December 31, 2004
Greetings 48 North!
We’ve just spent our first six months cruising the west coast of the United States, Baja California, and mainland Mexico. As long time readers we wanted to share a few updates and bits of knowledge (most of which learned the hard way) gleaned from our first time out in the big blue.
We departed Seattle at the end of August after a year of fitting out at Shilshole and Port Townsend. Our first offshore leg was Neah Bay to Crescent City, the route that nearly everyone starting this voyage intends to take (meaning the direct route with no stops in between) but most make a stop or two along the way in reality. As coastal sailors in Puget Sound we set off as consummate rookies about making ocean passages, but knew that finally getting out there was the only cure.
I won’t go into excruciating detail about the refit and planning stages prior to the trip but I will say that we’ve never felt that we should have waited any longer to get underway than we did. Many people we met in our time in the Sound planned to head south, looking ahead to a three- to five-year range. Who can wait that long?! Life gets in the way (and many of these folks were already in their late fifties to sixties). After meeting other sailors who are actually cruising we noticed a discrete pattern here. Nearly everyone we’ve met out here departed with many things left undone on the boat list. They all have plans to wait and see, and to make improvements along the way – this means that for them, in the inception of the dream, purchasing the boat, and finally departing, the time elapsed was at the most two years (one year was the average in the cruisers we’ve met). Good rule of thumb: if you’re not sure if you need something, don’t buy it and wait ‘til you know (I have an $800 towable generator that is still in its box in the forecastle).
When you’ve never been cruising more than a few miles from home (especially in the protected waters of the Sound), you don’t know what to expect. Many people tend to overcompensate by trying to fit out “the perfect boat” which in itself is completely an oxymoron. We certainly fell into the category on numerous occasions but luckily we started running out of money before we could do too much more damage. I think a lot of your readers would be surprised by the things we don’t have onboard for this cruise.
The biggest thing we’ve learned about getting ready is to triage as much as possible. This process can be challenging when you also assume that you don’t know much about ocean sailing. So where to begin when compiling a list? Seek out people you can really trust – this doesn’t mean the local “experts” (most of which have sailed about as far as behind Bainbridge) at the marina. Seek out real cruisers who’ve made the same passage. They’d love to share what they’ve learned along the way with you. Then look to your rig and sails – if all else fails these are what will get you somewhere you want to go. We’re very fortunate to have Brion Toss and Carol Hasse in close proximity in Port Townsend – these are great folks who’d love to meet you, and they’ll always be straight with you. Before you drop $7k on that SSB/HAM setup, talk to them. Would you rather have a boat that sails well and reliably, or the ability to email your mom every day?
When you’re on your first offshore watch at 3:00 am in a good blow, you start to hear funny things (not the funny-funny-ha-ha kind). In talking with other new cruisers, most agreed that the worst part of our early passages in heavy weather was not knowing what was normal. We had no baseline for comparison. Having confidence in your rig and sails helps to alleviate some of those concerns, but you never feel quite right about everything until it’s been tested a few times. Lucky for southbound passage makers from the Sound, there are ample opportunities for trial by fire along the coast. These include the notorious capes from southern Oregon to southern California. Everyone should feel prepared for heavy weather but also shouldn’t abandon cruising dreams due to the scare stories that matriculate through the marina watering holes (I hate to admit it, but the most wind we encountered at any capes in the Washington to California leg was in the low thirties – we had a lot more wind when we first arrived in the “benign” Mexico waters north of Turtle Bay).
Next to overdoing it in the refit stage, the other classic mistake we’ve encountered, and others have agreed, is planning too far ahead. Why complicate your situation even more by telling everyone you meet (including family and friends who want to meet you along the way) that you’re planning on a six year trip or a circumnavigation. If you stick to thinking exactly one destination ahead (a variable destination) the pressure is off and the cruise starts to feel like it’s a lot more about what you want instead of living up to some ideals others might have. Unless you’ve actually done it in your own boat no one will ever know just how challenging it is to cut the docklines and sail the west coast in all its glory – that itself is a great accomplishment for most sailors. If you want to keep going, then do it for the right reasons.
So far we’ve also found that real cruising is definitely a big series of ups and downs and you have to just roll with it and not take yourself too seriously if you want to keep going. It also helps to know when you need a break. After six months on the hook getting down to the tropics we’re treating ourselves to three weeks at Paradise Village Marina in Puerto Vallarta (well, one week of vacation and two weeks of boat projects), and it’s worth every penny. It’s so easy to forget sometimes why you started this journey in the first place. Take some time to reflect, even a little bit, each day if possible. Just remember that it could be worse and you might be sitting in gridlock on the 520 right now. Once you make below 23 N or so, things start to change dramatically and you can start to get into “cruise-mode.” Above that latitude, we found that we were always thinking about keeping the boat moving south. But once in the tropics, the water gets warm, it’s 80 degrees everyday, and (so far) the weather is reasonably consistent with light winds morning and night with a NW breeze coming up ‘round noon.
We loved our time in the Sound and still consider it some of the most prime cruising grounds anywhere (although I spent way too much time with my head in the engine room instead of on the hook in the islands before leaving).
PS – DO invest in a “flopper-stopper” or make your own!
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