April 15, 2007
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?
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
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. For
annual budgets of several different cruising families, in detail, click
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
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
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
- 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
- We assembled an extensive ditch kit in case the worst
happened. It included a small manual watermaker. (Click
here for a comprehensive
list of what was in our ditch kit.)
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
NOTE TO READERS
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
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.