Illusion at 9 months

Read this interview as originally published on Forest & Fin.
Brian and I have been living aboard our 37′ Chris Craft sailboat,Illusion, since March 2009. Although we had originally planned to sail from Charleston, SC, to the Caribbean in November of that year, we realized (much to our dismay) that our boat was not ready to make the trip. After six weeks in the boat yard, during which point Brian rebuilt the engine and we performed projects such as replacing the mast step and keel bolts, we set sail from Hilton Head Island, SC, in May 2010 and headed north to Annapolis, MD. We spent three months there, living on the hook, working, and waiting out hurricane season. In November 2010, we departed from Annapolis, cruised south down the eastern seaboard to Miami, FL, and then across to the Bahamas.
1. Why did you decide to cruise?
Lara – When Brian came back to Charleston after crewing for a family crossing the Indian Ocean, I knew he was hooked on the idea of living and traveling on a sailboat. I had my reservations at first, but I joined him for a delivery of a catamaran from Spain to Greece in the Mediterranean – my first time sleeping on a boat smaller than a cruise ship and sailing around the clock for days. I wouldn’t say that the trip won me over, but after that, I knew I could hang. It was his dream from the beginning, but I have adapted remarkably well and grown to love it.
Brian – I traveled out of a backpack for three years after college, and during part of that time, I cruised on other peoples’ boats for transportation and adventure.  I grew up sailing, but never liked racing.  I’m basically just into interesting and challenging ways to get from Point A to Point B.  If you wanted to bike across the country, kayak the ICW, or windsurf the Bahamas I would be just as into any of those — cruising just makes it all a little bit more comfortable and long term.
grovemoorings013My first cruising experience was aboard Karaka.  Tom Blancart, the captain, takes crew on as a shared expenses-type of arrangement.  He’s an amazing guy, kind of like a social, modern version of Motissier.  Anyone who is interested in cruising and wants to get the real experience I highly recommend a few months aboard Karaka.  Check him out at .
Some people like the sailing, some people like the islands, some people like the adventure, but I think we like the lifestyle the most.  Working hard, being closer to nature, living day-to-day – it’s a good life, even if it’s not always easy.
2. In your first year of cruising, what transitions did you find the most difficult?
Lara – Downsizing was a huge deal for me, especially finding homes for all of my paintings and art supplies. Moving from our rented house in Charleston to the boat was difficult in terms of volume and sorting out what to bring with us, but moving out of my art studio later that year really hit me hard.
Brian – What comes to mind is the transition between moving and stopping — it’s something we battle with all the time.  Once you stop somewhere for any length of time, getting moving again can be difficult.  For us, there was also the transition between “Project Boat” and “Boat” — deciding when it was ok to start moving or whether the boat was safe/equipped to do any sort of cruising or whether or not we were being overly cautious.  I think we ended up somewhere in the middle, we definitely started cruising on a work-in-progress, Illusion is farther along than a lot of projects but not as “complete” as a lot of other boats out there cruising.  For us, we just wanted to get moving. We were prepared to work on our projects along the way instead of trying to start with a “Bristol” yacht.
3. What did you do to make your dream a reality?
Lara – Save, save, save, and make lots of sacrifices. We made it this far by living on an extremely tight budget and by Brian’s ability to renovate the boat on a shoestring using his unprecedented talent with Craigslist and Google.
Brian – I was really pig headed and refused to give up.  There were a thousand times when this seemed like it was going to be impossible, like when my engine seized, I found out the mast step was totally destroyed, and figured out the keel/hull joint was leaking. But I took everything as a challenge, knowing that one day we’d be cruising and that it didn’t matter what the problem was – every problem has a solution.  If you don’t have enough money, earn more.  If your engine doesn’t work, fix it. If you want to do it, there’s nothing keeping you from cruising but yourself.
4. How much does cruising cost?
Lara – Many of the people we meet, fellow cruisers included, seem to be puzzled by our youth. Admittedly, I look younger than I am and I am young by most standards (27), but people are constantly asking us how we can afford it. Well, the truth is that we scrape by. We buy boat toys when we can, we fix things when we can afford to, and we spend most of our nights at anchor. If we were living on land, we would probably be paying rent or paying off a mortgage; instead, Brian bought a boat (much cheaper than buying a house!) and we put our money back into the boat. We think of the boat projects as our rent and, without all the additional costs of participating in land-based living, we live on the cheap.
Brian – The typical answer – how much you have.  For us, our budget is around $1000 per month. Sometimes we come in under that and sometimes over. I spend a lot on boat goodies and my projects often break the budget, but if you anchor out, cook most of your own meals, and don’t waste money, it’s a pretty cheap lifestyle.
5. What mistakes did you make in your first year of cruising?
Lara – I think the biggest mistake I made (which couldn’t really be helped at the time) was letting most of the preparations in the beginning fall to Brian. The boat wasn’t ready when when we needed it to be, and I had little-to-no experience with which to help him. Although he had a great deal of sailing experience under his belt, Brian had never owned or captained a boat before Illusion, and she wasn’t in the physical shape that we had initially thought. We ended up spending a small fortune in the boatyard in South Carolina and missing our planned departure.
Brian – Underestimating how rough an offshore passage can be on the Atlantic Coast.  I’d gone a lot of ocean miles on trade winds routes and done coastal passages during periods of long settled weather, but winter weather systems build up swell for days, and even though the wind may drop to a reasonable level, the swell will still be pretty big.  We lost a dingy towing it offshore expecting settled weather but instead had a pretty rough downwind passage that shook up everything and the eye bolt tore off the dingy around 2 am while we were surfing around 10 – 11 knots.
6. What do you enjoy about cruising that you didn’t expect to enjoy?
Lara – Living according to the weather. Brian and I call it luxury camping, because unless it is cold or raining, we always have the hatches and windows open. I’ve learned to embrace the fact that when it rains, you get wet – everything gets wet. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I enjoy my foul-weather gear as I never expected to?
Brian – Engines and fiberglass work:  we had some diesel engine issues, and I was lucky enough to have a mechanically minded friend that worked with me during the rebuild. I enjoyed learning about it.  I also found working with fiberglass to be pretty intuitive and relatively simple as far as a construction material goes.
I also enjoyed cruising the ICW more than I would have expected. It was a lot of motoring, but we anchored out more-or-less every night and often in the middle-of-nowhere USA. We are in the Bahamas now, and you can’t beat the fishing and clear water, but I liked the ICW too, and wish I would have been able to spend more time at some of the random anchorages in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
Another random one would be sailing with a tiller – a link of our steering chain broke in the Bahamas so we rigged up the “emergency” tiller. I found that I like sailing with it better than the wheel.  We balance better and the feedback from the boat is much more immediate.  After a few days sailing with a tiller, we’re thinking about making a permanent one.
7. What do you dislike about cruising that surprised you?
Lara – I was pretty spot-on beforehand about the things that I thought would bother me, but I’ve been surprised by how little they actually do get under my skin. Sure, the boat is small, it’s old, so things are still always breaking, and I hate unpacking an entire locker to get to that one thing I need, but really what gets to me more than anything else is that I don’t have the space to work on substantial art projects, and I can’t screen-print on the boat. Still trying to figure out the happy medium between cruising and making art.
Brian – Not much actually. I’d done some cruising on other boats before, so I had some idea of what this was going to be like.  I guess what I dislike most (that were unexpected to me) is how difficult it was for us to find homes for things. We don’t have much accessible storage, so we still have things without “homes” and that makes our boat feel cluttered.
8. Is there something you wish you had bought or installed before starting cruising?
Lara – There have been a number of items that we installed after we started cruising, which we wondered why we hadn’t installed sooner: the saltwater wash-down system, the new faucet, a new head, and the long-range wireless antennae/wireless device, for example. Most of the items have to do with the level of comfort on the boat.
Brian – AIS. We still don’t have it but knowing exactly what (big commercial) ships are out there would have made for less-stressful night passages, especially in the Chesapeake Bay. It is less important in areas like the Bahamas or the islands but great for sailing along the coast of the US.  Our radar has really helped, and that was a late addition.
We did put in a saltwater wash-down pump last year that made anchoring in mud much less of a problem.  I wasn’t sure it was going to be of much use in sand, but low-and-behold having a saltwater dish-blaster has helped us conserve water.  I really wish I had bought a backup stereo though – ours died recently and cruising without music just isn’t the same!
9. What do you find the most exciting about your cruising life?
Lara – The unexpected situations that we find ourselves in just trying to accomplish daily tasks; whether it is a trip to the grocery store or a search for a replacement part, we make new friends everywhere. Remote anchorages are also quite exciting. It’s such a novelty to look at the stars without the interference of light pollution, and I love spotting animals along the way. From dolphins, to sea turtles, rays, birds, and even a black bear, there is always something new to see if you are looking. It is refreshing to find our lives so entwined with the environment.
Brian – Generally we’re not in it for excitement. :)   We are looking for relaxation and a more natural pace of life — but catching a fish trawling is always exciting. When the reel starts spinning, there is a rush to get to the rod and land the fish, usually followed by lots of excited shouts for “gaff! get me the gaff!!!” or “where are the pliers? I need the pliers!!” and quite possibly “where are my gloves?? This thing wants to eat my fingers!” Lara get’s to hear all of this while trying to keep us on course and out of trouble.  I’d say those are some of the most exciting moments.
The things I get most excited for are the usual, a drink at sundown, good weather, good friends, exploring islands and those rare occasions when everything just goes right.
10. What are your plans now? If they do not include cruising, tell us why.
Lara – We will sail Illusion around the Bahamas for a few more months before most likely circling back up to the states. I need to get back to my art practice, and it’s time for both of us to fill our bank accounts again. I imagine we will continue to live aboard, but our plans for Illusion are unclear. As young as we are, I don’t see this as an ending, but rather a beginning, and I’m sure this will not be our last sailing adventure.
Brian – Our plans are always, at best, indefinite. We always have a few options that we’re juggling, looking for the best option.  Our long term plans definitely involve cruising. We are comfortable on the water, have built up our knowledge base to the point that we are no longer beginners — though we still have infinite amounts to learn — and don’t see any point in “stopping” now.  That being said, we’re thinking about a larger boat, which means money and continuing our respective “careers.”  Lara’s art has been well received everywhere we go, so she needs a place to create that’s bigger than our boat! We’re leaning towards enjoying the Bahamas for another month or so before heading to the Chesapeake Bay for hurricane season. We hope to start hunting for a larger boat, earning money, and setting ourselves up for the long term.

China Doll at 3 months

bahamas2011 042 Nicole is 24, graduated from St. Joe's and has her masters in special education from The University of Pittsburgh. She has spent her summers on LBI, NJ waiting tables and managing the sailing program at Haven Beach Yacht Club.  She has also spent time backpacking through Western Europe and volunteering in Brazil.  I (Joe) graduated from the University of Vermont and have since spent my winters in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Lake Tahoe, California, and South America traveling every spring and fall to surf in Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Central America, South America, and up and down the eastern seaboard of the U.S.

We bought China Doll, our 1973 Sabre 28, as a mutual effort to try something new and keep the traveling going.  Our boat was well maintained by the previous owners and has an 18 hp Yanmar.  While we had to upgrade a few essential systems, our boat was able to be sailed away from the dock without much trouble.  Actually we made it as far as Norfolk before we started upgrading the essential systems.  We bulked up our ground tackle, fishing equipment, water capacity, GPS, and electrical system.  All done while underway or on the hook somewhere between Norfolk and Rock Sound, Eleuthera.

The photos are of our boat, underway coming into Port Everglades inlet in Fort Lauderdale, FL, my friend and I enjoying a sundowner in Spanish Wells on the dock, and of Nicole and I with the world's largest coconut.

What mistakes did you make in your first year of cruising?
That the bad situations happen to everyone.  On our way down the ICW we constantly heard other (potentially much more experienced) boaters' stories about making mistakes and having things go awry on their journey.  Some of these seemed very obvious to us.  After a while it started to sink in that while we were relatively (I say relatively with great hesitancy) inexperienced boaters that my experience with surfing, freediving, and years of traveling, seeing, and learning different oceans had given us a great leg up on everybody else.  Second, Nicole's sailing ability of small boats really helped us with getting places quickly and keep the boat safe in appropriate conditions.  We got a strong confirmation of our united belief that we were on the right track in Harbor Island, Bahamas.  We met a crew of a mega-yacht that was pretty young.  The captain was only 36 and most of his crew was our age.  He told us a cool/funny story about how he once came out of Nassau harbor, almost hit two boats, a set of rocks, and ran the boat aground only to realize later that the computer system had malfunctioned and needed to be reset.  The boat was 176 TONS.  He remained cool and prepped for the conditions presented at each stage of the near catastrophe calmly and efficiently.  After he told us the story he simply said, " happens to everybody.  Even the people that look extremely professional frequently have issues with their boats and the conditions."  If he could say that, I'm no longer worried about stuff falling off the shelves when we make passages.

What (if anything) do you wish someone had told you before you leaving the dock?
That we're not as inexperienced as we think.  We learned the hard way.  We were coming into a small marina right after Thanksgiving and even with a 30 mph cross-wind and made a very successful docking with minimal effort.  Mind you, this was only about the 5th marina we'd stayed at so docking was still extremely new to us.  Once ashore the marina owner asked us to kindly move since he had a bigger boat coming in and needed to give them preference.  This ticked me off, but he said it'd be a piece of cake and to just keep the nose into the wind when pulling into the slip on the OTHER side of the dock.  The problem wasn't pulling in, it was getting off.  We wound up getting slammed back into the dock by a 60 mph gust and lost our dinghy engine in the process.  The gust of wind was so violent that it ripped out dinghy engine right off our radar tower.  To paint a picture, the engine mounts were still attached to the radar tower after the ordeal as they'd been cracked in half.  If I had had more confidence in our abilities and our experience level I would have told that marina owner that we were only moving if he had 2 guys on the dock and a tow boat to get us off of there.  Live and learn.

iphone 029Tell me your favorite thing about your boat?
It's simplicity.  Everything on the boat is easy to fix and since our boat frequently needs some sort of repair, things are just easier.  Recently while coming into Nassau, strong following seas had pushed water up our exhaust and into the engine.  It didn't get into the cylinders, but sure did get into the oil.  Our engine wouldn't stay fired on the approach in and we had to navigate the entrance to the harbor under sail.  Once on the hook, I quickly figured out what was wrong (the signs were fairly obvious, super thick, grey oil and white smoke the time the engine did fire), but didn't know quite how to fix it.  On top of that, our Balmar Digital Duo Charge wasn't working so our starting battery wasn't being charged while the engine was running.

Needless to say, I was despairing a bit.  However, after a short conversation with Marine Diesel Unlimited in Nassau, the engine was looking remarkably simple to get running again.  A few days later in Spanish Wells a mega-yacht pulled up right next to us.  Their captain was having trouble with the shore power and after 15 minutes of him telling all the problems he had with the yacht's electrical systems and wiring, I felt much better, and had a simple fix to make sure our start battery was being charged.  Since our systems are so simple, I can fix almost anything with a solid day of work on the problem or less.  This leaves more time to engine the surrounding environs and sunset drinks in the cockpit.

Tell me your least favorite thing about your boat?
That we don't have an oven.  When we first bought the boat the Kenyon Alcohol stove wouldn't work after a few cleanings and it also came with a one burner butane stove.  Once we realized this wasn't sustainable, we invested in a 15lb. propane tank, a 2 burner coleman stove, and the fittings to have that connected to the tank as well as our grill.  Now we can cook a decent meal, but Nicole loves to bake.  And is darn good at it too.  She only gets to bake when we're plugged into shore power and can use the toaster oven, which is good and bad.  Bad because she misses her hobby and good because I love eating what she bakes and now I won't come home 10 lbs. heavier than when I left!

Can you think of a sailing tip (e.g., sail trim, sail combination) specific to offshore passages (e.g., related to swells)?
Always keep in mind the direction of the swell vs. the direction of the wind.  On our passage from Chub Cay to Nassau we thought we'd have a sleigh ride.  A front had just passed through and the wind was supposed to be giving us a steady beam to broad reach the entire day.  However, I'd forgotten to check the direction of the swell from the ocean vs. the swell generated by the wind.  This proved problematic.  As we pulled out of the harbor it was fine, but as soon as we got into open water, things rapidly deteriorated.  The wind and wind swell was in the perfect direction and we were making great time, however the ocean swell generated by those big cold fronts that dump snow on New England and track a cross the north Atlantic was pushing 6-8 seas from the NE, smack on our beam.  We'd get pushed from behind by the wind swell and then spun up into the wind every time an ocean swell would meet the wind swell.  The tiller was difficult to handle for me let alone Nicole and she was seasick for the entire 6 hr crossing.  Miserable at best.  Had we known the swells would be in different directions, we would've never left the harbor.

Do friends visit and how often? Do you have advice for having visitors?
bahamas2011 032 We actually just had our first guests aboard.  I prepped them adamantly and specifically that our boat is small and that with the two of them and their hiking packs (they were flying to us straight from a Central/South America adventure), we'd be pretty cozy for their time with us.  However, having prepped them and making the boat sound like it was no bigger than a floating coffin, they were pleasantly surprised to find out we could all sit comfortably in the cockpit or below without being too cramped and that they'd have their own bed.  We also had to warn them that they'd be doing without, but having known Christian and Kristen for over a decade now, I knew that this wouldn't be a problem.  She didn't need to be told that showers and a hairdryer were out for the duration and Christian was happy to use our diving sessions as his showers.  One other point on prepping guests is to warn them that they will need to be flexible with arrivals and departures.  We picked up Christian and Kristen in Nassau, made the Exumas a couple days later and had planned on crossing the Exuma Sound to get to Rock Sound on southern Eleuthura.  The day we tried to leave the sound was super rough and opted to sail northward on the back to Spanish Wells.  It went from an eight hour day of slogging into the surf to sailing a broad reach and skimming over the water with near perfect sailing conditions.  They both switched their flights to out of North Eleuthura and we all had a much more pleasant experience since we didn't have to cross any gnarly bodies of water and basically slowed the pace down to just relax.

When have you felt most in danger and what was the source?
We always feel most in danger when facing tough conditions with a deadline.  The worst part is that almost every time we had serious difficulties it was within our control to stay out of those conditions!  Terrible to say, but sadly true.  On our trip down we started by always trying to make deadlines and rush the cruising pace.  Part of it was due to the weather being unseasonably cold and wanting to get south to the warmth and sunshine, another part of it was our lack of experience.  Now we're much better about letting the wind and conditions dictate our path and pace.  Being a small, albeit heavy, fin-keeler, our boat is limited in the sense that we HAVE to wait for a weather window for almost any open ocean crossing.  Whether that be the overnight we did from South Carolina to Fernandina Beach, FL, crossing the Gulf Stream, or the 30 mile island jumps in the Bahamas.  Since hitting the islands, we let the wind and weather completely dictate our course, which has alleviated a ton of our stress and made the pace much more relaxed.  Sometimes we start a trip and turn back, sometimes we never leave harbor and sometimes shortly into a trip we head to a backup destination that is more favorable and comfortable for the conditions.

How did you (or did you) gain offshore experience prior to leaving?
We didn't.  We put a deposit on the boat on Oct. 26th, scheduled a survey and handed the owner the balance in cash on Nov. 2nd and left the dock Nov. 8th.  Nicole knew how to sail boats from her job.  I knew weather and the ocean well from 20 years of surfing and a decade as an ocean lifeguard.    I had also taking an offshore sailing course through Outward Bound.  That included the basics in navigation, water reading skills, provisioning, and living very simply, not to mention I'd been spending every winter since college in the mountains of the West working, snowboarding, and doing overnight trips into the backcountry.  While there's not much snow on the boat, having to rely on myself and my friends to get into and out of hazardous places was commonplace.  This gave us a good foundation for getting off the dock and we started small.  We taught ourselves the offshore skills needed on the southbound trip along the ICW.  We started small with just anchoring properly, setting the sails, reefing the sails, learning the engine, improving our navigation skills, etc.  When we'd feel comfortable then we'd try the next thing.  Also, some of my skills from surfing make me stronger in areas such as weather, swell, and water-reading than my experience on the boat shows.  Recently, people were scoffing at us navigating the Devil's Backbone between Spanish Wells and Harbor Island without a pilot.  Nicole and I talked about it, studied the charts and did the passage without incident.  In fact, it was one of the most gorgeous days we've had on the boat yet.  If we hadn't covered 1000 miles on the way down and worked up to that moment step by step, the day might not have been so enjoyable.

What are your impressions of the cruising community?
The cruising community is great.  Not only in being the friendliest and most helpful bunch of people I've ever dealt with, but they're almost the most knowledgeable.  Often I have trouble getting info from employees at West Marine or the like, but almost any cruiser can give you a solution to a problem on your boat.  Chances are they've dealt with something similar or even that exact problem on their own boat at one time or another and they've fixed while not having ideal conditions.  Anyone can troubleshoot a problem when their boat's on the hard, they have unlimited time and resources, and good research from the internet and books.  Having to fix something correctly the first time on a budget and out at sea or in foreign country is much different.  Now whenever I need advice, I go walk around the marina docks and just start asking questions.

What did you do to make your dream a reality?
sailing2 068This was less tough than you'd imagine, but partly because of where Nicole and I are in the phases of our lives.  We're both recent college grads with no debt and no real obligations.  She spends her summers working days as a dinghy sailing instructor, I spend my days managing a surf shop and doing lessons with that, and at night we both wait tables a local, family owner restaurant.  Adventure-wise we have our boss, Steve Dieptro to thank for getting us off the dock.  He owns four restaurants where we live and 10 years ago decided he wanted to get into sailing.  He chased a stolen Beneteau charter boat around the Caribbean and when he got it the insurance company gave him a great deal.  He never looked back and now every winter when the restaurants are closed he spends his down time cruising the Virgin Islands with his wife and two kids when they can get out of school.  Constantly, he was pushing us to do it.  Handing us articles about other budget cruisers, pulling me out of prep-work to go down to the local boat yard and bang on old boats and learn about sailboat construction, and even meeting us for our passage up the Delaware Bay within 24 hours of getting back from a charter trip with his family in Greece.  Needless to say, Steve is a major, positive, gung-ho force in our trip. 

Then there's the work side of things.  Nicole and I busted our butts and made getting the money for the trip a top priority.  Our summers are 60 hrs a week from May 1st to July 4th and the month of October.  However, from July 4th till the end of the September we're frequently pulling close to 100 hours of work a week.  Six nights a week at the restaurant X 7 hrs/shift = 42 hrs.  Plus our full time jobs during the day comes to 80 hrs a week minimum.  Add in the extra things we have to do for our day jobs and the occasional late night at the restaurant and the hours are long.  The balance is that we get serious time off in the winter and don't have to spend it in snowy, cold New Jersey.  Most importantly though in making the dream a reality is actually leaving.  You're never going to have a perfect boat, enough time, or just the right budget, but if you can make it work and just get off the dock, the dream quickly becomes an awesome reality.