Several people have commented on our blog, asking about passages; how we decide when to go and what happens along the way. What follows are my thoughts, and our routine for passages. Disclaimer: *these opinions do not reflect those of the general population of cruisers. They may not be the norm, but these are my feelings (the good, the bad and the ugly) about the whole process. It’s lengthy, but hopefully interesting and informative.
A cruiser’s life is made up of passages and/or crossings, there’s no way around it. Traveling from one side of an ocean to another is referred to as a crossing, which can take weeks (many weeks, when it comes to the Pacific). This girl has no intention of ever making a crossing, a feeling which has been reinforced on our passages during this journey.
Passages take you from island to island, or country to country, which may call for you to travel eight or ten hours, or three, five or seven days without stopping. You’re not crossing an ocean, but are frequently traveling a decent distance, which very likely includes traveling throughout the night. Reasons for going round the clock vary: there aren’t any safe or protected places to anchor for the night, you only have so much good weather to get to your destination, you have to arrive at a location by a certain date or any combination of these scenarios.
Our overnight passages are dictated by a bit of all three. If we want to head for a new location that takes days for us to get to, anchoring in safe spots along the way to break it up may mean staying there for days or weeks, waiting for favorable weather to continue on. This cuts into the time in our intended destination, and because our cruising life isn’t open ended, we prefer not to spend time waiting en-route if it can be helped. Other times, there aren’t any safe anchoring options along the way, even if we wanted to stop, so over-nighters are what we’re left with.
No matter what reasons make up your decision, at the core, weather is definitely the driving factor. You always want great weather, and why wouldn’t you? Sailors want wind, not a gale, but more than a breeze. Even though we travel at sailboat speed, we are a still a power boat, so we look for as little wind as possible. There are countless sources for wind, waves and overall weather prediction, and Scott consults many of them. In addition to reading many, many books, he has taken extensive classes taught by Lee Chesneau, a meteorologist who provided weather routing for the U.S. Navy.
We also enlist the services of Chris Parker, who provides weather prediction and planning for cruisers along the east coast and throughout the Caribbean. Chris transmits his forecasts each morning via SSB radio, with each region having a different time and channel to tune in. If you choose to, you can pay to talk with him about your upcoming passage, when to go and what route may be best to take. You may also pay to receive emails that Chris sends out daily for each region, allowing you to receive forecasts for all areas (east coast, Florida & The Bahamas, Eastern and Western Caribbean, etc.).
We take into account many sources, when planning to get from A to B safely and hopefully comfortably. The challenging, and maddening part is choosing when to go, because we all know that weather prediction is by no means a guarantee. Great weather at your start point may disappear as you travel, leaving you with something much worse on the other end. Since it’s rare to have perfect conditions throughout, you’re left choosing a weather “window,” which may remain open, or close shut along the way unexpectedly. This whole situation is so frustrating that I often think it easier to just flip a stupid coin.
The magic wind number for us, and for many cruisers we’ve met, is 15 knots. More than 15 isn’t necessarily dangerous, but can become a rough and uncomfortable go. However, we expect that if the forecast calls for 10-15 knots, it’s a safe bet that there will be higher winds at some point (due to no weather guarantee). Sometimes we get lucky, and 10-15 is actually what we get, but most times we experience higher winds for some (or all) of the passage.
Currents, tides and changes in depth all affect wave strength and height for the worst. We learned this during our many years of cruising in the Chesapeake Bay, but not knowing the challenges of specific areas that we travel through now, and are unfamiliar with, is frustrating. We usually have to learn the hard way, and for us the only real way to learn about these scenarios is from cruisers who have traveled the area before you. Unfortunately, their experience, travel speed and course usually differ from ours, so we have to pick out useful bits as we go.
Ok, so good or bad, we’ve chosen a window, now it’s time to prepare. Many people take a day to make food for passages, having quick, go-to meals to eat. We seem to spend our last days shopping, running last minute errands and spending time with our latest friends, so I usually make one thing, say pasta salad or something similar, and then have snack stuff on hand: fruit, granola/protein bars, chips and candy, microwave meals, etc.
Scott makes sure that the Aluminum Princess, and all else on the flybridge is secure, and does any pre passage engine room and system checks. He also spends much time going over our route, making navigation notes as needed. I do any “pending” laundry, a general interior boat cleaning and then secure everything inside that moves when we do. We also secure our table and chairs (our couch and tiki pole are permanently secured to both the floor and wall). We’ve learned to make sure that the fridge is full, and that towels are wedged in certain cabinets, to prevent rattling and clanging underway (which is maddening!).
Howard has come to know when we’re leaving on a passage, and prepares for the “torture” that is to come. As soon as Scott makes one beep from something electronic in the pilot house, Howard assumes a rigid, terrified position on the couch. It takes him hours to check his terror, and settle in. I’ve found that the best place for him to travel is on the couch in the saloon (unless we’re having a smooth run). There is motor noise, but that bothers him less than the wave noise outside the open pilot house doors. It also provides the least amount of movement for him, as I tuck him against the back of the couch, in a “pillow fort.”
We take shifts on watch in the pilot house, monitoring radar (especially important at night), gauges, speed, water depth and the chart/route. Many times, we have to make route changes to avoid shallow water, coral, submerged things and occasionally for dangerous (or “pirate”) areas. Most cruisers take turns in shifts that vary from four to six hours. Scott and I have gotten into a routine where we toss the ball back and forth during the day. Scott will fish, if conditions are right, we’ll catch naps or watch a movie if all is well.
Because I’m not keen on watching big water come at me, I have taken to doing the bulk of the evening watch, usually from just after dark until dawn. I have our Ipod at the ready, choose my favorite songs and go into late night dance party mode to pass the time. Because Scott has countless more hours on the water than me, I will wake him to consult or act on route and weather changes that are questionable (luckily, he can practically sleep and wake on command). This system usually gives him a chunk of sleep at one time.
If you ask me to sum up it up in my own words: in general, passages suck. Yeah, yeah, you’re out on the open ocean, with pretty water, dolphins, stars and such, but that’s usually just a small (in my opinion) part. Here’s our reality:
Your schedule and body clock are completely off from any kind of normal routine. When you should, or have time to sleep, you’re not always tired. Sleep often comes in bits, and is hard with the boat movement. I cannot shut out said movement in our staterooms, as they are located forward. Instead, I catch sleep on the couch in the saloon, sharing space with Howard. I wear ear plugs to knock down the motor noise, and a sleep mask to keep out daylight when needed. After a day or so, I’m so tired and turned around that I wake from what must have been a deep, restful lengthy sleep, to find that only 30 minutes has passed.
It seems we’re always craving what we don’t have to eat. I could prepare twenty different choices, but we’ll want something completely different. Scott and I find that we’re not normally very hungry on a passage, hence the stocking of snacks and such. Most times, we’ll just nibble, or eat whatever meal I’ve made right out of the bowl it’s in, who’s there to judge? We try to keep well hydrated, and resist the urge for a cocktail when things seem monotonous or when the weather and ride are stellar.
It’s challenging keeping Howard fed and watered for days at a time, when he usually isn’t interested in either. Using the litter box is also a challenge, as he has been known to hold it for days, which freaks me out. Lately, with the increasing heat and humidity, he’s had a hard time keeping cool. To prevent heat exhaustion, we cover him with cool, wet towels and direct one of our 12 volt fans toward him. Air from the fan evaporates the water in the towel, providing a cooling effect. He doesn’t love the towel, but tolerates it, realizing that it helps.
Bodily hygiene goes out the window, for the most part (again, who’s there to judge??). Showers can be challenging underway, and we opt instead to apply layer after layer of deodorant and powder or body spray. With the passage of time a blur, we have to remind each other that we stink, or to brush our teeth. Scott is especially good at trying to get as much use out of a shirt as possible. As a result, I can usually smell him as soon as he enters a room, and will immediately request a wardrobe change.
It’s usually hot, hot, hot inside the boat, especially if we’re going with the wind (no breeze), or if the sun is beating into the pilot house. The saloon stays especially hot, with the motor running constantly under the floor, which makes sleeping there even more inviting. We use cooling towels for ourselves as well, that are kept in the fridge, and drape them on our heads or around our necks. If a model agency caught sight of me during a passage, I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t immediately sign me to a magazine cover deal!
The weather rarely seems to cooperate. Yes, occasionally we get a great run, where the waters are calm all the way. However, more often than not I am cursing the weather forecasts and sources that made us decide to go. Wondering if conditions will worsen and for how long is so stressful. Bad wind and weather can cause us to slow our speed, for comfort or safety, resulting in an even longer travel time…ugh!
We also have to be aware of our arrival time. Most anchorages aren’t favorable for arriving after sunset, or even when the sun is low in the sky (depth of water, coral, unlit or unmarked channels, etc.). Scott never likes to drop anchor in the dark, so we may have to slow or increase speed to avoid these situations. Igor, a fellow cruiser we met in Isla Mujeres, summed up how we often feel, with his Russian-accent and broken English, “Sailing…every day, bad.”
Time and days get monotonous, and by day three I am through with a passage (remember my statement about never crossing an ocean). I want to stop the motor, take a shower, get normal sleep, hit land and see people. I don’t have to know them, I just want to see and be around them.
The longer a passage takes, the more restless, impatient and cranky I become (Howard is right behind me). Our Delorme satellite tracker is invaluable. In addition to tracking our path on the blog, it allows me to text and email friends and family while underway. They are frequently berated with communications during my times of boredom and frustration.
Even though “passages suck,” there are definitely some positives:
We enjoy beautiful cloud formations, rainbows, sunrises and sunsets.
When skies are clear, the stars are amazing.
Dolphins visit regularly, and we never tire of seeing them play in the waves off of the boat.
It’s anything goes for food, eat what you want when you want.
Shower or not, no one cares.
I have gotten much more comfortable with big waves and swells, and how they move our boat (although I still prefer the black-out of the night shift)
Scott is a champ at keeping the faith, and keeping the passage “train” rolling.
Realizing that you’re traveling open ocean waters in your own boat is pretty cool.
In the end, good or bad, passages have given us perspective on feelings about safety, the power of mother nature, appreciating a good anchorage or the comforts of home. Scott equates it to the weekend not being as valuable to you if you didn’t work all week. After being in the same place for some time, we tend to get a bit too comfortable. As a our friend, Larry, a fellow Krogen cruiser has told Scott, “Sometimes, you just got to to to sea.”
Passages are also a means to an end for us. We can’t get where we’re going without them, so we adapt, adjust and get through it. Here endeth my version of the passage lesson.
“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”