The reasons to go cruising are numerous, and the work to get there endless. Sometimes it’s critical to leave the work behind and go for a sail. That is, after all, why we cruise!
Boat projects abound. Still, it's fun to reflect on how I got to this point. A few people have asked me for advice on learning to sail, since that's probably a pretty important part of this sailing life. Right?
I learned to sail on a glacier lake in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where the boats we have are old and water-logged and sluggish in the best of winds. My version of sailing, shared by others who also had no real clue about the sport, was one of flogging sails and a whole lot of paddling, spiced by a too-short tiller extension and a centerboard that slipped out if we heeled too far. I learned that sailing was a sport of independence, of frequent mishaps, and maybe, if you were lucky, some moments of sheer bliss. There was also a lot of paddling and swimming.
This is not the ideal way to learn to sail.
My best friend in high school went on to represent the United States on the sailing team in 2 separate Olympic games. From her, I learned the importance of the proper terminology for all parts of the boat, as well as the joys of actually sailing a boat that moved with the power of the wind. When I had the chance to sail with her, on her family’s boat on Lake Ontario, I was treated to a world where the wind was your partner, not something you fought against every second of the time. I learned that sailboats are gorgeous, you can’t tell how much closer you are to the finish line than the other guy until you’re pretty close to it, and big boats shouldn’t involve swimming as a way to get back to shore.
This was a better way to learn to sail.
When I got to college, I decided I’d further my sailing education and joined the sailing club. I went to the University of Virginia, which is situated in land-locked Charlottesville, and we practiced on a man-made lake 30 minutes away from the school. My skipper took pity on me and taught me about hiking out to keep the boat flat, the joys of a well-executed roll tack, and how to rig a 420 while trying to keep your fingers warm. We did, often, sail in cold weather. These college sailing days were filled with laughter and work, endless road trips and late nights of car rides and conversations. Friends introduced me to teaching at Sail Caribbean, a teen sailing camp in the Caribbean where I spent my days teaching teenagers on 50’ sailboats the joys of all aspects of life aboard. Sailing is friendship, cooperation, muscle memory, and travel – and maybe, if you’re lucky, a little money-making on the side.
This was, so far, the best way to learn to sail.
After college graduation, my husband and I bought our own 28’ boat and took off, spending 3 years wandering the Bahamas and the Eastern Caribbean before heading up the East Coast and settling down in Charlottesville. We had to be self-sufficient in ways no 20-year-old thinks about, and every 20 year old ought to experience. From learning the hard way that you better fill your water tanks to the brim before you shove off the docks the first time, to anchoring 5 times for 4 named storms our first year out, to blissful days tacking in and out of anchorages along Venezuela’s bay-studded coast – life was full of adventures both amazing and terrifying.
If I had to choose it all over again, I’d pick the last one as my favorite way to learn this sailing thing.
Maybe. Maybe not.
Thing is, all of these had one thing in common. Whether good or bad, all of these involved actually getting on a boat and shoving off from land. I learned something from every single encounter I had with a hull that had a mast stuck in it; actually, I still do. The best way to learn to sail is to get out there and sail, no matter how you get a chance to do it.
If you’ve got access to a cold lake and a heavy old boat, go for it. If you can learn from someone who’s the best of the best, go for it. If you pick up a book, or watch YouTube videos, and then get on a boat and try and try and try again – that’s a perfect way to learn to sail. If you have the opportunity to sail on a large boat in the sun-filled Virgin Islands, or somewhere in the tropics, I can promise you you will learn something.
But what if you’re older, not starting out as a kid or in high school or in college. What then? Is it too late?
There’s a favorite saying that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The next best time is now. Same holds true with sailing. You might have more patience now, more ability to be deliberate. You might listen better, or research more, or have the funds to pay a decent instructor. Don’t let age deter you from trying something new!
If you’re a parent, lamenting the fact that you are just learning and you want your kid to learn earlier in life than you did, get out on the water. Sure, let them join a junior program or do a sailing-focused camp or send them off to Sail Caribbean or another of the sailing schools designed for teens around the world. Just get them on the water, messing about in boats. Go with them, learn together, and play.
The best way to learn to sail? That’s the way you do it. Stop researching, grab your PFD*, and get out on the water. I bet you won’t regret it.
See you out there.
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It's still winter here in Central Virginia, though the blooming forsythia and the industrious robins helping themselves to bugs or worms or seeds in the backyard are working to convince us otherwise. The calendar and the lengthening days tell us that spring is on its way, and so is sailing season.
Or maybe it's closer to reality to say that "boat work season" is on its way. I'm not sure exactly how much sailing we will get in this summer and fall. Here's hoping we can sneak in a few gorgeous afternoons on the Bay!
Why no sailing? Simple. We have boat projects galore. We've got a few things that have to be done before we can set sail, and the discussion of how to organize said projects is ongoing. There is no right way to organize projects, but I will say that organizing them is really important. Pick a way that works for you and get moving!
One way is by "Things to buy". This is pretty concrete, though the list is deceptively simple. (And lest you think this is all there is, let me assure you it gets added to all the time.) There's no column for the associated projects. The solar panels, for example, involve hiring someone to do stainless work and stanchions and solid lifelines. The windlass doesn't mention the wiring, or the below-decks work, or the battery upgrades.
Another way to organize projects is to think of the things that MUST be done before we leave. There's a bit of this inherent in the "CRITICALITY" column in the "things to buy" spreadsheet, although I'd argue that adding the windlass is way more important than the fish finder*, and personally I'm lobbying hard for the refrigerator to be a pretty high priority (okay, we COULD just use the ARB we have right now as the fridge if we don't have it installed before shoving off . . .). This list is limited to items that are required for safety and comfort: finishing the bed down below, and dealing with reefing gear for the mainsail. Seacocks, especially while the boat is out of the water, are also critical.
This list, though? It keeps being affected by project creep. While we are working on a new bunk for ourselves, we might as well deal with the chart table. And the galley. And the batteries. And cushions. And lighting. And the table will likely need to be modified. And oh, let's finish the hull "ceiling" please, so our home is pretty and cozy.
Project creep. Gotta learn to be diligent in avoiding it, or embrace it. If you've got ideas as to the former, please let me know!
Then there's the "brain dump" version of project lists. Can you tell who makes which list?
Sometimes it feels like project lists are a bit like loading a cannon. Put it all in there and light a fuse and hope for the best.
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Reentry after cruising can be really tough, even if the return to a world most people can relate to is a planned one. We did this after our first cruise, when we’d eked out an extra year of our post-college boondoggle of a honeymoon. Three years of cruising the Eastern Caribbean on Calypso, our 28’ Bristol Channel Cutter. I was more than ready to come back to “reality.” I longed for life with a car, with air conditioning, with a freezer.
The pace of life astounded me. How can people move that fast?
There are times when cruising comes to an end and it is planned. Expected. Longed-for, even. And there are times when cruising comes to an end and it’s planned and it’s crushing. (That there are also times when cruising comes to a crushingly unplanned end is a whole other conversation.) While it’s obvious that one is harder than the other, there are some unexpected basics around re-entry that are universal, at least in my experience.
Cruising is tough, there’s no doubt about it. The physical existence. The challenges around simple chores like shopping and laundry and even flushing the toilet. The space and lack of privacy and constant need for vigilance about things like weather and holding and neighbors.
These are all aspects that people “back home” just don’t get. Their understanding of cruising is one from movies and magazines, ones that involve beaches and hammocks or pirates and 50-story waves. No matter how long you’ve been out, their lives have continued in the same routine of soccer practice and traffic jams, waiting for the cable guy and worrying about how effective the tick repellant will be for the dog this year. They may mean well, and welcome you home with open arms, but their main questions will be about storms and pirates and sharks. They might ask how you stayed awake all night every night, or how you managed to feed the family since you were never on land (there is a misconception that going cruising means never setting foot on land, that somehow you just keep sailing the whole time). And then they lose interest.
When we returned from 10 months in the Bahamas, I figured it would be fine. This was, after all, our second re-entry, and this time we’d only been gone for a relatively short period of time. We were coming back to a familiar house, a familiar neighborhood, a familiar school for the kids. Unpack the bags, collect the pets, and life goes on, right?
I’d forgotten how fast life is on land. I’d forgotten how scheduled it was. Our daughter slept in our room for the first month, not because she was nervous or clingy but because for 10 months we’d lived within 30 feet of each other and she liked that. The house felt cavernous and echo-ey and stiflingly small at the same time. We missed the sunset routine of relaxing in the cockpit, searching for the green flash.
The first time I went grocery shopping after our return, something I thought I was excited about – getting everything I want? What? - I broke down in tears in the tomato aisle. I’d just spent months living in a place where if you saw one kind of tomato in a can, you bought it and celebrated. How on earth can anyone choose between diced and whole and stewed and fire roasted and puree and sauce and paste, let alone all the different brands? Why is this important?
We’d kept a blog while we were gone, and the kids sent regular updates to their classrooms, but there is so much about cruising that is best explained in person. We threw a pizza party and invited whoever wanted to come, bracing for the onslaught of questions.
“What about pirates?”
“Weren’t you scared of hurricanes?”
This is why we went when we did, in the off season.
“Did you just sail around all the time?”
No, we anchored most nights. A night at sea was a rarity, something we did maybe 6 times in the 10 months.
And that was it. Someone else fired off a question about soccer practice, or what teacher they hoped the kids would have next year, or what happened at scouts the week before. Face it. Nobody wanted to hear about our adventure, probably because they had no way to make it real for themselves. While we were searching out laundromats in the Bahamas and building sandcastles, they had been busily living their regular lives back home, shoveling snow and picking paint colors. The shared vocabulary of suburbia didn’t apply anymore, and nobody seemed interested in learning a different language.
The best times were when we were at the yacht club, talking to sailors and friends who could get it at least in some way. They may not have escaped for any longer than a week at a time, but they could envision our lives. They could dream with us.
I spent long hours emailing with friends still out there, desperate to have conversations with people who got it. People who could appreciate the joys of a flush toilet, the terror of life on the highway after life at 5 knots. People whose trials and tribulations (provisioning! Engine troubles! Making the bed on the boat! Laundry!) made sense to me in a tangible, real-life way. Slowly, I reacquainted myself with life on land. That didn’t mean I had to love it, and at first I really didn’t.
We just took 10 days and sailed with our friends on s/v Totem, and I will tell you the re-entry from that 10 days has been every bit as rough as the one from the year-long cruise, minus the conversations about pirates and storms. People can more closely relate to the idea of taking a week off – that’s a vacation length that fits into their world view – but I’m still surprised and a little hurt that so few people have asked about the trip. It feels life-changing. Isn’t that visible from outside?
I felt clumsy driving the car. I looked around our house and wondered why we have so much space. The grocery store felt massive. My daughter sobbed in my arms as she looked at the work she needed to do, the “just get through it” feeling she had on land. As inane as it sounds, coming “back” from cruising is a grief process. And it hurts.
What has helped? Reading posts on Women Who Sail from women who are also grieving. Going through pictures from the week. Talking to friends who are out there, who were once out there. Writing about it. Processing through it while acknowledging that yes, the grief is real and it’s okay to be feeling it.
My daughter said it well when she said, “It’s totally not fair to have something and not have it.” She paused. “But it’s more not fair to not ever have it to begin with.”
Maybe part of my grief this time is that our next cruise is so close I can taste it. That the 10 day interlude was a sharp underlining of how right our decision is. Now I get to live my life on land, trying hard to be present for the process.
See you out there.
The title of this blog really could be “why don’t you buy a bigger boat?” We’ve been sailing Calypso, our 28’ Bristol Channel Cutter, since we bought her in 1992 (okay, fine, we spent a few months actually getting her ready to go in the water . . .). She’s carried us, when it was just Jeremy and me and our beagle, Toby, from Texas to Florida, down the Eastern Caribbean all the way to Trinidad and west to Bonaire. Back up the East coast of the US to Virginia. She’s carried us, as a family of 4, from Virginia to the Bahamas and Dominican Republic and back again. And we’re getting her ready to take us, just the two of us, no kids or dog, on the next adventure, though where that adventure will be remains up in the air.
Yes, she’s cozy. The current set up down below has the head under our bunk. This was fine when we were in our 20s, but now, ahem, the bladder doesn’t last all night. There’s no way to take a shower down below. I don’t mind jumping over the side for the bulk of my bathing, but these days I’d like to make sure I can get clean even if it’s not the best weather outside or we’re on passage for longer than 4 days. Jeremy, who’s 6’2” tall, can stand up only under the hatches.
So why not buy a bigger boat? One that has, say, a dedicated space for a head and shower down below, with an actual door that closes? One that has, say, standing head room all through for my vertically-endowed husband? Why not spend the money, save the effort of an interior refit, and get something more comfortable?
Believe me, we’ve discussed this one to pieces. We’ve chased boats on Yachtworld, flirted with the idea of weekend trips to see some, and even exchanged emails with a builder. I send Jeremy links to interesting looking boats when they flit like fairies across my screen.
There aren’t a lot of boats that fit our criteria. Boats that look gorgeous (and unique) in our eyes as we dinghy away from them in an anchorage. Boats that sail well. Boats that can carry sufficient supplies for the passagemaking we plan to do. Boats that are simple, robust. Boats that offer substantially more of most of these items than we’ve already got with Calypso, which means we’re looking likely at boats in the 40’ range. Boats that won’t require a mortgage.
Here’s what it comes down to, for us. Comfort is in more than space. Comfort is in knowing the boat. I know where to store things, how to access them. Jeremy installed the engine, installed the watermaker, ran the wiring. I can hoist the main by hand, no need for a winch until that last bit of tightening. We’ve got our anchoring hand signals down, know the routine about how to tack, and can put a full coat of topsides paint on in an hour.
Comfort is in knowing the issues we face. Any boat that would fit our budget, the budget we’ve settled on that will enable us to sail for a long time, will have to be one that’s older. One that requires a lot of work, likely. We know the work Calypso needs. Any new-to-us-boat would come with challenges known and unknown – we might spend a lot of time and money on a different boat and realize that she doesn’t work for other reasons.
We’ve had enough experience with cruising on Calypso to feel reasonably sure of our projected budget, though of course healthcare and health insurance is the hugest unknown factor out there. We are also practical enough to know that at some point, we’ll be no longer able to live on the boat. We want to have a cushion for that eventuality.
This isn’t to say we won’t get out cruising and decide we need a larger boat. We’re keeping that possibility in mind. But maybe, with the changes we’re making to the interior of the boat, we’ll find that cruising in her is as possible now as it’s been since 1992.
When we first bought Calypso, we were (and remain) heavily influenced by Lin and Larry Pardey, whose philosophy is “Go small, go simple, and go now.” Other boats on our short list included boats like the Beneteau 30. A Jeanneau 32. A NorSea 27. Even an F-27 trimaran. They were boats we could afford, not only to buy but to maintain and cruise on. The choice we made has stood the test of time.
I know that a lot of people reading this are thinking we’re nuts. I’m not sure, if I were making the decision as a boatless person right now, I’d choose something quite as cozy as Calypso. But there is deep value in changing the question from “how big a boat should I buy” to “how small a boat can I make work for me?”
Your boat may have a separate head and shower. But when we share an anchorage, we’ll still see the same sunset.
See you out there.
I’ve learned a lot of lessons from cruising, and some I hope I’ve learned. The importance of being present to what’s happening, even while deep in the midst of prepping to leave, is one I’m still working on.
I was 21 when Jeremy said 4 words that would forever change my life.
He waited until the waiter at the pizza place had left the menus, then leaned in.
“I’ve got something to tell you.”
I stared at my hands. At him. At the menu. It’s likely there were tears in my eyes. Was this the break up talk? At College Inn pizza, on a Friday night, surrounded by strangers? My brain raced with the what ifs. Am I the only one whose brain goes immediately to “what did I do wrong” when someone says those words? It feels like being back in the principals office.
The waiter came back. I’m pretty sure I ordered something – that is, after all, what you do when you’re out for dinner. The waiter went away and my fear rushed back in. My mouth went dry and my hands got clammy.
The words came as if from a far distance. “Let’s buy a boat.”
I can still vividly remember the almost levitating feeling of relief. “Is that all?”
“I want to go cruising.”
He’d been sailing and talking about sailing for as long as I’d known him. We met on the sailing team at the University of Virginia (we sailed on a man-made inland lake about 25 miles away), and he’d been teaching sailing on big boats in the Bahamas and the Eastern Caribbean during spring break and summers since his first year at school.
This wasn’t that big of a surprise. How hard could this cruising thing be, anyway? It’s like a fulltime vacation, right?
So we graduated, landed jobs, and moved to Texas (in 1991, there were not many options for a non-US citizen in a really awful job market) with this goal in our heads. The apartment was chosen because it had the all-important second bedroom – not for guests, or for a kid, but for the wooden dinghy he started building even before we unpacked all the boxes. Evenings were spent eating rice and beans (to save money), poring over cruising guides and boat magazines, endlessly discussing the kind of boat we should buy and where we should go. By the following spring we’d found the boat, the 28’ Bristol Channel Cutter we still own, adopted a beagle, and began the cruising prep in earnest.
It was decided. A 2-year cruise was what we could swing, we thought, based on a pulled-from-thin air budget of $1000 a month. Our destination? The Bahamas and the Eastern Caribbean, though the idea of a Caribbean circumnavigation was entertained more than once. Every instant was spent talking about the boat, working on the boat, or discussing the cruise. Was there anything other than the future?
Cruising prep involves a lot of projects, a lot of lists, and a lot of learning. I remember certain moments about those 3 years, but mostly I remember worrying about what was next. A project was finished (putting the head on the boat, building the galley) and immediately the next one started. Enjoy the process? Who has time to do that, when the TO DO list was longer than I am tall. I think I took maybe 3 pictures the whole time, mostly of the mess or of the dog curled up in some corner.
Questions swirled. Would we be able to get the finished dinghy out of the room it was being built in? How would the dog do on the boat? What would life be like in such a small space? How could I cook aboard? Could I get tired of beaches? What actually do you do on a boat all day?
The next three years flew by in a blur of endless boat work and more endless driving (my commute was 70 miles each way, and we carpooled together to save money), and on September 10, 1994, we slipped under the Kemah bridge and into Galveston Bay with enough gear on board to put us down an extra 2 inches on our lines, towing that dinghy (it came out of the room!) and followed by a few friends on their own boats cheering us on as we headed off for our adventure.
I found one of the log books we kept during that first cruise, a map-decorated hardbound journal. Here are some of the entries.
July. We leave in 2 months to go cruising. It’s starting to be real. We’re prepping now – we’ll really be cruising once we leave the dock.
October 10: One month in. We need to find a place to tuck the boat while we head back to Houston for an appointment. When we get back from that, we’ll really be cruising.
November 25: Thanksgiving tied to the dock at Dotty and Waldy’s, finishing up the dinghy seats. They loaned us a car for easy provisioning. Next stop, the Dry Tortugas. When we get there, we’ll really be cruising.
December 25: What a crappy Christmas. It's dumping rain and howling wind. We're all alone in the anchorage, with canned ham, canned peas, and canned potatoes for Christmas dinner. We leave for the Bahamas tomorrow. I can’t wait to really be cruising.
May 1: We leave for Rum Cay tomorrow, then on to the Turks and Caicos. I think this is where we really start cruising, when we leave the Bahamas. I wonder who we’ll see there.
When I re-read logs from the first year, the “we’ll really be cruising when . . .” line is repeated over and over again. It almost makes me sad to go back and read it. Not for the adventures and mishaps that are chronicled, and not even for the sense of nostalgia as I read the words written by 24 year old me. But the constant looking ahead, FOMO even then. That was a lifetime ago. Have I learned anything since then?
How much cruising, how much life, did I miss wondering when it was going to start?
We are less than 2 years out from our next cruise, this time with a timeline of “as long as it’s fun.” There are lots of projects. Incredible lists that now have titles like “selling the house” and “getting the kids settled in college” and “MUST DO BEFORE WE LEAVE”. The learning feels just as steep, though a few of the worries are just not there any more. There’s no dinghy being built in a spare bedroom, no concerns about “what do you do out there all day?”
I’m trying to be present, to focus on what’s happening now. I know that this part, the prep part, is as valuable and as valid a part of cruising as any of those perfect sunsets or incredible beach walks.
It’s all cruising. No waiting required.
About a year and a half ago, our friends on S/V Totem (check their website!) came for Thanksgiving. Behan and I had "met" while serving as admins together on the facebook group Women Who Sail, met in real life at the Annapolis Sailboat Show in October of 2016, and when it became clear that they'd still be in the US (and even in the relative geographical area to our landlocked Charlottesville) we invited them for Thanksgiving at our house.
Hanging out with cruisers is a joy. The vocabulary, the shared experiences, even the sense of flexibility in space-sharing and cooking together is something that is hard to translate. Behan and I have the kind of friendship that feels effortless in many ways. It's hard to believe we haven't known each other forever.
During that visit, we casually talked about their plans to go through the Panama Canal and joked about coming down to help them transit.
That joke solidified into something approaching a plan. We've purchased plane tickets, told work (and school) we are taking 10 days off in February to go through the canal with friends, and started assembling the stuff we need. Stuff like masks and snorkels, easy-to-dry towels, and all the goodies they might want us to bring down.
There's an old adage that cruisers and schedules don't mesh well. Trying to get somewhere on a schedule can mean making poor decisions, ignoring weather, or pushing past discomfort in ways that might not be safe. As cruisers (only TEMPORARILY land-bound), we get that, of course - it's far easier for us to be flexible than it is for them.
This may read as weird, if you're not a cruiser reading this. It's easier for a job-and-school constrained person to be flexible? How? Last I checked my boss was not exactly hot on me saying, "Hey, I'll take vacation next week. Or it might be tomorrow. Or maybe in a couple of weeks. That's cool, right?"
Cruisers moving their boats, though, are moving their homes. A move that on paper is "only" 20 miles away might take a week of waiting for the right wind, current, waves. As a land-based traveler, a change might be an inconvenience; for a sailor, a change might be disastrous.
Part of the extra challenge with a canal transit for a sailboat is that you're dependent on the canal authorities for everything, from getting measured to getting a transit time and even getting a (required) pilot on board the boat. There is just no way to say, "Hey, let's go through on xxxx date" and have it magically happen. This makes it tough if there is crew flying in, with the need to get airfare at a decent price but not knowing when the transit can happen.
The phone call came in on a January Saturday, about 2 weeks before we were supposed to fly down to help go through. The word from Totem was that the lag time between measuring and locking in (to start the transit) was running an average of 15 days, not the 7 days that's a traditional average. The weather was crap, making movement difficult and uncomfortable. If Totem was to move as quickly as they comfortably could, they'd get to the marina in Colon to be measured no sooner than the next Thursday, and with the 15 day lag time that put a transit right at the tail end of our existing flight schedule.
So we had a choice. Change flights (which may or may not be possible). Or fly in on our already-booked schedule and figure out getting to the Guna Yala (San Blas islands) where we can play with the Totems on board, in cool islands with amazing culture but miss a transit.
Both were options. Both required more planning than either of us had anticipated.
But this, when it comes down to it, is sort of a cruising reminder. Best laid plans need to be cast in sand on a tidal beach, with flexibility required for all involved.
Whichever we decided, the crews of Totem and Calypso were together again soon, this time in Panama. Keep reading!
You want your plans to flex, but not your hull.
You want your muscles to flex, but not your head.
If the word "flex" can mean twist and turn, how is it that sometimes that's good and sometimes it's bad?
We're working on changing the interior of Calypso, moving where we sleep from the v-berth area to the main salon, putting in a pull-out pilot berth like is on factory-finished boats. It is requiring flexibility in thinking, and flexibility in maneuvering. Flexibility in sourcing a mattress.
Where there's no flexibility is in the need for 4 berths, even if those berths aren't always available. I know we're going to want our kids to visit and stay on board.
Sometimes you flex, sometimes you don't.
See you out there.