So you want to go Cruising?

Disclaimer:  We have specifically written this blog as a record for the girls, however, this entry is intended to be a review of our lessons learned over the past year. We are much smarter now then when we left the dock two years ago, and while the process has been expensive and frustrating, when people call live aboard cruising, “boat maintenance in exotic locations”, they’re not kidding.  Here are a few thoughts that Ingrid and I jotted down after a year on the water in the Caribbean.

Preparation

  • Decide why and where you want to go: Circumnavigate, Bahamas or the Caribbean?
  • Decide where you will spend Hurricane season, 01 Jun to 01 Nov (insurance driven) because this will, in turn, influence your route.
  • Decide if you want to traverse the Panama Canal and cross oceans because each of these has specific times of the year where the weather is conducive to crossings etc.
  • Answers to the above will determine what type of boat you purchase, whether it’s an ocean traveller, a catamaran, or an ex-charter production boat.
  • If you have the time and can afford it, charter in the area you intend to cruise on a boat you are interested in buying before you commit the family treasury.
  • This will, in turn, determine the kit that you will need/want.
  • Ensure both people have the same vision.  Do you enjoy the journey or are you primarily focussed on exploring new locations and the boat is a vehicle to get you there.

Most people assume that the biggest impediment to live-aboard cruising is financial, however in our experience the biggest obstacle is spousal not monetary.  Be clear and honest with your agenda, plan and limitations.

Boat

  • Cat or Mono? Cost, space, draft, stability, seaworthiness….everything is a compromise.
  • Perhaps the Motor cruiser is a better option. We often see a boat under sail and the usual joke is that he must have engine trouble.  The reality is that we don’t actually sail that much and when one consideres the amount of money and inconvenience we endure to have a sailboat, unless you plan to cross oceans where you lack the range, the trawler may make more sense.  There is a big difference between sailing and live-aboard cruising and I have been very disappointed with the amount of actual sailing that we have done on this trip.
  • The purchase of your boat is a stressful and long process that involves hours of Yacht-World research and finally choosing a broker you trust.  Be clear what you are looking for and don’t allow him/her to pressure you into buying what they have available. Make a list of your needs and wants and ensure you have an understanding of the cost to outfit a potential boat with you required kit.
  • Once you find the boat, even more critical than a good broker, is a good surveyor.  He works for you and will find many deficiencies on any vessel. The decision at this point is, “do you still want the boat?  What are you going to fix and what do you expect the seller to fix?”  There are many good surveyors and if you don’t know anyone in the area call around to several boat yards and brokers and you will hear the same names popping up. The cruiser forums are another excellent resource.
  • We felt that it was better to buy a fully equipped boat rather than put the equipment on ourselves.  After three years of fixing old kit, I think that I would have preferred to have bought a cheaper boat and outfitter it how we wanted.  This is obviously easier if you have the boat prior to your trip and have the time to get the work and systems without the panic of departure timelines.  Old water makers, generators, and avionics often cause more grief than they are worth and much of the equipment has a realistic lifespan of about 10 years.

Equipment

All of the systems on your boat will break at least once so you must be intellectually and financially prepared for this eventually.  Carry essential parts even if you don’t personally know how to install them because there will invariably be someone who does.  Long-range cruising is defined as “boat maintenance in exotic locations”.  It is important to determine what is critical to your trip and then ensure you have two of them.  While this may seem excessive, we have spent countless days and thousands of dollars waiting for parts and trying to fix things in far off places.  For us we would have two generators, two chart plotters, two watermakerss (110v and 12v), two outboards and two auto pilots.  This assumes that you are planning to venture away from a quick and ready supply of parts.

The second thing that we would do differently is to have modular systems.  Dometic freezers, portable ice makers, portable A/C units, are some of the cheaper ways to achieve the same creature comforts of the more expensive boats without the maintenance headaches.  Our built in ice maker costs $2700 while you can buy a $100 portable unit and the ice tastes the same.  The advantage of the modular systems is that if they break the cost of replacement is much cheaper than trying to repair a compressor in Columbia.

Chart plotter with multiple back ups (iPad, computer).  Make sure you buy the latest charts.  We use Garmin Blue charts and have been very happy with them, but search the internet because available programs change daily.  There is great debate over paper vs electronic charts which is usually followed by debates about the greatest anchor.  The bottom line is that you will need a current system and several back-ups.  While many mariners have travelled the globe with a sextant and depth sounder, you will have a tough time successfully navigating the Jumentoes in the Bahamas without accurate Explorer charts on a Garmin plotter.

Paper charts. See notes about anchor opinions… We don’t carry large scale charts and rely exclusively on electronic plotters. They are accurate and regularly updated. We do have a small scale chart of the Caribbean but only use them for planning purposes. We have met many “seasoned” sailors who won’t leave port without paper and spend thousands of dollars on charts, but we don’t know anyone who actually uses them.  I don’t carry a sextant either.

Generator.  Required to generate power when sun is insufficient (cloudy or winter) — portable or fixed.  Comes down to cost and convenience but we had both. The Honda 2000i was not able to run the A/C but we relied on it daily when the sun was insufficient to generate solar power. We have found it most efficient to run the generator in the morning when the batteries are low so that they absorb power quickly and then let the sun and the solar trickle charge the rest.

Solar. As much as you have space for.  No one has too much power and it requires no diesel and causes no noise.  The arch mount is ideal but whatever mounting system you use ensure that you pull the boom to the side because any shade will radically reduce their efficiency.

Wind generator.  Not very efficient but provides power at night and on cloudy days. Get the quietest one on the market (noise is an issue) and mount it as high as possible out of the turbulence bubble from the deck and sails.  We have such a power requirement that the little power they would provide did not account for the cost and installation challenges.

Battery bank. We had 840 Amp hrs and it was just sufficient.  When purchasing a boat, I recommend replacing the batteries if they are not reasonably new since they take a beating from live-aboard use. There are lots of different types out there and the technology is always improving.  Do the research when you are ready to purchase.  Lithium batteries cost more money but we will put them on our next boat due to the weight savings and the efficiency of the charge and discharge cycle.

Water maker.  There are boats that survive without them but water is expensive, $.60/gal in the Bahamas, and not always accessible. A 12v systems produce 15 gal/hr and 110v systems produces 45 gal/hr.  If I had a generator I would go with the 110v system, since our system draws 26amps which necessitates either the engines or generator so the idea of running it off the solar has not been really practical. Watermakers, along with generators, seem to cause the most maintenance headaches for cruisers.

Refrigeration/freezer.  You will need them but be conscious that they will be your biggest power draw.  Many people use portable 12v freezers which work well and are quite efficient.  One of the biggest problems with marine freezer/fridges is the lack of insulation around the boxes so, if possible, put additional insulation in the void if you can access it.  Also I would recommend a keel cooled heat exchanger to make them more efficient.  Our system pulls 10amps to 12 amps for about 15 hours a day which is a huge draw.

Sunshade. A necessity in southern climates, and side curtains are also required to protect from the sun.  If you anticipate monsoon rains or clod weather, having a complete enclosure is desirable.

Tender. Your most critical piece of kit.  Ensure you have a good boat and motor and repair kits for both.  The hoisting system is also important because you will raise the dinghy every night. Most people use 2-stroke engines (not available in the US) for their weight and thrust ratio. Install a Raycor fuel filter into the fuel line since they tend to be sensitive to the quality of the gas.  We bought a new engine and have had repeated carburetor issues and finally the recoil wheel broke leaving us stranded in the Bahamas.  I would recommend carrying a small spare engine and  if space allowed I would also carry a roll up dingy to use as a spare.  Most of our friends have experienced issues with either their engines or dingys or both.

Arch.  With all of the required kit and antennas you end up with, I would strongly recommend installing an arch system to hold the dinghy, solar panels and all the various antennas.  They can be made out of stainless or aluminum and cost will vary depending on location.

Hot water.  Not required but very nice especially if in colder climates. Engine driven heaters usually keep the water warm for three days and the electric heaters only work with the generators and while at the dock.

Washer and dryer.  Buy a small 12 v washer and air dry on the line.  Laundry is expensive and inconvenient and can cost up to $12 a wash and $12 for a dry.  Wooden clothes pins don’t degrade in the sun like the fancy plastic ones

AIS and Radar.  Essential.  Pay the extra $$ and get the ‘send and receive’ AIS.  Of note: the AIS requires its own antenna and the splitters are not usually successful. Standard Horizon makes a VHF radio that had a built-in AIS which is a poor man’s option and has the advantage of using the same antenna. The radar is used primarily at night to see weather and fishing boats that don’t have AIS.  The plotters give you your relative position to shore but the radar is still essential if you plan to operate at night.

Safety equipment.

  • Individual harness’ and tethers, with lights and whistles.
  • Jack lines from stern to stem. Never go forward at night or in a storm without hooking in, and even then as a last resort.
  • Throw ropes
  • Horseshoe
  • Extra boat hooks
  • EPIRB, for boat and personnel (personal PLBs are available but expensive)
  • Safety knife for each person
  • Current and certified life raft
  • Current flares and gun
  • Several hand-held radios (you are going to lose them..)
  • Bear spray, wasp spray, mace or other anti-personnel device
  • Large and current fire extinguishers
  • CO2 and fire alarms
  • Motion lights and door alarms
  • Ditch bag with required kit
  • Rechargeable spot light
  • Foam or wooden plugs to use in the case of a thru hull failure
  • A suitable first aid kit, based on your knowledge, and area of cruising
  • MOB and recovery system

Ground tackle. Ask around and purchase a big enough anchor and enough chain for where you intend to cruise.  We also upgraded to a Mantus anchor which was an excellent choice.  Make sure you have at least one, or better, two spares.  Of note:  Ensure you are able to cut your anchor free if you become entangled with other boats in a storm.  This was a lesson we learned in a 100kts squall in Georgetown where the entire fleet dragged and more than ten boats dumped their anchors and motored into the channel for safety.  Essentially you need to extend the bitter end so that it protrudes onto the deck allowing you to cut it free if require. The factory install is a 12 inch piece of rope which would cause you to climb into the anchor locker (at night, in rough weather etc) to cut it.  Also consider how your bridle will affect dumping the tackle and will you need to cut it as well.

Fenders and boards.  Ensure you have sufficient fenders to anchor with pilings or boats on both sides.  I recommend making simple fender boards to use with pilings. We had six fenders and two large round balls which was sufficient and the balls are useful to pivot against if leaving a dock with an onshore breeze..

Mast height.  The inter-coastal waterway is limited to 65 ft so if you intend to use this or inland marinas, make sure your mast is 63ft or less.

SAT phone.  We have one on board but the cost is high and the coverage poor, so we did not hook it up.  We are pretty successful poaching internet signals and use Skype and FaceTime when we have a good signal.

WIFI booster.  You will need a booster and there are lots out there.  Most folks use the Bullet and we have had pretty good results with this.  We use a 12v router and then everyone on board can use the signal.

Once you have the boat:

Note: The boat you have/purchase is not as important as overcoming the inertia of remaining at the dock.

  • I strongly recommend purchasing the boat 1-2 years prior to your departure so that you have time to work out the bugs and get the systems running.  This will greatly reduce your frustration and expense during your first year of cruising.  On a multi year trip, perhaps head out for six months and then return to port to fix and replace the systems that caused you the most grief.
  • Take the time to practice as a crew, specifically man overboard, docking (with pilings, med- mooring, multiple anchors, picking up buoys etc.) and anchoring.
  • At a minimum, do a one week dry run away from the dock well ahead of your departure date.  This will give you the opportunity to test your water maker and other systems
  • Work out a series of hand signals that work for you so that you don’t need to scream from bow to helm when anchoring or docking (or consider purchasing “marriage-saver” boom mics).
  • Assess what spares and tools you will need for the duration of the trip and pack them in tupperware boxes.  I recommend itemizing all of the spares and organizing them by bins so you are able to find them later.  As wonderfully generous as you may feel, do not give up your spares without a plan to replace them. We purchased the spares we will need and there is not always an easy way to replace them along the way.
  • Water filters in the US cost $5 each and the same filter in Grenada cost $23…plan accordingly.

Power

  • No one has enough power.  Decide what your daily consumption will be, add a fudge factor, and ensure you can meet it.  Running the main engines is impractical and noisy.  A portable generator is a good and inexpensive stop-gap measure although not very convenient.  On the modern cruising sailboat I am afraid that a diesel generator is the only way to go.  Remember the solar or wind output specs of your systems is an ideal and does not account for cloudy or calm days.
  • Try to get you consumption down and install energy efficient stuff.  Insulate the fridge and freezer and raise the temp as much as possible without defrosting your food.  Regularly defrosting the freezer is necessary to maintain efficiency.
  • Living “on the hook” is the hardest time to keep everything running and heading to a marina once a month to charge/equalize batteries, get fuel, do laundry etc. is probably a good plan.  Be aware that marina costs were approximately $2.50 per foot and the power was as high as $.70 kWh.
  • One way to reduce power is to not use the inverter unless you need the 110v, since inverters use power to stay on.  Many devices are actually 12v and then the manufacturer puts an inverter on the plug to use a 110v source.  All those devices with the large clunky blocks with the plugs imbedded in them are actually 12v and you are wasting power converting the power back and forth.  Cut the plug off and wire it directly into your system and you will be able to use the device without the inverter.  We have a 12v router and TV wired directly into the 12v system.
  • You can also purchase small converters to charge USBs in the cigarette lighters.  Again this will reduce the amount of time you need to run the inverter and any time you don’t need to convert the power from 12v to 110v and back, you save juice.
  • Convince you spouse and kids that natural is better than manicured and leave the blowdryers, crimpers, straighteners and curlers at home.  Lots of time for primping after the trip
  • Essentially any device that uses electricity to heat is very inefficient  so don’t plan to use them if not at the dock or running the generator.

Water

Water consumption is very personal but we used in-between 10 and 25 gallons a day, depending on whether we were passage making or anchored and swimming regularly.  We all showered daily (navy shower) and did all washing in fresh water.  We rinsed the dishes in salt water when were were economizing water and ever resorted to salt water showers with fresh water rinse on occasion.  Other families used twice our consumption but this will vary from boat to boat.

  • Water makers are expensive and finicky, however, they provide self-sufficiency. If you were not going to have access to potable water I would consider installing two systems on your boat or at least ensure you are confident in the system prior to departure.  They do not like to sit and prefer to be fun every other day.
  • I recommend you install a seagull filter at the tap which, while also expensive, will make the water taste like home.  Water that you purchase will vary in quality and taste and often the water that you make is the best tasting.
  • Always keep your tanks full so you have reserves when the water maker fails.
  • You cannot put bleach in the tank since it will destroy the water maker membrane so cycle your tanks frequently and clean them out when you have access to dock side water.
  • Water in the Caribbean costs anywhere from $.10 to $.70 a gallon.
  • Ensure your boat has a shower on the transom; hot water there is a luxury but not needed in the Caribbean.  A salt water tap in the kitchen which allows you to pre-rinse with salt water and wash with fresh will save you fresh water. 
  • Most people have some type of water catchment system and each boat has a unique system which can meet all your fresh water needs especially in the rainy season.

Laundry

  • This proved more difficult and costly than anticipated.  The cost of electricity is anywhere from $.50 to $.80 a kWh so drying is very expensive.  Generally a load has cost an average of $12 and we usually lug it ashore to a do-it-yourself-place.
  • In some islands like Bequia a woman would pick it up in the morning and return it later in the day for $10….Ingrid liked Bequia.
  • Most of our clothes could be done by hand although we always did the sheets and towels ashore.  Sending out laundry can be hard on your clothes so if you have concerns, do them by hand.
  • Although I did install a 110 v washing machine on the boat, it consumes significant power and water and is really only suited to running at the dock.
  • While we do minimize the amount of clothes aboard, sailing naked was not an option, although I gather it works for some folks and would certainly cut down on laundry.

Food

  • Generally we eat on the boat much like we do ashore.  As you start your provisioning marathon remember that, with the exception of the some places in the Bahamas, there is food wherever you are going.
  • You really don’t need to provision for the three year trip all at once…really!
  • There are key locations to provision and you will learn this from other cruisers along the way.  Many islands have their own versions of the Big Box store and, when nearby, we would rent a car to do a big provision.
  • One of the reasons we do these types of trips is to experience the local character and experiment with the local produce.  I would always seek out the older clientele in the grocery store and ask them how to cook whatever strange and unfamiliar vegetable I found.
  • Due to the heat we do a lot of barbecuing and as little baking inside as possible.  We do have a bread maker and, although it takes three hours to mix and bake, it was great on long passages under engine.  We would wake up to fresh bread in the morning which was a real treat.  Ensure your propane system runs to the BBQ so you don’t have to use the bottles.
  • Propane is accessible on most islands although you often need to drop your tank and pick it up several days later.  The cost to fill an 8 lb tank runs as high as $30 dollars.  We carried two marine tanks but, for the money, I would carry the steel tanks and replace them as required.  If your boat has the European Gaz system, replace it.
  • The best places in the Eastern Caribbean to provision are:  Florida, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, St. Martin, Montego Bay (Jamaica), Cartagena (Columbia), Colon (Panama), Antigua, Guadeloupe and Martinique.  The best places to get work done on the boat are:  Florida, Virgin Islands, St. Martin, Antigua and Grenada.
  • We found that we ate very little meat and preferred that which we bought in the US and froze.  When near a Costco we would purchase a tenderloin, cut it up ourselves, and freeze it in suitable portions.  We did the same with chicken although it is readily accessible in the islands.  When freezer space is at a premium, purchase boneless meats to save space.  We would purchase local vegetables and fruit every three days and bread was readily accessible.
  • If there are special foods that you desire to have, then take them with you, however, you can purchase sugar, flour, pasta, coffee, milk (in tetra packs), oil, soap, shampoo, rum, and beer along the way.  We stored all of our foodstuffs with bay leaves to ward off weevils and were reasonably successful.  Take lots of zip lock bags and tupperware to store food stuffs.
  • Wine is expensive except in the US and French islands but you can buy box wine, remove the cardboard and store them in the bilges.  We cut up a plastic milk jug to act as a wine carafe which was a conversation piece at parties.
  • Cardboard glue and can labels can carry cockroach eggs.  Keep it off the boat and leave it on shore.  Cans should be washed with a solution of water and bleach and then label them with a permanent marker (description and expiry date) to ensure you can tell what they are later.
  • Generally everyone takes way too much food and this is heavy, prone to spoilage and unnecessary.  It is important to have several meals that you can pull out of a hat if provisions are really low.
  • The exception to the above is appetizers.  Cruisers often meet for cocktails and snacks in the evening and everyone is expected to arrive with their own drinks and an appetizer.  These are expensive and difficult to find in the islands and it is worth stocking up prior to departure.  Good cheese will last for months in the fridge and is hard to find until you get to PR, although once you get to the French Islands there are fabulous cheeses and provisioning opportunities.
  • As a general rule you will be space limited in the kitchen and the secret is to eliminate superfluous kitchen gadgets, pots, plates etc.  Get one tool to do three jobs not three tools to do one.  A good knife should replace all of the Pampered Chef gadgets that clutter your kitchens ashore.  We purchased excellent quality teflon nesting pots and they took up little space and met all of our cooking needs.  Good quality stainless bowls double as salads bowls and baking bowls. 

Weather

  • A meteorologist out of Florida called Chris Parker, provides sailors with daily weather reports either by streaming online, email or SSB.  You are able to ask him questions real-time and get his opinion.  This service costs around $300 per year and is well worth the money.  That being said the three weather disasters we encountered on the trip were not advertised by Parker so as usual look and multiple sources. 
  • Learn to read and interpret the weather.  There are lots of good sites on the internet which all use the same models.  Start monitoring the weather in your anticipated region of sail so you get a feel for the patterns.
  • This of course depends on a wifi connection (more to follow) but you will need to have access every few days.  Plan to travel a day into the weather window, and finish your passage a day prior to the end of the window.  Planning otherwise is asking for trouble.
  • The sites we use are:  Chris Parker, NOAA, Windfinder, Buoyweather, Passageweather, and the Garmin Grib files but my favourite is Windyty.  We have not had great success with their forecasting and I often think that I should throw chicken bones on the deck, stand on my head, and read the almanac backwards!

Four weather rules:

  1. Be conservative!
  2. A bad decision with a good outcome, does not make it a good decision!
  3. Always be at the dock wishing you had set out, instead of setting out and wishing you were at the dock!
  4. Whatever the weather experts say, add 5 kts and 1-3ft to the wave prediction.

Customs and Immigration

  • Customs and Immigration throughout the Caribbean are a necessary evil and there is no easy way around it.  Each country has its own regulations enforced by poorly trained, poorly paid functionaries who really have no interest in you.  I am not sure what the correct approach is since none that I have tried has worked for me!  The exception to this is the French Islands which simply require you to fill out a computer form at the marina or tourist office and have it stamped by the man/woman working there.
  • You will need to clear in and clear out of every different island you visit, so you must plan landfall at an official port of entry.  Fly the Q flag when you drop anchor and usually just the captain goes ashore to clear in.  There are official hours and often overtime charges apply outside regular hours.  No matter what time you actually arrived, when asked the inevitable question “when did you arrive?” always answer, “just now”.  We have seen the Sunday overtime charges assessed on Monday am because the Captain said he arrived late the previous evening.
  • You may be asked for bribes, “presents for my wife”, “a little something to speed up the paperwork” etc.  My recommendation is not to pay but that will be an individual decision based on the individual situation.  Always ask for a receipt and pay with VISA if in doubt.  For those of you who grate at US Customs they are a breath of fresh air after the other customs we met in the Caribbean.
  • There is usually a 24-hour grace period after you check out so if you don’t intend to stay for more that a day or two you can often clear in and out at the same time.  If you later decide to extend, you can either return to the customs or claim engine trouble.
  • The cost and brain pain of Customs and Immigrations throughout the Caribbean differs with each island (visit??) and is a constant source of animation over evening cocktails.  Just try to stay calm and don’t give the staff cause to puff out his/her chest.

Internet and communication

  • There are several different ways to stay connected and each varies in cost and connectivity.  We used a “bullet” which allows us to pick up unprotected wifi signals from shore, which we then run through a 12v router so everyone on board can use the same signal.
  • When possible, we would also purchase a SIM card and use our unlocked iPhone as a hot spot to access the internet, although this proved expensive and the plans and access were never really clear in the Bahamas it allows us good connectivity almost everywhere.
  • The option of internet cafes or pubs/bars is always there and we would often go have a beer, do email and read the paper.
  • Once we had a good signal we would use Skype or FaceTime to call back home.  Skype is cheap and pretty good if you have a reasonable signal.
  • Some boats are equipped with SAT phones which have data plans and allow for the download of email and weather, but this is an expensive option and is not always reliable.
  • We did purchase a SPOT tracker which allows friends and family to track us — and for $150 it is great value.  It also has an SOS feature that you could use if you had an emergency although the EPIRB is a better option.
  • Facebook has become very popular as a source of communication between cruisers and many areas have created user groups.  E.g.  Grenada Cruiser group and the USVI Cruiser group.

Route planning

  • As I alluded to earlier, we spent far too much time worrying about the right boat to purchase and not enough time discussing the destinations we wanted to see.
  • There are lots of sites that are useful for planning and guide books are essential once you start.  Having an understanding of the local history will enhance your experience and make you more culturally sensitive.  The guide books also detail the services and facilities in different ports and post the latest hours for the customs etc.  In the Bahamas we found the Explorer Charts invaluable and would not contemplate visiting these islands without them. The Passages South from Van Sant is well written and proposes an easier way to beat the incessant trade winds heading south.  Like everything in life there are lots of ways to skin a cat and while they all have great recommendations, there is no definitive solution to any problem.
  • Be aware that many of the guide books are pay to play, and the glowing reports on various excursions or restaurant are there because the operator paid for the endorsement.  Chris Doyle is the most common guide book in the Caribbean but don’t overlook the mass of personal recommendations found on the internet.
  • We essentially followed a conventional route down to Grenada and then poked our way back in reverse.  You will enjoy the return trip in the Eastern Caribbean much more than the initial run due to familiarity of location and having the benefit of everyone else’s advice after five months in Grenada, not to mention that the winds are at your back.
  • Most legs are less than 70 nm which allows a reasonable boat to cover that in a day.   Ensure that you arrive before dark and have the ability to set your anchor without the added stress of doing it in the dark.  If the leg is 70 nm or longer you should consider doing a night run and arrive at first light.  This has the added advantage that you will not have to race to make customs times.
  • One excellent resource is “Active Captain” which is a current web-based interactive tool providing up to date information on anchorages, marinas and includes personal recommendations.  Active Captain information is also overlaid on the Garmin Blue Chart App.  We chose our anchorages and marinas based on the users ratings and it has been invaluable.

Buddy Boating

  • Buddy boating is the concept of travelling with another boat during your journey and can be a wonderful way to enhance security, provide mutual support and social interaction. Problems can arise when different people have different concepts of “Buddy boating”, and when hull speeds vary greatly.  Never defer the safety and operation of your boat to another skipper.
  • Never set out based on someone else’s weather interpretation.  If you do not like the advice you are receiving from “experts” on how to drive or dock your boat, make your own decisions and try something different.  We once were assigned a berth in Nassau after communicating our length and width (23.8 feet) over the radio, which was 25 feet wide.  As we wrestled the boat into this stupidly narrow slip we had all manner of advice and direction from the dock masters.  Bottom line is when you smash into a piling or run aground, they will be nowhere around so, if you don’t like what is being suggested or directed,  ask for something different.
  • The only two times we “buddy boated” we were little more than a long range depth sounder for sailors who lacked the confidence to sail on their own.  You may choose to accept that responsibility and lead a less competent crew, but that is a different undertaking.
  • We travelled with several different boats and thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie and social interaction.  We would alway assist each other with maintenance issues, or drink beer and offer unsolicited advice, while the other fellow wrestled with some system or another.  We would share weather and consult on the forecast, often coming to different conclusions, and would usually reconcile our different interpretations.  We would stay in touch on the radio, providing support if the other person had issues.  We would share lessons learned, movies, bread recipes, and good bottles of wine over dominoes, but we never again deferred to someone who we thought was smarter than we were, or gave up control of our own vessel.  Along those lines the term, “fair weather friend” is a sailing term and you need to count on your own devices for your safety and success.  That way you will only be pleasantly surprised by your travelling companions.

Anchoring

  • Ahh anchoring….Nothing gets sailors as animated as discussions about anchors and the “proper techniques” to drop a hook.  We are by no means experts and yesterday we returned to the boat after a three hour hike to find that we were dragging towards shore and another boat had started our engines and was resetting our anchor for us!   Disclaimer aside, the best type of anchor for your boat will depend on where you intend to use it.  In the Caribbean the Rocna type of anchor is very effective and seems to hold well in the sand.  We have 150 feet of chain and that is a little light since it effectively restricts us to depths of 30 feet.  In the Eastern Caribbean we were usually able to find suitable anchorages however in Central and South America I would have appreciated another 50-100 feet of chain.  We also have two spare anchors which are capable of holding the boat although we have never used them.  If we were caught in a storm or lost the main anchor, multiple anchors would be desirable.
  • Purchase an anchor which is correctly sized to your boat, and we have found that 5:1 scope is usually sufficient unless you are expecting a storm and then perhaps 7:1.  I have heard numbers as low as 3:1 thrown out with great confidence…just ensure you are in front and not behind these boats.  If you do not have an anchor counter be sure to mark your chain so you can determine how much chain you have out.  Also ensure you have a good snubber hook to attach your bridle to the chain.  We used one from Mantus which has been excellent.
  • There’s lots of info on anchoring techniques but we would usually anchor 50 ft behind the last boat in the field and pull backwards.  We might anchor in the front of the field close to the beach due to our draft, although you never want to be so close that it is easy to swim out to the boat in the night.  Once the anchor is down, clean up the boat, launch the RIB and let the anchor settle in to the sand.  After about 5-10 min we back down on the anchor, using a land transit, to ensure we are not dragging.
  • Mooring balls are often available and in some areas you are required to take one.  Costs range from free in St. Barts and Christmas Cove USVIs, to $30 in the BVIs and the Bahamas.  I would recommend that you dive on your ball to confirm the state of the line and the fittings.  We were once shocked to discover that the bright new white ball connected to the bright white hawser was only 15 feet long and was attached, bowline to bowline, to a grotty, barnacle encrusted line to the anchor.  At that time I dove a separate line to the anchor to act as a safety in case the mooring let go.  Two of our friends have had moorings let go and they drifted considerable distance before noticing it.   Both times were at night.
  • Generally we prefer to use our own anchor because we have confidence in it.  It is recommended to dive the anchor if you have any doubts about the setting. Building a bucket with a clear plastic bottom is a great way to see the anchor without actually diving on it.

Banking / Money

  • We carried USD with us and hid it in various places on the boat.  Generally we could access funds through local ATMs or banks without any issue.  I strongly recommend you notify your bank about your trip and for them to expect multiple transactions from many different countries or they may view the activity as suspicious and freeze your card.  Ingrid is a banker from a previous life and we still encountered issues.  She would recommend that if you are planning to purchase a large number of items in USD to have a USD credit card (you will save considerably on Visa exchange premiums).
  • You should consider having two different Visa cards in case you lose one and to keep one hidden on the boat.
  • Generally USD are accepted anywhere in the Caribbean and it is a good idea to have approx. $1000 on hand for emergencies.  Many places will charge you a 3-5% premium to use the VISA so cash is always a better option, if possible.
  • As of 2015, the most prevalent Canadian bank in the Eastern Caribbean was Scotia Bank.  If possible, we would recommend that any Canadians planning this trip should consider opening a Scotia Bank account to reduce ATM related fees.

Documentation

  • Having proper personal and boat documentation is critical and should go without saying.  Ensure you have new passports and no one is going to expire within six months of the end of your trip. Since most people start out on a one year trip and then extend, it is better to apply for new passports before you leave.
  • Same goes for bank cards, VISAs, driver licences and any other date critical documentation.  It will be infinitely easier to apply for these documents from home than it will be to do it from a third world country.
  • Take a photocopy of all your documents and leave a copy with a trusted person at home who can forward the info to you if you do lose something.
  • Ensure that you have proper and current boat registration and insurance.  Many yards and marinas will not allow you to use their facilities if you don’t have current insurance coverage.  Again, keep copies of your docs back home.
  • Unfortunately the world is not set up to accommodate a nomadic lifestyle.  You will need an address and it must be the same address that is tied to all of your credit and banking info.  This will be required on all customs forms, bank transactions, insurance forms etc.  Saying “no fixed address” didn’t get me very far.
  • We purchased a copier/scanner for the boat and tried to go as paperless as possible.  We also used a number of Apps to make life easier for signing documents, e.g. Tiny Scan, Sign Easy.

Security

This is one of those topics that generates strong opinions and emotions.  Different areas pose different risks and you need to be cognizant of the local conditions. Whether you carry an arsenal of automatic weapons or trust your security to positive energy and good intentions, it is a decision that only you can make.  My only caveat is that you need to understand the risks and have a reasonable plan to deal with them.  Some of my personal thoughts are:

  • Reasonably assess the risks and determine a plan to counter them before you get into trouble.
  • Always raise your dinghy at night.
  • During the day, always have two painters attached to your dinghy (we learned the hard way)
  • Don’t anchor alone in a deserted bay if there is an alternative.
  • Don’t broadcast your movement intentions on the VHF.
  • Choose discrete VHF frequencies amongst friends.
  • Don’t leave stuff lying around on deck or in the water when you are not at the boat.
  • Practice the normal cautions ashore reference flashy jewellery, cash etc.
  • Travel with another boat to provide mutual support and develop a plan if approached by a hostile boat.
  • Check “noonsite” or Caribbean Security and Safety net (https://www.safetyandsecuritynet.com) for the latest security infractions.
  • If you are concerned about the safety of the anchorage, post a night watch until you can find a better anchorage.  If you are boarded or threatened with a boarding you will need to have developed a plan in advance of the event.  Our view is that our lives are the only thing of real value on the boat and if aggressively boarded we will lock ourselves in the cabin and get on the radio, use air horns, flares etc.

If we are threatened with boarding at sea we will:

  • Try to contact the vessel on CH 16 to ascertain their intentions.
  • We will light up our boat so there is no question that they see us and we see them.  Another school of thought is to extinguish all lights to evade contact.
  • I will illuminate their bridge with a spot light which is very disorienting to the other vessel.
  • I will fire off flares to get their, and anyone else’s, attention.
  • If necessary, I would fire a flare in the direction of their vessel across their bow indicating non compliance.
  • Finally, if we are in danger of being boarded, I will manoeuvre aggressively to prevent someone getting on board.  All the while we will be calling out on CH 16 and firing flares to attract attention.

Other options are to drag lines behind the stern to foul their engines, or fire into their boat at close range with a flare gun.  I really believe that you just need to make yourself a harder target than the next boat, since these people are fundamentally looking for easy money.

Bottom line is that it is your life and you will need to come up with a plan that suits your comfort level and background.  There is nothing on your boat worth dying over.

We were boarded in the night in Grenada and the thieves entered the cabin to steal our computers and iPhones.  We thankfully didn’t hear a thing and in the followup with the local authorities, the take away for us is that you will get no satisfaction from the locals and you are ostensibly on your own. This played out over and over during our stay in the SE Caribbean so prevention is a much better option than the alternative.

If we head south again I would modify the boat to include:

  • Wiring all exterior lights to a switch in the master cabin so that I could illuminate the entire boat from bed if required.
  • Install motion lights on the stern to illuminate the boat if approached at night.  This is also very convenient when we returned to the boat after dark.
  • Install steel grates in the escape hatches so that we could leave the hatches open at night without fear of intruders coming aboard.
  • Insure each cabin had an air horn beside the bead to signal the rest of the boat/anchorage in the event of a boarding
  • Install a red LED light in the cockpit to simulate an alarm.  We used a Pelican bike light which was very effective and visible for two miles.  I simply placed it above the entrance doors/
  • We carried mace cans, both personal and larger.  The girls would take them when they went to do laundry or use the washrooms ashore at night.  I had a large can which we would have used against unarmed intruders and most attacks are with teenagers with machetes and mace would be very effective in this case.
  • I would also consider a cattle prod or similar device which could be used to disable a man is the mace was not effective.  We did not have one on board.
  • Finally we carried a 12 gauge shot gun with a mix of BB and slugs.  I am comfortable using guns and the entire family did regular safety and firing to ensure that everyone onboard was comfortable with the weapon.  I did not declare the weapon as we went through the islands and tucked it into the hanging locker which does present a certain risk. We were boarded and the boat was superficially searched several times however the gun was never “discovered”.  It was not “concealed” and I was prepared to lose it and beg forgiveness if we were thoroughly searched and it was discovered.  Weapons are a personal decision and I was very glad to have one onboard.  We broke it out twice during our trip and while I never fired it in anger, I would take one with me again.

 

7 thoughts on “So you want to go Cruising?

  1. Nice summary. Couple of things. A siren in case you are boarded is a good deterrent. Keep all your old flares, you can never have enough. Equip the dinghy with an emergency kit, radio etc as you would your boat. And you didn’t mention wind power to recharge batteries. You didn’t say much about guns and I don’t blame you. I like at least three flare guns at strategic places and a strong hand held searchlight. We had an attempted boarding in the Grenadines and fired flares which worked but boy would I like to have had a pistol. And yes, I know the rules but today they make some pretty high powered air guns that look like the real thing and will incapacitate. Are they legal in most countries? Don’t know.

    I also like Watermakers water maker. Very popular around Staniel Cay.

    We are on Staniel until late April. Lots of cruisers around.

    You guys are doing great. Keep enjoying.

    Dick

  2. Fascinating and excellent summary of contemporary cruising. As everywhere in life, things have changed so much in the last half-century, though some of your references (especially about security) are due to the difference between Carribean and European cruising. No sextant, not even a plastic one? You’ll be telling us you’ve not got a compass or even a lead line next!

    At least you can now tell us all about your experiences of ‘fourteen days on one wave’.

    When are you bringing the boat over to our grey skies? It’ll be different from your cycling visit but plenty of educational opportunities for your press-ganged crew…

  3. Super cruiser’s manual Robin! Would make a great magazine article. I enjoyed it as much from my arm chair as I would if I was planning to put back to sea – which I’m not😊
    Wishing you fair winds and sunny skies.
    Peter

  4. Sounds like cruising is similar to renovating a home…on the spousal vs financial challenges I mean. After 4 homes and 4 renos, we’ve opted for the newly built condo. HA!HA! Hugs, les Poussins ♥

  5. Rafiki, great blog post. This should be laminated and sent to anyone considering going cruising. Seriously, this is good stuff. Gosh do we miss you. We were just talking about you all today and how we plan to come visit you once you are done with your trip. Fair winds friends!

  6. Boy the education continues… perhaps a new career for the family????? Bon Voyage for Dummies!
    still… what an experience!

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