Living and Cruising on a Sailboat
By Jim Krause
Every year Anne, my wife and I pull a disappearing act and go off adventuring on our sailboat for a few months. People often ask us what it’s like, so here’s the low down on what cruising and living aboard a sailboat is like.
Das Boot: Our sailboat is named Traumfänger, which is German for Dreamcatcher. She’s a 2001 Bavaria 37 sloop, which means she has a single mast with a mainsail and a foresail. (For those wanting specifics, she has a fractional rig, a roller furling genoa and main, and a displacement of 12,000 lbs.) She moves gloriously under sail, but sometimes there’s no wind or it’s blowing the wrong direction. In these cases, we use our diesel engine, which is fuel-efficient and could nearly circumnavigate Lake Michigan on a single tank.
Why go Sailing? Boats can take you to wonderful places (both figuratively and literally) that are otherwise impossible to get to. A few hundred miles north of Seattle, mile-high snowcapped mountains rise from the coastline of British Columbia, concealing a network of inland waterways inhabited by bears, whales, dolphins, and eagles. There are no roads to Desolation Sound Provincial Park, the only way there is by boat or floatplane.
Even when done poorly, sailing is transformative. Being on the water for weeks on end changes one’s perspective of what’s important. Politics and workplace struggles disappear when faced with a beautiful sunset, a broken engine, or oncoming storm. At one anchorage, I saw a man on holiday, staring down into the watery depths towards his anchor and chain, which lay thirty feet below on the bottom. Sadly, it was not attached to the boat he’d just purchased. I’m sure he wasn’t thinking about work.
How do you live aboard a sailboat? Our boat is essentially a self-contained, floating tiny house. We carry provisions, fuel and water, and our solar panels and motor generate electricity, which is stored in our 12-volt battery bank. We can be out for weeks before having to stop and re-supply. Below decks, there’s a cabin with a dining table, comfy chairs to hang out on, a navigation station, two sleeping berths, and a head and a galley, which are nautical talk for bathroom and kitchen. We’ve got a refrigerator, a stove and oven to cook with, and a gas grill mounted off the stern rail. Our lockers and refrigerator are filled with the same drinks, snacks, and foodstuffs that we enjoy at home. Anne’s a great cook so all our meals are delicious. Freshly caught fish is a special treat, perhaps because it’s something we never get to have at home. We also carry emergency rations of food with a long shelf life and extra booze. It’s one thing to be broken down or stranded for weeks, but to be stuck without supplies for a martini is the making of a tragedy.
We have a shower in the head, but rarely use it. We must conserve water (our tanks can only hold 80 gallons) and it’s better and more invigorating to jump in- especially when the water is 57 degrees.
We sleep in the forward cabin, which is called a V-berth. The shape of the bow of the boat is V-shaped, hence the name. This is my favorite place in the world to sleep. At anchor the waves transform the boat into a gently rocking cradle- unless it’s stormy, and then it becomes a washing machine. The forward hatch is just above our heads, just like a skylight. On clear nights, we’ll see satellites and shooting stars from our berth.
Being on board and sailing are wonderful, but getting off the boat to explore and take in the surroundings is my favorite part of our journeys.
What do you do at a typical stop? Unless we’re undertaking a long passage, we usually don’t sail through the night. We’ll stop at a town dock or marina if we need supplies but usually choose to anchor somewhere for several days- hopefully in a beautiful and remote location. An ideal anchorage offers protection from the wind and provides scenery, hiking, and paddling opportunities. We find anchorages through nautical charts, cruising guides, on-line communities (like ActiveCaptain.com), and word of mouth. Upon entering a new anchorage, we’ll motor through it checking for depths, underwater hazards, and other boaters. When we settle on a spot, we’ll stop the boat, lower the anchor (located at the bow of the boat), and let out an appropriate amount of line while backing up the boat. Once the desired length of line is reached we’ll tie off the line, and set the anchor firmly into the seabed by motoring backwards. While anchoring is one of the most basic and important tasks for a mariner, we’re constantly surprised by the number of people who don’t know how to do it. This is usually because they don’t have enough scope, which is the ratio of the length of the anchor line and the depth of the water. (A boater using 5:1 scope in 10 feet of water would let out 50 feet of anchor line.) In crowded anchorages, when the wind and currents pick up, we’ve frequently seen boats sliding backwards with no one at the helm. This is called dragging anchor and usually precedes yelling, people waving their arms, and strangers coming to assist the often-unmanned boat.
Once we’re sure our anchor is set, we use our dinghy to get to shore, fish or explore. We also carry a kayak and solo canoe, so we can go out paddling together or alone. We’ll stay at an anchorage until our whim or the ever-changing weather prompts us on to a safer, more suitable location. Some of our favorite activities include picking blueberries, playing music, enjoying happy hour, reading books, fixing things, avoiding people, and meeting people.
What kind of people do you meet? Humans are curious creatures and I’m constantly impressed by the variety we encounter out on the water. We’ve met truck drivers, artists, hippies, scientists, doctors, teachers, musicians, inventors, pet lovers, and a few living marginal existences, toting everything they own on their boat. We spent one delightful evening tossing back drinks with a pair of (off duty) Ontario Provincial Police officers. One couple we met in Canada were nature collectors, and had an entire berth stacked full of pine cones and deer antlers. We’ve seen people who never get off their boats in anchorages and folks who never take their boats out of the marina. The last anchorage we stayed in at the end of our last voyage was Harbor Island in Michigan’s UP. The weather was perfect and the bay offered much to do- hiking, paddling, swimming, fishing, looking at wildlife, or even swinging off a rope swing. I found it odd that a couple in a sailboat anchored at the back of the bay never got off their boat once in the three days we were there. I paddled by to make sure they were OK, but they were content doing chores and reading books snuggled in their cockpit. Counter to this are folks who have boats but never take them out of the marina. In Mackinaw City (where we’ve often launched our boat) there’s a fellow we call Speedo man (a large man who barely fits inside his tiny swimsuit). He’s content to use his boat as a floating vacation house. In the morning, he circumnavigates the marina on his paddle board making small talk with other boaters and in the evening, he entertains his lady friend. One woman in the Mackinaw City Marine laundry room declared to Anne excitedly that she had PTSD from sailing, sworn off boating, and was deathly afraid of bears. “Who knew bears could swim!” she said as she folded her laundry. Despite of being petrified by boats, water, and bears, she wasn’t about to give up the boating lifestyle.
Regardless of locale or personal idiosyncrasies, most of the people we’ve met will go out of their way to offer help, parts, tools, ice, or a dinghy ride to shore. Social or political differences are overshadowed by a shared love of place and adventure, and the overwhelming sense of awe and appreciation that comes with immersing oneself into a beautiful and remote wilderness location.
But in order to get to these idyllic locations, one needs the proper tools and know-how.
How do you know where to go? I started sailing before the days of GPS (global positioning system) technology. We’d take sights with a hand-bearing compass to triangulate position and use dead reckoning to estimate progress over time. Now with GPS on every smart phone and chart plotters that work like tablets, navigation is easy. These new tools are also dangerous because they can easily build false confidence and any tech-savvy idiot can use them. On our boat, we’ve got a touch screen chart plotter that shows all our vital information (wind speed, direction, speed over ground, depth, etc.) with an electronic map and an outline of our boat. All that’s missing is an arrow pointing to the boat icon saying “You are here, stupid”.
Our autopilot, which can be engaged to control the steering wheel, talks to our chart plotter and makes corrections to our course if the wind, current, or tides throw us off our path. It’s a bit like a smart car but without obstacle detection. I confess that I’m writing this bit right now in my cockpit, while my electronic gadgets are guiding the boat towards Mackinac Island. Of course, one would be a fool to put too much trust in these things- so I routinely navigate to known waypoints (E.g. marked buoys) to make sure my electronic charts aren’t lying and have a full set of paper charts readily at hand.
How do you communicate? – We use a VHF radio to converse with other boaters, marinas, the coast guard, and to get the weather. The radio is a vital communications link as cell phone coverage is non-existent in many of the places we visit. The radio is also a source of entertainment. We’ll often hear boaters lobbing insults to others (Slow down, stupid- you’re in a no wake zone) but usually everyone is well behaved and quite helpful to each other.
Boaters are supposed to monitor VHF channel 16, which is limited to hailing and distress calls. The procedure is to hail a boat or marina by saying their name three times and identifying yourself. Once contact is established another channel is picked. So, you might hear “Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice this is Knotty Dawg.” Beetlejuice would respond with something like “Knotty Dawg, this is Beetlejuice, let’s go up one” (to channel 17). They would take their conversation off channel 16, to keep the channel open for others. If they forgot to do so, within a few seconds someone will pipe in, scolding them, and reminding them that Channel 16 is only for hailing and emergency communications. The VHF radio is also used for summoning attendants at marinas, fuel docks, and pump-out stations- all of which ultimately require an outlay of cash.
What’s the Cost? Like traveling in a car or van, boating requires money. We pay for food, fuel, laundry, pump-outs, and overnight stays in marinas and municipal docks. While staying in a marina offers warm showers, access to washing machines, and other comforts of home, it comes with a price, usually based on the boat’s length. Our 37’ boat costs anywhere from $55-$90/day to keep it in a marina slip. This is why we try to keep overnights in marinas to a minimum, and spend most of our time in anchorages, which are free.
In anchorages, we see both million-dollar yachts and humble, small boats that anyone with a little initiative and know-how can acquire. A few times up in Lake Huron’s North Channel, we’ve spotted a small 16-foot Hobie Cat, (a small day sailor) outfitted with an outboard motor and a tent set up on the trampoline. Boats don’t need to be expensive or large, just well-constructed, and hopefully watertight on the bottom. Some of our favorite bays, coves, and inlets are ideal for paddling. We’ve frequently shared beaches and drinks with kayakers and canoers. They ended up at the same place as we and at a fraction of the cost. However, a larger boat allows one to travel longer distances in more comfort.
Is it dangerous? – Traveling by boat is risky. We sail miles away from towns and medical assistance, and do so with minimal communications and little human contact. Once out, a boat isn’t a ride that one can get off. Every year, boaters die from falling overboard, fires, collisions with other vessels, and drowning, which is the number one killer. This is why the US Coast Guard so adamantly promotes and enforces their rules about wearing PFDs (personal flotation devices). One doesn’t have to leave the dock to open oneself to danger. Last summer in Cheboygan Michigan, a boat exploded while in its slip due to a propane leak. A married couple was on board at the time. The man had been working on his boat and unknowingly drilled through a propane line. Tragically he died from his injuries.
However, it’s not much fun to stay home and lead a minimal risk life. It’s more fun to go places. We learn rules and procedures to venture from home, which grow in complexity in relation to how we travel. Children are taught to look both ways before crossing the street and then to obey the rules of traffic when riding a bicycle. Eventually most learn to (safely) drive a car. Boating is simply another mode of travel with its own rules, safety procedures, and sets of best practices. With time, effort, and dedication, anyone can learn maritime rules and how to operate a boat. But it’s also important to know how to fix things, since gear is constantly breaking. If you’re the kind of person who must call a tow truck for a flat tire, you’ve got no business being out on the water. But if you make quick work of such minor and predictable inconveniences and know a little bit about playing plumber, carpenter, and electrician, you just might be suited for sailing.
What happens when things break? – Every season the boat and its equipment are stressed. Sometimes it’s possible to see when something’s about to break, such as a brittle sail or a worn rope, but most pieces of gear like to surprise us when they give up the ghost. When these things break, it’s always while we’re underway out on the water, so we must be capable and quick to spring into action to either fix things or improvise a solution to delay our ultimate demise. We’ve experienced broken transmissions, overheated engines, dead radios, and unresponsive electronics on multiple occasions. Just this past season, we were sailing down Baie Fine, a fjord up in Canada, with a couple of guests on board and a strong wind at our back. I turned on the engine so we could lower the sails and slowly motor through the tiny zig-zag opening at the end. I was surprised when the engine overheating alarm started screeching, but there was no time to panic, we needed a solution. I immediately shut down the engine and unrolled the headsail. With the good fortune of wind at our back, I maneuvered through the rocky narrow opening and another five miles to our destination. While we and our guests were toasting to our safe arrival I set about replacing the fresh water impeller, which was the culprit. (This is the small circular rubber paddle wheel that pushes fresh water into the engine to cool it.) I had everything fixed by the time we finished our drinks.
Can I go sailing? – Anyone can sign up for a crewed charter, where hired staff do the sailing, navigating and cooking for you. For those with no sailing or adventuring experience, this is the safest way to see what it’s all about but also expensive. Learning to sail is within reach of anyone with a can-do attitude. I suggest starting with small boats before moving up to larger ships. (I learned on Hobie Cats and Sunfish.) Small boats provide an intimate experience, where the effects of current, wind, and momentum can easily be felt and understood. Sailing a small boat is the quickest way to learn, as one immediately feels the effects of tiller adjustments and trimming sails. Locally, the Lake Monroe Sailing Association and IU both offer courses in sailing small boats. Once basic seamanship is understood, one can move up to larger vessels. For those wishing to charter and sail larger boats, it’s wise to hitch rides in friends’ boats or to take classes from reputable charter or sailing schools, such as the American Sailing Association or US Sailing. Both offer certification and have schools in great sailing locations.
Adventuring on a sailboat is one of the most challenging, scary, enjoyable, and fulfilling endeavors that I’ve ever undertaken. Anyone with an adventurous spirit and a lust for new horizons would enjoy it as much as my wife and I.
I hope that this article has provided some useful information and would happily answer further questions. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org where I’m usually able to respond to your emails, unless it’s during the summer, when I’ll be out sailing.
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