Five Common Cruising Mistakes

The biggest problem for many of us when we start out cruising is that we are “unconsciously incompetent.” That is, we don’t know what we don’t know. We then must learn by making mistakes, watching other’s mistakes or through reading about other’s mistakes. This can end up costing a lot of money. . .or worse.

Buying the wrong yacht

The first, and usually biggest mistake people make, is buying the wrong yacht for the type of cruising they want to do. Many people step onto a yacht at a boat show or on the broker’s docks, pop down the companionway and fall in love with the interior of their cruising home while it is sitting placidly in flat water. Dreams of distant ports of call and the romance of sailing in tropical, south sea waters overtake all common sense and all one wants to do is sign on the dotted line and sail away. Issues like sea berths, ventilation, galley layout, systems accessibility, storage, sail handling systems, safety and sea kindliness are as far from their minds as a South Pacific atoll.

Many production yachts available today are, at best a very average compromise between racing and cruising. Once one buys the yacht and moves board, they soon discover that they just don’t have the storage space, if not proper layout for long term living and passaging. I can’t tell you how many people I have known who have purchased a yacht, then spent years of their time and loads of boat bucks (1 boat buck=$1,000) trying to make the boat work better for them. In the end, they may have spent more than if they had purchase the right boat in the first place.

I think the most practical solution is to do your homework before you even look at a yacht. I suggest one read as many books as possible on cruising and yacht design and then talk to as many cruisers as possible about what they like and dislike about their yachts. Armed with this information you should have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t, and then be able to choose the sort of cruising yacht that best suits your budget and requirements.

I spent nearly a year in research before I purchased Moonshadow. I found both Jimmy Cornell’s World Cruising Survey and Steve and Linda Dashew’s Offshore Cruising Encyclopedia immensely helpful. I also found numerous excellent articles in Cruising World, Sail, Ocean Navigator, Practical Sailor and Latitude 38 magazines.

From this, I developed a “must have” list of criteria for any yacht I would consider. In my particular case, they were:

Safety-minimum Category I offshore standard with watertight crash bulkheads fore and aft.
Minimum of 50’ for comfortable offshore passaging and long-term live aboard and gear storage.
Speed-must be capable of averaging 200 miles per day on passage-at least 50’ of waterline.
Short handed capability-must be able to single/double hand as well as mostly maintain myself. And NO TEAK DECKS!

For budgetary reasons, I went to the second-hand market to see what was available that met my criteria. At the time, there were three Deerfooti, and one Amel available. I chose the Deerfoot and, after nearly ten years and 55,000+ nautical miles of sailing, still think I made the right decision for my own requirements.

Some people can’t decide weather to go sail or power.

Not being thoroughly familiar with your yacht before going cruising

I was as guilty as anyone of this one. I purchased Moonshadow in Ft. Lauderdale in July of 1994 and immediately put her into a yard there to do some refitting. She needed a new engine, as well as maintenance and repair to many of her systems, as she had been lying unused for nearly two years. By the time I finished all the work that I needed to do, I had only had the chance to do five relatively easy day sails before departing Florida to sail to San Francisco. Wow, what a learning curve! Shortly after departing Dry Tortugas for Isla Mujeres, Mexico, we encountered a gale in the Gulf Stream. This was not the place to learn about reefing and heavy weather sailing on an unfamiliar yacht.

I have seen this many times with new cruisers. They are so busy getting the yacht prepared to go cruising, that they have not had time to go out and do any sailing. Some literally finish the last project the day that they leave. When they start cruising, they might encounter a less than favorable experience due to lack of knowledge of the yacht’s handling characteristics, not to mention gear failures due to lack of any proper shakedown.

I would suggest some local cruising before heading out on the “big cruise.” Sail the yacht in as many conditions as possible so you can become familiar with reefing, heaving to, sail handling in adverse conditions, night sailing, docking, anchoring, life under way, etc. Spend enough time on the hook to become familiar with all the systems you will need when you are not plugged in to a marina, i.e. battery charging, refrigeration, water maker, windlass, dinghy and outboard, etc. You will also need to be familiar with all your electronics and communication gear before you head offshore. Reading the manual while attempting to program the weather fax when you are bashing into a gale just doesn’t cut it.

Making changes to the yacht without cruising experience

Making changes to your yacht before cruising it would be like altering your clothes without having ever put them on. Get out, sail the yacht, live on board for at least a few months to a year, and then start to formulate a list of what works and what needs improvement.

My good friend Jeff Erdmann, owner of Bollman Yachts in Ft. Lauderdale and the person who sold Moonshadow to me, gave me this bit of advice. He suggested that I make only the repairs necessary to sail her to San Francisco. Once I had gotten there, I would be in a much better position to figure out what I would alter or improve. I can tell you that after three months and nearly 6000 ocean miles, my mindset changed dramatically from when I was in Ft. Lauderdale. He saved me lots of money, because a lot of things that didn’t quite seem right in the marina made a whole lot more sense when I put to sea and did some cruising. I also discovered a few things that I had not even considered until I spent some time at sea and on the hook.

Not taking the time to learn basic maintenance

If you don’t maintain a yacht, it will wear out faster or break, usually when you least expect it, and probably when you are at the furthest point from where you can get it fixed. I think Murphy loves messing about on yachts! I like to joke that cruising is just “extensive repair and maintenance in beautiful and exotic places.” That said, if you spend just a few hours a week on maintenance, you are less likely to have to spend days or weeks stuck in some third-world hellhole while you await parts or make major repairs.

I have always been pretty handy, and owned another yacht for 13 years before I purchased Moonshadow, so I was pretty familiar with the drill. On the other hand, a full fledged cruising yacht has many systems on board that aren’t found on a day/weekend sailor.

It is important to become familiar with all the systems on your yacht. If you don’t know how they work or how to maintain them, get an expert in to do the work and at the same time show you how. You can also get lots of good information about systems from books like Nigel Calder’s Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual.

I also suggest you keep all the manuals for all your on board equipment handy. Mine are organized in three binders that I keep handy at the nav station. It’s also important to have a scheduled maintenance checklist for your yacht’s systems. I use the Cap’n Administration program to keep track of everything.

Proper maintenance and a bit of D.I.Y. (do it yourself) repair capabilities, along with a reasonable inventory of spares can mean the difference between pleasurable cruising and costly, inconvenient and possibly dangerous breakdowns.

Waiting till the last minute to organize one’s affairs before going cruising

Many people seem to wait till the very last minute to get their personal and/or business affairs in order before sailing off in to the sunset. I’ve seen people trying to rent or sell their home, flog off the car and sort out other affairs with just a week to go before they depart. This invariably adds to the stress level already imposed by a significant lifestyle change, and can also lead to errors in judgment in the handling of one’s affairs if not the yacht.

If you have your affairs sorted out a few months before your planned departure date, your mind will be free to focus on getting yourself and your yacht ready for the upcoming cruise, as well as to enjoy some quality time with friends and loved ones who will remain behind.

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