25 July 2011

10 Questions for Reach

reach2 Mark Cole and Michele Kelly began cruising in 2008 aboard Reach, a Manta 40 catamaran hailing from Mystic, Connecticut, USA. They traveled from the East Coast US to the Bahamas, Eastern Caribbean, Venezuela, ABC islands, Columbia, and now San Blas Panama. Readers can learn more about them on their website.

What (if anything) do you wish someone had told you before you started cruising?
Michele:  Be true to yourself.  Before cruising, we soaked up as much information as we could from all available resources.  Our friends and seasoned cruisers delighted us with their tales from the high seas, but wisely told us that ultimately, you won't know what cruising is like until you're actually out there.  Not only did this prove true, but we also learned that to be happy you have to figure out what works best for yourselves.   It helps when the boat feels like home.  There is no right or wrong boat or way to cruise since it is about personal choices and it always surprises me when people are adamant otherwise.  We try to apply this basic principle to our choices in boat type, primary navigation, boat systems and life in general, which for us includes keeping a good sense of humor, not taking ourselves too seriously and enjoying what we do in both the exciting and the mundane.

Mark: It is in my nature to gather data and to group, distill and analyze it before making decisions (I’m a scientist), so I spent a lot of time asking advice from other cruisers, mucking through the various discussion boards, reading all books I could find, etc.  So far, I haven’t found that there some particular fact or circumstance I should  have known before setting out, but there were three things I was told that I think all potential cruisers should hear.

The first is that everyone I talked to, without exception, who retired at the usual age and then went cruising, told me that they wished they had gone cruising when they were younger.  Two reasons were cited: that certain aspects or intensities of cruising slowly close down as one ages, and that many of those things one stayed shoreside working toward like a “proper” retirement package, new cars, bigger houses, more entertainment, etc become so unimportant and trivial when looked back upon from a cruising lifestyle.  No one complained that cruising wasn’t fulfilling, fun or was a bad decision - simply that they wished they had gone when they were younger.  Intellectually, we took this to heart and it became the driving mantra to go cruising for us.  Yes, this is an old saw that is repeated in many books and discussion boards; however, it took being out cruising full time until we truly understood what it means and why.  Potential cruisers will need to intellectualize it, like we did, while having faith that it is true and that they will discover why only after they have been out cruising.

The second thing was not so much a piece of advice, but rather a condensation and synthesis of discussions with cruisers.  When talking to cruisers from a wide variety of backgrounds, from boats spanning 60’s pocket cruisers to expensive large yachts, from personal fortunes ranging from a few dollars to many millions, from those staying close to home to those ranging the globe, all of them described the exact same experiences of meeting people and cultures, living by one’s own ethos and standards, enjoying the scenery, fixing things that break, sharing stories of bad passages, reveling in the sublimeness of good passages - in essence, all these cruising people were the same.  No one out here debates any of the pedantic stuff littering the bulletin boards about what makes a “proper” cruising boat and a “real” cruiser.  It just doesn’t matter out here - we are all seeing the same things and having the same experiences.

Related to this is the third piece of advice - again, an old saw that is only really appreciated once you make the break and see it from the other side - which is “Go Now”.  We were told that our boat would never be “ready”, that there would always be shore-side “commitments”, “obligations” and “emergencies” that would just take “one more year”, that our retirement plans would never be “secure”, that our families would never become “more comfortable” about our plans, that our house would never be “ready” to sell, that our jobs would easily go on without us “winding them up for transfer” - essentially, that the list of things we thought were influencing our departure could easily be wrapped in “quotes” and tossed away.  In the end, the only piece of sticky tape remaining for us (really, me - Michele was innocent in this) was the belief that we could sell our house for a bit more money if we waited a little longer.  Luckily, our good friends (and long-time cruisers) stepped in and convinced us (me) that the difference we were holding out for would not begin to cover the costs of the missed experiences of the first year out, and that we (I) would forget about that “lost” money immediately.  Today, I have forgotten the price at which we sold our house, and what amount we wanted to hold out for.

I once read a letter to a sailing magazine describing a couple who worked hard while waiting to retire, purchased the boat of their dreams and spent two years completely refitting it.  While backing out of their slip on the dreamed of day, waving good-bye to all their friends as they departed on their long-awaited and well-deserved cruising lifestyle, the husband had a fatal heart attack.  The wife, writing the letter, described how she wished they hadn’t waited so long and urged everyone considering cruising to “go now”.   I have never forgotten that letter.  The first point about “Go Young”, coupled with “Go Now”, really lit a fire under us to wrap things up and go.

When we left in 2008, Mark was 45 and Michele was 39.  Our families understood, our house sold easily, our retirement plan is what it is, and our jobs didn’t even hiccup without us.  Our boat is still not “ready”, but we haven’t noticed that for a couple of years now.  After three years cruising, Mark is currently 35 and Michele is 29.

No one told us we would get younger out here.

Is there something you wish you had bought or installed before starting cruising?
Michele:   During summer seasons, we coastal sailed on "Reach" before selling our house to live aboard and go cruising full time.  One system that had never been commissioned until a few months out was the watermaker.  While it is possible to take on water at marinas in the US or Eastern Caribbean, it was another chore and we had to watch usage.  We live at anchor 98% of the time and the watermaker gives us complete independence.  Water is not as abundant in some other countries we've visited; for example, there are little to no water sources in some of our favorite places, like the southern Bahamas, Venezuelan out islands and the San Blas.  I prefer fresh water for showers, dishes and laundry as opposed to salt water, since things like hair and clothes don't dry out from residual salt.  For us, this is a critical piece of gear.

Mark: AIS (Automatic Identification System).  These existed before we left cruising, but with radar, good charts, a radio and many years of navigation experience around ships and shipping, I just couldn’t see the point of wasting $189 for an AIS receiver.  After 1.5 years out, we installed an AIS receiver.  Wow.  It is one of the best things we have put on the boat and certainly THE best thing under $200.  We don’t miss having a transponder model or a full bells and whistles system, although others may want them.  The simple receiver interfaces easily to the chart plotter and shows all commercial ships and information (and any recreational boats with a transponder).  The difference in navigation ease and information over radar and VHF is tremendous - particularly during night passages.

Also, a water catchment system.  It doesn’t have to be fancy.  After 1.5 years, we added some inexpensive gutters to our bimini and lead the water through a filter before the tanks.  No sense letting all that free water go to waste.

Our boat was very well equipped when we bought it, and has full navigation electronics, radar, autopilot, watermaker, diesel generator, inverter/charger, air conditioning, SSB/HAM radios, a large solar panel installation, a good refrigeration/freezer system, large RIB dinghy with 15hp outboard, etc.  What we consider essential for our personal cruising lifestyle is the GPS, autopilot, watermaker, SSB, solar, reefer/freezer, inverter (just large enough to run small appliances off and charge computers) and a good wifi system.  One must have some type of dinghy and we personally would not want to be without a RIB with an outboard large enough to plane with two people and a healthy amount of cargo.  If we didn’t have the diesel generator, I would get a portable Honda generator.  If we didn’t have the room for solar, I would get a wind generator.  I would consider the radar essential only if cruising in areas where fog is common.  The watermaker is not essential if your cruising grounds are in areas with a lot of marinas or other water supplies.  For us, it is essential since we have been cruising in areas such as the Bahamas, where you have to jug water (this gets old very quickly) and the San Blas, where you have very limited access to sporadic or questionable supplies.  Air conditioning is not essential and wouldn’t be on our boat if it wasn’t already installed.  Regardless of lifestyle and comfort choices, I would have at a minimum a good, trustworthy autopilot/self steering and a GPS.
What mistakes did you make in your first year of cruising?
Michele:  We have each bottomed out in shallow depths in soft sand or mud while at the helm.  That was the result of exploring off the beaten path so it's usually worth it, less a little bottom paint.  It's not the result we'd want in rocky or coral areas, however.  Also, I was fairly radio shy at first on the VHF, but have mostly gotten over it as this is our primary means of communication.

Mark: Fortunately, we didn’t make any big mistakes - certainly nothing that cost us money or set back our cruising plans.  While not really a single “mistake”, a couple of passages in snotty weather did teach us to wait for good weather windows and not push on to a schedule.  It also taught us that our boat would do just fine in those conditions.

What is the next  piece of gear you would add to your boat if it were free and why?
Michele:  OceanAir hatch screens.  At anchor in a nice breeze you typically don't need screens, but when you do find yourself in a buggy place you really need it!  We were trapped inside by swarms of mosquitos for several becalmed days at the ironically named "Dos Mosquises" islands.  We have removable hatch screens that when not in use, just lay around various cabins in the boat and get in the way.  It would be a luxury to have sliding hatch screens, but they are very pricy and we have 6 hatches.

Mark: Possibly a wind generator.  It would be a mounting challenge for us, but we still might add one someday.  If gear is being handed out, I would replace our 6 gal/hr DC watermaker with a larger output (~20-30 gal/hr) AC powered one that could also be run off the inverter when a charging source is present.  Water is such a differential out here in terms of lifestyle, particularly in the tropics where a good rinse after swimming and a nice shower before bed is in the realm of necessity.  To be able to wash down the boat after a salty passage is not a luxury, but indispensable maintenance.  Even with a large solar installation, there is a limit to how much we can run our watermaker and still maintain the batteries.  DC watermakers really only work to spec when the battery voltages are in the charging range, so we end up running it when motoring or during the height of sunny days, or running the generator during less sunny days.  When motoring or running the generator, we are providing more energy than the watermaker consumes.  It would make more sense to run a larger output one during these times and fill the tanks in a shorter period.  If we didn’t have a generator, I would get a portable Honda for running the watermaker.

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?
MicheleIs it scary? Some potential cruisers worry about multi-day passage-making for various reasons.  Well-planned and executed passages (clearly an understatement) can be one of the most pleasant times spent on your boat, traveling along with your entire home in peace and solitude.  A truly good passage lets your mind travel to new places as well.  We get into a focused "zone" when passage-making and become relaxed and well-rested, keeping low stress no matter what the conditions.  By running 3-hour watches from 8PM-8AM and catching naps during the day, we sometimes get more total sleep on passage than normal.  Passages are always one of our favorite experiences on "Reach".

To worry or not? It's easy to relate dinghy travel with as much as certainty as driving a car on the road, until something goes wrong (or even worse, drifts away or is stolen).  It's important to be aware of your environment and think about what you would do if something went wrong; for example, if your prop spins out when you are miles away from your boat as happened to us.  Fortunately, it still got us back to the boat at idle speed.  I find myself always double checking things in our dinghy to be prepared for excursions with a handheld VHF radio, sufficient gas, spare prop and a good anchor.  If you are alone in an isolated region, that VHF probably won't do you any good anyway, but oars, a bottle of water or small ditch bag might.

Yes, Worry. Most of us are aware of incidents of violent crime targeting cruisers.  We've made decisions not to travel in questionable areas without a "buddy boat" nor in some areas all together.  For us, it just isn't worth the risk, independent of others' experiences or attractions.  On a weekend when we were considering making a particular trip alone, another single boat taking this route was boarded and robbed and it certainly hit home that this could have been us.

Mark: Almost universally, potential cruisers (any many actual cruisers) are afraid of storms and sailing in bad weather - particularly at night.  I think this fear actually ends some cruising plans before they are implemented, and there are cruisers out here who travel only by daytime hops in calm weather because they still fear it.  And bad weather sucks.  We hate it and avoid it as much as possible and experience fear when we are caught in it.  It is OK to be afraid as long as you confront your fear for what it is, understand that it is natural and unavoidable, and go on with your plans knowing that you will meet it again.  So while it is OK to fear storms, you shouldn’t let that fear control you or your plans.  For most cruising grounds, getting caught out in a storm is remarkably rare unless you are foolish enough to have an unyielding schedule or not learn to understand weather patterns.

There are two things potential cruisers don’t worry about that will shut down their cruising plans immediately: Schedules and “Knowing Thyself”.

Schedules are a killer.  While they are completely normal and expected on land, out cruising they will break you, make you miserable, lead you into taking your boat out when and where it doesn’t belong and, in general, completely muck up your life, if not actually damage you or your boat.  Unbelievably, we have met new cruisers who have shown us DETAILED schedules for the next TWO YEARS of their cruising.  And I mean details like: Jan 4 - Port A, Jan 6 - Port B ... for the next two years!  One was traveling from the Chesapeake to the Caribbean with scheduled plans for every single day and passage  times and dates for the whole year like it was a package vacation with airlines and trains!  It is OK to have general plans, but if you are a potential cruiser with a detailed schedule, tear it up now before you get into trouble.  If you are the type of person who compulsively needs to have detailed schedules, you are not going to make it as a cruiser.

Know Thyself: it is an ancient piece of advice, but advice that shore life rarely requires one to learn.  Out cruising, however, not recognizing or understanding your personal needs, desires and requirements will end your cruising lifestyle.  We can recognize these cruisers within 5 minutes after being introduced.  It is that obvious to everyone except them.  By this I mean if you require fancy restaurants and fine entertainment and think you can fulfill this out cruising, you won’t make it.  If you are being torn away crying from your house that means the world to you and think the boat will be a substitute, you aren’t going to make it.  If you have grandchildren that you must spend a lot of time with and spend most of your cruising days pining for them, you aren’t going to make it.  Similarly, if you have a newly married son/daughter with plans for children, and you know those grandkids will be the most important thing in your life, starting a cruise is a waste of time.  If you are a type-A personality that can’t sit still and/or needs to “run the show”, you might make it.  You will be the one staying in popular anchorages organizing all the cruiser field trips, potlucks, games, community benefits, making arbitrary “anchorage rules”, policing the VHF, etc.  Overall, the cruising lifestyle is very rewarding, but very different from any lifestyle shore-side.  Like any choice, certain options are available only at the expense of other options.  Successful cruisers have embraced the cruising lifestyle while willingly giving up their previous lifestyle.  If you cannot give up your shore lifestyle, and hope to meld it into the cruising lifestyle, you should either plan something like “6 months out, 6 months at home” type of cruising, or forget about going cruising - there are much easier ways to see different places and experience different cultures  than dragging yourself to them on a small, slow boat.

In your experience, how much does cruising cost?
Michele:  We retired early to cruise indefinitely so we have had to plan well, first to build our savings and then to make it last.  I track our spending using Quicken so we can see how we stand against our budget goal of around $30k a year.  About half of our budget is spent on mandatory costs that come from personal decisions about health/boat insurance and boat maintenance.  These costs can be high so we actually spent 40% more than intended the first two years out in the US, Bahamas and Eastern Caribbean.  No matter how much outfitting thought we'd covered before leaving (chain, new canvas, rigging), we ended up making major boat investments in the past two years (haulout, bottom paint, new props, sails, generator, chain) due to more wear and tear when cruising 365 days a year versus seasonally and some system failures.  Our discretionary spending has been low and is easier to control.  We rarely eat out, so groceries are one of our major expenses averaging $115 a week.  We expect annual spending to decrease in the SW Caribbean.

Mark: Whatever you have.  Really.  Everyone wants to see actual cost figures and breakdowns, but this question will never have a meaningful answer.  There are so many gradients of costs of living and lifestyles and so many cruising grounds offering different bang for buck and too many options for adjusting one’s lifestyle to one’s money availability to make a descriptive equation or algorithm.  If the Eastern Carib is draining your money, go to the Western Carib.  You can live forever on very little in Mexico.  The minimum cruising requirement is to maintain a sea-worthy boat, operate it safely and have enough to eat.  So you must spend a finite amount to achieve this, but it could represent the cost of some decent galvanized rigging, a handheld GPS and a handline and/or pole spear to catch fish, supplemented with rice and beans.  Everything on top of that is optional, although these options may be considered non-optional for many cruisers.  But the one thing about cruising that seems identical to land-life is that if you have the money, you will spend it.  There will be times when the money is flowing out so fast you can’t count it and other times when you can’t remember where your wallet is since it has been that long since you needed money.  We have spent more than our budget goal the past couple of years because we made some specific decisions to maintain a certain cruising lifestyle.  New sails, new generator new anchor chain and new propellers were unexpected expenses that we undertook.  While anchor chain and propellers are somewhat essential items, the sails and generator were not necessarily so.  So whatever money you have, you will spend it and be happy.  It is almost impossible to become destitute out here as long as you don’t have a money-draining problem such as alcohol, drugs, etc.  And the overall enjoyment of the lifestyle seems to be wholly independent of the amount of money thrown at it, as long as one’s expectations/requirements are matched to one’s wallet.

How did you (or did you) gain offshore experience prior to leaving?
Michele:  My first offshore trip was a six-day trek to deliver our newly purchased catamaran from Florida to Connecticut.  We recruited three friends to join us so we all had partners for night watches, which helped me learn a lot.  It was a good challenge to participate in weather routing, provisioning and offshore navigation for the first time.  It was a beautiful trip riding the Gulf Stream currents, watching dolphins, sunsets and sunrises, and catching fish along the way.  There was also some rougher weather and the boat was new to us, yet everything still went well.  Fortunately, this was a great experience and I was immediately comfortable offshore.

Mark: I have been sailing essentially all my life.  I started gaining true offshore experience in the mid-80’s when I bought a 26’ sailboat with a friend and we spent summers cruising it.  Offshore experience really just boils down to three things: knowing your boat, having navigation skills and understanding/controlling your personal fears.  Potential cruisers shouldn’t worry much about a lack of offshore experience - the first two aspects can, and should, be acquired while coastal and day sailing, and the third aspect is only mastered by going offshore.  So offshore experience is a tautology - the only way to gain offshore experience is to experience sailing offshore.  Just go do it - take shorter overnight sails if you are concerned, and wait for good weather windows.

What is a tip or a trick you have picked up along the way?
Michele:  The secret to clean onboard laundry is wringing.  I started off using laundry machines or services in the US and Eastern Caribbean.  Then I realized that we could buy new clothes for the cost of washing them over time.  In the SW Caribbean onboard laundry is a necessity.  I use a Wonderwash pressure washer, but was never totally satisfied with the final results as fabrics dripped-dry on our lifelines and ended up hard with un-rinsed dirt and soap.  An article in the Caribbean Compass magazine caught my eye about an electric spin dryer and I realized this was the answer for me.  It is essentially a big salad spinner running for a minute or two on 110V power.  I use it to remove soapy water, which helps get rid of the dirty water, and again after the fresh water rinse.  A thorough wringing makes line-drying extremely quick and probably helps to extend the lifetime of your clothes by reducing wind and sun damage.

Another important discovery was that Claritin (loratadine) works wonders to stop bug bites from itching.

reach1 Mark: Two tips we have learned that are invaluable.  First, wait for a decent weather window  for a passage and, when it arrives, take it and go as far as possible while it holds out.  This may mean shortening or lengthening your original stay and plans and possibly skipping some stops along the way that are less important to you.  For example, the trip from the Bahamas to Puerto Rico is a notorious upwind slog through strong trades, squalls and large waves.  It is mostly done through short hops through Mayaguana, the Turks and Caicos, the Dominican Republic and across the Mona Passage, and is only reasonably done during lulls in the weather - which can make the passage take weeks or even months in total.  While in the Bahamas, we had a whopper of a cold front come through and, after riding out the first hit, jumped on the 20-25kt Northern winds on the back of it and had a four day broad reach straight to Puerto Rico - an almost unheard of event.  This did mean that we shortened our planned stay in the Bahamas by a week or so, and we did miss visiting the Dominican Republic, but our goal was to get to Puerto Rico.

Second, always have the boat prepared for the unexpected.  If you are anchoring in trade winds that NEVER blow from the West, make sure you are clear to swing when the wind blows from the West.  If you are going to walk a beach on a clear and cloudless day, close the hatches before you go so that the rain doesn’t soak the interior.  If you are just going to motor 1 mile across that flat lagoon, don’t leave anything on the counters/table that will break when that single wave from a far off wake rolls you.  And if it is going to blow 40 knots at anchor, it WILL be at 2am, so prepare the boat every night before going to bed.

Where was your favorite place to visit and why?
Michele:  I'm sure we both have the same response here - the Jumentos in the southern Bahamas.  It is a secluded place where you must know what you are doing and fend for yourself.  It draws other independent people like ourselves with whom we have a lot in common and have made life-long friendships.  It was exactly what we'd both envisioned for our cruising life and more:  sailing and seamanship challenges, hikes and beaches, excellent fishing, meaningful encounters with cruisers and locals, solitude and independence.

Mark: There are so many great places with such wide varieties of experiences, and even the not-so-great places are nice.  Overall, I enjoyed the Bahama out islands the best - particularly the Jumentos/Raggeds - due to the isolation, fishing, required self-sufficiency, spectacular water and rough and rugged beauty.  The San Blas islands are similar and a close second.

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

MicheleWhat do you love most about cruising?

People.  Cruising brings a new twist to relationships.  It removes many social barriers and/or expectations in modern life (keeping up with the neighbors, rat race, new toys, etc).  We have to figure out who we are without our careers to dictate our identity.  We spend more time with our partner than ever imagined before we went cruising.  We reconnect with family and friends in new ways.  We have so much spoken and unspoken in common with other cruisers.  And we meet and relate to people in the countries we visit.  Not surprisingly, human nature is universal and we find curious, shy, funny, nosey, bossy, friendly, rude, helpful, clever, caring people in various encounters.  It keeps life interesting and in my first year cruising, I found that I naturally sought out role models when trying to figure things out for myself.