It takes at least three days, sometimes four if the weather gods are spiteful. You must get past the inevitable queasiness and beyond the crankiness from a night or two or three without much sleep. You have to come to terms with the fact that your brave new world is, and will be, in constant motion no matter how much you pray for it to stop for just a few minutes. Then of course there is the initial feeling-out period: who is this so-called captain that you're trusting your life to for the next 10 days while imprisoned in a 50-foot XYZ floating cell. Is he a Republican, a Democrat, a hard-bitten sailor with a questionable background or a land-lubbing charlatan acting like he's Bernard Moitessier without the accent? Nagging doubts won't help your wayward equilibrium. So what were you thinking when you agreed to make this passage?
People sign on for my offshore training passages without knowing my political or religious preferences, or that they'll be subjected to my incessant monotone singing and annoying history quiz questions. Then there is the rest of the crew, who are usually complete strangers thrown together like dirty clothes in a washing machine. How will you get along with these people? Will you have any privacy? Do they know you snore like a freight train? As you ponder these issues, you realize that you can't stay below forever, and that's when it becomes clear that the cockpit of an offshore sailboat is akin to a priest's confessional. Sooner or later you'll take your place behind the wheel and it will all come out. Now, after reading this far, I am certain that many of my former mates are starting to worry, oh no, what is he going to reveal?
In the old days of down-and-dirty yacht deliveries, crew size was kept to a minimum, usually two, to maximize the size of the profit for the skipper. Conversations were few and far between, life aboard was like sentry duty—a lonely routine of being on or off watch. Meals were slapped together and rarely eaten together. Of course you made up for the lack of human interaction by reading a lot of books. On a 23-day passage between Honolulu and Guam I once read 12 books, and this while hand-steering (naturally the autopilot gave us fits). The books were an eclectic collection ranging from Zorba the Greek to Ernie Gann's Song of the Sirens.
On my recent passages, however, the wisdom doesn't come from my favorite author, Nikos Kazantzakis, or from Gann's self-deprecating wit; intead, it's self-generated. It is a very new-millennium kind of thing—we do a lot of talking. In fact, the cockpit of a well-found boat, clipping along under the press of sail, is about the best place imaginable for baring your soul, and I'm sure some psychoanalyst somewhere will soon start offering offshore passages as a new kind of therapy.
"What do you talk about?" asks my wife Lesa. She is the private sort, and wary of what secrets I might be revealing while I'm at sea. She smirks when I tell her we talk about everything. When we cruise in our boat, life aboard is just an extension of the madness that makes family life so—well—so challenging. The magic of sailing never wanes, but our conversations usually revolve around telling the kids to be careful, wondering what's for dinner and what we're going to do after we make landfall. A 1,500-mile training passage is different; it's a time capsule in a way—the real world blurs, and the big questions suddenly seem worth talking about again.
But it takes time. If the boat isn't bucking about too badly, day two generally reveals the reasons why otherwise sane people would abandon their loved ones, a dry, stationary bed, and pay good money to sign on for a blue-water passage. It always happens. Even if their backgrounds and experiences are completely different, the crew finds common ground. Often they share a feeling that life is charging by too fast and their dreams are slipping away. Also, there is the practical side of a passage—although they're almost always fairly experienced sailors, they're wondering if they have what it takes to make an offshore passage. Day three may see a reversal in spirits. Despair lurks in your gut as you realize you still have, if everything goes well, an endless seven more days ahead. This is when pictures of wives, husbands, girlfriends, children, grandchildren and even pets, houses, and cars start to circulate around the cockpit.
Days four and five are usually when everybody finds their stride—suddenly all topics are on the table. A sense of trust has developed as we realize that we must count on each other and the shipboard routine is well established. Politics, religion, sex—subjects that lead to arguments ashore, lead to arguments on boats too, yet for some reason, people become more open-minded at sea; maybe it's the humbling power of Neptune. Your opinions just can't be cast in stone when you're staring into a 20-foot cresting wave or into an ugly dawn creeping above the distant horizon. At these moments your are ripe for compromise.
Finally it happens. After affairs have been admitted to, financial screw-ups confessed, hopes and fears revealed, there is one major question still out there. Yes, this is the real reason why you have plunked down nearly $2,000 bucks and rearranged your schedule, this is one thing in life you truly need to know. Throwing caution to the wind, you look the captain in the eye and say, "so what is the ultimate cruising boat?"
That's right, I have finally figured out why people subject themselves to the vagaries of my training passages—they want to pick my brain, they want to talk about boats, and all the other stuff pales. Bill Clinton's mantra was KISS, ‘keep it simple, stupid.' For me, it's TUB, ‘the ultimate boat.' I have to remember that is what people want to talk about. The remaining days of the passage are filled with boat talk. What boat would you chose for a circumnavigation, why a ketch rig, would you buy new or used, what do I think about old Valiants, are blisters still a problem, what about Hylas 47, does it sail as well as the newer 49? Of all the boats you've sailed, which one do you like best? If you had $100,000, what boats would you consider? Boats, boats, and more boats, sex, politics, and religion can't hold a candle to this critical subject.
|"Boats, boats, and more boats. Sex, politics and religion can't hold a candle to this critical subject."|
And it is intriguing to hear different visions of the ultimate cruising boat. My last two training passages produced several variations on the theme. Glenn, an experienced sailor from Texas, and I discussed the merits of having a custom aluminum boat built in New Zealand for an around-the-world voyage. "It has to be at least 60 feet," he insisted, "to have enough speed and comfort." He liked the designs of Chuck Paine. John, a sailor from Michigan who plies Lake Michigan on a nimble S2 9.2, couldn't comprehend Glenn's scope. "My wife and I dream about retiring aboard an S2 36, and it seems like a huge boat to us," he admitted. "Of course we're talking about making our way to the Caribbean, not around the world."
Ed, who has sailed his Catalina 400 extensively on the Great Lakes and in the Gulf of Mexico, has concluded that he needs a different kind of boat if he is going to follow his dream of sailing across the Atlantic. He is zeroing in on the new Hallberg Rassy 43. "I need a heavier boat, more of a sea boat," he explains, "and the 43 seems manageable from a size perspective, but also able to stand up in a real blow. Plus I like the way it looks, it is a boat to be proud of."
Bob, who sails with friends on Lake Michigan, was convinced he wanted a mid-30s production-built cruiser/racer; he particularly likes the Beneteau 36.7. However, after experiencing how easily the Hylas 49 we were sailing handled a moderate gale, he started thinking about a different kind of boat. "I have to admit it, I am really impressed with this boat's motion. You can go below in 25 or 30 knots and think that you're in a library. I also like the center cockpit arrangement more than I thought I would, it really is a livable arrangement." Eventually we started talking specific boats. The Hylas 49 was out his price range, but I told him to look at Hylas 44s, Peterson 44s, old S&S designed Stevens 47s, and the Tayana Vancouver 42.
Jim and Joanne sail a Tartan 34 out of Pensacola, FL. Jim will be retiring from the Navy soon and they are contemplating buying a larger boat for full-time cruising and living aboard. We discussed a broad spectrum of boats. I passed on what I knew about the Valiant 40, the Passport 40, the Fast Passage 39, the Shannon 38, and other cruisers of the same ilk. Lou, a recently retired executive, likes the advantages of catamarans. "I am looking at the Bahamas and East Coast as my main cruising areas; shoal draft and flat sailing are very appealing."
And so it goes. I parcel out advice like Captain Abby. I never admit that I spend my solo watches quietly thinking about, naturally, what is the ultimate boat for me. Lesa and I are planning to take our two daughters cruising in about two years. Nari will be 11, Nikki will be eight. In my mind I balance their needs for space and privacy with mine, I want a boat that can occasionally rip off 200-mile days. Of course, money always enters the equation, and with a sobering impact it steers me back to reality. If I just continue to keep my old 45-foot steel ketch happy, keep the rust at bay, our program is within reach. Fortuna is paid for, strong, and capable, although she needs a Category 1 hurricane for us to achieve 200-mile days. Maybe the ultimate boat is simply the boat that allows us to follow our dreams, nothing more and nothing less. But don't tell my future crew that, then we would be forced to discuss more trivial matters like politics and religion.