Sea Savvy - Get the most out of your summer cruise

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Whether you’ll be out for a weekend or a week, a happy crew is the first essential ingredient

Whether you’ll be out for a weekend or a week, a happy crew is the first essential ingredient

They came over on the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery, cramped into spaces below deck like a smelly, heaving dungeon. Food consisted of dry, salted meat and rock-hard bread, all enhanced with living, moving tidbits of protein.

Read the other story in this package: Cruising in fog: a learning experience

They periodically had to parade around on deck for “constitutionals” to facilitate bodily functions, for which there were only the most primitive of facilities. They were never sure where they were or where they were going to land — not to mention if they were going to land. That was 400 years ago, and few on board those ships were having much fun during the voyage. A lot of us are still cruising without much fun today, but we don’t have to.

True, nobody’s going to give us land in Virginia when and if we reach shore. But our boats are far more comfortable, and we have better food, better facilities and far better tools for safety and fun. And most of us cruise for just a weekend or a vacation. But somehow we still often end up with crewmembers ready to jump ship, even if they have to jump five miles to land on the beach. What’s wrong here?

My wife, Mel, and I have been cruising and living aboard full time since 1979. We both started cruising part time when we were kids. Cruises lasting years aren’t necessarily for everyone, but a weekend, vacation or sabbatical cruise may be just perfect for you. From our time aboard we’ve learned a few things that help to make it work.

Lighten up

People often get into a prelaunch panic because of all the things they think they “have to do.” Sure, there are plenty of things you have to do. What you don’t have to do is have a frantic attitude about it all.

Remember as you get ready that it’ll be OK to stay put in the marina if the weather isn’t good. And if you take off and suddenly remember that you forgot to bring your pills, it’s perfectly OK to delay your departure and go back and get them. You may not make it to the destination you had planned for the night, but so what? There are other good destinations, and you may discover that the one where you go is even better than what you’d planned. If you take off and find that in your grocery run rush you bought a can of Alpo instead of corned beef hash, rest assured that you’ll probably be able to buy that can of hash where you’re going.

While you’re getting uptight about going, think of the essence of what cruising is. It’s about going someplace on a boat. And the cool thing about cruising is that you don’t have to go to the place you planned to go. You don’t have to go when you planned to go. You don’t have to know every detail about what’s going to happen every day. This is a cruise, not a royal wedding. It’s fine to make plans, lists and itineraries, but remember that it’s OK to be flexible. When you remember this, it lessens the stress.

Think about everyone aboard

A key ingredient to a successful cruise is that it has to be good for everybody aboard. You’re all trapped together on a boat. True, you can dash to a marina and all get off and go your separate ways, but you can do that at home for a lot less money. The planning, the food, the destinations, hopefully everything should be done with everyone aboard in mind. If someone is more prone to seasickness, keep it in mind when you decide where and when you’re going. If someone likes to play tennis or golf, keep that in mind when considering marina choices. It’s fun to discuss in advance where you each want to go and want to do. It also removes some of the anticipatory stress.

Plan realistically

Why plan if you’re not going to worry about whether your plans fall through? Because usually they won’t, and planning cannot only make your trip safer, it can make it more fun. The plans you make depend on many things, such as the type of boat you have, the type of cruise you’re taking, and whether it’s with a couple or an entire family. If it’s an entire family, more planning is in order, because there are more interests to accommodate.

One of the first things to remember when you begin to plan is that you shouldn’t overreach. You’re not trying to visit a year’s worth of destinations in a week. Save some fun for later. Also, don’t try to go so far each day that you exhaust people on board or have to get under way at dawn. Don’t plan to go into new difficult areas every day. Give yourself some leisure days. Remember, you may like a destination so much that you want to stay several days. That’s OK. That’s cruising. It’s for you.

Your plans should include contingencies. If there’s one certainty about boating, it’s that it’s very unpredictable. Think of what you want to do and try to make that happen, but think of things that can go wrong. Bad weather and breakdowns are perhaps the two biggest cruise nemeses. Make contingency plans for them. Assume that there will be unexpected layovers, and don’t be upset if they come. Maybe the layover will be in a much nicer place than where you intended it to be.

When your primary plans start falling apart, be prepared — with your boat, your equipment, your supplies and in your mind — to do something else. We’ve known people who have planned to streak straight to marinas and eat out in restaurants every meal. When the weather turned foul and left them in an indescribably idyllic spot — one they’d dreamed of finding for years — they couldn’t enjoy it because they hadn’t planned to cook aboard and had nothing to eat.

We’ve known people — particularly during this past, windy winter — who had planned to go to the Bahamas. But with week after week of strong easterlies facing them, they opted instead to head down the Florida Keys or over to the state’s southwest coast. Both of these areas are great for cruising and, in some respects, are better than the Bahamas, such as the availability of U.S. infrastructure if needed. However, one winter we had planned to spend Christmas in Key West. When we went out Angelfish Creek to head down Hawk Channel, we found the weather to be so ideal for crossing the Gulf Stream that we headed out the reef and across. We had a wonderful Christmas in the BerryIslands. We wouldn’t have been able to do this if we hadn’t had the provisions and equipment on board to give us the option.

Know where to go

You won’t be as likely to have a good cruise if you don’t learn about your entire cruising area. You need to know much more than where that little line is pointing on the chart plotter. If you take off to head down Long Island Sound and only know about the great destination of Port Jefferson, N.Y., you might miss out on some great alternatives should the wind pipe up from the wrong direction. Sure, you can pull out the guidebooks and charts at the time, but you may be hanging on for dear life, and poking your head into a book may be the last thing you feel like doing.

If you aren’t familiar with the area in which you intend to cruise, study guidebooks and charts some evening before you go. Read about what’s in the general area. This can be fun and exciting and begin the pleasure of the cruise well before you start out. Talk about things you can do at the different destinations. If you have kids, get them involved at this stage.

If you’re planning a cruise with one or more boats, you may encounter an unexpected dampener on one of the best things about cruising: the freedom to change your mind. If the other skipper doesn’t have the right mindset or doesn’t know what’s available, you may have to choose between breaking off and offending him, and having a better time yourself. It’s best to talk about this before you go. Most boaters will be like you and eager for that same freedom. But if you wait until you’re all out there and the going is rough, you may be throwing too much his way to start talking about another place with which he’s unfamiliar.

The importance of weather

Study the weather and factor it into your advance plans as well as your daily progress during the cruise. Forget the typical “here’s a live shot of what’s happening outside” television forecasts. Check the forecasts and weather maps online (or on better TV stations) that tell about and show weather systems and the possibilities for what they may do in the next few days.

For example, systems that impact the East Coast frequently move from west to east, especially in the winter and spring. Sometimes they head almost directly east; sometimes they follow a more northeasterly or southeasterly course. Even if you’re heading to Block Island, R.I., for a long weekend, if the weather maps show a strong cold front moving onto the West Coast it’s safe to assume that your weather — although it’s fine at the moment — may turn much for the worse in a few days. If there’s a low on either end, things could get really bad.

In the summer and fall, systems often will be more likely to move toward you from the south, southeast or southwest, such as lows out over the Caribbean or southwest North Atlantic and lows in the Gulf of Mexico (often attached to cold fronts). Lows moving in a general northward direction over the ocean are particularly fickle in their courses. We’ve all seen this during the hurricane season. But it doesn’t take a low of the immensity of a hurricane to cause serious problems. Any of these and many more types of systems can turn that little stretch of water between Block Island and Narragansett Bay or the Race into a dangerous trip.

It’s seldom that you’ll see our continent devoid of moving systems. So while you shouldn’t necessarily scrap your plans because Washington and Oregon are getting hammered, you should make a note to get daily updates as to the systems that may be coming your way. And before you leave, make alternate plans so that you’ll not only be safe if the weather goes down the tubes but so that you’ll also still be having fun. For example, if you’re cruising Chesapeake Bay, the future weather may indicate that you’ll have a much better time and less worry if you take your trip up one of the many long, beautiful rivers rather than a long distance north or south over open waters.

Even if there are no systems or a huge stable high-pressure system is supposed to be anchored over your cruising area for days, never assume that the weather gods are going to keep it that way. Always factor in some weather lay days. The bright side of factoring in down time is that it’s seldom wasted effort. Even if the weather cooperates, you can probably at least count on a mechanical breakdown to make you feel better about planning the layovers.

Getting a grip on breakdowns

Breakdowns? Did somebody say breakdowns? You know it, I know it, everybody with boats knows about breakdowns. The question is: What do we do about them? Few things ruin a cruise as much. With weather, we can usually get some sort of prediction, but this is seldom the case with breakdowns. Planning for them is something we should do all year long, so hopefully it won’t be too big an ordeal if something fails while you’re cruising. But aside from allowing for down time in your itinerary, there are some special steps to take that may help.

Think of the things that are going to be getting unusual use during the cruise, give them a precruise check, and bring spares. The pump that brings fresh water from your tank to the sink or shower is a good example. Normally it sits idle with but a few moments of use per week. When one or more people take off on the boat for days or weeks, it’s getting much more use. It should be and probably is designed to take this. But if it’s been sitting idle most of the time or is old, you may have problems. Sitting idle, for example, can result in valves stiffening, which could make the pump fail altogether or work poorly. Taking along a rebuild kit is always a good idea.

The V-belt that applies power to your alternator and the engine’s freshwater recirculating pump probably will get unusual stress, not only because you’re going to be running the engine longer but because you’re going to be giving the alternator an unusual working out. When people live aboard for a cruise they normally consume much more electricity. If it’s coming from a 12-volt battery that’s charged by that alternator, that component will be working extra hard. This means that it’ll produce more heat and there will be more resistance to the rotation. The resistance will cause extra drag on the V-belt. If it isn’t properly tightened or it’s already worn or aged, it may break. This results in rapid engine overheating because the recirculating pump is no longer working. The alarm goes off, and you have to shut down immediately. All of this creates a less-than-desirable day.

To help avoid this problem, bring along a spare belt and check the one you have for proper tightness and wear. If you get all your electricity from a generator, even while under way, this won’t be as much of a concern. But then you’ve got that generator to think about. Normally it just sits in its corner, hiding under its sound shield. On the cruise it may be running much of the daylight time. (Hopefully you won’t run it at night while you’re sleeping unless it and the boat are specifically designed, built and maintained to suit that usage.) Components like impeller blades, V-belts, switch solenoids and linkages are going to get an extra workout.

Carefully examine and service your boat within a week or two before you go. If you can’t do it yourself, get a trustworthy marine mechanic to do it. But it’s good to do it yourself if you can, because that trustworthy mechanic probably won’t be around during your cruise when something breaks despite your mechanic’s care and expertise. There is, however, a compromise. Plan to be there, watch while he’s doing his work, and ask questions. Just be sure to let him know in advance that you will.

Many mechanics, understandably, don’t like people looking over their shoulders while they’re trying to get a job done. But if you explain in advance why you want to be there (that you need to learn how to do it yourself for the times when you’re out on the water and he’s unavailable) and if you accept that the bill may be a little higher because he’s taking more time, most mechanics will be willing to do this. If yours isn’t, look for another. Take some good repair and maintenance classes, such as diesel school. But your specific boat is going to have its specific issues and complications and you need to know about these too.

Be familiar with more than the mechanical side of your boat. Many people take off on a cruise right after they’ve purchased a new or used boat. Bad idea. Familiarity with things like the boat’s handling characteristics, behavior in rough water, fuel consumption at varying rpm, and which portholes leak when it rains will come in handy on a cruise. If you’re traveling with another boat you should know something about it, too. If it cruises at 10 knots less than you or if you can take much larger seas, you may not be able to do what you want to do.

Budget vacations

Talking about budget vacations on a boat may sound like talking about fish flying to the moon. Unless you have a sailboat (and use the sails) or a very small powerboat, you’re going to spend a small fortune on fuel. And then come the marinas. The price of dockage is going up faster than I like these days, in part because it’s so expensive to run a marina. More boats and more waterfront condos are creating less dock space. Also, there’s a mentality in some areas that boaters will spend whatever is asked, in part because they don’t know any better. After fuel and marinas you’ve got to factor in parts, restaurants and a lot more very expensive items. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time having fun at the same time I’m going bankrupt.

But if you so choose, you can have a relatively economical vacation on a boat. If you have the right equipment and expertise, you can anchor out some nights and save those slip fees. You can save fuel running slower and going to closer destinations. You also can limit your visits to restaurants. When people learn that we’ve lived and cruised aboard for so long they usually respond with a moment of awkward silence. It’s like they’re not sure whether they should back off and tiptoe away, peeking over their shoulders as they do so. And then come the questions. One of the most common that ladies ask Mel is, “And do you cook aboard?” It’s as if this is more than they can comprehend. But most boats that are large enough to take out for even a short cruise have some cooking arrangement. If you buy the right kinds of foods, you can have a lot of fun cooking and eating aboard.

Women often see this as a burden, because they do it all the time at home and this is a vacation for them, too. But guys can cook (except me), and a lot of them thoroughly enjoy grilling over the stern (don’t drop the chicken overboard like I do) or preparing meals in the galley. And it’s so nice to be sitting around the cockpit eating that very good but very inexpensive meal, viewing the distant shoreline from your anchorage and seeing that restaurant full of people in there. The people are paying a fortune for their food, they have to rely on hassled staff to get even another glass of water, and they’re also paying a fortune for the “waterfront dining ambiance” of looking out at that boat in the anchorage — your boat.

Knowing what’s happening

One huge cruising problem comes from unfamiliarity with what’s going on. It doesn’t work for just the “skipper” to know what’s happening. It’s a natural instinct to be afraid of — or at least wary of — something that we know nothing about. If the wife doesn’t know how to run the boat and hubby usually thinks he’s a cowboy when he gets behind the wheel, there’s going to be stress. If something breaks and hubby is going to be visible only from the knees to the toes for several hours in the bilge or engine room, moaning and groaning and cursing and repeatedly, the other people on the boat are going to be pretty uptight unless they know that all he’s doing is clearing a macerator blade in the head plumbing.

There are two ways to solve problems like this. They seem contradictory on the surface, but they’re not. The first is to explain and discuss the problem when it occurs (if you have time and have something to say other than four-letter words) and involve others in the repair process to the extent that it’s practical and safe. Not only can this result in much needed help, it alleviates some of the stress and fear from not understanding what’s going on and it begins the development of the teamwork that is so important on any boat.

The second is for everyone to have his or her specific duties or jobs with which he or she is familiar and which add to the feeling of involvement and contribution. This includes the kids. Others should be able to step in and take over those jobs if needed; this adds to the comfort level of all and is sometimes necessary.

Captain’s macho

One of the biggest detriments to successful cruising is that the skipper (OK, it’s usually the guy) wants to be macho (or stupid, depending on your perspective) and goes when others aboard think he shouldn’t or does other things that frighten family members. True, some people may be unrealistically timid, but the way to overcome this and also have a good time is to work through it patiently, accommodate the concerns of others, and not give crash courses on survival. The lesson learned from such crash courses usually is that the best way to survive is by staying home.

Younger cruisers

One of the best things about cruising is that it’s a family activity. But one of the worst things is that cruising can be a horror show if it isn’t. The kids don’t want to go, mope the entire time, disappear as soon as you dock, and seem happy only when you’re getting in the car to go back to the house. You would too if you were going to be stuck on a boat without your friends, if you weren’t going to be able to do anything that you enjoyed, and if all you had to do for the entire trip was sit there wondering when you were going to throw up.

If you want a cruising family, it’s best to get your kids involved from the beginning. Kids are much happier if they’re part of the action. This means including them in as much of it as you can, such as the planning. Have them help with jobs, including appropriate mechanical repairs. Even if they can only fetch tools at first, they can learn if you explain things during the job. Then they may be better at it than you. Let them run the boat when it’s safe and practical. Of course, this will depend on age, skill, training, legal requirements and the boat, but being out on the water away from other traffic can present many good opportunities. You’ll be surprised at how quickly kids pick up skills and insight.

Most young kids (including me) love to hold the binoculars (with strap around neck) and look ahead. You may find that their eyes will pick out things that you never dreamed of seeing — even without those binocs (not including me). Before you make landfall, show them the chart or chart plotter and explain the graphics and symbols, the issues they present, and how you’re going to deal with them. Pointing out that a graphic means a wreck or reef or dangerous shoal can add a great new dimension.

The trip planning should include things that are interesting to kids. If you’re going to anchor, consider bringing along a sailboard, snorkeling gear, a kayak with a see-through bottom or whatever else may be fun and interesting. Books to look up birds and fish that you see — especially sharks — are usually a hit. Plan a family hike if the terrain shoreside is appropriate.

Also, consider letting your kids invite a friend if the cruise isn’t going to be too long. Regardless of whether it’s a kid’s friend or your friend, however, be sure that you’re familiar with the person and have reasonable assurance that this will work out. Cramped quarters on a boat can make life very difficult for someone unaccustomed to the lifestyle, and this can make life very difficult for everyone else. Fully brief a young friend’s parents and be sure they not only consent but have no reservations. Give them your rough itinerary and touch base occasionally if appropriate.

See you out here

Hopefully we’ll see you out here. You might be going faster than us or going to marinas instead of anchorages, but in a real sense, we’re all in the same boat and we should all be enjoying the ride. In my book, “All in the Same Boat,” are in-depth discussions of these and other topics. You can get a personalized copy on www.tomneale.com .

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer.