19 May 2011

10 Questions for Om Shanti

omshanti Heather Bansmer and Shawn Breeding have been cruising since 2003 aboard Om Shanti, a Westsail 32 (LOA 40) hailing from Bellingham, WA. They sailed around Vancouver Island then south down the US coast and Baja peninsula. They have been cruising on the Pacific coast of Mexico and Sea of Cortez ever since. You can learn more about their cruising and publications on their two websites: Blue Latitude Press and Exploring the Sea of Cortez. (Editors note: Heather and Shawn have written several cruising guidebooks for the West Coast of Mexico.)

What do you think is a common cruising myth
I think the most common myth is that there is a only one type of "real" cruiser out there - a hard core old salt of a sailor with a truly minimalist boat sailing the oceans of the world, in which constant hardship is a badge of honor. I think the stereotype can probably be traced back to a time when we didn't have the luxuries that we do today. While getting from point A to point B has not changed greatly over the years in terms of boats, sails, engines, etc., the amenities that provide us comfort and safety have changed dramatically. GPS systems, autopilots, refrigerators, satellite phones, email, water makers, weather routers, EPIRBs, and even laundry machines are all available and widely used by boaters today. I have come to believe that cruising and being a cruiser is more of a state of mind and less about the gear you use. Whether I make lengthy ocean passages, send emails from a marina slip, chill beer next to an evaporator plate, or take daily fixes with a sextant matters less to me over the years as I think of what constitutes a "cruiser" to me today. To me, being a cruiser is about self reliance, being part of a wonderful and helpful community, being intimately in touch with the surrounding natural world, having an appreciation and acceptance for everything new - whether good or bad, and recognizing what truly has value in life. Some get caught in trying to live up to a stereotype of cruiser who existed years ago, thinking that they need to withhold some of today's modern amenities or travel the ends of the world in order to be considered part of the "club" but in truth cruising is whatever you want to make it.

Describe the compromises (if any) that you have made in your cruising in order to stay on budget
We are what we like to call "commuter cruisers" - we cruise Mexico for approximately four to six months out of the year and return home to Washington to work and replenish the cruising kitty. Because we continue to work each year, we tend to not pay too much attention to a fixed cruising budget. We live pretty simply by nature and much of the cruising we do is in remote areas of the Sea of Cortez where spending money or staying in marinas is not really even an option. I would say more of our actual budgeting comes into play when we are back at home in the US working. The less we eat out, the fewer bands we see, the fewer road trips we take, etc., the more we save and therefore the quicker we can stop working and get back to Mexico. If we have expensive maintenance or gear items on our boat project list, we usually end up working a little longer in the states in order to finance the items.

What did you do to make your dream a reality?
Shawn was turned on to the cruising lifestyle when he crewed on a handful of boats throughout the South Pacific and New Zealand. During his travels he realized that he wanted to get out cruising on a boat of his own, and began asking the fellow blue water cruisers he was running into, what they thought were the most important qualities in a cruising sailboat. Returning from New Zealand, he was armed with a new a found passion, and moved from landlocked Kentucky to Washington state to begin his search for a boat. At 28 years of age, the most obvious restrictions to his cruising dream were finances. He determined through his research that his goals were 1) a good solid, safe boat, and 2) cruise sooner than later, therefore affordable to a single 28 year old. The result was a clean, stout, although fairly spartan, Westsail 32 named Om Shanti. Over the next five years, the boat loan was paid off and gear was added with the thought that safety comes first with comfort and cosmetics somewhere down the line. New rigging, sails, windvane and engine came before refrigeration, new cushions, shower, hot running water, etc. (we're actually still waiting for several of those comfort items to work their way up the list!).

Two years after Shawn's purchasing Om Shanti, we met and I was drawn to this new form of world travel that included taking your home with you. With no sailing experience behind me, we spent most weekends out on the water, while I learned a whole new language for boat terminology and the physics behind getting a boat to move under sail power. Shawn continued gaining offshore experience with multiple trips up and down the west coast of the US and a trip from the east coast to the Virgin Islands. We read every magazine and book that had the slightest bit to do with cruising (this was before the age of sail blogs). We attended boat shows and seminars, listening to talks on rig tuning, engine maintenance, heavy weather sailing, provisioning, etc. We lived simply and narrowed our budget by moving aboard the boat, downsizing to one vehicle, vastly curbing our entertainment dollars, and limiting travel to boat-based adventures in the nearby San Juan Islands. We sold all our household items, which at first was a bit upsetting, but in the end turned out to be liberating and furthered our excitement toward the "vagabond" lifestyle.

Having a fairly bare boat and being budget conscious, we installed and fixed everything that we could ourselves. We browsed swap meets and want ads in order to save on buying the more expensive new gear. As a result, we received intimate and invaluable knowledge of each working system on the boat. This knowledge ultimately helped us easily and inexpensively repair systems down the road when we were in remote cruising locations and outside help was not available, as well as building a thorough spare parts inventory.

With the boat nearly paid for, all important systems nearly complete, and a cruising kitty growing, we set an official "dock line cutting" date. We knew we could only be gone for a year or two at the most, but we decided we would deal with our "future" day by day and let life lead us where it may - not necessarily the career path mindset our parents had probably envisioned for us, but it was a lot more fun!

In your own experience and your experience meeting other cruisers, what are the common reasons people stop cruising?
I would think the most common reasons people stop cruising is due to a lack of finances, completing their cruising goals, and missing family and friends back at home.

What mistakes did you make in your first year of cruising?
I can't think of any real mistakes that we made during our first year of cruising. Being our first time cruising on our own boat, we were entering unknown territory and took every experience as a learning tool. Without really knowing what to expect during our first year, I suppose we remained blissfully ignorant.

Do you have advice for having visitors?
We love to have visitors down to the boat as it is a great way to share our "mysterious" lifestyle with friends and family. Over the years, we have found that visitors are either most comfortable sharing our lifestyle via the comfort of one of our settees or via the comfort of an air conditioned hotel room. Figuring out which category of guest you have visiting before they arrive is very important to keeping everyone on board happy! For our friends who like to stay on the boat and cruise with us, we usually carry a tent and thermarest cushions for camping on a remote white sand beach if they would like (or we would like!) to have their own space for a night or two. For guests who prefer to visit Mexico via the comfort of a hotel room, we usually bring the boat into a marina in a city like La Paz or Puerto Vallarta where there are more shoreside tourist activities. In a marina slip, our guests can come and go from the boat as they wish while enjoying the privacy of their own bathroom and bed in a hotel room. We generally head out for day sails from the marina and anchor for the afternoon at a nice beach for swimming and lunch. That way they can still get a sense of the beauty of the cruising lifestyle and area, without having to abandon the creature comforts of shore.

What is the next piece of gear you would add to your boat if it were free?
The responsible, safety-first cruiser in me would say AIS, but the comfort-seeking cruiser in me would say a custom built v-berth mattress.

What (if anything) do you wish someone had told you before you started cruising?
I wish someone had told me how difficult passages can be in colder, wetter climates for women in foul weather gear. It seems like a silly thing, but I can't say that I heard much mention of this topic in sailing magazines or cruising guides. Maybe it didn't bother others like it did me, but I remember having enough frustrating moments that I would seriously consider altering my foul weather pants for our next trip down that cold, wet coast. My ensemble included the following: numerous layers of thermal clothing, foul weather pants with suspenders that did not breathe or leaked resulting in damp clothing, foul weather jacket, combo life jacket and harness. Coupled with lots of hot coffee to keep you awake during late night watches and ramen soup for late night munchies, trips to the head seemed frequent and cumbersome. In the middle of a rolling ocean, one hand is always needed to secure yourself, the other is left having to tackle the removal of the life harness in order to remove the jacket in order to removal the suspender pants in order to pull down the tight fitting, somewhat damp thermal pants. This ultimately puts you in a compromising position: your pants down around your ankles on a pitching and rolling boat trying to reverse the cycle to dress once again. After enough times of bursting through our head doors with my pants down, I can say that next time I'll be looking for better suited non-suspender foul weather pants.

What do you dislike about cruising that surprised you?
Dislike might not be the correct term, but I was surprised to be so sad each time I had to say goodbye to cruising friends we had really connected with due to different cruising schedules or destinations. Even though you know that you're both going to continue on with wonderful future adventures ahead, it is many times difficult to say goodbye after sharing many exciting adventures together. I did not realize the close friendships you can form over a fairly short period of time in the cruising world that would make it so difficult to say "until next time."

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

Having left earlier in life and being forced to cruise simply, would you prolong your departure date in order to have a better boat/bigger kitty?

No. Too many people end up not going because they think they have to recreate their land lives on the boat and it becomes prohibitively expensive. We tend to think of our lifestyle on the boat as luxury camping instead of trying to recreate the life we are leaving. A safe and seaworthy boat is all that is needed to go. It's amazing all of the gadgets that seem so necessary when armchair sailing are so quickly forgotten when the first dolphins appear under the wake of the bow.

The most common thing we hear from many of our retirement age cruising peers, is that we are "Doing it right... experiencing the cruising  world before life gets in the way and before you know it, it's too late". We have taken this wisdom to heart and have no regrets at all.