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Old 05-19-2004
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help with lifes dream

The dream of voyaging under sail can be a powerful one. Pretty much several times a month I receive an email requesting advice from someone who is considering doing just what you are proposing. I have watched literally dozens of folks go through this. Some are successful in getting ''out there'', some discover that they really enjoy sailing and find that they really have no need to ''go out there’; some have discovered that the sailing life is just not for them, and others have not even gotten past the dreaming stage.

From what I have seen, the most successful (especially when children are involved) have been the ones who have been somewhat systematic about going. There is a lot to learn before one can safely venture offshore. No one would assume that they could buy a jet airliner take a few lessons and be able to fly around the world. I think most rational people would expect to start with a small plane and work their way up. But for some reason people assume that they can just go out and buy a big boat, take a couple lessons, read a few books, and then go safely cruising.

While there are people who literally taken a few lessons, read a few books and went out cruising, those that were successful going that route are far more rare than those who have done some kind of apprenticeship. Learning to sail and learning to cruise involves a lot of knowledge and no matter how much you know, there will always be more to learn, but I suggest that you at least take the time to learn the basics, and that just about can’t happen if you buy ‘a big sailboat’ and move your family aboard.

I find myself saying this a lot lately but here I go again. We all come to sailing with our own specific needs, our own specific goals and our own specific capabilities. The neat thing about sailing is that we all don’t have to agree that there is only one right way to go sailing. There is no more truth in expecting that there is one universally right answer about many aspects of sailing than there is in trying to prove that vanilla ice cream is universally better than strawberry ice cream. One area of sailing for which there is no one universally right answer involves the amount of knowledge one needs to go sailing.

For some, all they need or want to know about sailing is just enough knowledge to safely leave the slip sail where they want and get back safely. There is nothing inherently wrong with that approach. But for others, like myself, there is much more to sailing than simply developing a rudimentary knowledge of sailing basics. If you fall into that camp, it is next to impossible to learn to sail really well on a boat as large as the one in question.

While I am in no way suggesting that this makes sense for everyone, for those who really want to learn to sail well, I strongly suggest that they start out owning a used 23 to 27 foot, responsive, light-weight, tiller steered, fin keel/spade rudder (ideally fractionally rigged) sloop (or if they are athletically inclined then a dinghy.) Boats like these provide the kind of feedback that is so necessary to teach a newcomer how to really sail well. Boats like these have small enough loads on lines and the helm that you and your children can all participate and learn together. Being able to learn and participate, the children will be more engaged and less likely to be bored and feel kidnapped.

By sailing well, I mean understanding the nuances of boat handling and sail trim in a way that cannot be learned on a larger boat. Used small boats generally hold their values quite well so that after a year or even few years or so of learning, you should be able to get most of your money out of the small boat and move on to a bigger boat actually knowing something about which specific desirable characteristics of a boat appeal to you as an experienced sailor rather than the preferences of some stranger on some Internet discussion group.

From the advice that you have already gotten you can tell that there will not be a consensus of opinion on how to go distance cruising. With all due respect to the EU gentlemen’s well-meaning advice, in my opinion it is exactly the wrong advice for what you are proposing to do. It is nearly impossible to learn to sail well on a catamaran that is large enough for a family of five, and without highly developed sailing skills, a cat that large is pretty dangerous offshore.

In any event, I think that you have the right idea about taking sailing lessons. If I were in your shoes, I would sit down and put together a list of all of the things that I would want to know before I set off voyaging such as:
∑ Boat handling,
∑ Boat husbandry, repair and maintenance
∑ Diesel maintenance and repair
∑ First aid
∑ Financial management from offshore
∑ Home education methods
∑ Heavy weather tactics
∑ Legal restrictions on leaving and entering foreign countries
∑ Navigation, (Celestial, dead reckoning and electronic)
∑ Provisioning
∑ Radio operators license exam requirements
∑ Safe and dangerous fish
∑ Sail trim
∑ Survival skills
∑ Etc………..

Once you have what you thought was a complete list, I would suggest that you set up a schedule to try to develop those areas of skill that you felt you were currently lacking. As much as possible I would try to involve all those involved in as many of those aspects as each is capable of understanding. This process could take as little as a year, but more often takes two to three years. The process itself can be very rewarding. It can build the kind of family bonds that are required to be cast away on that oh-so-small island that a boat underway represents and may provide many of the kinds of wonderful experiences that you are venturing out there to enjoy.

Respectfully,
Jeff
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