04 December 2017

10 Questions for Starry Horizons

Amy Alton and her partner, David Alton (both 33, Americans) have been cruising since 2014 aboard SV Starry Horizons, a Fountaine Pajot Helia 44 hailing from Kemah, TX, USA.

They picked up the boat in La Rochelle, France and sailed it to Florida where they finished getting it ready for cruising. After Florida they went to Canada, the Caribbean, the Panama Canal and have spent the last two seasons in the South Pacific.

You can learn more about their voyage on their site, Facebook or YouTube.

They say: "We are halfway into our voyage, and over halfway around the world.  We expect to finish our circumnavigation in 2020 in the Caribbean."

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

We didn’t.  Our first overnight together was leaving La Rochelle on our three-day passage to Spain.  It was scary, not only because it was our first passage but also because the conditions were tough.  It remains one of our hardest passages.  I didn’t want David to leave me at the helm but he had to go try to sleep. 

Prior to that, we had a ton of boating experience, since I owned a dinner cruise company for 5 years and David and I are both USCG licensed captains.  We had also been doing day sails out of Houston and did two charters in the Caribbean on catamarans similar to what we ended up buying..

Individually, my biggest sailing experience was 3 weeks with my dad between Florida and the Bahamas - including an overnight crossing o the Gulf Stream. 

What (if anything) do you wish someone had told you before you started cruising?

This lifestyle forces you to face issues and problems you would have never dealt with in land life, and on such an intense level.  Problem solving and keeping a level head are skills that are so important to have.  The biggest example of this for us was in the Bermuda Triangle, our autopilot started malfunctioning. It was early morning so David had to wake me up.  We had a very important discussion where we calmly decided to keep going, while hand steering.  I just kept telling David that I was totally fine with us hand steering as much as we needed, and we can hove to or deploy our sea anchor if we needed a break.  Having the situation up at the helm controlled allowed David to really dive into the issue and he ended up solving the problem in a matter of hours.  The situation could have easily devolved into two people panicking and making bad decisions, but instead we kept calm and supported each other.

Buying and outfitting a new boat was incredibly hard.  Starting from ground zero means you have to start with a blank canvas and pick out every single detail while sometimes arguing with the factory and your dealer.  We’ve never bought a used boat to outfit for cruising so we don’t know the other side of the coin. But with the instant depreciation and the fact that new boats sometimes have big issues, I don’t know that we would buy new again.  We are so very lucky with our boat though.  We love her, and she seems to have less issues than some sisterships have.

Cruiser rant: What is something that drives you crazy?

Some cruisers seem to drag anchor all the time.  I don’t understand that!  It’s so critical to our safety and peace of mind that we’ve got the biggest and best anchor we could.  If you are dragging, there’s a big problem and you need to find a better solution.

Also, fishing.  We’ve landed a few good fish lately, but overall our fishing skills could use some improvement!

What are some of your favorite pieces of gear on your boat and why?

  • We have a really, really good pair of Steiner binoculars given to us as a gift.
  • We installed three oil change pumps, which make changing out the oil on our boat super fast and clean!  
  • My favorite piece of (digital) gear is my library membership!  I’ve read about 400 books since we left home and most of them I’ve read for free thanks to my library.

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

I have a love/hate relationship with cruising friendships.  I’m a very social person, and I feel like I have to go out of my way to make new friends out here.  It can be very isolating if you let it.  When we do make a big effort to reach out and make friends, our friendships often come on fast and strong.  We might spend days hanging out and doing activities with our new friends.  But eventually, one boat has to move on and we never know when we might see our new friends again.

What do you miss about living on land?

I miss familiarity.  We’re always coming into a new anchorage, or port, and having to find our way every time is tiring.  I spent most of my life in Houston and I know it pretty dang well.  I miss always knowing where to go or find whatever it is I need.

There is definitely a satisfaction in becoming familiar with a new place.  Being able to advise other cruisers or walk to your destination without needing help gives me a great sense of accomplishment.

Tell me your favorite thing and your least favorite thing about your boat

The layout of our boat is so open.  I love how our sliding glass doors between the main salon and the cockpit open up.  It’s like having an open floor plan house.  Also, the windows in our main salon give us a wide view and the lighting in the boat is fantastic.  All our windows are covered with textaline, so it’s not harsh lighting.  Our custom hard top and enclosure mean we are safe and dry at the helm in all conditions.

My least favorite thing about the boat?  That’s tough…probably that there are two heads on the port side.  I feel like any two couples we have visiting should be able to share a head, and that second head could be put to better use as a storage space or more room in the guest cabin.  That’s pretty nitpicky though.  I love our boat.

Having cruised both the Atlantic and the Pacific, how do they compare?

The Atlantic is pretty crowded. Although we did miss some islands in the Caribbean, we don’t have too much of an interest in going back, except for some of the less cruised areas that are more remote like Central America or the ABCs (Aruba, Bonaire, and CuraƧao.) 

The Pacific has many more stunningly beautiful anchorages that you can often have all to yourself!  There were at least a half a dozen places we went to that we top 10 gorgeous sites and we spent at least a night by ourselves.  And the CULTURE!  The islands of the Caribbean often seem more diluted due to tourism or colonization, but in most of the South Pacific the native culture still thrives.

What mistakes did you make in your first year of cruising?

In outfitting our boat, we made the mistake of thinking projects would take about half the time they actually do.  We expected to spend 3 months in Florida, but ended up spending 5 months.  In fact, we still make this mistake.  Sometimes we wait until later in the day to start a project and when sunset comes around, we are still working on it.

We also had very limited experience with spinnakers and bought a asymmetric, top down furling spinnaker.  It’s more complicated and we haven’t quite been as successful as we’d like to be with it.  It’s ripped three times, once totally in half, so that’s been an expensive mistake.

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

We are really proud of the “work” we’ve done this year.  We get asked a lot about how we fund our trip and if we work along the way.  Normally the answers are that we saved money and no we don’t work along the way.  This year, we did actually work, and earned money through several different means.  Our biggest income was working as crew.  We left Starry Horizons on a mooring in Neiafu for 6 weeks while we flew back to the states and sailed a new catamaran, S/V Julia, with her owners from Portland, Oregon to Hilo, Hawaii.  We also sold some of our photography and writing, including to Cruising World magazine.  We ordered Out Chasing Stars shirts and posted them up for sale.  We were excited to sell 30 shirts!  It was really exciting to earn some money and try out crewing for the first time.