Arcas at 6 months

Read this interview as originally published on NASailor.
We’ve featured many of the entries in the interesting “Interview with a Cruiser” series, a web project created by Livia Gilstrap to document the experiences of long-term offshore cruisers. At her readers’ request, Livia has started a new site called “Newly Salted” to showcase interviews with cruisers who have gone on shorter journeys or just started their cruise. She invited us to interview ourselves about the six-month cruise we took in 2009. We were honored to participate and decided to publish our answers here as well to give our readers more insight into the sailing history of NASailor’s founders.

What (if anything) do you wish someone had told you before you started cruising?

Beth: I wish that someone had explained the “you can’t rush mother nature” aspect of cruising. Basically, that you have to give up on the idea of scheduling where you are going to be at any given time. Frankly, I don’t know if that’s something you can learn without experiencing it. The first few weeks of our trip were incredibly stressful because we were in too much of a hurry. After trucking Arcas to Florida and fitting her out for our trip, we went for a two-hour sail as our sole break-in before crossing the Gulf Stream the next day. I paid for that stupidity by spending the entire crossing with my head leaning against the dodger, eyes closed, seasick.

Hill: I wish someone had told us, “Don’t go for less than six months.” It takes at least 2-3 months to adjust to the cruising way of life. We planned our trip for six months, but that was just luck on our part.

In your first year of cruising, what transitions did you find the most difficult?

Beth: The transition to being hyper-aware of the weather and environment and understanding what the potential consequences could be for us and the boat.

Hill: Being a full-time mechanic, having to manage all of the systems on the boat, from the battery to the engine, and knowing that there is no safety net out there. I had to understand how everything worked and how it was wired together. On land, you can just call a professional and you don’t have to know exactly what’s wrong. On the sea, you are responsible for diagnosing and fixing many problems. There is no mechanic, except you, at least for the basic stuff.

What mistakes did you make in your first year of cruising?

Beth: Creating a much more ambitious trip plan than we could realistically accomplish, not only because of timing, but also because of what I was ready to take on as a first-time offshore cruiser in a 29-foot boat.
We also underestimated how expensive the Bahamas would be, even though we’d heard that it would be from some of our cruising friends. The food prices there are ridiculous. We should have stocked up on way more food before we left. We thought we bought a lot, but should have bought at least 4x more than we did before leaving.

Otherwise, we did a good job planning the trip. One of the good things about a 29-foot boat is that you don’t have a lot of room for extra stuff. There wasn’t much we brought that we didn’t use, and there wasn’t much that we didn’t have that we wished we had brought. Most of the credit goes to Hill for planning our systems well.

What do you enjoy about cruising that you didn’t expect to enjoy?

Beth: Watching the sun come up on an overnight watch.

I also really loved planning our routes and destinations. Before this trip, I had only sailed in places like Chicago, where there aren’t many harbors to explore, or Maine, where Hill has been sailing since he was a kid. At first I had no idea how to read a chart to figure out what would be a good anchorage or the best way to navigate from point to point. By the time we got to Eleuthera, I was doing 90% of the trip plotting. I still remember the look on Hill’s face the first time I disagreed with him on where we should go next and then pulled out the charts to explain why I thought my option was better!

I’d pass hours looking at the charts and cruising guides to figure out where we were going to go next. That’s one of the best parts of cruising – having time to do whatever you feel like doing. It’s such an incredible luxury.

Hill: Even though it was stressful at times, I enjoyed the responsibility of being the Captain and managing the boat. It would be hard for me to crew on someone else’s boat now.

What do you dislike about cruising that surprised you?

Beth: To directly contradict the above answer…I hate long offshore sails. More than 36 hours and I want to kill myself. They are either boring or scary, and neither is fun.

Also, doing laundry in a bucket. Hate it.

Hill: To also give the flip side of my previous answer, the constant responsibility of being Captain could be tiring. As the more experienced cruiser of the two of us, I was ultimately responsible for the boat and our safety. Although I had cruised before and also led the crew on Arcas during the racing season, it’s not the same as being Captain 24/7. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, but sometimes I just wanted a break.

What is something that you read or heard about cruising, that you didn’t find to be true?

Beth: Sometimes there’s the perception that cruising = roughing it. That’s not necessarily true, even for those who don’t have a ton of money. You just have to make choices and prioritize what’s important. For example, we knew we would be using our computers and listening to a lot of music, and in general we didn’t want to worry about power. So we had four solar panels and four house batteries on our little 29-foot boat. It got us some interesting looks in the harbor, but we never had to run the engine to charge up our batteries.

You do have to make tradeoffs on outfitting your boat, unless you have money to burn, but you don’t have to give up everything.

Is there something you wish you had bought or installed before starting cruising?

Beth: A bigger boat.

Cruising on a 29-foot boat (especially one designed as a racer-cruiser) can be challenging. Our euphemism was that she was “lively”. Our friends who did a two-year cruise in a heavy offshore boat needed at least 15-20 knots to really move, whereas our boat started to get hard to handle at 20+ knots.

On the other hand, we could outsail almost any cruising boat under 40 feet, and Arcas’ maneuverability did come in handy at times. Docking, anchoring, etc was much easier. When we bought Arcas, it was for cruising and racing in Lake Michigan – we didn’t intend to do an extended cruise on her. But that’s the boat we had. Next time we’ll go in a real offshore cruiser.

Hill: We should have had all-chain anchor rode instead of chain+line. The chain+line combo was a pain in the Exumas because of the current – it would wrap around the boat and we’d have to undo it. The boat also wagged more at anchor. We replaced it with all-chain once we returned to the U.S.

What piece of gear seems to break the most often?

Beth: Everyone seems to have an autopilot story. We had a Simrad and brought along a backup. Ours never broke, but it did have “issues”. We named it Sinbad and our running joke was that Sinbad had a drinking problem that affected his steering ability. If we didn’t’ treat him properly, he’d pay us back by hitting the sauce.

Hill: The alternator broke before we left and we bought another one. We brought the original one as a spare and ended up switching them back out while trying to diagnose an engine problem. This goes back to my earlier comment about having to be the on-board mechanic.

What piece(s) of gear would you leave on the dock next time? Why?

Hill: We brought the spinnaker and all it did was take up space in the v-berth. It would have required both of us to be on deck all of the time managing it and we couldn’t have used the autopilot with it. It wasn’t worth bringing.

What are your plans now? If they do not include cruising, tell us why.

Beth: We always planned to do a relatively short sabbatical and then return to “normal” life. Because we are on the younger side (30s) we wanted to come back to continue with our careers and start a family.

When we returned, we moved to a new city, and then a few months later we decided to start an online sailing magazine called North American Sailor. It was the perfect way to combine our career backgrounds with our passion for sailing.

We are already planning to take another long-term cruise after we have a family. But at least once a month we discuss taking off again. Now that we’ve done it once, it won’t take us long to get ready to do it again. The biggest obstacle is the boat…we won’t do another long cruise on Arcas.

In the meantime, we’ve been loaning ourselves out to Hill’s parents, who recently retired, and cruising/racing out of Annapolis.

What question do you wish I would have asked you besides the ones I’ve asked you and how would you answer it?

What do you miss the most about cruising?

Beth: Having a bathing suit and shorts being my outfit for the day. I also love sailing into a new harbor – especially if it’s a town that was originally built around a harbor. I love seeing it first from the water just as people did hundreds of years ago. Like Charleston – that’s a city that is so much more spectacular when approached from water, not land.

Hill: Just the lifestyle and being off the grid. Being able to have a lot of free time to read, swim, chill out, fool around with systems. I also miss the dinghy rides…motoring in with a bunch of empty bags and exploring a new town.