Uggh. Bad sailing days happen. Ask any cruiser, and they’ll probably tell you about one of their first trips and how it was a trip from hell. The weather wasn’t quite what they expected, engine troubles, running aground, torn sails, seasickness — there can be all sorts of reasons.
For many of us, our very first trip is among our worst bad sailing days. You can read the story of my first offshore trip here — I really wondered what I was thinking when I’d said yes.
The good news is that most of us learn from the experience and never have such a bad time again. That’s definitely true for Dave and I. And I remember one of Beth Leonard’s presentations where she said the worst passage in their entire two circumnavigations (one which included going more than halfway around the world in the Southern Ocean!) was their first.
First, if you’ve had a trip from hell I want to encourage you that they won’t all be like that. In fact, they’ll almost certainly be better.
And secondly, I’d like to explore a bit of what I think happens when you have bad sailing days and why things get better.
Basically, there are two issues with weather forecasts: first is that they are forecasts, not guarantees. Conditions may vary (sometimes considerably!) from what was forecast. And second, until you have some offshore experience, it’s hard to know what conditions are acceptable to you.
We’ve learned to check multiple forecasts and to watch for several days before we intend to leave. We’re looking not just for favorable conditions but also:
- Reasonable agreement between sources.
- The forecast itself not changing significantly from run to run.
It can be tempting to look only at favorable forecasts and discount those that aren’t . . . or vice versa. Over time, you’ll get a feel for which ones tend to be most accurate. However, when forecasts are considerably different, we tend to watch out.
Additionally, if the forecast is changing significantly (not just a few hours timing of a wind switch or squalls, say) every time it comes out, we’re more leery of conditions being as forecast.
We also tend to note general trends in the forecast and the timing. To use a simplified example, if the forecast calls for north winds today (which we can see) becoming east overnight and south near dawn and when we wake the wind is out of the east, we know that it’s likely that the forecast isn’t necessarily wrong as much as delayed. Ditto for squalls that are forecast to accompany a front line — if the squalls arrive sooner than expected, it’s likely that the post-frontal wind conditions will also be early.
Forecasts we use:
What Does the Forecast Mean?
Over time, we got better at how we read weather forecasts but — to a large extent — the bigger cause of uncomfortable passages was not knowing how a forecast translated into offshore conditions. As inland small-boat racing sailors, we had sailed many times in winds of 20 to 25 miles per hour. And frankly, we were good at it.
So an offshore forecast of 20 to 25 knots right on the nose didn’t even make us pause. Yeah, it’d be windy . . . but we’re tough . . . we love heavy air . . . we win races in this stuff.
Okay, we’ll start with the fact that one knot is actually 1.2 miles per hour. So 20 knots is actually 24 miles per hour. When you’re used to wind strengths in one unit of measurement, it takes a while to adjust to a different measurement. But that’s not the biggest thing.
Nope, the bigger difference is simply offshore conditions. Offshore waves are bigger and pack a lot more punch. And the boat, loaded for cruising, doesn’t point nearly as well. And “falling off a wave” and motoring into seas that periodically wash the deck just aren’t fun. Beating into 25 knot winds on a cruising boat wasn’t fun, we learned.
Now we look for winds that aren’t on the nose or if they are, we want them to be very mild (basically, we’ll end up motoring if we have to go straight into the wind). And we’ve learned what max winds we like on what points of sail.
With time, we’ve also learned our boat better and little tweaks to make it more comfortable in various conditions. And our experience in different conditions has made our expectations more realistic: I find that bad sailing days are much more tolerable when I’m expecting them as opposed to when I’m expecting an easy sail.
Learning What You Can Handle
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we’ve learned that we can handle crappy conditions. We still may not like them, but there is a sense of “we’ve done this before and survived.” The first time really is the hardest.
If you don’t have much experience, I think that classes can help with all of these points. But it’s still different when you’re on your own, checking the weather reports and making the go/no go decision and coping with the actual conditions. With time, you get better at picking your windows and more confident in less than ideal conditions.
We had no idea about staging locations when we began cruising. Basically a staging location is your jumping off place for a passage. Typically you’ll have a pre-staging location where you do your provisioning, enjoy whatever attractions there are in the area and watch for a window. When it looks like a window might develop, you move as close as possible to the actual jumping-off place and then leave when the window actually opens.
Why a Staging Location Helps
Using a staging location can cut hours or even a day off an offshore passage and, for shorter passages, can make it feasible to leave with a shorter window . . . or at least make it so that you have less-than-ideal conditions for a shorter time. Not using staging locations can greatly increase the chances of a bad sailing day.
Sitting in the Florida Keys where boats are prepping for a trip to the Bahamas, we see this all the time. Boats leaving from Marathon generally need at least a two-day window to reach the Bahamas. But by going up to Key Largo first in the protected waters of either the ICW (north side of the Keys) or Hawk Channel (south of the Keys but inside the reef), it’s a day sail to cross the Gulf Stream and be in Bimini. You don’t need as long a window and forecasts for the next 24 hours are generally quite reliable, so it’s less likely that you’ll be caught in unexpected conditions.
But the trick is — if possible — to get to the staging location before the window opens. If you have to use the window of good conditions to get to the staging location (and it happens), you may have to wait for the next window to get to your “primary” destination.
Schedules account for a lot of bad sailing days. Now, we’ve all heard that you just can’t have schedules when you’re cruising. We know that. But it takes a while — and usually a bad sailing day — for it to really sink in.
When we began cruising, we were eager to “begin cruising.” We wanted to “get out there.” While not a schedule in the sense of someone waiting for us at the other end, it was a schedule in our minds: “We told everyone we were going,” “I’m sick of waiting” and the ever-popular emails asking when we were going to head out.
Just a little more pressure to accept a less-than-optimal forecast. We’ve learned to wait and enjoy where we are. And if we do head out on a somewhat less favorable forecast, it’s far more of a conscious decision to accept the conditions and not a case of “I didn’t know it was going to be like this!”
Whether it’s a torn sail, engine problems or a backed up toilet, mechanical problems can ruin any trip. I’m certainly not going to say that experienced cruisers don’t have them, but I know we had more when we were new and were more flustered by them.
How Problems Arise
Offshore conditions put a bigger strain on the boat than you expect. Things break. Lumpy conditions will stir up fuel and cause blockages. With more boisterous conditions than you may be used to, you may not remember the proper procedures for things like the toilet. You may forget to close a Y valve and have all your fresh water siphon out while underway.
And even if you’re not offshore, a 10- or 12-hour day of sailing or motoring can tax systems that haven’t done that before. Autopilots can stop steering. Batteries can be drained. Engines can overheat.
Just to add insult to injury, as a new cruiser, you may not be sure how to fix the problem. It’s helpful to have every owner’s manual for every system and a few books such as Don Casey’s and Nigel Calder’s (links to go my articles on their books) and a complete set of tools.
Getting Help When You Need It
But sometimes your biggest help will come from other boaters: get on the VHF and ask if anyone has experience with such-and-such. So many times in our first year we thought we had a monstrous problem that would require a tow and perhaps even a haul out, and others told us of much more simple solutions or even stopped by and gave us a hand.
Finally, if you’re in an area with towing services, pay for a policy (TowBoat US and SeaTow are the big ones in the US, check with local boaters to see which has the best coverage in your area). It’s far cheaper to buy a policy than to pay a per-mile towing fee.
Better News for Future Trips
The good news: You learn to inspect your systems thoroughly . . . and you learn the weak parts of your systems that must be checked doubly. When you discover that something is a chronic problem, you engineer a better solution. And as for forgetting a procedure that leads to a problem . . . well, let’s just say that once I discovered the consequences, I didn’t forget again.
Over time, you’ll learn how to repair the various systems and mechanical failures, while still not fun, won’t seem to be such a castrophe. Last fall I wrote about various problems we had over a four-month trip to the Bahamas. Had we been in our first year of cruising, we would have wondered what we were doing wrong and felt totally overwhelmed.
In our tenth year, we accepted them as par for the course — it was our first big trip on a new to us boat, we had plenty of spares and we had confidence that between the books we had aboard, a bit of willingness to tackle problems and the ability to ask for help via VHF, email/Google and even texting by satellite, we’d be fine.
We also know that while many of our systems are certainly nice to have (hello, engine!), we can live without most of them until we get to a good place to make repairs.
Your first “big trip” is likely to be exhausting on a number of levels.
Why You’re Tired
First is simply the anticipation: whether you’re excited or nervous, chances are good that you didn’t sleep well for a day or two before departure.
And then add in the physical nature of the trip. Whether you’re doing a multi-day trip or a series of day trips, you may not have been on the go for so long. If you’re offshore, in particular, conditions are likely to be more tiring than you expect (or at least they were for us). Seasickness may rear its ugly head.
Just sitting and bracing yourself against the motion of the boat is tiring. Add in moving around, eating, checking your position and it’s worse. When you’re off watch, it’s tough to sleep. If you’re seasick, everything is worse. If your partner is seasick, you may be virtually single-handing the boat and really get no rest. And with exhaustion comes irritability and poor coping skills: “Just get me off this boat!”
If you are closer to shore, plotting courses and keeping an eye out for obstacles can be tiring. Crab pots. Marks that aren’t where you expected them. Fog. Heading straight into the sun. Depths. Shoaling. Bridge heights. Tides and currents.
And if you’ve had weather woes and/or mechanical problems, the exhaustion will both be worse and compound the other problems. Talk about being totally frazzled!
For Future Trips
Experience helps here, too. Getting more sleep before a trip helps. Just getting used to being on a moving boat in those conditions helps as you know what to expect and you’re more confident in the things you have to do.
But the other side of experience is knowing that we have to allow for tiredness. We need periodic catch-up days where we do nothing. (I realize this isn’t possible with longer offshore trips; it’s one reason for first making shorter offshore trips.) Overall, we’ve found slowing down to be one of the biggest factors for making cruising less stressful.
NO MORE BAD SAILING DAYS
By talking about trips from hell, I don’t want to be discouraging. In fact, just the opposite: if you’ve had a horrible, awful miserable trip I want to give you hope that future ones are almost certain to be better.
Start by figuring out what the underlying problems were — not that the weather was bad, for example, but why it caught you off guard: not paying enough attention to the forecast, not realizing what the forecast conditions would be like on your boat and on that passage, having a deadline, whatever. Not that you went aground, but what led to it: not checking the chart, not updating the chart, not double-checking depths as you plotted your route, not checking other sources such as Active Captain, a problem with the depth sounder, not following the route you’d charted?
The problem has happened and passed, so the idea isn’t to dwell on it but to know why it happened. And then figure out what you need to do differently next time.
And don’t beat yourself up over it. I think everyone has had a trip from hell. Just don’t keep making the same mistakes!
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