Baby Steps & Shakedowns

I’ve had some questions on our plans for the coming winter and others asking for information on how you start cruising. My answer to both: baby steps and shakedowns.

Dave and I believe in starting out simply and moving on incrementally only once we’re comfortable with what we’re doing so far. And no, we haven’t always done that. And yes, we paid the price. We’re going to try to do better with the new boat.

To me, baby steps refers to adding one bit of complexity at a time rather than trying to make big jumps. Say going from a slip in a marina to a nearby mooring field or anchorage – you already know the area, and the marina is right there if you discover that you’ve got a problem. Much better than leaving the marina and going 50 miles to a much more remote location for your first night at anchor.

The traditional concept of a shakedown — or shakedown cruise — refers to testing equipment. Basically, seeing what breaks in a given situation. I prefer to think of it not just as testing the equipment, but testing our knowledge and comfort with a particular situation.

In this context, shakedown means getting comfortable with each “baby step” – basically feeling confident in our ability at that skill – before taking a bigger step. Say going for that first night at anchor nearby, discovering that we had a problem with the bridle and returning to the marina to sort it out. Our next time out we’d still be anchoring nearby to make sure we had everything sorted out – we wouldn’t simply figure that “well, we saw what the problems were and fixed them, so we’re ready to move on to the next step.”

We’ve seen a lot of people who seem to be into “ticking the boxes” of their baby steps and shakedowns rather than using each step as a learning experience. For example, if they’ve spent a night at anchor — even if they dragged, didn’t sleep and it was a miserable experience in general — they consider it “done” and go on to the next thing. To us, that’s not what a shakedown should be: a shakedown is really a series of attempts at something, until we think we’ve got a good handle on it. Maybe not perfect, but pretty darn good every time.

Baby steps and shakedowns go hand-in-hand. You try something a little more advanced, and evaluate how you did. If it was less than satisfactory, keep at it until you are comfortable. Then you can move on to something else. Jumping forward or not being honest in evaluating how you did will only lead to more bad experiences.

In a recent post, I encouraged people to go outside their comfort zone by saying “yes” to new experiences. But at the same time, I want to temper that with the idea of pushing boundaries a little at a time and building on experiences instead of trying to bulldoze past them.

Having problems doesn’t mean that you can’t move forward. Or at least it doesn’t to me. But it equally doesn’t mean that you should ignore that there is a problem. A problem that shows up during a shakedown phase simply means that it’s time to regroup, think about why things aren’t working and what would make it better. Maybe the answer is to change the plans, get different equipment, set things up differently, get some more training or just take time to get experience. In any event, it’s important to get things straightened out before taking the next step.

And that brings me back to our plans for this winter. I can’t count the number of times that we’ve been asked – by family, friends in the area and readers – when we’ll get down to the Keys. They figure that since we’ve cruised before, we’ll just be off and running.

But no, we’re gonna do more baby steps and shakedowns. First spend time in a marina and figure out the boat’s basic living systems – and change whatever we discover needs changing (either systems or our expectations). Then when we feel comfortable with that, the same on a mooring about 100 yards outside the marina – and maybe a trip back into the marina if we discover something that can’t be remedied away from the dock. And so on.

If all goes well, maybe we’ll celebrate Christmas in the Keys. But if we’re still on a dock in Ft. Myers, that’s okay too. Our learning curve isn’t on a schedule. Lots of baby steps and shakedowns.

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  • Monika Ludewig Bradley
    Posted at 03 September 2014 Reply

    Great advice. We start anchoring practice this weekend, and like you wrote, not far from our marina. Last weekend we tested how long our batteries last without shore power. Also learned how to operate the anchor windlass without power …..

  • Lisa Rush
    Posted at 03 September 2014 Reply

    Thank you for all your tips and advice. I truly appreciate your insight.

  • gene koblick
    Posted at 03 September 2014 Reply

    Well, to be a seaman, requires 5 years of apprenticeship, plus testing. There are NO short cuts to seamanship.
    With 70 years of actual sailing and commercial fishing experience, I’m still learning. Glad to see your sound approach.

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