Nothing can be more daunting than arriving to an unfamiliar country, particularly where language and customs are very different to our own. That said, a bit of homework before landfall can help to ease the stress and enhance the excitement.
I basically divide the informational issues into two main categories; navigational stuff and land-based stuff. Navigational stuff relates to all the boating issues such as clearance ports and formalities procedures, anchorages/marinas, charts, tides and currents, local weather information, fuel and spare parts. Land based issues cover things like language, customs, things to see and do, and necessities like banking, provisioning, Internet and communications.
For navigational issues, we would start the planning process with Jimmy Cornell’s “World Cruising Routes.” I have found this publication invaluable for planning my overall circumnavigation routing, as well as sorting out the legs for each cruising season.
On a more macro scale, we refer to local cruising guides. For every popular cruising ground, there are at least two, if not a handful of good guides available to the cruiser. In addition to the information mentioned above, there are often other bits and pieces of information such as history, local customs, places to eat, things to see and do, walking trails, dive sites, tips on fishing as well as where to get a weather forecast or a cold beer. For Mexico we like John Raines books, for Fiji Michael Calder’s is excellent, the Royal Akarana Yacht Club’s Coastal Cruising Handbook is best for New Zealand and for Australia Alan Lucas’ books and “100 Magic Miles” covering the Whitsunday Islands, all served us well, just to mention a few. For advice on the best for each area, you can usually rely on the nautical chart/bookstore, otherwise ask any yachties who have cruised the area and made it back alive. As a last resort, I would choose any guide written by a delivery skipper or cartographer as opposed to some yachtie’s notes and “mud maps.”
Every good cruising guide will have the disclaimer “not to be used for navigation.” While we do tend to put this information into the navigation equation, one must remember to use these as a supplement to the published charts, good seamanship and one’s own eyes, ears and intuition. My cruising guides, which usually get offloaded to friends who are cruising a season or so behind me, are full of corrections, notes and revisions. After one uses a cruising guide for awhile one can adjust the degree of trust to the degree of accuracy one has experienced.
Once you’ve made it safely to your landfall, are snug in an anchorage or marina, and have dealt with the officialdom, its time to experience a new country. For advice in this area, we rely on word of mouth from friends and yachties who’ve been there and done that, and on the tourist guides. For our tastes in travel, we prefer the “Lonely Planet” guides and nowadays, I won’t buy anything else. “Lonely Planet” guides seem to cover virtually everything else that the cruising guides miss, and if one is going to be in a country for awhile, they even have separate dive guides for most dive destinations, as well as phrase books for non-English-speaking countries. I usually buy up all the books for the next cruising season’s destinations when I fly home, so I have plenty of reading on the plane as well as on passage to where we’re going.
While all the guide books are good, there is no substitute for first-hand experience. A conversation with a yachtie who’s been to where we’re headed, or an ex-pat who lives or has lived there, can provide a wealth of information not found in any book. The questions I most often ask are about security, if they are aware of any problems, if the place is “as charted” or off the charts, about provisioning (what is available and what we need to bring from our departure port) and what are the top five “don’t miss” things to see and do. If you can talk to more than one person, and the stories all agree, then you can rely more heavily on the information. If you get conflicting information, consider the source and error on the side of caution.
Most of the time, the information we have gotten has been pretty good, but every now and then we get burned. The most recent example of this was when we tried to enter the Daintree River on the coast of Queensland, Australia. We went into the Coast Guard office in nearby Port Douglas and spoke to a coastie who told us there was “heaps of water” on the bar, at least 3 meters at low tide. NOT! We were bouncing off the bottom in less than 2 meters at mid tide. The damage was limited to a removal of our anti-fouling off the bottom of the keel. The moral of the story is always be able to gybe away and to have a “plan B” if the information turns out to be bogus.