Ten Things to Know Before You Go

It’s time for the New Year’s reflection post.  2017 was the year we made the break from our comfortable middle class home and moved onto our sailboat. It was the year we cut the dock lines and began cruising full time. Many of our readers are gearing up for their own shift to a cruising lifestyle. They pour over the Yachtworld listings, going down the rabbit hole of finding that ‘perfect for them’ boat. They are reading and following all the cruising blogs and vlogs out there, wondering when they, too, will be sitting in the cockpit with sundowners and friends, a warm and gentle breeze ruffling water. If you recognize yourself in this description, read on. What things have challenged our fun/suck ratio? Because you know we are only going to be doing this as long as it’s fun.

How I loved seeing these Elephant Seals and listening to them grunt at night from the starry-skyed cockpit.

I’ve made a list of what I consider ‘reality checks’ just for those of you who are in that position now. Some of these are not big things and, frankly, I had trouble coming up with 10 of them, but when you are cruising even small things can matter a lot.  I don’t want to burst any bubbles, but it’s useful to know some of the realities so you won’t be disappointed by your own fun/suck ratio.  Recognize, as you read this, that if your cruising grounds are different than ours, your mileage will vary. Cruising down the west coast of the United States is much different than doing the ICW, or cruising to the Bahamas from Florida. Many of these points will be moot for cruisers in other locations.

  1. You’re going to get really physically/mentally/psychologically tired. Reflect, if you will, on the idea of visiting 27 different ports and anchorages in 3 months.  In each of those places we had to figure out the logistics of being there: where it was safe to anchor, how to get ashore safely and securely, where to leave the dinghy, where we were in relation to things like stores and fuel, or even places to walk, what sights we might want to take in, whether it would be safe to leave our boat unattended.  This is part of the fun of cruising, it’s said. It’s part of the “adventure”. What is less said that I’m going to say right now is that this is bloody exhausting. There’s such a thing as ‘too much fun’ and after about the 20th place, the fun starts wearing thin. It’s important to note this if you are planning to cruise, especially if you are going to cruise down the west coast of the United States. This is probably why some people just zip down the coast in one or two passages. We wanted to see what California had to offer. We don’t regret the choice at all because we had a ton of fun and saw wondrous things.  But it’s important to note that you need to allow time for rest and recovery or people are going to start to get cranky. That leads to…

    Such great bird watching at Pebble Beach.

  2. Take breaks from the boat. Just go ahead and plan them in advance because the need for a break sneaks up on you. By the time we got on the plane to Ecuador, we really needed a break from boat travel but were just beginning to realize that was what was wrong. Tempers were getting shorter than in any time in our marriage. Communication skills were being challenged in ways it’s impossible to predict when living a shore based life. People will tell you that cruising will challenge your relationship, but the ‘how’s’ of that challenge are so intangible that it’s hard to put them into words. Certainly being together 24/7 would challenge anyone, but it’s more than that. Frustrations are more poignant and unless you want to fight a lot, you better learn to handle your frustrations yourself. Decisions are more important and carry more emotional weight, not to mention physical safety weight.  Weather is always on the front burner, as is boat movement. Both of those things will take precedence over your irritation or hurt feelings. There are physical and psychological demands that require physical, psychological and emotional energy to deal with on a constant basis. If the power structure of your relationship is a fairly egalitarian one at home (which ours is), that’s going to change some because there is only one captain on a boat at any one time, especially when the chips are down. So that creates a lot of opportunity for you to become humble and question the wisdom of what you have chosen. Put your breaks on the calender, just like you do your vacations back home.

    Monterey Bay was a favorite place.

  3. If you love anchoring out like we do, that’s going to add to your stress in some ways. Until we pulled into Cruiseport Marina in Ensenada, we had stayed 8 nights at a dock since September 1. That’s less than 10% of the time. We consider the idea that maybe we are too avoidant of marinas. Perhaps we aren’t doing ourselves any favors by being the stolid anchor-outers that we are. We’ve considered that we might stay in a marina one or two nights per month as we cruise in Mexico, just to have regular breaks and easy access to land. We’ll see how that plays out. We’re kind of stubborn about wanting to be independent of land as much as possible, and marinas eat through our money faster than anything else. Want to know how to save money while you are cruising? Don’t stay in marinas.

    Entering San Fransisco Bay after our first multi-day passage was surreal. Still is.

  4. Don’t quibble about buying a water maker like we did. Regardless of your tankage, just get one while you are employed and bringing money in regularly. We carry 300 gallons of water, which sounds like it should be plenty. And it is! But I am constantly aware of how much water we use, even though we are really good at conserving it. It’s a constant nagging stress for both of us that impacts the enjoyment of this life we’ve chosen. Here’s why this snuck up on us: if you are in the United States you are used to being able to pull up to the dock, put a hose in your tank, and fill up. We have good clean water for the most part in our country. So we assume that when a marina advertises that they have ‘water at the dock’, they are referring to POTABLE water at the dock. And this is where that assumption is incorrect. Even though we read a lot about cruising in Mexico and water being available, we didn’t connect the dots that MARINA water is not necessarily potable. So that means that you have to pay someone to bring water to the boat and pour it into your tank. Or you have to lug the jerry cans yourselves to do that. Here’s the rub: we don’t actually want to live that way. Sure, we are capable of it. But it’s not how we want to spend our time. And it doesn’t make us feel like we are able to spend long weeks away from infrastructure where we can get potable water. So at some point, if this cruising thing goes on for more than a year, which I’m guessing it will, there will be a water maker on board. And it will be the kind that is easy to get parts for.

    We came back to the boat one day surrounded by hundreds of these Lions Mane jellies. Monterey Bay.

  5. The common wisdom among boat cruisers is that this life is filled with highs and lows. Hmm. Okay. Fair enough. But here’s a thought: in day to day life on a boat, it’s actually the differential between perceived danger and relative safety that create most of these highs and lows. On a boat the differential between safety and potential danger can happen regularly, sometimes more than once in a day.  For instance as we traveled in the Channel Islands in California, we were often met with high winds and the accompanying gnarly seas that were not only uncomfortable, but took all of our skills to navigate safely. During those times there is acute focus. All the senses are on fire in order to keep the boat, and us,  out of danger. Those were lows. (Although for some folks they may have been highs.Those people probably enjoy things like bungy jumping and sky diving, too.) After we’d negotiated those conditions successfully and found a safe haven, we got such a feeling of relief that the differential between the two states could have been perceived as a high. But in reality we had just returned to a normal, average state of being.  It wasn’t like dolphins swimming off the bow, or seeing night creatures in the water, or swimming with a sea turtle.  It was just relief. Maybe this is what people are referring to as a series of ‘highs and lows’. For me, the true highs are those things that do not happen every day. By their nature, life’s ‘highs’ are rare things. Unless you are going to sit in a marina most of the time, your’re going to start understanding this part of my post pretty quick once you are away from the dock all the time.  Your adrenal glands will get a workout in this way of life. And that leads to more need to rest. Don’t begrudge those sailors who sit in the cockpit and drink their sundowners after a hard sail. They’ve earned it.

    Challenging and beautiful Santa Cruz Island, with good friends on S/V Blue

  6. Here’s one for the people who just do not LOVE cooking:  When you are planning a cruise, a lot of fuss can be made about how one cooks in a galley. I was guilty of getting into the drama of worrying about cooking in a galley, even though I had already cooked a lot of meals on our summer cruises. Why is this? I think it has something to do with wanting to be as prepared as possible. And also I needed something to feel like I had control over when Mike had control over most of the boat systems. But here’s what galley cooking boils down to: it’s pretty much the same as cooking anywhere else. That’s it. Sure, there are special items like a solar oven (which we do not have) that some people use really nicely on their boats. And there is stuff like making beans or rice in a thermos, which works pretty well. If you are really into cooking you might want to explore those kinds of things.  But at the end of the day, ask yourself how you cook at home. Because that’s probably how you are going to cook on a boat. If you are worried about conserving propane, get additional tanks and keep the extras filled. Propane is the cheapest thing you’ll be buying on a boat. Give yourself a way to cook outside the cabin if you are going to be in hot places, like having a grill on the rail. If you are the kind that makes full meals in a pressure cooker, you’ll probably use it on the boat as well. If not, well so far, mine has looked lovely sitting in the cabinet by the sink. Same with my thermal cooker. I’ve used it only a couple of times.  The one-stop-shopping resource you should have is The Boat Galley Cookbook. There are recipes, but mostly there is information about different ways to do things for those of you who like to tinker in the kitchen.

    I never get tired of snorkeling.

  7.  Every single penny you spend on making the interior of your boat comfortable and attractive is worth it. Just do it, if you can. I remember feeling somewhat guilty that we would spend money on things like paint or colorful, comfortable pillows for the boat interior when we needed to be spending money on engine parts and the like. Safety first, right? As I sit here, however, I do not regret one penny we spent on those things because this is not a vacation, this is our lives. This is how we live, at least for now. And referencing my comments above about the ‘highs and lows’ of cruising, having comfortable berths to tumble into, or an attractive salon that feels welcoming goes a long way after a long day of working with the sea.

    Galapagos is WAY down there. Catalina Island.

  8. If you are planning a trip down the west coast of the United States, go ahead and join the cheapest yacht club you can find that has reciprocal privileges. We didn’t do this and it would have made a big difference in our trip. Friends of ours pulled onto docks regularly because of those reciprocal privileges. Especially if you are not a consummate anchor-outer, join a yacht club.  California is all about yacht clubs in a way we did not predict.

    When you spend time in the salt water, you also use more fresh water because you must rinse everything off.

  9. You might be very bored. Yes. There. I’ve said it out loud. Cruising has long periods of time where you might have nothing to do unless you really, truly want to get out the sandpaper and get to that greying teak or take up guitar or bake something that you don’t really need to be eating.  We read. A lot. It takes a long time to get used to all the downtime and figure out what to do with it. I’m so used to having a focus; a goal, a project.   Mike always has some kind of boat project he’s working on, but I do not. I have my art supplies on board but have yet to get them out. They make such a mess when I do and I hate it when the boat is a mess. The things I used to fill my time with at home (called HOBBIES) are not things that translate well to the boat so far. But I’ll find my groove with it eventually and I’m not complaining that I have so much time to read. I’m remaining open to discovering new interests at some point. Just don’t be surprised if you get bored. I think of the boredom as an opening for inspiration that just hasn’t hit me yet.

    I wonder if this sea lion deals with boredom. Likely not.

  10. Going south from Washington has meant that we have sunny days, but the sun sets early, a rhythm we have not quite got accustomed to. After 31 years in Washington State, our bodies do not understand how the sun comes up so late and goes down so early, and yet the days are sunny and warm. Isn’t it summer? Isn’t the sun still up at 9:00 pm? No?  Go ahead and buy those cockpit lights and make sure you have good lighting in your salon. We should have invested more in cockpit lighting.  You may not need them up north, but as you move south you will. And while you’re at it, get an anchor light that comes on automatically when the sun goes down; maybe some reflective tape for your mast. You’ll never need them up north, but you will down here. The nights are long all year round closer to the equator. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s worth noting. Along with this you can expect your biorhythm to change if you are accustomed to a more northern latitude. We go to bed so early it’s kind of eerie. I probably haven’t had this much sleep since I was 5 years old and forced to take naps. It goes something like this: “I’m so tired. Time for bed. What? It’s only 7:30? Damn! Now what? ”  I’m starting to think this is why some sailors drink a lot.

    A favorite view of the full moon taken from our view on the sea.

Taking these things and others into consideration, the fun/suck ration for us is definitely on the side of ‘fun’ so far.  We are happy doing what we are doing for now. We would never in our wildest dreams have encountered Elephant Seals on the beach, or a sea turtle swimming just beneath us, or any of a hundred other things we’ve experienced had we not been traveling by boat. We’re even glad to have had some of experiences of the ‘low’ times, because we’ve mastered those and know we can handle them now.  But with so many blogs and magazines making this lifestyle look like an unending vacation, you can count on Little Cunning Plan to give you the rest of the scoop. It’s not a vacation. When you go on a vacation, you leave a lot of the everyday concerns of your life behind for awhile. When you go cruising, you take them with you and have to deal with them in a completely different way, plus some. Being mentally prepared for some of the challenges this lifestyle brings with it will go a long way toward making your cruising life a success for you.





29 thoughts on “Ten Things to Know Before You Go

  1. As usual Melissa, a very good description of “the life”. You are always so real, and I appreciate it. It’s not all sweetness, and light, it’s ALOT of work, and a learning curve straight up. At the end of the day, with a snack, a glass of wine, and a sigh for a job well done, it’s all worth it!

  2. Isn’t that the truth, Donna? The learning curve never seems to stop; no two situations are ever the same. But at the end of the day, it’s worth the effort. I hope you are back to your Denali Rose and your Bill very soon.

  3. Great post! Glad to hear you’re enjoying the cruising lifestyle. We haven’t yet started cruising, but just living on our boat has given us a taste of what to expect … it’s not all fun. There are lots of adjustments & sacrifices already!

    I agree that the money spent on interior items to make our boat a home are important. You may have just convinced me to buy those custom blinds that our boat requires (crazy angles)!

    Thanks for your honesty .. very well written! We’re excited about cruising in 2018. Congratulations!

  4. Watermaker. We have met quite a few people who return to the USA with the sole purpose of installing a watermaker. My advice to those starting out, a watermaker is very much worth spending the money.

    The first two years of cruising can be tough. Somewhere along the way you truly understand the definition of a “cruising lifestyle.” 🙂 The learning curve does get easier. You find you develop a rhythm. The things that the Boat Gods and Mother Nature throw at you are not nearly as frightening because you know more, have experienced more and can laugh about it a lot more. Being able to laugh about it is important too.

    I like blog posts that spell out the challenges as well as the fun side of being a cruiser. Thank you for being one of those blogs. It can be a lot of hard work but there is a great sense of satisfaction too. Keep moving forward guys. You are not newbies anymore. LOL.
    Wishing you a Happy New Year full of great adventures.

    • Yes! They should just buy a water maker before they go. I think the thing that has surprised me the most is that those long cruises we did during the summers were not really as good a preparation for going the distance as I thought they would be. Certainly they helped loads with learning the boat and the systems, but in terms of the day to day ‘this isn’t a vacation’, not as much. I do think it’s important to be able to laugh at things. I’m going to hold your words that this will happen more as time goes on. We laugh now about some things, but not as much as I’d like. Happy New Year to you both!

  5. Perfect! The misconception of cruising full-time – that it’s all tiki bars and umbrella drinks and lazy sunsets – is common and insidious. Non-boaters think you’re on permeant vacation and judge you for it (sometimes), while cruising wanna-bes think they’ll get on a boat and life will magically become perfection.
    The truth, of course, is neither, but it can still be wonderful! I’m currently reading Eckhart Tolle’s book “A New Earth” as part of my desire to stop judging my life against some unattainable ideal and learn to enjoy what IS instead.
    Thanks for helping!

    • A New Earth is a good read and I can see how this would be a good time for you to read it. Staying in the ‘here and now’ sure helps when it comes to traveling by boat (or just about anything else).

  6. What a great post! Just found it by chance, and am now bookmarking so I can read the rest and learn. We are fortunate to be surrounded by old salts in Annapolis but are right at the pick your boat” and “make a plan” stage. Look forward to connecting more down the road – pls add me to your email list!

  7. Nice post!

    IF I were to go South again (highly highly unlikely… too hot and I prefer BC cruising), I too would install a water maker. However, a note re watermakers in Mexico. You CANNOT use them in marinas and in places like Barra de Navidad. Poor (salt) water quality (including oil).

    Ensenada water is atypical in that it is the salts content that is the problem. Filters do not make it potable. In marinas further south, a good filter set (or better, a combination of filter and UV light, available commercially, works great for filling tanks; we didn’t have UV, so we used combo of filter and chemical treatment).


    • I have understood those points to be true from other cruisers as well. You kind of need good quality salt water before you use the water maker. I think that makes sense. And yes, in Ensenada the salt content is high in the water . We don’t have the ultra good filters like UV light either. If we had those, we probably wouldn’t be as concerned. Happy New Year to you, too!

  8. Am vicariously enjoying all of your adventures! I do so appreciate your honesty about the ups and downs of being with your spouse during all of the challenges and unknowns of cruising. Maybe it’s something like the first year of marriage. You float on a cloud for the first few weeks or so and then get into the harder adjustments. They are the ones that will strengthen your bonds and ultimately bring the greatest joy. It’s thrilling to read each installment, so thank you for these gifts!

  9. Great post, Melissa. A water maker was one of the items we did not have. Fresh water tankage on our boat is 150 gallons, but we never ran short. Many of the Mexican marinas we stayed did have potable dock water, but that’s not always the case. When it was available, we topped off the tanks. We used tank water for cooking and cleaning, but tended to be very miserly. We never had a ‘pressure’ shower on the boat (too much water usage) but instead used our trusty sun shower. Having a water maker aboard would have allowed us to use the onboard shower, which would have increased our comfort level. However, replacement parts for any of the water makers can be difficult to find outside the U.S. (with a few exceptions, like La Paz, BCS) and shipping them to Mexico can be unreliable.

    One more word about marinas in Mexico. In the more popular cruising destinations, prices are on par with what you’d expect to pay in southern California. Folks from the PNW and even northern California can be surprised at the expense. Getting off the boat from time to time, not only allows you to break the routine, but also allows you to enjoy the culture of the places you visit. We were not comfortable leaving the boat at anchor if we were going to be away for more than a day (less with larger tidal flows or strong winds). Marinas were our go-to place for securing the boat when doing overland travels.

    Look forward to reading your continuing adventure. Fair seas and following breezes.

    • Right on all points. We’ve been pretty disgusted, actually, when researching prices in Mexican marinas. Seems the good old days where the price reflects the local economy are over. We were researching a marina, med mooring mind you, in Ecuador and they want almost 900$/month to moor there. And it’s not even protected from the surge. No way. Just no. Inland travel requires us to have a marina, but we’ll have to be very choosy about it. In Ensenada we would pay almost as much as an entire month to leave the boat for 3-4 days. Fortunately for us, we are not attracted to places like Cabo San Lucas or Mazatlan. There are too many tourists and it’s just not our scene. We hope that will help us avoid the higher priced places.

  10. Hi Melissa, re your ‘Keep Turning Left’ comment. I left a message for you but could not get the picture to post so I will try here. Nope – wouldn’t post here either. Email me or if you Facebook I can post there.

  11. Pingback: 10 Things to Know Before You Go | 'Til the butter melts

  12. Such a brilliant post. So much of it resonates with me. I’ve definitely experienced much of what you describe. This should be a must-read post for anyone who is thinking of adopting the cruising lifestyle.

    PS My pressure cooker sits happily in the galley cupboard hoping that someday I’ll use it like a “real” cruiser is supposed to. 🙂

  13. Great post Melissa!! I agree this should be required reading for anyone in any phase of dropping their lines, Your first point about fatigue is critical. It is difficult to make difficult decisions when you at physically and mentally drained. Get your rest is a requirement on all of our trips, especially down or up the West Coast.
    A water maker??….absolutely agree!! Buy it before you go, take the critical spares and enjoy the hot shower and fresh drinking water when your underway. Our race boat for the 2016 Vic-Maui race and return had one, wouldn’t go that far again without one!!
    All the best in 2018
    Fair Winds, Mike
    s/v Passion

    • Thanks for reading, Mike! I bet you’ll see a post here about a new water maker before this year is out. I love technology. We are strongly considering the Cruise RO system sold by Rich Boren. Gets good reviews by other cruisers, and parts are easy to fine, a necessity.

  14. Great post! I’m surprised you didn’t mention anything about the heat. Adjusting to the hot + humid conditions of Mexico or other tropical regions is always hard for us. I can’t imagine our PNW-conditioned bodies being able to survive in that on a boat, without AC.

    Interesting what you said in #5 about the highs and lows. I think that’s how it works in most things, not just sailing. Ie, in traveling and adventuring, the highs are created by the contrasts, and by taking on + conquering adversity. There’s a good quote which goes, “The sweet is never as sweet without the sour.”

    • I’m sure we will be writing about heat and how we do with that in the future. We haven’t yet had to deal with it, actually, because the boat is still in Ensenada, which has weather like San Diego. After our week in the rainforest, however, I do worry how we’ll do with humidity combined with heat. Mike, in particular, seems affected by it. But we will see.

  15. Nicely put, and I hope you have found the groove here in Mexico. The hard part is not getting “stuck” here, when there’s still more over the horizon. It also looks like you’re getting off the boat for inland adventures — good change of pace.

    • Ni Damon, and thanks for commenting. We haven’t had time yet to find our groove in Mexico. Our boat is still in Ensenada so we haven’t had to deal yet with either getting stuck in Mexico. I don’t know at how much risk we are of that because we do get itchy to get moving. But we’ll see! Getting off the boat was a very good choice for us. I do think we’ll be planning more inland adventures in the future, even if they are not this many weeks long. Getting that break has turned out to be a good thing

  16. This rang true on EVERY point. I probably wouldn’t have learned from just reading, but such well-written validation!!! Thank you!

    • Thanks for the comment, Tess! Yes, I get what you are saying about not really being able to know something just from reading it. I think we all deserve the opportunity to learn through experience. After all, if we actually learned by being told, most of us would have just done everything our parents told us to do!

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