Learning to Cruise on the Cheap

A friend of mine from high school who now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, send me the following in an email:

>By the way, I’m reading Float your Boat! The Evolution and Science of Sailing, by Mark Denny, which might interest you. He is a physicist. He wrote it for the people in the middle who want to know more than the weekend sailor (which included Einstein!), but not as mich as the practicing marine engineer. Most of the heavy formulas and fine details are in the appendix. It’s fascinating, and well written. I like the historical perspective. This “virtual sailing” is safer than the real thing…. :) The book is very … salty! :)

My answer may be of general interest. So I will copy it here:

Thanks. I will add it to my list of books to watch for.

As far as, “Learning to sail” or more accurately in this case, “Learning to cruise, or voyage, long distances on a sailboat.” No one is born knowing it. Almost anyone, can learn it if they try. But it is a large amount of knowledge, that I would estimate is similar to a four-year college course. Important things that one needs to know.

I don’t remember you being involved in scuba diving in high school, but Mr. Geyer, if that is how his name was spelled, used scuba diving as a framework to teach, chemistry, physics, all sorts of stuff. Because scuba diving involves all sorts of technology and science. Well, sailing long distances does to. It even gets into medicine, and various health sciences. “Where There is No Doctor” and “Where There is No Dentist” are two excellent books that are available online. They show you that there are a lot of serious problems that you can probably fix yourself. Which is good to know when you are in the middle of the ocean, and whether it is a toothache, or that the engine will not start, unless YOU can fix it, it’s it is just going to stay broken.

There’s a lot of metallurgy involved, and other materials sciences. There is not an atom on a sailboat that is not a compromise. Whatever it is, could’ve been chosen to be more economical, more durable, stronger, lighter weight, smaller, more corrosion resistant, and so on.

Obviously, there’s a lot of naval architecture involved. Each hull design has advantages and disadvantages, likewise how many masts you have and what kind of sail arrangement, even the material that the sails are made of. There are virtually an infinite number of possible combinations. Most of them can be discarded as being stupid by pretty much everyone’s opinion, and experience. But that still leaves an extremely large number of very reasonable choices, with pros and cons.

People frequently ask what the fascination is. I’ve given it a lot of thought. And I’ve also tried to explain it to a lot of people. And I’ve given up. Obviously, it involves being outdoors. Seeing nature that very few other people ever see. Being self-sufficient. And stuff that I can explain. However, for me at least, and I’m pretty sure for most of us that do it for more than a few months or a year, that there is some sort of unexplainable infection. Some unexplainable satisfaction.

If you are already infected, I don’t need to explain it. If you are not already infected, I probably cannot explain it.

When we were in Baltimore, one of the boats that came in in the fall one year, was a man who was in the Bahamas, and had his adult son, come and crew for him for the trip from the Bahamas to Bermuda and then Baltimore. As luck would have it the trip from the Bahamas to Bermuda was in really nasty conditions. There were just the two of them on board, and after a day or so, as they were changing places. The one on watch going to bed. The one that had been asleep getting up to watch. The son said, “Dad, I really don’t see what you like about this sailing stuff.”

The father said something like, “This is extremely crappy weather. Nobody likes this part of it. You just have to put up with this part of it in order to get to the good parts. Hopefully before we get to Baltimore, you will get to see some of the good parts. But it is late in the year. So, who knows.”

Different people like different things. Janet used to say that the difference between an ordeal and an adventure is only attitude. But, there are certainly parts of cruising that Janet and I never have liked. It is just that there are huge parts that really twang our bell.

I’ve probably mentioned this in the past. As we were leaving on our first long trip to the South Pacific, we had just a couple of days left before we really needed to leave. And we were already about a month late leaving that season. And we knew it. But there were just too many things to do.

A guy about 60 years old, stopped by the boat and said that he had heard that we were sailing to the South Pacific. He had always wanted to do that, and wondered what kind of boat he should buy and what suggestions I had. He said he knew that we were ultra busy but he would appreciate any help.

I asked him some questions and it sounded like he was starting out from zero, so I said don’t buy any boat. Cultivate friends that already have one. At our marina in Everett, there was a Thursday night, informal race every week about nine months of the year. I suggested that he come down and just wander around after work, when people are getting ready to go out for the race. Be friendly and chatty, and ask intelligent questions, and before long you will get invited to go out sailing with somebody who wanted to have another person on board. But the person they wanted could not show up that night.

Keep doing that, and collecting a larger and larger circle of friends that have boats. That way, without any expense, other than perhaps bringing a contribution of snacks, etc., you will learn a whole lot about whether you really like it or not. You will learn a whole lot about the advantages and disadvantages of the countless boat designs, etc. And, if you keep with it, you will probably get to go on some more serious trips as a friend.

He thanked me and went away and we left and sailed away to the South Pacific. Two years later, 1979, we came back. And we had just been back a week or so, when he heard about it through the Grapevine and stopped by. He thanked me very much for my assistance, and said that it worked out extremely well. In fact, recently he had sailed from Hawaii to Seattle, helping bring a boat back that had raced in the Victoria to Maui race.

It was only then that he told me that he had been teaching celestial navigation for many years. That is a complicated and usually intimidating form of navigation. It has been replaced by GPS, which no matter what people tell you, is several million times better. But back in those days that’s all there was. Celestial’ was not all bad because, there are whole lot of idiots out there now that don’t know what they’re doing, that stayed home when celestial was the only way to stay alive. But now with GPS, they incorrectly think, “How hard can it be? I have a boat. It has a GPS. All I need is some food and booze and I can take off.”

In the United Kingdom, they have a whole series of licensing for sailors. Google around and it should not be hard to find. A couple of the ratings are competent crew, or yacht master. I have in my hand a DVD that promises to have a video on it to teach me how to sail as competent crew. I bet your library can get some for you through Inter-Library Loan. I plan to watch it someday, because even though I’ve been doing this most of my life. There are always new things that I learn. And, having been away from it for about four years, I’m surely rusty. Even though, much of it is like riding a bicycle. You never forget all of it.

I remember how difficult it was to learn knot tying in Boy Scouts. I think my scoutmaster decided that I was retarded. He gave me special training in his home several nights. And then, one time, it all sort of clicked! Suddenly I could see the knots in my mind. I think that being able to understand what a correct knot looks like once it is tied, is extremely valuable. If you blindly, “Have the rabbit go around the tree and back into the hole.” You’re going to screw up sooner or later. And someone’s life, or very expensive boat, may become endangered. I know many cruisers that cannot tie knots correctly. It is important to have a deeper understanding, than just dogma and rote memory. As to knots, if you know perhaps 10 of the most useful knots, you can deal with almost any situation. 99% of the knots in the books, are just decorative, or for people to show off.

Anyway, I need to get back to my chores. The Bay Area is one of the top recreational sailboat places in the world. You should be able to adapt my instructions to fit some situation there, very easily. And, I don’t know what the schedule is these days, but way back when, there used to be a race from Los Angeles to Hawaii one year, and then Victoria to Maui the next year. So, they need to have their boats delivered back to the mainland. And, none of the hot dogs want to sail that part of the trip. So, if you have proven yourself, it is not terribly hard to find a berth.

And then of course there are lots of people sailing to Mexico for the winter, and coming back in the spring. The coming back is a tough slog, because the prevailing winds are out of the northwest. So it is usually quite easy to get a berth on a trip like that. But don’t expect it to be much fun. As a beginner, you will get the crummy experiences. But, if you can stand that part, then the ‘Good Parts’ will seem like Heaven!

Be extremely careful who you sail with. When we were in Panama in the late 1980s, we met two nurses, who had worked in the southeastern United States. Perhaps Atlanta. For a year. Perhaps in the mid 1970s. They were British and one of them had been reading about strange people that sail across the Atlantic in small boats, and thought that sounded like a lot of fun. She talked to her friend into doing it with her.

They answered an advertisement and sailed with a guy leaving from Charleston or someplace. Unfortunately, as soon as they got out of sight of land, they became very aware, that even though this guy had a boat and knew a bunch of stuff, he had absolutely no idea how to do celestial navigation.

Fortunately, he had his books along, and there is a really good one if you ever want to learn about it, and they taught themselves celestial, and found Bermuda, and got off the boat. Abandoning him to his fate.

But, they both agreed that that had been a lot of fun. They just needed to find a more competent skipper who had a safe boat.

They did and sailed the rest of the way to England and had a great time. Such a good time that they still routinely crewed for the same guy, even though about 10 years had gone by. That was what they were doing when we met them. He had crossed the Atlantic many times before they met, and many times after. This time he was sailing from England by way of Panama to Vancouver and Alaska. One of the women sailed with him, on almost every trip.

Another educational story, is a young guy that we met in Southern California, in 1981 on our way back to Mexico on our second trip. He had been walking through a marina, and a friend of his said, that they were leaving on the Ensenada race in a couple of hours, and one of the crew could not show up in time. Would he please crew for them, because the friend knew that he was an experienced sailor. He said sure, and got his bag of gear ready, and jumped aboard. Everything was just fine until the boats had spread out enough, that the nearest boat was perhaps a mile away.

Then, when the owner, next came on deck, he was wearing a pistol on his belt, and had transformed into a martinet. Kind of like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Everyone on board was instantly terrified and did exactly what he said, and very quickly.

When they got to Ensenada, the owner went away with the agent to check the boat into the country, and everyone jumped ship and ran to the bus station to get home. So be careful. There can be some unpleasant surprises. Probably get references from other people that have known the person for a long time. That is the only story that I’ve heard of some idiot with a gun. But I have met many idiots that do not know how to sail, and many people that sail unsafely on unsafe boats. The vast majority are just great. It is those exceptions that you want to stay away from.



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