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Cruising means different things to different cruisers, but all cruising shares the following characteristics: living on the boat, traveling, extended periods of time (more than a week or two). To reduce fuel expense, the most common cruising boat is a sailboat.

Cruisers on the East coast of North America commonly visit the north (e.g. Maine, Newfoundland) in warmer months and travel south on the Intracoastal Waterway[?] (ICW) as far as the Bahamas in the winter. On the west coast, a popular route alternates the Gulf of California in winter with the islands of Washington state and British Colombia in the summer. The Baltic Sea has terrifying equinoxial storms in the winter, but in the summer the coasts of Sweden and Finland have thousands of beautiful islands with well-marked channels. The Netherlands, the northern Mediterranean, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Australia, and the South Pacific Islands are other favored destinations with mild or predictable weather.

Many cruisers are "long term" and travel for many years, the most adventurous circling the globe over a period of five to ten years. Many others take a year or two off from work and school for short trips and the chance to experience the cruising lifestyle.

Due to the transient nature of cruising, Cruisers form their own community. Cruisers commonly, upon anchoring in a new area, will stop by nearby boats (in their dinghy) to introduce themselves and say "hello". The classic icebreaker is to hail a boat in an anchorage and ask "where there's good holding?" Many cruisers leaving an area are happy to trade charts with boats going in the opposite direction.

Table of contents


Money is the number-one problem. Conservative cruisers have several years of savings, and plan to work about one quarter a year. Most have or acquire skills that sell easily in many parts of the world, such as nursing, doctor or dentist, accounting, boat-maintenance handyman, sail-maker, welder or diesel mechanic. Some cruisers make a little money shipping wines, jewelry and the like, but most can't compete with large commercial firms. Smuggling and other illegal incomes cause people to lose their boats. In 2002, very cost-conscious no-frills cruisers could maintain two people and a 28-foot boat on U.S. $1000/mo. This rate roughly doubled when in a port, partying with other cruisers.

Mail is often received this way: Have all your mail sent to one address. Have all the junk mail removed, and have your mail-receiver send the rest in one package to a yacht club on one's itinerary. Yacht clubs are better than post offices because they know that cruisers can be delayed, and do not return the mail after 30 days. The single-package assures that you receive all of your mail, or none of it.

Getting money from a distant bank can be painful, sometimes taking up to 3 weeks for a check or letter-of-credit to clear. It helps to be in a large city, and bank at a large bank in a famous city of your home country. Get money no more often than every six months, as small, $10 traveler's checks. Perform haul-outs, bottom painting and other maintenance while waiting for the money. Also, plan to wait somewhere pleasant and inexpensive.

How to start

Try it out in little steps. Many people are attracted to the romance of cruising, but find that they dislike the reality.

First, take a class in sailing. This will teach you the basics, and you'll see if you like to sail at all.

Next, buy a small dinghy (6-11 feet) with sails. Sail it regularly. If you keep wishing you could go farther, you might be a real cruiser.

Next, crew on a yacht, just for fun. Local yacht clubs often have boats looking for crew. It helps if you're a good cook, or good company. Try to get references, and look the boat over. Look for bad maintenance or safety problems. If you see any, go later with someone else. Never give your return plane ticket, passport or emergency money to other crew or the captain. Consider taking your own GPS so you can detect unspoken deviations from the itinerary.

Take a class in celestial navigation. GPS works, but careful navigators use a belt & suspenders approach: They keep a continuous dead-reckoning track using a compass and a distance-measurement device called a log, and use coastal landmarks, GPS and celestial navigation to correct it. Careful navigation is needed to avoid stormy areas, shoals and other hazards. Currents can carry you into these without any warning, unless you navigate carefully.

Enjoyed the crewing? Buy a small boat, maybe 30 feet. This is small enough that you can handle it yourself, and big enough to take a family or your mate to anywhere in the world. Big boats are much more work; many rich people buy a big boat, and eventually sell it and get a smaller one because they are more fun.

Abandoned yachts are for sale cheaply in many distant places like the Panama Canal, Gibralter, and Singapore- check the gossip. This happens because many people really do not like cruising, and thought they would.

Introduce your family to sailing with the most pleasant cruise you can arrange! Share the planning so everybody buys in to the trip. Share the chores fairly, among everyone (captain takes a turn!). After they're hooked, send your significant other to a class (your relationship will thank you). Let the others take your dinghy out alone so they can love sailing, too. Teach everyone how to manage all the parts of the boat. This way they can get around even if you get sick. Women follow instruction well, and often make wonderful navigators. The small 30-foot boat will have easy equipment, well within a woman's strength.

Equipment & tips

There are two rather different schools concerning equipment:

1. I'm on vacation. Give me every comfort there is. I can afford it, and I can find a good mechanic.

2. I want to stay on vacation. I want the simplest boat I can get, so it will keep working (so I can go), and cost less (so I can stay away longer).

There are some areas of agreement. In general, try to arrange your boat to be safe, and so heavy weather or a faulty engine are interesting adventures rather than disasters:

  • Major storms are less than 1% of the time that cruisers spend on the water, but still be prepared.
  • Get a strong monohull. Multihulls kill their crews by capsizing in storms. They cannot be righted by their crews, who generally die of exposure. Monohulls in the same situation are usually dismasted, but turn right-side up. The crews cut away the rig, jury-rig a mast and sail home. This is frightening and difficult, but not fatal.
  • Inspect your boat before each sea-passage. A checklist makes it very fast. If nothing else, check running rigging, standing rigging, lifelines and safety equipment, anchor and rodes, the engine, and navigation equipment. Check the rigging for cracks in metal and chafing.
  • Keep a watch. Almost all trouble is visible before it becomes serious.
  • Put things away, especially sails. They last longer, and if a storm comes up, your sail will already be stowed.
  • Get a strong boat. Have it surveyed before you buy it, and tell the surveyor you plan to go offshore. Pick a boat that probably would not be harmed if run aground, because most yachtsmen do this (wince) at least once.
  • Anchor well. More yachts are lost when the anchor drags than to any other single cause. Use lots of scope (extra rode) (five times depth is good, although three is theoretically enough). Test the hold before you trust an anchorage. Use a "fully tested" chain rode on your main anchor. Nothing cuts chain. Many cruisers swear by a CQR anchor. Set an anchor light while anchored. Set an anchor watch during storms, at least one full tide cycle in a new anchorage, and whenever it's easy to be in the cockpit - if you drag even a little, panic and set another anchor!
  • Have the anchor ready to go at all times. It can prevent most groundings if it can be set quickly. If you can hear or see surf, and you should be in mid-ocean, set the anchor! Then, figure out where you are!
  • Try to rig so your boat can sail in very light airs. Much of the sailing in safe-weather is under force-1.
  • Do some research and get good safety and salvage equipment. U.S. Coast guard requirements are minimums. Practice a man-overboard drill with a dummy that weighs like your heaviest crew. Include an EPIRB (emergency position-indicating rescue beacon), which will get you out of many types of trouble- If you possibly can, don't trigger it until the weather clears and an aircraft could reach you. The salvage equipment is stuff to make emergency repairs: plywood covers for broken port-lights, wood cones to block pipes spewing seawater, a spare spinnaker pole to jury-rig a mast, plastic tarps or CO2 bags to cover hull breaches, etc.
  • Stay with the boat until it sinks. Prepare to abandon ship if you get worried, but don't actually abandon ship until the boat sinks. Often a boat is located, empty, by rescue personnel, and the crew in their much smaller, less-visible little life raft are never found.
  • Prevent man-overboard: Have a toe-rail, non-skid decking, perimeter life-lines, and run interior lifelines from the boom gallows up to the bow at about chest-height. Make sure everyone has harnesses to clip to the lifelines for heavy weather. A low bulwark, 8 to 12 inches, is immensely helpful because it provides footholds, and keeps gear from slithering overboard. Some persons mount the life-line stanchions on the bulwark (which lets them use u-bolts and pipe!) and use a larks-head around the bulwark as an adjustable jib track.
  • Plan routes to avoid heavy weather. The British admiralty has pilot charts designed to help sailors plan.
  • Learn to heave-to, and heave-to when you first think of it. Carry a parachute sea-anchor, which permits one to heave-to in any amount of wind to survive storms. Basically, put the bow 50 degrees off the wind, let the wind push the boat slowly backwards, and don't sail out of the "slick" your drag vortices make on the water. The sea-anchor prevents sailing out of the slick in very high winds, which would otherwise force a bare-poled boat to sail. The slick calms waves. Really. Most boats lost in storms attempt to "run with the storm" or "lie abeam." Heaving-to is a safer way. See the book "Storm Tactics" by Larry & Lin Pardey.
  • Practice sailing and anchor-warping maneuvers for docking, which don't need an engine, and are salty-skills fun anyway.
  • Have at least a hand-held VHF marine radio. If you have a fixed-mount radio, have a spare aerial. This lets one talk to authorities (like bridgemasters and lock managers) and other marine vessels (like the ship bearing on you).
  • Have a GPS or two. Little ones are down to $119.
  • Have at least a plastic sextant and a copy of the Nautical Almanac, so you can arrive if your GPS fails. The almanac expires every year. It has an emergency set of sight reduction tables, although HO-249 (a set of large books) or a navigational computer are easier to use. Practice with it now and again. Davis Instruments sells a basic plastic sextant for $40 in 2002- the accuracy of celestial navigation is 0.2 to 30 miles depending on your equipment.
  • Have a good-quality short-wave receiver, like the Grundig "Yachtboy" or equivalent. This permits one to get navigational time from atomic clocks, as well as basic weather reports (on the same channel as the clocks) and world news (the BBC).
  • Have a good quality quartz watch or two- For celestial navigation, rate them for accuracy (how many seconds gained or lost per week), rather than set them. Change the batteries every January.
  • Have running fresh and salt water taps. You can do this with gravity, which is tremendously convenient, yet makes a more reliable boat than a pressurized water system run off the engine. Saltwater is fine for washing dishes and decks, saving water. With coconut-oil soap you can wash yourself in sea water, as long as you sponge off with fresh water afterwards. Clothes washed in seawater look dingy and feel damp.
  • Get a stove with at least two burners, that's easy to light. Many people like liquified propane. Avoid electric stoves run from the engine.
  • Get the simplest toilet system that's legal in your area. Carry spare parts for every seal and moving part. Be sure that the outlet is on the opposite side and downstream of the salt water tap.
  • Minimize through-hull openings. E.g. share the salt-water tap with the motor inlet, and consider sharing the toilet and engine outlets. Run the depth sounder over the side or transom.
  • Assure that every through-hull opening has a sea-cock. Close them when the boat is unattended. If your boat needs a bailer to keep afloat, it's broken!
  • Have the biggest radar reflector that will fit your boat.
  • Make sure you can navigate without engine power- i.e. have battery powered GPS or celestial navigation as a back-up.
  • Have more than one large fresh water tank. In some areas, they limit how long you can stay out, and how safe you are. Engine-powered watermakers should not be essential to return safely.
  • Consider using oil navigation lights. Most sailboats with electric lights don't run the engine enough to keep the battery charged enough to keep the running lights lit. This is unsafe. Oil lamps aren't bad, especially if the boat has an oil tap (from a gravity tank) to fill them.
  • Consider charging the boat's batteries with solar cells, wind turbines, or water-turned generators, as well as or instead of an engine. They're much more pleasant. Many people consider it rude to run a motorized generator in an otherwise quiet anchorage.
  • Consider leaving off the engine. They cost thousands of dollars and break, often in the middle of a cruise, wrecking the fun. The propeller slows down a sailboat, (it's literally a drag). The motor and prop shaft add three holes through the hull (inlet, outlet and prop-shaft). A sculling oar can move a 6 ton, 30 foot yacht around a harbor at 1.5 knots, with only mild effort. The hard part of sculling is holding the oar at the correct 40-degree angle- rig ropes to hold the oar.
  • If you must have an inboard engine, arrange the prop shaft and rudder so either one can be removed and repaired without removing the other or dismounting the engine.
  • If you must have an engine, consider using a long-shafted marine outboard. They can be repaired and replaced much more cheaply than in-boards.
  • If you have an engine, prefer a diesel (economical, safe fuel) with a hand-start option (i.e. it can be started wet with the battery run down- standard on workboats).
  • If you have an engine, include an engine-driven mechanical (not electric) bailing pump. This is one of the most powerful arguments in favor of an engine, because a mechanical bailer can save a boat. In a pinch, an engine's cooling inlet can be rigged with a screen and serve as a mechanical bailer- just don't let it run dry!
  • Carry a large manual bailing pump.
  • If you want an engine-powered anchor winch, consider using hydraulic, rather than electric. They can't short out, or stop working when the battery fails.
  • Manual anchor winches are slow, but safe. If you don't have one, remember to place a manual sail winch with a chain tail so that it can back-up the anchor winch.
  • Bronze and stainless winches seem to have fewer corrosion problems than aluminum winches.
  • Tiller-steered external rudders are hokey-looking, but easy to repair, have no cables to break, and cost thousands less than wheel steering.
  • Get a reliable automatic steering system. They are wonderfully convenient. It frees the person on watch from the tiller. Electronic systems use large amounts of power. If this makes them dependent on the engine, that's bad. Wind-vane systems need a well-tuned, easy-to-steer boat.
  • Have a set of sails for light airs. Most places with good weather have a lot of time where the wind is force 1.
  • Many long-term cruisers dislike roller-furled sails. They claim that the furler tends to jam exactly when it is most needed, in high winds. Furler companies claim that their new designs solve these problems. Roller furling is substantially more expensive than reefed sails.
  • Consider using reefing sails rather than carrying a sail for every occasion. Not only will the total cost of a sail suite be reduced, but changes of sail are more convenient- the sail stays in place.
  • Many cruisers install labor-saving rigging. Some favorites are self-shipping anchors, lazyjacks to help reef sails, jib downhauls, and tracked self-erecting spinnaker poles. Spinnaker poles in the rigging is a classic sign of a cruising sailboat. Many cruisers consider boom gallows to be essential safety equipment.
  • Metal dishes can be pretty, and break-proof. The stainless-steel goblets for wine come to mind.
  • Guns and drugs are far more hazardous to you than to anyone else. If you declare them, friendly customs officials can become very unpleasant. If you do not declare them, your boat can be confiscated.

Here are some major comforts, eschewed by minimalists; the trade-offs are given in the way they look on the water. If there's a compromise, it's presented after the extremes:

  • Air conditioning. Even most power boats can't afford this. The cruise ships are painted white to minimize the load, and built as floating generator plants: They actually run their propulsion as a minor load off the air-conditioning circuit. A few sailing yachts (the Albin Vega is the only mass-produced type with this feature) have a system that circulates air from the cockpit, past the sea-cooled hull, where it cools and condenses excess humidity into the bilges, into the front of the cabin. In the Vega, the air circulation is driven by solar heat on the hollow mast, and a wind-powered ventilator on the rear cabin top. Vegas are said to be 5 degrees cooler than outside in most summer areas. Everybody else rigs canvas sunshades and a fabric windscoop over the forward hatch.
  • A bigger boat- gives you room for all your stuff, and you can have big parties! Alas, you probably will have a terrible time trying to get crew who want to go where you want to go, unless you pay them. Also, in the U.S. many marinas charge $50 per foot per month. The price of the boat, and its maintenance costs, go up as the cube of its waterline length (it's the volume that costs, not the length). Think really hard before you get anything much over 35 feet.
  • A hot shower- The problem here is that a real hot shower requires a real on-board waterworks powered from the engine, with watermaker ($2300 in 2002), water storage tank ($200), pressurisation pump & tank ($400), water heater ($300), assorted plumbing- ($1000), ($4500 total), for a small system. A dripping faucet can cost quite a bit of diesel fuel. However, a hot shower is desperately missed even by most minimalists, who often rig solar-powered showers, and smugly mention the thousands of dollars they saved. For those who cannot commit on this issue, there are little sit-down showers with hand-pressurized tanks that can be filled from a kettle or a solar water heater. Everyone carries a kettle, washbasin and pitcher.
  • A watermaker- envied by minimalists... who compensate by carrying a multiple-hundred gallon freshwater tank in the space where your boat has an engine (they call it "freshwater ballast"). An expensive compromise is to run a small watermaker off a solar panel or windmill, just to keep the tanks topped-off, and provide emergency water. Always have two sources of water for a cruise (two tanks, if nothing else).
  • A refrigerator- iced beer is an amazing luxury in the tropics. Minimalists grit their teeth and smile thinking grimly of the extra half year they will be able to stay on vacation with the money they saved by not having a refrigerator. Everybody has an icebox, but ice, if it exists in the local economy at all, is probably only available at the fishing boat service pier. The Eastern Mediterranean, Mexico, South America, and Indian Ocean rarely have bulk ice available at any price. In the U.S. fill the box with dry ice and you can have colder stuff longer.
  • Washer and dryer for clothes. The water-works problem, plus a washer and dryer problem. You're clean, and the minimalist is negotiating with a local washerwoman. This is a toss-up. Laundry is a wonderful excuse to meet and mildly enrich locals. Many people have had success with large sealed buckets towed in the wake, or rocked on the stern. In good weather it's easy to rig clotheslines.
  • A dishwasher- the water-works problem, but you're watching a video instead of doing dishes. Everybody hates doing the dishes. Minimalists lose crew if the rotation is unfair. There's just got to be some trick with dishes in towed buckets of soapy water...
  • A barbecue- There are little stainless-steel gas barbecues that clamp to a lifeline stanchion. In the tropics you can cook outside, which is much cooler. If you like the idea, the only downside is the rather large amount of fuel they use.
  • A stereo/video system. The minimalist is in town dancing the lambada with the locals- what are you thinking? A little boom-box that plugs into the boat's 12V power eases life for music addicts. With nubile crew in bikinis, this can inspire heartening amounts of envy in locals.
  • Radar and imaging sonar- genuine, though expensive safety equipment, when it works. Try to minimize through-hull connections, connectors, wires and moving parts. Silicone grease in and around connectors can prevent salt-water corrosion and shorting. Some masters actually put a packing gland around the connectors and fill it with silicone grease, which is less extreme than it sounds after you've replaced the connectors twice.
  • A SSB marine radio, or amateur radio rig- very handy when you get tired of talking to your crewmates. There are insulators and antenna tuners to use standing rigging as the antenna. You have to have a license. The safety advantage is minimal now that EPIRBs exist. The minimalist loves his wife, plans short passages, talks to the locals and carries a short rack of great books...
  • Satellite phones (most often Inmarsat or Iridium). The phones cost from a thousand (hand-held Iridium) to twenty thousand (Gyrostabilized permanently mounted Inmarsat), and the calls cost $3/minute. The minimalist will wait seven hours for the overseas phone call to go through from Bora-Bora. If you need this, cruising might be a drag for you- just to see, why not charter a few adventures before you buy a boat? A virtuous compromise is Orbcomm e-mail. Orbcomm has satellites in low earth orbit and charges about $30/month. Delivery is a few times a day. Magellan makes a hand-held e-mail terminal for Orbcomm, for about $1000. You can even get e-mailed weather reports if you give your position! If your aunt Minnie can't manage a computer on the Internet, Orbcomm can handle TDY (deaf teletype) calls.

Further Reading

  • William F. Buckley Jr., "Atlantic High"- an amazingly well-written account of an Atlantic passage. Not a shred of politics.
  • William F. Buckley Jr., "Racing Through Paradise"- etc. about a Pacific passage.
  • Linda & Steve Dashew, "Offshore Cruisers' Encyclopedia"- expensive but so useful it's been compared to Bowditch and Dutton. Easy to read.
  • Eric Hiscock, "Cruising Under Sail"- just the facts, a classic.
  • Lawrence and Lin Pardey, "The Self-Sufficient Sailor"- The Pardey's message is wonderfully encouraging: Go simply, go cheaply and in a small boat, but go.
  • Lawrence & Lin Pardey, "Cost Conscious Cruiser"- more hints and tricks
  • Lawrence and Lin Pardey, "Storm Tactics"- A must-read book.
  • Michael Carr, "Weather Prediction Simplified"
  • Steve and Linda Dashew, "Mariner's Weather Handbook"
  • Mary Blewitt, "Celestial Navigation for Yachtsmen"- just the facts.
  • Merle Turner, "Celestial Navigation for the Cruising Navigator"- some theory.
  • Nathaniel Bowditch, "The American Practical Navigator"- A classic, continuously updated, the ultimate authority.
  • Elbert Maloney, "Dutton's Navigation and Piloting"- a classic, continuously updated.
  • U.S. Naval Institute, "The Bluejackets' Manual"- the navy way; the authority on Morse, Flags, Courtesies, fire-fighting at sea, jury-rigging, ship handling and basic sea law.
  • [www.celestaire.com Celestaire] sells Celestial navigation supplies.

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