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.