14 February 2011

10 Questions for Ventana

ventana Rob and Dee Dubin cruise aboard an Island Packet 40 named Ventana hailing from Conifer, Colorado. They moved aboard in November of 1995 – still cruising and living aboard full time. They cruised from 1996- 2001 mostly in the Caribbean but also as far north as Maine and covering the entire Eastern and Western Caribbean including Venezuela, Columbia, Panama, Central America and Mexico. In 2001 Rob & Dee departed for another trip through the Caribbean and then through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific.  They spent several years in Australia and several more in Thailand. In 2009 they sailed from Thailand to the Red Sea and into the Mediterranean and expect to cross back to the Caribbean completing their circumnavigation in December of 2011. You can read more about them as well as information on outfitting a boat, passage planning, weather, seamanship, sail trim and most of the issues they discuss in this interview on their website or you contact them via email (ventanaweb@aol.com).

What (if anything) do you wish someone had told you before you started cruising?
Two things:
1.   Learn everything you can about fixing everything on the boat before you take off.
2.  Despite a lifetime of owning businesses, directing others, being a group leader and decision maker and even being a pilot with others’ lives in my hands- sometimes command on a boat is a lonely business.

Be aware there will be a significant weight on the shoulders of the Captain.  Spending every day at the whim of wind and wave and weather and boat breakdowns you have to get used to not always making the best choice and sometimes paying for it with the discomfort of your crew and yourself.  Just think things through well and do the best you can, then compare your experiences to others so you can keep learning and improving.

Is there a place you visited where you wish you could have stayed longer?
Many places - especially the Tuamotos, Fiji, Vanuatu and the Red Sea.

How often have you faced bad weather in your cruising? How bad?
I know you have to ask this question and everyone spends lots of time fretting about safety gear and storm sails and parachutes and sea anchors.  You need the gear and you need to know how to use it, BUT this is rarely an issue.  If you cruise the usual trade wind routes you have only 3-4 passages that are longer than the weather predictions and many circumnavigators never see a major storm. Get good weather forecasts and be patient enough to sit in port until a good window is at hand.  The only weather you control is the weather you leave port in.

Having said that we have had only three really bad storms at sea in over 50,000 miles.  The first one when we were crew on another boat and that experience gave us lots of confidence for when we faced a rough storm on our own.  As one of our sailing mentor’s Steve Black, founder of the Caribbean 1500 Rally says, “You need to know the difference between life threatening and extremely uncomfortable.”  Most bad storms are just really uncomfortable.  Our boats can usually take much more than we can.

On our own boat we have had one bad storm in the So. Pacific between Tahiti and the Cook Islands and one in the Indian Ocean between the Maldives and Oman.  In the Pacific storm it was raining so hard seeing another ship would have been impossible and radar was useless.  We hoisted a strobe in the rigging and went below with double reefed main and part of the staysail.  We went slowly on course and never needed to heave to or to revert to our storm trysail.  The autopilot steered the entire time.  We were off the wind.

In the Indian Ocean storm the wind and waves were also just aft of the beam.  In both cases waves were about spreader height and some broke on and over the boat, with green water on the coachroof.   The waves that broke onto the boat would often shove us sideways through the water 5-10 feet.  I would have worried for the safety of the rudder on a spade rudder boat, but our Island Packet has a very sturdy steel support at the bottom of the rudder. 

In the Indian Ocean storm we used the same sails and tactics continuing slowly on our way.  The slow speed prevented us from falling off of any waves which is usually what damages boats.  AIS gave us some comfort that we would not be run down by a big ship.  In this storm a few times my wife had to hand steer while I adjusted sails to balance the boat so there was minimal helm and the autopilot could handle it.  Mostly we stayed below in our berths with lee cloths and let the autohlem 6000 steer the boat. 

The main bits of advice I would suggest is to get experience on other’s boats if possible.  Also practice heaving to.  You should first do this on a light wind day so you can practice, but then also do it on a day of 25-35 knots so you see how your boat really handles hove to in rough weather.  It is also good to go out for a short sail on rough weather days.  Much better to experience this when you can do it for 2-3 hours then get back to the marina, rather than your first experience be for 36 hours offshore. 

We also went through a hurricane at anchor during our first year of cruising.  We could have left the boat and stayed ashore but chose to stay aboard.  Next time we probably would make a different choice.  There is detailed coverage of all of the hurricane preparedness as well as all sorts of advice on our website.
What is your most common sail combination on passage?
ventana3 Unfortunately the combination most cruisers use far more often than any one ever thinks will be the case is the sails stowed and the engine on with light or no wind, or wind on the nose.  We have also sometimes found light winds and huge swells on the beam.  The big swells cause you to roll side to side terribly so the sails fill and empty on every wave slatting then popping, filling then emptying which takes a terrible toll on them in no time.  In these instances we use the engine and our staysail only which we sheet in very hard so it is flat and dampens the roll a bit. 

Having given you the downside we have also experienced day after day of perfect beam reaching with no need to even touch a sheet for 5 days or nights.  In strong winds from astern  (approaching 30 knots) we can often go hull speed with just our genoa or even part of the genoa.  In slightly less winds we use the genoa and the staysail both poled out.  This double headsail rig provides a completely flat steady ride and is far superior to main and genoa, which causes most boat to waddle side to side  as they go downwind.  

We also often use a poled out genoa and the main on the same side if the wind is medium to light and a bit aft of the beam.  This provides a fantastic trade wind ride and we have enjoyed dozens of days at sea zooming along comfortably with that rig.  (We think a whisker pole is essential for cruising boats).

We are firm believers that a cutter is the BEST rig.  We have found our 130% genoa ideal though you MUST have a rope or foam luff in it so it gets flat enough for having good shape when it is reefed and you are hard on the wind as you will almost always be sailing the eastern Caribbean. 

The staysail gives lots of options and is much superior to a reefed genoa in strong winds.  We especially like Island Packet’s with the Gary Hoyt designed staysail boom.  We also find our full batten main with Harken batt cars and a Dutchman system perfect.  With minimum effort I can raise the sails to within a foot of the masthead by hand from the cockpit and only use the winch to tighten the last foot.  The battens provide MUCH better sail shape than in boom or in mast sails.  Reefing the main takes less than a minute as does dropping it and all is done from the cockpit. 

We feel a ketch rig adds a huge amount of complexity, rigging, weight and expense for almost no benefit. 

What do you dislike about cruising that surprised you?
How much time is spent repairing the boat.

In your experience, how much does cruising cost?
As much as you have to spend.  When we started in 1995 we tracked our budget very carefully and spent about $2,200 per month.  At the time we knew others cruising on budgets from $ 1,000 per month to $ 7,000 per month.  It is still possible to cruise very inexpensively if you avoid marinas, do not eat out often, do your own repair work, don’t travel inland and do not make visits home. I would guess the average well off retired cruiser on a well equipped 45 foot boat who does all those expensive things in reasonable moderation spends about $50K per year. 

One important lesson we learned was about boat maintenance.  We bought our boat new and after the initial outfitting expense did not spend much on the boat our first years out.  But then after 6 or 7 years we had a few years of large outlays to replace equipment. 

What did you do to make your dream a reality?
ventana2 DECIDE.  If you want to go cruising you need to simply DECIDE to go cruising. That is - stop wishing or wanting or talking about going cruising but rather DECIDE to go cruising.   After that you will figure out HOW to make it happen.  

Another important step is to set a date.  This is especially important for people who spend years getting a boat ready then never leave the dock.  (The “to do” list never gets done.. you will have items on it from the moment you leave the dock.. just get the big stuff done and GO.)

How did you secure your valuables (in and on your vessel) while going ashore? And your dinghy?
This is a pretty low priority item I would think. The dinghy- lock the outboard to the dinghy.  Have a loooong chain or cable bolted into the dinghy and chain it up when you go ashore.  Thieves are lazy- if you make your dinghy and outboard hard to steal they will take one from another boat.   DO NOT paint the vessels name on the dinghy transom.  They see the dinghy ashore and know the boat is likely vacant. 

Most boats have some good hiding place for money, but leave $20 bucks in some obvious place too. Ashore I guess pepper spray might be carried. 

What are some of your favorite pieces of gear on your boat and why?
AIS receiver- our new best friend.  I rate AIS as almost as big an addition to sailing as GPS was when it first came out.  Do not leave home without one. We use electronic charts almost exclusively.  Since you will also have guidebooks with harbor charts you do not need much paper backup.  Just a few small scale charts to help you find land- from then on you can use your guidebooks.

Cruisers depend on their SSB radios to keep in touch so get a good installation.  A good watermaker is essential for the Pacific and Red Sea.  Make sure you have good comfortable well lit places to read for each crew member.

Carry good heavy anchors and chain.  We make recommendations on our website.  And make sure you have a powerful windlass.  We consider our anchors, chain and windlass by far our most important gear on board.  MUCH more important than ALL the other safety gear.  Often you will anchor and when you settle you may be closer than expected to a rock, reef or other danger.  If it is hard to raise anchor you will not do so.  If it is a matter of stepping on a toe switch for a minute or two and effortlessly moving a few feet to a safer spot you are likely to do so.  I cannot stress the importance of this enough.

What question do you wish I would have asked you besides the ones I've asked  you and how would you answer it?

I guess the best advice I can offer cruisers facing the challenge of jumping off is to get in the habit of asking what if? 

What if I tack now will I clear that obstruction?
What if we don’t make landfall before dark?
What would I do if my mainsail tore?
What would I do if my partner was injured?
What would I do if the roller furler jammed?
What would I do if the fresh water pump broke?
What would I do if the anchor dragged or snagged on a rock and would not come up?
How would I raise the anchor if the windlass quit?
Where would I move to if the wind changed and made this anchorage a lee shore?
What would I do now if my mate fell overboard?
What would I do if the wind builds to 30 knots?
How would I escape this cabin if there was a fire near the main companionway?
Which fire extinguisher would I grab if there was a stove fire?

The exercise is NOT designed to scare you off from cruising.  Rather it is designed to do just the opposite.  
The unknown is fearful.  The known is not.  By identifying the possible challenges in advance you prevent many problems from happening, and for those that can’t be prevented you can pre-solve them in your mind.  By having a plan in advance you turn the unknown into the known and it becomes less fearful.  Just knowing in the back of your mind that you already have a solution to almost any problem can remove much of the anxiety.   It also plants a seed in your mind that ALL problems are solvable- and knowing this you can usually come up with solutions for the problems you did not anticipate.

Another bit of advice:
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         In my observation most people start off learning about sailing by going on other people’s boats until they really get the bug and buy their own boat.  That is when their learning curve flattens out, as from then on they are the captain and they only learn by trial and error.  I think it much better to sometimes leave your boat at the dock and sail with others just to see how they do certain things differently.  Or invite experienced hands onto your boat and listen to their suggestions.

Closing thoughts:
Someone once told me that when you start sailing you have two buckets.  One labeled “luck” and the other labeled “experience”.  Hopefully you fill up the second bucket before you empty the first.  Every time you get up at 2 am to check the anchor for dragging, or buy a spare part or learn a new technique or practice heaving to or man overboard drills, you are filling up the second bucket.  Keep filling it and you’ll do fine.

Looking forward to sharing an anchorage with you soon.