When we were still in college, my now-husband looked me square in the eyes and said 7 words that would change my life.
“Let’s buy a boat and go cruising.”
This set off a flurry of research, money-spending, and preparation the likes of which I had never seen before, and likely won’t see again either, though this was over 25 years ago and well before the age of the internet, house ownership, and parenting. What are some lessons I learned then that I can pass on to you now?
Breathe. There is endless information, and endless conflicting advice out there. Like with understanding what you love best to do in the world, there are many questions you already know the answers to. Sometimes it’s best not to ask, not to research, not to question. It’s easy to work yourself into a full-on flop sweat as you race from blog to article to Facebook group to podcast to video. Stop, watch the sunset, and breathe.
Define your cruising. What is it you envision this cruising thing to be? And by this I don’t mean “how do I live on a sailboat” but rather what does cruising mean to you? Cruising is not a one-size fits all. There are those who look to take a boat off of the dock for weekends and the occasional week. Those who want to explore lands far afield and envision sailing off into the sunset. Still others who want to find cozy lakes that they can access via car, then plop the boat into the water and be on that island that’s tantalizingly out of reach for others. Cruisers are cruisers, whether they spend a month on the water or a year. Or maybe they sail off forever, or at least “as long as it’s fun”, to borrow a phrase from Lin and Larry Pardey. Cruisers are also those who sail, return to land. Sail, return to land. Sail, return to land. If you ask a question about cruising, be prepared to define your version to get answers that actually are relevant to you.
Don’t be put off by those who have zero understanding of your dreams. The urge to point out all that can go wrong is strong, particularly from those who cannot comprehend the lifestyle – all they know is of movies like All is Lost and the Perfect Storm and even Jaws, for heaven’s sake. All the while they hop into their cars and take their lives into their hands with nary a thought or concern for how much more dangerous that is, statistically – in the US, almost 3300 people die per day in car-related accidents, while the mortality rate for those on boats is so small it makes major headlines when it happens. When we were getting ready to go, we had so many people laugh in our faces, basically, doing the facial equivalent of patting us on the heads and saying, “Go ahead, small child, keep pretending that you’ll get away.” They could not believe it when we actually put the dock lines aboard and headed off under that bridge in Kemah, Texas. The lack of understanding is strongest in the land-based community, but it exists even among cruisers. We were approached one day while walking the dog in Bimini, Bahamas, by an older gentleman who we’d seen arrive on the beach in his dinghy. He basically stood right in our path, his gaze traveling from our flip-flop clad feet to the scratched sunglasses and back. “How could your parents let you go off like this? If my kids tried to do this I’d disown them.” We were flabbergasted. Was he jealous? We’d gotten away years before he’d managed to. Why was this something to discourage?
Ask questions. This may seem counter to earlier advice, but the person you need to ask questions of first is yourself. How much space do I not need? What amenities MUST I have? How much money can I afford to spend? How handy am I (or how much can I learn?) Do I know how to sail? How much time can I be away from my job? What are my non-negotiables in a boat? (For me, it was having a working toilet and a stove with oven, followed closely by the need for running water. Before we moved on board, all of these items were taken care of!) Why do I want to go off cruising? What am I expecting from this lifestyle that I can’t get on land?
Find your tribe. The internet age is amazing in that any information you want is at your fingertips. It’s also disastrous for exactly the same reason. Find 2 or 3 mentors (whether you know them for real or not) and listen to their advice, and discard the rest. If you can reach them and talk to them, so much the better. You may have to hire them, or pay for more detailed access, and you may just be able to glean what you want by reading the blog or watching the videos. It’s also helpful to find a group of people who are going through what you are, whether that’s on Facebook or in your marina.
Learn everything you can. Cruising is about self-sufficiency, and even if you have the budget to hire out all repairs on your boat, Murphy’s Law says that nothing will break down until you’re tucked into a quiet anchorage far from anything. Being able to at the very least troubleshoot the issue means you’re one step closer to getting back out there. When we were in Leaf Cay, in the Exumas, Bahamas, our watermaker went totally on the fritz. We’d grown dependent on it and were about to jump off to points farther south and east where having it working would make the difference between leisurely exploring and pushing hard to get to the next water-available spot. That my husband could diagnose the problem and accurately call in the part he needed meant we picked up said part in the Turks and Caicos and we were off and making water. Normally he can fix EVERYTHING on the boat – I can cook anything, so the two of us make a pretty potent pair! This learning encompasses a lot, from sailing to maintenance to weather to budgeting to storage to cooking to first aid to better communication to . . . the list goes on. Learn everything you can, and plan on continuing that learning.
Don’t forget the importance of treats. Sure, this comes under the budget headline, and also on the self-sufficiency thing, and even under the cruising definition thing, but one of my personal pet peeves is those who call my cruising “camping on a sailboat”. I’ve got a toilet, a stove, a fridge, and a way to take a shower. Plus my bed. My wine glasses. My cloth napkins and ceramic plates. No, this is not camping! Getting ready to go cruising, at least for any extended length of time, means giving up some things. Clothing, friends, endless hot showers. Your definition of treat will depend on your budget AND your own sense of what a treat is – but make no mistake about it. That treat will be savored hard when you’ve ended a hard passage. Treats in my book? A favorite decadent chocolate bar AND doing laundry at a laundromat instead of in a bucket. Yours might be a weekend in a hotel, or splurging on that dinner out or renting a car to do the stocking up.
After you’ve found the boat, chances are better than good you’ll have a lot of work to do on her. Even a brand new vessel will need kitting out to your satisfaction. Take her for a sail. Put down the to do list, leave a lot of boxes on the dock behind you, and go sailing. It will remind you of what you’re doing all of this for, and you’ll come back to your projects with a renewed sense of vigor.
Set a date. I mean it. Look at a calendar, think about the work thing, the boat thing, and the project thing, and SET A DATE. Not “when we get xxx done” but “June 26, 2019.” That date might shift slightly as you get closer, but boat work is never done. Ever. Make a list of the non-negotiable projects (generally safety related, or essential quality of life stuff) and tick them off. Then go. This list for us, for that 2019 date, includes getting the port side (our new bunk, currently completely destroyed) finished and . . . oh. Nothing else. There is a ton that’s on the “would be nice” list – which is a lot longer and includes things like “redo the taffrail” “new fridge system” “redo the chart table” “electric windlass” “solar panels” “new galley counter”. Might some of those get done before we go? Sure, or at least that’s the plan. But are they “keep us tied to the dock” projects? No. It’s important to keep sight of that. When we left the first time, the dinghy was still not 100% completed (Jeremy had built it from a set of plans). Bits and pieces were done along the way, but the final touches were put on while we were in Naples, Florida, almost 3 months after we’d pulled our dock lines aboard and went under that bridge. There’s enough in life that’s set up to get in the way of you sticking with the tried-and-true – don’t encourage that thinking by tying your cruising cast-off date to unnecessary projects that will creep.
Practice being present. Even during the chaotic frenzy of getting ready to go, even in the first few terrifyingly swooping months (or nights, or weeks, or hours), being able to take stock of where you are and appreciating what you are doing is important skill. It’s insanely easy to decide “oh I’ll be really cruising when I do xxx” and miss out on the very experience you don’t realize you’re having already.
Being obsessed with going cruising is a bit like falling in love, or being a new parent. Your stomach will clench at unexpected moments. You’ll find yourself doodling and daydreaming about where you’ll go and what you’ll do. You’ll pull out your phone and share pictures of dusty boatyards and fiberglass projects with total strangers. You’ll wake up terrified and wonder if you’re doing something wrong.
And then you’ll step on board and hoist the sails and it will all be worth it.
See you out there.
(Need help with any of these steps? Want some guidance and practical tips on whether this is the life for you? Contact me. I'd love to help!)