home and get started doing some of them.


Now that Bernadette and Douglas are back in the U.S., any groups or corporations interested in booking them to do their inspirational slide shows and talks can reach them at

While we are already missing the sea in many ways, we are also enjoying living with flowers again those we grow, those emerging from the ground outside our front door, and other signs of spring.