Hafskip at 12 months

Ralph and Penny have been cruising for 12 months on Hafskip, a 43ft John Pugh Windsong hailing from Melbourne Australia.You can learn more about them, and see pictures of their vessel, on their site. Here is their self-interview:

Background and contact information
We have been water based for just on 12 months now...having given up land, full time employment and decent closet space for the challenges, excitement and joy of our vessel. In this short time we've been incredibly blessed with an amazing array of experiences that just can't be imagined if we'd chosen to set off with a backpack rather than a set of sails.

Ralph as Capt'n, has had a great deal of sailing experience and an incredibly handy background in motor mechanics and marine electronic systems (maybe one day he'll also learn to fish). I (Penny) on the other hand had never been on a yacht until the search for Hafskip commenced so has been on a rapid learning curve (unfortunately Human Resource Management consulting does not adequately prepare one for the cruising life).

Whilst we've been on board and bobbing around for just over a year, we didn't leave Australia until November 2010 as it took us a couple of months to get things moving as they should. You see Hafskip had been let lie on a mooring for nearly 18 months with only sporadic use, so we had a lot of work to do. She was also more of a coastal play thing rather than a blue water cruiser so there were changes to be made... some of which we are still chipping away at.

What general route did you take on your cruise:
Left Townsville Australia for PNG, skirted the PNG mainland, then headed east ,south of New Britain and then north via Rabaul, New Ireland via Kavieng to Chuuk (FSM). Island hopped westward to Yap then zipped down to Palau where we are currently anchored. We had planned to wait out the typhoon season in Palau before heading to the Philippines and then Indonesia, but now be heading back to PNG then on to the Solomon Islands to take up a volunteer assignment...gotta love being flexible.

What are some of your favourite pieces of gear on your boat and why?
Given we hand steered about 4,500 nautical miles after leaving Australia, we're unanimous in our joy at the acquisition of an autopilot! Every one of those miles spent doing 2 hour shifts, nursing callouses, sleep deprivation and back aches has made the purchase of an autopilot a cause for celebration.
Our Radar has also been pretty damn useful, not only has it meant we've been able to dodge canoes approaching an anchorage at night, but we've been able to monitor the speed and direction of squalls as they approach. You're only watching he rain associated with them of course but knowing how fast they're travelling greatly assists a decision to either heave to, divert or keep on moving.

Hafskip's Deck cover is also a favourite, as adequate protection from the elements has been a godsend. It's hard to imagine when day-sailing around your home turf that the sun, wind and rain can be so harsh, but when one is slowly boiling and burning in the middle of the Pacific without a lick of wind (often for days at a time) or alternatively being stabbed with pre-squall rain you realise weather protection is critical.

Probably our last piece of gear we wouldn't like to do without is our Pactor modem/HF Radio combo. With it we have been able to stay connected with friends, family and other sailors on passage and get weather information specific to our location. Whilst grib files are more affectionately known as 'fib' files they still give a good weather overview and they certainly help establish a weather pattern that is more often than not correct.

What piece(s) of gear would you leave on the dock next time? Why?
In terms of gear... we've tended to acquire stuff rather than jettison it, but you have to remember we were under-equipped in the first place. Contrary to even our own initial thoughts we have used pretty close to every piece of gear, every spare, every tool we brought along with us...and when we haven't used it we've found someone else who can.

The problem then arises as to how to store all this useful, vital stuff and that's where we've had to either prioritise or become creative with what and how we carry stuff. We have either given away, traded or vacuum packed clothes we don't wear. We have loaded videos and books on hard drives and kindle. We have almost used every nook and cranny below deck we can and despite this we are still picking up new and useful bits!

Is there a place you visited where you wish you could have stayed longer?
Our passage through the Federated States of Micronesia to Palau meant we were often in the company of some incredible people and remarkable beauty. We would happily have missed our visit to Chuuk State but as soon as we left it we were overawed by the kindness and generosity of the people we encountered in the neighbouring State of Yap. Unfortunately we were cruising through this region a little late in the season (we were there in April and Typhoon season starts in May) so we felt the need to press on a little and return to lower latitudes. I we could've we would've stayed longer at every stop we made!

Another amazing place was Gasmata in New Britain PNG.... Incredible people and stunning place...
There are a few blog entries on our website that cover these places and the rationale behind our decision to up anchor and leave when we did....so feel free to have a read if you're interested.

How often have you faced bad weather in your cruising? How bad?
We have travelled out of season a lot and mostly through the ITCZ (Doldrums) so aside from a couple of passages we have not had consistent trade winds. This means squalls are the norm for us, in fact we have been known to chase them just to get a little extra propulsion....but this doesn't answer the question.

Just to preface our response... the notion of 'bad weather' is directly related to one's ability to handle it. On our initial passages (bearing in mind I'd never sailed before) I (as the novice sailor) found bad weather to be any gust of wind over 25 knots, simply because I did not know how to handle it...now the same bluster simply requires vigilance and brings a smile to my face.

There is no doubt that sailing in the tropics will bring with it daily squalls. Wind gusts can easily reach 35 knots in a matter of moments and the accompanying rain can make your life pretty miserable for a while, but at least they do not usually last for long. Whilst a squall tends to hit you...a weather system is a little easier to avoid (sometimes) and we have been known to simply heave-to while waiting for a system to pass, divert or duck under it before it develops fully, but these are decisions and exercising the options available can control your experience of the weather.

Somehow I feel compelled to add here that in our experience so far, bad weather (in whatever manner you define it) is always a factor and it is rare that in a passage of 5 days or more to avoid it....How bad it has been however, depended on how well we have known our boat and how we managed the risks associated with it. These days, with the application of common sense 'bad weather' is simply a matter of sailing....some days more comfortable than others.

What mistakes did you make in your first year of cruising?
Thousands and still running a tab!

A couple of big ones though are related to our preparation for departure. Our shakedown in particular was not adequate for our purpose. A good shakedown requires days of open sea travel and a return to port to make the necessary repairs/alterations. We, on the other hand, simply did a couple of day sails and took off across the coral sea, which has meant all of the changes to Hafskip we've needed to make have been made in places that are poorly equipped and meant we have had to either be rather innovative in obtaining spare parts or have them shipped in (very inconvenient). We have also learned that a steel boat is an excellent choice for a first boat but it requires a very good paint job to cope with the demands of extended voyages...unfortunately because we took short cuts to get moving quickly it means we will have to haul out sooner rather than later...possibly even 12 months earlier than we'd intended.

Live and learn eh....This first year has been nothing short of an enormous learning curve but some of the things we've learned would have been moot in the early days as we had little concept of their importance. Sometimes you just have to go do it to know.

What is the most difficult aspect of the cruising lifestyle?
Dealing with mess, mould and maintenance can put a dampener on a good time but when you think about it it differs little from owning your own home (perhaps minus the mould).

People tend to assume cruising is one big holiday, but there's a lot of work to be done on a boat (any boat) and “another port, another part” has been our standard cry. Initially we found this a little disappointing but over time we learned everyone has repairs and maintenance to do...no matter how old, young or spiffy the boat was!

Dealing with personal challenges also rates here...one is continuously problem solving and there's always decisions to be made. Be it about an approaching weather system, an anchorage, the next port of call given prevailing winds, a part that can't be obtained or even where to put some newly acquired piece of equipment. There have been times when we'd have liked it to be easier and even had the odd throw-down, but we learned over time to simply 'get on with it' and take time to enjoy the good stuff when it arrives (of which there is plenty).

How do you learn about the rules and regulations of your next port of call before arriving or do you just arrive and find out?
This is a must do...research is vital...cruising guides, pilots, other cruisers and internet are all useful of course, but we have found blogs to be awesome when looking for the really useful goss. Blogs provide info about most technicalities for any port of call or passage you could imagine, and can provide an indication of costs/fees/bribes you are likely to incur or even the names of officials your likely to be paying them to. In short, to simply arrive would be a mammoth mistake.

It's not just the rules and regulations that require research either.... language and cultural distinctions, weather windows, seasonal variations, tide tables, alternate charts...and the list goes on. All of these mean that you're not only prepared for your arrival at a next port of call but you're prepared for most things you're likely to encounter after you check in.... even where to find your first, well deserved, land based beer.

It all sounds like an enormous chore but actually this is something we enjoy doing and keeps us amused during our passages. We often spend hours reading about secluded anchorages or simply learning more about the people and culture we're about to encounter.

What is a tip or a trick you have picked up along the way?
We sail to windward quite nicely but when we began to travel west along the equator we began to sail downwind, often in light winds. We have a whisker pole but it's use made for risky sailing in areas where squalls tend to make a sudden appearance. Our problem has since been rectified with a brilliant tip from a seasoned sailing couple on the yacht Asylum. Katie and Jim shared with us their 'pole thing' which involves the use of a good snatch block and pole positioning guys that enable the genoa to be reefed quickly without having to haul in the pole....absolutely awesome!

Aside from 'The Pole Thing' most of the tips and tricks we've learned have been behavioural. Probably the most useful relates to 'letting go'. Sometimes you have to relinquish control and simply wait for a more opportune moment to continue on. Unfortunately the sea doesn't always understand your schedule or your desire to make a repair in 3 metre swell, so there are times when doing nothing at all is the only choice you have.

In your own experience and your experience meeting cruising couples, can you convince a reluctant partner to go cruising and if so, how?
The decision to swap your land life for sea legs is not a small one and to be honest most of the other couples we met had made a joint decision. Whilst there may have been one partner with more experience than the other and perhaps a greater desire, the actual move onboard was one made as a couple so we haven't met anyone that required convincing.

As a result of different peoples experience and preferences we've noticed many different divisions of labour....ranging from partners that claim they sail single handedly with their significant other, to those that divide their new life straight down the middle. In our case I (Penny) didn't need convincing but I did need a little time to become useful. Luckily I had a good and patient teacher, although it should be said that the ability to remain patient in high risk situations is not everyone's forte and can be the cause of dispute. In our case we took a large gamble by departing with such limited experience, which in our case paid off but it's not necessarily something I'd recommend.

In short... in short I am sure it is possible to convince a partner to hit the waves but I would recommend that you don't. It needs to be a joint decision made consciously, with both participants in the journey happy and excited to be commencing it.

How would you recommend that someone prepares to cruise?
Unlike us I'd recommend a lot more time sailing in different weather conditions. I'd also recommend doing courses and cruising where possible on other boats, preferably before purchasing your own. If these activities are not possible or desirable, the next best thing would be to research til you drop. We read books, blogs, manuals, guides...in fact anything we could get our hands on and we scanned, burned and made notes on every topic we could imagine, from anchor winches to zodiac liferafts. We also spoke, emailed and posed questions in forums when our research came up short. All of these activities not only helped our preparation but have continued to assist us as we've cruised.

Mental preparation is perhaps a little harder. In our situation we found we simply had to learn flexibility and resilience as we went. Luckily we were reasonably well versed in such things otherwise we may well have thrown in the towel a lot earlier. As it stands now, we fully understand what a passage will bring... a lot of sunshine, a little sweat, maybe a few frustrated tears, a few nasty squalls, an inevitable malfunction of something and some tricky solving of aforementioned malfunction. That said, there will also be some days of 15-20 knots of constant wind filling the sails, crystal clear blue water, the odd dolphin playing at the bow, the occasional sporting tuna wrestled onboard, a few awesome full moon sailing nights, loads of amazing sunrises (often better than a sunset) and the most incredible feeling of achievement and satisfaction when you finally reach your next port of call.