Sunday, 22 November 2015

Cruising Primer

Her face positively glowed with relief.  “Oh you DO have one of those!” she said, pointing to the toilet.  Other anxious faces would appear throughout the summer as non-sailing friends joined us for their first sailing experience, a bit concerned about how they would eat, sleep, or charge their cell phones. 

I’m always surprised by the questions we get asked about the sailing life.  Things that seem so familiar to us after almost 12 years of cruising are unknown to most people, as they were to us when we began this venture. 

Here, in no particular order, is a primer on what it’s like to live on a sailboat.
Our "house" may be small, but you should see our backyard...
How do you go to the toilet?  Let’s just get this one out of the way first, shall we?  Yes, we DO have a toilet, and it even looks like a normal one  The flushing mechanism is a sort of hand pump that draws in seawater and then pumps it all out again at the flick of a mechanical switch.  The contents go into a holding tank (Ellen at the Cynical Sailor has cleverly dubbed this the “PPB”, or the Pee and Poo Box).  The PPB can be emptied into the sea by opening a valve when you’re away from port and the coast.  Each boat has its own rules about toilet paper but we adopt the most conservative approach: nothing goes into the toilet unless it has passed through your body first. Nothing stops up a toilet mechanism faster than paper, and nothing is worse than having to unblock it.  A small trash can sits next to the toilet and all paper goes here. And no, it doesn’t smell.  It gets emptied frequently and has a lid.  You can also put small strips of fabric softener in the can if you want to make sure there are no offending odours.      

Relief in sight.  Everything's going to be okay.
Where / how / what do you eat?  How do you buy groceries?  Our eating is actually very similar to the way we eat at home.  We have a refrigerator (and if we crank up the power, a small freezer) and a stove with 2 gas burners and an oven. The originality of a boat stove is that it is on gimbals, which means that it stays horizontal even if the boat is heeling over at an angle.  This feature, along with clamps, keeps your pots securely on the stove while you plough through the waves.  

Coffee on the go...
When we’re in port, we head for the local markets and grocery stores, so we have fresh food every few days.  We also tend to eat out in local restaurants.  You can learn a lot about a culture by eating “local” and it’s one of our favourite things about traveling.  On longer passages or in more remote areas, we may have to tap into the canned food, but that’s pretty rare for us.  When we’re actually sailing, we tend to eat a simple sandwich that will suffice until we pull into port and can fix a regular meal, or one-dish meals (spaghetti, stew, etc) that are easy to manage on a rolling boat. And there’s always mackerel out there, waiting to be filleted into fresh sushi !

Buying local goods on Brehat island.  Just take what you want and leave the money in the honesty box !
Do you have electricity on board?  One of the first things friends ask when they join us on Mareda for the first time is “Is there someplace where I can charge my phone?” Yes.  We have circuits for 220 volts (European standard power) and 12 volts like you have in your car.  The batteries are recharged by the boat motor alternator (just like your car) as well as by plugging into shore power when in port or by the solar panels.  We have a sensor that tells us how many amps we’re using at any given time and the state of charge of the batteries.  We watch this carefully when we’re at sea or on a mooring away from shore power to make sure we’re not draining the batteries.    

Do you sail at night?  Can you just throw out the anchor to stop the boat when you get tired of sailing?  No, you can’t stop the boat just anywhere for the night, which means you sometimes do have to sail all through the night (or several nights, or days, or months).  Most boat anchors and chains are only useful for anchoring in 10 meters (~ 33 feet) of water or less.  Away from the coast in deeper water, the anchor is useless.  You can stop the boat and drift with the winds and currents, but this is rarely comfortable and always risky.  You may be pushed backwards and lose some hard-won miles or be pushed onto the coast and risk grounding, not to mention running into cargo ships or fishing boats.  When you sail throughout the night, you set up a watch system with the available crew on board where each person takes a turn (usually 3 hours, less in bad conditions) being responsible for keeping the boat moving safely forward while the others sleep.  The autopilot is your best friend at night, allowing you to remain under the spray dodger and out of the wind.  You are legally required to maintain a visual watch at all times, so we don’t spend much time below when we’re on watch.  Since we are usually only 2 people on Mareda, the person not on watch sleeps on the convertible settee in the saloon with a clear view up to the cockpit  and within easy earshot.  The off-watch person also stays clothed and ready to leap into the cockpit if the other needs help.  We almost always put a reef in the sail (to reduce the sail area to slow down and to heel less) whether it needs one or not, just in case.  The person alone in the cockpit wears his life vest with a search-and-rescue light attached to it, and stays tethered to the life lines at all times.
Sunset sail (and rushing to port to avoid a night sail !)
Where do you sleep?  Do you reserve a place in port ahead of time like a hotel?  What if there’s no room?  We stop the boat for the night in ports or along the coast somewhere sheltered from the wind and wave swell.  Ports almost never accept reservations.  You simply call up on the phone or the vhf radio as you get near to port and ask for a berth for the night.  The coastal sailing guide books provide graphics showing the layout of each port, which allows you to find the spot attributed to you.  We’ve almost never been turned away.  If there are no free berths, you raft up next to someone else, which means you tie up next to a boat that is tied up next to the dock.  These raft-ups can sometimes be 3 or 4 boats deep !  We have been notified that ports aren’t accepting visitors because of a regatta or dredging work in the port but if it were a real emergency, they will always find you a spot. 

How do you shower?  We have a shower on board !  This is a luxury we actually don’t use that often because you end up hosing down everything in the shower area and you have to wipe everything dry afterwards.  Most ports have shower facilities although they are often none too appealing and the water is never really hot.

How do you do laundry?  Small items are washed by hand.  Synthetics are highly prized.  Occasionally, the port facilities include washing machines.  About once a month, we find a laundromat and wash things “properly”.  It’s not so bad.  You can meet some interesting people in the laundromat !

Laundry day !
What do you do with your house while you’re away? What about your mail?  Up until now, the house has been shut up with no electricity or water.  The police are notified of our absence and our neighbours have keys to the house and keep an eye on things.  All of our bills, taxes, etc., are handled via internet or through automatic deduction from our accounts, so any mail that piles up is 99% junk.  Our biggest problem is the yard, which doesn’t take well to 6 months of neglect during the growing season.  In the future, we’re thinking of renting the house while we’re away but that has its own set of headaches.  We’re still in the research phase of that idea. 

What about getting seasick?  It happens, but it’s rare now that we know ourselves and how to cope.  We even “cured” a friend who was sailing with us this summer.  He started getting very nauseous and we immediately covered him up with another jacket and warm cap, put him at the helm to steer, and gave him ½ of a travel sickness pill.  He was laughing and joking within 30 minutes. 

Don’t you get scared? It has happened in the past, but it’s rare now.  I don’t remember being frightened at all this past year since we didn’t have any surprise storms and we didn’t have boat trouble as we have in the past. There were quite a few anxious moments, but we’ve learned that a scratch in the hull isn’t the end of the world and that bearing hours of discomfort while pounding through rough seas is just part of the game (to be avoided whenever possible.) 

What do you do when it rains?  Since we travel with no strict calendar in mind, we can choose when to cruise.  Our movements are mostly controlled by the wind and sea state rather than rain.  If the winds are right and it happens to be raining, we just cope with it, wearing our foul weather gear and boots. 

Sailing in the rain is just part of the job sometimes.

Don’t you get lonely / feel isolated / miss friends and family?  We don’t get lonely, but we do miss family and friends. Skype and email are lifesavers when you are lucky enough to have an internet connection. Here in Europe, the public transportation network of buses, trains, and airports, allows us to get where we need to be within 48 hours or less in an emergency.  But one of the best things about cruising is the other cruisers you meet.  Last year along the coast of Spain, we had social events with fellow cruisers almost every night in every port.  The solidarity and community spirit make up for the lack of contact with friends back home. 


Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor said...

This is a fantastic post! Good to see the old PPB is catching on :-)

Great tip about the fabric softener in the TP container. I'll be implementing that one.

Cheers - Ellen

Astrolabe Sailing said...

And your posts have us feeling like we are along for the ride with you as well!

Great post.

Sailing Mareda said...

Thanks Ellen and Viki. I'm sure you both could tell similar stories about newbie visitors !

Yia Yia Thompson said...

Once again, another brill piece of writing - you're getting so good at it that Geoff's in danger of getting seasick just reading your descriptions! - so when's the book coming out? said...

Great post and informative for people who just look at you like you are crazy when you say you want to sail around on a boat for extended periods of time! We are looking forward to having visitors on our boat, especially our kids!

Sailing Mareda said...

Thanks Marcia and Melissa. It's always fun to show a boat to someone who has no idea what it's all about. On the other hand, it's also fun to have people think you're a hard-core salty dog sailor, an idea that is completely altered when they see your cozy little home !