April 15, 2007
Portsmouth, Rhode Island
41 ° 37.25 north
071 ° 16.12 west

Mailbag From Portsmouth, Part 2 of 3

By Bernadette Bernon

Knowing we’re bringing our BoatUS logs to a close over the next month, Douglas and I decided the time was right to answer a few last questions from our readers before we exit the stage. In our previous log, we talked about what some of the reasons are that cruisers come home; and how to think through backup systems on board your boats. This week, we’ll answer some of your questions about weather and preparing for offshore sailing. Answering readers’ questions has been fun for us over the years, and a privilege. Thank you for connecting with us. The pleasure has been ours.

Concerns About Finances, and Children Aboard

FROM JOHN Y., via email: “We own outright a Beneteau 411 sailboat, and have $100K banked as a cruising kitty. If we liquidate the house, we have another $200K in equity. Our worldly materialistic possessions would net $25K to $35K. Do we have sufficient funding to become cruisers?

“Also, we have a beautiful 5-year-old daughter who has lived on the boat for her first two years of life. If we go cruising, I’m concerned about her education, and about the social element – that she’ll miss the influence of other children and friends -- and the effect cruising will have on her next 3 to 5 years. Do you know of other cruisers with small children who can give us some advice and suggestions?”

The best guide for how much money a cruise will cost is determined by how much you have to spend. We met people cruising on the tiniest of budgets and in great luxury. In the same anchorages, they all shared the same sunsets.

FROM BERNADETTE: Oh, you're in the throes of making so many decisions! Douglas and I remember that feeling of chaos well. First of all, regarding your financial situation, from what you say in other parts of your email, it sounds as though you’re young enough, and have enough money, to have a grand cruising adventure, and then come back and resume your careers, with plenty of time to build back your financial security for college tuition for your daughter, and retirement funds for you and your wife. Many cruisers we met were living on $2,000 a month, plus health insurance. (This figure assumes you have spares for the boat already, and it does not include travel home by air, or major repairs for the boat.) So, with $100,000 of savings, it seems to me you have enough to enjoy a terrific cruise for a few years.

My only advice on this subject is that, perhaps, you may not want to sell your house, which is your largest asset. Perhaps you could afford to rent it, and keep your foot in the real-estate market. If the market goes up while you’re away, and you’ve sold your house, it might be difficult or impossible to get back into a similar house in a neighborhood with a good school system.

For older people who are considering going cruising, people for whom retirement and the end of wage-earning is more imminent, I think more careful consideration and a larger cruising kitty are needed.

The education cruising kids gets far exceeds anything that is available in books. Rich life experiences remain the greatest teachers.

Regarding your daughter, from everything I’ve read, and the families we’ve met out there, she is at the perfect age to go cruising. Once kids reach adolescence, they need more of a peer group. At your daughter's age, she can be happy playing with you, or local kids. Have no fear, you’ll meet other families with children everywhere you go. They’ll be from the United States and from other countries, and when you meet likeminded parents, you’ll travel together for long periods so that your children can enjoy each other’s company.

One way to meet other cruising parents now, before you go cruising, is to attend lectures at boat shows. Often there are panel discussions that include a cruising parent. Go and introduce yourself. You’ll find that cruising parents love to share what they’ve learned with those parents following in their wake.

Your daughter will open your eyes to the countries you visit, and open doors as well, because you’ll meet local people through her. She’ll probably pick up Spanish if you spend time in Central and South America, which will be invaluable to her when she returns to traditional school. From watching the families we’ve met while Douglas and I have been out there, it’s made me wish my parents had taken our family cruising when I was young.

A Little Trepidation About Heading Offshore

FROM CATHY R., of Vancouver, WA: “Thanks for sharing your voyages and stories with us. My husband and I have read all your logs from the very beginning, and we’ve learned so much from them as we follow in your footsteps. One of my big fears about going cruising is sailing offshore. Although my husband has sailed with friends down to San Diego, I’ve never gone for more than an overnight. We plan to sail down to Mexico, and I was hoping you’d share some advice with us about how to prepare ourselves and our boat for sailing offshore.”

Its worth spending some time studying weather faxes in advance of going cruising. The symbols and information are generally new and require some getting used to. One should never assume, however, that the information is entirely reliable. Local conditions are generally somewhat different than what a simple fax can offer.

FROM BERNADETTE: When you look back on your first big offshore sailing trip, I hope you’ll say the same thing I did: “Hmmm. All the things I worried about for so long never happened!” That said, it will give you great peace of mind to know you’ve done everything you can to prepare your boat and yourselves for challenges that might come up. Here are some of the common-sense preparations we made to Ithaka so that she -- and we -- safely handled our offshore sailing voyages:

  • Before we left home, we’d read enough horror stories about the danger of lying a hull in heavy weather, that we wanted to make sure that, despite conditions, Ithaka could always keep some sail up. A bareheaded boat can more easily suffer a knockdown in heavy wind and seas. So in addition to our storm jib, we purchased a storm trysail, and installed on the mast a separate track for it.
  • We had three reef points installed on the mainsail, and we highly recommend this to everyone who sets offshore. The Western Caribbean, where we sailed, has very powerful winds, especially in January and February, and we used that third reef point several times to great effect.
  • We had two sea berths, with lee cloths, and if things were really terrible, sleeping on the floor in the main salon works just fine, too.
  • We mounted fire extinguishers all over the boat down below, as well as one at the binnacle.
  • Before we left home, we purchased a 406 GPIRB, and a Gail Rider Storm Drogue with 350 feet of line. We never used either one, but we were glad we had them. (By the way, if an EPIRB doesn’t fit in your budget, you can rent one cheaply from BoatUS.)

This was one tool we were happy never to use.
  • We had a six-person life raft, inside of which we placed reading glasses, radio, food, water, medications, and other personal supplies.
  • We assembled an extensive ditch kit in case the worst happened. It included a small manual watermaker.
  • We also put together an extensive medical kit that included prescription medications, surgical supplies, dental supplies, splints, and so on. We always moved the ditch kit (which was in a floating bag), and the flare and smoke kits (which were in a waterproof floating canister) to a secure spot near the companionway for the passage. No sense having a ditch kit you can’t grab in an emergency.
  • Douglas printed up schematics and instructions about the batteries, the working of the engine, the marine alphabet, and mayday information. He laminated them, and they were easily assessable at the navigation desk. (I was always grateful for Douglas’s vigilance and care about such details.)
  • Cruisers carry considerable weight forward due to lots of anchor chain. So, to avoid the risk of pitch-poling in heavy seas, we tried to keep Ithaka balanced by distributing the weight of other heavy gear and jerry jugs around the boat.
  • We mounted a knife at the binnacle, and at the mast, in case we had to cut a fouled line in an emergency (which we did have to do, twice, during our six-year cruise)
  • We installed a much larger electric bilge pump, with a high-water alarm and a bilge-pump monitor that counts the number of cycles it turns on. We had two large-capacity manual bilge pumps, and plenty of buckets.
  • We tied an engine key to a closed hook in the lazarette, so that if the boat should suffer a knockdown, and the engine key should fall out of the ignition, one of us could quickly locate the spare in the dark.
  • We mounted a radar reflector on the mast. Still, when we called bridge to bridge, operators of some ships – if they answered AT ALL – sometimes claimed they didn’t see us on their radar. This is a reminder that the responsibility for vigilance out there amongst commercial shipping is always ours.

We always drew our path in advance on the charts, especially if the entrance to an area contained any shoals, which they all seem to do.
  • In advance of each offshore passage, we penciled in tracks on the charts, noted all navigation marks, lights, sequences, obstructions, and traffic separation schemes, and highlighted them on the charts. We noted all tides and currents; and we came up with alternative destinations in the event of troubles. Douglas always made up a diagram/drawing sheet with all waypoints and navigational marks for arrival, including lat/long, distance between them, heading to steer, and bearings to landmarks.
  • If we were traveling with another boat, especially thought reefy waters at night, we set up a VHF/SSB radio schedule to check in with one another at designated times. (Mostly, that made passages more fun to have someone to chat with while your spouse is asleep.)

The VHF and SSB become the links we have to our friends as well as a safety feature. We were surprised how often we used our SSB and how much we enjoyed talking to friends all around the world, keeping track of their whereabouts, and making plans to get together.
  • We sent an email to a friend ashore, with our float plan, telling him where we were, where we’re going, and when we expected to make landfall. If ever we’d failed to turn up and email him, he knew who to contact.
  • We made plenty of food for the first few days. In case either of us got a little seasick, no one had to worry about cooking. And we never drank alcohol while passage making. At all.
  • It sounds like a small thing, but we never left anything in the sink while we were underway. We washed dishes immediately, dried them and put them away. There is nothing worse when a squall hits, or if you ever lose lights down below for some crazy reason, then to have a mess of things in the galley to fly around. Any chaos whatsoever makes offshore situations more frightening.
  • We each knew where every seacock was located, and we had a plug tied near each one so that we cold shove it into a broken seacock in the dark. Put on a blindfold some time and crawl around, making sure you can find them and maneuver them, especially in the dark. MOST especially in the dark!
  • We set up the jack lines on deck before we took off.
  • We made sure our foul-weather gear had personal strobe-lights and whistles attached
  • We got out the harnesses, so they were ready to put on as the sun went down, or if the weather suddenly got nasty
  • Our strict policy is always to wear harnesses at sunset, and in any foul weather. No exceptions.
  • We reefed immediately when either one of us uttered the following words: “I wonder if we should reef?”
  • If we ever felt a little green, we took Stugeron right away. It’s a fast-acting seasickness remedy, and highly effective, so you don’t have to take it unless you feel queasy.
  • Every ten minutes during the entire passage, whomever was on watch did a visual horizon check. At night, we used an egg timer, just to make sure we didn’t fall asleep. A tanker at normal speeds can go from behind the horizon to your position in ten minutes, so that’s the number we used.

Tankers move with lightning speed compared to sailboats, and we were always careful to keep our distance. Photo courtesy of Captain Bill Band.
  • We came up with a watch schedule – usually three hours on, three hours off – and adhered to it around the clock, so that we each got plenty of sleeping time during the day.
  • Once we’re underway, we never went forward on deck to change sails or reef without waking the other person up.
  • We almost always reefed before sundown, no matter what. It didn’t slow us down much, and if we were hit by an unexpected squall, we were better prepared. (The worst squalls always seem to arrive in the dark.)
  • Every day, we did a walk around the deck to inspect cotter pins, and check for chafe on the lines. Douglas also did a binocular check of the mast as well
  • It’s our strict policy that if either one of us is in doubt about anything, such as the lights of an approaching tanker at night, we wake the other person up.

Cathy, I was lucky. Douglas is a vigilant sailor, and took great care to be sure Ithaka and we were safe. I appreciated that, and wish I told him so more often out there, because now that I’m looking back on those offshore voyages, I see how secure I felt with him as a partner at sea. I could always trust him to do the conservative thing. (There were other things I could brain him for, but that’s a different story…) Cruising girlfriends of mine would lament that their husbands scared them sometimes, especially at night, by going forward in the dark, for instance, without telling them. Or, the worst, by not always wearing their harnesses. This is reckless and unfair to the person off watch, who needs to sleep and rest with the assurance that his or her partner is taking no risks out there. You and your husband should form a pact about these rules; it will give you both peace of mind.

Most importantly, take a couple of practice trips off shore before you go cruising. Even if you just head out to nowhere and back for a day and then do it again some other time for two days, you will have had the experience to shore up some confidence before taking a longer voyage.


Bernadette and Douglas will continue the Log of Ithaka for the next two months as they adjust to land life. It is their intention, then, to bring the log to a conclusion. Now that they’re back in the U.S., any groups or corporations interested in booking them to perform their inspirational slide shows and talks can reach them at SV_Ithaka@hotmail.com

Cruising always requires looking over the edge, and it is with the greatest relief that we always find the world is flat and there are no monsters beyond.