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Cruising: You can do it your way

Power or sail, coastal or offshore, for a month or a year — tailor the dream to fit your lifestyle

Many people dream of going cruising, but few do. Part of the reason has been the way it’s been defined.

The type of cruising you plan will help determine the boat that's right for you.

The idea has been that it must be on a small, uncomfortable sailboat; that you have to go around the world (or never admit that you didn’t); that you have to drink warm beer and thrive on beans and rice; and that you and your mate have to be happy with bathing about once a week — from a tea cup.

Some have done it like that. Many others start out thinking they’d like it until experiencing the pleasure of standing downwind from their mate after the fifth or sixth day. You don’t have to do it like that.

Today, people cruise in many types of boats — tough little sailboats, ’round-the-world trawlers, express cruisers, gin palaces and light, peppy, comfortable coastal trawlers and sailboats. It’s easier and much more comfortable, but it still presents its problems.

My wife, Mel, and I moved aboard in 1979. Since then, we’ve seen many people begin cruising but soon stop, their dreams — and often relationships — crushed. We’ve also seen many people who only dreamed, until it was too late in their lives. I’m going to tell you how to deal with some of the problems of going cruising, with the hope that if you have the dream, you’ll make it happen.

Cruising your way

The first step is to forget the idea that you have to go far or cross oceans. The East Coast and off-lying islands are among the world’s premier cruising grounds. You can have fun for a lifetime without going far from home, without crossing oceans, without exerting that amount of effort and taking those risks, and without having to spend the money to buy a boat and equip it for that type of duty. Cruising gives you many options, and one of the best is that you can do what suits you.

Cruising doesn’t have to be forever. Many people take a sabbatical to do it. Many accumulate vacation time. Many figure out other ways to go for awhile, leaving a foot on the shore if they want or need to come back sooner than expected. Some plan to do it after retiring for a few years, looking for their retirement home as they go.

Doing it your way can make moot that old question: How much does it cost to go cruising? The answer is simple: It costs what you spend. The old myth that you can hang out on the hook for almost free isn’t valid. Like anything else, it’s going to cost. Some costs will be surprises, like serious equipment breakdowns. Others are controllable, like the type of boat, fuel bills, marina stops and eating out. You can choose.

Discover your own way

The next step is absolutely critical, and it’s very difficult. Try to decide the type of cruising you want to do before you buy your boat and equip it. Most start dreaming about cruising to faraway places like Tahiti; few actually do it. The majority of people that we know cruise along the East Coast, Bahamas and Caribbean, or perhaps along the Great Loop or in the Pacific Northwest. They find they have so much fun that they have no need to go farther. This type of cruising is usually safer, easier, requires less of a time commitment, and involves less disconnect with the good aspects of “home” that you like.

But how do you know until you do it? Read the advice of others who have a lot of experience — not necessarily people who have done it for a year or two and want to be “experts.” Go to programs at boat shows where these issues are discussed — again, by truly experienced people. (My book, “All in the Same Boat,” published by McGraw Hill, provides helpful information, Ride with friends who are cruising. Sometimes people are happy to have another couple along for a week or so to help out. Try to experience, for example, a week away from land, far out in the ocean, and a week in the Intracoastal Waterway. Charter in different areas. Even though this can be expensive, it can pay off in helping to prevent expensive mistakes later.

A boat that fits your cruising

A major and expensive mistake is to buy the wrong type of boat. If you buy a tough sailboat with a 7-foot draft and 70 foot-mast designed for fulfilling the Tahiti dream, you’re probably going to be unhappy if you hang out along the East Coast and the Bahamas. The boat will draw too much water for easy cruising in much of the ICW and Bahamas, and the mast will be too tall to get under fixed bridges in the ICW.

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Spaces and creature comforts in that boat may be less desirable than in coastal boats because of the design and construction requirements of boats built for crossing oceans. And you may find that the big bucks spent for the construction of a “’round the world” sailboat or trawler could have been spent on more creature comforts in a less-expensive coastal boat.

None of this is to suggest ocean crossing may not be great for you. We’ve known and admired many over the years who thrive on it. But you need to know before you make the leap what’s going to really turn you on.

And just as you don’t need to be limited by the old traditions of cruising, don’t be stuck with traditional concepts of “cruising boats.” We’ve seen many people having great times in express cruisers. They can be comfortable and provide many more destination options because of their speed.

When you’re deciding on the type of boat you want, make an honest appraisal of how much creature comfort you’re going to want. Cruising myths extol the virtues of the simple life. Camping may be fun for a week, but not for months. With today’s boats and technology, you don’t have to give up comforts like refrigeration, air conditioning, hot showers, television, telephone contact with family, comfortable and dry beds, and all the “good stuff” of living. This issue often is where partnerships begin to unravel. Cruising must work for all aboard.

There are some basic requirements that are absolutely essential, regardless of the type of boat you choose. It must be safe and safely equipped. It must ride well. It must be seaworthy. It must be well-built. It must suit your type of cruising — for example, you wouldn’t want to try an ocean crossing in a gin palace. Each of these subjects would require books to discuss thoroughly. A good surveyor can help with these issues when you buy. Also, the boat must have good access to all its components so you can make repairs easily. When you travel to remote areas, you may have to fix things yourself, no matter how much money you have, because there may be no one else around to do it for you.

And, if you already have a boat, you may not need to get another one to go cruising. The one you have may be fine for the job, especially if you make needed modifications. (My February Sea Savvy dealt with fixing up an older boat to go cruising.)

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.

Often the best part of a new day of cruising is taking off from an anchorage, bound for fresh scenery.

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 ( 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 (

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.

Living aboard at a marina is good practice for 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.

The priority: seamanship

Over the years, we’ve increasingly noticed that people have gotten the idea they can read books and attend seminars and be qualified to take off. Seamanship? They’ll pick that up along the way. It’s as though they think going to sea is like taking a walk in the park. This is a serious mistake. Lack of seamanship contributes more than any other single factor to disastrous cruises and failed dreams. I could tell stories about what we’ve seen for pages and pages. Suffice it to say that you must learn seamanship before you go.

Navigating boat traffic is a fact of cruising life.

The only way to learn seamanship is from experience. Good boating courses can be very helpful as a start, but only as a start. You must also learn the International and Inland Navigation Rules before you begin. These set out very distinct procedures and instructions for handling many situations at sea. We’re supposed to have a copy aboard, and we should be intimately familiar with those rules.

For example, if you see another vessel at night and aren’t familiar with its light configuration, you may not be able to determine what type of vessel it is, what it’s doing, and where it’s heading. In other words, you may die. This may sound overly dramatic, but consider the people who have lost their lives because the skipper didn’t realize he was looking at a tug pulling a barge and passed closely astern.

Buy a copy of “Chapman’s Piloting.” There also are various aids to learning that are a help. These include the LIGHTrule for vessel light identification and ROADrule for Rules of the Road, both sold by Weems and Plath (www. But you should know the rules and light configurations by heart before you go, for those times when you have to react instantly.

But seamanship goes far beyond what you can read and memorize. It includes developing skills and instincts, the ability to handle your boat in many different conditions, and a thorough understanding of weather and water movements and special problems, such as inlets. You can’t get this from reading or going to seminars. It requires experience. Take good seamanship courses — on boats on the water — that last far more than a few hours. Spend as much time as possible on your boat in familiar waters, cruising in various situations. Be safe, don’t take foolish risks, but take the time to gain experience.

Many feel they can pick up seamanship from others along the way. Traveling with groups has benefits. The camaraderie is nice, you make new friends, and there may be some help if needed. But traveling in fleets doesn’t lessen by one iota the absolute need for each skipper to independently know what he’s doing and to exercise prudent seamanship. And the fact that a fleet of boats decides to do something stupid together doesn’t make it any less stupid. Further, there are lots of situations in which the presence of a boat nearby doesn’t make any difference. For example, you’re not going to get much help from other boats in your fleet when a storm at sea is hammering you. This is because they probably will be having as much difficulty as you and will be unable to help.

The word “awesome” is perhaps overused these days, but it’s a good word to describe the merciless, unrelenting and often cruel power of the sea — if you also couple that word with “terrifying.” When it comes to seamanship, each cruiser must be able to handle his boat well, as if he were out there like Christopher Columbus.

Come, enjoy

We’ve been cruising as liveaboards since 1979. I started back in the 1950s on an 18-foot skiff with a plywood cabin I’d built on the bow. My wife began early in her life, taking long trips with her family. We’re still out here, and we love it. Hopefully one day we’ll see you here.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at

This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.