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Go Back   SailNet Community > Contributing Authors > Cruising Articles
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  • 1 Post By Randy Harman
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Old 09-15-2003
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Entering Foreign Waters


There's much to be gained from overcoming your fears of an offshore passage, beginning with onboard camaraderie.
It sounds ironic, but you'd be surprised at how many full-time cruisers there are that don't intend to venture out on a blue-water
passage. As they become more comfortable with their new lifestyle, the notion of offshore sailing is less threatening. Meeting and talking with others who have taken the plunge helps to relieve excessive apprehensions and anxieties. With proper preparation and a positive attitude, the experiences of this cruising adventure can be extremely rewarding.

Going Offshore    Two major concerns that novice blue-water cruisers have are being miles from the nearest land mass and being underway at night. Apprehension is normally felt as visible points of reference disappear until the cruiser’s self confidence has been developed; after that, the loss of a land mass can become a welcome sight. Like other aspects of sailing, the comfort level increases with experience. In a sea survival course, our instructor pointed out that the overwhelming majority of boating incidents occurs near shore, so safety actually improves during offshore passages.

While my fondest cruising experiences are those of making new landfalls, nighttime passages are a close second—just ahead of experiencing dawn at sea. These situations can produce an intense feeling of well being—a natural high. One very dark night the sea was like a black mirror as Oui Si ghosted along with a drifter amid a pod of playful dolphins. They created concentric rings of beautiful luminescence as they surfaced to breathe and made long glowing outlines while streaking under our bow. On another passage, Mars rose above the horizon and I thought it was the port running light on another vessel. These memories are as vivid now as the morning after they occurred.


You have to get out to sea before you truly discover all of the delights of a longer passage.
After experiencing a few overnight passages, most sailors develop an appreciation for them. Winds are often less intense at night. Bright range and running lights on large vessels make them easy to see in the dark, allowing appropriate avoidance action in a timely manner. And the glow of lights ashore can be very bright when you are well over 50 miles off the coast. Many see the night as a friend to the offshore cruiser; and I share this view.

It takes two to three days to become fully adjusted to the offshore watch routine. Most couples keep an informal schedule and share chores as they gain their sea-legs. We select simple, easily reheated dishes and prepare meals for the first two days before our departure. With a tight lid and efficient heating/cleaning, our six-quart, stainless-steel pressure cooker is invaluable underway. We also employ a kitchen timer with a loud alarm to make sure the watch maintains a regular lookout schedule every eight to 10 minutes. Aboard Oui Si, we demand that safety harnesses be worn at night and in rough seas. Our jacklines extend from bow to stern, and at night, the off-watch person must be in the cockpit if the watch goes on deck.

When another vessel is sighted offshore, most often it will be a fishing boat. At night, the collection of lights they display range from none at all to multiple strings of Christmas lights. We've found that Mexican fishermen will click the transmit key of their VHF radio numerous times in rapid succession if you get close to their nets. Off the Caribbean coast of Central America, the fishermen appeared as though they were going to run us down, but were actually just using a language which needs no translation to keep us from fouling their nets. At night off the north coast of South America, we observed fishermen in open rowboats over three miles offshore with only kerosene lanterns for light.


There are often intriguing destinations at the end of a long passagejust one of the rewards of moving beyond your inihibitions about long-distance sailing.
When you're offshore, wave heights can seem benign without external reference. Late one October, we were midway through the delivery of a 72-foot ketch from Florida to the British Virgin Islands when we had a memorable experience. With very little wind and a wave period of over 150 feet, we were very comfortable under power and uaware of any significant sea state as a freighter overtook us. We then watched that vessel almost disappear in the troughs between waves with heights estimated to be over 20 feet.

Boardings and Inspections    New offshore cruisers are often surprised to hear of boardings and inspections on the high seas. Although most of those we've experienced have been by parties from an inflatable off USCG cutters, I have also been ordered to stop for an inspection by a foreign military vessel. At the time, we were northbound and equidistant between Mexico and Cuba—many miles from the nearest land. We could not see the vessel’s colors as it approached our stern, but the order was issued in Spanish. We hove to and the inspection was very quick. The polite young officers rapidly became seasick as the motion of Oui Si was totally different from that of their mother ship.

"An automatic rifle or a .45 in a holster do much to reinforce their authority."

Most inspections by foreign personnel occur after your cruising home is safely anchored. Many will wear clothes bearing little resemblance to your perception of a uniform. An automatic rifle or a .45 in a holster do much to reinforce their authority. A group from the Costa Rican Guardia Coastal—Costa Rica's equivalent to the USCG—came aboard in swimsuits. Their patrol boat had spent the night anchored in the same small cove as Oui Si so we knew who they were. At an anchorage near the Mexican navy base on Isla Socorro, we shared coffee with two senior officers after they made a cursory check of our papers. We compared notes on celestial navigation after learning that one officer taught navigation to midshipmen at their La Paz base. But our most thorough inspection was conducted by a customs official in Costa Rica. One of the officers even checked behind pictures hung in the salon! After completing the inspection, we enjoyed cool drinks and he shared his experiences as an inspector for the UN and as a student in the US. In all of our experiences, I was disappointed only once as a US DEA group seemed overzealous while we were at a USCG facility along the Gulf coast. If you are honest and innocent, you shouldn't have anything to worry about.

Foreign Cultures    While in a foreign country, it is wise to remember that you are a guest of that nation and should act accordingly. To make the visit more meaningful, take time to gain awareness of local politics, foods, and socio-economic differences. Through an increased understanding of local lifestyles, we gain acceptance and appreciation of our cultural differences. A phrase book of language translations is extremely useful. Locals normally welcome attempts to speak their language and will take time to help you learn. Their laws, customs, and lifestyles can be—and often are—quite different than those previously experienced. That they are different does not make them wrong. In Mexico, a large percentage of homes appear unfinished. In truth, they are since the tax base of the residence is substantially less until it is completed. In Dominica, most homes are unpainted for the same reason—a lower tax is charged for unpainted dwellings. A tourist perceives this as a condition of poverty, but locals see it as practical economics.


From fish to fashion, you'll find that "normal" takes on a new identity on foreign soil.

It can be surprising to learn how we appear to those in foreign countries. A teenager in Portsmouth, Dominica, felt sorry for us. He spoke with deep national pride as he described his good fortune to be living in a safe, progressive country, with healthy, inexpensive food readily available and no need to worry about warm clothes for cold weather. In Des Haies, Guadeloupe, I was chided by the petite old lady who ran the town’s bakery. I had started to put warm, fresh baguettes into a plastic bag. She told me—much like she might have admonished her grandchild—that newspaper was only the proper wrapper; only a child or a dunce would use plastic. Afterward, Louise and I laughed about it as we ate one baguette au natural while wandering along the town’s two cobblestone streets in a warm misty rain.

Discretion     Although it is not necessary to do as the locals do, a little discretion while cruising does wonders to maintain a hospitable relationship with those ashore. In warmer climes, partial and total nudity can be observed aboard sailboats. Locals in some cultures become embarrassed and even offended by these actions. Similar feelings can occur when they see cruisers wearing brief clothing while shopping. In some middle-eastern societies, bodily harm or jailing can result from such actions.

A simple awareness of the local economy is needed for your safety and financial well being. What you might consider casual jewelry and pocket spending money could easily equate to a month’s earnings for the workers in some countries. The perception of your opulence can be demeaning and even tempting for those living in abject poverty. The presence of guards with automatic weapons is customary in Latin American financial and commercial shopping areas. Initially, this can be somewhat disconcerting. After realizing they are there for the consumer’s safety, your feelings of intimidation soon diminish. To assure safety, these guards may also search backpacks and purses before customers are allowed into a bank. In one extreme situation, Louise was photographed and fingerprinted before she could receive a small cash advance on our credit card. Just after a major devaluation of the Mexican peso, I observed a totally different situation. A cruiser tipped a young Mexican with a handful of change to dispose of a bag of garbage. As the cruiser walked away, the boy looked at the coins. He then slowly poured them out onto the ground since that collection of change was totally without value in the current economy.

"What seems shocking in one culture is quite sensible in another."

Shopping     In a tiny community, the thoughtful cruiser will take care not to deplete the stock of items that locals also need. And remember, these small shops ordinarily keep a minimum of cash on hand so it's unlikely that the shopkeeper can make change for larger denominations of currency. To prevent embarrassment, they sometimes encourage purchasing additional items or more of those already selected. In Latin-American countries, it is common for carniceros (butchers) to prominently display the severed heads of recently butchered animals outside their shops. Local customers can readily see at a distance what meats are available and with closer inspection, gain some idea of the cuts’ probable quality. The same customer would feel cheated if a whole chicken carcass did not include the feet to make a thick, rich soup stock. What seems shocking in one culture is quite sensible in another.

At the open market in Frontera, Guatemala, the tiny fruit stand proprietor said gently but firmly "No" as she took a melon from Louise’s hand. The woman then pointed to a small, spoiled spot and helped us find an unblemished fruit. In Basse Terre, Guadeloupe, an older lady chased after us for nearly a block to return a bag of fresh fruits and vegetables we had carelessly left at her stand. It is both comforting and flattering how the locals go out of their way to accommodate the cruising guests in their country. We are seen in a very different light compared to tourists who stay in hotels and chose not to "mingle." The strongest and nicest memories which sea-going vagabonds share often relate to their experiences with the local people.

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