No one. And I mean no one, has an easy time their first year cruising. If you’ve been there, you’ll probably recognize some things from Julie Tijerina’s tale of her and her husband’s first voyage after refitting their boat. And if are planning your own first cruise, you’ll learn from her experiences.
Julie is part of The Boat Galley team, designing all the beautiful images that accompany our articles.
After nearly four years refitting our 1984 Whitby 42, Greg and I felt trepidation as we neared our shove-off date.
We spent the last couple of weeks at our home marina provisioning, doing last-minute boat projects, and not a small amount of handwringing.
Were we ready? Did we get enough done to make us safe? We felt a huge mix of excitement that we were finally leaving the dock mixed with “are we crazy?”
The COVID-19 pandemic made traveling internationally a moot point. We both still work–Greg still works full time and feared getting stuck somewhere and being unable to get back. Even though the Bahamas is currently open to private boat traffic, that does not mean their borders will stay open.
By the time we cast off the third week of June, we’d missed our weather window for hurricane season in the Caribbean anyway.
We watched and waited, with our eyes on the Chesapeake Bay. Staying in the U.S. was the smart thing to do–and we could attend the Annapolis Boat Show in October! We could get the boat to a marina and drive out to see some beautiful fall foliage. So many good reasons to explore the U.S. East Coast rather than risk being stranded somewhere.
Plus, we decided we could motor up the Intercoastal Waterway (ICW) and have easy access to marinas, grocery stores, and West Marine stores!
This was our first trip, after all. We wanted some training wheels.
And it’s a good thing that’s what we decided to do.
We Thought We Were Ready
We’ve made it over 500 miles from Jacksonville, Florida to Oriental, North Carolina, mostly motoring up the Intercoastal Waterway. We did one overnight on the “outside” from St. Simon’s, Georgia to Georgetown, South Carolina. And the Atlantic Ocean gave us a tidy lesson on just how unprepared we were for the Big Blue.
Let me preface my remarks by telling you that our refit was expensive. I’m convinced that the previous owners looked at the boat and said, “well, it’s either time to refit or sell.”
Every single system on this boat that related to safety needed renewing. The standing rig, the chainplates, mainsail, the electronics suite, the batteries, the dinghy. On and on.
I don’t want to give you the impression we didn’t try our best to get the boat as safe and seaworthy as we could. But you just don’t know what you don’t know. We knew about all those things, so we replaced those systems.
And to borrow from Maya Angelou, “when you know better, you do better.” Every single expert was once a beginner, so I am giving myself and my husband a lot of latitude for making mistakes and learning from them.
Our first day out of Jacksonville was a nice, pleasant (if slow) sail north toward St. Simon’s. We puttered out of the inlet at Mayport and raised our sails. We decided, after looking at the weather, that we would do our first overnight from St. Simon’s to Georgetown.
The weather looked benign with 7-knot winds and 3-5-foot seas. No problem for a tank like our Star Stuff.
Should be a cakewalk.
Learning About the Boat
What we learned from this overnight experience was jarring.
Because we had planned to motor up to the Chesapeake Bay on the ICW, I had put the kibosh on installing an autopilot. But, we’d abandoned that plan on not much more than a whim. Within hours of being out of sight of land we realized that trying to do an overnight with no autopilot is insane.
Having to hand-steer to a compass in pitch blackness will make you feel like you should sell the boat and check yourself into a mental hospital.
Because we had never used our boat overnight before, we also learned that none of our instruments on our binnacle were lit. Not the compass, not the oil pressure gauge, not the tachometer. Nothing. We did have a tablet attached to the helm, which relayed our B&G chart plotter, but we were dumbfounded to learn all our gauges were dark.
Learning About the Weather
Also, 7 knots of wind just won’t push a 24,000-pound boat! Light winds are not your friend, especially when they are coming from behind you. During our overnight, the winds were light and squirrely, sneaking from one aft quarter to the other, trying to collude with the waves to toss the boom across the boat.
We could pole out the genoa for light winds, but did nothing to keep our boat from accidentally jibing. Which, she was doing all during Greg’s watch. Which also means I got zero sleep.
So, when I came on watch, I told him we were going to stop trying to sail and motor to the Georgetown inlet. He helped me sheet in the main, roll in the genoa, and douse the mizzen before he hit his bunk. We had so much sail out, and we managed to make none of it stay into the wind, save the genoa. We realized we must install a preventer for our main boom.
In case you weren’t aware, wave predictions are lies…LIES!
We easily had 5-8-foot seas on our overnight and well into the next day. The Atlantic became grouchy and unkempt compared to the day before.
At one point, I watched two angry, gray waves smack into each other from perpendicular angles. Since we were also experiencing light winds, the waves were pushing the boat around making it impossible to hold a course without complete exhaustion.
The winds picked up toward mid-day, but to use them to sail would have put us beam-to the waves. We steered around them to the best of our ability, but we rolled 60 degrees if the waves caught on the beam.
And finally, we learned we must reef early.
When we rolled in the genoa, you didn’t read me stating that we dropped the main. Because we didn’t. We left the main up in all its crispy, new glory thinking we might catch a knot or two of speed.
That was a mistake.
We should have just taken it all down, or at least reefed it when we rolled the genoa in at 0300. Or even pulled it down at daybreak.
By the time we realized we needed to get the sail down, the winds had picked up and made getting it down ten times more difficult than it should have been. But we got it down and secured, even though it was scary and dangerous.
Your First Year Cruising Is Still Part of the Refit
I’m grateful that at some point during our stay in Jacksonville, one of our marina neighbors told us to consider the first year of cruising as part of the refit. I think I would feel really defeated right now if I thought we were done with the refit and could just enjoy the boat now.
The reality is, there is no “fun part” apart from the work. Living on a boat and traveling with her means breaking and fixing and spending until you go back to the suburbs or buy an RV.
Because of everything we learned in just that single overnight, we realized we are not as prepared as we thought we were for this cruising life.
We’ve pulled into a marina in North Carolina where we’ve dropped over a month’s salary getting more of the refit done: Boom preventer lines and hardware, an autopilot computer and new RAM arm, a new MFD for the cockpit, and new NMEA wiring and ethernet cables to run it all. We tried to install new gauges twice, but neither set would talk to our ancient Volvo Penta, so we’ve decided to try and refurbish our existing gauges. Yep, refit territory.
In addition to that, I feel appalled at our naiveté regarding the weather.
We looked at it, and it seemed fine, but it wasn’t. It really wasn’t.
The day after we arrived dockside, I sent a message to our friends, Behan and Jamie Gifford to request their coaching services. They walked us through how to use PredictWind to get a bigger picture of what the weather is doing. I’ll say that Totem’s TRU coaching is affordable, and you won’t find a nicer pair to get cruising advice from. At least they were way more diplomatic about our foibles than I was being in the moment.
Will we be “ready” to cruise when we leave North Carolina in mid-August? Who knows? But we know better, so we’re doing better.
In another month, we’ll know more. In a year, we will know even more! That’s how you build expertise. One mistake at a time.
Julie Tijerina is the author of the Comprehensive Ship’s Log and a 2020 Freshman Year Cruiser. She and her husband, Greg work and live aboard their 1984 Whitby 42’ while they wait for the coronavirus pandemic to lift and continue to work down their ever-changing refit list.