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Preparing to Head South

The author and his partner savor one of their final sunsets before shoving off for the Caribbean.
For two years my partner Laurie and I have watched the seasonal arrival and departure of transient vessels from the confines of our marina slip. Over that time we’ve been continually reminded that owning a boat is only part of the program—using it to its full potential is the other. So after as many years working full-time in SailNet’s editorial department, I’m now getting ready to fulfill that mandate and head back out to sea.

Time is flying by as our cast-off date approaches. Somewhere in the first or second week of November, Laurie and I will be coiling the docklines on our ‘new,’ 1965, 35-foot S&S-designed sloop Althea, sailing out on an ebbing tide, away from Charleston, SC, and swinging the bow south for that big right-hand turn toward the Caribbean. In the time remaining, a great many preparations occupy us and life aboard remains in perpetual orbit around ‘the list.’

New rigging sits coiled in its box waiting for what we’ve computed will be at least eight trips up the mast. There is the ground for the just-installed SSB to configure, to say nothing of getting the backstay, antennae tuner, insulators, ground, and the laptop and software to work in concert. We hope to miraculously conjure up satellite weather images on our own, which will be quite the luxury after our last cruise where we often rowed over to sheepishly ask larger, better-equipped boats if by any chance they could share their weather forecasts.

The other happy crew member makes up a length of coaxial cable with a little help from Nigel Calder in print.
Of course those tasks just begin to scratch the surface of our list. The engine starter needs to come off and be rebuilt, and spares such as belts, oil, and fuel filters need to be stockpiled. The life raft needs mounting, the fire extinguishers recharging, and the jacklines rigging. There is also the task of exorcising the demons currently residing in the autopilot, finding out what kind of customs paperwork will be required for the cat, dealing with passport renewal, and so many other items that I can’t recall at the moment. Suffice it to say that this trip to the tropics has begun with a number of less-celebrated adventures and minor victories like successfully rebuilding the head with no extra pieces left over or spending the day squeezing through the lazarettes to ensure that whatever electrical gizmo in question actually works. Then there are other decisions: Does the router really need to go the Caribbean? What about mail forwarding? And what will we do with the car?

"Any boat that has several thousand miles under its keel is much more likely to have its essential systems up to spec than one that is going cruising for the first time."

While we’ve only owned Althea for six months, there are a number of features that prompt us to feel comfortable and confident with it as a voyaging vessel. For starters, we know that she was cruised from California to South Carolina not long ago. Any boat that has several thousand miles under its keel is much more likely to have its essential systems up to spec than one that is going cruising for the first time. Theoretically at least, boats of this ilk require less work to get them back to full cruising readiness. We’ve also known her former owners for years, having played a large-scale game of hopscotch with them down the West Coast and Central America and through the Western Caribbean as we cruised our 26-footer along the same route over nearly two years. So we’d seen Althea in action many times, had numerous sundowners in her cockpit in amazing places, and seen her post more than one horizon job on us along the way.

When her former owners had a baby, moved ashore, bought an RV, and drove back to California to live on a commune and learn acupuncture (just in case you’re wondering what one does after cruising), we decided we were up for a little bit more waterline. We couldn’t think of a better boat to buy, so we convinced the bank we were good for it, had the boat surveyed, and then sailed it up from Daytona with an eye on eventually casting off again.

Learning a new boat, especially a larger one, is a somewhat daunting task. Everything is proportionally bigger in both size and expense. Sail loads require larger winches and blocks to tame them. The boat takes longer to glide to a complete stop. There are larger anchors to handle, heavier chain to deal with, bigger hardware on deck, as well as larger fasteners and longer runs of heavier electrical wire. The tradeoff for all of this—increased performance—means that we should be able to cover more ground in less time and in more comfort. And even though the difference between the drafts of our new boat and our former one is only a foot-and-eight inches, a number of sudden, unplanned stops since we’ve owned Althea have shown us that this also takes getting used to. Whether it’s getting the keel out of the mud, taming sails, or docking, we no longer have a boat that can be manhandled; more than ever we have to approach maneuvers with finesse and foresight.

A canvas cockpit enclosure adds extra living space as well helping to keep the crew out of the elements aboard Althea, a welcome feature with the Caribbean in our future.
Like a lot of sailors, our previous extended cruise allowed us plenty of insight into what we did and did not want on our next boat. There are a number of electronic and sail-handling items that I’m willing to cruise without, but there are a few things that strike me as essential if you’re heading out for more than a daysail. A dodger or other kind of shelter from the elements is first among them. Although we had a dodger on our last trip, we’ve stepped up a level in terms of comfort and now have a full enclosure for our center cockpit. Life underway is now analogous to being on someone’s plush sofa while sailing—complete with throw pillows—and sleeping in the cockpit can now be every bit as comfortable as sleeping below. Comfort, remember, isn’t simply about sitting on something soft. A dry, well-rested, and comfortable crew member is more likely to have his or her full complement of wits about them. And that’s important on a boat whether for negotiating the lights of an approaching ship on at night, trimming sails, or just doing something as mundane as making hot cocoa for the watch.

Windvanes and autopilots are sometimes seen in an either-or light, but from our way of thinking there is a place on board for both. The fact that there is enough power in the wind to move sailboats to the furthest reaches of the globe should in itself be testament that there’s enough energy out there to free you from being a wheel or tiller slave. But that freedom shouldn’t necessarily come at the expense of the boat's limited supply of electrical energy. Our windvane also allows us to use it as an emergency rudder, should the need ever arise. And when the wind turns light and the motor comes on, it’s time for the autopilot. There’s little worse than having to hand-steer over the course of long periods of calm winds, and having the autopilot take over this task can mean the difference between you or your crew keeping sane in torrid, sun-drenched climates.

With her preventer set, Althea nimbly moves off the wind under the guidance of her trusty windvane.
Of course for most cruisers, a reliable engine is crucial when it comes to peace of mind. One of my worst fears is turning the key and having nothing happen, especially in tight spots. We learned some hard-learned lessons about diesel maintenance during our last cruise after the engine blew a head gasket in Mexico and sludge invaded the fuel tank in Panama (see The Beauty of the Jury Rig). We’re in no hurry to relive those moments.

With all of our onboard systems and worldly possessions aboard, keeping things light isn’t easy, so we have taken great pains to adhere to the six-month rule: Whatever hasn’t been used in the last six months probably isn’t going to be used in the upcoming six months and should go ashore. When you’re preparing to go cruising, it’s all too easy to load your boat down with extraneous items that only make the boat heavier and slower. While taking everything off the boat and putting it on the dock was time-consuming to say the least, and made us the butt of some good-natured jokes for those walking by, we found it a useful sorting technique. Keep in mind that it takes a discerning eye and some ruthless sorting skills to keep only what you need.

The author surveys an array of items exhumed from the aft cabin and the lazerettes prior to sorting.
Finally, a strong case can be made for alternative power-generating sources like solar panels and wind generators. We have a 40-watt solar panel and are thinking about adding another to keep our four, six-volt, deep-cycle golf cart batteries happy. The previous owner also left us a fortuitous electrical legacy—a smart regulator as well as a 1,000-watt inverter and battery charger that we’re hoping will keep the electrical snafus at bay.

Of course we’ve kept some of the essential safety gear from our last boat—including the life raft and the EPIRB—and we still have our tethers and harnesses. We’ve also updated our flare inventory and now have a new VHF. There is still a long list of things that we won’t be cruising with. There will be no roller furler, nor watermaker, radar, hot water, pressure water, refrigeration, freezer, or electric windlass. At 35 feet LOA, we’re likely to still be the little kids on the block compared to the majority of cruisers. But the philosophy that we’re applying isn’t to go cruising in the ultimate boat; it’s simply to go cruising, period. We hope to make the trip financially feasible; my better half will be sewing sails and repairing dodgers for some of the boats we’ll encounter along the way and we’ll probably do a delivery here or there to keep the kitty stocked. We aren’t likely to get rich, but we’re sure to have a great time. The plan is to have no plan and we’re sticking to it. We expect to have some surprises, but that’s why we were going—to see what happens. Stand by.

Suggested Reading:

Criteria for Successful Cruising by Liza Copeland

Keeping it Simple by Doreen Gournard

Thinking Small by Don Casey

Buying Guide: Autopilots

Mark Matthews is offline  
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