Serve Your Apprenticeship

For-saleOffshore sailboat voyaging is a lifestyle that endlessly challenges, exhilarates, stretches, intimidates, and fulfills us. Which is why John and I are committed to encouraging others to take up and remain in this lifestyle.

Through this website we have been privileged to encounter, either personally or via email, many aspiring cruisers. A large number are approaching their new lifestyle sensibly and cautiously, by going offshore with other experienced sailors or by slowly ratcheting up the sailing they do on their own boat.

However, we are also encountering a number of people who assume that they should be able to just buy a sailboat, put on the right electronics, and go offshore; sort of like buying a car, installing a GPS, and driving across the country.

Phyllis has sailed over 40,000 offshore miles with John on their McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, most of it in the high latitudes, and has crossed the Atlantic three times. As a woman who came to sailing as an adult, she brings a fresh perspective to cruising, which has helped her communicate what they do in an approachable way, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 18 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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Chris

We raced long-distance/overnight offshore with others and campaigned our own boat offshore for three years before cruising there.

In a few races, we got caught in some hellacious situations brought on by the often evil twin commitments to start and to finish…’series points’ don’t ya know.

We learned we could not only survive those situations but thrive on the learning thereafter. Sometimes the lessons left bruises to deepen the learning.

The biggest lesson we learned was that many offshore sailors talk loudly and carry a small stick. It is vitally important to validate such a skipper or crew with people who don’t have a merely social connection to them. One of those highly titled and touted persons punked out in 50 kts and hail in the Gulf Stream and nearly drowned six of us.

Richard from York

My wife and I are still working towards our offshore dream.
Firstly, I had the opportunity to crew on a yacht delivery from the UK to Gran Canaria. Crossing stormy Biscay in November in a 40 ft Beneteau was an eye opener and let me learn more about myself and the fact I can still work when cold, tired and scared. The onward ARC journey was good but not the same learning experience. The next was to ensure Jenny would enjoy it, so we arranged for her to crew a delivery from Antigua to the UK; she hit a whale, the steering broke and lots of equipment failures…

Secondly, we bought a small, old yacht in need of TLC. We learned how to change oil, fix the engine, repair rigging and generally mend and maintain a yacht.

We discovered several things: We both loved the experience of offshore sailing and we realised this was something we would love to do. We discovered that we are capable of repairing most things and how much work is involved in Yacht ownership. We found out that we should not underestimate the costs involved.

Most importantly we discovered that we are not ready to sell up and sail and compromises will have to be made.

Scott Kuhner

I learned how to sail when I was 14 racing Cape Cods and Lightnings. Then when I was nineteen, I was a crew on a 42 ft ketch sailing from St Thomas to Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Haiti, the Bahamas and finally to Miami. Between Samana in the DR and Cap Haitian in Haiti, we encountered a gale and blew out the main; but, we made it through. In 1969 I bought a 23 ft O’Day Tempest, got married and took our honeymoon sailing from Westport, CT to Nantucket.

In 1970, we realized that we loved being on the ocean so much we bought a 30 ft Seawind Ketch, spent the winter fixing it up and taking celestial navigation lessons at the Hayden Planetarium. That summer of 1971 we took a shakedown cruise to Maine and again loved it. Then, in the fall, we quit our jobs and set sail for points south and west. The trip from Cape Fear to St Thomas was the first time we had been offshore together. 10 days later we made it to St Thomas, and decided to keep sailing west into the Pacific.

We were successful because I was never in doubt that the boat would make it which gave Kitty the confidence she needed to keep going.

Scott Kuhner

I should have added to my last post that when we left on our 30 ft Seawind Ketch, we had NO electronics not even a depth sounder. We used a sextant, a taffrail log and a lead line. We learned that we could sail across an ocean without any fancy electronic gear so didn’t have to rely on anything except the integrity of the boat. Now when we are crossing oceans we realize that if any of our fancy electronics stops working we have the ability to keep going on our own. However, I will say that all our new gear does make it easier to navigate the seven seas.

We ended up spending four years sailing all the way around the world (we realized that it was easier to keep going west than trying to come back from New Zealand against the trades).

Beth Anderson

Great post. I had a rocky apprenticeship for my first offshore sail (although I had done a lot of coastal sailing) but what helped me was that my sailing partner (now husband) was very experienced. As long as I could look over at him and see that he was totally comfortable, I was able to calm down as well. But I still struggle to “trust the boat” the way he does.

On the other hand, we got a great deal on our sailboat because the previous owners probably were the type you described – it was 5 years old but had only been sailed for one season!

Viv and Mireille

Great stories from all:

Long distance sailing is not for everyone but it is something never to forget. Being in the middle of an ocean at night surrounded by stars you would never be able to see on land and watching the luminescence flow past the bow is magic. Yes there is the bad weather, the fear and cold but that passes and another dawn comes and you chalk up lessons learned and your skills grow.

But best of all is pulling into a harbour and having a cold beer in the cockpit as you look back on the journey just made, and think of the next one to come…Keep on sailing!

Chris

In a reply above, I referenced a hellacious apprenticeship experience. In cleaning out prior to moving, I found the magazine article I wrote about it in 1980. I’ve reprinted it at http://brilliantstarcruises.net/2011/04/23/the-sea-taught-me/
C

Kettlewell

I agree with your post 100%. I started out dinghy sailing on lakes, and eventually answered a classified ad for someone looking for a college crew to accompany him to Labrador and back from Maine. That was my first offshore experience, other than some weekends on Lake Michigan, which can be as rough or rougher than the ocean. When I eventually got my own boats after college I started out small and worked my way up from one old boat to the next, learning how to fix everything along the way. Actually, that’s one of my frequent pieces of advice to newcomers. Start with something small, old, and very affordable, but capable of modest passages. Practice on it in coastal waters, with maybe a vacation trip up to Maine, to the Chesapeake, or to the Bahamas, for a few years. You will learn so much more about what your wants and needs are for the larger boat you will get later. I will say that I think a lot of folks are missing a lot by not reading the oldies these days, like the Hiscocks, Roths, Pardeys, Smeeton, etc. Before I could sail on the ocean I read everything I could get my hands on constantly for years, so I had a pretty good idea what it was all about, and I still frequently refer back mentally to many of those books.

RDE

I can’t emphasize enough the necessity of thoroughly vetting the captain and boat you select for an offshore passage, especially if it is to be your first experience and will determine whether you choose sailing as a life style. I recently fell into that trap myself, in spite of having done numerous passages on various boats, owning my own boat, and living aboard for a number of years. I signed on to sail a custom 59′ performance cruiser from Panama for a passage through the western Caribbean to Cuba and then down to Trinidad, largely because we would visit places I have always wanted to go to and will not be in a position to sail to in my own boat for several years.

The boat was a joy to sail, certainly the fastest cruising boat I have ever sailed. The owner had a long history of successful race campaigns on boats he had commissioned, and all the crew were very competent sailors.

Paper qualifications are of little consequence when the skipper gets falling-down drunk every night and spends hours ranting with little consciousness of other people surrounding him. Needless to say I jumped ship at the first airport!

Shifting to the topic of commercially available offshore training, there are few opportunities for the week of offshore experience you mention in connection with Mahina Tiare. Almost all of their expeditions last two to three weeks and cost $5,00-6,000. With air fare to the South Pacific, the cost for a couple will run to $16,000— which certainly pushes the boundary of “Attainable Cruising.” The fact that the Neals are booked a year in advance certainly testifies to the reputation they have built up over many years. If that cost breaks the bank, one might consider joining John Kretschmer for a week Bahama Bash out of Ft. Lauderdale which he offers for less than $2,000.

Lee Ann Avery

A very good organization that I have used to get offshore experience is Offshore Passage Opportunities at http://www.sailopo.com
PO Box 2600
Halesite NY, 06880
Telephone: 631-423-4988
FAX: 631-423-9009
Hank Schmitt brings together captains, owners and crews for short or longer offshore trips. Many of the trips are free except for your transportation to and from the boat. Hank vets many of the requests (and tells you when he doesn’t) as well as providing an interview questionnaire for you to use to vet the captain/owner yourself if Hank does not know them. Many professional captains get their crews here. The club also owns a Swan which Hank brings back and forth to the Caribbean each year and sails during several of the race weeks.

I have taken three Newport to St. Martin trips with this group. The first was through a Force 10 gale a day off Bermuda with a wonderful captain, Patrick Childress, who has inspired my Ph.D. research, married one of my fellow crew and is off sailing around the world again – the first time was a solo trip when he was 28 in a 27′ Catalina. My second trip, a month later, was with a millionaire skipper who taught sailing for pleasure and was a fascinating and excellent skipper of our Swan 57. The third trip I was first mate on an Amel 53 where I was put by Hank to ensure the owner stayed on track.

I also believe it is very important to know when to get off a boat when you are not comfortable. My friend Rebecca (now Patrick’s wife) volunteered us to help a new boat owner go from Jacksonville to the Bahamas. He supposedly needed our help since he had no experience. However, he wouldn’t listen to our advice – when to reef, when to go in out of the weather, how to anchor for a storm, how to navigate the ICW, etc. So, after steering north instead of south after I reefed the sail, almost burning up his engine and hitting a bridge in St Augustine because he didn’t check the through hulls after being asked, running hard aground on a sand bar in West Palm Beach, and then laying us up against pilings and million dollar fishing vessels while trying to dock the boat with the wind and ICW current lined up directly behind him – we rented a car and went home!!

Ernest

A quite late reply here – unfortunately this site is almost exclusively targeting the North American region, has anyone an idea if something similar exist for us Europeans? I’d love to hook up on short notice from time to time but am unable to just hop across the atlantic 😉

Marc Dacey

Try this one: it’s British, which is still European…for the moment! https://www.crewseekers.net/

Ernest

Thanks Marc, didn’t stumble across this yet. Looks promising (although a bit expensive)

Graham Hughes

With regards to apprenticeships, I spent 12 weeks in 2009 circumnavigating the British Isles in a 46-foot Bavaria, working towards the Yachtmaster qualification. We were three “students” with varied experience and learned from instructors who cycled through every two or three weeks. I didn’t take the final exam thanks to a badly injured left arm — ironically, I was tossed across the saloon while doing up my inflatable’s crotch strap. However, in 2,500 sea miles, and with still a lot to learn, I did gain the experience to be able to realistically look at some extended cruising beginning in spring 2012 on my 30-footer. There are a few organizations offering this kind of program; check the web. It’s not real cheap, but a worthwhile investment.

Robert

I have some experience offshore (nothing like the the sailors within this website, though), but have only hit any ‘weather’ of significance in my Douglas 32; that princess handled everything better than I did at first, and it taught me a valuable lesson on knowing my vessel, her systems, and the preparation & process for heavy weather thoroughly. I’ve now moved to a larger vessel (Whitby 42) that I’m slowly preparing for offshore travel, but am back at square-one with the trust in her! (and I imagine, her trust in me). So we’ll be sailing out to gain that experience in as controlled environment as possible, until we get to know each other better. Bermuda beckons

John Harries

Hi Robert,

Sounds to me like you are approaching things exactly right.

Mark Blackmore

Hi Phyllis. Great advice. My spouse Marie and I are Kiwis, about the same vintage as you and John, just completed our second year on the Med on our Feeling 44 DI.
We served our apprenticeship when in our early twenties bought a ferro sloop, tidied it up somewhat, read a book on celestial navigation without ever practicing it and in 1978, headed off from New Zealand to Suva.
Well somehow we made a successful landfall after 12 days of headwinds and rain, followed by 3 days surfing down huge following seas. But we were young and oblivious to all that could have happened to us. Looking back now, it makes me shudder. We are a little better prepared now, with still so much to learn with help from your wonderful publication, and have always valued the lessons learned from our “apprenticeship “