living the dream
Seven years ago we bought our dream boat, a 53-foot Amel Super Maramu ketch, with a goal to circumnavigate South America.
We had owned and aggressively sailed our 38-foot Soverel sloop for more than 30 years on several extended offshore cruises, including a “trade wind” circumnavigation. But the time had come for a more robust boat capable of high-latitude cruising and cold-weather sailing.
Starting and ending from the Hampton (Va.) Yacht Club, our voyage began in December 2006. We will cover close to 20,000 miles over two-plus years — from 37 degrees north to 57 degrees south latitude and between 30 and 90 degrees west longitude. Temperatures will range from 20 to 100 F, and typical winds will range from endless doldrums to three-day storms. Our route takes us from Chesapeake Bay to Panama, Costa Rica, the Galapagos, Ecuador, Peru and Chile. On our return north this year, we will visit Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil before returning to the Caribbean.
Many people wonder what it takes to undertake such an ambitious voyage — the planning, preparation, taking care of details back home, etc. Here’s how we approached it.
First, what about our jobs?
We’ve both been blessed with job situations and bosses who are supportive of our passion for long-distance cruising. The strong support of our employers and colleagues has surprised many naysayers in our circle of friends, and taking sabbaticals does not seem to have hurt our careers. Most co-workers are downright excited that a colleague not only can but will “take the leap” to go cruising. And while it may feel good to tell the boss to “take that job and chuck it,” in the long run it’s smarter to have a job to return to, if and when you want it. For this trip, Ruth was able to take an unpaid leave from her job with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and John is recently retired.
To sell or rent?
Every couple must decide what’s best considering their finances, length of cruise and emotional attachment to their home. We have done it both ways. In 1990, when we headed to the Pacific, we sold our house. It felt better to have cash in the bank, and we sold at a peak in property values. For the six-month cruises we’ve taken, we’ve rented our homes. This time, we again rented our house. By renting, we also are saving on storage costs. We carefully prepared a basement storage room with a dehumidifier and huge cedar closet to serve as our own personal storage unit.
How will we stay in touch?
With the widespread use of e-mail, Internet access, online banking and investing, automatic deposit and automatic pay, it has become amazingly easy to remotely manage personal affairs, especially with convenient Web access. Internet cafes are now omnipresent south of the border, primarily for the local population, but cruisers reap the benefit. Many marinas, even in underdeveloped areas, are installing wireless networks for their dockside yachts and those at anchor. It has been a delightful surprise and luxury to be able to surf the Internet from our own boat at anchor in a tropical paradise.
Cell phones have become very common and reliable in the Caribbean cruising grounds, as well as South America. Satellite phones are now enabling marine weather data and e-mail transfer in addition to more traditional SSB and amateur radio frequency transmission modes. More recently, “voice-over-Internet” systems are adding another option for communications. There are options for every budget that provide a tremendous amount of communication power.
Since we sail in very remote areas for many months at a time, we installed an Iridium satellite phone system. Iridium is currently the only reliable satellite phone for the extreme southern latitudes and provides us with voice, e-mail and weather data download capabilities.
Our land-based “pit crew”
Few cruisers can really “chuck it all,” go cruising and never need any help from anyone ashore. Even the best-prepared yacht and crew needs the occasional obscure part or technical advice from someone, somewhere, landside. Our boat is French, so many systems (and manuals) are in French, an additional complexity. Since we also have rental property, we need a modest level of business management support ashore.
We are lucky to have some great folks to support us. A close friend, who is also a CPA, is overseeing our finances and real estate management. We are lucky to have a terrific couple who serve as our highly reliable and competent property maintenance crew. Lastly, we are blessed with a very dear friend and avid sailor who has sailed many thousands of miles with us. He is our “go-to” person when we need special parts or advice about a system problem.
How did we prepare the boat?
Even if you know your boat very well and it is relatively well-equipped, we think it takes at least one very intense and focused year to get ready. It may take two years or longer if you have to install major systems or have to disengage from a job or a business.
We bought our Amel in 2002 and took a summer trip to Bermuda (2003) and then spent a winter in the Antilles and Venezuela (2003-04) to learn her characteristics and systems in a cruising environment.
We started our equipment preparations in earnest one year before leaving the United States. We had several new systems to investigate, buy, install and get acquainted with, including solar panels, a diesel cabin heater, a satellite phone, and software to access weather data. We generally install new systems ourselves, in part to economize on the installation costs, but mainly to maximize our understanding of them. When they malfunction on the high seas, we must make the first attempt at a repair.
In the year before casting off, there is little time to really use the boat and any newly installed equipment. By the time the boat is finally ready, provisions are loaded on board, work obligations are disposed of, and lines are cast ashore for the last time, the skipper and crew are totally worn out. For this reason, we planned only a relatively short trip for our first offshore leg (650 nautical miles from Savannah, Ga., to Georgetown, Great Exuma Island in the Bahamas).
We had our best crewman on board as insurance to make sure we at least got to the first port with no major mishaps. We planned a quiet month in the Bahamas to recuperate from the hectic final months of preparations and to make sure all systems were in order.
What kind of precruise homework did we do?
We started collecting reference materials several years before we made the commitment to circumnavigate South America. In addition to cruising guides, the monthly bulletins of the Seven Seas Cruising Association are an excellent resource for practical advice on destinations all over the globe, written mostly by full-time cruisers.
Other cruisers are a highly underappreciated source of advice and intelligence. When we first starting dreaming of this trip, we deliberately sought out others who had already cruised South America. For several years, we have been coached (via e-mail!) by a British couple with several years experience cruising southernmost South America. They always seem to be several thousand miles ahead of us. We sure hope to meet them someday.
How did we plan our routes?
It’s best not to be overly aggressive in scheduling a cruising itinerary, although we don’t always follow this good advice. Life slows considerably when cruising. Seldom is any aspect of everyday cruising life efficient or easy, and a tight schedule is the skipper’s nemesis, often leading to unwise behavior from an otherwise prudent skipper.
We plan one day each for the following typical cruising activities: clearing in or out of Customs and Immigration (it can take five days if over a weekend or festival period), cleaning the yacht after a major voyage, laundry, major provisioning, getting fuel, and getting fresh water. This suggests that four days on arrival in a major port and four days prior to departure is a good estimate. This seems ridiculous, but it is a very reliable estimate. Cruisers also need schedule flexibility to wait for mail, make repairs and allow for the occasional illness.
When we circumnavigated in the early 1990s, we sailed on the open ocean an average of 1,000 nautical miles per month, with many legs of 2,000 nautical miles and one that was 3,000 nautical miles. This was an aggressive and tiring schedule, and Mar Luv was a shoal-draft, centerboard boat that was better-suited for Chesapeake Bay day races than offshore voyaging.
Our current itinerary will also average 1,000 nautical miles per month but in shorter legs, none more than about 1,000 nautical miles. And our Amel is a much larger, faster and dryer boat equipped with many amenities, such as electric roller furling and electric sheet winches, which Mar Luv did not have.
What about food provisioning?
Cruising has changed a lot since we first started in the early 1970s, especially in the Caribbean basin. Most foods and household items, even gourmet items, are readily available just about everywhere, albeit sometimes at high prices. There is little need now for the “South Pacific syndrome” of loading your yacht to be totally self-sufficient for months on end. In South American countries, we expect to find a full range of excellent grocery and household products at reasonable prices. We only stocked our boat with highly unique items (Southern-style grits) or our very favorite brand-name products.
What about the yacht’s supplies?
No yacht can have too many spare parts, but few yachts are big enough to carry them all. One cruising hassle that seems to have gotten worse is the cost, complexity and time required to receive parts from the States or Europe. Now more than ever, it’s best to have your boat as fully stocked as possible with spares. Avoid the need to have anything shipped in. We rely on the occasional visiting friend or relative to bring us parts and mail, and we rely on e-mail for documents and information transfers.
As the Patagonian canals wander down through 1,500 miles of uninhabited territory, having an extensive medical kit on board is especially important. There are several excellent first-aid and emergency medicine books that provide treatment advice as well as comprehensive supply checklists for cruising yachts. The CDC provides excellent travel medicine information and advice for many parts of the world (www.cdc.gov). Yachties need to be aware of what vaccines may be required for entry into the countries on their itineraries. Our family doctor provided prescriptions for the more serious medications, such as painkillers and antibiotics.
How did we prepare for temperature extremes?
A particular challenge for this voyage is having a full range of clothing, outerwear and bed linens on board for climates ranging from 95 F, dry and calm (Galapagos Islands in June) to 20 F, 50-knot winds and raining (Patagonia in December). Winter clothes can be very bulky, so we vacuum-packed them in very large special zip-lock storage bags, reducing the volume by a factor of four. (We have also packed several sails this way, especially our two lightweight, airy cruising spinnakers, both to reduce their volume and keep them dry while not in use.)
How do we get weather forecasts?
In the Caribbean basin, several excellent local weather forecasts have emerged that are broadcast on SSB and amateur radio frequencies. Some services require a registration fee, while others are less formal and are provided on more of a volunteer basis by yachties or ex-pats living ashore. These services have become highly professional and very useful, especially if you cannot get weather information any other way.
Using our satellite phone, we can order an extensive range of weather data products, which we can view using display software on the yacht’s computer. It is especially useful for downloading weather forecasts for regions that we have not yet sailed into. This allows us to get familiar with and understand the weather patterns in detail before we have even arrived.
Our voyage so far …
We are now about 75 percent through this trip. We left the U.S. East Coast in December 2006. During 2007, we transited the Panama Canal, cruised the western coast of Panama and Costa Rica, visited remote Cocos Island, and spent a month in the Galapagos Islands before heading toward mainland South America. We spent a month in Ecuador doing routine maintenance and preparing the boat for the long, rough trip south to Patagonia and Cape Horn.
After visiting Lima, Peru, we made the tough 1,500-mile slog to weather down this inhospitable coast to the first good harbor along the north coast of Chile. Coast-hopping down Chile, we entered the canals of Patagonia near Puerto Montt in November 2007. After three memorable months cruising the canals, including the Strait of Magellan and the Beagle Channel, and paying a respectful visit to Cape Horn, we sailed directly to Buenos Aires, Argentina, arriving in April 2008. By then, both crew and yacht needed a rest, so we stored Moon Dog on the hard in Uruguay while we returned home to the States. This April, Moon Dog resumes her cruise up the coast of Brazil and to the warm waters of the Caribbean, where we plan to be by the end of the year.
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This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue.