Gar Duke and Nicole Friend circumnavigated from the winter of 2006 until the summer of 2011 aboard SV DreamKeeper, a Pacific Seacraft 40 hailing from Sausalito, CA, USA. You can learn more about their journey on their website.
They say: We started in our home port of Sausalito in the San Francisco Bay, CA, and went south in winter to Mexico then across the South Pacific to New Zealand. Year 2 took us thru Melanesia to Palau, Micronesia, with a 4 month layover in Palau. Year 3 we dropped south into West Papua/Raja Ampat around PNG into east Indonesia and all the way to Bali, then up to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Year 4 was a big mile year, first crossing the Indian Ocean and up the Red Sea, thru the Med, across the Atlantic and to the Caribbean to end the year. Year 5 started heading west to Bonaire, the Kuna Yala of Panama, then thru the Panama Canal, up the central American coast and Mexican coast, and finally Baja-bashed it back to San Diego with the last leg up the California coast to San Francisco. 4 ½ years total San Francisco to San Francisco.
What mistakes did you make in your first year of cruising?
Gar: there were a lot, but here’s a few:
First mistake we made was day 1 out the gate of San Fran, where we turned left and proceeded to do an overnight passage to Monterey Bay. We were so fast we had to heave-to in the bay all night in sloppy seas, super cold temps, and pitch black conditions leaving me seasick all night long in sensory deprivation and Nicole needing to deal. I was a total mess. In hindsight, we should have planned better and just done a day hop down to Half Moon Bay to finally GO and commit to the journey, but in a much easier way for where we were at then. Thankfully we had leftover Thanksgiving dinner for brunch the next day in Monterey as I was famished!
Leaving the US without a few spares that we wanted for the South Pacific and thinking they’d be easy to get in Mexico. Not easy and definitely not easy to ship to Mexico either. Nicole had to fly back to the US and load up a couple bags full of gear so we had what we wanted for the South Pacific and then still brave the dreaded “green light/red light” at the Mexican aeropuerto customs. Unlucky you if you get the red light!
FYI, It’s much easier and way cheaper to get everything you think you might need in the US on your boat if you can, but at that time we were still very much “green” on our boat and figuring everything out. All this being said only because we come from a place of liking to be very self-sufficient and prepared for as much as possible and also our intention to head west quickly across the South Pacific the first season out. If you stay in Mexico long enough, like most cruisers, you will probably be high-tailing back to good ‘ole USA anyways at some point.
Worrying about and spending time and energy getting a HAM radio license. So many people told me I should DEFINITELY get this license in Mexico before the SoPac, but, for me, not being a big radio talker, I never really used this with the exception of the services of winlink in the beginning of our journey. Later, after seeing the advantages and convenience of using the services of UUPLUS email thru our satphone, winlink became only a back-up for us.
And not to say we never chatted on the SSB with friends or on radio nets, but none of them were ever “Ham only” nets, so my whole ordeal of getting a HAM license was, for me, a waste of time. If you LOVE to talk on the radio, then by all means, get a HAM, but if not, forget about it and go surfing or do something fun instead.
Nicole: Telling my mom I would call her by a certain date. My parents bought us a sat phone for emergencies and perhaps more specifically so we could talk while on passage and they wouldn’t worry about us. I made a bad call and told my mom I would call her by a certain date. Somehow, we didn’t quite figure the sat phone out while travelling south along the Mexican coast and my phone date was passing. I knew my mom would be worried sick and start calling anyone she could think of so we had to detour to Abreojos, a tiny fishing village along the Baja Pacific coast, in deteriorating conditions to make that call. We found a phone card and then found the phone. I called to let her know we were fine and then we headed back out through bigger surf and out to our bucking boat. Note to self, never give anyone a time line you can’t keep.
Describe the compromises (if any) you have made in your cruising to stay on a budget?
Gar/Nicole: For us, our budget living on the sailboat was a lot cheaper then our budget living on land. We had just sold our home, cars, and most everything else we owned that wouldn’t come with us and so we axed everything like property expenses, utility expenses, auto expenses, and all the other pieces that add up so quickly living in the US. In cruising, boat expenses are hands down the most expensive reality. But…most of the boat expenses can be coined “luxury” expenses like good electronics, a water-maker, a new sail, etc., and you can get by with very little if your boat itself is solid and safe.
In our opinion you can cruise on almost ANY budget once you own a boat. It’s all choices and how you tailor your lifestyle and choices around your “wants” in life. It’s no different then how you choose to live your life on land. If money is tighter for you cruising, then don’t eat out much or use the engine as much or buy lots of fancy boating gear you don’t really need. And, lastly, learn how to fix and work on your own boat; that, in itself, will save you lots of money in the long run.
What is something you think potential cruisers are afraid of that they shouldn’t fear?
Gar/Nicole: Passage-making. It’s scary at first if you have never been offshore on your own boat with a small number of people and we get that. But, in reality, this is a great time to actually just “be” with the ocean at all times of the day and night that you will most likely never experience any other way.
For us the first few days are the most difficult of a passage as we are adapting to a new schedule. But, if you plan well with the weather, make some pre-prepared meals, have a good book (or 2 or 3) put aside, maybe some podcasts or audiobooks for rougher weather, and have a good watch schedule so you get some rest when you need it, you will most likely really enjoy the experience. Keep a journal or write a daily blog just to keep notes on the little things you see and feel and hear. It’s a unique experience, embrace it and don’t fear it.
What is something potential cruisers don’t worry about that perhaps they should?
Gar/Nicole: Being thoughtful about locking your gear and boat up. Cruisers have a tendency to be very lazy sometimes. Lock up your dinghy and outboard, put away or lock up any gear on deck that is worth anything to you, and lock up your cabin when you are away from your boat. It seems so simple, but we have seen boats all over the world complaining in hysterics about how someone stole their laptop from their un-locked cabin or stole their unlocked outboard or dinghy in the middle of the night. Well, did you lock your cabin? “uhhhh…no, I never do…it’s just so hot.” Did you lock up or raise your dinghy at night? “Uhhhh….no, it was windy and rough and rainy out and I thought no one would come out on a night like that” (but that’s when they always do).
Cruisers need to realize that no matter what their budget is or how non-fancy their boat is, they are still looked upon as “rich” in almost any country around the world they travel to. So many of the cultures you will connect to will be living with almost nothing and there are always people on the look out to make a quick buck the easy way. Also, it felt important for us to acknowledge some communities don’t have things like private property so ours was even more interesting. You will still stand out even if you are dirt-bagging it with a half sunk boat and not a penny to your name. Ask any long-term backpacker traveller you meet, it’s not about being paranoid, it’s just being extra-aware of where you are.
What are some of your favorite pieces of gear on your boat and why?
Gar: Electric anchor windlass and oversized anchor, wind generator, and AIS system.
A good solid and reliable electric anchor windlass with an oversized anchor makes a huge difference when you are cruising. Of course, these are still luxury items, but they do make life much easier and safer when you drop your hook and don’t worry about it dragging and also know you can always get it back up without a hurting your back in any conditions. I can’t count the times we have needed to move anchorages in inclement weather in the middle of the night because of bad weather or change of wind or swell direction and how thankful we have been that our electric windlass was working well.
We have a KISS and wouldn’t think of having another type of wind generator unless it had the same specs. It is quiet, simple, and puts out lots of juice. If you have a noisy wind gen you will absolutely hate it and so will your neighbors, plus they usually don’t make much energy anway. We try to anchor in places with some wind in the tropics as it cools down the boat and usually keeps us pointing into the prevailing swell so you don’t roll as much. We cruised without a generator onboard, so a good wind generator makes a huge difference in keeping your batteries up regardless if you have solar or not.
We added an AIS system halfway around on our circumnavigation when we were in Thailand. It made a huge difference with piece of mind and safety when it came to passages through busy shipping areas and especially at night with just 2 of us onboard. Radar was still a great tool for us to use, especially for fishing vessels not usually on AIS, but the reality of today is that AIS is used now on ALL big ships and you will wonder how you got by without it once you start using it. A simple AIS receive unit is not very expensive and will be invaluable if you are choosing a route where you will be in shipping lanes and around shipping traffic often. Of course, if you are only a coastal cruiser and are one not to be crossing oceans much or ever, then an AIS will be just another ‘not needed much’ luxury piece of gear.
Nicole: OK I love all three pieces of gear Gar mentioned and would prefer not to go without them. All three in my mind are fabulous luxury items we were grateful for every day. The AIS completely changed my stress level on night watch. I, for some reason have always had a hard time with depth perception even with using radar and tracking and all of the tools I could use. The AIS system changed all of that. I still kept a thorough watch but I could tell where ships were going and coming and if I needed to make a course change without any guess work.
And another piece of boat gear, our Monitor windvane. I can’t imagine having left without him. He has served us well as third crew on all of our passages that had wind.
Also, with regards to food and fishing gear, I loved our fishing hand-lines and squid lures, my “yo-gourmet” yogurt maker (bought in New Zealand), along with our jar sprouter, and Braun hand blender. Sometimes it’s the little things that mattered like being able to eat fresh things on day 20 of a passage.
In your own experience and your experience meeting other cruisers, what are the common reasons people stop cruising?
Gar/Nicole: If you are a younger cruiser, then most folks are only out for a short time and need to either stop to work or could just make a season or perhaps 2 work. Retired-from-work aged cruisers usually stop because of health issues or because they are over the novelty of cruising and want to be home again closer to kids and grandkids.
But there are still many people of all ages that go out for a bit and just realize that it’s not for them for one reason or another. The reality of the cruising lifestyle is very different from where most people are coming from before jumping on their boat. I would say that most people have no idea how much work both physically and mentally it is if you are a full-time cruiser and actually moving your boat around. The romance of margaritas in your cockpit while the sun is setting can definitely ring true sometimes, but the other pieces of constant wear/tear on your boat and body and the need to be constantly ‘on it’ in regards to planning, maintenance, traveling, and safety takes a lot more energy then most non-cruisers or wanna-be cruisers realize until they do it for a while.
The people we met who were out there for a while moved their boat less, and stayed places longer, they over-wintered and spent two summers in the Med, they spent two winters or more in Mexico or the Caribbean, they stayed in Fiji for hurricane season. Or they tied up their boats and went home or somewhere for a 4-6 month break or to go back to work and then returned to their boats again.
What is something that you read or heard about cruising, that you didn’t find to be true?
Gar: I read quite a bit about cruising before we left on this journey and so feel like I had a pretty realistic picture of what it all entailed. However, that being said, I think I still had an unrealistic perception that the cruising “community” was a pretty adventurous, and mostly open-minded, and just plain open to everything and everyone, group of people. What we experienced quite a bit, unfortunately, was a lot of people traveling on boats that were more interested in their easy “nationality clicks” and “sundowner” lifestyles then really putting themselves out there to embrace local people, local cultures, and other cruisers from other countries. We always pictured all these different folks from random countries hanging out together and hanging out with locals onshore (which certainly happened), but we felt like this was really a minority of the people we met cruising around the world. The boats that were more like this were the ones we really wanted to get to know and spend time with cruising, but were pretty few and far between.
For us, what was very important, was that we really tried to make a conscious effort to get out of the cruising “American-only click” circles and befriend folks from other countries traveling, as well as do our best to meet and embrace the local people in the countries we were visiting. We feel lucky we made some good friends. For us, this made a big difference in our experiences and we hopefully feel like it made an impression being more-thoughtful, conscious American ambassadors in the world too…which we feel the world could really use more of right now.
Do you have any specific advice for couples cruising?
Gar: First of all, if you don’t know how to communicate with your partner, you are in for a long ride or perhaps a short ride with one of you leaving the boat. You absolutely have to talk to each other and, more importantly, listen to each other. And don’t just “listen”, but actually HEAR what they are saying. Did you say this was just for cruising couples? J
Next you need to learn to compromise. You will be sharing a pretty small space, perhaps for years, and it’s not always possible to just leave that space. For many couples this will be the first time ever in this situation.
You will have different needs/wants/desires for your own experience and to be who YOU want to be while cruising, but you need to also remember that your partner has the same. Talk talk talk about what you can each do to help support each other with their own personal process’ and what will keep him/her happy, content, and full while living this unique lifestyle. This will, of course, change over time so you’d better keep communicating so you can do your best to keep understanding where each other are at as time goes by.
And if you need a time-out, you’d better learn to take one. And if your partner says she/he needs a break from the boat SOON, you’d better listen and make it happen somehow.
Nicole: Ok, seriously, communication is the key! In addition, be sure no matter how long your “to do” list is, go have fun regularly. It was easy for us to get sucked into needing to do all of our jobs and fix everything that needed fixing. But, truthfully, there will always be something waiting for you to do, so I say, play, do something spontaneous, get exercise, go on walks together, go snorkeling and just have fun whatever it is.
What is your most common sail combination on passage?
Gar: For us, on a cutter-rigged boat, on passage we always had our mainsail up for stability possibly with a reef or 2 tucked in and the genoa out. Down wind, we always had a preventer on. Don’t ever get lazy and not rig a preventer. The last thing you want, especially in the middle of the night, is an accidental gybe.
We have both our jib and our staysail on roller-furlings, which we really like as the reality is that we are usually single-handing while on passage, so we can easily make jib changes and reefs based on the weather by ourselves in the middle of the night. Having a staysail has been a great option for us when the wind and seas really pick up and as it allows us to shorten sail while keeping our boat balanced and very stable.
Lastly, I will just add that the reality of cruising around the world on a sailboat is that it’s not always so dreamy with the sailing aspect. We have been thru so many parts of the world that the wind is just non-existent or non-cooperative or directly on our nose and we did many times choose or have to run the engine. That being said, this was a conscious choice to travel to places that didn’t always have great sailing potential, like in PNG, eastern Indonesia and the Red Sea, but were high on our list for being really cool travel destinations. If you were only after good sailing then you would need to stay in the higher latitudes or the Pacific to have the more consistent, but stronger winds. For us, we feel we have always been more interested in being travelers and adventurers then purist sailors.
What piece of gear seems to break the most often?
Gar: What doesn’t break? Seriously, at one time or another we have had to fix or repair or replace something, or all of, every system on our boat. If you are pushing your boat hard and making lots of miles each year, then parts wear out. If you are sitting around a bay in Mexico for months at a time or only moving a few hundred miles a season then you will fare way better then the passage-making sailor crossing oceans.
One of you on your boat should definitely learn how to wrench on a diesel engine, repair a sail, test and repair electrical wiring, and be able to take apart the toilet. If you don’t know how to do it all, that’s OK, just have a good resource library that will walk you through repairs and if you aren’t too far off the grid, there will usually be another cruiser close-by that can help you out if you get in a bind. If not, you will learn to live without something. Most of the stuff that breaks are luxury items anyways. Toilet broken, use a bucket. Water-maker broken, catch some rainwater or run jugs to shore. Generator broken, use less energy or turn off the fridge.
I would say from our experience the pieces of gear that cruisers are wrenching on the most are generators, water-makers, diesel engines, and outboards. The other pieces of gear that give lots of people trouble are autopilots and laptops, not always possible to fix yourselves. Please just don’t throw your laptop overboard if it breaks like some cruisers do. Seriously.
What question do you wish I would have asked you besides the ones I’ve asked you and how would you answer it?
What are some tricks and tips you’ve learned for being a more thoughtful and conscious cruiser around the world?
Within the cruising community, say hello or wave to your neighbor who anchored next to you who you don’t know, especially if he/she is from a different country. It has been amazing to us how many boats drop their hook beside us and never even smile or wave when we initiate a greeting. The other side of that is if you find yourself anchoring in a more remote place, then don’t just drop your hook right next that one boat there already, give them some space and drop your hook some distance away so you can both enjoy the remoteness of that special place. But, when you do see the other people, don’t ignore them, actually say hello and smile. It’s the little things in this community that make a big difference.
Regarding the ocean and reefs, if you truly care about the health of the planet, the cleanliness of the water, and enjoy traveling to pristine coral reefs and visiting island communities, then give back, police yourself, and be conscious of your actions.
In small communities find out about the customs and proper protocol before arrival or immediately after arrival. Following this gains you acceptance, respect, new friends, and the opportunity for unique experiences.
If you catch a big fish or lots of big fish, bring some of them into the village and share with the locals who live there. This goes a long ways and will immediately open doors for you within that community.
When you drop your hook on your big boat or your dingy, look where you drop it and do your best not to damage the healthy coral around you. Seems like a no-brainer, but in our experience, we have seen countless boats in crystal clear water dropping their anchor and chain haphazardly directly over pristine reefs and not even thinking about the reality.
Don’t just throw your compostable trash overboard where you anchor, but actually put it in a container and take it in your dinghy out into the deeper water hopefully where there is some outgoing current or at least away from the shallower anchorage area where all the eggshells and banana peels pile up in the coral underneath your boat.
Only fish in areas where there are still an abundance of fish and make sure in an island community that it is allowed to fish a certain area as many of them are locally managed as protected for their sustainable use.
When you are remote, do not leave your trash on an island as they most likely have a trash problem themselves already. Separate trash well. When you are out on passage in the deep water this is where you should sink your cans and glass (if you don’t have enough room to store it) and get rid of other non-plastic trash. Aluminum can sometimes be recycled on certain islands and some of your trash you will most likely have to burn at times. Some of it you will probably have to carry with you until you make it to a larger city or port. Point is, be thoughtful about it and do your best to manage your waste well.
If you feel comfortable with the locals, invite some of them out to your boat for soft drinks/coffee/tea/cookies/dinner or whatever. They will love it. We have been to so many communities that always invite cruisers in their homes but many would tell us no one would ever invite them out to their boat. Reciprocate.