02 October 2017

10 Questions for Rocket Science

TJ and Jenny Durnan are currently cruising aboard SV Rocket Science, a Riptide 55 hailing from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, USA. TJ began cruising in 1989 and Jenny in 2006.

They have been up and down both coasts of North and Central America a few times, made three trips to the Caribbean and most recently sailed from Newfoundland to Europe.

You can learn more about their cruise on their website.

Over the time that you have been cruising, has the world of cruising changed? 

I would say that it's primarily sheer numbers and demographic makeup. When I did my first Caribbean lap as a lad with my father, it was pre-gps, labor saving sail-handling systems were in their infancy. Refrigeration was an unreliable luxury not found on many boats, and watermakers were even more rare. I may be stealing this phrase, but cruising was done more by runaways than by retirees. Mostly, I think that uncertainty in navigation and the lack of comforts was the driver of this. Now that our boats have become better equipped and much more comfortable, it's attractive to more people.

Also, it's probably safe to say that as the numbers have increased, general friendliness has diminished. This is true both among cruisers and with the locals, particularly on the more populated routes. There are still places where one can sail and find locals or other sailors eager to make contact and visit, but it's necessary to go to more remote places in general. It's understandable - when there's only one sailboat showing up every few weeks to a village, it's a big deal. When there have been 25 of us anchored off for 3 months, organizing bocce ball tournaments on the local beach, well, the novelty surely wears off.

Was there anywhere you visited that you thought was overrated (not as good as you had heard)? Was there anywhere you visited that you thought was underrated (better than you had heard)? 

On the overrated side, the Eastern Caribbean comes to mind. The islands are beautiful and the sailing is often fantastic, but I found the islands themselves to be a little bit of a disappointment. The aggressive 'boat boys', often surly locals, and the general crime rate was a bummer. We have done a lot of cruising in the less-developed world, and there seems to be a bit of a culture of resentment in the EC that we've not found elsewhere. This is not to say that it was awful being there, we had some fine times to be sure, but this area is not high on our list of places to spend a great deal of time in.

For underrated, a few places come to mind. First, Newfoundland is absolutely spectacular, for all kinds of reasons. Also, the Pacific coast of Panama was really a nice surprise for us, particularly the rivers. The Pacific coast of Mexico is also a spectacular place to cruise, and it's populated almost entirely by West Coast sailors. This is a shame. It would be well worth a season up there for E. coast/European boats on a circumnavigation who have the time to spare.

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? 

To the first part, storms. True storm conditions on the typical cruising routes are almost never encountered. There are a few tricky spots on a typical circumnavigation, like from the islands to New Zealand, and perhaps a W-E crossing of the Atlantic. But, on the whole, even a gale is exceedingly rare. In about 50,000 miles of sailing, I have been in precisely 2 proper gales and only a single storm force event, which lasted all of 8 hours. Of course, none of this applies to the more adventurous folks sailing around Patagonia and the like, but for the standard cruiser, weather should not be a big fear, provided they're on one of the milder routes during the correct season.

To the second part, two things come to mind. First, the boat is going to break, a lot. There have been way too many departures abandoned because some inconsequential piece of gear isn't working. New cruisers have to get their head around the idea that a broken watermaker should not mean that everything needs to stop. You have to learn how to do without these fussy items, and not let it have a big impact on the morale of the boat when these failures inevitably do happen. As long as the boat's sound in all of the seaworthiness aspects, the rest is really all small stuff, and shouldn't dictate a change in plans. The other thing that's often overlooked by new cruisers is just how they're going to fill all these long days. Cruising can be incredibly boring. There are times when you're at your 10th beautiful anchorage in the last 4 months, and there's not a damned thing to do, besides work on the boat or maybe go out and snorkel on the reef for the 3rd time today. Getting one's head around the slower pace of things is an unanticipated challenge for many.

Finally, drinking is a big hazard, particularly in areas where retirees tend to congregate. The Caribbean and Mexico has a huge population of folks who really aren't sailing all that much, but rather sitting in a marina or anchorage socializing. This daily cocktail hour tends to turn into real boozing every day for many people. We were really shocked by the extent of this in our travels. I view this largely as a response to the boredom mentioned above.

What is a cruising tip or a trick you learned along the way?

Always make sure your anchor is well set, and just because you see a bunch of boats all anchored in a cluster, it's not necessarily the best spot. Also, NEVER sail to a schedule.

Cruiser rant: What is something that drives you crazy? 

People with a 100 ton license who call themselves 'captain'!

Also, just the general blowhard population that hangs around boats. The guys with all the strongly held opinions about just about everything that they force upon the rest of us. We could do with a lot less of that.

Why did you change boats and what do you see as the major pros and cons of your changeover?

Well, Rocket Science is boat #4 for me. The previous three had been slow, full-keeled 'bluewater cruisers'. I was at the point where I absolutely hated sailing those tubs. So, we went all-in on a carbon fiber speedster. This decision was driven by two things, actually. I am a commercial captain, and only get 2-3 months off at a stretch. We were getting sick of hanging around the Americas, and on a 120 mile/day boat, the logistics of venturing further afield were challenging. Second, I was missing the fun of sailing. So, that's the big pro for us, just being able to rack up 200 mile days easily with just 2 crew. If we really want to open things up, we have the option to take some skilled crew along, and we can realistically achieve 300 mile days in tradewind conditions. So, that's the big pro.

On the downside, RS is a big, powerful beast. It is not a rookie's boat, and she is not tolerant of mistakes. So, we have to be more attentive than on previous boats, for sure. This is not a big deal, but we're more conservative with our sail selections than we have been in the past, particularly in unsettled conditions. Also, the sails and rigging are much more expensive.

How often have you faced bad weather in your cruising? How bad?  

See above, very rarely. Only 2 gales and 1 very brief F10.

Are you attracted more to sailing itself or cruising-as-travel and has that changed over time? 

For us, it's really about travel. We get FAR more out of visiting a country on our boat than we do by just flying somewhere and staying in a hotel. We live amongst the locals, and have the time and access to a place to really get to know it. The sailing is just a means to an end. Sure, when all's going well, it can be magical. But, for the most part, passagemaking is pretty much an exercise in broken sleep and discomfort. But, it's a small price to pay, in our view.

What piece of gear seems to break the most often?

Probably the head needs attention most often.

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

Cost is a good topic. The answer is different for everyone, of course, but we too often read about folks who are planning to cruise on $500/mo. They almost invariably wind up destitute on a broken down boat not far from their original point of departure. This would be a good topic to have an honest discussion on for sure*.

*Editor's Note: For a list of cruising costs published by cruising boats which features IWAC interviewees among others, see this link.