Take in the dock lines and plot a course south
Posted on 31 October 2011
Written by Tom Neale
The world doesn’t come to an end when you finally cast off the lines to head south. It might seem so because this time you’re taking them with you rather than leaving them at the dock that’s been your boat’s home for so many years.
You’ve wanted to go south perhaps for most of your life. You’ve worked your buns off, and now it’s your turn to retire and live the dream. Or maybe you’re not retiring but taking a sabbatical or a “do it while you’re young” cruise. Still, it’s the same. It’s immensely exciting and even a bit scary. Usually there’s a lot of worrying about whether you’ve done all the things that you need to do before you leave because surely, once you gain paradise, there’s no more taking care of business. The bad news is that there is. But that’s also the good news, even though you may not realize it as the days until departure tick by ever more rapidly.
The frenzy builds with lists checked off and new lists made. Panic sets in. There will never be enough time to get it all done before … and then you leave. Usually you have to leave because you’ve been giving your friends a date for months and you’re embarrassed to extend it again. Then, suddenly, everything is quiet. You look around. It’s kind of nice. You look at each other. Then you start wondering as the frenzy is replaced by a void: What now? Have I been successful in packing all the world aboard?
If more people realized that “regular life” goes on even after you go cruising, I think more people would actually go cruising and have more fun doing it. Popular misconceptions range from the idea that you might 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.
There are two basic types of cruising. One involves “going around the world” or hanging out for years in faraway places such as the South Pacific. Most people start dreaming about cruising with this concept in mind; few actually do it, and I wouldn’t recommend it until you’ve had a huge amount of coastal experience. The second type involves cruising along the coast and the Bahamas and Caribbean.
The vast majority of people who go cruising end up in this group, even if they start out with the first concept in mind.
Particularly with the second type of cruising, you’ll find it relatively easy to fix things, get medical help and deal with financial business. But there will be complications, it might not be as easy and convenient as it was at home, and extra work and ingenuity could be involved. But you’re not out there in a void. The following are some things to do that we’ve learned from our 30-plus years of long-term liveaboard cruising. We hope they will help you to get away with a more relaxed attitude and help you keep that attitude.
Good communications equipment is critical. If you hang out along the East Coast, you’ll have good cell-phone coverage in most areas with the same phone (or whatever cell-phone variation) you use ashore. We’ve found that Verizon Wireless has the best overall coverage, but we’ve also found that, in our opinion, its service is degrading.
To bring in stronger signals we use a mast-high cell-phone antenna and below-deck amplifier by Digital Antenna. This helps not only with voice calls, but also with an Internet connection. For the latter, we use the same antenna and amplifier and a Verizon Wireless air card in a Cradlepoint router.
It’s important in areas of low signal to be able to plug the line from the antenna directly into the air card. Many air cards don’t have an external port, but these ports are available. We use a Novatel that we purchased from Verizon, but that’s becoming outmoded and won’t bring in 4G.
To us, it’s preferable to stick with older technology that we know is suited for our unique purposes. And trying to get a techie from any cell-phone company to understand that you don’t live in a city with a very limited footprint and travel only between hotels and airports is sometimes like explaining the North Pole to an alligator. Besides, 4G isn’t often available as you cruise the coast.
There are many other inexpensive communications options, including Skype. But most of these require a good Internet connection, which is something you still can’t take for granted once you take off. Satellite communications let you stay plugged in just about everywhere, but this is still quite expensive, as to hardware and service charges. Many use ham radio, but this isn’t supposed to be used for business.
Single sideband can be used for business and even e-mail with special hardware and programming, but this methodology is limited, compared with what you are probably accustomed to, and I wouldn’t recommend it except for those who do range far offshore. Ocens (www.ocens.com) is an example of a retailer that can provide a source of information, equipment and service if you’re in that category.
Communications for weather is also critical. Along the coast the NOAA weather channels on the VHF are usually helpful, and as long as you have Internet connectivity you can get much more information through sites such as www.weather.gov. Radar from the Internet is especially helpful for real-time weather. For those venturing far, there are professional weather consultants who will give information relevant to your area and plans via SSB, e-mail and other modes. Chris Parker (www.mwxc.com) is the person we use.
If you want to share the cruise experience with family and friends through blogs, personal websites or photo-sharing sites, spend some time researching, setting these up and using them before you leave so you don’t waste precious cruising time on the learning curve. We like the simplicity of texting (using Verizon’s unlimited plan) for pictures and quick location and safety updates for our family as we cruise the coast.
Plan for things to do. Just sitting on a boat in paradise can get pretty boring for some people. Books, iPads, games, snorkeling gear, kayaks, surfboards and resource books (for fish, coral and plants) are but a few of the things that might interest you.
Navigation and electronics
There’s a pervasive penchant for apps and gadgets ashore, and it’s flooding into maritime application. But having reliable communications at sea and being able to navigate is not a game. It can be deadly serious. For example, some apps, such as those bringing in radar, may be cool on a cell phone, but at sea we prefer a much larger display designed for marine use to get detailed info.
Decide what communications and navigation tools you want to take, after research and talking with people who’ve used different types. For navigation, we wouldn’t consider being out there without paper charts and we certainly would also want to have the very latest in electronic chart plotters, radar and other aids. Our Standard Horizon CP300i with C-MAP Max cartography, though several years old, has proved invaluable to us.
After making tentative decisions, put off buying until a few months before leaving. These products change rapidly, and you’ll want the latest and greatest. But you’ll also want to get past the break-in period for your electronics, so give yourself a few months of usage before leaving. Buying the latest charts also helps, although with NOAA’s Online Chart Viewer (www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov) these are now much easier to update.
Although it’s much easier to get parts than it was a decade or so ago, it still helps to stock up on as wide an array of spares as you can. The trick is to figure out what’s most likely to break, despite that ultimate truism that whatever you have a spare for will never break. What you stock will depend on many variables, such as the type and size of your boat and its equipment, how new that equipment is or how recently it’s been rebuilt, where you’re going, and your skills.
And don’t assume that, for example, if you have a new engine, nothing on it will break. I prefer not to buy the official “spare parts kit” offered by some engine manufacturers. If you need help, consider having a mechanic who specializes in your engine (and other equipment) come aboard and make a list.
A few minimum basics would include V-belts, water pump impellers, oil and filters for several changes, at least six fuel filters (if you take on dirty fuel, you’ll need them), gasket material, a spare bilge pump, a head and potable water pump rebuild kit, a spare freshwater recirculating pump for your engine, a spare starter or at least a starter solenoid (depending on the type of starter you have), and whatever else you can afford and store.
We also carry an assortment of spare hoses, but with the advent of Rescue Tape, with which we’ve made quite a few temporary and seemingly permanent repairs, we’ve been able to significantly lessen the hose supply. Repair materials are also important — such as wiring terminals and connectors, inner tube material, cotter pins, sandpaper, rags, anti-seize oil (CRC’s Freeze-Off), lubricating oil (WD-40), Teflon tape for plumbing, quick-setting glue, J-B Weld, a variety of caulking materials, stainless steel wire, hose clamps and wire ties. Obviously you need a good collection of tools and some training in using them. (See last month’s Sea Savvy on the “mechanically disinclined.”)
Parts, tools and other “stuff” might as well not be aboard if you can’t find them when you need them. If you need an impeller to fix a water pump so you can get into an inlet before a storm clobbers you, the spare might as well be back in the store if you don’t know where you put it. The same is true with groceries, although usually the emergencies aren’t as dire (unless it’s an issue of locating the stash of Sam Adams beer). So as you put things aboard you need to make note of what goes where.
In the old days, we made paper lists. They had to be rewritten constantly. And the paper didn’t fare well as we constantly grabbed it in panic with wet, oily hands and then stuffed it “somewhere” after we’d found the part. Today, we use computers, and they’re great. A great thing about a computer is that it’s hard to lose the list. And we back up religiously onto flash drives that we can easily take with us, if needed.
We use Excel and find it more than adequate for our lists. With this and most similar programs, we can use the search feature to find the part. It’s also easy to change the list. The key is to have the self-discipline to make the changes when something is used or moved or added. For parts, we include the part number, source (if relevant), location on the boat and sometimes descriptions of special problems.
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 to me and it would be to a buyer of the boat. If you’re thinking he ought to just remember where he puts things, you’re right. But I don’t. And neither do most people, especially during emergencies.
How you store things is also fundamental to easy retrieval. 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 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 normally takes a lot of thought, planning and rearranging. But if you don’t take the time to do it and record it, you may have wasted your time and money in getting the “stuff” in the first place.
Food and food storage
Food involves good planning in the purchase of non-perishables and it presents special storage problems. Of course, you’ll be mindful of what is and isn’t perishable as you store things. But what could be a cold space next to the hull as you leave New England in the fall can turn into a very warm space as you cross the Gulf Stream between Miami and Bimini. Also, you’ll need to anticipate when you’re going to want items so you won’t have to root through a month’s worth of supplies to find an ingredient for the first night’s dinner. And it’s important to store everyday items in convenient, easy-to-reach spaces. Keeping a record of what you have and where it is will be immensely helpful, especially if you’re storing food for long trips.
Buying in bulk will save money, but the large containers from the discount stores are not easily stored in boat spaces. You’ll have to spend some of that money you saved on zippered bags and air-tight plastic containers of varying sizes to fit your spaces. Be particularly mindful of expiration dates printed on labels and try to get the latest-dated foods. If you are removing labels from cans or repackaging dry goods into other storage containers, be sure to write the expiration date on the can or container.
That old problem of refrigeration is much less of an issue because refrigeration/freezer units have gotten so much more reliable. Units such as those produced by Frigoboat, for example, are basically plug and play, with quick-release, no-leak coolant lines should a component need to be replaced. It’s relatively easy to top them up (with proper training) with readily available refrigerant. On Chez Nous, we have a much older type of refrigerator with huge stainless-steel holding plates with eutectic solution and dual compressors — one engine-driven and the other driven by AC current.
When I have a problem with this unit, I know help is just a short reach away — to where my cell phone sits. I call Lee Kelm, of Lee’s Marine Air Conditioning and Refrigeration at (954) 649-0003. He’s a refrigeration expert in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who I’ve used often when I’m in the area. He talks me through repairs with a familiarity of the system that makes it seem as if he’s standing next to me in the engine room.
There are others who can do this and they’re reachable in most places you cruise because of the cell phone. Better, it’s wise to line them up with a paid visit to your boat before you leave, explaining that you might need a consultation down the line. Sure, you have to pay for the service when you call, but you would certainly pay ashore.
Food to bring
This is a subject that can’t be realistically discussed in the abstract. It’ll depend on what and how much you like to eat, how often you plan to go to restaurants and marinas where you can shop and how long you plan to remain out. We used to stock at least a six-month supply of food. We were truly independent, as we could get fresh meat from the sea and trade locally with the islanders for fresh vegetables, etc. But it presented special problems.
For example, we had 5-gallon plastic containers of wheat, which we ground into flour as needed. If we’d taken flour, it would have soured from the heat and moisture. But most people don’t need to go to that extreme today. There are many helpful substitutes to stock up on for long trips, such as powdered or canned milk, dried fruits and powdered eggs, but today it’s gotten much easier to replenish fresh foods, particularly if you hang out along our coast.
Some marinas are particularly easy for shopping. Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor in St. Augustine, Fla., not only has two loaner cars, but there’s also a huge Publix supermarket within walking distance.
On long trips south, a major problem with any grains you plan to store for a long time, including cereal, pasta, flour and rice, will be the potential for weevils. Even the best-packaged, high-dollar items sometimes have dormant weevil eggs, and the heat of the tropics makes them thrive and quickly spread to other foods. One way of dealing with this is to freeze these items at home before you put them aboard. Even though they thaw out when you remove them from the freezer, the process usually, we’ve found, kills the critter eggs already residing there.
The medical supplies you bring along will depend on the health problems of those aboard and where you’re going. You can buy off-the-shelf medical kits, and some of these can be quite helpful. However, we discussed our individual needs with our doctor and fashioned our own medical chest, which included things that you might not find in a ready-made box, such as a stethoscope, stitching material, a topical painkiller, dental supplies, a blood pressure kit, at least two thermometers, Benadryl that can be administered orally and topically, a bee sting kit and many other items.
Check your health insurance long before you depart. There might be complications you didn’t expect. Read the fine print in the policies, including your coverage in foreign places. Discuss special cruising-related health insurance issues (such as included providers) with an experienced agent. In some offshore areas, you might want an airlift back to the continent for a serious problem, but there’s insurance for that. Attend a good emergency medical class (where they go beyond telling you to dial 911).
Set up a base of support
You call your doctor’s office with a serious set of symptoms. The lady on the phone won’t put you through to the doctor and will only tell you to come in to be seen. This normally makes sense, but not if you’re calling from a couple hundred miles off Georgia. Before we left the first time, we went to our regular family doctor, explained what we were doing and explained that we might be calling for help from areas where there was no way to get to a doctor or other medical personnel. We purchased a Physician’s Desk Reference and other medical diagnosis/treatment books. Today you can get medical references such as this digitally.
Having prepared that groundwork, when we did have problems we could get through to a doctor, have a helpful conversation and utilize whatever medical supplies we had aboard. There is much medical information available online that can be helpful, but it can also be misleading or incorrect and should not be considered a substitute for your personal doctor.
Also, prepare for home support with such professionals as your accountant, tax consultant, stockbroker and bankers. We’ve found bankers to be the most difficult to do business with while aboard, but this is getting better as scans and e-mails are becoming a more accepted part of the business. However, they, as well as many other professionals, are governed by a strict set of procedural rules and it’s important to establish a relationship (preferably in a small local bank) with a person who is familiar with you, what you’re doing and problems that could arise.
Arrange for a professional or friend to forward your mail or, if appropriate, review your mail, pay bills and forward only the necessary items. This will be quite helpful when traveling out of the country because mail can be very slow and unreliable in some areas. You may want to ask your local post office about forwarding services. These seem to be changing in recent years. Many of us already pay bills online, but doing so from public Wi-Fi networks, such as those at marinas, is not recommended for obvious reasons. Setting up automatic withdrawals from your checking account may be a better way to handle regular monthly bills.
Arrange for someone to keep an eye on your house. Be sure it’s winterized and/or prepped for whatever weather you expect. If you have a security system, find a trustworthy friend who’s willing to be the contact person if an alarm goes off. Getting a call that there’s a burglar in your house while you’re halfway down the coast doesn’t make for a satisfactory evening. If you plan to be away for more than a few months, arrange for a friend to occasionally drive your vehicles.
It’s going to be a new way of life. Many people have a difficult time adjusting. Heading away from familiar waters, friends and family, and being on a boat all the time can cause stresses that you might not expect and that often cause one or all of those aboard to fly home. We see this far more than you would expect. One of the worst problems to overcome is the sensation of being out of control. Things will break that you never had to deal with before. Weather will take on an entirely new dimension as you quickly realize that it can change everything you’ve planned and quickly threaten your very life.
There is help for this. Learn as much as you can about your boat and its systems before you go. This means doing things such as attending good seminars given by truly experienced people. It means attending schools in diesel repair (both spouses), learning how to rebuild equipment and all of the other things we’ve talked about. Remember that if one of you is injured or ill, the other will have to have a working familiarity with the responsibilities of the disabled partner.
It helps to move aboard your boat and live in a marina for a while before you take off. Unfamiliar issues of living aboard begin to become less so. Storage becomes less of a mystery. Privacy issues and problems such as boat claustrophobia can be worked out. Also, take long vacation cruises on the boat every chance you get to become more accustomed to the routines. When you take these cruises, pretend you’re away from your home area. Act like you’re cruising. Don’t stop in a marina every night. Go to different places. Stay aboard for long periods of time.
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. Cruise close in for a while. Forever if you want. Forget your bragging at the yacht club about women in hula skirts. It’s easier to deal with unexpected problems in our incredible country, and you might be pleasantly surprised by something you hadn’t expected. Our coasts have some of the best cruising areas in the world.
The time will come when you finally break free. If you’ve prepared well, I think you’ll love it. We do. But remember: If you have to change your plans, or if things are happening differently than you expected, or even if you must come back and start again because an oil line fails (as happened to us once), you’ve got the freedom to do it. Enjoy.
Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” and his two-disc DVD, “Cruising the East Coast With Tom Neale,” at www.tomneale.com.
This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue.