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The cruising life isn’t always a joy ride

What’s it like to go cruising? What’s it like to explore coastlines and rivers and bays and visit one special harbor after another? What’s it like to live to the pulse of nature rather than the blink of traffic lights? What’s it like to follow the geese south? What’s it like to not have to come back to the dock Sunday night? What’s it like to not have a dock to come back to?

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About 55 years ago, when I was 9, I got my first boat. I began a life of longer and longer trips, but always returned in a few days or, at most, a couple weeks. In 1979, my wife, Mel, and I moved aboard a 47-foot sailboat. It was docked at our backyard pier. A few years later, we had a garage sale and sold most of our junk. Then we sold the garage — and the house next to it. We sailed south with our two precious baby girls, not knowing what was to come, but with constellations of stars in our eyes and myriad questions in our minds, not the least of which was the concern of losing the income and security from the successful professional lives we were leaving behind.

We’re still doing it now. We travel by water at least several thousand miles a year. We’ve seen immense change to the lifestyle — some for the better, some for the worse — but we still love it. “What’s it really like?” many ask. Most who haven’t done it have a haunting, nagging feeling in the back of their brains that they would love it and that maybe they should try it before it’s too late in their lives. Well, not so fast.

We’ve all read the articles about golden sunsets, moonlight at sea, “crystal clear waters,” beautiful anchorages and freedom on the winds. Having done it more than most, I can affirm those stories do convey the beauty of cruising and it’s a wonderful thing to do. But there’s more, and the glory stories often don’t tell you all you need to know.

Cruising can be many things
Cruising is not “like” any one scenario. You can make it what you want it to be, within reasonable parameters. First of all, it doesn’t have to be a “going around the world” sort of thing or a “rest of your life” sort of thing. Many do it during a summer vacation, for a sabbatical, or for a few years after retirement while looking for a new home near the water. Some people (wealthy people) cruise from marina to marina, going to restaurants most nights, anchoring only occasionally. Some essentially drive their boats like RVs, relying on everything to work. And when it doesn’t, they call a tow boat, leave their boat at a yard, and fly home until it’s fixed.

Some anchor out most of the time, very seldom going into a marina. We’re in this category. We’ve spent months at a time without ever going to a dock, moving up and down the coast and through the Bahamas. We cruise this way because we love being out at anchor and, even though there are many marinas we love, we can seldom afford them. Some people do almost all of the mechanical work the boat requires and are, therefore, very independent. We’re also in that category. We like to be independent, and we can’t afford to not be. And even if we could, we know there are many remote areas where, regardless of how much money you’ve got, there’s nobody around to pay to fix whatever is wrong.

None of these styles of cruising is “better” than the other. Within the parameters of safety and practicality, what’s best is what best suits you. But there are factors that define cruising, regardless of your preferences. For example, cruising is defined for all by the fact that you’re dealing with raw nature. This is a well-known fact, but many people simply overlook it or push it to the back of their minds. They don’t appreciate it until caught in the sheer terror of a storm, or they find themselves seasick and floundering, helpless before the power of the sea.

Over the years, we have known many people to lose their boats, become injured, lose their dreams — and a few even their lives — because they didn’t understand or appreciate the power of raw nature and, in particular, the power of the sea. You usually have the choice of cruising in waterways and seldom going into the ocean, but even bays, sounds and rivers can be completely overpowering and deadly. Also defining is the fact that, to deal with and enjoy this raw nature, you’re using equipment that, like most mechanical gear on the water, is going to break, probably sooner rather than later.

Cruising is about following your dreams, within certain parameters.

There’s another defining parameter that is often given only lip service: seamanship. Acquiring it involves everything from book learning to on-the-job experience. The latter requires slow progression. You don’t learn to handle a storm by taking your boat out into your first gale. This article isn’t about seamanship, and I won’t belabor the point, but many of the cruising failures we’ve seen have related directly to not understanding basic seamanship principles.

The ability and need to spend money will also define your cruising. For example, you’ve obviously got to be able to afford those marinas, restaurants and mechanics. But if you choose to be out for only six months or a year, you can probably afford to spend more than someone like me, who’s been “out” for many years. And if you choose to learn mechanical skills and don’t mind working with your hands, you can save considerable money avoiding repair bills. This is a fundamental part of what cruising is like. Unlike so many other lifestyles, even though there are outer limits, you have much more latitude to do it your way.

The cost of cruising
How much does it cost to go cruising for a year? It depends. The lifestyle requires spending money. The old dream of living as free as a bird on the winds is naive and unrealistic. But, within certain parameters, you can have a lot of control over what you spend. However, there’s one myth that just doesn’t work anymore.

In the good ol’ days of cruising, people would hang out on the hook almost indefinitely, spending very little money if they were handy with fixing things and living very simply. But this isn’t much of an option now. Many of the anchorages are overcrowded, full of moorings, or choked with marina docks extending from the shores.

The old practice of hanging out on the hook in Florida for the winter is increasingly difficult, as more legal roadblocks stand in the way and some communities actually flaunt the law to chase off anchored boats. Hanging out on the hook in the Bahamas is also increasingly difficult because of crowding, and because many of the former anchorages are now full of marina docks. Also, going to the Bahamas is ever more expensive because of customs fees, fuel costs and the cost of supplies there.

The cost of boat insurance has also increased, not only in the Bahamas but also in Florida. I don’t mean to imply I don’t love the Bahamas and relish every minute I’m there; it’s just that it’s not a “cheap” place anymore. And the idea of going down to the lower Caribbean or South America or the fabled South Pacific is totally impractical for most people for reasons ranging from time and expense, vessels that aren’t up to the job, inadequate seamanship skills, lack of endurance, political issues and other dangers.

If you aren’t on the hook all the time, that means more marina time. But the cost of staying at marinas has skyrocketed. Environmental regulations and scarcity of waterfront makes it very difficult to operate a marina today. Couple this with the fact that there’s a substantial number of weekenders who’ll pay almost anything to tie up for the night and the fact there are more and more boaters, and you can understand why dockage rates are high.

And then there’s the fact that, even if you’re careful and maintain your gear well, you never know when you’re going to have a major breakdown that you can’t fix, no matter how ingenious you are. This happened to us in the winter of 2007 (see Soundings, June 2007). A major breakdown can bust the best budget.

In control, out of control
With all the talk in magazines, at boat shows and in books about golden sunsets, beautiful anchorages, following the winds and being master of your destiny, there’s a looming issue most don’t know about until it’s too late. It’s a major killer of the lifestyle. When you head out and your familiar marina disappears in your wake, even though you have greater control of many aspects of your life than ever before and even though you can define what your “cruising” is going to be, you may begin to feel you are seriously out of control, probably for the first time in your life.

Yes, you have taken control of your life and said, I’m going to follow my dreams, if only for a while. Yes, you’re making decisions about whether you go north or south, hang with the coast or head to the islands, go to marinas, fix your broken parts or hire a mechanic, enjoy an anchorage for another day or move on. Yes, you’re “captain” of your ship. But in all probability, you’re going to soon start realizing that in many respects you’re far more out of control than you were ashore. And to many people, particularly Alpha types and anyone else who may be accustomed to the security of daily routines, this can be psychologically debilitating.

The shoreside life you’ve just left was full of controls and deeply padded with securities. You had to be at work by a certain time. Your job had its established requirements and expectations. You regularly saw friends you’d known for years. You had pleasurable pursuits or hobbies you’d enjoyed for years. You knew if you ran out of milk or meat you could conveniently drive a few blocks and get some. If you got sick, the family doctor with all your records was nearby. When you wanted lights, all you had to do was flick a switch. When you wanted water, all you had to do was turn a faucet.

Very seldom did your house “break” and when it did, repair people abounded. All you had to do was to let your fingers walk through the Yellow Pages to find them. When you went to sleep for the night, you didn’t worry about your house dragging ashore and turning over as the tide went out — or another house from up the street dragging into your house and severely damaging it and perhaps injuring you as you stumbled around trying to save it. When you drove, stoplights and stop signs and street signs told you when to go, where to go and how fast to go, and in heavy rains and strong winds, at worst, all you had to do was pull over to the side of the road. When you take off, the security blanket with which you’ve been so familiar is gone.

Usually the first and most profound realization is you are totally at the mercy of the most fickle, unpredictable and dangerous phenomenon known to civilization: the weather. I mentioned this above, but it can’t be overemphasized. Time after time, you’ll make plans and find you must abandon them because of the weather. You may be unable to leave the anchorage to gain a little more southern latitude, or unable to sleep all night after an exhausting day because the wind unexpectedly shifted and you’re rolling mercilessly and too close to a lee shore, or unable to meet your children or parents because they scheduled their annual vacation and booked a flight to an island you can’t reach, or you may be suddenly and completely blinded by fog when you must see to stay safe.

Despite the best prediction services ever, the weather rules capriciously when you’re cruising. And your past life experiences dealing with the weather ashore do little to prepare you for what it’s like on the water. When the weather service is telling everyone to go inside a strong building immediately and hide in an interior closet, you realize you’re sitting out there exposed like Ben Franklin’s kite in a thunderstorm.

Breakdowns can also spin you out of control. Even a new boat won’t solve this problem. Things are still going to break and, depending upon where you are, you may have serious issues getting warranty help. Things start breaking not merely because they’re on a boat, but also because they’re being used much more frequently and stressfully than they would be if you only used them on the weekend.

That water pump that brings water from your tank to your sink, for example, is being used repeatedly every day, instead of just a few times a week. It’s going to break much earlier in its life, and the malfunction will probably occur when you’re standing under the shower with soap in your eyes. When you think life is grand and something else breaks and you’ve got to deal with it, you get another kick in the teeth with the realization you’re not in control — at least not as you’ve been accustomed to in your shoreside life.

What you’ve taken for granted now becomes an issue. Before you flick the switch to turn the light on, you have to make the electricity. This means keeping a generator running, or an alternator or some other mechanism. Before you turn the faucet to get a glass of water, you have to make the water with a reverse osmosis system (rather sophisticated equipment) and maintain that pump that brings the water from the tank. Even if you don’t have a watermaker, you still must remember to watch your tank’s water level.

Dovetailing with the insecurity of lack of control is the fact that, in the typical scenario of a couple cruising, you’re never really off duty while you’re under way, or even at anchor. If you were an officer on a ship, you’d normally have off-duty times when you could relax and depend on other members of the crew or staff to keep things going. Although some don’t seem to be bothered by this, for many couples it becomes very stressful and fatiguing after a while.

Some people can take this insecurity, roll with it and still enjoy cruising. Others go nuts. And the fact that one spouse can handle the emotional jolts doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. All on board need to cope well not only with the problems, but also with the changing personality of the other person. Every year, we see boats set out with crew full of eager anticipation only to see the boat later stored in a yard or marina along the way, with a “For Sale” sign.

The good news
The good news is cruising is much better than what you may expect from reading the accounts in magazines about hard-core cruising people taking baths from tea cups, never having ice, being out of touch for months, and eking by on a few dollars a day. It doesn’t have to be that way anymore, and that’s good. Unless you’re far tougher than the average dude (or dudess) you’ll find camping out in a hostile wilderness may be fun for a few days, but not for long.

I’m sitting on Chez Nous, listening to a nor’easter in the rigging. I’m in a secure harbor, with the boat gently tugging on the anchor rode. I’m typing this article on my computer, able to scan and print it if I want, and able to send it to Soundings via a Verizon Wireless USB air card. The very good, safe water from my reverse osmosis system is cooled by ice cubes from a Raritan icemaker. My beer will be cold tonight, even colder if I remove it from the fridge and drop it into the freezer for a while. I could have air conditioning if I wanted to run the generator, but I don’t.

I will run the generator a couple hours this evening, as I did this morning, to top up my house bank of two Rolls modular 8D batteries and my other main bank of two Rolls modular 4Ds using a Prosine 2.0 inverter/charger by Xantrex. It can pump about 105 amps DC into the big “bulletproof” batteries, charging them quickly when I need to do so. During that generator time, the refrigeration system does its thing for the day, and we can make at least 60 gallons of water, if we wish. Yes, you can take many of the comforts of home with you now. You must keep the support equipment working, but that can be done.

Poor communications used to plague cruising. Now cell phones rule out here, even in the Bahamas out islands and throughout the Caribbean. They’re expensive, and you don’t get to sit under a palm tree all day waiting for your turn at the public phone, but you can communicate when you need to. This means not more, but less anxiety for us. You don’t worry as much when you can readily talk to family or the bank or technical support.

And if you want to stray from the towers and still talk and get online, you can do it via satellite if you’ve got the money. Many villages and marinas have Wi-Fi. You pay to log on, but much less than the cost of satellite time. Many cruisers hover at anchor around Wi-Fi hot spots, moving when a boat vacates a spot not to seek calmer waters or better holding, but a stronger signal.

Navigation is now much easier. For example, in the good ol’ days we’d have to do some very careful calculations crossing the Gulf Stream on the way to the Bahamas. If we didn’t, it would carry us far north of where we needed to enter the reefs. Then, going across Great Bahama Bank, we’d have to watch the sea grass and fan coral to tell which way the current was running and how strong, again to help us find a little hole in the reef so we could pass through safely at Northwest Channel Light on the east side.

Now we use a Standard Horizon CP300i with C-Map MAX cartography. In earlier days, we’d have to really strain to get a visual on a landmark. Now we use Steiner Commander XP binoculars that gather light when you’d think there is none, focus automatically, shed water from the lenses, and give us bearings. It’s absolutely amazing how modern equipment can make navigating easier. We don’t have to calculate and guess; we know, as long as everything is working well. But we still carry paper charts, plot our position on them, and use the old methods as backup.

But the fact that cruising is easier has meant many more people are doing it poorly prepared and are getting into trouble. For example, those people who take off not versed in and not prepared to use the traditional navigation techniques, such as dead reckoning and plotting courses on paper charts, can get into big trouble fast.

Typical cruising
The concept of “typical cruising” seems like an oxymoron, but we do see a familiar pattern along the East Coast. Typically, people take off on a cruise for most of a year to several years. They migrate up and down the coast, following the seasons. Some do the Great Loop. Some visit the Bahamas. Some spend the winter in Georgia or South Carolina, but most want to make it at least as far south as Florida. It’s a long state with much variation from the north to the Keys.

Most will divide their time into three modes. They spend time hanging out at favorite anchorages. They spend time passagemaking (mostly on the Intracoastal Waterway or other inside routes), anchoring each night except, of course, for the nights out at sea during ocean passages. They also spend periods of time at marinas.

Because of the expense involved, the pattern of the past was to avoid marinas. But for the reasons we’ve mentioned, it’s getting more and more difficult to do this, and marina time can add a lot to cruising. It gives a break from the rigors of always being on duty. It’s easier to make repairs, reprovision and make new cruising friends. Also, marinas often give you a better opportunity to stop and smell the roses, which is part of what cruising should be about, and many offer discounted rates for longer stays.

A typical example of this for us is Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor in St. Augustine, Fla. ( It’s a great marina, has a great yard, and there are boat-related businesses on the premises and nearby. In addition, the marina has two loaner cars, and there are shops and restaurants all around the small city. The St. Augustine area is on the shores of the ICW and right inside a maintained ocean inlet. Tourists come from all over the world to visit and enjoy the city. It’s the oldest continuous settlement on the continent, with many related tourist attractions and festivals, and it’s only a couple hours by car to such places as the Space Coast, Walt Disney World and the other tourism centers.

Of course, stopping at this and other area marinas requires spending money. Therefore, many boats anchor off the historical section of St. Augustine and try to enjoy the city via dinghy. But every time we’re there, we hear and see cruising horror stories as boats drag ashore or into other boats or into the bridge while their owners are “off having fun.” And sometimes the boats that don’t drag anchor are the ones that have hooked into a wreck or piece of other debris on the bottom of this ancient harbor. One bad dragging incident can pay for a lot of nights at a marina.

There’s yet another reason why many stop at marinas in the St. Augustine area. There is a large airport nearby at Jacksonville. This opens the door to another favorite pursuit of many cruisers — taking a vacation from cruising. Many will leave the boat in a marina and escape for a while, returning home to see friends and family or going to the mountains or even to take a trip on a cruise liner. Cruising doesn’t mean you have to be stuck on the boat all the time, and we notice the people who seem to cruise the longest are those who are more likely to take a break occasionally.

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Cruising isn’t all wine and roses. Over the years, we’ve been saddened to see so many people start out with the cruising dream, and crash and burn. Going cruising isn’t an escape from responsibility. It cannot be a denial of reality. It requires learning a new set of tricks. We’ve been at it all these years and still love it. The negative aspects of this article shouldn’t be considered discouraging. They should be considered fair warning of things you may need to deal with to have a good time. But you can deal with them. In an upcoming article in Soundings, I’ll describe some of the ways to handle many of the problems I’ve mentioned, and more

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 December 2008 issue.