John Forbes and Shirlee Smith have been cruising since 2006 aboard Solstice, a Sceptre 41 cutter-rigged sloop hailing from San Francisco, CA. Since 2006, they have traveled the Pacific coast of North and Central America from San Francisco to Juneau, Alaska, and south to the Panama Canal; the Western Caribbean to Florida; the Atlantic to the Azores and Azores to French side of English Channel; the southern North Sea; the Dutch inland seas and Frisian canals; the Baltic Sea as far as southeast Sweden and the top of Denmark; Portugal and Atlantic Spain; the western and central Mediterranean into the Adriatic and as far as the Ionian islands of Greece. They are in their last year of cruising, at least for now. You can find more information or contact them via their website including links to their blogs and John’s YouTube channel.
What (if anything) do you wish someone had told you before you started cruising?
We did quite a lot of research before we started cruising and can’t think of anything someone hadn’t already told us. Some things people told us turned out to be truer for us than others, of course. One bit of wisdom we got at the very beginning was that if you can make it the first 100 days together, the worst is over. We kept that in mind as we started out and experienced all of the things that we assume everyone does: break-downs and melt-downs. There were several points after that when it wasn’t too late to change our minds about what we were doing, and we discussed whether we wanted to continue, but during the first 100 days, we just kept on keeping on.
Is there something you wish you had bought or installed before starting cruising?
We added an AIS receiver last year, and we’re really glad we have it. When you’re bouncing around on the waves at night, radar doesn’t give you a very good idea what that big ship is really doing. AIS is better. Plus, if you’re still not sure, you can call the ship by name. That’s a good feeling, but we hardly ever call ships, and so far, they’ve all answered.
We would both like to add solar panels if we can find a place for them before we cross back. It’s a shame to waste all the good sun we’ve been having. I still wish we had a water-maker, but John disagrees. If we were crossing the Pacific, I’d insist. Where we’ve been water is available even if it’s sometimes a hassle to have to worry about it. I also wish we had the generator hooked up so that it would heat water while it’s running.
What is your most common sail combination on passage?
Main sail and jib. Our genoa blew out in Johnstone Strait in British Columbia our first year out, and we decided to replace it with a 90% jib since we have an asymmetrical spinnaker to use as a light-air big foresail. Although we sometimes wish we had a bigger jib, we’re usually happy with our decision. We haven’t done much downwind sailing yet, and twin foresails poled out to either side would be really nice for that, but we’ll manage without. We’ve also been in enough gales (five so far) to be very fond of our staysail, either alone or with our main double-reefed.
What piece of gear seems to break the most often?
We’ve had a lot of trouble with three pieces of equipment: our diesel generator, our tow-behind generator, and our diesel furnace. The last two of these we no longer use. Our diesel generator wasn’t installed properly, and it was more reliable when we replaced the fuel pump with a larger (correct) size. But then we had to have the generator rebuilt in the Netherlands. There we learned that we needed to shut the raw water off when stopping the generator and not turn it back on until after starting again. Some sort of valve could probably be added to the system to avoid the water flooding the system so that we could skip this step, but it’s easy enough to do this, and the generator is working great now.
Our tow-behind generator kept getting itself twisted up when we reached speeds of over five knots, so we’d have to bring it in and untwist it. It also fouled continually in the floating seaweed in the beginning of our Atlantic passage. Finally, in the middle of the Atlantic the line chafed so badly that we had to retire it until we could replace it. At that time, we also bought weights to keep it from jumping out of the water at speed and twisting. It was working fine then until an accidental gibe during a gale crossing the Bay of Biscay (that was caused by a broken reef outhaul that caused a rip in the mainsail). During all the excitement, the line for the tow-behind generator fouled on the skeg and went crazily whipping about, breaking some non-essential bits attached to the stern before it chafed itself off and sank.
Our Wallas diesel furnace had problems with soot build-up that we learned to deal with our first year. During our winter in Amsterdam, though, it quit and we couldn’t get it going again. The Wallas-authorized service people fixed it once, but it quit again. They told us it wasn’t meant to be used full-time, so we haven’t repaired it.
What do you dislike about cruising that surprised you?
The things we dislike about cruising didn’t surprise us; we were told in advance. They are the incessant repair and maintenance of the boat and its systems. The tasks are always complicated by the inconvenience of having to tear the boat apart to fix anything and having to dig through our lockers to get the spare parts stored at the bottom. This is a simple fact of life when cruising, but we don’t have to like it. It may not bother people who enjoy tinkering with engines and plumbing, but that isn’t us.
Do friends visit and how often?
We have had visitors, but not as many as we had expected or hoped. John’s folks sailed the inside passage to Alaska with us the first year, and my mom and sister joined us in Puget Sound when we got back. The next year my sister and brother-in-law sailed with us in Desolation Sound, and a friend and John’s dad went with us on the passage back to San Francisco. We had one friend with us on the 2007 Baja Ha-Ha, and another joined us for a few weeks in Mexico after that. In Florida my mom and uncle came to visit. Then nothing until sailing friends stopped by in Amsterdam. And, of course, we had Dutch friends visiting there. In Cartagena my nephew and niece visited at different times, and our Amsterdam harbormaster spent a few days with us to escape the frozen north. Other friends talked about meeting us at different places, but with the economic crisis, it didn’t work out. It’s very difficult to connect with guests when you’re cruising. It often means sailing to a schedule, and that isn’t a good thing. We have met up with other friends in Sweden and Croatia by sailing to them, but they were there for extended periods, so their schedules were flexible.
When have you felt most in danger and what was the source?
The gale in the Bay of Biscay was pretty scary, what with things breaking and the sail tearing, but we didn’t feel our lives were threatened. This is John’s top one because we also had a near-broach. I wasn’t aware of it, or I would have been more afraid too.
Share a piece of cruising etiquette
I just read this out to John, and he promptly replied, “Port to port.” We’ve just spent the summer in the Mediterranean amongst all the bareboat charter boats.
Seriously, one thing I didn’t know is applicable in situations when boats are rafted up at the dock. This happens regularly in the Baltic. It’s that you never cross the neighbors’ boats through their cockpits to get to shore. You always go across the bow, no matter how cluttered and awkward it is.
What do you miss about living on land?
For me it’s always-on, high-speed, broadband Internet. John agrees.
What question do you wish I would have asked you besides the ones I've asked you and how would you answer it?
I’m just glad you didn’t ask what place we like best so far. We wouldn’t know how to answer that one.