23 October 2017

10 Questions for Fluenta

Max, Elizabeth, Victoria (aged 13), Johnathan (aged 11), & Benjamin (aged 3) Shaw have been cruising since 2012 aboard SV Fluenta, a Stevens 47 hailing from Halifax, NS, Canada.

They left Washing State (USA) heading down the West Coast of US as they described it "with our hair on fire to get to Mexico for two seasons to refit the boat and have a baby (all normal of course)." From Mexico they headed across the South Pacific to New Zealand for two seasons with a season in Fiji in between. This last year they headed from NZ to the North Hemisphere for hurricane season spending time in Fiji, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Tikopia, Vanuatu now New Caledonia.

Readers can read more about their cruise on their blog.

What do you enjoy about cruising that you didn't expect to enjoy?

Max:  Spending longer periods in one location rather than trying to see lots of different locations.

Elizabeth: All the cruiser book exchanges - with a baby on my lap for so much of the last three years, I have had lots of time to read!  I also love watching my kids play with kids of all ages, rather than just their own peer group.

Victoria: Talking to grownups from all different backgrounds, they know so much about so many different topics and cooking for all the kids while camping.

Johnathan:  Camping ashore.

What is something that you read or heard about cruising, that you didn't find to be true?

Max: We expected that we would be able to see more countries in a season.  This turned out not to be true for us, not because of the speed of the boat which is fine but rather our style of traveling is to spend more time in each area we visit.

Elizabeth:  I thought that cruising was an all-or-nothing decision, that we needed to completely sever our ties to "home and stuff", as if we were never coming back.  Once we left, I found that lots of people do some form of 'commuter cruising' where they cruise part of the year and have a land-life for part of the year. Even if I had known about it, this wouldn't have been a workable model for us, as we have gone too far afield to come back to house or job for part of each year, but it would have been nice to have kept a few more mementos of our previous life...

Victoria: That it is easy and is always paradise!!!

Johnathan: Cruisers are always sitting on white beaches.

Benjamin:  I did not conduct a lot of research prior to heading out cruising but it all seems pretty natural as I have been doing it for my whole lifetime.

What piece of gear seems to break the most often?

Max:  The autopilot - it may not break the most often but it is the most frustrating (the regularity x PITA x expensive product) as it is expensive, the company is a pain to deal with (Navico) and it is awkward to repair at sea.  We have just purchased a massive autopilot drive from another company so once we install it hopefully these problems will decrease in frequency.

Elizabeth:  Everything.  Every single piece of equipment on the boat will fail, or at the least need maintenance, in its own unpredictable turn.  When we left, I understood in theory that things would break now and again, but I really had no idea just how time consuming it would be to keep the equipment on the boat functioning.  Computer/Electronic terminals corrode; plumbing and through-deck fittings leak; the pump to the watermaker, that was just overhauled, will break after only few weeks once civilization has been left for the outer islands; the windlass will whir but the chain won't move while weighing anchor, etc, etc.  It goes on and on, and it seems that the more important a system is, the more likely that it will fail at an inconvenient time.  The only approach to maintaining sanity (IMHO) is to develop a spreadsheet (to track maintenance and plan preventative/cyclical activities), a sense of humour, and a sense of gratitude that the failure happened at this moment, and not at a worse one (ie it is bad for the sink drains to disintegrate and start leaking the day before a planned ocean crossing from Mexico to French Polynesia or Fiji to New Zealand, but it would be worse for them to crack a week later at sea...).   All this being said, there is a fix (either materiel or financial) for pretty much every scenario, and with sufficient redundancy, there are workarounds for most failures.  We have two (or three) ways of doing almost everything (including spare autopilots), and we carry significant volume and weight in spare parts, tools and components, and we exercise our sense of humour regularly.  I think that part of the reason cruisers get together to share stories in their cockpits in the evenings is to remind one another that everyone really is 'in the same boat' and that we are all facing challenges of one kind or another: this is the only way to stay sane!

Victoria: On different years it has been different things but it seems like it is mostly the the fans! the head-torches, the sparker on the stove ( these are the things that bug me the most).

Johnathan:  Autopilot.

Benjamin: Lego.

What advice would you give to parents thinking about taking their children cruising?

Max:  Go cruising ! We did the 21 day passage from Mexico to Marquesas with Benjamin as a four month old.  However, we did realize that a third adult is important for long passages when you have a small child onboard.  Now that the older two kids are a big help crewing and Benjamin is three years old we have not gotten crew for longer passages.

Elizabeth:  Just go!  If you feel the tug to change things up a bit and go travel, then find a way to do it.  The benefits and joys outweigh the drawbacks.  As a whole, cruising kids are a delightful group.  They welcome one another, and find a way to play together, regardless of age or background, and seem to have a kindness about them for kids with differences/challenges that is not always in evidence in the average school yard.  As I write this, an 11-year-old, a 14-year-old, and a 3-year-old from two different boats are playing Minecraft together beside me; one season in Fiji, we were six kid boats with a dozen kids (equal boys and girls) ranging in age from 5-13.  Time and again, I have appreciated that our kids have the time freedom to 'get bored' and then come up with something to do; this might be reading the same book (or series) over and over again, handicrafts, writing, or Lego, but they have become very resourceful at constructively occupying their time.  I think people hesitate to go cruising because they are worried about safety, socialization, and the disruption that might be caused by taking their kids out of their routine for a year or more.  In our experience, careful planning and maintenance can mitigate safety concerns, kids socialize readily with kids when they have a chance, and with grownups when they don't, and our friends who have returned to a land-based life have found that their kids have found their way again with minimal fuss.  Now, even more than when we were planing our trip, there are internet groups and books available that focus specifically on the ups and downs of cruising with kids, which means that parents who are thinking of taking their children cruising can readily find information and support throughout their decision-making process.  I will say that there seems to be a sweet spot in terms of the ages of kids: little ones (preschoolers and younger) are very time consuming, whether on land or at sea.  Elementary/middle schoolers are in the majority, and will be most likely to find kids of their own age in any anchorage; they are also old enough to make memories that they will remember!  Older kids (high-school) are fewer in number, but they are out here, and are able to be more independent both in terms of assisting with operating/maintaining the yacht and also with keeping in touch with the friends they have at greater distances.  I think that this means that parents who are thinking about taking their children cruising are probably wise to set their plans in motion as early as possible, so that their kids can enjoy the broadest range of experiences as 'cruising kids', but that there is no 'wrong age' to go, and it is never 'too late'...

Victoria: We need a space to just be, just us, it does not have to be big  but it needs to be some were (the boom a hammock or a hole dug into all the junk in the V-berth are some favorites on Fluenta)   Also good harnesses are needed!!!! we have found that the blue and yellow ones from West Marine are great! they  have to be comfortable as you will live in them, they need to have a clip on the leg strap that is easy to undo when you don't want to be in the bathroom for long at sea.  BRING BOOKS, LOTS AND LOTS OF BOOKS!!!!!!!!!!!!

Johnathan:  Bring lots of books and space for Lego.

Benjamin:  Doesn't everyone live in a boat with a name?  (Benjamin gets confused at the idea that some people live in houses, not boats, and that some live in big land-locked countries, not islands)

Describe a drool-worthy perfect cruising moment

Max:  Hard to name a "top" moment but several weeks with new friends in our first atoll of Tahanea in French Polynesia (sharks, mantas, camping ashore with the coconut crabs), Fulanga in the Lau Group of Fiji again with other kid boats (nice village, spearfishing and SUP trips), Ailuk in the Marshall Islands (a tiny, friendly village, great kite boarding and spearfishing and being the only boat for most of the six weeks there).

Elizabeth:  I have two favourite kinds of moments: at anchor and at sea.  An at anchor moment would be kiting in Ailuk: picture kiting in a spectacularly  pretty lagoon, with vast stretches of brilliant white sand, clear blue sky, constant kiting wind, a fringe of palm trees, being watched only by a group of local children and a few sea birds, with each other as the sole marine traffic.  This was in great contrast to the video we watched of the importance of learning the rules of the road when kiting so as not to endanger other people or boats: there were none!  At sea, I love the quiet night watches, especially when the sea state has come down, the wind is just enough to move the boat, the bio-luminescence stirred up by our wake gives the sense of riding a magic fairy carpet, the rest of the family is asleep, and the only sound to be heard is the gentle wind in the sails and the shush of the water beside the boat; perhaps the light of the full moon is nearly enough to read by or perhaps the moon has set and the entire galaxy of stars is visible overhead, with the Southern Cross showing the way.  [Bonus drool-worthy "Mom" moments - backrubs with one of my kids at anchor in Fiji while watching for shooting stars and having one of those memorable one-on-one conversations that make all the angst of parenthood worthwhile; watching a full lunar eclipse, at anchor in Suwarrow, with no one around for hundreds of miles except our family and the two Rangers]

Victoria and Johnathan:  Camping and sitting around the camp fire with a large group of cruising kids for a week in Navadra, Fiji.

Benjamin:  I drooled a lot on my first big passage but I was only four months old ...

Speaking just about your boat (not gear), what is one thing you wish your boat had that it doesn’t and what is one thing your boat has that you wish it didn't?

Max:  Our boat has great storage for a 47' boat but I would love a "sail locker" to store the big bulky items like spinnakers, storm sails, kite boarding gear.  A pretty blue paint job that is a magnet for pangas, Mexican tour boats, and dugout canoes ... [and tropical heat]

Elizabeth:  I wish we had a place to permanently/regularly hang a hammock in the shade.  I thought we would easily be able to do this on the foredeck, but somehow, either our foredeck does not have just the right geometry (the inner forestay gets in the way a bit) or I don't quite have the time/motivation/leisure to figure it out (see question above on travelling with children ...) but after five years, I can still count on one hand the number of times I have sat in one of our three hammocks on the foredeck!  In terms of what we have that I wish we didn't, I find that the diesel/water tanks under the benches are a mixed blessing: I am grateful for the fuel/water capacity that we have, but I find that I am really limited on bulk/rectilinear storage space (ie for crates of supplies).  I was drooling when I visited another Stevens 47 who has fitted one of their single berths like a big toy chest: the entire bed folds up, and they have storage to the hull underneath.  The corollary to this question is what design feature does my boat have that I like, and I would say that I like the way the galley is open to the rest of the saloon/nav area so the person in the galley can be part of the general conversation, and is not cut off in a u-shaped galley tucked away from everyone else.  I also like that there are two routes to the aft cabin (through the galley and through the head) so I am (theoretically at least) not always moving out of someone's way so that they can get past me.

Victoria: For what I don't want the answer is, at times, times MY BROTHERS !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Johnathan:  I wish we had space for to set out Lego and other projects.

Benjamin:  Our boat needs a trampoline to jump up and down on like all our friends' catamarans.  The high counters used to make it difficult for me to steal food from the galley, but now that I am three they are no problem at all as I can use the fridge latch as a foothold to climb up.

How did you (or did you) gain offshore experience prior to leaving?

Max:  Mostly through some offshore racing.  I was running a small sail training program for the Navy in Halifax so it gave me the opportunities to do some offshore racing (Marion-Bermuda, Halifax-St Pierre, Marblehead-Halifax) as well as teaching sailing in the coastal environment.  Racing and teaching are both excellent ways to accelerate your learning.   We both started sailing yachts with the RYA program when we lived in England and I was able to do my RYA Yachtmaster Ocean certification before I retired from the Canadian Forces.  We also sailed Fluenta without kids from Seattle to San Francisco to ensure we finished the rough bits and worked out some of the boat's bugs before we embarked the kids (they were six and eight at the time).

Elizabeth:  I took my RYA Day Skipper course when we lived in England (learning boat handling in winds of Force 6-8) then I did a delivery from Bermuda to Marblehead for my (Canadian) Intermediate course.  Even though Max took more courses, it was really beneficial to do our initial training together to get the same foundation and approach.

Victoria: I  did a bit of sailing when I was 3-4 and a bit of dinghy sailing when I was 6-7-8 but other than that nothing.

Benjamin:  I didn't get any. Babies don't get that [actual quote from Benjamin when we asked him]

What is something about the cruising culture you like and what is something you dislike?

Max:  I like the fact that the cruising community is so helpful - almost like the pioneer communities that one reads about.  Everybody leans forward to help a boat in need.  It is not something that bothers me particularly but rather something to be aware of is that group-think is prevalent and pretty natural in the cruising community which is interesting considering cruisers are generally pretty independent folks.

Elizabeth:  I love how quickly people will connect, and how spontaneously they will adapt their social schedule to fit in a visit with each other.  When I meet someone and we hit it off, we are much quicker to share confidences and arrange to socialize than we would have been at home.  I think this helps to keep us all a little more sane!  What I dislike is not so much the cruising culture (about which I don't really have any complaints) but about our lifestyle: I get tired of all the goodbyes.  Even though we are often saying 'see you later' and reconnecting even several years down the road (we just met friends in Vanuatu whom we haven't seen for over two years since we were all in NZ), we also experience a lot of wrenching goodbyes.  Even though this could equally happen at home, I still find it hard every time.

Victoria: Every one goes out of their way to help, there is no rush and if it happens tomorrow that's fine:) There is no rush and if it happens tomorrow that's fine. :(

Benjamin:  I like that it is like a village and there are lots of grown ups and big kids to look after me.  I don't like it when all the ladies pinch my cheeks!

Cruiser rant: What is something that drives you crazy?

Max:  I can feel my blood pressure spiking as I start to type: the marine industry.  Nothing has caused us as much grief as incompetence in the marine industry.  We generally do most of our own work but to accelerate the departure from the WA state where we bought the boat we contracted out some of the projects.  The level of incompetence and general unprofessionalism was mind blowing.  I told one company I should charge them a fee for management consulting and providing their quality assurance.   The inability of the manufacturers of marine equipment to respond in a timely or coherent manner or at all to e-mails is also unbelievably poor.

Elizabeth:  These are minor irritants more than rants: Mold growing on everything I store away (especially leather).  Never being able to see our benches without a herculean effort to stow everything away.  Taking two days to prepare / stow / lash all our belongings so that we can go on a one-day passage, and then taking two more days to recover when we get there.

Benjamin: Nothing, I'm not crazy [says Benjamin]

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

Max:  Pet Peeve: people anchoring too close.

Elizabeth:  As usual, I have a few answers:

Q1 - What is one of the simplest/smartest things you have done aboard? We have a spreadsheet of "everything" and in it we record all our storage, maintenance, plans, etc.  It sounds simplistic, but we have well over 1000 line items in our Storage page, and any time we need to find something in one of our dozens of cubbies, I can just look it up.  I have never bothered with including usage stats of our consumables (after five years, I provision based on availability, intuition, and a mortal fear of people going hungry, which is part of the reason that it is always so hard to see our benches!) Especially for items that we use rarely, it is extraordinarily satisfying to search for an item in the spreadsheet, and then find it exactly where it is supposed to be on the boat with a minimum of trouble.

Q2 - What surprised you about cruising?  I was surprised that I wasn't alone in finding out that I 'don't love' long passages.  I love the destinations, both the Islands with their rich cultures, and the cruiser community that develops so quickly in anchorages, as well as the sense of leaving the 'beaten path' and finding our way as a family, but often (especially when Benjamin was really young) I found that I did not actually like the sailing/passage-making that was required to get to these beautiful destinations.  Many people go cruising for the love of sailing, but for me it is more of a means to an end (as shocking as that may sound).  Because everything we own needs to be stowed / lashed to head offshore, and every hour of operation is an hour closer to maintenance, sailing is not something we do for fun.  I thought I was alone in this, but the more I talk to other cruising couples, the more I realize that this is surprisingly common.  Some folks even fly one spouse to the destination while the other delivers the boat.  I am too stubborn to do this, but I can certainly appreciate the sentiment, and I love the creativity that enables every family / crew to develop an approach that works for them.  It seems to me that knowing this in advance might set the more cautious partner's mind at rest if one person is more enthusiastic than the other about cruising - there is so much to enjoy, and passage-making is actually a small part of our life (and the destinations are very much worth the journeys!)

Q3 - What else surprised you about cruising?  Based on my pre-departure reading, I thought I would have a tidy boat, with meals at certain hours, the dishes always washed, school happening (with cooperation and joy) between the hours of 9am and lunch, educationally rich outings in the afternoon, and sun downers in the evening (you may wonder if I prepared for this life by reading fiction!)  The surprise was that 'wherever you go there you are' - I didn't suddenly become minimalist or tidy just because I had moved onto a boat, and even though we significantly downsized before we left, with five of us in a 47 foot monohull, tidiness is rather elusive, and storage takes up much of the volume, including some bunks and benches (once again see previous question about cruising with kids).  The surprise was that schooling and learning are not the same thing; and I have had to learn to stand back and let my children lead when it comes to their education: they will find their own interests and passions.  Sometimes this looks like 'school in the morning' and often it doesn't.  Once again, the surprise is finding out that I am not alone in this, and that every homeschooling family eventually figures out an approach that will work for them.

Victoria: How the heck do you do school: I do it mostly before everyone gets up, in my own time, without someone looking over my shoulder. I highly recommend using SelfDesign (only for Canadians - www.selfdesign.org) and Life of Fred (Math) and Rosetta Stone (French)