Thursday, 24 October 2013

First year reflections

As I was reflecting back on this best-of-times / worst-of-times first year of sailing, those great folks at the Monkey’s Fist came up with a new collection of posts on Advice for Freshmen Cruisers.  Here are some of our thoughts on the matter:

We get by with a little (lot of) help from our friends.  Join as many local sailing associations as possible.  You will need experienced friends for help and advice with boat repairs and maintenance, but also on how to survive your first year with a boat.  It’s been a great comfort to us to know that when we’re in port working on the boat that we can always find a friend somewhere in the marina also working on his boat or pick up the phone and call a buddy.
Watch out for burn-out.  It’s hard not to spend all your time working on or sailing on your boat.  You’ve just spent a bundle on it and you need to prove to yourself and your family that it was not pure folly.  But there is a fine line between working on your boat because you enjoy it and becoming a slave to the boat that demands constant attention.  Plan some down time, at least some short vacations or weekends that have nothing to do with the boat.  Don’t ignore things you used to love … running, biking, skiing, cultural stuff, etc.  And don’t forget about your non-sailing friends and family.  It’s necessary to think about something else from time to time.

The transition was steeper than we thought.  We thought the transition from being experienced crew to being boat owners and skippers would be a smooth one.  It was, instead, a step function much like a brick wall.  Having to make decisions out there all alone is daunting and dealing with break-downs at sea also spices things up in a new (mostly unpleasant) way.  The only way to cope with this is to know that it will be tougher than you think and to go easy on yourself.  Don’t get too ambitious too fast.  Take the time to get used to the boat and your reactions to her.

Fear and anxiety are just part of it.  We spent many months sailing in the protected confines of our bay because we were anxious about venturing out further.  I thought that the anxiety would slowly go away as experience built.  Talking with more experienced friends made me realize that no matter how comfortable I feel sailing in the bay, it is normal to wet one’s pants the first time outside the comfort zone.  Fear and anxiety can be useful features.  As the saying goes, there are old sailors and bold sailors, but not many old bold sailors.  We found that the best way over the hump is to buddy boat, travelling in a little flotilla with other boats.  You are still master aboard your own boat with all the decisions and maintenance that this implies, but you have a safety net around you for exploring areas new to you and for decision-making for navigation strategies.  This goes back to advice number 1: have friends.

We’re turtles, not hares.  We thought we were hares, or at least had an image of ourselves as performance-oriented purists, but now we know that our biggest pleasure is getting from point A to B with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of comfort.  We’re in this for the long haul, at least 6 months at a time and we sail in some pretty rough areas.  If we only had 1-2 months each summer to sail, we might still be motivated to push the boat more, but living on the boat for ½ the year means we can take our time and enjoy the ride.  And we’re kind of getting tired of having to explain that to others who would double our distance in the same amount of time.  It’s not a race.  Slow down and smell the algae, guys.

That detachable forestay and collection of headsails we thought we couldn’t live without are almost never used.  We’ve put up the smaller jib a few times when we knew that we would be short-tacking in stiff winds.  But in general, when the wind starts picking up, the idea of going below to dig out heavy, bulky sails from the forward cabin lockers and wrestling them up the companionway and to the bow in a pitching sea really seems quite silly when we can simply roll up the jib sheet to an appropriate size from the comfort of the cockpit.  We considered ourselves purists who would never tolerate a partially-rolled jib sheet, but now we know better.  And that goes double for the times when you’re trapped in a surprise gale and really could use a storm sail up front … flip a coin to see who’s going to rig it ?  Nope. 

Blog “reality checks”.  Some family members and friends who are not cruisers will imagine your sailing life as one long, laid-back, care-free, baba-cool existence, pushed by gentle breezes along turquoise waters from island to island where the biggest danger is sunburn or running out of little decorative umbrellas for your cocktails.  Sympathy, even for the really bad days, will be hard to come by, even if you sail in gales in the cold waters of the North Sea, as we do.  Blogging about the bad days helps to keep it real. (But you still won’t get much sympathy…)    

It ain't all fun and games out here...