18 July 2011

10 Questions for Asylum

Asylum under sail in Fiji Jim and Katie Coolbaugh are cruising aboard Asylum, a Tayana V42 (42 ft), cutter-rigged sloop hailing from Bethesda, MD, USA. They began cruising in 1999 and are still at it.

They describe their route as: Down the east coast of the US, partly on the ICW to FL; down the Thorny Path thru the Eastern Caribbean to Trinidad and Tobago; west to Panama via Venezuela and Colombia with a N/S detour thru Haiti and Cuba; thru the Canal to Ecuador, which provided a base for land travel in South America; across the Pacific to New Zealand via French Polynesia, Suwarrow Atoll in the Cook Islands, American Samoa, Tonga; then back up to Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and soon to Palau.

Readers can learn more about their travels on their blog or via email (asyluminmates@gmail.com).

Over the time that you have been cruising, has the world of cruising changed?
We are about to pass the 12-year mark as live-aboard cruisers and as we reflected back over those years, several changes in the world of cruising came to mind:
  • Cruising boats seemed to get bigger. In the early years, Asylum at 42 ft was on the high end of average boat size, but now, on average, cruising boats seem to be bigger.
  • There are more cruising catamarans. In the beginning, we almost never saw cruising catamarans. They were all charter cats. Now, it’s not uncommon to have as many cruisers on cats in an anchorage as on monohulls. I even wrote an article about “catamaran converts,” people who’d switched from monohulls to catamarans after setting out to  cruise, and could have added many more to the 4 couples profiled.
  • Communications are much easier, faster, cheaper. When we left, there was no sailmail or winlink, no wifi, Skype, or pre-pay cell phones that you could activate anywhere. Communications were often a time-consuming challenge and expense in the early years.
  • ATMs are almost everywhere. No longer do you have to carry a wad of cash or a stash of traveler’s checks. Yes, there are still a few remote places out there without ATMs, but they’re very remote and the next town with one usually close by.
  • Navigational technology gizmos have mushroomed. We left with a modest radar, a GPS, and paper charts. We now have electronic charts, a chart plotter, a forward looking sonar, and AIS—all of a relatively modest ilk. On some boats we’ve visited I feel like I’m the bridge of an aircraft carrier!
  • Much more cruising information is (instantly) available. With Noonsite, SSCA on line, and everyone keeping and emailing copious notes on their routes, it’s easy to get up to the minute information about your next destination. Sometimes almost too much information…
  • The world seems a wee bit more dangerous. We have read with dismay reports of growing violence and cautionary “don’t go there” tales for many places in the world. In the beginning it never occurred to us that we wouldn’t head up the Red Sea to the Med when the time came, but now the expanding range and relentless acts of piracy along that route, a route that old-timers used to rave about, are giving everyone pause. Other areas that we or friends remember fondly have had reports of life-threatening assaults on cruisers, incidents much more dangerous than a stolen dinghy or snorkel gear nipped from the deck.
What is something that you looked forward to about cruising when you were dreaming that is as good or even better than imagined?
Approaching the next anchorage and arriving to find it empty…no other boats there, having it all to ourselves! Not that we don’t love hanging out with our friends in an idyllic spot, but empty anchorages are increasingly hard to come by, so when you find one, it’s especially sweet.

K&J in Nut Case Is there anywhere you sailed to that was a disappointment?
Not really. For the most part, cruising destinations are what you make them, and to the extent we’ve been “disappointed” it’s mostly been because we didn’t have enough time in a given place (like Cuba). That being said, Papua New Guinea has been something of a disappointment because of security issues. We were boarded and robbed our fourth night in the country and that made us more cautious about where we subsequently have visited than we might otherwise have been. There is considerable “don’t go there” advice even from the locals, which we respect. So our hope of exploring remote interesting villages here in PNG has been largely unrealized and therefore something of a disappointment, but we’re still glad we came.

When have you felt most in danger and what was the source?
For us, there are 3 main sources of danger out here: bad guys, bad weather, hitting something pointy that could hole the boat. Fortunately, we haven’t had to deal with the latter two. Our weather bad weather experiences mostly have been uncomfortable, not dangerous.

But we have had 2 scary encounters with bad guys, one in Colombia many years ago and one recently in PNG. In both cases, we were boarded at night by armed men (in Colombia, 5 with guns; in PNG, 2 with knives). We won’t take the space for details here; both incidents are described in our blog and on Noonsite. Frankly, the second was scarier because the guys actually got into the boat. In the first, we were able to repel them with pepper spray, but in the second, we couldn’t get at the pepper spray fast enough since they landed on top of us when we were asleep. I think the important thing was that in both cases, scared shitless as we were, we breathed deeply, didn’t panic, assessed the situation, kept our wits, and got out without injury.

Share a piece of cruising etiquette. 
Don’t anchor too close! Just because you can get your boat into that  skinny slot next to mine doesn’t mean you should. Perhaps our greatest pet peeve is how close other boats feel compelled to anchor, particularly when there’s an enormous bay of space to choose from. There seems to be a herding mentality out there that results in everyone anchoring on top of each other and we hereby beg our fellow cruisers to resist it. We don’t want you to have to listen to our generator and we don’t want to have to listen to yours. Drop your hook a healthy and respectable ways away. And if you’re the new guy on the block and someone asks you to move because you’re uncomfortably close, honor their request.

J&K at Mt Tavurvur in Rabaul PNGWhat type of watch schedule do you normally use while offshore?
After some experimentation we have landed on 4 – 4 – 3 – 3. That is, we each get an initial 4 hour sleep, and then we each get 3 hours of sleep, usually starting around 7 p.m. Because I come from a family of night-owls and it’s easier for me to stay up longer, Jim usually takes the first 4 hour sleep. It’s also easier for me to sleep in daylight, so I get the last 3 hours (which also means I can “sleep in” in the morning). During the day, we’re both up or catch a cat nap as needed.

Why did you decide to cruise?
I’ve always been one of those people who preferred to regret the things they did rather than the things they didn’t do. So, after visiting some sailing buddies who had left to go cruising a few years before we did, we pondered the notion on the flight back to Washington. I said to Jim that I didn’t want to wake up in a nursing home when I’m 85 and a doddering old fool and say, “Damn, I wish we’d gone cruising!” We love to sail, travel, dive, experience odd and out-of-the-way places, eat weird food, meet interesting and unusual people, learn new stuff; I, in particular feared ruts and routine.

Living smaller, cheaper, simpler had great appeal. And perhaps we could even do some good along the way…

In your own experience and your experience meeting cruising couples, can you convince a reluctant partner to go cruising and if so, how?
The crux of any persuasive argument like this lies in zeroing in on the source of the reluctance.
  • Is it fear of pirates? Talk about the odds… (ok, well, the Gulf of Aden is a problem these days).
  • Is it fear of bad weather? Talk about the odds of encountering really bad weather if you plan your routes and seasons carefully (and read the zillions of blogs and websites where cruisers routinely report that they’ve never really encountered seriously dangerous weather in all their years cruising). And of course a good sound boat is important. A line from a long-ago cruising article has always stuck with me and I quote it often: “A sailboat will scare you to death long before it kills you.” Also, read books and articles about awful weather! People thought I was nuts reading about the Queen’s birthday storm and the Fastnet race disasters (“doesn’t it scare you to read about that stuff?”), but that’s how you learn strategies for coping with those situations and how not to make the same mistakes.
  • Is it lack of amenities? Figure out what’s important to you and make sure your boat has it. (It’s amazing, though, how quickly all those really important things become unimportant. I hate washing sheets in a bucket but in the end, it’s just not that big a deal.)
  • Is it missing friends and family? Invest in good communications and plan your cruising itineraries to include places where you can leave the boat and fly home often. Lots of cruisers do it.
Finally, I’d say: Give it a try. You can always quit if you don’t like it but you’ll never experience the immense rewards of cruising if you don’t give it a shot.

What is something you think potential cruisers are afraid about that they shouldn't fear? And what is something potential cruisers don't worry about that perhaps they should?
Most potential cruisers seem to worry about bad weather. It’s not that they shouldn’t worry about weather, it’s just that weather shouldn’t be a crippling fear. There’s so much weather information available now—forecasts, weather patterns for every corner of the world, principles of weather systems, strategies for dealing with it—that the prudent cruiser should be able to plan around and avoid the worst of it. Most people complain about too little wind, not too much. We’ve all been caught by surprises, though, and that’s when a boat you trust and your good seamanship come into play to help allay your worst weather fears.

Sunset in N VanuatuThere is also so much advice and information out there for potential cruisers that it’s hard to imagine anything that’s been missed on the “things to worry about” lists, but one thing that does come to mind is anchoring: both equipment and technique. When it comes to anchors, size matters. Bigger is better. Everyone we know has either started out with or moved up to a bigger anchor than was “recommended” for their boat. But it’s not only size that matters; other key considerations are the type of anchor for the bottom you’re in and the type and amount of rode you carry (and deploy). We have 200 ft of chain, which, in some deep Pacific anchorages is barely enough. When it comes to something to worry about, dragging at night—or being dragged into by the other guy who didn’t worry about his anchor—is a big one.

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

There are so many good questions we would loved to have answered, but since we’ve spent a fair amount of time talking to each other about this issue, we’ll go for this one: With the benefit of hindsight, what
are the boat selection criteria you would use to purchase a boat for long term cruising

If we had it to do over again, we would do more homework about the implications of boat design: construction, weight, length, waterline, rig, and all those ratios that define and explain “performance.” In
the end, it may be that we still would have opted for a safe, heavy cruising boat, but it would have been a better-informed decision than the broker-led and somewhat emotional choice we ended up making at the
time. Then we would weigh all those performance standards that are so critical for moving the boat from place to place against the equally critical comfort factor because, after all, you spend a lot of time sitting still while cruising and this is our home. In a line I’ve stolen from a cruiser friend, “I didn’t sign up to go camping.”
Implicit in all the number crunching and analysis, of course, is the issue of the seaworthiness of the boat. It won’t matter how comfortable you are if you worry that it will fall apart every time a wave slaps the hull. And “safety” includes not only sound construction, strong rigging, and rugged sails but also the ability to sail the boat with a two-person crew.

After that, the various aspects of liveaboard comfort come to play. Asylum is a 42 ft, aft cockpit boat, and much as we love and trust her, there are times we wish she was a 48 ft center cockpit boat. We sleep in the V-berth, which, on Asylum, is a bigger bed than the aft quarterberth. If we had it to do over again, we’d go center cockpit (we just didn’t like the lines of any of the center cockpit boats we looked at when we were buying a cruising boat, but we’ve gotten over that!) with a roomy aft cabin and a bed you can access from both sides. But it’s the little things you don’t think about when you’re in the flush excitement of buying a cruising boat, like a place for files and all the paper you accumulate along the way; a place for dirty
laundry; the comfort of the seat at the navigation station; plentiful, accessible storage, especially for all the tools and spares you carry; counter space around the head sink (Asylum has an airline-sized bathroom sink and counter space the size of a postage stamp). It’s hard to think about those things when you’re still living in a house and your current sailboat serves you fine for weekends when none of that other stuff matters (you take your laundry home with you and there’s a chandlery around the corner).

Yes, in 12-year hindsight we’ve decided that a little more waterline and a little more space would have been nice. But at this point, we wouldn’t trade Asylum for the Queen Mary!