10 Tips to Help You Get Out There Cruising

"Morgan's Cloud" lies at anchor in the glow of the setting sun and the rising moon at Maidens Arm, a very sheltered and uninhabited anchorage on the Great Northern Peninsula. Though uninhabited by people, we had lots of company from otters, moose and birds.

We have now been living ashore for a year with, all going well, six months to go. And, while we’re enjoying focusing on new and different things other than voyaging (mostly this site), we’re starting to get a serious Jones on for the liveaboard cruising life that we have been privileged to enjoy for so long.

And that got me thinking about what it takes to get out there in the first place or to get back out after a break. So here are 10 tips:

#1 Don’t Do Refits

Ok, this definitely comes under the category of do as I say, not as I do, considering that I have done three major refits in my life. (And yes refits do teach you a lot about your boat.)

But based on that very experience I can tell you categorically that I would have spent way more time cruising in my life to date, if, rather than messing with refits, I had focused my energies on my real job, which would have resulted in making more money more quickly that I could have been put into a newer boat that didn’t need a refit in the first place.

Further, in most cases, refitted old boats end up costing more than better newer boats of the same specification. Yes, even if you do it yourself. More here.

Of course if the total-suck-situation of the world economy has left you without a decent real job, and you are seriously handy (don’t underestimate this requirement), then refitting could make sense. But even then you may find you’re better off buying an old boat that some other poor SOB has already refitted.

#2 Keep It Simple

This seems obvious, but it’s amazing how often I see people struggling with super complex boats instead of actually going somewhere. The problem seems to be the desire to have all the mod-cons and comforts they had onshore. That’s not the way to get out there. Cruising is a simpler life than onshore. And no, it’s not as physically comfortable as living in a house. Embrace that and get out there.

#3 Learn to Differentiate a Need From a Want

Easy to say, hard to do. Here’s a reliable test that you can apply.

#4 Read The Old Masters

If you want to know how to really get out there, read books by the old masters: Miles and Beryl Smeeton, Peter and Ann Pye, Eric and Susan Hiscock, and Bernard Moitessier.

There are more, but that will give you a starter reading list. My personal favourites are the books by Peter Pye, probably because I was privileged, as a boy, to know and sail with the Pyes.

By the way, a quick digression for no good reason other than that it’s fun:  My grandfather used to tell a lovely story about a conversation that he overheard between Peter Pye and Eric Hiscock at the launching party for the Hiscocks’ Wanderer III.

Eric asked Peter what he thought of Wanderer and I guess Peter was less than effusive with his praise and then trailed off with “never mind Eric, I’m sure you would not want to go around the world in Moonraker” (the Pye’s venerable converted fishing boat). Eric replied “Peter, I wouldn’t cross the Solent in Moonraker!” I believe the two men never really got along that well…wonder why?

#5 Don’t Be a New Gear Pioneer

Here’s why.

#6 Don’t Varnish

Boats are beautiful and it is always tempting to embellish that with varnish, teak decks and polished stainless steel. But the bottom line is that none of that contributes a damned thing to actually getting out there.

And it’s amazing how much energy and conversation is expended in the cruising world on meaningless cosmetics, but it is telling to note that those who have actually done the miles rarely have much time for that stuff, or much of it on their boats.

If you do have a lot of wood to varnish, I can give you a 100% guaranteed tip to make it easier.

Having said all that, if you want to make your boat look like a piece of fine furniture for the sheer joy of it—you sicko, you—go for it, just don’t delude yourself into thinking that you are doing anything useful in the quest to get out there voyaging. More here.

#7 Set Realistic Goals

It’s amazing to me how often people who are trying to get out there voyaging say things like ”we are going to cross the Atlantic”  or the new latest fad “we are going to transit the Northwest Passage”. But the fact is that to accomplish either of these goals, at least in a seamanlike manner, you need to build up to them with easier voyages first (and that goes quadruple for The Passage).

The point being that you will get out there sooner and have a better time doing it if you set realistic goals like a cruise of the Bahamas, for east coast North Americans, or a cruise of Scotland, for Europeans, as a start—both can be plenty challenging, even for those of us with decades of experience.

By the way, the quickest way to brand yourself as inexperienced is to say “we are going to sail to…”. Experienced sailors with miles under their belts always say things like “we are bound for…” or “if all goes well…we hope…maybe…with a bit of luck…if the God(s) smile…”. Never take the sea for granted, sooner or later she will punish you for your hubris.

#8 Sail Offshore With Other People

Here’s why.

#9 Divide the Tasks

If you are a couple, divide the tasks that need to be accomplished between you, according to each person’s strengths. If you both try to understand, do, and become equally competent at all the things that need to get done to get out there, you will waste countless months, or maybe years.

I know this is in exact contradiction to the accepted wisdom as espoused by the yachting mags. But it’s not theory—more on how to do this, and still be safe here.

#10 Live In An Uncomfortable House

Phyllis and I have made a conscious decision to keep our shore base simple and not a little uncomfortable. That way we don’t risk building a “beloved prison” that would hold us back from getting out there.

If you want to make sure you stay focused on the goal, move into a small and cramped cabin or apartment, even if you can afford better. And if you want to really make sure you concentrate and work hard on getting out there, add in a large contingent of indoor wild life—ours are spiders and long horned spruce beetles, with the occasional mouse and squirrel for variety.

#11 Special Bonus Tip

And last, but most important, there are only five things that really matter in preparing to go ocean cruising:

  • Keep the water out
  • Keep the crew on the boat
  • Keep the keel side down
  • Keep the mast up
  • Keep the rudder on

The rest is small stuff.

Comments

Are you already out there cruising? If so, do you have any tips to add? Are you are trying to get out there and have a question on what to do to make it happen? Please leave a comment.

{ 35 comments… add one }

  • René October 16, 2013, 10:53 am

    Hi John,

    Great tips, but the picture itself would have done the job!!

    Best,

    René

    Reply
  • richard dykiel October 16, 2013, 11:00 am

    I totally agree! (Or is it that I’m lazy?) Thanks for taking the guilt out of the varnish (or lack thereof).

    Reply
  • Sue October 16, 2013, 11:19 am

    That photo is breathtaking!

    Reply
    • John October 16, 2013, 1:11 pm

      Hi Sue,

      Thank you. Coming back to the boat after making it, stumbling around in the dark with just a head lamp for light and listening to the rustling in the trees…bear, moose with an attitude?…was breathtaking too!

      Reply
  • Colin Speedie October 16, 2013, 11:40 am

    Hi John

    all excellent advice. but in my view, above all else, anyone contemplating going off on a long voyage (and hoping to enjoy it) should copy out Item 2 and make numerous copies of it for placing in sight at all times….

    Best wishes

    Colin

    Reply
    • John October 16, 2013, 1:19 pm

      Hi Colin,

      Great idea. Maybe we could do a line of cute engraved signs and sell them through AAC!

      Reply
      • John Rushworth October 16, 2013, 1:42 pm

        Aaaah! You voyaging sailors. Always trying to make an innovative buck to keep you out there ;)

        Reply
  • John Rushworth October 16, 2013, 12:48 pm

    In my case #5 Don’t Be a New Gear Pioneer could be at odds with #2 Keep It Simple, as my going pure electric propulsion is in a way pioneering but far simpler than any other propulsion system – save oars ;) Of course electric propulsion was around before the diesel, but the elctric technology has changed/improved.

    So my question is – Is going pure electric propulsion being a new gear pioneer or just being retro simple?

    Reply
    • John October 16, 2013, 1:08 pm

      Hi John,

      Electric drive definitely breaks #5 and #2, in that a practicalelectric drive for on offshore voyaging boat for most of us will be much more complex than a simple diesel, at last twice as expensive, and for most use be less efficient and have a much larger environmental footprint than a simple diesel.

      Of course all this is use dependent, but if you ever want or need to motor at a decent speed for more than about 30 minutes every week or so, then it is undeniable true. Of course your use is different.

      Reply
      • John Rushworth October 16, 2013, 1:41 pm

        Hi John,

        Totally agree, hence I was careful to say ‘pure electric drive’, which in the case of offshore voyaging is closer to the no engine at all option (oars) but not quite as cheap.

        Comparing and assuming one wants the low rev, longevity type diesel that will punch a tide/wind on the nose for hours on end and not an Atom Voyages or Pardy solution – then as you say, your comments are undeniably true – for a given mindset or choice.

        My use as you say is a different beast. Coastal, Summer, Weekend sailor. Maybe in fact there is more risk in this kind of sailing than a long offshorae sailing voyage, using pure electric. I don’t know, I can’t speak from experience as I’m not about to emulate yours or Colin’s most readable offshore adventures. Armchair ocean voyager, courtesy of AAC/Dashew, that’s me ;)

        Reply
        • John October 16, 2013, 6:39 pm

          Hi John,

          Thanks. I knew that you knew about the usage profile practicality issues, I just wanted to make sure that others did not misunderstand.

          Reply
      • Matt Marsh October 17, 2013, 8:49 am

        All-electric propulsion has been around for over a century. Solid state motor controllers have been used in industrial applications for several decades. With the possible exception of an exotic main battery (big lithium banks have only been around for 10 years or so, and are new to the marine market), I wouldn’t call this “new” or “pioneering” technology.

        It’s more a question of whether pure-electric makes sense for your use profile. It’s great for an in-harbour launch or for a boat that only needs it for manoeuvring, but battery electric isn’t a viable option if you need extended cruising range under power.

        Reply
        • John Rushworth October 17, 2013, 9:51 am

          Hi Matt,

          Of course that is true and re your take on ‘pioneering’.

          What is pioneering to some is old hat to others.

          However, the mix of technologies used is pioneering in the sense that few of us choose to use electric propulsion and there is in my view a need to consider the planet and in some cases this is a good way forward for our carbon targets. Is that pioneering, when the rest of the world seems to be burying their hrad in the sand ref the latest IPCC report?

          I’m well aware of the mix of technologies and from whence they came. I use a forklift solid controller for instance. In fact maybe we can we go back to the Sinclair C5s in 1985 for the base tech we speak of – when maybe you were but a youth? ;)

          Reply
          • John Rushworth October 17, 2013, 1:23 pm

            Matt,

            I just want to add something to be very clear. I have never claimed I am doing anything new or pioneering in a technological sense, however in the true etymological meaning of the word pioneering (foot soldier) I am proposing we think differently about how we transport and use vessels at sea being mindful of embodied cost, carbon consequence, the circular economy etc As for new, I am doing something new in that I am the first in the UK to have a pure electric propulsion sailing yacht running on battery with a view to running on fully renewable energy for a boat that is MCA coded to their construction and safety standards. I hope that helps. I am quite a pedantic person and would hate that anyone got the wrong idea.

  • Eric Klem October 16, 2013, 1:09 pm

    Hi John,

    Good advice. If I could add one, it would be to spend the time upfront planning. Simple plans, budgets and schedules in Excel can be an excellent way to keep projects under control and make sure that things are being prioritized correctly. Just having all the numbers in one, easy to read place can really allow you to see the trade-offs. Down the line, being able to reference these can save you huge amounts of headache as well if you do a good job of documenting what you did. Obviously, being flexible is also important as no planning process can fully anticipate everything that will happen.

    Eric

    Reply
    • John October 16, 2013, 6:34 pm

      Hi Eric,

      Let’s make that number 12! I can’t tell you how much time I have wasted over the years by rushing into a project without planning it properly. I’m getting smarter with age…but slowly.

      In addition I find a drawing of what I’m planning an incredible time and money saver. I use Turbocad. Much less expensive that Autocad and quite adequate for boat tasks.

      Reply
  • Marc Dacey October 16, 2013, 3:56 pm

    What about “learn to weld and do simple fabrication”, because the odds of finding someone to do this who actually calls back approaches zero.

    Or so I am finding.

    Reply
    • John October 16, 2013, 6:20 pm

      Hi Marc,

      I know that frustration. However, no I do not recommend learning how to weld and fabricate. I think there are many other areas where the time could be better spent in the quest to get out there.

      The chances that you would have everything you need to actually fabricate something you desperately need–tools, stock, etc–once you are out cruising are slim to none in real life, so you will still be looking for a machine shop. Also, those skills require constant practice and so tasks that require them are really best taken to a professional who does them every day. The good news is that, in my experience, a bit of detective work will usually turn up a reasonable good machinist in most ports of the world. And the interesting thing is that often the more isolated the port, the more resourceful and helpful the machinist is likely to be.

      Reply
      • Marc Dacey October 17, 2013, 2:49 pm

        Well, that is quite likely, given that a welder servicing a small fleet of fishing boats in some remote outport would have to be more widely skilled and (likely) more creative than some pipebender in a big city, where specialization will make you a good living.

        I agree with you about keeping the skill up; part of our game plan is to in fact carry a workshop, tools and materials sufficient (but not too ridiculous) not only for our own needs but to barter or vend services and fabrications for others in spots even beyond those places where a reasonably good machinist might be.

        This is obviously an ambition subject to the cold light of day!

        Reply
  • dpddj October 16, 2013, 8:14 pm

    I have three pieces of teak on my boat – the treads for the swim ladder. It is very likely they will be replaced with starboard. Teak looks great on a shelf.
    Sept 28th is the cast off date. No more Maine winters for this one.

    Reply
  • RDE (Richard Elder) October 16, 2013, 11:02 pm

    Good advice on every count. However it pays to keep in mind a saying from the computer biz– garbage in garbage out!

    Case in point: I’ve been in communication with a young couple who have acquired a boat I built nearly forty years ago. To my surprise the teak decks are still in excellent shape with the exception of a 1 x 2′ place where somebody drilled holes and didn’t properly seal them. The boat has never been under a boat cover, and sat completely unattended in Southern California for five years prior to being bought by its present owners. Every sister ship I know of was built with teak decks screwed over plywood–usually high quality Brunzeel– and every one has needed the complete deck replaced. The difference— I did a totally fastener free deck system with a two layer substrate consisting of port orford cedar planks, an epoxy barrier, 1/4″ plywood, a second epoxy barrier including 10oz of glass, and a final sprung teak deck bonded with no fasteners. So if you really want teak decks there is a right way to do them just like anything else– .

    Would I buy an aluminum, steel, or fiberglass boat that had conventional teak decks? Not without a monster discount to pay somebody else to remove them! The marinas are filled with teak deck boats built in Taiwan and China that will give you premature grey hair and drive you to drink when you open one up and find not rotted balsa core but a collection of random plywood cut-offs and floor sweepings as core. And teak decks over steel or even aluminum are nearly as bad an idea.

    Now Phylis, I know how much you hate varnish, measured in every hammer blow to take the eyebrows off Morgan’s Cloud! But any boat that I build for myself will have bright teak or mahogany cabin sides because I’m willing to spend the ten hours a year to maintain them. With the system that I proved for 8 years big flat surfaces are super easy to maintain, and the look when I row back home is priceless. Grab rails and other fiddly bits are another story– the teak things that still are often bolted to cabin tops take more time to varnish than my entire cabin sides. So my grab rails and life line stanchions will be red brass pipe with cast bronze fittings.

    Different boats for different folks—.

    Reply
    • John October 17, 2013, 9:42 am

      Hi Richard,

      Really good point about the practicality of teak decks if installed without fasteners. Let’s you have the advantages of teak–the best non-skid I have ever used, save treadmaster–without the heartache.

      I would just add to your point about teak decks being a bad idea on a metal boat. In my experience, most wood trim on a metal boat is a very bad idea. The problem is that the two materials, wood and metal (particularly aluminium) have very different coefficients of expansion. The result is that no matter what you do, its impossible to keep the joint between the metal and the wood watertight. And as soon as water gets between the two materials bad stuff starts to happen in a hurry. Small wood areas, like hatch surrounds, are not a problem, but anything long like a teak deck, toe rail or eyebrow is bad news.

      Also, a good point that varnishing large flat surfaces is not that bad, it’s the trim, like hand rails, that will make you crazy. But there is one thing even worse than hand rails: toe rails. MC had teak toe rails before they fell to the skill saw. My knees still feel the trauma of sanding and varnishing 120-feet of rail. Just masking off, what with tracks etc, took a whole day. Getting two coats on took three days at hard labor, followed by several visits to the osteopath.

      Reply
      • RDE (Richard Elder) October 17, 2013, 10:08 pm

        Hi John,
        Funny you should mention toe rails. I built a customer 47 footer not long after the boat I mentioned in the previous post. It went out of the shop with the cap rails varnished to the nines. Saw it about 20 years later— the white Awlgrip on the hull was faded to a nice chalk texture and there wasn’t a speck varnish anywhere. But the toe rails were in perfect condition without a sign of an open seam or movement and gave every indication that they could be ignored for another 15 years with no consequences. Hard to get a lower maintenance number than zero! Even on an aluminum boat if they were installed over a 20 mil piece of UHMW plastic to isolate the two materials and left to weather they would be a low maintenance feature. Might even be lower maintenance than a painted cap. Can’t take any credit for the method of building them— John Guzzwell showed me how when he was doing a 20 year refit on his Lauent Giles cold molded “Treasure.”

        Part of your varnish phobia may have come from the all too common practice of only putting on “two coats.” Whenever somebody does that they are guaranteeing that they will be back at it in a few months and come to believe that it is an endless task.

        Personally I would never use a clear coat system that depends only on varnish unless I were being paid by the hour by the owner of a J boat. LOL

        Reply
  • bernard douteau October 17, 2013, 9:43 am

    budget constraints versus the overwhelming force of getting to go sailing
    lands inevitably in buying a pre-owned. Consequently some refit comes
    to be: it is the size of the refit that is tricky, where to stop. This has been
    great fun together with anxieties: but I got to know my boat better and
    produced a more confident sailor (and of course it is not over, is it ever). Other remark: new boats have their loads of problems and I cannot imagine the frustration of spending more on a new boat’s defects: that will drive you to the bottle!
    appreciate the comments: yours is the best REAL cruising site I know

    Reply
  • Nick Kats October 17, 2013, 9:52 am

    I find being casual about heading out really helps to get me the hell out.
    Got a sound boat, with various replacement parts, varying levels of skill at repair, multiple backups, variable quality of charts, 2 GPS w batteries.
    Got a high level of tolerance for dysfunctional or broken units.
    But I make sure water tanks are full & there is plenty of food & cooking fuel.
    Good enough – problems can sort themselves out, sometime during the trip, or maybe in the years after, some day…
    Its like packing in 5 minutes to catch the flight for Xmas abroad – throw toothbrush, razor, passport, dough, a few clothes into a carry-on bag & I’m off.
    This is what I mean by casual. Quick, easy, knowing the solid stuff is in place. I don’t worry. This works for me. It gets me out there.

    Reply
  • scott flanders October 17, 2013, 10:10 am

    You guys are missing John’s point. A boat is just a tool to freedom and adventure. Get a good one, toss off the lines and you’ll figure it out just like about a jillion other folks who tossed lines and weren’t worried about the what if’s. You can’t believe how cruising will change your life once you are ‘out’ instead of sitting in a dirt dwelling fussing with a computer.

    Listen to John. Its the truth.

    Reply
  • Paul Mills October 17, 2013, 1:31 pm

    Hi all,

    I am currently in the middle of a ten day end of season sail in just the spots that Colin highlighted I his recent post about his summer survey work. We are having sun and gentle winds, together with fantastic views and lots of wildlife….. So, my tip is to avoid posting on or running web forums and simply go back on deck and get on with it!

    Paul

    Reply
  • RDE October 17, 2013, 10:12 pm

    Hi Paul
    Spot on! Being a dirt person (temporarily I hope!) and posting words on a web site is a poor substitute for sailing!

    Reply
  • Dick Stevenson October 18, 2013, 4:09 am

    This is all good advice, but my take is that the decision to “get out there” largely transcends the rational. Once over this psychological hump, then the rational can gain ascendance and use the above excellent advice.
    Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    Reply
  • Steve and Barbara White October 18, 2013, 5:59 am

    This is all so true. In the marina where we live on the Isle of Wight most of the boats are washed and polished to within an inch of our lives but rarely move! Luckily we took the bull by the horns, let go forward and aft, and of ageing parents and kids and sailed across the channel (something we have done many times). In Cherbourg we tossed a coin and the waterways won! We have a slightly worn boat but loads of great experiences.

    Reply
  • Dave October 25, 2013, 2:15 am

    All of these are absolutely correct, if you follow them 95% of you could cast off tomorrow.

    http://www.youmeandthed.blogspot.com

    Dave

    Reply
  • charlie October 25, 2013, 11:33 am

    Hi, having sailed many thousands of miles on other people’s boats, I’d like to say that there are plenty of people out there who don’t start small and just go straight to crossing oceans. Mostly they are idiots who are a danger to themselves, but it’s not a BARRIER to getting out there. Interestingly I wouldn’t buy a boat for cruising that had a roller-reefing main. That’s because I’ve crossed an ocean with one that jammed on day 1…

    Reply
    • John October 25, 2013, 5:18 pm

      Hi Charlie,

      Actually, I think it is a barrier and actually slows people down. More on why in a post coming in a week or so.

      Reply
  • Norris October 26, 2013, 4:06 pm

    Your list brings back vivid memories of our first cruising sailboat that we bought to take us on a year long trip with our 2 kids. We selected the best quality sailboat we could afford, a rock solid 10 year old 27 ft Canadian Sailcraft (CS27). No refit required, but we did add an industrial strength bow roller, 22lb Delta, fisherman, propane stove, new storm jib, 3rd reef in the main, new hand held GPS, new charts to take us from our home in Newfoundland to the Bahamas, used liferaft (recertified), and an ancient but bulletproof military inflatable with wood oars.

    We passed on roller furling, radar, plotter, outboard, hot water and watermaker (no money). As far as we were concerned, we had the world by the tail!

    Biggest takeaways from the trip; “Just do it!” and “Never cruise with other boats”. We realized quickly we had to make our own decisions to suite our situation (small boat, inexperience, kids) regarding when and where to travel, so we never cruised in company with other boats when “outside”.

    Our choice that year was to travel on the boat we could afford (CS27), or miss the chance to travel with our kids, who were 11 and 12 at the time. We made the right decision – it was the best year of our lives. As we approached Newfoundland a year later, I knew I could trust either of our kids to take the boat across the Cabot Strait on their own, if they had to.

    Reply
    • John October 27, 2013, 5:27 pm

      Hi Norris,
      Thanks for a great story and great example. I love the closing paragraph. Really says is all.

      Reply

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