Setting off on your first ocean passage can be daunting. For the first-timer it is hard to dismiss the sea stories you read online or in sailing magazines – storms, dismastings, all the things that could possibly go wrong when you are far from land.
To help you put these fears into a proper perspective, Lin Pardey interviewed 11 voyagers who had just crossed the South Pacific Oceans to learn what worried them most, and what they actually found “out there.”
Prefer to read? See transcript below.
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Music: “Slow Down” by Yvette Craig
First Time Voyagers; What Did They Worry About That Never Happened?
It felt wonderful, no concerns about a wind shift turning our anchorage into a lee shore, no rattle of anchor chain across coral heads, the boat lying still enough to use long-stemmed glasses instead of tumblers for our wine. Even better, arriving in Apia, Samoa meant we had woven our way past the hurricane belt between Hawaii and Mexico, through the doldrums and south of the equator. Now we’d completed the longest passages of our voyage from Ventura, California, through the Line Islands and back to our home base in New Zealand. As Larry and I savored this latest landfall in our 42 years and 185,000 miles of wandering together, I mentioned my sense of relief at arriving here. “If you feel so good about it,” Larry commented, “can you imagine how pleased some of these first time voyagers must feel?”
I already had some idea. In only a few hours alongside the first marina we’d seen in several months, I’d met half a dozen of these newest voyagers and enjoyed their excitement at having made the break from life ashore and safely crossing a major ocean. “They all tell me about the things that worried them before they set sail,” I said to him. “But they went anyway didn’t they?” Larry countered. “These folks are the crème de la crème, the ones who got organized enough to break free then actually cut the ties and kept going beyond the first landfall. It has been a long time since we were in a place where there was a whole group of new voyagers’ fresh from their first long passages, their first time away from easy access to marina facilities. Why don’t you ask some of them what they worried about that never actually happened? Might give you some interesting ideas to share.” With his urging, I wrote a short list of questions and eleven pairs of willing volunteers shared their thoughts on pre-departure worries, the gear that worked, failures that occurred, and thoughts they wanted to share with those waiting to set sail.
“Really bad weather,” stated Linda and Steve Maggart, echoing a worry that was at or near the top of the list for almost everyone we questioned. Linda and Steve had spent about 30 separate nights at sea before they set off from Cabo San Lucas, Baja California in March of 2008. This was to be their very first offshore passage on their vintage sloop Linda, a 40 foot Rhodes Bounty II. With 5 charters in the Caribbean plus coastal cruises from Seattle through the inland passage to Juneau, Alaska, and south to Cabo San Lucas, their experience level was above average for the group of first-time voyagers we met at Apia. They, like the majority of sailors along the Pacific routes this season, encountered stronger than average winds especially near the very active South Pacific Convergence Zone which seemed to linger for weeks between Bora Bora and Tonga, stretching as far north as the Penryn Atoll in the Northern Cooks where we too sailed through its 35 and 40 knot gusts. This, plus the reinforced tradewinds caused by a La Nina year had not been what folks expected along the “Milk Run.” But Linda and Steve both gave their boat full credit for handling these conditions comfortably and feel they had done a good job of making sure they had ways of securing everything on board for these conditions.
John Boggs on Don Pedro, a 47 foot Beneteau sloop had sailed from Victoria in Canada through the Panama Canal 28 years previously in a smaller yacht. This was to be his wife Linda’s first offshore voyage on the boat they have owned for six years. In spite of his previous experience, he too worried most about extremely bad weather. When we asked, “What do you wish you had more of now that you are out here.” John answered, “more bad weather experience.” This must be one of the hardest things for new cruisers to acquire. Very few potential voyagers are willing to, or have the time or opportunity to head out into a gale just to see how it feels. They rarely get a chance to try reefing their sails, moving about on deck and below to learn how their gear really works when the sea gets snarly. Two boats owned by interviewees had suffered full knockdowns while running between Bora Bora and Suvarrow Atoll. One suffered serious mast damage; the other had damaged lifeline stanchions. Neither had excessive water get inside the boat, no one was injured and once each of these crews was able to repair the damages and continue onward they, like all of the other interviewees, felt they had been pretty well prepared for the heavier winds they encountered. Interestingly, both of the men on the boats which suffered knockdowns expressed their concern that they had let their female partners down. One said candidly, “When the boat came upright and I saw the damage then I looked at the fear on her face and felt so terrible. This is definitely not what I promised her cruising would be like.” Women, please take note: no matter how much we may feel we are equal partners in any sailing situation, men will always feel they are personally and ultimately to blame if major things go wrong on board.
Two people mentioned they wished they had spent a few days at sea not only in strong winds but in moderate running or reaching winds. Each would have made changes to their cockpit and accommodations to create more comfortable seating and lounging positions had they experienced the constant motion of being at sea. “My ass was sore after a few days of running. The 1thick inch cockpit seat cushions were too darned hard. I couldn’t find a decent place to wedge my self in and read in the cockpit or down below,” commented one of these folks.
Interestingly, Liz Strash and Mike Scott on Argonaut, a well maintained Cal 40, worried almost as much about being becalmed as they did about encountering heavy weather. “The crewman who sailed with us really freaked out when we actually did get becalmed a week out of Cabo. He started counting our food supplies, figuring out how long we could survive out there if the wind never came back. We tried to reassure him but he was like a caged tiger for a day and a half until the winds filled in. He never felt as excited about the voyage after that.” (Larry and I wondered if he had just read Colridges’ Rime of the Ancient Mariner.) Liz and Mike continued on their own after reaching the Marquesas Islands, and were delighted with their voyaging, eager for more and laughed at all the concerns they’d had about breaking things. “We worried the mast might come down, that the sails would get ripped up.” But by the time they reached Apia, their gear failures turned out to be, according to Mike, “nothing we really couldn’t do without. Our head stopped working while we could still see Mexico, the refrigeration quit three days later. The watermaker seals leaked and had to be replaced and the block holding the gimbals on the stove broke.”
John and Nancy Powers on their 48-foot sloop Meridian, worried about “thru-hull fittings letting go, major engine problems and someone falling overboard. “Knock on wood, none of these happened,” John said. “In fact not much went wrong. But I am glad I had the spares I needed to keep things working and I’d tell new voyagers, if you need one, get two. And there are no West Marines here. So get the stuff now!”
Craig Compton who made this voyage with his wife Kay on their 28 foot BCC, Little Wing echoed Mike’s worries about “everything breaking,” but in contrast, feels he carried far too many spares. “I installed everything on the boat other than the engine by myself. I used new parts as I did the installation and kept the old parts as the spares. I didn’t need back up spares for the spares.” It was the late Hal Roth who first wrote about installing new parts and keeping the originals as a way to be sure the spare parts fit and the right tools were on board. It’s a practice we have always followed for vital equipment such as bilge pump diaphragms.
Though the group of sailors we interviewed was small, their list of gear failures does parallel what we have seen since 1968. Refrigeration was mentioned the most often, engine fresh water pump impellors came close second and watermaker problems third. John on Don Pedro mentioned his watermaker problem was caused by using tap water to flush his system. When he contacted the manufacturer he learned that it was the chlorine in city water which was responsible for ruining the membrane. John suggested we remind people to use only distilled water for flushing. (7 of 10 interviewees had watermakers.)
Jack and Marcia Spiess had owned their 44 foot cutter Tracen J for four years before they set sail and had been cruising off and on since 1988. But this was their first foray across oceans. “Handling medical issues, heart attack, fractures, and major injuries. That is what concerned me,” said Marcia. But Marcia and her crew, like all of those we spoke with had not had any serious medical problems, none had heard of any other voyagers mentioning problems other than two cases of tropical infections caused by cuts which were not treated sufficiently.
Marilyn Middletown who cruises with her husband Glenn and son Jared on Tin Soldier, a 50-foot steel boat said health problems at sea had been her worry too. Tin Soldiers medical supplies were rarely used until they reached Neiafu in the Vav’au Islands of Tonga where Glenn decided to join friends on a racing boat for one of the Friday night races organized by a local restaurant owner. During the race, the boat gybed and the traveler block, which runs on a track across the middle of the cockpit, hit Glenn, throwing him against a winch. A broken nose blackened eyes and several stitches were much in evidence as we all discussed how much safer ocean voyaging seems to be than living on shore or racing under sail.
Linda Levy, with her partner Michael Gilbert left from Florida on board B’Sheret, a 37-footer, a NAJAD sloop they bought at the Annapolis Boatshow. Linda listed seasickness right after nasty weather and pirates as a worry that was now relegated to a more comfortable place in her mind. “I was lucky,” Linda said. “I heard all the horror stories but never got further than anxiety nausea.” Interestingly, when I asked others about seasickness, about sixty percent of the interviewees had found they either felt fine, or suffered only for a few hours during the first day or two of a passage. The other 40% (me included) had found ways to control or cope with seasickness. Although we met several people in Apia and Tonga who were planning to end their cruises sooner than planned, not one of them said it was because of seasickness.
The crew of both Tracen J and Argonaut, listed “running out of food” as something they worried about before they set off. But when I look over the answers to the next question we asked, “What did you put on board that was not used,” I realize this was an almost universal concern. Many lists included comments about carrying too much basic food. Marcia stated, “I over provisioned. All of it took up too much needed space and we ended up giving much of it away. We found basics like flour, rice etc. were usually available, even in the smallest island shops. Same with meats, fruits and vegetables. Maybe they were not what we were used to, but it was fun to enjoy the local items.” On the other hand, two couples wished they had carried more “comfort foods.” Things that were easy to grab for a snack, specialty items to make real at-home feeling meals, favorite cookies or dried fruits for nibbling on night watches these definitely are hard to find or very expensive once you sail far from home. Linda Levy from B’Sheret said, “Yes, we over-provisioned, but even without a freezer we were able to eat quick meals from a can and have hot soup all the way to New Zealand. That made me happy when the seas were not happy and all I had to do was open a can, throw it in a pot, heat and eat.
Eight out of ten couples listed their windvane self-steering as top of the “most favored gear on board.” The other two listed their auto-pilots. Six listed their watermaker. When there was any discussion between husband and wife as to whether the self-steering gear or watermaker was most important, the answer seemed to split clearly along sexual lines with woman strongly in favor of the watermaker.
The most enjoyable part of each interview was asking, “what is your very best memory so far?” The answers proved to us, though there are a lot more folks out here than when we set off 42 years ago, cruising is still a grand adventure. Tom Collins and Colleen Wilson who sailed on 8 ton Mokisha, a handsome 1980’s style S&S 38 built by Catalina yachts said “nothing compared with the awe of being out at sea, far from land on a starry night.” Linda and Steve on Linda repeated this and added, “catching Mahi Mahi! And we loved Penrhyn island. It was just about a hundred miles off the normal route yet we were the only cruisers there and we were shown a wonderful time by the island folks.”
Glenn and Marilyn Middletown spoke of spending time at one of the isolated atolls of the Tuamotos and staying with a Polynesian family for a week “There were only two families on the atoll, yet there was a church. The three of us made the Sunday congregation thirty percent larger than normal.”
“The Pacific Arts Festival,” stated Jack and Marcia Spiess, “It was in American Samoa – only happens once every four years and 27 island nations sent their dancers and singers for ten days of performances.” “Beautiful anchorages,” several people said, listing places as diverse as Hiva Oa in the Marquesas, Nuiatoputapu in Tonga and the eastern side of Bora Bora. “Suwarrow Atoll” said Michael Gilbert. “It was described as magical by everyone we’ve spoken with and we all believe that the most magic was due to the Cooks Island caretaker and his family who live there.
The boats these ten interviewees chose to cruise in ranged from 28 feet in length to 50 feet on deck. All but two had been bought second hand, two were over 30 years old. The purchase prices listed ranged from $35,000 to $400,000. But in spite of their divergent boat choices and budgets, these folks had one financial reality in common. The cost to upgrade and outfit the boat once they decided to go cruising ran an additional 25 to 35 percent of the purchase price of the boat.
What other advise did these people add to their questionnaire for those dreaming of setting off across oceans? Here’s the list:
Do it sooner rather than later.
Quit talking and get out here!
Know your boat, test your gear.
Buy the best dinghy you can afford.
Have confidence in your boat.
Don’t overload your boat or you will feel cramped and uncomfortable
Weather will become your life, study and learn about it.
Once you have prepared thoroughly, relax and enjoy it all.
Keep a realistic perspective on being out here, far from family, far from easily available materials, equipment, and skilled labor.
Be mentally prepared for being at sea a long time. It was better than I thought it would be.
Learn a few words of the local language. Even saying hello, thank you and goodbye can open new worlds to you.
Be wary of the herd mentality. Remember it’s your dreams, your itinerary and ultimately your decisions.
Get away from other yachties so you experience the local culture.
The last two suggestions are possibly the hardest ones to put into action. As our three-week stay at the marina in Apia showed us once again, the cruisers you meet “out there” can be a fascinating group of people. Someone will always be coming up with an activity to add to the day’s entertainment, be it a potluck, a diving expedition, a night on the town or an evening of sharing stories and singing shanties or old favorites. Through the years Larry and I have written, “go small, go simple, but go now!” To that we both would like to add, “Do anything necessary to split your shore time 50/50 between getting to know local people and enjoying the company of other cruisers.” No matter how fine your voyaging turns out to be, if you don’t occasionally break away from your new found cruising friends you could look back and find there was one thing you didn’t worry about that did actually happen. You could find the only Polynesian people you had contact with were customs and immigration officials and vendors at the local marketplace.
 These two yachts had left within 24 hours of each other choosing their departure time based on both weather routing advice and GRIB files. The first day out the weather as they expected. The second day it began to deteriorate. For about three days they ran before winds that sometimes gusted to 45. Both were running under extremely reduced headsails and using self-steering devices when the knockdowns occurred. Neither were at the helm when the incident occurred.
 Seasickness prevention is discussed in Care and Feeding of Sailing Crew. The most common medication used currently among the cruisers I have spoken to is Stugeron, the generic name for this is cinnarizine, 25 mg.Some links above (including all Amazon links) are affiliate links, meaning that I earn from qualifying purchases. Learn more.