Here’s the bad news—most unsuccessful ocean passages fail at the dock, long before the vessel goes to sea. Here’s the good news—while it is difficult to get your vessel in shipshape and Bristol-fashion to begin a circumnavigation, it is relatively easy to keep it seaworthy as you cruise.
One, because you’re highly motivated.
Not only does the success of the cruise depend largely on the seaworthiness of your vessel, but your very life (and even more importantly, the lives of your crew) may hang in the balance as well.
Two, because there’s an immediate cause and effect. Nothing motivates me more to attempt a complicated electric repair on my autopilot—than steering for four hours straight.
Three, you should have all the tools and spares you need. If you don’t, fire your ship’s husband. (That would be you, dude!)
We usually begin our circs by leaving from St. John, USVI, for the Panama Canal after gradually increasing our local cruising from seldom to often.
Regardless of how well I think I have prepared Ganesh, there are always a few last-minute problems that crop up. Often these problems are related to new gear recently installed and/or changes I’ve just made to my rig. Thus, we don’t just clear out and leave—we sneak up on it. We clear out and anchor that night in Brewer’s Bay. Then we lollygag in Culebra. And finally, we spend a few days (or weeks) in Vieques.
This allows me to work leisurely and without pressure on the boat. This allows both of us to ‘get our heads’ into the voyage and out of the Rachel Maddow show. And, importantly, I pick worse (rollier) anchorages each time to allow my wife’s stomach to adjust to ocean sailing.
Note: This isn’t merely how we did it, say, two years into our cruising life together as a couple—but how we continue to do it in our 52nd year of being sailing lovebirds. We wait until we’re totally ‘unfrazzled’ from the effects of mingling with dirt-dwellers and are both eager to sail into Mother Ocean’s warm embrace once again.
Regardless, there’s always plenty to do in the Panama Canal Zone. Transiting is a busy time—especially for us because we anchor out and don’t use an agent. (The marina says this isn’t possible—we’ve been doing it for decades.) This saves us between $1,000 and $4,000 dollars, a considerable sum. (Carolyn, thankfully, considers negotiating with officials a challenge; I consider it an ordeal.)
While we stopped in the Galapagos during our first two circs, they’ve now priced themselves out of our budget. The last two circs we sailed directly to French Polynesia. Depending on how fickle the doldrums are between Panama and the Galapagos, this has taken us 32 days to Fatu Hiva and 48 days the second time nonstop to Tahiti.
Of course, since this is the longest mandatory passage of most circs, we want to be well prepared. But the Tradewind conditions on this milk run can be so agreeable, we often do complicated electrical projects on the boat to stay amused.
In fact, it was on this run that we once went twelve days and 1600 nautical miles without touching anything—not a sheet, not the self-steering gear; absolutely nothing until I turned towards Makemo in the Tuamotus.
By this point, of course, our vessel is fairly together as an offshore machine and it is easy to keep it that way while wandering westward into the setting sun.
Once we arrive in Tonga, however, it is a different story. We have to switch mental gears. We’ve just spent over half a year in some of the most benign cruising grounds on the planet but we’re about to head down to stormy New Zealand. The question isn’t whether you’ll get wacked by a gale—but how many. (We’ve done this passage 12 times—once enduring three gales in two weeks.)
Thus, we re-bed our chainplates and ports and work for a week or so making sure our vessel is as watertight as possible. Don’t forget—your entire hull gets highly torqued and savagely twisted during real weather. Many newbie sailors are totally shocked by how wet their interior and electronics got as they wearily and soggily arrive in New Zealand.
We love the Kiwis, and since we’ve just sailed a fair amount, we usually tie to the pile moorings in Whangarei and party with the infamous Dock Pickers—a floating, guitar-heavy musical group of sea gypsies we hang with while in the area.
Here’s the crazy part of boat maintenance—your vessel requires extra maintenance if you sail it hard, and extra maintenance if you don’t. Thus, we spend a couple of weeks in Opua in May, getting ready for the passage north to New Caledonia or Fiji. (Fiji is fun. An elderly resident told me that his cannibal relatives told him that Christian missionaries were the best—evidently, they have a layer of fat that makes them especially tasty.)
We love Vanuatu as well—Tanna especially—and, of course, all the thousands of isles that make up Indonesia.
We usually spend a year or two in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand—in ‘the land beneath the wind’ as the Arab traders once called it.
While we use our vessel continuously during this time, these are all light-air venues. Here again, we have to refocus before we leave, as the Indian Ocean can be the roughest in the world. (During our last Indian Ocean passage, the Trades blew gale-force EVERY SINGLE AFTERNOON between Cocos Keeling and distant Rodrigues!)
Ducking around the Cape of Storms (aka the Cape of Good Hope) is always fun. Then the South Atlantic is a cakewalk back home to the Caribbean. (Once while hiding out from weather in Durban, South Africa, during a Sou-westerly Buster, the seas outside were reported to be over 60 feet!!!!)
But COVID has completely screwed the annual rhythms of our fourth circ—if not the rest of our cruising lives. We’ve been in Singapore for over two years now—that longest span of our marriage without sailing offshore. Money is tight, my morals are loose, and I don’t think there is any reason to haul out when we’re not going anywhere soon. So, for the first time in my adult life, I have to admit that my vessel is in disrepair.
Yes, I hang my head in shame.
Of course, ‘crappy’ is subjective and I’ve never wasted money on such frills as topside wax. But all the antifouling paint and boot top epoxy are now flaking off our hull—yeeck!
Since we’re directly under the equator, it is hot, humid, and continuously moist here. Thus our white decks, white hard dodger, blue sail covers, and blue headsail suncovers are all green with thick, sludgy mildew. (The local boats use warm, soapy, high-pressure, portable washing devices that require hundreds of gallons of freshwater… But we’re broke on a mooring, not at a dock. And we don’t have one, boo hoo!)
Yes, we’re ‘hard aground on our own coffee grounds’ as the saying goes. Worse, since we’re not using our spare fuel jugs… they sort of wandered away. And our stowage is becoming sloppy. Each time we sail, stuff crashes that never crashed before. Up until now, I’ve always believed that we should be able to go to sea at a moment’s (say, ten minutes) notice. But now that’s gone by the wayside. We’re getting sloppy. Hell, at one point, wasps were living under our sailcovers—oh, the indignities!
Yes, my charts are out-of-date and my headsail sheets are sun-damaged beyond repair.
On the positive side, since we haven’t hauled in three years—and since the water around our boat is urinal-warm—we have to scrub the bottom each time we go sailing. The fouling here is awful. We’ve not only worn out a hundred 3M pads, we’ve worn out a couple of stainless-steel putty knives as well!
Why is this a ‘positive?’ Because our cardio systems must be in good shape or we’d have both popped our corks months ago.
Frankly, I can’t remember ever diving into the water here without a putty knife or wallboard scraper in my barnacle-scarred hand.
Each week I swim down to my depth meter’s transducer and—despite its manual informing me how delicate it is and that I should never use even a harsh 3M pad on it—I hack at it violently with a machete and ball peen hammer to knock off the stubborn barnacles and mussels.
We have an ancient EPIRBs—an early kerosene-operated model—that is now hopelessly out-of-date.
While our faithful SSB still works, it has rust dripping from it and spotted-mildew on its display—damn, those ICOM 710s are workhorses!
Part of the reason we’ve never had any severe galvanic corrosion on our hull is that we seldom tie up to a dock (where another vessel’s incorrectly wired ground system might attempt to use our vessel as its ground). Nonetheless, we have to replace our zincs regularly, as I don’t ever want to see the slightest corrosion on our beloved four-bladed Max prop.
As mentioned, the fouling is horrible here. I used to think the Simpson’s Bay lagoon was bad—Singapore makes the fouling there seem insignificant. Even though I haul my dinghy out each evening on our davits and tilt-up my outboard engine when it’s not in use, so many barnacles grow inside the outboard’s lower unit and choke off its cooling system, I need to ‘debarnacle’ its insides every three months.
Damn, I’ve never had to do that—ever!
While there is almost no wind here 95% of the time, occasionally savage tropical squalls reach nearly 50 knots. Plus, there’s an extreme reversing current of nearly three knots. Thus, my vessel gets tide-bound daily. This, coupled with occasional freighter wakes of three feet (the freighters can be only 60 feet away as they roar by), make for an exciting harbor that has cruising boats breaking loose from their mooring on a regular basis. I’ve already rescued three of them, in the middle of the night, from certain destruction. (Carolyn happily drinks the wine or champagne their owners bring in token payment.)
But here’s the thing fellow sailors—our cruising lifestyle is all about change. I’m adaptable. And Darwin said that adaptability is more important than intelligence. (Thank gosh, because the only skill I have is marrying well.)
Yes, things aren’t how I want them—but things are as they are—and I have no choice but to adapt or die.
So, I’m going to adapt—in my lover’s arms, on a fine yacht, in the safest country on this planet.
Editor’s note: Fatty and Carolyn are still in Singapore, hoping (with less and less conviction) to resume circumnavigating before their hundredth birthdays.