In Praise of Production Cruisers

This is a post for those of you that geek out on the technical side of boating and marine design. I was having a conversation recently with a fellow boater who told me that he was shopping for a cruising sailboat, but was advised to ignore production boats (e.g.  models by Beneteau, Catalina, Hunter, Jeanneau) as they weren’t suitable boats for cruising. Next to the relative merits of different anchor types, few topics will generate a more heated discussion among a group of sailors than the suitability of modern production boats for cruising. On one side you have the Old Salts, who think only limited production, heavier displacement, craft-built boats like a Hinkley, Westsail or Bristol can safely transport you to faraway islands. On the other side, you’ll find a large number of sailors who own and actively cruise their late model production boats and who know from experience that no matter where you go in the world, you’ll find the harbor full of boats that Old Salts will swear were never capable of making the trip. It’s clear which side we fall in with. We’ve traveled close to 5,000 nautical miles so far on our 1997 Hunter 376, and think she’s a terrific boat for island hopping.  There’s a list of features that we think make her a great cruiser, but the one I’d like to talk about today is how the use of an interior fiberglass floor pan stiffens and reinforces the hull.

At one time, builders hand-fitted wooden frames into their hulls, and then fiberglassed them in place. Unfortunately wood rots, particularly if water finds a way inside the fiberglass. And all the labor needed to do this fitting and layup costs a lot. So as fiberglass technology progressed through the 1970’s and 80’s, builders began devising ways to cut production costs by molding a solid fiberglass floor grid consisting of a series of box beams, and then gluing this into the hull interior. The Old Salts will say that this makes access to the interior of the hull impossible in the event that you get holed (you hit something at sea that punches a hole in the bottom of your boat). But the modern naval architect will point out that as an engineered, wood free structure, this grid is incredibly strong, light and will never rot. Personally, while both may have a point, I’ll take light, strong, cheap and durable, which benefits us every single day, over the extremely unlikely possibility of being holed while underway, requiring an emergency repair at sea.

We recently pulled up a portion of our cabin sole in order to refinish it, in the process exposing some of our boat’s interior floor pan.

floorpan1a floorpan2

As I looked at the box beam grid, I realized that I had seen this method of reinforcing used before. Here’s a shot of a Metro subway station in Washington, DC, which Rhonda and I have ridden many times in years past:

washington-dc-metro

The box beam construction they used when building this tunnel makes for a light yet strong structure that resists the weight of the city above. And if you took the top of that subway tunnel and flipped it over, you’d have something pretty similar to how a modern production boat hull is designed.

To give you an idea of how long engineers have known that a box beam grid makes for a strong, light structure, here’s a picture of the Roman Pantheon, constructed almost 2,000 years ago and still standing despite being built in a seismically active area.

roman-forum-2

This is pure engineering excellence. So as far as I’m concerned, if an Old Salt tells you that production boats aren’t strong enough to take cruising, ask them how they can doubt a technology that’s been in use and performing well for over two millennia.

Boat Hacks – Outboard Edition

Here’s another item in our Boat Hacks series, which are posts about little things that solve little problems. Today we’re looking at an easy fix to a recurring problem that has dogged us for quite some time, the dreaded issue of outboard motor clamp lock.

There are a lot of things to dislike about outboard motors. My feelings toward them are about the same as my feelings towards horses – they’re evil, spiteful things that continually look for ways to openly defy and frustrate you, and you count your blessings if they uneventfully deliver you to your destination. One major source of problems comes from the use of materials that aren’t fully compatible with a marine environment, or at least a saltwater marine environment. For instance, the screw clamps that you tighten to lock the outboard in place are made of a metal that doesn’t really get along well with the engine mount casting. Consequently, if left alone for too long, corrosion causes them to seize up. When they do, the short toggle handles you have to use to loosen/tighten the screw clamps are too short to apply sufficient force to break them free.

outboardtoggle1

I’ve kept a short length of stainless rail in the stern locker to slip over the toggles to use as a cheater bar to get extra leverage, but if you get overzealous, then you shear off the toggle pins and the handles fall off. We keep a small supply of these pins onboard as replacements since they seem to break pretty frequently. The thing about these shear pins though is that you peen them in place with a hammer, and they’re not designed to be removed.

Recently our screw clamps froze up so firmly that I actually fractured the toggle handles themselves trying to get the clamps to turn. Life actually got a bit easier as a result, because with the toggles now gone I could just put a crescent wrench on the end of the screws to turn them. But I didn’t like the idea of having to always remember to grab a wrench when I wanted to put the outboard on the dinghy. Then I had my “duh” moment.

Instead of replacing the toggle pins with another set that are peened in place, why not just use a couple of stainless cotter pins? That way I could use the toggle handles to tighten up the outboard, but if the clamps seize up, I could just pop the cotter pins out and remove the toggle handles so that I could put a wrench on the head of the clamp screws.

outboardtoggle2

Since we’re a sailboat, we keep a handy box of various sizes of stainless pins and rings onboard. I found two that fit, popped them in, and they worked great.

The true solution to this problem is following a proper preventative maintenance schedule, and I’ll have a post soon about PMS (the non-hormonal type). But it’s good to know that if this issue ever gets away from us again and the screw clamps seize up, I can just pull out these cotter pins to bring more power to the problem in the form of leverage from a big wrench.

Making Space

If you’ve spent any time around boats, you know how valuable storage space is. There’s never enough room for all the “stuff” you want to bring onboard, and being a cruiser and liveaboard means life is a constant exercise in possessional triage, where every item has to have enough value and utility to make the cut and find a home on board, with the rest ending up stored ashore or disposed of. Things are even a bit worse when you own a Hunter, like we do. Hunter put a great deal of effort into packing the biggest living spaces possible into the hull, which makes the boat live like one that’s significantly larger. But it comes at the expense of little things like storage lockers. You get a lot of room to lounge on a Hunter, but not a lot of places to store stuff. So when we find a way to turn an unused area into a locker, we jump on it.

While waiting around to see what Hurricane Irma was going to do, we decided to start pulling out our cabin sole (interior floor) to apply some coats of polyurethane. When we unscrewed the chart table seat from the deck and removed the sole panel, we found this vacant, completely empty, totally unused void. There’s probably two whole cubic feet of potential storage there! Enough to allow for a significant expansion of our wine collection, an additional case of beer, or possibly even something practical, like groceries and spare parts.

locker

We know a really good, reasonably priced marine carpenter here in Pensacola, so I immediately gave him a call to ask him how busy he was at the moment. As things worked out, his truck was at the repair shop and he was just puttering around his shop working on this and that. Could he do a quick plunge-cut on a sole board to put in an access panel, I asked him? Sure, drop it on by, he said. So we dropped the panel off, and four hours later we had a newly cut and trimmed out access panel, opening up this formerly sealed void that probably hadn’t seen the light of day since April of 1997 when Eagle Too was built.

locker1 locker2

Cutting the hole took a lot of the strength out of the panel, so before reinstalling it we attached a cleat to the head bulkhead to support the edge of the sole panel. I’m actually surprised the factory hadn’t put a support cleat here since that was such a large, unsupported span, and it explains why that particular floor board always creaked when walked on.

cleat

Do you own one of the hundreds of Hunter 376’s (or possibly a 380 or maybe even a 386, which are later versions of the same boat)? Then you might want to look into opening up this enclosed void. Because it’s an easy way to create a couple of cubic feet of that most valuable of spaces, a place to store your stuff.

Storm Fatigue

One hundred and seventeen years ago this week, the National Weather Service office in Galveston, Texas received spotty reports via telegraph of possible storm conditions in Cuba. Anecdotal information from ships arriving at the port indicated that something serious was possibly brewing in the Gulf of Mexico. On the morning of September 8th, 1900, the manager of the weather service office noted a falling barometer and a steadily increasing wind. By midnight, between 6,000 and 12,000 residents of Galveston were dead, killed by the wind and surge effects of a direct hit by a major hurricane that no one saw coming. To this day it’s unknown how many ultimately died, as the bodies of the drowned were burned in huge funeral pyres on the beach to prevent the spread of disease from the rotting corpses. There is no count of how many simply washed out to sea, never to be seen again.

Yesterday, Hurricane Irma roared ashore in the Florida Keys as a strong category four storm. Although similar in size and strength to that estimated for the Great Storm of 1900, only a handful of deaths have been attributed to it. The difference is technology. In 1900, there were no weather satellites or remotely monitored ocean buoys. No Weather Channel to provide updates, and no radio to spread the word of approaching danger. Ships returning from sea were the only reliable sources of offshore weather information, which in many cases was days or weeks old by the time they made port.

hurricane-irma

On that fateful Saturday morning 117 years ago, most citizens of Galveston probably awoke and went about their business, completely unaware that by midnight, they’d be struggling for their lives, a battle that thousands would lose. Today we can see a storm before it’s even born, rolling off the coast of Africa as a tropical wave. We can follow it as it forms and develops, predict its path, and observe its impact on those whose lives it crosses. But there is a small downside to this. Thanks to our technology, we now have a week or more to fret, worry, and obsess about what may come. Days of watching stores sell out of water and gas, resupply, and then sell out again. Days to watch shelters open and highways clog as evacuees jam the roadways, fleeing the predicted point of impact. Days to view looping videos endlessly repeating reports of destruction from places already hit, as sandbags are filled and emergency measures implemented in the places that are next in line.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy beyond measure that through our technology, we can avoid a disaster like the Great Storm of 1900. But it does take its toll in sleepless nights and high anxiety, waiting and watching, watching and waiting. I’ll be immensely happy when this whole thing is finally over, and everyone we know in the affected areas has checked in as safe.

We’ve been extremely fortunate this time. Hurricane Irma stayed far enough to our east that we only felt some gale force gusts and a few light sprinkles. Since we’re tucked into a slip that sits directly below a three story building, effectively protecting us from the north winds the storm is generating here, we just removed all loose gear topside. We didn’t have to implement our hurricane plan, which would have had us moving Eagle Too to the well protected Bayou Grande Marina at Naval Air Station Pensacola and then evacuating inland. We still had our mooring lines doubled up from our trip to Charleston SC a few weeks ago to see the solar eclipse, and because our mooring cleats have a fair lead and don’t run through chocks (since chocks are probably the worst idea ever implemented on a boat, guaranteeing maximum line chaff during a blow), we didn’t have to add chaff gear. With maximum gusts predicted to be less than 35 knots (about 40 mph), or about what a passing thunderstorm produces, I saw no need to strip the sails, and we didn’t have to collapse our solar panel-covered bimini , as I engineered it to take 50 knot winds (although we did remove our Sunbrella sunshade).

hurricane-irma2

Yes, after a week of following the weather reports, we’re suffering from a severe case of storm fatigue. But we’re very conscious of the fact that friends of ours, people we’ve met in our travels down in the Islands and who keep their boats in places like the Keys, Marco Island, Vero Beach, Bradenton and St Petersburg, would probably trade places with us in an instant. We hope that they and their boats are all well, and that this will be the last time we need deal with such a situation this hurricane season.

Here’s a terrific book I’d recommend about the Great Storm of 1900 if you’d like to learn more about the tragedy in Galveston that occured 117 years ago this week:

Issac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, And The Greatest Hurricane In History

What’s In A Name?

Several years ago, while on vacation in Hawaii, I picked up a T shirt sporting a picture of the Hawaiian state fish. I liked the shirt because it showed the fish’s name in Hawaiian, which is Humuhumunukunukuapua’a. It’s a real mouthful to say, but after some practice it soon flows easily off the tongue, and even tickles a bit in the process.

humuhumu

A year or so later, I was driving home from work (this was back in our pre retired-to-go-cruising days) and I found myself following a trailered boat by the same name.  There plastered across the entire transom was Humuhumunukunukuapua’a. It just barely fit on a boat that was easily nine feet wide. I laughed out loud. Because the name just tickles my funny bone.

But now it’s several years later, and Rhonda and I have a few thousand miles of cruising under our belts, and the thought of boat names has been on my mind. Particularly because I’ve seen a few lately that make me go, “Hmm, I wonder if they really thought that through.”

You see, one thing we’ve learned in our travels is that sometimes a boat name works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  And while it may seem as though an inappropriately named boat might be merely inconvenient, in our experience it can sometimes become a bit of a problem. So I find myself pondering the issue of how to choose an effective name for a cruising boat, and I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the subject.

Now none of this really matters a great deal if your plans don’t involve cruising. But if you do intend to head out over the horizon someday, then here’s what it all boils down to. While cruising, you are going to find yourself interacting with foreign officials. They may not speak English very well (or at all), but they’re going to have to hear and understand your boat’s name. Second, you’re going to have to fill out forms and declarations that will require you to list your vessel’s name, and sometimes the space to write it isn’t very large. But most importantly, you’re going to find yourself having to use your boat’s name on the radio quite often. From speaking to bridge tenders to negotiating crossings with other vessels, responding to the Coast Guard or checking in and out with harbormasters, you’ll be on the radio a lot more than when you were weekend sailing around your local waters. And long, complex names just don’t work well on the VHF.

The first tip I’d suggest when choosing a good name is to not use something that suggests nefarious intent. This would seem so evident that it hardly needs mentioning. Yet there we were in Marina Gaviota Varadero, Cuba, watching some very un-amused Cuban police detain the crew of an American flagged vessel that had just arrived. Their boat was named “Guns and Drugs,” and sported a large graphic of an assault rifle. Now this might have really cracked up the boys back in Miami, but it didn’t go over so well in Varadero. Our check-in only took two hours. We didn’t see the crew of Guns and Drugs for three days. So if you think “Human Trafficker” is a hilarious name for a boat, don’t be surprised if the Customs and Immigration officers fail to share in your mirth.

I’d also recommend avoiding foreign phrases. If you think “Occupandi Temporis” or “Mi Velero Impresionante” is just so c’est chic, then have at it. But please know that you’re going to be phonetically spelling it slowly and often on the radio, usually to someone who is dealing with background noise from boat or helicopter engines and can barely hear you. Most importantly, try to keep it short. When it comes to VHF radio communications, the shorter the better. One or two syllable words work best. “Ultimate Retirement Strategy” might expertly define your life situation, but it’s a mouthful to have to keep repeating to the Coast Guard every 30 seconds while reporting a vessel in distress. “Cool Sea Breeze” sounds lovely and is pretty easy to understand. But “Sea Breeze” is better, and the best option would be to just keep it to “Breeze.” Trust me, you’ll thank yourself in an emergency.

A boat’s name can often be a highly personal reflection of the hopes, dreams or desires of its owners, but choosing an appropriate one can involve compromise. The point of all this isn’t to dissuade you from putting what you truly feel is the best expression of yourself on the back of your boat. We just wanted to give you a few things to consider when making your decision. Because I can only imagine the issues the crew of the good ship Humuhumunukunukuapua’a would face if they ever tried to take their boat cruising.

Gone Too Soon

Today we mourn the loss of some dear companions who have accompanied us on all our adventures to date. The dearly departed are not of flesh and blood, but rather of aluminum and steel. We’re talking about our less than two year old Back Bay folding bicycles, and this will be their final review.

bikes

We introduced you to our old friends in a previous post, in which we praised their utility. In a subsequent post, we described the issues we were having with their durability in a marine environment and the steps we had taken to maintain them in serviceable condition. I’m sorry to report that upon our return from our recent six month cruise to the Bahamas, we discovered that both bikes had lost their battle with the elements. I’d held on to hope that one more trip to the bike shop for maintenance and repair would render them functional once again, but the cascade of bike organ failure caused by continual exposure to salt spray was just too much for their poor little systems to handle. The brakes were once again frozen, the shifters didn’t shift, and the freewheel on Rhonda’s bike (the set of sprockets on the rear wheel) spun freely in both directions, when it was supposed to turn in one direction only. But the final, fatal failure was the disintegration of the wheels. Numerous spokes on both bikes had corroded through and broken free.

spokes

So at a minimum we were looking at total replacement of the front and rear wheels on both bikes, the replacement of at least one freewheel, and yet another overhaul of the brake and gear systems.

Enough was enough. We’d invested almost $600 in the purchase of these bicycles, and had spent another $300 in parts, repairs and maintenance after our initial shakedown cruise to Cuba and Mexico last year. But we were easily looking at another $250 to $300 to get them back on the road again, and it was just good money after bad at this point. So we chucked a thousand dollar investment in the dumpster and decided to start over again.

trashbikes

The lesson we learned is that you can’t store bicycles on the deck of a cruising boat. The salt corrosion is just too aggressive. We’d tried keeping them in zippered bags. When that didn’t work to stave off attack by the elements, we tried leaving them open to the air, thinking that occasional rain showers would provide regular fresh water rinses, washing away the salt spray. Who knew that it hardly ever rains in the Bahamas in the spring?

While not quite essential gear, we feel that having a set of folding bikes onboard makes life a lot more pleasant. So we wanted to purchase replacements. But this time, we’ll store them below. It won’t be easy to find the space belowdecks on a 37’ sailboat for two folding bikes, but a year and a half of cruising has taught us a bit about wants versus needs, and we’ve therefore been able to offload a bit of what we’ve been carrying around in our “garage,” (i.e. the V berth), so there should be room.

Our Back Bay bikes had 20” wheels, which I feel is the minimum size for a good, natural feeling ride. In addition to looking just plain silly, I don’t think the little 12” or 14” wheel  “clown bikes,” (my name for them)  could handle the curb jumping, pothole dodging, railroad track hopping sort of urban exploring we’ve used our bikes for in the past. This time I thought we’d take it up a notch and spring for a set of folding bikes with 24” wheels. When folded, they’d only be a few inches larger than our old pair, but the larger wheels and thus bigger frame means you’re not sitting directly above the rear wheel when riding, a position that often makes me feel like I’m going to do a wheelie and flip off the back when trying to peddle uphill.

A few hours of poking around on Amazon turned up exactly what I was looking for, at a price that I was happy with. Durban is a Brazilian company that designs and builds folding bikes in Rio de Janeiro for urban and commuter use. Their Street model folding bike was less than $175 delivered, and I could tell as soon as I unpacked them that they were much sturdier bikes than our old Back Bay bikes, and used much better components with a more precise fit. For instance, the seats slide effortlessly from the collapsed to the extended position, something that was always a struggle on our Back Bay bikes, and the included luggage rack is actually sturdy enough to carry cargo on, unlike the mostly decorative rack on our Back Bays. And they have no chromed steel. Believe it or not, the chromed steel parts on our old Back Bays were the parts that rusted the worst.

newbikes

We’ve had the new bikes for a few weeks now, and so far we like them a lot. As I suspected, the 24” wheels deliver a ride that’s almost exactly like a standard mountain bike.

Only time will tell how long our new Durban folding bikes will last. I’m hoping that by storing them below when on passage and with regular oiling, we’ll get much more than the something less than two years of use our previous bikes gave us. Because even though we all know that BOAT means Break Out Another Thousand, it’s just too painful to have to throw a thousand dollars in the dumpster.

Cleaning House – Parts For Sale

Now that we’re settled in for the summer, waiting out hurricane season in Pensacola, we’ve been doing some tidying up here onboard Eagle Too. With the exception of promoting my novel Lunar Dance (you have seen the link on the page to purchase it from Amazon, yes?), we don’t usually engage in commerce here at Life On The Hook™. But I know some of our followers have boats similar to ours, and so I thought I’d quickly mention some windlass parts I just posted for sale on eBay.

You may remember that we recently replaced our ailing Simpson Lawrence Sprint Atlantic windlass with a new Lewmar V2. Well, the old one still worked, it’s just that it started tripping the breaker under load. I really didn’t have the time or the desire to dissemble it and try to figure out exactly where the problem was. Maybe the motor needs brushes, or maybe the gearbox needs to be disassembled, cleaned and re-lubed, or possibly it just needs a new bearing for the capstan shaft. Don’t know, and I really don’t care. But it occurs to me that someone else might like to take a crack at fixing it, and besides, there’s a perfectly good gypsy and capstan to scavenge for parts.

dscf6095

In addition, since the new V2 we installed uses a completely different solenoid pack and breaker, we have no use for the old ones. A spare solenoid or two and a breaker can be a handy thing to have onboard, so up on eBay they went.

dscf6097

If you have a similar unit on your boat, you might want to take a look. Here are the listings:

Sprint Atlantic Windlass

Windlass Motor and Gearbox

Windlass Solenoids and Breaker

So here’s a chance to grab some spares for your gear, and help us make a little more space here onboard Eagle Too in the process.

Come Join Us!

For those of you who don’t see our Facebook posts and thus haven’t seen our upcoming event, please come join us at Jaco’s Bayfront Bar & Grille tomorrow ( Friday, June 23rd) from 5 to 7 PM. Tropical Storm Cindy is supposed to be spent by then and the sun should make an appearance, so come on by for cocktails and conversation. After six months away, we’d love the opportunity to reconnect with friends and family. Also, an aspect of cruising that we’ve come to enjoy is the social side, with its gatherings for sundowners and pot lucks. We’re not sure why folks here in the marina don’t get together occasionally. Let’s do something about that!

jacos

 

There’s No Place Like Home!

After cruising for six months and traveling over 2,000 miles, we’re happy to be back in Pensacola for the summer. We’ve seen and done some amazing things since our departure last December, but for now we’re looking forward to a few months of downtime. No worrying about whether the anchor is well set, or if we’re in a protected location for the next passing front, or how far it will be until we see another fuel pier or grocery store. Just a chance to relax, reconnect with family and friends and get reacquainted with our home town.

We truly threaded the needle on our passages across the Gulf and back to Pensacola. While persistent unsettled weather generated widespread rainstorms, we were able to pick windows that let us navigate from the Florida Keys all the way home to our slip at Palafox Pier without encountering a single drop of rain.

clouds

While still in the Bahamas, when we first made the decision to point our bow north, we called Palafox Pier and Yacht Harbor and inquired about our old slip. We had lived on E dock in slip 6 for a year and a half while getting Eagle Too ready to cruise. It was vacant, and the terrific folks at the marina made sure it was available for us when we slipped quietly in just after sunrise this past Thursday. So if you’ve visited with us before at Palafox Pier, then look for us in our old location.

homeagain

It’s been quite a journey, but now we’re home.  We’ve already started the process of converting Eagle Too from a proper cruising boat back into a fair weather sailor, offloading some of the gear we carry that we won’t be needing for leisurely sails in local waters. Our water maker is pickled and ready to be put in storage, our satellite tracker has been deactivated (which will save us $69 a month while we’re here), and we’ve begun to tackle some of the little tasks and chores that we never seemed to find the time to attend to while cruising.

With this latest cruise now behind us, we’ve traveled a combined total of over 4,000 miles and have sailed our boat to three countries (the Bahamas, Cuba and Mexico). Our tentative plans have us here until November. It’s too soon to say where we might go next—we’ll just see how we feel after the summer (and hurricane season) winds down.

We’ll post something on our Facebook page soon about a little get together here at the marina. So please stop by if you’d like to say hi and catch up, have a glass of wine, see a few pictures, and help us enjoy a sunset. 🙂

A Cruiser’s Passage Planning Primer

There’s a lot of time to think about things when you’re spending 32 hours motorsailing across the Gulf. One of the many thoughts that crossed my mind during our recent jump from Clearwater, Florida to Port St Joe was the issue of picking a suitable weather window for offshore travel. The criteria for planning a comfortable and thus enjoyable ocean passage is a topic I wish we had known more about before setting off on our Life On The Hook™. But there’s no teacher like experience, and after over a dozen offshore passages of a hundred miles or more, many involving the crossing of a major ocean current, we’ve come up with a list of criteria that we apply when determining whether or not to make a jump. This list reflects our priorities and ours alone. You may have or learn to develop your own list of what’s important to you. But since it’s always good to share knowledge and experience, I thought we’d pass along what we feel makes for the most comfortable passages.

Leaving Clearwater Florida Bound For Apalachicola

Leaving Clearwater Florida Bound For Apalachicola

Number one on our list by a wide margin is sea state. When we first started cruising, I’d have considered the wind forecast to be the top concern, but something we’ve learned is that the winds don’t matter if the sea state doesn’t work. When making a go/no go decision, we’re looking for forecast seas of one to two feet. If everything else is perfect or we absolutely have to get moving (which seldom happens because as cruisers we don’t travel on a schedule), then we’ll consider two to three foot seas. But if we see that the forecast calls for three to five feet or more, then forget it, we’re staying put, even if the winds and weather are favorable. High seas make for a miserable passage, which often means missing out on an otherwise nominal weather window because the seas are still too high from a previous weather system.

Now we’ve met some cruisers that will laugh at that. “Three to five foot seas? That’s nothing!” they’ll say. But here’s what we’ve learned. The forecast wave height is for the average sea state. If the forecast is for 1 to 2, you’re going to experience quite a few 3 footers. If they’re calling for 4 to 5, well, you’ll have more than a few 7 footers hitting you. And for us on our boat, this would be dangerous. Not because the boat can’t take it, but because the chance of one of us getting hurt increases exponentially with sea state. In 1 to 2 footers, it’s not too hard to move around, as long as we’re careful and always keep one hand on the boat. It’s possible to put a pot on the stove to make coffee or heat up a meal. Above 3 feet, the boat will start pitching and rolling enough that going below and moving around can be dangerous. The stove gimbal is hitting its stops, which means pots won’t stay put, so it’s strictly sandwiches and water rather than hot food and coffee.  Spending hours holding on to the stern pulpit to keep yourself upright is tiring, and fatigue leads to loss of focus. Then you try to go below, miss one of the ladder steps, and fall into the cabin and get hurt while 50 miles offshore.  Following 5 foot swells cause the boat to roll 25 to 30 degrees or more, and beating into them causes the bow to bash into the waves. It can be tolerated for a few hours. But a day or more? No thank you.

Rhonda Caught A 24 Inch Little Tunny. Related To Tuna, The Gulf Was Full Of Them.

Rhonda Caught A 24 Inch Little Tunny. Related To Tuna, The Gulf Was Full Of Them.

Next we look at forecast precipitation. We live under a 63 foot aluminum pole, and when we’re out on the ocean, we’re the tallest thing by far from us to the horizon. So if they’re predicting thunderstorms, we don’t go. It’s just that simple. Much better to just wait it out in the marina or anchorage, where at least we’re not the only tall aluminum pole around. If the forecast is calling for showers, but not thunderstorms, then it comes down to intensity. A little light rain isn’t that big a deal, we have foul weather gear for that. But if they’re calling for moderate to heavy showers, we’ll probably stay put. It might be different if we had a full enclosure for our cockpit, but we don’t, and there’s only so many hours of standing at the helm in the rain that we can tolerate. If it’s not a day that you’d consider riding a motorcycle, it’s probably not a good day for a passage.

Another Little Tunny. Only 18 Inches, So She Let Him Go.

Another Little Tunny. Only 18 Inches, So She Let Him Go.

Now we get to wind. You might think that as a sailboat, this would be higher on the list, but here’s what we’ve learned about wind in our 4,000 miles of travel. It almost never blows from the right direction at the right speed. It’s either too little, too much, or coming from the wrong direction. If we only traveled when the wind was right for sailing, we’d hardly ever go anywhere. So if the prediction is for force 3 or less (up to 10 knots), we’ll go, regardless of the forecast direction. We’ll consider going in a force 4 wind (11 to 16 knots) if it will be behind us, but we won’t go if we’ll be reaching into it, because the apparent wind will be in the 20+ knot range. Greater than force 4, we’re staying put. Even as seasoned a sailor as Bruce Van Sant, author of the cruiser’s bible The Gentlemen’s Guide To Passages South, says that there’s no point in traveling in anything higher that a force 3 wind unless you have no other choice. It’s not relaxing, it’s hard work, people can get hurt and boats can break, and that’s not why we cruise. It’s probably different if you have to be at work on Monday, but cruisers don’t sail to a schedule. We just don’t do it.

So here’s the dirty little secret about sailboats, at least as far as cruising goes. Seventy-five percent of the time, you’re going to be motoring or motorsailing. Only a quarter of the time or less will you actually be able to arrive at your destination under sail alone. So yes, make sure those sails and rigging are in top shape, but also consider adding that three bladed prop, make sure your engine alignment is spot on, and do whatever propulsion system upgrades you may need in order to feel confident about running your engine for days at a time without a break. You’ll probably need a spare alternator or water pump much more than a spare sail.

Good Morning, Apalachicola!

Good Morning, Apalachicola!

After considering the sea state, rain and wind, we like to take a look at the moon phase. Since you only get one full moon a month, it’s not something you can really factor in to your decision to go if everything else is in alignment. You just take what you get. But let me tell you, spending a night at sea in conditions that require sail adjustments or movement about the deck is infinitely better when there’s actually some light to see by and you’re not totally dependent on a headlamp. And it’s extremely comforting to actually be able to see a horizon at night, especially when crossing a shipping lane full of fast moving freighters or threading through a pack of fishing trawlers. The total darkness of an overcast night with a new moon, where you can hear the waves but can’t see them because the world beyond the lifelines is invisible, can be unsettling. So we like to make long passages during times when the moon is at or near full.

Heading Up The Apalachicola River

Heading Up The Apalachicola River

Yes, the stars are breathtaking out in the middle of a calm sea on a clear, moonless night while ghosting along under sail in a gentle breeze. But in 14 months of travel, we’ve experienced exactly two nights like that. Every other of the more than a dozen overnight passages we’ve made have been cloudy, dark, rolly, windy, or some combination of the four, while the steady drone of the engine numbed our ears and physically wore us down.

RIver Cruising. We Saw Alligators, Manatees, Turtles And Ospreys.

RIver Cruising. We Saw Alligators, Manatees, Turtles And Ospreys.

So those are the criteria that we evaluate when determining when to head out onto open water. If you’re one of those people whose response is “we go regardless of the conditions,” or “we sail through thunderstorms and force 7 winds all the time,” I have one simple question for you. Why? I’d like to hear what motivates you to do such a thing.

Crossing Lake Wimico

Crossing Lake Wimico

Since much of this discussion probably makes ocean passages sound less idyllic than you may have pictured, some of you may be asking the question, “Is it worth it?” My answer is “Yes, it is.” Passages can be a trial, a measure of determination and a test of endurance. But the return on the investment is that we get to spend weeks, even months visiting some pretty amazing places that most people are lucky to experience for just a handful of days. And in the final balance, that’s what cruising is all about.