So Ya Wanna Be A Cruiser?

Part One (Jump to Part Two)

Throughout my years of cruising, one of the recurring comments I get is, "I wish I could do that". Now while I will admit it is the only lifestyle I can or would lead, it does require some serious adjustments in attitude and expectations. Things that are a huge problem ashore seem to disappear, while many things you just take for granted on land, become impossible underway..

It's Not Like In The Brochure ...

(Scene 1) A robin's egg blue sea with a light chop, a beautiful blond on the foredeck, palm trees in the background, you're sipping boat drinks, all while making 7 knots in paradise.

(Scene 2) 6 to 8 foot confused seas blowing like stink, your crew (some dude in dirty cutoffs and a 4 day beard) is cursing on the foredeck while trying to douse the jib and you are making 2 knots over the ground 400 miles offshore.

The first scenario is on the cover of "Cruising Is A Wonderful Life" magazine. The second is usually closer to the reality of making passage. Those days of calm seas and light air can be found on day trips between islands, or while making short passages behind the reefs of Belize. But first you have to get there. For instance, when and if I leave the Savannah area this fall, I plan to head to Puerto Rico. I could take "The Ditch" to South Florida; jump over to the Bahamas on a good day, and island hop down to the Mona Passage. That would be fun, but I would like to get there before hurricane season arrives, and the money runs out, so we will take the direct route.Pretty simple really, head due east from Savannah for a hundred miles or so, and then turn right. In 11 days or so, we should be in the Mona Passage and then another day or so, on to Salinas. Eleven days of sailing on your ear in the open ocean. Interminable boredom punctuated by moments of absolute terror.

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If It Ain't Broke, It Ain't A Boat ...

Before we can make this wonderful passage from Savannah to Puerto Rico the first thing we have to do is get off the dock. Always the most difficult part of the trip. Now a cruising sailboat is always in a state of constant repair. Much worse than a house, trust me. No matter how much time or money you spend on maintaining your vessel something will break every day. And that is just while sitting still. Get underway where you can't get supplies, and the rig and gear are under constant strain, it is not unusual to have something break hourly. And remember, whatever spare parts you bring will not be the ones you need.

Best you can do is spend all the money you can (and some of what you can't) on whatever you think best, knowing that it won't be enough anyway. Remember, you might be a boat-bum if you consider duct tape a long term investment.

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Dear, We Need To Clean The Garage ...

Now that we have our huge cache of spare parts, (none of which we will need, remember?) all we have to do is find a place to stow them. "There Is Never Enough Room" should be one of the laws of the universe. Remember, we have to stuff enough clothes, food, gear, spare parts, alcohol (sailboat engines run on diesel, cruisers run on alcohol), books, charts, instruments, tools, lines, sails, life raft, propane tanks, spare water and fuel, etc. etc. etc. to last a minimum of 6 months to a year into a space the size of a one car garage (with no attic).

It can be done, but you must remember what ever you need will be at the very bottom of the locker you stowed it in. Underway, everything has to be stowed in a locker, rack, or tied in (this includes you and the crew). Otherwise, it will end up on the cabin sole, or over the side.

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I Must Confess, I Need Some Rest ...

Having outfitted your beautiful boat to resemble a cross between a Grapes of Wrath pickup truck and a gypsy wagon, we are off the dock and underway (only two weeks late). You are now ready to drop into the routine of day-to-day life underway.

If you're fortunate enough to have another fool onboard, it means you can get at least 4 to 6 hours of sleep between your watches. Sure you can, as long as nothing breaks, the weather doesn't change, and your crew remembers how to check their position. So having had 2 hours of sleep behind the lee-boards of the pilot berth (two sail changes and a reef in 2 hours) you stagger into the cockpit after having spent 10 minutes making a pot of coffee and transferring it into a thermos without spilling half of it down your pants (always wear your oilies when making hot stuff) and immediately sit down in a puddle of your crewmate's spilled beer.

After half an hour, deal with leaking autopilot or other problem of your choice. Keep constant watch for enormous ships attempting to reduce you to flotsam. Check position and work your way below decks to mark on chart. Stay awake. Go below and thrash around in the dark looking for peanut butter crackers without waking crewmate. Put flying fish in pilot berth to see expression on crewmate's face.

Repeat for 4 to 6 hours, crawl into a damp pilot berth that smells like feet. Awaken 1 hour later as crewmate returns flying fish to berth. Repeat four to six times daily for 11 to 13 days.

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So Ya Wanna Be A Cruiser?

Part Two (Return to Part One)

So in part one we decided we wanted to go cruising and went through all the necessaries to make repairs, get loaded (take that how you want), get off the dock, and spend 11-14 days of wonderful open ocean passage. According to the charts, the GPS, a little dead reckoning, and some old fashion luck we are approaching our planned destination, or somewhere like it.

Land Ho! or Manana Doesn't Mean Tomorrow, It Just Means Not Today ...

Having reached our destination or at least where we think we are, its time to prepare for landfall.

First thing is, no matter how much you try to time your landfall for first light when it's easy to see where you are, that is not going to happen. Usually you will arrive around midnight in a nice 4-foot swell. Of course the channel markers (if there are any) are not going to be exactly where it shows on the chart, the light house at the end of the harbor is dark or has flat disappeared, and there is no moon to help out either.

Now we could just take our chances and go for it, but as I am somewhat averse to leaving large important chunks of the hull behind on a reef, we will just wait it out until dawn. Time passes quickly when you're having fun, right? Besides, it will give you time to make sure you can get the diesel started, dig out the courtesy flag for whatever country you are arriving in (you did remember that one, didn't you?) get together the ships papers, crew lists, passports and other miscellaneous and sundry that you won't have enough of anyway.

Six hours later and the sun comes up to show you you're right where you thought you were all along. Good deal!! Sail on into the harbor, raise the courtesy flag and the quarantine flag and drop the hook. Hop in the dink and head for shore to find customs and immigration.

Depending on where you are, you may also have to find the Office of Public Health, the Dept of Agriculture and who knows what other offices and officials. Of course, these will all be within a block or two of each other, right? Wrong! You will be lucky if they are in the same town. Having located where you need to go, be prepared for the fact that at least one or possibly all of the officials will not be available today but will be there manana.

Remember, no matter what they taught you in high school Spanish, manana does not mean tomorrow. It just means not today. Eventually you will get where you need to be, and having provided all the necessary documentation you will be free to return to your ship, release the crew dogs from bondage and head ashore for that cold beer and hot shower.

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Donde Es Bano?

Having arrived in paradise looking for that cold beer and hot shower, you may find that language is a bit of a barrier. After cruising for a while, your language skills will improve but having a bit of knowledge ahead of time is an immense help. My Spanish isn't too bad, my French is rusty but understandable (usually) and I know enough Dutch to find a beer and the bathroom.

It helps to learn the essentials. If you can find a beer, the customs house and a bathroom, you are pretty well set up. Most of the locals will speak more English than you speak whatever, and will be glad to try to help you out. Of course, this is after they get off the ground from laughing when you explain you want to buy the Mayor's underwear, rather than the cold beer you were really looking for.

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Wheedle Mooch and Connive ...

Having spent some time in town, caught up on our rest, and decided what we want to see and what needs to be repaired and restocked on the boat, it is time to find our taxi driver.

A good taxi driver is essential to any arrival in a strange port. If possible get a recommendation from a cruiser who has been there a while, but if not, get a taxi driver anyway.

This guy can get anything and knows where everything and everyone is. Need a machine shop? No problem mon. Need a sail repaired? No problem mon. Need a left-handed thingamabob? No problem mon, my cousin make you one manana. Remember, you're not in Kansas anymore Dorothy and you may need to be a bit resourceful in obtaining parts and supplies. Lots of trades and such will come to pass in order to find what you need. And the guy driving around in a 1952 Ford sedan with a John Deer tractor motor will probably be able to help you out.

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So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish ...

So we have been here for six weeks now, been to most of the bars at least twice, and have the boat in as good as shape as we think we need to for the next passage. Have met the people, seen the sights, and it is time to move on.

One last round of officials (easier now that we have a good driver), pay off our tab at the local cantina, and head out. Get ready to do the whole thing over again.

And after reading all the reasons why not to do it, why would we do it again anyway? Because after all the inconveniences, there is nothing else like it in the world. The freedom to sail to strange places, meet new people and explore new ways of looking at the world, without the restrictions of just being a tourist. Being able to live within, and enjoy the local economy and customs. Just the sheer joy of being alive in a new and different situation and location. Some say, "Attitude is the difference between ordeal and adventure." I believe they are right. If you have the attitude, it is one heck of an adventure.

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Fair Winds and Safe Passage
Cap' Couillon

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