Since 1984, James Baldwin has twice circumnavigated aboard Atom, his 28-foot Pearson Triton. He has worked as boat builder and writer, and more recently as voyaging consultant from their current home port of Brunswick, Georgia. Ten years ago, Mei Huang joined him in Trinidad and since then they have made several passages across the North and South Atlantic and worked together fitting out customer's sailboats for voyaging. You can contact them through their website where you can read James articles about cruising and his online book at his website.
Why did you decide to cruise?
I was driven by a search for adventure and, I'll admit, a touch of hedonism. A cruiser of today's generation
who reads my online book might say my sailing career has been as much masochism as hedonism. There is a touch of truth there in the sense that I learned to derive pleasure from self-denial as well as all the rich rewards a cruising life brings.
After some adventurous vacations with my parents when I was a child, from northern wilderness camping trips to island-hopping through the Bahamas by small single-engine plane, my mind opened to some of the more extreme travel possibilities. Further inspiration came from the sailing classics of Joshua Slocum and Bernard Moitessier, the Roths, Hiscocks and dozens of others. As a teenager in Detroit with little money and no sailing experience, I pursued my goal to see the world from the deck of my own boat with a dogged, single-minded determination.
By twenty-one I had my boat. By twenty-five I set out on my first circumnavigation.
What else did you do besides sail?
From my first moment under sail and ever since, the art of sailing has captivated me. Beyond the sailing, I've used my boat as a tool to provide a home base for seeing the world. I found I needed more than sailing, and set goals to get off the boat to climb the mountains and live among the islanders. I also enjoy kayaking, writing, photography, and working on boats, whether it's my own or paid work on other people's boats.
With the benefit of hindsight, what are the boat selection criteria you would use to purchase a boat for long term cruising?
Over the years I've often considered the pros and cons of having boat a larger or even a bit smaller than Atom. As I list the attributes of a good voyaging boat - inexpensive, seaworthy, as small as can be comfortable, moderate draft, tiller steering - they keep pointing to a boat very much like the one I have.
When I decided to try something radically different, I added a F-27 folding trimaran to my little fleet. What I like about a small trimaran is the shallow draft available when the daggerboard is up, the low angles of heel and less rolling underway, and trailerability. Speed was not high on my list of requirements, but sailing fast can be thrilling. With its cramped accommodations and inability to carry much equipment and supplies, it is not well-suited for long-term liveaboard or extended voyages for most people.
Each of my two boats serves its own purpose. It would be impossible to find one boat ideally suited to all situations. If, like most people, you're confined to one boat, you need to make a realistic list of your own requirements so you can define the compromises necessary to get the best boat for your needs.
How would you recommend that someone prepares to cruise?
Learn to sail on a small boat whether you sign on as crew or pay for lessons. Or buy yourself a small boat and do local cruising. Then prepare your mind by rethinking your priorities and considering what is it about your shorebound lifestyle that's worth taking afloat and what is better left ashore. Through online and face to face consulting with new cruisers I know they worry about having a boat that is "too small", how to get insurance for every potential mishap, how to finance their cruise, what will it all cost... These are valid concerns and the answers are different for each individual. Just as important is to consider what is the cost to their soul of continuing their current life ashore when the life they imagine is somewhere else. Some want to have their current life as unaltered as possible as they go on a fun cruise. They know what they want and that may work for them. Others, like myself, seek a radically different life than they had before. Being a seeker is always worthwhile.
Describe a positive experience you have had with local people somewhere you have visited?
With few exceptions, all of my thousands of experiences with local people have been positive. Off the beaten track, the world is generally kind to a traveler with an open heart, even if he has empty pockets. In many remote places, the poorer you look the better you're received. Throughout the isles of the Pacific, Asia and Indian Ocean I was taken into peoples homes, joined in their celebrations, worked alongside them in their gardens, even fell in love.
What was the most affordable area to cruise and the most expensive? What was affordable or cheap about each area?
In the 1990's Madagascar was and probably still is, one of the nicest and cheapest cruising grounds. Another favorite inexpensive cruising area was the Philippines. The idea is to buy locally produced items, not imports. Things change from place to place, year to year, but in general, the most expensive places are the more developed, Westernized or European subsidized countries such as French Polynesia. Even so, lifestyle choices determine your expenditures as much as comparing local cost of living indexes.
I spent the most time in inexpensive countries and did major provisioning there. In the expensive ports, I either worked or traded goods or kept my visit brief. My choice to spend eight years in Southeast Asia and no time at all in the Med or Europe was as much to do with the cost of living as it was my cultural and climate preferences.
Can you think of a sailing tip (e.g., sail trim, sail combination) specific to offshore passages (e.g., related to swells)?
Passage planning is always my main concern in order to keep the wind on my beam or at my back as much as possible. A whisker pole on the jib has been essential. I avoid passages with headwinds or high storm frequency. I reef early and sail conservatively.
Speed is not a concern because I'm comfortable at sea and most often arrived at my next port refreshed in body and mind. If you're uneasy being at sea, you drive the boat harder to arrive sooner, which exhausts you further.
How do you recommend securing your vessel while going ashore? And your dinghy?
I often use two anchors set 180 degrees apart with both secured to the bow, the primary with all chain rode. This way my rode is not dragging all over the bottom as the boat shifts to every tide or wind change, reducing the chance of upsetting or fouling an anchor. I've left my boat for long periods unattended and always returned to find her where I left her.
I use security bars in the companionway to allow ventilation. My dinghy is a small plywood/fiberglass pram that is considered unworthy of theft, which I consider my best defense against losing it. To prevent children from rowing it away, it's always locked alongside Atom with a cable at night, and when ashore, preferably locked to a dock or a tree above high tide mark. An outboard motor on your dinghy is like a "steal me" sign in many places. If your situation requires a motor, the smallest and oldest looking one will serve you the longest since thieves will turn up their nose at it and take a bigger, faster, more valuable one from your neighbor.
What are some of your favorite pieces of gear on your boat and why?
A partial list of my essential cruising gear in roughly their order of importance is: windvane self-steering, unshaded solar panels, a lightweight home-built dinghy, dodger/bimini, handheld GPS, manual anchor windlass, Sony SSB reciever, all LED lighting, a large battery bank and a 750-watt inverter. If I can't power it from solar panels, I don't have it aboard. I've always preferred the big view and inexpensive dependability of photocopied paper charts, but now that small chartplotters and MFD's are low-powered and less expensive, I've added one to my trimaran. I've used AIS on recent deliveries for collision avoidance and plan to put one
What question do you wish I would have asked you besides the ones I've asked you and how would you answer it?
I have a page of frequently asked questions that can be read on my website. One of the 22 questions I address is:
How much does it cost to go cruising?
The short answer is: as much as you've got. I've met people cruising on every conceivable budget and I do not think the enjoyment they got out of cruising had much to do with how much money they spent. Actually, I did not meet any people cruising on a high budget that looked like they were getting anything near the priceless experiences of some people who know how to make the most of life afloat. People ask "Can I afford to go cruising?" when they should ask if they can afford not to go. With careful choices it costs less than half as much to voyage around the world as it does to maintain a typical Western lifestyle ashore. We can calculate the dollars it costs, but how do you count the value of a life fully lived?
I left on my first circumnavigation in 1984 with just $500 in savings. That got me across the Pacific in five months without noticeable hardship for a healthy 25-year-old. When the money was nearly gone, I took a job for three months at a boatyard in New Guinea, the proceeds of which carried me across two more oceans and back home a year and a half later. Since then, tremendous inflation in costs associated with cruising, such as the 1,000% increase in fees for the Panama Canal and various extortionate government rip-offs for "cruising fees" (the $150-$300 fee per boat for entry to the Bahamas is becoming typical nowadays), mean these days you'll need to spend much more than when I first began cruising. Also, when I started earning and saving more money, I sometimes was tempted to buy more optional boat gear and spend more money on all manor of things.
As of 2003 we spent an average of about $800 a month for the two of us, including all travel, food, entertainment and boat expenses. This does not include the very occasional but unavoidable big expenses like replacing sails or major overhauls to the boat. We could spend less if we needed to and easily spend more if we're not careful. The "average" cruising couple spends at least double that, particularly when you factor in all their various insurance and marina expenses. I find when I have more money available I'm tempted to spend it on "optionals" and when I have less, I tighten my belt, so to speak. During most of my cruising years I've kept my spending down to the point where I need only work an average of three months a year. For over 20 years I never worked longer than about two years at a time without stopping for an extended cruise and have gone up to three years without earning any money other than a few small payments for articles. Not that I'm particularly lazy, but life is not all about work and wages. Another benefit of a small boat, especially an older boat like the Triton, is that your investment is small enough that you can more easily replace the entire boat if disaster strikes.
Part of how much you spend depends on what the cost of living is in the areas you cruise, but an even larger portion depends on the choices you make. Will you stay at marinas or anchor out? Eat at restaurants or onboard? Travel by plane to visit relatives or wait to see them until you finally sail home? Buy insurance for every conceivable threat or take your chances? Have a boat full of electronic gadgets that require frequent repair and replacement or become self-sufficient and choose only equipment that is essential and learn how to maintain it yourself? Will you buy imported foods that you are used to or learn how to use cheaper locally produced foods? Will you buy a new budget-busting inflatable dinghy every third year or knock something together out of plywood? The list of choices goes on and on, even to the little things like the crew giving each other haircuts to reusing washcloths for cleanups instead of buying paper towels. Mastering the art of frugal cruising means you have found how to live aboard independently and happily and perhaps even indefinitely.
This brings us back to choice of boat. A big boat is likely to cost so much that you feel compelled to buy boat insurance. A smaller, less expensive boat can be sailed without insurance and be replaced if needed through modest savings kept in reserve. For example, say I had 40K to get started cruising today. I'd rather self-insure by putting 20K into a bank CD and use it to buy another Triton-type boat if I lost mine than to buy a 40K boat and stay home working to pay for the insurance to replace it. My point is not to criticize those on bigger boats that have found a way to make it work for them. They're doing it and that's fine. My goal is to give the beginner - the undecided and inexperienced cruiser - another viewpoint to consider before getting in over his head financially. You did say you want to sail, not work, didn't you?
There is a Low Cost Voyaging forum which can help you with ideas on cutting costs. You can also read books for descriptions of how others cut their expenses. Pete and Annie Hill cover the subject in their book, Voyaging on a Small Income. Other books on the topic include, Sensible Cruising: The Thoreau Approach by Don Casey, Cost Conscious Cruiser, by Lin and Larry Pardey and many others. It's great if you can help support these authors, but I suppose the truly frugal sailor just borrows books from friends!