How to begin
First, relax a bit. You’re not going to drop off the face of the earth when you go cruising. There’s often the perception that everything must be “taken care of” before you go. It’s only partly true. If more people realized that “regular life” goes on, even after you take off, I think more people would actually have more fun. Popular misconceptions range from the idea that you may never again be able to enjoy the comforts of a shopping mall to the idea that you may never want to because you’re going to be drunk under a palm tree eating cheeseburgers for the rest of your life. It just isn’t like this. It’s much better.
Most people who cruise maintain access to good medical care, mail and communication with family, as well as the ability to get parts, access to technical help, Internet, weather information and television. There will be complications, it may not be as easy and convenient, and extra work and ingenuity may be involved. But you’re not going to be hanging out there like Christopher Columbus.
Start by living on the boat in a marina at least for several months. Take longer and longer weekends or vacation cruises. When you take off “for good,” hang out close to home for a while. This helps you to learn about the gremlins that lurk in any boat and to get them straightened out more easily and less expensively. Many cruise up and down the coast for several years or more before even going to the Bahamas. It’s a good idea.
Even if you’re planning to cross oceans, cruising in North America first gives you a chance to get to know your equipment, decide what you really want to do, and to equip and provision your boat more appropriately. You don’t have to equip your boat for a trip to the ends of the earth when you first leave your home port. You may change your mind as you get into the lifestyle. Many find they’ve overdone it with equipment and provisions. They’ve listened to all the “’round the world” gurus and convinced themselves that a trip to far shores across wide oceans is the only way to go, but later they realize this isn’t for them — at least not yet. And some equipment, such as certain electronics, changes so often it’s best to not get it until you really need it.
Nitty gritty details
Food: This involves good planning for stocking and storage. You obviously won’t be able to run down to the grocery store several times a week while cruising. Pretend that your home is a boat, and only allow yourself to buy groceries once a week, working up to several weeks or more. Your boat’s storage spaces and refrigeration capabilities will help determine the type and amount of foods you will be able to stock, so practice shopping with that in mind.
Eat out less frequently and practice preparing foods from scratch, especially if you plan on being at anchor or away from civilization for long periods. At a “home base” marina, we like to stock up on heavy items (so we don’t have to carry them in inconvenient places), paper and personal toiletries, and non-perishable foods, supplementing with fresh foods as we travel. A taxi ride or marina courtesy car will usually get you to large chain grocery stores along East Coast waters.
Parts and tools: In the old days, a replacement part could be a serious problem. I tried (unsuccessfully) to carry a spare for just about everything on board. Despite careful packing and oiling, I ended up with a lot of rusty, moldy spares. Today, it’s much easier to obtain parts unless you’re really going to be way out there. You should still carry “perishables,” such as impellers, filters, belts, a fuel lift pump, spare alternator, bilge pump, parts for the potable water pump and head, and many other items specific to your boat. However, you don’t need to go to the extremes of earlier days.
It’s still important to carry good tools and know how to use them. You’ll need far more than a wrench set and a few screwdrivers. A complete list of my tools would fill a book. Some may not be what you’d expect, but have been immensely helpful — for example, my two Dremel tools (one with a long flex shaft), four different “grabbers” for all the stuff that goes into the bilge, and my 18-volt DeWalt hammer drill.
We have more than two dozen high-quality flashlights on board, and we use them. There are also versatile, inexpensive repair products that will handle a multitude of problems and help you get by until you can find civilization. For example, take along several tubes (they’re made for different uses) of high-quality gasket materials. Take an inner tube to cut as needed for gaskets, insulation, abrasion protection and many other uses. Check the huge line of Star brite products. You’ll be amazed at the jiffy fixes for making temporary and long-term repairs (www.starbrite.com). Another stellar example is Rescue Tape. I offloaded about 75 pounds of spare hose from my boat, keeping only a few special pieces. In lieu of those hoses, I have a large supply of silicone Rescue Tape for temporary repairs (www.rescuetape.com).
Storage: Finding all the stuff you’ve stored is critical. Not knowing where something is can be dangerous, for example, if you need to find an impeller to fix a raw water pump so you can get into an inlet before a storm clobbers you.
A computer is a necessary tool for many reasons, including organization. We use Microsoft Excel for parts. We include the part number, source (if relevant), descriptions of special problems related to installing or using the part, number aboard, and where they’re stored. We also keep a “Boat Notes” file in Microsoft Word where I make notes about special tricks or problems I’ve encountered in doing mechanical jobs. This is invaluable — and it would be to a buyer of the boat. The search features in Excel and Word make it easy to find the information you need. But you must discipline yourself to make entries when you use, add or change locations of parts. We back up religiously to storage chips.
When you store things, do it with easy retrieval in mind. Obviously, it makes sense to store the items you might need first, or on an emergency basis, near the top of any storage area. But it isn’t that simple with a boat. Storage spaces are unevenly shaped, parts and groceries are in uneven shapes, and some tolerate the moisture of areas against the hull better than others. Therefore, storage of the things you bring aboard before you go takes a lot of thought, foresight and planning.
Crises in space: When you move aboard, your boat’s spaces will play a far different role in comfort and relationships than they did while you were living off the boat. You’ll expect to be living in tighter quarters, but it’s more complex than that. Suddenly there is a marked lack of privacy. The jobs and routines of each person impinge on those of each other person. When you work on boat problems, it’s in the midst of where you’re living — a far different scenario than it was when you could work on the boat while life went on as usual back home. This can be a significant disruption, often causing resentment.
Also, couples find they can’t escape each other like they could ashore. You can’t just go to the mall or take a walk down the block. People who have been married for years and dreamed about the lifestyle for years have separated after a short retirement cruise because they realize they didn’t really know each other. With one or both at work most of the time and with all the shoreside distractions, there wasn’t time to notice.
As I suggested earlier, if you’ve lived aboard in a marina for at least several months before you cast off, this problem should be less severe. Also, it helps to establish and respect personal spaces where each can keep personal stuff and escape for a while. Consider spaces when you choose your boat. And when you take off, allow yourself diversions from the cruising routine, such as dinghy explorations, kayaking, stopping at marinas to enjoy the good parts of shoreside life, and even taking vacations from the boat to visit friends and family.
Coping with losing control: Paradoxically, an overwhelming sense of loss of control often devastates the psyche of people who begin cruising. Over the years, we’ve seen the deterioration of the emotional stability of many new cruisers (particularly alpha males) as they realize they’re in a very different world and that no matter how hard they’ve tried to get ready and how much work and money they’ve put into preparing, they’re really not prepared for the things that happen. They were in charge while at their jobs before they left, but suddenly the world is spinning out of control and this can be devastating. There is help for this.
Anticipate that storms will terrify you and trap you in places you don’t want to be, whether it’s in the middle of the ocean or a tiny creek filled with alligators. Anticipate breakdowns at the most inopportune times — when you’re exhausted, when you don’t have the part, when you’re still bleeding from fixing the last problem. Anticipate the fact that the weather rules. Don’t make plans that assume specific arrival times. You’re traveling by boat, not car.
Learn as much as you can about your boat and its systems before you go. This means doing things such as going to seminars given by truly experienced people. It means attending classes in diesel repair (both spouses), learning how to rebuild equipment, and all the other things we’ve talked about above.
Change your attitude: A change of attitude is one of the things most people look forward to when they go cruising, but it doesn’t just happen. You’ll probably have to change the way you’ve been all your life. It may take a lot of work. When that storm keeps you from moving, but you promised Uncle Joe you’d meet him next Saturday when he flies into Charleston (you shouldn’t have told Joe that), force yourself to take a deep breath, check the anchor, and go down below, relax and read a book. When the one thing you didn’t bring a spare for breaks, you’ve just got to recognize it’s a part of cruising.
And perhaps the best cure is to do what we discussed in the beginning: Don’t take off with the idea that you’ve got to go around the world or across the ocean. Forget bragging at the yacht club about women in hula skirts. Cruise close in for a while. Do what’s easy and less threatening. Always remember it’s supposed to be fun.
Help network: When you finally head out, you’re going to be losing a lot of help opportunities with which you’ve been blessed in your home marina and town. That chandlery you’ve used for years, that mechanic whose magic you’ve grown to trust, the family doc — all will be far away. But you’ll find there’s a help network among cruisers that can be invaluable, and cruisers, as a rule, are eager to help each other. And you can be reasonably assured that whatever problem you’re having, other cruisers are out there who’ve already experienced it and who are willing to help.
It also pays to work on building a help network before you leave. With mechanical issues, it helps if you have a good technician check things out before you go and help you make repairs and adjustments. You’ll become familiar with each other, and he’ll understand if you call from afar saying you need help — and that you’ll be good for any bill that may be appropriate.
Talk with your family doctor. Explain what you’re doing and that if you call with a medical question he’s going to have to help you as best he can, because you may be someplace where there are no doctors or pharmacies. If he doesn’t understand, find one who does.
Establish a relationship with someone at your bank so they know what you’re doing and that you’re going to have to be conducting business long distance.