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The First Year Cruising–What to Expect

Life beyond the horizon can be idyllic if your boat's systems are up to the task.
Your first year cruising may well serve as one of the most pivotal experiences in your life. In this twelve-month period you'll will get the answers to many pre-departure concerns. Once underway, you’ll find rewards in ways you never imagined possible and discover a whole new way to live life. Many things can happen during this first year out. While chance plays a role, much is dictated by the choices you make regarding where you go, and how well prepared you are before leaving.

So how far should you go in your first year? Do you start straight out on a circumnavigation? Head right to the sunny and warm Caribbean? Or do you explore your own waters first, be it the many inland waterways on the east coast, or enticing coastal cruising on the west coast?  Many factors will affect your decision.

Going cruising is not like taking the Greyhound Bus. You don’t just hop on your boat, zoom quickly to your chosen destination and only start having fun once you’re there. The pace of travelling by sailboat is magical. You’ll find yourself moving at a speed that allows you to truly enjoy things along the way, and in this new cruising life, you have an incredible new luxury called time, that you’ve probably never had in such quantities before. You’ll meet other cruisers along the way, and while sharing stories over happy hour one night, may be completely swayed from your original plans and decide to head for a new spell-binding destination originally not on the itinerary.

Weather will definitely affect where you go. With time as your new best friend, you can wait for, comfortable weather in which to travel. Sometimes cruisers wait weeks for a weather window. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, you can change your original destination to take advantage of prevailing wind and sea conditions. There’s no need to knock yourself, or your boat around when there are so many great places to sail to. The key is to be flexible in your cruising schedule.

Waiting for a weather window is better than going head-to-head with the Weather Gods.
Whether you choose to travel by wandering the many inland routes in North America, or opt for longer offshore passages to ports far away, there’s no right or wrong way to cruise. Everyone has a different level of adventure that satisfies his or her own reason for becoming a cruiser in the first place. In the cruising life, and especially during your first year, there is no physical destination that is necessary to achieve. Rather, it’s learning a new,  simpler way to live your life.

Your boat will also affect how far you go. Is it ready to venture offshore? Are the systems set up correctly? Have you made the necessary upgrades and repairs needed for the type of sailing that you've chosen? If you’ve purchased an older boat to cruise, expect repair and maintenance issues to crop up, particularly during your first year. And, even if your boat is new, you're sure to find there are things you want to change, and be likely to find that some systems or components fail in the first year, regardless of who built your boat. All of this is more easily accomplished before getting too far away from reliable sources of spare parts and gear.

Crew experience should also be a determining factor in your choice of cruising grounds. Many cruisers use this first year out to build confidence in their sailing skills and in their boat. If you’re like most cruisers, you’ll be in a boat that is larger than you’ve sailed regularly in the past, and the first year out will put your boathandling skills to the test.

For couples, cruising offshore may present an unanticipated challenge. Many couples soon find that they are really in a situation similar to singlehanding. The on-watch person should be able to handle the boat alone, plot courses, interpret the radar and instruments, and use the radio if necessary allowing the off-watch person to sleep. It’s not possible to rely on the skills of just one person if you want to travel safely offshore for any length of time.

Cruisers are a tight-knit bunch that look after each other, sharing valuable information on destinations, weather, and other concerns.
Once out cruising, you quickly become a member of what we call the subculture of cruising sailors. Regardless of your previous backgrounds, you now have everything in common with this adventurous group of roving nomads. It’s an incredibly supportive group that helps each other to overcome the many nuances presented in this new life. Where to tie up your dinghy to have access to shore, how far to the closest laundromat, and information sharing on more important issues such as safety, navigation and communication are just some of the important topics cruisers share. Through VHF, SSB and Ham radio, cruisers provide their own safety and communication enabling then to both watch out for one another, and keep in touch, no matter where they are.

In your new life, you’ll no longer have a need for a business card, but you will want a boat card before you leave. Cruisers love to stay in touch and to facilitate this, everyone has a boat card. These cards, often home printed from your computer, lists your boat name and type, the crew names, snail mail addresses, e-mail addresses, cell phone numbers, ham radio call signs, etc. Whatever you want your new friends to know about you should be on your cards. Boat cards are great for when you come into an anchorage at night and see a boat you met briefly a year before. You run down below, leaf quickly through your organized boat card file, and as you motor by the familiar sloop, yell over, "Hey Steve and Joanie. Great to see you again!"

Leave that high-powered memo writing onshore in favor of a contemplative life on the sea.
Before casting off, many cruisers share a concern for what will happen to their self-esteem. In our society, we often feel defined by our role in our professional career. The job and how we measure up consumes us, provides satisfaction and plays a huge part in our every day thoughts and life. For others, this same sense of identity is derived from our role as a parent. It’s hard to imagine how we will feel fulfilled when we no longer have the daily interaction and feedback from these all-important and consuming parts of our lives.

"Your new life as a cruiser is full of challenges, goals, and accomplishments.
No matter what your previous experience,
there are always lots of new things to learn, and new experiences to go through.

The very good news is that for us, and for every cruiser we’ve met, replacing this previous source of self esteem is not only easy, it’s exhilarating! Your new life as a cruiser is full of challenges, goals, and accomplishments. No matter what your previous experience, there are always lots of new things to learn, and new experiences to go through. You set your own goals. You’ll feel a new sense of freedom knowing that you’re not dependent upon anyone or anything for your basic needs. On a cruising boat, you have the ability to travel around as a completely self-contained unit.

With every new accomplishment, be it repairing your diesel engine, weathering a 40-knot blow, or arriving safely in a new and strange location, your confidence level builds. You soon learn that you’re capable of things that you never dreamed possible. Even the hard times in the cruising life can be rewarding. During your first year, it’s necessary to go through unpleasant experiences like the anchor dragging at 2 a.m. and unexpected storms to know that you’re made of the stuff necessary to overcome and succeed.

Regardless of what type of sailing you do, you'll know when you have arrived at your new lifestyle.
Once you’ve entered the cruising life and made it past the initiation the first few months bring—where there are just so many new things to learn and adjustments to make from your previous life—you’ll finally start to fall into a rhythm. Not only will you be appreciative of the incredible and support more seasoned cruisers offer, but you’ll soon find the confidence to start sharing your own unique knowledge and skills with others you meet along the way. You’ll feel a renewed sense of values and develop a real pioneer spirit as you learn to live closely with nature enjoying the pure simplicity of people helping one other each and every day as a natural way of life.

It’s not easy to just change your whole life and take off in a sailboat to points unknown. Many people will think doubtlessly you’re crazy, while others will be concerned for your safety. Some may let you know that normal people just don’t do that! As we look back, we are amused by the hold society had on us, and it’s with no regrets that we made the break. With good preparation and good judgement, during your first year out cruising you’ll make wonderful new friends, travel to exciting new places, and most of all, you’ll experience memories of a lifetime!

Suggested Reading List

  1. Keeping it Simple by Doreen Gounard
  2. Cruising Dreams and Boat Lists by Tania Aebi
  3. Overnight Passaging by Sue & Larry
  4. SailNet Buying Guide - Anchor Windlasses

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