Sea Savvy - What does it take to cruise full time?

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Our technical editor shares his answers to some of the questions he’s asked about living aboard

Our technical editor shares his answers to some of the questions he’s asked about living aboard

As a full-time liveaboard cruiser, I’m asked many questions about the lifestyle and what it takes to make it happen. Why would anybody ask me questions, frequently or otherwise? Beats me, but people do. Sometimes I think they’re just being kind, trying to make me feel like I actually know something. But there may be another reason. We’ve lived aboard since 1979, averaged several thousand miles cruising a year, raised a family aboard, and we’re still doing it. I’ve owned boats for more than 53 years, so I’ve probably made more mistakes afloat than the average 100 other guys. I can’t say I’ve learned anything from those mistakes, but I have learned to answer questions without admitting to all of them. Here are a few I often hear.

Do you still live aboard?

When we first moved aboard full time back in 1979, friends would look at us strangely and ask that question — like surely we’d soon come to our senses and return to “normalcy.” Our answer, then and now, is, “Sure, do you still live in a house?”

When are you going to return to the “real world?”

You mean that world where people spend a fortune to chill the insides of buildings in the summer so they can be comfortable wearing three-piece suits with multicolored expensive nooses around their necks? You mean that world where people go to the grocery store every day instead of once a week or once a month because they just assume the groceries are going to keep coming in every day? You mean that world where you sit in a car for a couple of hours a day so that you can go to work so that you can hire people to do things for you that you could do yourself if you weren’t sitting in that car for so long? It’s all in the perception, but I think that living aboard and cruising is a lot more real than the “real world” I keep hearing about.

What do you do all day?

We have a lot of fun, but we also work our buns off. Some people have the idea that living on a boat and cruising is all about laying back and having waiters in white jackets bring piña coladas all day. If your liveaboard cruise is for a short time and you have plenty of money, it may be a little like that (and more power to you). But most of us who’ve done this as a lifestyle work continuously at keeping our engines running, maintaining our equipment, navigating, keeping up with the weather, and performing fundamental survival tasks. This is a concept that many don’t quite understand.

When you live in a house in a town or city, you rely on other people to keep the water coming to your faucets, and provide electricity, heating fuel, and police and firefighting services. To turn on a light at night you flick a switch. On a boat you have to make the electricity first. Living on a boat, you are the electrician, power service, mechanic, plumber, security force, mayor, “sanitation specialist,” and just about everything else. This means you’re always on duty and usually have a pressing job to do just to keep up with fundamental necessities.

In addition to our 24/7 job of staying afloat, we and many others work for a living. Some people take off for a long vacation, sabbatical or retirement cruise and don’t have to do this. They’re enjoying a very special time in their lives. But my wife, Mel, and I spend far more than 40 hours a week making a living. We both write, I fulfill speaking engagements, she sells her photography and art. But our office is on the boat, where we can jump in and do all the other jobs when the need arises. Working while on a boat raises many interesting issues, which I’ll address in detail in a future “Sea Savvy.”

How much does it cost to live aboard and cruise?

It depends on how much you spend. For example, we can go from New England to South Florida and over to the Bahamas without tying up overnight at a single marina or going out to a single restaurant. Others prefer to tie up and go out every night. The difference adds up to a huge sum of money. It also depends on how much you do for yourself. We do most of our maintenance and repair work on everything from lights at the top of the mast to diesels in the bilge, computers to marine sanitation devices. The key to this issue is that you can control what you spend if you work hard enough at it. But even when you do, unpredicted breakdowns and other problems occur. No one should assume it’s a cheap way to live.

Do you have to be good with tools and fixing things?

You should be. It saves you money, adds to your enjoyment and, most importantly, adds to your safety. When something breaks at night during stormy weather at sea, money isn’t going to make a mechanic appear out of the clouds to fix it. The ability to keep your boat running well is an important and often overlooked aspect of seamanship.

Safety aside, there’s the issue of economics. We’ve seen people who’ve gone to the Bahamas with the idea that they can solve any problem by throwing money at it, and that’s OK because they have the money to throw. However, they often get a rude awakening upon discovering that they must pay the cost of flying the mechanic over, pay for the appropriate permits, pay import duties, and then do it all over again when they find out that the part that came on the plane didn’t fit.

Fixing it yourself also adds to your fun. You can solve problems much more quickly and get on with the more pleasurable aspects of cruising. For example, when the head’s not working it’s hard to really enjoy life. Waiting for days for a part to come so that you can use the head is not the stuff dreams are made of. Also, you can take that money you’ve saved by not hiring a mechanic and use if for something you enjoy. And most of us simply get a lot of pleasure in being able to do things ourselves. It’s part of the challenge, part of the fun.

How do you know what spare parts to bring?

The cardinal rule of spares for a cruising boat is that the parts you bring will be for the things that’ll never break. That’s OK. Believe me. So we stuff aboard every part we can find and afford. We’ve got spare starters, solenoids, head pumps, drinking water pumps, engine water pumps, hoses, plumbing, outboard parts, injectors, fuel lines, fuel pumps … I could go on for pages. The bottom line is that the more spares you can bring for your particular boat, the better. If you’re cruising locally, this may be less critical, but it’s still important to bring some basics.

The more parts you bring, the harder it’s going to be to find them in an emergency. When you place that part in a locker, there’s a temptation to think that you’ll remember where it is. After all, you just got chewed out because your wife had planned to store something there. But I’ve found that in the midst of emergencies a year or two later, I don’t have a clue about where I stuck that ?*&@# thing. And for you skeptics, I found this out long before I turned 60. So years ago I began keeping a list in Microsoft Excel. It quickly shows me parts on board, the amount (I’ll have several of some items, such as spark plugs, impellers, and pump gaskets), part numbers, purchase and price information, special issues, and where I’ve stored them. This means that I have to always remember to make an entry when I use a part or change its storage location, but I’ve found that it can really save the day (not to mention the ship) when something breaks and I have to fix it quickly.

Do you have trouble getting groceries and other daily supplies?

It depends on where we’re cruising. Most of our cruising has been along the U.S. East Coast and in the Bahamas. Obviously, it’s easier to provision when you’re in areas of civilization. Often when we’ve gone to remote areas of the Bahamas we’ve had on board enough food and other stores (toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, etc.) to last months. This not only gave us the independence to be where we wanted to be, it saved money because we sometimes bought in bulk.

Even when we’re just making a trip down the Intracoastal Waterway, we bring aboard enough provisions to last the entire trip. Shopping while you’re cruising usually is more of a chore than when you’re ashore in your home town with your car. To get groceries even in highly civilized areas, we have to stop at a marina that’s close to a grocery store ($50 a day and up), rent a car (at least $35) or hire a taxi (often very inconvenient and expensive), and remember everything we needed. Some marinas are very close to shopping areas, and some have loaner cars; you have to research this in advance.

In the past we’ve anchored out and gone ashore in the dinghy to shop, but this is inconvenient, even assuming you can find a safe place to leave your dinghy. You’ve then got to get two taxis (one to take you and one to bring you back after shopping), you’ve got to load all the supplies into the dinghy (without dropping the supplies overboard or sinking the dinghy), you’ve got to ferry them back — sometimes in rough water — and you’ve got to get them aboard. Then you’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do about that important little item that you forgot.

What kind of boat do I need to cruise?

It depends on where and how long you want to cruise, your comfort and self sufficiency levels, and your budget. The bottom line is that you always need a safe boat, but you don’t necessarily need a trans-oceanic passagemaker to cruise Chesapeake Bay. And remember, the longer you spend on a boat the smaller it’ll become.

For most people, comfort and conveniences are very important. Camping out is fine for a weekend, but it gets less desirable with every day that passes. This means your boat should be as large and with as many comfort systems as is consistent with your budget. By comfort systems I mean things like refrigeration, microwave, DVD player and television, air conditioning and plenty of water. It’s true that the simpler boat will be less likely to have things break, but components have grown more reliable over the years and, to us, are worth any extra hassles. I’d much rather recharge a compressor occasionally than drink warm beer.

In the past, many thought you had to have a cramped, bulletproof double-ended sailboat to cruise. Not so. We see people cruising the coast and in the Bahamas in planing hulls as well as slow and fast trawlers. Many feel that speed means more fun. You can reach that perfect destination quicker and more safely, and it’s easier to outrun weather. But there are always tradeoffs. For example, if you’re cruising in a lighter faster boat and you do get slammed by bad weather, the odds of damage are greater.

Whatever boat you choose, remember that you’ve got to live there (sit, stand, lie down, read books, have privacy) and keep your stuff there. Some boats seem to be designed for the boat show “Oh wow!” effect. You go down below and you’re overwhelmed by ultrafabrics, open spaces and interior design marvels. If that space means there’s no place to put your clothes or provisions, if the fabrics will mildew during the first rainy season, if the open spaces will become bumper car arenas the first time it’s rough, if you’ve got no privacy from your partner, think about a more practical boat with seaworthy liveaboard comforts.

Can you get cell phone coverage and online access?

This depends on your equipment and where you are. Even though I pay for a Bahamas cell phone number, I’ve found that coverage has been less than reliable, and getting online through a cell phone (without blowing your bank account) isn’t feasible. To go online I have to use satellite phones (expensive) or put a laptop in the dinghy and find a connection ashore. There are some WiFi areas, and these are growing, but there aren’t enough yet to depend on them unless you want to let connectivity determine your cruising destinations. (Some do, and are quite happy with this.)

Along the East Coast, we’ve had fairly good cell phone coverage and Internet access with Verizon. Some areas, such as northeast North Carolina, are, in my opinion, cellularly challenged, especially as to data transmission. We use a mast-top antenna, amplifier and a below-deck repeater antenna, all by Digital Antenna (www.digitalantenna.com). It gets us much greater coverage. Again, I’ll go into this in much more detail in the upcoming “Sea Savvy” on conducting business on board.

What about pirates?

So far as I know, I’ve never met any except in shopping malls. There’s crime of all sorts just about anywhere you go; I think there’s a lot less of it out on the water than there is back on the street. A big difference is that if you have a problem out in the boonies of paradise you can’t dial 911. There are no police around. The cavalry isn’t going to come rushing in. You’re pretty much on your own. You need to be careful in a different way, and you need to have plans for taking care of yourself.

We try to listen to the drumbeats (on the VHF, SSB and ham bands), and we avoid areas that might be prone to trouble. We hang out in areas that have good reputations and other cruising boats. However, hanging out with other cruisers isn’t a guarantee of safety. In the cruising world anybody can sail into a harbor and say whatever he or she wants about who and what he or she is. The means of checking credentials and backgrounds that exist in shoreside society just don’t work in a remote island paradise in the Bahamas or Caribbean.

If I’m a bank robber and want to sail into a harbor and tell somebody I’m a wealthy banker on sabbatical, I can probably get away with the scam for a while. If I’m a bad guy, that gives me a lot of time to take advantage of people and situations. So the average cruiser has to be careful — just like the average person back home, but with a different set of issues.

Do many cruisers carry weapons?

Some do, some don’t. Those who do have to constantly be concerned about complying with the laws of every jurisdiction they enter, which can vary substantially from state to state and nation to nation. Firearms violations are universally considered to be serious. You can lose your boat and your freedom for such violations.

Those who carry firearms are truly in harm’s way if they aren’t well trained in their maintenance, handling and use. I don’t recall ever hearing of any instance when the display or use of firearms by cruisers accomplished anything but more trouble.

What can you do to improve security?

Many cruisers use tactics that don’t involve weapons and the associated risks. Solo circumnavigator Joshua Slocum spread the equivalent of roofing nails or thumbtacks about his decks, in a time and place where pirates and other intruders were likely to be barefoot. The method was quite effective. I tried this once and discovered that you have to remember what you’ve done when you stagger out to the lee rail at midnight for a nature call.

You should be able to securely lock your boat, both when you leave it and when you’re sleeping below. The latter requires quick and easy unlocking in an emergency, like a rapid sinking. And you must have the means to lock your dinghy and outboard in areas of crime, such as cities. It’s true that a dedicated thief will be able to cut a chain or cable. But most dedicated thieves — so I’ve heard — prefer a rapid transfer of assets. So if your dinghy is secured with a big chain and a good lock, then the illicit entrepreneur likely will go after the one down the dock secured by only a rope. At night, we always bring our dinghy aboard to avoid theft. If you don’t have davits to easily take it up, consider bringing it up on a halyard and letting it hang against the side, but well out of the water.

Rapid transfer of assets means that often the most desirable thing about stealing your dinghy isn’t the dinghy itself, but that new outboard. Many cruisers will “uglify” the cowling with old paint or scratches and scars to make the engine less desirable. I usually do this to a new outboard the first time I try to back into a dock.

Is the liveaboard/cruising lifestyle becoming a thing of the past?

I think it is, at least as we’ve known it. There are fewer places to anchor, and anchoring is a cornerstone of the lifestyle. Not only is hanging on the hook a wonderful thing to do, it saves a significant amount of money. Marina rates are high and getting higher. This may not be a major issue with weekend cruising, but it will be if you are a transient night after night. Environmental and other regulations make it increasingly expensive for marina owners to operate. Cruising to remote areas alleviates some of these problems, but often the remoter the area, the more difficulties you have with security and medical issues and getting supplies and parts.

Offsetting this is the fact that living aboard is becoming much more comfortable and safer, assuming you are trained, skilled and equipped well. Systems such as refrigeration, propulsion and watermakers are more reliable. Safety at sea is improving because of GPS and EPIRB developments, as well as the improved safety equipment and procedures for larger vessels mandated under SOLAS. Better weather forecasting and better equipment to receive the information also has made a great difference in safety.

How can I determine if extended liveaboard cruising is for me?

Talk to people who’ve done it. Read books about it. Try chartering in the islands or less-populated places to see how you like being on a boat for as long as a week or two.

Presumably you’re contemplating it with a partner. Very few people are able to cruise alone long term, not only for psychological reasons but also because it simply takes more than one person to do all the things that must be done. You may know a person who is a notable exception, or you may be that exception, but we’ve seen too many notable and tragic failures with single-handed long-term cruising to endorse it.

Try living with your partner in your present residence for at least a four-day weekend. Do not leave the apartment, and do not enter any part of the apartment except your living room, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. (Even this space is quite liberal compared to that of most cruising boats.) Provision these spaces with all the food and entertainment you’ll need for the period. Remember, you can’t run down to the corner to get something that you forgot. If you’re still speaking to each other afterward, you might be candidates for further consideration.

Don’t listen to the “just do it now” philosophy of people trying to sell a dream. This lifestyle, like most others, requires suitable assets, training, planning, skills and commitment. You don’t just sail into a sunset where all your problems are magically taken care of. The problems sail with you and multiply exponentially if you’re not prepared.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

I’ve already mentioned one in the paragraph above, the “do it now” philosophy. Another cruise killer (and sometimes people killer) is to carry the concept of weekend party-boating over into long-term liveaboard cruising. Many of us begin the boating experience as a weekend experience. This means we associate it with partying. You can’t party seven days a week in any walk of life, especially cruising. We’ve seen many people become substance abusers because they brought their weekend boating habits into this lifestyle.

Another oft-repeated mistake is to underestimate the importance of weather. Subscribe to weather forecasting services, buy the equipment that brings weather data aboard and learn what the data means. Many new cruisers rely on others to tell them what’s going to happen. Sometimes the others are very knowledgeable, sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes no one else is within VHF range to tell you. If you can’t understand the weather, stay in that condo.

Following a schedule when the weather isn’t cooperating is a related problem. Running a boat obviously isn’t like running a car. If you make a schedule at all, give yourself plenty of lay days for bad weather. And always remind yourself, friends and family that you will not go, you will break your schedule, if the weather isn’t good.

Cruising as if you’re on a bus tour has ruined the experience for many. Stop to smell the roses. If you’ve planned to go to a place but you find another place you like, hang around and enjoy it. That’s part of what cruising is all about.

Not asking fellow cruisers for information and help is the last mistake I’ll mention. We all like to think we’re experts, so we all like to be asked questions. Thanks for making my day.

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Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulf-star 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at www.tomneale.com. If you have specific questions for Tom, e-mail them to his attention at editorial@soundingspub.com or mail them to Soundings, attn: Editorial, 10 Bokum Road, Essex, CT06426.