Have the cruising dream but short on the reality?
This article is for you
NUMBER ONE QUESTION I GET VIA EMAIL goes something like this: What you guys are doing is insane! It has inspired me to quit my job and buy a boat. Can you tell me what I need to know? Can I make some money with a boat?
I have spent hours and hours trying my best to answer this question for hundreds of people and it finally occurred to me today that I should save myself some time and answer it in our blog so in the future I can just say- read this! So let’s get going. Prior to 9/11 I read there were approximately 200 boats actively circumnavigating. I would think this number is probably much lower since the economic crisis, as we see very, very few boats out where we are these days (granted we go to pretty remote spots…). But there are thousands who have the dream, thousands who would give anything to go offshore. Why such the discrepancy in numbers?
Because the dream is what you find in every cruising article and book (and well, some of our captain’s logs) about sailing: clear starry nights, wind driven locomotion, spectacular coral reefs, fascinating cultures, exotic ports, consistent tradewinds. But they neglect to tell us what pain you must go through to get there. If I had met someone with my experience 13 years ago when I got started and asked the right questions (tough to do before you know what you’re in for) that person could have saved me a world of hurt- emotionally and financially. Now that I know what it takes, what the many hurdles are to turn the sailing dream into reality I can look back and laugh heartily at my mistakes (but the mirror reflects the true story). I would have saved myself a few hundred or so migraines and several zeros in funds that I’ve had to beg, plead, and work for in hideous ways to fund this dream. The proverbial 20/20 hindsight in play. There seem to be as many articles, books, and seminars about sailing as there are about Jesus Christ. But like the difficult to understand 30 something carpenter, none of my research gave me the right answers. What’s it really like to cut loose the dock lines and sail off into the…no, it’s not necessarily the sunset. Want the truth? Read on.
In 1988 I read Tanya Aebi’s story in ‘The Maiden Voyage’ of her incredible solo circumnavigation at the age of 16 and a dream was born. No boat, no idea how to sail? Yes, problem. But I had unlimited motivation and the most important thing- unlimited naiveté. How do most people do it? They work all their lives, save their money, sell everything they own, buy a boat that is ALWAYS wrong the first time (see below), develop a cruising budget by what everyone else says, which they soon learn to be suspect, then if they get super super lucky they then find the ‘right’ boat, which still breaks down constantly, they become discouraged, couples or friends grow to hate one another and they sell the boat at a huge loss before they get 1000 miles into the dream which has become a living nightmare. Don’t hear this too much in the sailing rags, eh? Well it’s true. It almost happened to me. It almost happened to every one of us who are now (sometimes) sporting big grins because we ran the cruising gauntlet and prevailed. We all did it the same way, which I could summarize in two words: hard work. What? You thought sailing was martinis and sushi? Well think again. It destroys marriages, renders bank accounts useless, and feels like nothing the boat broker and your bar buddies talked about in the lead up to your departure. I’ve commercial fished in Alaska, fought fire for a Hot Shot crew, instructed adolescents in the finer aspects of mountain and river travel (who were more interested in playing their Gameboys), and none of these come close to the amount of hell you must go through to go cruising.
Just a short list to put on the to-do list before departure: 1. Find an “appropriate” boat (as opposed to the “right” boat, which in my opinion does not exist). Time: 3-5 years. People buy the wrong boat for the following reasons: 1) Lack of experience, 2) lack of self-knowledge, and 3) lack of available knowledge. Even when you have none of the above, finding the appropriate boat is very difficult. You will very rarely find your dream house on water at the local marina. Which means travel (expensive), endless searches (time), and brokers (unreliable). Just some of the major considerations:
- Hull construction, length and design. There are many books on this subject alone. Wood, fiberglass, aluminum, composite, cement, or steel? Unless you have years and years of experience either racing or cruising many types of yachts, this decision alone is a doozy. Ask four people their opinion and I guarantee you will get four very convincing and polar opposite viewpoints. Full or fin keel, narrow or beamy, fast or slow, heavy or light, sloop, cutter, cat, tri, ketch, or schooner? How much room do you need, how much money can you really spend? Rod or wire rigging, teak decks or glass, production or custom, aft or center cockpit, one, two or no heads?
- What the boat is made of and how “pretty” it is will radically affect how you spend your time at anchor in paradise. Think all that teak is beautiful? Imagine spending a couple days sanding and varnishing every month under the sun’s tropical rays and you might opt for an aluminum caprail instead of wood. Boat built of fiberglass and has a few blisters? Plan on spending six months someday choking on glass dust and inhaling gallons of toxic epoxy fumes. Aluminum? Better keep an eye on those welds in big seas. Steel? A friend of mine stuck a flat head screwdriver right through the bottom of the boat and had to be emergency hauled. In other words, they all have their problems.
- Equip the boat for offshore use. This will take you a year if you have no job, loads of cash, no life, no dog, cat and a very very understanding spouse. For the rest of us this will take 3-5 years again. Which means by the time you are done, much of the equipment is already turning obsolete and giving you problems because these toys live in a noxious saline environment. Much of this will be done wrong the first time around by yourself or someone you pay (please don’t make this mistake). The equation goes like this: cost will be three times as much as you think, and will take four times as long. This equation is as true as Einstein’s E=Mc2.
Here’s a short list: radar, watermaker, GPS (+ backup), alternate energy sources, SSB radio, VHF radio, EPIRB, liferaft, sextant and almanacs, overboard supplies, interior lighting, safety harnesses, sewing machine, heavy duty windlass, cruising sails, spare anchor and chain… You will need charts- paper and most people these days go with the electronic as well (I have over $4,000 in paper and electronic charts and spend $200-$500 each year on more). SPARES: This is where the novices fall on their face. You’ve spent all this money and time equipping with all the best gear, so why have so many spares? BECAUSE EVERYTHING- EVERYTHING WILL BREAK. This is just a fact. If you have an engine on this boat, you better have a spare for everything: starter, alternator, brushes, injector(s), fuel line, oil and fuel filters (primary and secondary), gaskets, enough lubricants for major emergencies (5 oil changes minimum), fuses, spare wire of all sizes, zincs, ignition, all gauges and senders… How much fuel, what kind of tanks (plastic, iron, steel), how to make sure your fuel is clean after filling from a drum in Baja (we went 6 months last season down one engine due to dirty fuel I picked up in Indonesia which rendered our engine useless- a very expensive and time consuming problem)? And that’s just the engine, which keeps us from spending weeks on end in the doldrums going berserk. You must be able to fix every system onboard or know how to go without. Think hardware store. Think tools. Buy just about everything they sell, because if you don’t you’ll wish you had.
2. Learn how to sail WELL offshore. This means more than watching storm technique videos. This means celestial navigation, storm avoidance and procedures, safe seamanship, obtaining and using weather reports (weather fax, email, satellite, cell phone, inmarsat, VHF, ham radio, looking at the sky…) sail handling, absolute confidence and knowledge of your boat, and the most important thing: practice. You should know how to reef the sails in any condition: by yourself with your eyes closed. Diesel repair, electrical troubleshooting, plumbing, rig tuning, energy production and storage (a multimeter should be as easy to understand as filling up your car’s fuel tank), sail repair, hull maintenance. Time: another 3-5 years unless you’ve grown up sailing or have recently completed a Volvo Ocean race. It is very important to learn if you even like it! Which means going ‘out there’ for a few solid long trips, not just around the buoys or out to your favorite day sail anchorage. Or, you can just go for it. Which is what I did and promptly got knocked down off Cape Mendocino, California in 60-knot winds and 35 foot seas. This was an incredible learning experience (albeit costly), but I don’t think it a necessary one for everyone to have. Sailing offshore is simply learning to be conservative. It is inevitable that you will get rocked, but if you’re well prepared it will be humbling and build your confidence instead of terrifying. I’m telling you this because no one ever told me. The pleasures we read about in paradise all exist in abundance and I am addicted to exploring them. I just wish I could have run that aforementioned gauntlet with a little more agility. But there’s an infinitely easier way. Drumroll please…
- Go sailing with someone else. It’s on their dime if something breaks (which it will), and you get to see what works versus doesn’t work on an offshore boat (much doesn’t). The biggest thing you will learn: if offshore sailing holds any real appeal. The reality of offshore sailing has NOTHING to do with the perceptions we all have before going. Why go through the incredible expense and headaches only to learn you hate sailing offshore? Happens too often.
There are many boats out there looking for people willing to chip in for running expenses (food, fuel, maintenance, etc.). This is a great way (and by far the least expensive) to get on lots of different yachts, see what makes a good versus a terrible captain (I guarantee you will see both), a good versus a terrible boat (ditto); how to provision, cook, deal with sea-sickness, plan, navigate, fix everything, stay healthy, and in the end what comfort level you want when you go it alone, which will have a major impact on whether you stay in the black, or bleed in the red.
The downside is that there’s a very good chance you’ll get on a bad, or even an unsafe boat. I meet skippers all the time who don’t think it’s important to have a standing watch at night, don’t know a sextant from an EPIRB, don’t have a clue how to replace a head gasket or rebuild their head. They’re scared, ill prepared, sometimes obnoxious, frequently cranky, and worst of all: think they know it all. These are not the kind of people you want to sail with and this is not the experience to get you off the docks in style. Tips to help avoid dicey boats:
- Ask a lot of questions (and they should be asking you the same- be wary of anything that seems too easy). Guys who run ads seeking female crew and in the second interview start to say things like, “and if something happens between us, that would be OK.” RUN.
- If you step on a boat and don’t get a full tour of the safety systems (location of thru-hulls, abandon ship plan, fire procedures, etc.) within the first 24 hours- RUN. There should be a written and well-organized Emergency Station Bill shoved in front of your face as soon as you’ve learned everyone’s name.
- Look at the boat’s tool wardrobe. It should be filled like Grandpas shed on the back 40 acres. In other words, if the captain wants to show you his wine locker before the tool drawer, RUN.
- DO NOT JOIN A BOAT FOR A MAIDEN VOYAGE. No explanation needed.
- Take a close look around. All boats should be absolutely clean and tidy. If they aren’t, they aren’t being run safely and you can expect trouble. Dishes left dirty in the sink? RUN.
2. Go with the experts on a blue water passage. There are several offshore sailing schools out there that cost more than crewing but you will get what you pay for many many many times over. You will learn which yachts are most suited to sailing offshore, and most suited to your needs. You’ll get first hand experience handling every aspect of blue water sailing, and you’ll learn it from people who are professionals and competent because they’ve been out there. If time and money are a factor in this decision (what decision isn’t?), then this option is your only choice.
3. Charter a boat with an experienced skipper, possibly through one of the sailing clubs in your area so you can do it with a few friends and have a small fleet of boats in on the fun. This is always a blast, and while you won’t learn much of the offshore material you will get a better feel for the cruising life, which will motivate you to put a plan into action. Sometimes the plan will be to definitely stop dreaming about cruising, but better now than after selling the farm (we had a half dozen owners sign up with us over the last 5 years who all had plans of sailing on their own. Their plans now? To stick with us and DON’T buy a boat!) Chartering a boat is by far the easiest, most economical way to have an adventure on water without all the above-mentioned hassles. Finally: What about turning your boat into a business like we have? For most people this means chartering, which is much different than our business. I’ll be honest- I DESPISE chartering and wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. We chartered our previous boat Saoirse for 7 years to fund our way around the Pacific. Very, very, very difficult business for a number of reasons:
- Unless you are running the same trip over and over again (yuck!) it’s nearly impossible to keep the boat full.
- Unless you keep the boat full (see #1), it’s pretty impossible to make money.
- Your business is your home. And you’re going to have annoying people in your home. You never get any down time. You don’t get to turn off and disappear. You’re responsible for your boat and your crew and your clients 24 hours a day.
To me the happiest people I see out here have chosen simple boats that are easy to fix and have the funds to keep it going for a period of time that is reasonable, like 2 or 3 years. I’ve also met some lucky people who have jobs that allow them to cruise for say 6 months, then work for six months, leaving their boat in a safe place while they are gone (but this creates some very major logistical challenges and obviously impacts your itinerary). The only successful (which is a loose definition- for the most part successful means covering the cost of the boat, in very few cases it means making money) charter operators I know do the same trip over and over and over. To me this is no different than working in an office day in and day out but you never get to go home. I’ve met very few happy people doing this. So my advice is- be realistic, be extremely conservative, and be suspect of any numbers you draw up that look good. Number one boats depreciate, number two is that they cost a LOT of money. Every time you sell a trip you’ll be putting the money right back into fixing something. People ask me all the time why we’re doing this. How could it be good enough to leave everything else behind? In the first couple of years (and even now there are times) out here I probably would have looked a little cross-eyed and wondered myself while blathering something about living the dream (LIES!). But now that I’ve taken my turn in the school of hard knocks and done just about everything wrong a few times, the rewards are so great I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’m just thankful I don’t have to do it all over again! If you would like to contact me for more advice or ideas on how to get out there, please leave a comment, or get in touch directly http://www.offshoreodysseys.com/contact/. I am also available to consult on any of the above subjects for a fee for specific needs or requests, or if you would like direct supervision on purchasing a yacht, or starting a business like The Best Odyssey.
In closing, I’d like to leave you with a couple of colorful (and I think pretty accurate) quotes:
“Don’t buy a boat. You don’t love boats, you love the idea of a boat. The reality is, it’s just a drain on your time, your wallet, and your emotions. In the end, she will break your heart. You want to feel pain? You’re better off slamming your hand in a car door.” — Author unknown
“I believe that marriage and sailing are fine institutions. And Institutions are for crazy people.” — Author unknown