Just starting boating or cruising and feeling overwhelmed by everything there is to learn? There are ways to make it easier!

The Learning Curve

Talk to any new cruiser — whether full time or weekender — and you almost always hear the same comment: there’s so much to learn!

Ditto if you’ve gone from spending weekends locally to taking some longer trips, or even seasonal cruising. No matter what you thought you already had figured out, there’s more.

The first year cruising (or after a major change in cruising grounds or length of trips), nothing seems easy. Everything is a new experience. Bridges. Locks. Getting fuel. Water. Remembering the anchor light. How to hoist the dinghy. Plotting a course in the chart plotter. Using a cruising guide to decide where to go. Is our draft too deep for that anchorage? What do you mean, we’re out of water? The holding tank is full? How far can we go in a day? How can our batteries be dead? What’s a cruiser’s net? What clothes do I really need? Where/how should I store this? How much food should I buy?

And then there are the repairs and maintenance. Most of us just aren’t prepared for this! Ashore, many things can safely be put off until a convenient time . . . or we can call a repairman. Boat problems usually have to be dealt with when they pop up. And if it’s something you’ve never dealt with before, what seems like a “quick fix” can take all day.

Okay, so much for telling you how that learning curve seems to go straight up. If you own a boat, you already know about it. In the last few days, I’ve talked to several new cruisers and they’ve all commented on how mentally exhausting it’s been.

But here’s the good news and what I keep telling them: it really does get better. A lot better.

Suddenly, you’re not doing everything for the first time. You may not have things perfected, but you have a lot better idea of what you’re doing. Things get rearranged as you find what you want in the most convenient places. You discover what you never use. You figure out what works for you.

For us (aboard our first cruising boat), the one-year mark seemed almost magical. Suddenly, cruising became a lot more of what we’d dreamt about. The reality is that it had actually been getting easier for a while, but arriving in a new cruising area just seemed a major milestone.

So how do you make it to that point without tearing your hair out, becoming a raging alcoholic, divorcing your partner . . . or deciding to forget about cruising and sell the boat?

Here’s a few things that helped us:

  • Slow down. Get rid of deadlines and schedules. Don’t think that everything has to be fixed, learned or decided today. Don’t be overly ambitious in how far you’re going at first. Keep daily mileages lower and plan lay days instead of trying to be on the move every day. Be conservative in your weather windows.
  • Prioritize. Don’t try to do too much at once. It’s tempting with a new-to-you boat to plan a whole bunch of projects and buy supplies for all of them, try to learn all the systems in a day and so on. It’s overwhelming. Obviously, you need to do anything necessary to make the boat seaworthy, but not everything has to be done immediately. We have a rule of only one major project at a time and ditto with learning anything new.
  • Share the burden. Assuming there is more than one of you aboard, share responsibilities and respect that the other person is (most likely) having to learn some new skills. Even if one of you is super-mechanical or a professional chef, things work differently on a boat. Not everything will go smoothly even in your “areas of expertise.” And it’s not fair for one person to be responsible for everything. Even if your partner knows more about just about everything than you do, start carving out some areas that will be yours and begin learning.
  • Have some “me” time. For many couples, the sudden transition to being together 24/7 is tough, even if it’s just for the weekend. A little time apart can work wonders — even if it’s as simple as taking the trash to the dumpster. I tend to go grocery shopping on my own just for this reason, even though it means lugging it all myself — it gives us a couple hours apart. Walks, kayak/SUP/dinghy rides, and craft sessions with other cruisers are all good excuses for a bit of “me” time too.
  • Do something for fun. Try to remember why you wanted to cruise: explore new places, see wildlife, take photos, hike, snorkel . . . whatever. Unless there’s a true emergency, do something just for fun every day. Cruising shouldn’t be endless work and drudgery.
  • Ask for help. If you’re stumped or just not sure what to do, ask other cruisers for ideas (or see what your favorite blog has to say <grin> ). Dave and I had a real problem with this when we began cruising: part of the allure of cruising was being independent and solving our own problems. Just a month into cruising, we learned the fallacy of this. In a remote anchorage, we developed a fuel leak and couldn’t figure out how it could be repaired without pulling the engine. After we’d spent a day and a half on the problem, another cruiser stopped by . . . and had a solution that had it fixed in less than an hour. We learned that there’s nothing wrong with asking for help . . . and in time, we were the ones passing on what we’d learned.
  • Indulge yourself a bit. Whether it’s a piece of chocolate, a long hot shower a marina, a glass of wine or whatever, have a little room in the budget for things other than just “boat parts and repair.” When every bit of time, energy and money is going into the boat, it’s easy to start resenting it.
  • Take a break. Just get away from the boat for a bit. Whether it’s a few hours, days or even weeks, it can help to come back with a fresh mindset.

As I look back through that list, it hits me that “slow down” encompasses most of the other items and is really the essence of cruising. And yet it’s hard to do, particularly if you have a limited amount of time or are coming from a career with firm deadlines and schedules.

Just know that things really do get easier. Soon, all the daily chores are routine. You get into a maintenance routine. You develop checklists for things you do over and over. And pretty soon, you find yourself telling a new cruiser to just hang on, it’ll get easier . . .

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  • Adam House
    Posted at 23 November 2015 Reply

    Wonderful article. Now it’s time to apply this to my boat on the Great Salt Lake.

    • Adam House
      Posted at 23 November 2015 Reply

      Where due to the salinity, the water is thicker and boats ride higher. Luckily nothing grows underneath.

  • Martin Henry
    Posted at 23 November 2015 Reply

    Good nuggets!

  • Manon Pilon-Fry
    Posted at 23 November 2015 Reply

    Great article, thanks.

  • Jennifer Buff
    Posted at 24 November 2015 Reply

    Perfect timing, Carolyn Shearlock. Great article, and then I followed the links to your entries about St. Brendans Isle and Why Florida. I’m exactly at the point in planning where I need this incredibly helpful information. THANK YOU!

  • Marie raney
    Posted at 24 November 2015 Reply

    Leaving from the west coast is more a leap of faith than a toe in the water. It’s true most of us get used to it with 2 and 3 week coastal trips in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea, but it’s not the same. Once you leave the familiarity of inland waters you’re pretty much committed to a month across to Hawaii or a slightly riskier 2 weeks to California. So the boat really has to be ready, at least the safety systems. But the message here is still accurate – once the safety systems are in place you still won’t feel ready, and finally you just have to go! You’ll get psychologically ready once you’re doing it. Best experience ever!

  • Kristen D
    Posted at 24 November 2015 Reply

    OMG, thank you for this post. We moved aboard October 1, and just started cruising 2 weeks ago. We are committed since we sold the house and cars, but I do find myself occasionally thinking “I wanted to do this??” I do! I just have to hang in there long enough to get into the groove. Oh, and get further south where it’s warm! Thanks for the tips, I will be sure to share them with the captain.

  • Alex Tarlecky
    Posted at 24 November 2015 Reply

    Hi… this is a great article. Its so easy to find yourself stuck in project mode. People wonder why we are hunkering down and working on the boat over the next year… the project list we have is not THAT daunting. The answer is that we are taking our time. Smelling the roses, getting involved in the community, and basically enjoying living in someplace new. Some people say “that’s not cruising” but hey… who are they?

  • Jeff
    Posted at 25 November 2015 Reply

    Carolyn, this is perhaps one of the best articles you have ever put together and trust me, I’ve tried to read them all. It captures the spirit of what we do and why we do it. Incredible article that should resonate with all.

  • Peggy
    Posted at 07 January 2016 Reply

    We cannot express how much a bit of training and chartering helps before you take off on your own. Even our most experience sailors that elected to ride along with their spouse’s training classes have commented on how much they didn’t know they didn’t know –especially motoring skills, sparing, diagnostics, floatplans, fuel estimates, and storage concerns. Weekend sailors should take a month to practice cruising and living aboard before setting off on longer cruisers… a week is not long enough to really learn about storage, weather, and planning for the unknowns… a month gives cruisers the feel for what it will be like to be together constantly, what stores well and easily, what is easy to cook and clean on board (and what is not), and what it is like to play cards in the rain for two days and not see another soul at the marina or anchorage… sometimes that is quite a shock when you are leaving a corporate job or a big family behind.

    I like to say a sailboat is like a house and a car with sails — every concern you have in your car or house is still a worry on the boat,,, and then you have to add on that it is mobile and has to carry everything it needs within its confines… and then there is the sails and rigging, too. No yard, garage, or easy trip to Walmart… so plan accordingly!

  • Charlotte Caldwell
    Posted at 12 March 2017 Reply

    Excellent suggestions Carolyn. Doing things for the second time is so much easier!

  • Jennifer Sampica
    Posted at 12 March 2017 Reply

    Thank you for this.

  • Louise Stanley
    Posted at 12 March 2017 Reply

    Great article.

  • Rory Stewart
    Posted at 12 March 2017 Reply

    Well done. Slow own indeed!

  • Melissa Ducharme
    Posted at 12 March 2017 Reply

    Thanks for your wisdom! I needed your words badly!
    And I’ll remember that it does go easier. 🙂

  • Melody Cook
    Posted at 14 June 2017 Reply

    First week of ownership of our 41ft Morgan. It’s bigger then we learned on, so spacious when we decided to buy. However, now that it’s just my husband and I, it’s overwhelming, scary and feels way out of our knowledge base. Your post today is very helpful. Slow down, pace our selves better. Hopefully the dream part will come to fruition.

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 14 June 2017 Reply

      I remember how scary that Hunter 43 was on our first charter (we raced 18′ centerboard dinghies). By the end of the week, sailing every day, we weren’t totally comfortable but getting there. It helped that there were four of us on board — any chance of getting someone in your marina to go out with you the first time of two just to have some extra hands? Morgans are great boats — congrats on getting her!

  • Pamela Harwood
    Posted at 14 June 2017 Reply

    Carolyn, we haven’t even relaunched KATIE MACK, our 85 year-old wooden Bridge Deck Cruiser that is on the hard undergoing a major rebuild of her hull, among other things, yet your “slow down/take a break” advice is SO TRUE!! When we aren’t working, we’ve been at the boatyard doing the interior finish work — sanding and painting and varnishing. Hugh has already done all the plumbing and installation of “systems” so the electrician can hook things up properly. We are making good progress, and see the light at the end of the tunnel, but this past weekend we saw a weather window that coincided with 3 days when neither of us was scheduled to work. We drove down to Southwest Harbor where we mostly read and slept, took a few walks along the beach — completely recharged our batteries, and we are ready to get back to work. Today I’m putting the 2nd coat on the bed frame, and Hugh is sanding the galley.

  • Jan Bogart
    Posted at 14 June 2017 Reply

    A lot of trial and error….

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