If I Knew Then What I Know Now: One Year In

Tuesday August 13, 2013


Now that we’re one year into our cruising on Serendipity, I can say I’m a bit more experienced than when we first left. Sure, we (Matt) read every book, forum, and the occasional blog on what to expect, but some things you just don’t know until you get out there.  We’ve learned a lot our first year out.  A lot about our boat, boat bits, and the lifestyle that is cruising.  What I’m about to share isn’t groundbreaking, earth shattering news, or possibly, even very helpful to some people, but here’s a few things I’ve learned along the way so far.

  • It is very hard to escape the elements. Until we had our little accident in St. Augustine that put us on the hard for three months, we were never in one spot for over two days. Which meant that we were always traveling. Out in the elements. Sun, wind, rain. We had it all. And putting yourself out in those elements hour after hour, day after day, it becomes very important to protect yourself from them. I could not imagine our trip without having our bimini and dodger, they have been lifesavers. Giving us shade from the sun, keeping us dry from the rain, and keeping those howling winds from chilling us to the bone.  And also making a barrier between us and those pesky waves that crash over the bow. It’s unfortunate that these items usually need to be custom made and don’t come cheap, our dodger is on it’s last leg with more repairs than I’d like to admit, but if it ever failed, it’s one of the items we would not hesitate for a moment to replace.
  • You will have a major meltdown at some point. And that’s ok. As much as many landlubbers would like to think this lifestyle is constant paradise, it’s not. It can be hard physically. It can be hard mentally. It takes a long time to get into the groove of moving your life into 400 sq feet and then taking away major conveniences. And once you get used to that, toss in things like seasickness, language barriers, and an ever dwindling bank account reminding you that you are on a budget and can’t do all the fun things that whatever place you’re at has to offer. Or, every other day, one thing or another on the boat breaks and needs repairing or replacing. Sometimes it can be too much, and once in awhile, you’ll curse your new lifestyle and wonder why you ever left in the first place. At least things were comfortable back home. But guess what? You always snap out of it. Sometimes it can take a few days (or a week), but then you’ll catch an amazing sunset, or have a drink with fellow cruisers and share sob stories, or spot dolphins riding in your bow wake, and remember that this life is not without it’s benefits too.
  • In Matt’s opinion, our davits are useless. You might be surprised to hear this one, and I don’t really have an issue with it, but it’s one of the things Matt wish he knew before we left. Our davits are a set of metal bars off our stern that hold the dinghy up out of the water, and in our case, holds one of our solar panels on top. We use our davits every day, so you might be wondering why he wants to get rid of them. First we’ll start with the dinghy aspect. Every single night we use the davits to haul the dinghy about four feet out of the water, keeping nasty things from growing on the bottom, and more importantly, giving possible thieves a hell of a time trying to steal it. Without the davits, we could still lift the dinghy out of the water every night with a halyard up at the foredeck. We’ve also found that having the dinghy on davits while passaging (even through the islands of the Bahamas) causes too much strain on the davits, so it gets secured to the foredeck during those times anyway. As far as the 210 solar panel that’s housed there, we’d remove it and replace it with a wind generator. That way we’d still have the two 105s for sunny days, and a wind generator for the cloudy (and usually windy) days.
  • Your personality is not going to change very much from who you were on land. We have found that a lot of the things we loved back on land are still things that we love on sea, and it’s hard to escape them. Laugh if you want, but our two big weaknesses are TV and fast food. We do have an actual TV on the boat along with a hard drive full of movies and shows, and they get used almost nightly. It’s how we used to unwind back on land, and it’s how we unwind at the end of each day now. When we left I was hoping the tv would barely ever get turned on because there would be too many new and exciting things to hold our attention that we wouldn’t need it. But no matter how much I try to fight my brain about television being unnecessary, it still wants the boob tube. As far as the fast food? The only time we go without it is because it’s not available. I envisioned cruising as a time for me to get really involved in cooking from scratch and making delicious meals every night, and although I’m getting better, we just have a weakness for greasy fries and burgers that has to be satisfied. My original dreams of turning myself into a culinary master didn’t come to be just because I thought it would happen with a little extra free time on my hands. I will say that you grow as a person while out traveling, trying new things and finding new likes and dislikes, but if you think you’re going to completely reinvent yourself, that’s probably not going to happen. But why would you want to do that anyway?
  • When purchasing a boat, place durability over looks.  We, or at least me for sure, LOVE our boat.  I think it’s a great size for us, has a good layout, and even looks kinda pretty.  Sure, Matt may be obsessed with what 10 more feet could do for us, but otherwise, we think we made a good choice.  But if there’s one thing we could change on our boat, even though the looks are a big drawing point for us, is the durability of some of the items on board.  Take the cushions for example.  They’re original to the boat (at 24 years old, can you believe it?), but still have a nice modern and clean feel to them.  They’re pretty, they make the interior look nice.  But they’re not durable.  They get dirty very quickly, and constant use has them getting pilled and a little worn down at the edges.   At times we’re even laying towels and other items to sit on just so we don’t do any further damage.  Then there’s the floors and walls.  They’re teak and holly plywood, and there are dents abound.  Moving things around in small spaces, items rearranging themselves on passage, or just good old gravity when your’re not expecting it.  I’m not saying our boat now looks horrid and torn apart, but she’s definitely rougher around the edges than she was a year ago.  Bottom line, you LIVE in your boat.  It needs to be able to handle your constant wear and tear.
  • It’s not how it’s depicted in photos.  Unless you’re Taru Tuomi (whom I wish I could be like), all the glamour goes out the window when you’re cruising.  In pretty much every way, shape, and form. As far as personal glamour, there was about five days in Jamaica that I forced myself to wear the dresses I bought just so I could get use out of them, but other than that I’m in shorts and a tee (and now it’s even becoming gym shorts more than jean shorts), my hair is up, and I have on no make-up.  The areas we’re in is so hot and humid that it’s barely worth making an effort and gone are all my original ideals of wearing cute bikinis all the time with perfect make-up and long flowing hair covered with a wide-brimmed hat. While thinking about how to use straightening brush, it’s generally suggested that heat styling be done not more than once a week. Natural hair should always be freshly shampooed, conditioned, and completely dry before heat styling. Straightening dirty hair with a flat iron will only burn oil and dirt, which will lead to more damage. Â Unless there’s a special occasion, it’s just not gonna happen.  What’s also not depicted in the photos is all the hard work that goes into cruising*.  It’s not just sitting surrounded by a perfect landscape, with perfectly trimmed sails, and a glass of chilled wine in your hand.
  •  If you follow blogs or are into some of the sailing magazines, you probably know this already, but the work of constantly maintaining a boat, dragging your laundry to a coin-op (or worse, doing it yourself), showering in your cockpit, and tearing apart half your boat just to get to a jar of peanut butter, is anything but glamorous. Â Sure, there’s a couple of sunsets and fruity drinks thrown in, but that’s only about 20% of the lifestyle. Â If that.

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*Yes, I did know it was going to be hard work before we left, I just didn’t realize the portion of it vs fun relaxing things.  I thought it would be 25% hard, 75% fun.  Nope, I got it the other way around.

**When I told my loving husband I was writing this he goes, “Ugh, I hate when people who don’t know what they’re talking about write those kinds of posts”.  So if you found this utterly useless, don’t worry, you’re not alone.

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What I’ve Learned My First Year In

Monday August 12, 2013

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Leaving our mooring in Muskegon for the last time.


Now that Serendipity has been out traveling for one year, I felt compelled to make a list of things I have learned over our last 12 months of travel.  This post is not meant to be advice to future cruisers on what works and what doesn’t while living and traveling on a boat (that’s coming later), but rather, things I have learned about myself and the lifestyle of cruising.


  • I thought that by leaving Michigan in the middle of summer and continuously heading south, that I would need few to no warm clothes.  I was oh.so.wrong.


  • Memory foam up in the v-berth, although 10x more comfortable to sleep on, also makes it 10x harder to make the bed.


  • Friendships are made fast, and with bonds that will last a lifetime.


  • If your battery bank can spare it, en electric water heater, like the Bodum one we own, will be one of your best friends while traveling.


  • It is surprisingly easy to find yourself wearing the same outfit for two days in a row.  Sometimes three.


  • Sitting on the opposite sides of the salon and ignoring your spouse (intentionally or not), is almost as good as being alone.


  • Just because you are constantly tired or hungry or nauseous, does not mean you are pregnant, and you can stop taking an at home test every month ‘just to be sure’.


  • Before we left, I envisioned passages as a time to get a bunch of things done.  Instead, due to my (non-debilitating) seasickness, I get nothing done.


  • It takes approximately six months to get used to the fact that the steps on the companionway must be used as extra counter space while cooking, instead of having a meltdown because the boat is too small.


  • It IS worth it to have a microwave, even a 600-700 watt one, because leftovers are so much more enjoyable without the extra pans to clean.


  • Listening to some of my favorite music can pull me out of a bad mood almost instantly.


  • Many port officials still seem genuinely surprised to see a woman listed as captain.


  • A harness and leash, as silly as it may look, is the best thing ever for a cruiser with a cat.


  • I can not get on board with the non-shaving thing.  Even if I was alone on a deserted island with no one else to see me, I would find something sharp and keep my legs smooth.


  • Matt thinks the davits are useless, and we would have been better off without them, exchanging the one solar panel that sits on top for a a wind generator.


  • I barely go through half the clothes I’ve packed.  And yet, I’m still happy I have every item I do.


  • Friends can help force you to get out and explore after you’ve been stuck in a rut of sitting around on your ass day after day.


  • No matter how many times I try, I can not seem to ‘equalize’ by plugging my nose and blowing out when I dive below 10 ft of water.


  • Ten days is really all I can handle out in the middle of nowhere.


  • It takes approximately nine months to become a master of the Tetris game that is your storage area.


  • I really really need to learn to cook.  Actual, from scratch, big girl meals.


  • I kid you not, one of the things I missed the most once we were out of the States was access to Pandora.  (I could not find any internet radio stations that worked in the countries we were in!)


  • If a chart says to seek local knowledge, which you do, but something still feels wrong?  Trust your gut and turn back around.


  • Cruising really does make you bipolar.  One day you’re up, one day you’re down.  One minute you’re ready to burn down your boat, and the next, you couldn’t imagine living a better lifestyle.



Important memories from our year cruising:


Leaving our port for the last time to sail out into the unknown.8.12.13 (2)

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Making lifelong friends along the way.

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Picking up a boat cat in Georgia.

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    Taking Serendipity into a new country for the first time.

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If I Knew Then What I Know Now: Electronics

December 18, 2012

Love having this little baby in the cockpit.


We’ve only been cruising for just over four months now, but it’s already been plenty of time to figure out what works and what doesn’t as far as all our electronics go.  And that’s not even in a ‘broken or working’ sense, more of a ‘this was a good purchase/feature, or not’.  Because if we knew then what we know now, we probably could have saved ourselves a lot of money on things we added that aren’t really that necessary.  While talking to our friends Ron and Jackie who will hopefully be on our tails in just a few years, they asked what the best pieces of equipment to outfit their new boat with are, probably thinking they need a lot of the top of the line pieces we just purchased.  Some things we’re definitely happy we got and will be recommending they do the same, but some things we got were just….unnecessary.  So if we could help more than one person with outfitting their boat in preparation to go cruising, we happy to throw out some opinions and advice.

But remember, this list is just meant to only be a piece of advice and our personal opinion.  Every sailor is going to have a different idea of what works for them and it may not match with ours.


What we Love

This is a list of what we feel are the best purchased we made as far as electronics.  Things we couldn’t live without and we would definitely recommend to other boaters.


    • Autopilot.  Hands down this is the number one best purchase we could have added to our boat.  Any time we’re out on the water it gets used.  I could not imagine having to steer by hand for hours on end, it’s both physically and mentally tiring.  With the set up we have now we only hand steer through narrow or winding areas like inlets, rivers, canals.  Whenever we’re in a big body of water we just engage the autopilot and keep an eye on the horizon, and on the chartplotter, changing course by a few degrees or multiples of 10 when we need to.  I don’t think we’d have the discipline to be on the water without it.  I tip my hat to any of you that do.  (Our autopilot is made up of Raymarine SX10 Computer; Raymarine rudder position sensor; Raymarine linear drive type 1; Raymarine st6002 head unit).


    • Cockpit mounted VHF.  Don’t worry, that’s not the only one we have.  There’s also a Standard Horizon GX2100 at the nav station.  But I have found it almost indispensable to also have one in the cockpit at all times.  It sits right next to the wheel and the autopilot controls, and we have it on whenever we’re traveling.  It’s usually just monitoring channel 16, but any time we need to hail a lift bridge, respond to a hail from a passing boat, or hail Tow Boat and the Coast Guard (cough, cough), it’s always at arms reach.  Rarely do we ever use the one at the nav station while we’re traveling, and since I, helmsman and VHF correspondent, can’t be at the wheel and down below at the same time, it makes it very handy to have one available above deck. (Our cockpit mounted VHF is a Standard Horizon RAM 3)


    • AIS. Automatic Identification System.  This favorable little device is a tracking system used on ships for identifying and locating vessels by electronically exchanging data.  We only have the receiver part of this which means that we can pick up other ships transmitting, but not the transceiver which would allow them to pick up us.  It’s still very useful for us though since who we need to keep the biggest eye out for on the water are the large containers/tugs/ect., that are traveling in the 10-20 knot range and are not likely to change their course to move around us.  Meaning that on a bad night they could run us over before we ever saw them.  But with AIS they send out a signal that we pick up on our chartplotter which shows their location, their speed, their direction, and usually their destination.  We also have a way to set it up where our GPS reads their coordinates and speed against ours and will notify us if we’re on a collision course and can tell us when it will happen down to the minute.  This takes so much pressure off on night watches or when you’re exiting the Charleston Channel at 5 am and you can’t tell if those bright lights are 1 mile away or 10.  (Our AIS is Standard Horizon GX2100).


    • Vessel Systems Monitor.  Although this falls into the somewhat frivolous category since there are other ways around getting this information, we still love ours.  In one little screen that we have mounted at the nav station it shows the current charge of our batteries, how many amps we’re bringing in from our solar panels, how often our bilge runs in a 24 hour period, and even the level in our holding tank.  There are so many other things it monitors as well: all voltage, amperage, watts, frequency, ect.  But did you hear me?, it monitors the level in your holding tank!  Which means that I don’t have to squeeze myself into a lazarette, unscrew the top to the holding tank, and put my face up against it to see how full it is.  I have a pretty strong stomach, but constantly checking poo levels does not fall into the category of things I like to do.  (Our VSM is a Blue Sea Systems 422)


  • LED Lights.  Any lights we have been able to change to LED, we have done so.  From cabin lights, to the masthead light, to our navigation lights.  They are incredible at conserving energy which is great because we make all of our own and it’s all we have to go on.  LED lights use 1/10th of the power our original lights did, so we don’t feel bad lighting our cabin up like a Christmas tree at night.  Plus with sunset coming so early the closer you get to the Equator, you want to make sure you’re never left in the dark because you’re worried about conserving your power.  Now if we could just get something going with these in the cockpit, we’ll be all set!  (We currently have Sensibulb and IMTRA LED lights, but have been having issues with the Sensibulbs flickering)

What we like but could have done without

These are the things that although we like them and have not had any issues with them, were not necessary purchases.  Either there was a cheaper route we could have gone or a roundabout way we could have done it.  But since they’re already on the boat…..happy to have them!


    • Chartplotter.  For those of you who follow along you know that I love my chartplotter.  I stare at it all day long whenever we’re traveling because I constantly want to know our position, our speed, and even the time of day.  (Imagine me whining ‘Are we there yet?’.)  I live by our chartplotter.  But there’s another and cheaper way we could have done this.  Introducing…. da da da daaaa…. an iPad.  It can do the same exact thing as your chartplotter.  All of your charts can be loaded on there, it can talk with your other devices, and you can take it anywhere.  There are also really nice waterproof cases that make it almost indestructible on a boat…given that you don’t drop it in the water.  It’s what our friends on Rode Trip have been using and they’ve been very happy with it. (Our chartplotter is a Raymarine C95)


    • Instruments.  Things like depth sounder, wind speed, and boat speed.  These are very important things and I’m not discrediting them altogether, but the reason they make the list is because all that information is viewable on the chartplotter.  The instruments we have came with the boat, but honestly, they’re never looked at.  Remember how my eyes are always glued on the chartplotter?  Most of the time we don’t even see the ones mounted in the cockpit because they’re covered with chairs or lines. (Our instruments are Raymarine ST60)


    • Radar.  This actually is something I would consider a necessity.  It’s just something that, surprisingly, we haven’t used very much yet.  That’s probably because almost everywhere we’ve been so far in the U.S. is so well charted that we don’t need to check it against radar.  It will go on sometimes during night watches just as a little something extra, but then you have to be zoomed in very close (usually within a mile or two of your position) on the chartplotter which in turn doesn’t give you the wide view and a chance to see other boats transmitting AIS.  I’m sure it will become very useful once we’re out of the country and the charts may not be as up to date, but at the moment it’s not getting the kind of use we thought it would. (Our radar is a Raymarine 418)


  • Handheld VHF.  That’s right, we have three on board.  And guess which one never gets used? In fact, the only time it ever did get used was while coming up to locks on the Erie Canal and I’d be standing at the bow with boat hook also in hand, hailing the lockmaster.  Which could have as easily been done from the cockpit.  They’re usually short range, die quickly, and may not be as waterproof as you’d hoped.  (My fault for leaving it out in a rainstorm)  That’s not to say they’re bad all together.  If you buy a good one, keep it charged, and stow it out of the rain it could be a very good alternative to a cockpit mounted VHF.  (Our handheld VHF is a Uniden Atlantis 250)


Now that I’m finished I’m actually surprised by how many things are in the ‘need it’ category instead of the ‘it could have waited’.  Sorry Ron, looks like you will have a lot of shopping to do for Hullabaloo.  But again, what works for one boater may not work for another.  There are tons of variables to take into consideration: type of boat; sailing destinations, personal preference; level of proactiveness (I’d say we fall somewhere in the middle there).  But I think our best advice would be ‘You won’t know before you leave’.  Meaning, it probably will take a few months of living on the boat, traveling, and finding out for yourself.  So if you have the ability, leave with the bare minimum and stop along the way to pick up the things you find you need.  Preferably while you’re still in the U.S., it would probably make it easier to get what you’re looking for and have all the necessary tools to get it installed.

Busy day in New York Harbor.