Cruising Q & A
(and some not so frequently asked)
Is the Pearson Triton big enough for live-aboard cruising and offshore voyages?
Some people think the 28-foot Triton is too small with too little freeboard to cruise offshore and be comfortable to live aboard. The main reason the average size cruising yacht these days is around 40-foot long is because people find they need that space to contain all the equipment and gadgets the yachting press and their neighbors in the marina have told them they can't do without. If you can live without the watermaker, refrigeration, full-size galley and propane locker, inside shower with hot pressure water, 10-foot hard-bottomed inflatable dinghy with 15 HP outboard motor, and some of the other optional equipment you might want, but don't really need, you'll find you can cruise quite easily on a boat under 30 feet. Sure you can have some of the above luxuries on a small boat, but you won't have many of them, and having them means you will have to limit other more important equipment as well as making life aboard very cramped.
Going from a house or even an apartment to a 28-foot boat is a drastic lifestyle change. Obviously, it's not for everyone since there will be a lot of tough compromises. The younger you are, it seems, the easier it is to make the changes. Buying a larger boat is a very seductive idea and is what a majority of cruisers choose. But it is not your only choice and I have outlined some of the trade-offs between large and small boats at the boat list link below.
As for myself, the Triton has proved capable of taking me wherever I want to go with a reasonable amount of comfort. The handsome Triton was designed in 1959 by Carl Alberg who is well-known for many other classic boat designs with origins based on the Scandinavian folkboat. Because of its low freeboard, the cockpit can be very wet with spray underway, making a dodger nearly essential cruising gear. But low freeboard has benefits such as easy access to the water, less windage, and climbing aboard from the water is easily done.
There is also much to be said for the minimalist approach to cruising on a small boat. While a larger boat gives you more space to move around in (providing you don't fill it up) and more storage area and may at times have a less stomach-churning motion, these things are not for me the most important features because they require costly trade-offs. Big boats not only require big investments, continuing high running costs, extra demands for maintenance, and a crew competent to handle gear that is potentially lethal, they are not so handy for the fun part of cruising, like poking around in little coves and getting underway on a moments notice.
The Triton, and many other similar sized boats, is ideal for a singlehander and of adequate size for a couple. Kids and pets? Maybe not, except for a short cruise where you can put up with anything for awhile. Many of the over 700 Tritons built before they stopped production in 1967 are still kicking around so there are always some on the market, often going for less than $10,000 depending on condition. There is also an active Triton Association whose members can answer virtually any questions you may have.
There are some things to look out for if you buy a Triton. These boats were built in the 1960's and as with any older boat, be prepared to make an extensive refit if the previous owner has neglected her. Suspect areas are the rot-prone balsa-cored decks (on the East coast built Tritons only), worm-eaten wood rudders with worn-out bronze pintles and gudgeons, corroded masts with cracked mast support beam under deck, undersized chain plates and rigging wire, cranky gasoline inboard engines and electrical systems in need of replacement. Refer to the About Atom page for a list of repairs and improvements done to Atom. There will always be plenty of repairs needed on an older boat, but of course you can still sail with a less than perfectly outfitted boat, provided the main components are in sound condition.
There are scores of other small boats that make good cruisers, some of which can be found in the book, Twenty Small Sailboats To take You Anywhere, by John Vigor. I also have put together The Good Old Boat List article here with brief descriptions of 71 sailboats up to 32-foot in length that I consider good candidates for offshore voyaging.
How much does it cost to go cruising?
The short answer: as much as you've got. I've met people cruising on every conceivable budget and I do not think the enjoyment they got out of cruising had much to do with how much money they spent. Actually, I did not meet any people cruising on a high budget that looked like they were getting anything near the priceless experiences of some people on smaller boats with little money who know how to make the most of life afloat. People ask "Can I afford to go cruising?" when they should ask if they can afford not to go. With careful choices it costs less than half as much to voyage around the world as it does to maintain a typical Western lifestyle ashore. We can calculate the dollars it costs, factoring all the variables and choices, but how do you count the value of a life fully lived?
I left on my first circumnavigation in 1984 with just $500 in savings. That got me across the Pacific in five months without noticeable hardship for a healthy and resourceful 25-year-old. When the money was nearly gone, I took a job for three months at a boatyard in New Guinea, the proceeds of which carried me across two more oceans and back home a year and a half later. Since then, tremendous inflation in costs associated with cruising, such as the 1,000% plus increase in fees for the Panama Canal and various extortionate government rip-offs for "cruising fees" (the $150-$300 fee per boat for entry to the Bahamas is becoming typical nowadays), means these days you'll need to spend much more than when I first began cruising. Working in foreign countries has not gotten easier in recent years as populations and bureaucratic restrictions increase. It's still possible to find occasional work as you cruise if you are resourceful and willing to work under the radar, such as providing services to other cruising yachts.
From 1999 to 2004, while cruising mostly in the Caribbean, we spent an average of about $800 a month for the two of us, including all travel, food, entertainment and boat expenses. This does not include the very occasional, but unavoidable big expenses like replacing sails or major overhauls to the boat. We could spend less if we needed to and easily spend more if we're not careful. The "average" cruising couple spends at least double that, particularly when you factor in all their various insurance and marina expenses.
I find when I have more money available I'm tempted to spend it on "optionals" and when I have less, I tighten my belt, so to speak. And since I spent less money cruising than I would if living ashore, I have never considered a lack of money a reason not to cruise. During most of my cruising years I've kept my spending down to the point where I need only work an average of three months a year. For over 20 years I never worked longer than about two years at a time before stopping for an extended cruise and have gone up to three years living on modest savings without earning any money other than a few small payments for magazine articles written. Not that I'm particularly lazy, but there's more to life than wage work. Another benefit of a small boat, especially an older boat like the Triton, is that your investment is small enough that you can forego insurance and more easily replace the entire boat if disaster strikes.
Part of how much you spend depends on what the cost of living is in the areas you cruise, but an even larger portion depends on the choices you make. Will you stay at marinas or anchor out? Eat at restaurants or cook onboard? Travel by plane to visit relatives or wait to see them until you finally sail home? Buy insurance for every conceivable threat or take your chances? Have a boat full of electronic gadgets that require frequent repair and replacement or become self-sufficient and choose only equipment that is essential and learn how to maintain it yourself? Will you buy imported foods that you are used to or learn how to use cheaper locally produced foods? Will you buy a new budget-busting inflatable dinghy every third year or knock something together out of plywood? The list of choices goes on and on, even to the little things like the crew giving each other haircuts to reusing washcloths for cleanups instead of buying paper towels. Mastering the art of frugal cruising means you have found how to live aboard independently and happily and perhaps even indefinitely.
This brings us back to choice of boat. A big boat is likely to cost so much that you feel compelled to buy boat insurance. A smaller, less expensive boat can be sailed without insurance and be replaced if needed through modest savings kept in reserve. For example, say I had 40K to get started cruising today. I'd rather self-insure by putting 20K into the bank and use it to buy another Triton-type boat if I lost mine than to buy a 40K boat and stay home working to pay for the insurance to replace it. You may have heard that you must buy liability insurance for your boat nowadays much like you do for your car, to legally stay at a marina. This is true for many marinas, but that is just one more reason not to buy insurance; so that you will not be tempted to spend even more money staying at a marina when anchoring out is what cruising is all about. If you do find circumstances force you into a marina long term as happened to me in 2014 then you can buy basic liability insurance for as little as $100 per year for a small boat.
My point is not to criticize those on bigger boats that have found a way to make it work for them. They're doing it and that's fine. My goal is to give the beginner - the undecided and inexperienced cruiser - another viewpoint to consider before getting in over his head financially. You did say you want to sail, not stay home and work, didn't you?
There is a link to the Low Cost Voyaging forum on my Links page which can help you with ideas on cutting costs. You can also read books for descriptions of how others cut their expenses. Pete and Annie Hill cover the subject in their book, Voyaging on a Small Income. Other books on the topic include, Sensible Cruising: The Thoreau Approach by Don Casey, Cost Conscious Cruiser, by Lin and Larry Pardey and many others. It's great if you can help support these authors, but I suppose the truly frugal sailor just borrows books from friends! Now if I can just remember who I loaned that cruising guide to...
What is your favorite cruising area?
Another short answer that's usually true is: right here, right now. No place is perfect in every way. Either it's marred because it's too crowded, too expensive, the weather's too cold or the typhoon season is long and sultry, the anchorages are rolly, or a thousand other imperfections. What might be exotic and enjoyable for a week or a month may prove insufferable to you after a year. A cruiser by definition is ready to move on to new destinations when the notion arises.
My ideal cruising area has the following attributes: be within the tropics for an easy-living climate and dependable trade winds for best sailing, friendly local folks that treat visitors and each other respectfully, a cheap cost of living, secure anchorages, space to get away from hordes of tourists and charter boats, and so on. Unfortunately, that list rules out most of the world! Even so, there are many places worth visiting.
Of course, my choices aren't your choices. One definition of paradise is being able to make the most out of whatever the place you're at has to offer. That said, some cruising areas impressed me more than others, usually due to a combination of the physical aspect of the place and the people who live there. For easy and seemingly endless sailing among hundreds of seldom-visited islands, the Philippines is hard to beat, and yes you can avoid the typhoons in the northern and central groups, and the pirates that plague the extreme southwest of the group. The northwest coast of Madagascar is another favorite. Some other enchanted islands I would love to go back to include Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, Tikopia and the Marquesas in the Pacific, St. Helena, and Flores in the Atlantic. The Galapagos are truly amazing islands and ideally placed on the edge of the southeast trades on your "downhill run to Papeete."
What do you do with all your spare time?
Some people worry about getting bored once out cruising and away from the frivolous distractions of the house-bound life they have created. At home you have been moving through your life at a frantic pace, trying to please your boss, family, friends and creditors and accomplish a thousand tasks a day with an attention span that's shrunk to that of a chimp. Instant gratification and labor-avoidance is your current philosophy. From my observations, this description is generous to the majority of Westerners. Out cruising, if you're smart, you're going to let all that slip away in your wake. If it weren't for navigation concerns, I've been tempted to drop my watch overboard as well.
Not to worry, there will be plenty to occupy your waking hours. On long passages you navigate, read about places ahead, cook, exercise, stand watch, study the sea and weather conditions, sleep when you can. Some days you can take time to remember lost details of your harried life, make plans and dream your dreams without distraction. You'll regain senses you didn't know you'd lost. Once you make landfall, there is the socializing with the locals and other sailors and exploring your new environment. You'll be learning new skills, maybe a new language or two. A surprising amount of time is taken up in the mundane tasks of boat maintenance, fetching water, anchor tending, dealing with the dinghy, shopping and cooking, etc. And you'll want time for your hobbies as well, whether it's swimming, fishing, kayaking, windsurfing, writing, sketching or painting, carving, photography or whatever. Before you realize it, you will be back to work and wondering where the time went. Boredom? Not possible unless you are utterly lacking in imagination. If you can't mentally disengage from your previous lifestyle ashore, it's best to stay home. Please don't try to bring it all with you.
How do you manage your links to shore while cruising?
For many people this is a challenging problem to overcome. During the first 20 years of ownng Atom when I was cruising mostly outside the US, my mother volunteered to assist with my mail forwarding, banking transactions, and store a couple boxes of personal effects I didn't think I could part with. I wonder now how I would have managed without that support. Hopefully, you have a family member or close friend who will serve as your shore agent in exchange for vacations aboard your boat from time to time. Otherwise, there are commercial mail forwarding services you can hire. You'll find up-to-date recommendations for them on the online cruising forums. Beyond that, online banking and other online services have made it easier to be mobile than it ever has been.
By now everyone knows free Web-based email accounts such as Hotmail and Gmail allow you to access your email from any internet-connected PC in the world without dragging your own PC around or looking for phone line access. Technology is changing fast and every year there will be new choices to consider and there is no shortage of cruising sailors willing to fill you in on the latest gadgetry. In recent years I've used my notebook PC to compose email onboard and just take the files ashore in a flash drive to copy and paste messages into Hotmail. Some of these free email services require you log-in at least once a month to keep them from canceling your account, so if this is the case with your provider you should give a trusted friend at home your password to log-in on the first of each month so you don't lose your mail on an extended cruise.
In recent years, satellite phone and text messaging have become options for those who can afford the equipment and monthly service costs. A less expensive alternative to satellites for text messaging is connecting a Pactor modem to your notebook PC and SSB transceiver. More about communications is in questions #11 below.
It will be difficult, but by ruthlessly cutting as many ties as possible to your old shore life and by using Internet-based banking and correspondence and mail-forwarding services you should be able to cut loose and go cruising even without the home-base support of a close relative.
What storm tactics do you use?
My masthead rigged Triton heaves-to without gripes using a reefed main alone or in combination with a backed storm jib or small piece of unfurled jib and the tiller lashed slightly to leeward. In this way, she generally fore-reaches a little while drifting to leeward at about one knot, depending on the wind strength. This creates a slick of calmer water to windward and makes for a surprisingly easy motion in a wild-looking sea. She also handles well running straight downwind under windvane self-steering with just a storm jib, but the low 2-foot freeboard aft means waves occasionally climb aboard. I've run downwind under bare poles in squalls when winds briefly went above 50 knots, which works even though you don't have much maneuverability doing that. By having gasket-sealed cockpit locker lids and the companionway hatch boards in place I have never taken significant water below deck.
For several years I carried a parachute-type sea anchor without ever using it. When I finally could have used it during a storm off the South African cape, I felt there was too much shipping in the area to sit there as an unmaneuverable 600-foot-long target. Imagine being sucked into the side of a ship that is winding up your anchor rode with his prop or pulling you in from its bulbous bow! It would also have been too dangerous to go on deck to deploy by the time I realized I could use it. Another thing people sometimes fail to consider is that retrieving a sea anchor can be an absolute nightmare because storms do not normally turn instantly into fair weather. Once the storm has passed it may still blow at 30 knots for a day or more. You'll want to get underway but not be able to safely recover the sea anchor in those conditions. There's a good chance your expensive sea anchor will either chafe through its line and disappear or you'll end up casting it off because you're unable to pull it in against the force of the seas. For sailing within the tropics and not during hurricane season it is unlikely you will ever need a sea anchor. If you are going into high latitudes or on a multi-hull, a sea anchor may be worth taking, provided you have practiced using it and understand its risks and limitations.
A better alternative, when sea room is available may be the Jordan series drogue deployed off the stern. I recently added one of these to Atom's equioment inventory but have not yet had the opportunity to deploy it. The same retreival problems exist with a drogue as with the parachute sea anchor, but at least there is less danger of the boat falling off the wind to expose her beam to the seas or being carried back and breaking its rudder
For a long time I sailed with the luck of the innocent. By careful passage planning - sailing in the right area going in the right direction at the right time of year - I managed to sail one and a half times around the world before I encountered a severe storm. If you sail long enough and far enough, anyone's luck is bound to run out. That is when your experience and resourcefulness will be put to use. For the most part I've enjoyed trouble-free passages.
What type cooker do you use and what do you eat at sea?
Although most cruising boats today use propane stoves, they do have several drawbacks. There is risk of explosion - I know of a few boats that have blown up. (If you can remember to always turn off the gas bottle after shutting off the stove, then there's little danger.) Second, I don't have room anywhere for a gas bottle locker, or something else would have to go. Third, they can be troublesome to refill in foreign ports using different valve threads and gas mixtures and bottle exchange schemes. Some small boats carry the little camping butane or propane gas stoves, which can be fine for limited cooking while sailing in your home waters, but the thin metal bottles rust through easily when stored and are not available in many foreign ports and the stoves they attach to do not fit a variety of larger sized pots and frying pans. If you do choose the small gas cookers, you may be able to redesign and modify the gimbals and pot rail to make them more versatile.
What about alcohol stoves which some Americans use? Denatured alcohol is wickedly expensive, burns cooler than kero or propane, has a near transparent flame that can be dangerously difficult to see in bright light, and is hard to find in a pure form in foreign ports. With a kero stove you also need some alcohol for preheating the burner, but a gallon will last you a year. Despite all this, a non-pressurised alcohol stove such as the Origo is dead simple to operate and might be your best choice, particularly if you sail in waters where alcohol is readily available.
You can look at our galley and new stove on the Atom Stove projects page. It's a copy of a kerosene Primus stove of the type that used to be available for $20 in any third world hardware store. They are harder to come by now, but are still available at some camping equipment suppliers or ebay, usually for around $50. I designed and fabricated my stainless steel gimbaled pot holder and support bracket. The stove unhooks from its gimbals and can easily be taken ashore. I keep a complete spare stove in a locker plus spare burners and other spare bits. There is a knack to operating a kerosene stove and it takes some practice.
One of the difficulties some people find in operating a kero stove is the alcohol preheating procedure. You can adopt the standard method of using a squirt bottle to pour alcohol into the preheat bowl under the burner, but I find it's easier and safer to use a preheat wick, or "Tilley wick", as the English call them. This fiberglass wick is soaked for two seconds in a small bottle of alcohol, then clipped under the burner and lit. Once it burns down, you pump and light the stove.
Kerosene is still economical and fairly easy to find around the world, although in some countries it will require some searching, but generally less searching and drama than finding a place to fill a gas bottle. I suppose one day if these stoves and the kerosene to fuel them become less available, more of us sooty-fingered kerosene stove enthusiasts who are keeping alive this nautical tradition, will be forced to join the propane age.
For more details, check our Recipes and Provisioning page for foods and recipes based on low cost diets on non-refrigerated boats.
You carry a lot of fresh water. What about all that weight?
I built a 43-gallon integral water tank into the hull under the V-berth and later added another 18-gallon integral tank in the aft section of the Triton's deep bilge. Flexible watertanks are another option, but they are prone to leaks. We also carry several 3 and 5-gallon water cans in the bilge and cockpit lockers, which does add up to a lot of weight. Atom sits noticeably lower in the water when the tanks and cans are full (about 100 gallons total) and her sailing performance does suffer. I could always jettison water if I needed to and usually the tanks are not full anyway. Sailing light is good, but sometimes, like when going off to some dry island in the Bahamas for an extended stay, you'll want all the water you can carry. I'm not interested in rationing water to gain an extra half knot to windward if I don't need to.
I never had the budget nor the space or spare power to operate a watermaker. Besides, broken watermakers seem as common as broken electric autopilots, so who needs the aggravation? Instead, we can collect rainwater on deck by diverting the deck drains to a hose that we can fill water cans with inside the cabin. I don't yet subscribe to the modern cruiser's popular belief that all physical work (and lugging water cans IS work in some places) must be avoided at all costs. It's beyond my comprehension why some people would never haul water or row a dinghy when they would go running or pay to join a exercise club to stay fit. Besides, the islanders you encounter when going ashore with an empty water jug in your hand will be able to relate to you much better than if you go ashore demanding to know where the nearest watermaker service center is located.
Is it practical to sail engineless or with only a small outboard motor?
After sailing several years with a cantankerous old Atomic 4 gasoline inboard motor which I rarely used, I decided to remove it entirely and for a time I sailed engine-free. I made this choice for many reasons, including feeling that I was ready to tackle this sport on another level. Sailing alone and engineless seemed the best way to discover whatever it was that I was looking for. By threading my way through the Caribbean, crossing the Pacific and cruising extensively in Southeast Asia without an engine, I proved to myself that it was entirely practical. All that’s required are a boat like the Triton that sails well in light air, proper passage planning, a sculling oar and an uncommon degree of forethought and patience. On that voyage I stripped my boat of all gadgets down to what I felt were the essentials - at one point even removing the electrical system. That story is descibed in my latest book, Bound for Distant Seas. That was then.
Later, I rejoined the modern world by adding GPS, a SSB transceiver and a 3.5 hp outboard motor that hung on an adjustable stern bracket for use in entering and leaving ports. The addition of the outboard at the time was, I must admit, due more to laziness than to a real need. A lifestyle, whether its sailing without an engine or being vegetarian, need not be a lifelong commitment. Change brings growth and knowledge. A man who feels the urge to climb Mt. Everest does not necessarily need to climb that mountain every day for the rest of his life.
When a Brazilian fisherman pinched my little outboard, I could have bought another one. Instead, I had the confidence to laugh it off and say the hell with it, and continue my cruise up to Trinidad once again engine-free and without any engine troubles. Later, in the Carribbean I acquired another 3.5 hp outboard motor that was seldom used and spent most of its time stored in a cockpit locker. Back in the US on the east coast I traded up to a 6 HP for long trips on the ICW (Intracoastal Waterway).
For those requiring the ability to motor long distances in a small cruising boat, a 6 HP 4-stroke 20-inch or 25-inch long shaft outboard motor mounted either on a stern bracket or in a locker well, is a cheaper and possibly all-around better alternative to an inboard diesel. Your boat is going to sail more efficiently without the drag of the prop and with the hull prop aperture filled in and faired smooth. A 3.5 hp motor moved Atom at nearly four knots and her latest 6 hp motor gets us five and a half knots in a calm sea with a clean bottom. The highest powered motor in the 6 hp class is the 59 lb Tohatsu Sailpro model (available from onlineoutboards.com) with its extra long 25" shaft and high-thrust propeller. Just make sure you have room to store this extra 5" length motor.
Electric propulsion is another alternative that some sailors I know have chosen. Most have made custom installations of electric inboards, usually 24-48 volt motors driving the prop and shaft previously turned by the diesel. Range and power is limited depending on battery and charging capacity. If your motoring needs are modest you may get by with the Torqeedo Cruise 2.0 electric outboard with 121 lbs thrust at 24 volts. From reading the specs on this motor it seems suitable for a sailboat up to about 30' in length of moderate displacement where you should get 3-4 knots boat speed in calm waters. Unfortunately, early reports in 2007 indicated the motor control head has exposed and fragile wiring connections that will soon corrode in a saltwater environment. As of 2014 I still don't have any difinitive answer on their reliability. Hopefully, this problem will be corrected in later versions. There is also a remote steered 4.0 model with 215 lb thrust at 48 volts.
Most of today's sailors consider 10-15 hp necessary for a boat of around 28-foot and 4 tons. That's mainly because they intend to motor in conditions when they could be either under sail, hove-to or anchored - if they had the patience. These same sailors would consider a broken engine a good enough reason to cancel their cruise. Well, if your planned cruise is 2,000 miles upwind on the Thorny Path in a boat that does not sail all that well, turning back due to a broken engine might be wise. Cruising without an engine means that you must be more selective and defensive when choosing your cruising route and destinations. Since not every harbor will be safe to enter under sail alone, you must look for alternative routes and destinations. Under sail alone you simply cannot safely or easily go anywhere you want.
Almost all of you will choose to cruise with a powerful inboard engine, but I think you are missing an important dimension of the sailing life as well as putting your boat or even your life in jeopardy if you don't also develop the skills to sail where you want to go without the aid of an engine.
What type self-steering do you recommend?
During my first two years of sailing I shared the tiller with crew and experimented with sheet-to-tiller steering rigs. Like most boats, my Triton does not stay balanced for extended periods under sheet-to-tiller setups except when sailing hard on the wind. So for my first ocean crossing I installed an Aries windvane which worked well for many years. Later, I upgraded to a Monitor windvane when I was offered one new at a discount. The Monitor’s size is overkill for a 28-foot boat and frankly it's ugly on a small boat and its price is now ridiculous. But it is robust and its performance is exceptionally good. Its ability to be rigged as an emergency rudder with an optional (and expensive) kit is another bonus for those who can afford it.
Several other types of windvane on the market work well enough. I made a trans-Atlantic delivery passage on another Triton using a Jean-du-Sud integrated Cape Horn windvane that cost $2,450 in 2006. It performed well and I had no complaints. To my eye, the integrated Cape Horn model is the best looking of all the commercial windvanes, but intrudes into and takes up considerable space in the lazarette locker. They also have an outboard model that sacrifices some of the slim profile and does not take up any locker space. The 44 lb German Pacific Windpilot is appropriately-sized for a Triton and easier to install than the Cape Horn. After installing a Windpilot on a customer's boat and sailing with it offshore, I found it worked well. But it is expensive and mixes aluminum with stainless steel, which may cause long-term corrosion issues. Boats under about 27-foot could use the lighter and cheaper Pacific Light Windpilot. Originally it was offered without remote course adjustment making it a poor choice, however I have heard that it now is available with remote adjustment, which means you can rig a line to the companionway to adjust course without going out into the spray leaning over the transom. All the other windvanes I know of have this remote course adjustment as a standard feature.
Another windvane available in recent years is the Norvane. Although I haven't had a chance to make an extended passage with one yet I have installed and tested several units and have gotten good reports from the owners who have now crossed the Atlantic and Pacific. One was used on a circumnavigation on an Alberg 30. Its price of around $2,200 (in 2015) and lightweight unobtrusive design make it the best value out there that I know of. In 2014 I installed a Norvane on Atom and initial sea trials did not disappoint.
Some folks have cobbled together their own windvanes with varying success, but this doesn't make sense for most of us now that the relatively inexpensive Norvane is available. Or you may find a used windvane of some type for sale online and they usually go for half the cost or less of a new one.
As part of your practical lessons in sailing you should first experiment with sheet-to-tiller self steering. Then you can decide if you need something more complex and expensive. At least then you will have something to fall back on when your expensive electric autopilot craps out. My guess, backed up by first hand experience and talking to hundreds of sailors, is that statistically, an electric tiller auto-pilot will fall apart before you cross one ocean. And the spare you carry will fail halfway home.
If you want freedom from the drudgery of the tiller, I would suggest not relying exclusively on electric autopilots, whose frequent breakdowns are notorious cruise-cripplers. I use my windvane for normal or heavy weather conditions as well as an electric autopilot for light airs when the boat speed falls below about 1.5 knots and the apparent wind is too little for the windvane to work properly. The motor-sailors on tight schedules may think I'm joking. I'm not! Sailing at one knot at times is not merely necessary, it's enjoyable.
What communication, navigation and safety equipment do you carry?
Atom has little in the way of what is called "safety equipment". For example: instead of doubtful man-overboard retrieval systems, we always wear a safety harness when underway. (More on that in #20 below.) And on a small boat a fire extinguisher spewing streams of powder would never keep up with a scared man with a bucket. Yes I know the USCG requires one so have your extinguisher on board, but keep the buckets handy.
Instead of an epirb and a liferaft I've concentrated on making the boat itself safer. To protect against sinking from a collision, I modified most of the lower storage lockers into watertight compartments by adding sealed partitions and gasketed access hatches. I’ve added enough of these sealed compartments that I’m confident you could knock a hole in Atom anywhere below the waterline and she would remain afloat long enough to make emergency repairs. The top of my V-berth is now 5-inches above the waterline and also has sealed access hatches. Even the toilet has been placed behind an open-topped watertight bulkhead to prevent any of its plumbing fittings from flooding the entire boat. The cost of a liferaft, that you may feel you no longer need to carry once you've taken these other precautions, can go a long way toward paying the expenses of these modifications. It can also save your boat from sinking at its mooring due to a leaking toilet, or thru-hull fitting. A large and stable rigid dinghy with flotation can serve as your liferaft of last resort.
For navigation we have a handheld GPS and a sextant with HO 249 sight reduction tables and Nautical Almanac. Though tempted at times, I have not installed a radar on Atom since I'm reluctant to spend another thousand plus dollars and add more clutter and weight above deck than what I already have. In 2014 I added a VHF/AIS radio as well as a handheld VHF. In 1994 I added a Kenwood TS-450 SSB transceiver and Pactor email modem when I began a years-long cruise where I wanted to stay in communication with friends on boats heading for the same cruising destinations. In a moment of madness, in 1999 I brought aboard a Toshiba notebook PC and a friend donated us half a world of digital charts. The SSB transceiver is now gone and will eventually get replaced with a newer unit. A new $550 Toshiba notebook came aboard in 2006 and is mainly used for email, business and website work.
Anyway, I don't often use digital charts since a full-size paper chart gives a better view and is easier to use and care for than a PC or chart plotter. A photocopied chart is the only thing a budget-minded sailor is likely to afford and since US charts have already been paid for by taxes, they are in the public domain, free to all to copy, or they should be. A man with a keen eye on deck, a simple handheld GPS and an out of date chart is a whole lot safer than the modern sailor sitting below punching numbers into his chart plotter. Although I do use chartplotters on other boats just to keep current with technology, I recognize the false security they engender and don't consider them at all essential. As prices and power requirements drop, the 4 or 5-inch chartplotters mounted on a swing-out bracket in the companionway are making more sense on even the small cruising boat, (one was added to Atom in 2015) provided you have some paper charts as backup and practice their use.
Obviously, cell phones do not work more than a few miles offshore. Satellite phones had always been too expensive for my budget though I have used them with success on several delivery passages. Since 2010 you could buy a satellite phone for about $1,500 and buy prepaid minutes for around $2/minute with no monthly charges or contracts.
You can email for free with an SSB transciever using an Amateur Radio Pactor modem. The downside is that it is for non-business text traffic only, so you still need to use the cyber cafes. If you don't have an Amateur license and all the equipment and don't want to become a radio hobbyist, then this system isn't practical. I have also used SailMail for a flat rate annual membership fee of about $250. You can run both systems on the same equipment if needed. In 2007 SCS modems cost about $850. That kind of money can pay for a lot of cybercafe time, unless you really need the convenience of onboard email.
For those on a limited budget and those who prefer simplicity, I'd suggest you forego the SSB transceiver and get a small SSB receiver such as the Sony ICF-SW7600GR for about $130. If you want reception quality nearly equal to the big rigs you need to connect a good external antenna, not just the short spool of wire antenna supplied with the radios as clip-on external antennas. My updated article Aerial Tricks which first appeared in a shorter version in February 1999 Cruising World magazine describes how to make your own dipole antenna for receiving offshore weather forecasts and listening in on the various cruising nets as well as some links and more information on SSB receivers.
Why did you change Atom's rig to masthead?
In South Africa in 1995 I needed to replace Atom's mast because of corrosion between the aluminum and the bronze sail track attached to it by stainless screws. I replaced it with a masthead rig similar to the rig that Tritons built on the West Coast came with because I feel it's a better cruising rig - simpler and shorter for less heeling with same sail area and better supported. The masthead rig allows more jib area and larger spinnaker, which is very helpful in the light following winds frequently encountered on most tradewind passages and elsewhere. I added a Harken furling jib after I was offered a new one at half cost and because I felt like experimenting with it (read: getting too soft to enjoy chasing jibs around a plunging foredeck during an 0300 hours squall). As a backup I kept three jibs that can be set on an inner forestay that also serves as extra support to the mast. To counteract the foward pull of the inner forestay, I installed intermediate aft lower shrouds that act like running backstays, which I usually keep attached to chain plates just aft of the lower shrouds. These intermediate aft shrouds have a plastic sleeve to reduce chafe on the mainsail which now lays against them instead of against the spreaders. For heavy going using a jib hanked on the inner forestay, I can move the windward running backstay aft for better mast support. For a storm jib or in light airs they can be left in their forward position. I've read some rigging "experts" who don't think this inner forestay/running backstays system has any overall advantages, but I obviously disagree.
I didn't bother to run any lines aft from the mast to the cockpit since this just adds complexity, expense, friction, cockpit clutter, and the chance of tripping as lines roll underfoot. I don't mind going to the mast to raise and lower sail and it really is the best place to be for control when putting in a reef. I do run a set of preventer lines from the end of the boom to snatch blocks attached to port and starboard foredeck stanchion bases and back to the cockpit cleats. When sailing downwind it's handy to be able to quickly adjust the preventers during jibes or for minor sheeting adjustment. The spinnaker pole downhaul, which doubles as a whisker pole for the jib, is also worth running back to the cockpit for reducing trips to the bow when adjusting the spinnaker or jib sheet.
In 2014 I replaced Atom's old spinnaker with a Code 0, which is a type of gennaker on a removable furler. I added a short sprit pole to the stemhead to support the Code 0 tack. When not needed the sail is rolled up with its continuous line furler and dropped to the deck for stowage. The sprit pole is also removable.
What ground tackle do you use?
As well as matching your ground tackle to the size of your boat, you need to match it to your windlass (or lack of windlass), the strength of your back, the exposure and depth and bottom conditions of the anchorages you may frequent and your particular anchoring technique. Unless you know you will always anchor in shallow well-protected waters with good holding ground, you'll need serious ground tackle. Though I've anchored in waters as deep as 65 feet, that's extremely rare. Some 95% of the time I anchor in less than 25-foot depths and probably 75% of those are less than 15-foot. I'm usually able to avoid areas of likely anchor-fouling bottom obstructions because I most often cruise in clear waters with shallow anchorages. If not, I use a trip line. Ideally, your primary anchor should have enough chain for a 5-1 scope, plus a nylon rode attached for deeper waters. Besides the constant threat of your nylon rode chafing through, it's too simple for some disgruntled Mexican fisherman to pass by and slice your nylon rode with a knife, for you not to take the simple precaution of using all chain. Chain equals security - period.
When using all chain it's useful to tie a nylon snubber line to the chain with a rolling hitch to absorb some of the shock loads and quiet the grating noise of the chain that transfers into the boat through the bow roller. It's often pointed out that an all chain rode lacks the elasticity to absorb shock loads in severe conditions, thereby jerking the anchor out of the bottom. This can happen in some situations, but when I say "all chain", for a small boat I mean between 125-175 feet depending on the depths of the anchorages you expect to use. If caught at anchor in storm conditions with severe shock loads from breaking waves you may have to add another 100 feet of nylon or more to the end of the chain to provide additional elasticity. For the other 99.9% of your time at anchor, the all chain with short nylon snubber will work fine.
Still, on a small boat you'll be tempted to save weight and expense by using a short bit of chain. I recently completed a cruise on another Triton where the main anchor was a 25lb CQR with 55 feet of chain attached to 150 feet of nylon and though the anchor never dragged (and it was not severely tested), the nylon line did chafe through once on some bottom obstruction and I had to retrieve the anchor with a grapnel. I had not used a trip line this time because I'd relied on the stern anchor, which was holding the stern into the swell, to keep the bow anchor rode taught and off the bottom. Then a night of unusually high swell worked enough slack into the rodes to permit one to chafe through on some unseen rocks. From then on I avoided anchorages I felt were not suitable to the light ground tackle the boat carried. If you have any nylon anchor rode in contact with the sea bottom you are in danger of quickly chafing through on rocks, coral, or bottom obstructions.
During the 1990's I use a 33lb Bruce as primary anchor on 150 feet of 5/16 high test chain with 50 feet of 3/4-inch nylon rode attached. Later improvements in anchor design had me change to a 35lb Delta plow-type anchor for better ultimate holding power. Though more expensive than the Delta, recent tests indicate the Rocna 33 may be the best primary anchor to carry for dependable holding and resetting under high loads in a variety of bottom conditions. In 2014 I upgraded to the Rocna and it has lived up to its reputation so far. I carry several 125-foot lengths of spare 5/8-inch nylon rode to extend the main anchor rode when needed. Anything longer than about 50 feet of nylon permanently attached will not flake itself down in a small anchor locker and would require a second person below to coil it down during retrieval.
A 33-35 lb anchor is heavier and 150 feet is more chain than normally needed, but there may come a time when a heavy anchor saves your boat. During passages, my heavy bow anchor is stored in a cockpit locker to reduce weight on the bow and the deck chain pipe sealed with a cap that has a eye underneath attached to the anchor chain and ready for easy reconnection to the anchor. In 1995 I replaced my heavy bronze anchor windlass with a lighter model aluminum Lofrans Royal. If you lack a windlass you can always hitch a line from the chain and run it back to another winch for times when you need some extra leverage. A manual anchor windlass can be excruciatingly slow during anchor retrieval and is the main reason many sailors choose an electric windlass. But the electric windlass costs more, requires large battery cables and engine driven alternator running and is more prone to failure. It's also more likely to injure somebody. For a small boat on a budget, a manual windlass is most practical.
I frequently set either a lightweight Fortress FX-23 (15 lb) or 18 lb stainless steel Danforth-type stern anchor with about 25 feet of chain shackled to a 5/8- inch nylon rode to keep the bow into the swell. Even though lighter line is strong enough, the larger line is less affected by chafe. I do have thinner line I can use if I ever need the elasticity, but preventing chafe is usually a higher priority. Whenever possible, I like to moor with two anchors set 180 degrees apart and both tied to the bow so that the anchors and lines are never dragging around the bottom getting fouled. Typically, I come into an anchorage under reduced sail, kick the Danforth over the stern and pay out twice the amount of scope I want to end up with. The end of this anchor rode is led outside of all rigging and secured to the bow cleat. When the boat comes to a stop, I walk forward and release the bow anchor. Then I pull in on the stern anchor while letting out chain on the bow anchor until the boat is centered between the anchors. When departing, the above steps are reversed. Whenever this trick is not practical I bring the boat to a near stop and drop the main bow anchor and then dinghy out a second anchor and return to adjust them from the bow. My fourth anchor is a Fortress FX-37 (21 lb) that's reserved for a storm anchor and is kept disassembled in a storage bag.
How did you stop the deck leaks in your Triton?
At some point in their lives most east coast built Tritons will suffer from waterlogged balsa-cored decks. Water enters through leaking deck fittings and eventually rots the balsa core, causing it to delaminate. The first symptoms are leaks at chainplates, stanchion bases, and jib-sheet tracks. Eventually, the core breaks down entirely and feels spongy underfoot. I tried every known type of quick repair without lasting success until I realized the only permanent cure is to replace the core and upper layer of deck. After removing the deck fittings and cutting off the deck’s upper fiberglass layers using a circular saw, grinder, and hammer and chisel, I removed the rotted balsa and laid down a layer of epoxy-saturated fiberglass cloth. I then cut 3/8-inch thick polyurethane sheets into manageable-size pieces and set them into the deck in a thickened epoxy filler. On top of this I covered the deck with five more layers of fiberglass cloth and epoxy resin, repainted it and reinstalled the deck hardware. Thirty days of labor, but no more leaks!
Recently I did a partial deck recore on another Triton and used 3/8" Core-cell foam sheet and reused the upper deck skins. There are several ways to accomplish a deck recore and they are discussed on the Plastic Classics Forum on my Links page.
What type dinghy do you recommend?
I find a rigid dinghy powered by oars is the most practical. Inflatable dinghies with powerful motors are fast and the dinghy takes up less space when stowed deflated, but they are a prime target for thieves and are easy to vandalize. I saw one dinghy flat on the beach in the islands sliced end to end by a local boy who thought it a great joke. For me it's a poor choice to have a dinghy that can be destroyed in 5 seconds by nothing more than a kid with a bad attitude and a pocket knife. They also do not stand up well to chafe and are expensive and hard to replace in a far away port. And after all, let's not lose sight of why we are sailing instead of motorboating; inflatable go-fast dinghies with big motors are much closer to the mentality of jet-skiers and speedboats than they are to cruising under sail. I realize it's a lost battle though, so you'll just have to decide for yourself if you need to join the 90% group of cruisers who annoy the hell out of the other 10% who seek a tranquil anchorage. In Hong Kong I built my first 6 1/2-foot pram out of 1/4-inch plywood and a single layer of epoxy/fiberglass for light weight.
In 2014 I designed the Atom 6 and 6.5 dinghy - a stitch and glue plywood and epoxy resin/fiberglass pram. An article with instructions on how to build it with full-size patterns available is at the link below:
I've seen a few nesting dinghies I really liked. If you must carry a big dinghy on a small deck, this is a good option. I've been able to get by with a small dinghy so far so I saved the extra weight, set up and stowage hassles associated with the nesting dinghy. If I ever get around to experimenting with a sailing dinghy, I'll be tempted to build a nesting dinghy.
Since my 1988 visit to Hawaii I also carried a 16-foot fiberglass sit-on-top kayak that was indispensable as a second dinghy and opened up new areas to explore. More recently it was replaced with a 10-foot Pelican plastic kayak. If you have the deck space a 12-foot Pompano is a good choice for better performance. Sit-inside ayaks, which you have to tuck yourself inside can be difficult to get in and out of from a boat at anchor so I prefer the tropic waters version in which you sit on top in a deep molded seat. They have water drains at the bottom of the footwells and a gear stowage behind the seat. During passages the kayak is tied down on deck and blocks one of the side-decks, but I find it so useful that I've put up with this inconvenience.
What other modifications have you done to Atom?
Check the About Atom page for a list of some improvements and modifications I've done over the past 30-some years. More photos and descriptions are on the Boat Projects pages. In 2010 I placed Atom on her trailer and brought her into one of our backyard boat sheds where she underwent a four year part-time refit. Modifications done included an enclosed outboard motor well in the lazarette locker and general refurbishing and updated equipment. Since 2014 we keep Atom in a local marina in Brunswick, GA and sail local waters. We hope to make some trips to Bahamas or further as our work schedule permits. I'd prefer to have the boat at anchor or on a mooring but I haven't found any good options for that in this area.
How much electricity do you need and how do you supply it?
Regardless if you have an engine-driven alternator, you'll need an alternative way of recharging your batteries. Wind chargers ("you get used to the noise", I'm told) and to a lesser extent, towing generators (God help you when you need to retrieve it in high seas), are popular among cruisers, but I prefer the silent reliability of solar panels. The goal is to match the boat's 12-volt electrical system between the loads of the various onboard electrical appliances to the battery bank capacity and the ability to recharge the batteries. This can be roughly estimated by making a list of all electric accessories on your boat, noting their amperage draw, and guessing how many hours per day each item might be used. Then multiply the amp draw times hours used and total all items for your amp hours per day requirement. Although there are too many variables to cover every situation, you will roughly need to be able to generate about twice this number of amp hours on an average day and have a large enough battery bank to supply power during several consecutive rainy days.
Aboard Atom, where I have no inboard engine and therefore do not need a separate starter battery, I used four deep cycle 6-volt golf cart type batteries wired to deliver 440 amp hours at 12 volts. These rugged batteries are more cost efficient and stand up better to frequent deep discharges than any other type I have used. On those batteries I ran a modest amount of appliances including an SSB transceiver, notebook PC, and a 1,000-watt inverter to operate a juicer/blender and occasional use of power tools. During Atom's 2010-14 refit, relocating the aft watertank required that I move the batteries and mount three of the four on an inlcine.Also, the tops of those three batteries were no longer easily accessible to check for acid levels so I changed all four to 105AH AGM batteries.
As well as doing refits to my own boat, I make my living from time to time working on other boats so I need lots of electrical tools. You may not need all this equipment, and should try to get by without it, if you can. It will simplify things and give you more space on your mini-cruiser if you don't accumulate anything you don't absolutely need to have aboard. If you plan to anchor near other boats I'd suggest you avoid running your inboard engine or one of those gas generators on deck, which should be doable if your battery bank capacity is sufficiently large.
To recharge the batteries I rely entirely on two solar panels rated 50-watts each. If solar panels are left in a fixed horizontal position, there is only a couple of hours per day at most when they will be operating at anywhere near their rated capacity. So in order to get the maximum output from the panels, I designed and installed the Atom Solar-Tracker, adjustable swiveling mounts placed on vertical stainless steel tubes attached to the pushpit. Here the panels are out of the way in an area that has minimal shading.
Because I usually cruised in the sun-drenched tropics, the two panels normally provided sufficient charge to the batteries even when I leave them in the horizontal position. However, whenever I notice the battery voltage falling below about 12.5 volts, which sometimes happens after a period of heavy power tool usage or a few days of overcast weather, I swivel the panels two or three times a day to track the sun. When the panels are perpendicular to the sun their output is at least 30% greater than if they were left all day in a horizontal position. By having the capability to point the solar panels at the sun you should be able to use fewer panels for the same amount of current output. Using less solar panels not only saves money, but saves space, which is always a major concern on a small cruising boat.
I've used and installed flexible and rigid panels over the years on several boats and each type has its good/bad points. I've seen a lot of flexible panels only a few years old go in the rubbish because a flexible panel is apparently difficult to make watertight. Submersion in breaking waves and flogging when unattended in a squall apparently is not so good for them! In 2015 I found some semi-flexible solar panels built by Renogy and sold on Amazon that seem to have better output and appear more sturdy than true flexible panels of the past. But for me, dealing with the loose wiring and retying a flexible panel all over the deck trying to chase the sun seems too much of a hassle for the low output and there are not always shade-free areas available. I guess the main factors not to use rigid panels is because you consider them too unsightly or you cannot come up with an affordable adjustable mount or because you don't need the extra output power. With careful use the semi-flexible panels should last several years and you may find them preferable for your situation. Mostly it's personal choice.
Here's a few points to consider when choosing flexible or rigid panels.
Advantages of flexible panels:
- Can be stored below flat under a bunk when not needed.
- No mounting hardware required aside from four strings.
- Lightweight and easily removable (my rigid panels are just as easy to remove, but don't store as flat)
- Can be relocated as needed to areas of direct sunlight at least some of the time.
- Some use built-in shade resistant wiring (though this is also available on some rigid panels).
- Lower profile means potentially less unsightly. This is subjective. When I see a solar panel on a boat, I see something no less beautiful than the mast that supports the sails; a perfect expression of passive-system energy harnessing from nature, which is the essence of sailing boats.
Advantages of adjustable mount rigid panels:
- Can be locked or bolted down to deter theft.
- Higher output power.
- Less corrosion failures.
- Cheaper cost per watt.
- Simpler to orient towards sun with a tracker for max output.
- No loose wires running around the deck.
- Mountable in the most shade-free unoccupied area on the boat, which is aft the boom and backstay and above the pushpit.
Atom's original 43-watt solar panels are no longer produced. A good alternative for a tracker mount on a small boat is any panel in the 50-watt range. Most small cruisers with limited electric needs can get by with one 50-watt panel, if it's on a Solar-Tracker. If fixed-mounted you should double the panel capacity.
Regardless of how you generate electricity, it makes sense to conserve on your energy consumption. Why go to the trouble and expense of maintaining a large generating capacity when trimming your consumption will accomplish the same goal of keeping energy production and consumption in balance? For example, long ago I've replaced all my incandescent light bulbs with halogen bulbs and then trimmed more amp hours by upgrading to LED lighting. Atom now has a combination anchor/tricolor on the masthead. A less expensive anchor light solution is to use the portable utility/anchor light from marinebeam.com that hangs under the boom in the cockpit and doubles as a cockpit light. You can conserve electricity in many other areas such as using a portable icebox instead of a refrigerator. An icebox also has the advantage of never needing repair or causing food to spoil by an unexpected failure - you pretty much know when the ice will melt. If you must have a freezer/fridge the portable Coolfreeze is a good option. Electric water pumps and bilge pumps can likewise be eliminated on the small cruiser in favor of more reliable manual pumps. If I want a hot shower and the sun is not shinning, I fill my solar shower bag with some water heated on the stove.
What about sculling vs rowing with two oars?
In my experience the standard Western sculling oar, which is usually just a single normal rowing oar that is twisted in a figure-eight motion off the transom, is noticeably less efficient than the Chinese yuloh (sculling oar). I believe a yuloh is more efficient for a long haul in calm waters (if there are any waves the yuloh is difficult to keep on its pin and socket) and is the best option for rowing in confined harbors. A sculling oar can propel Atom in a calm at around one knot and her skipper has on occasion kept up that pace for two hours at a time. That's a big effort so don't expect to go far or go fast. I would think a pair of conventional wooden or fiberglass Western oars is potentially faster, especially if there is a headwind in situations that would be awkward to sail, and is the best option in choppy waters, but may wear you out sooner because of the constant lifting and swinging of the oars as opposed to the sculling oar which delivers thrust with every swing. Normally when you have a chop or waves you also have wind so you don't need to row, but there are times of wave without wind and headwinds in confined areas.
I've only used a sculling oar on Atom, but would encourage others to experiment with a pair of lightweight fiberglass oars because of the two problems mentioned above - a headwind in a narrow canal or in waves. Here is a photo of Atom's 16' sculling oar. This oar was copied off a Hong Kong sampan which has a slightly different construction from yulohs in other parts of China. Roughly, the length of your oar depends on the amount of curve of the particular oar design, height of oar pin above water, your standing chest height above water and distance between pin and inboard end of oar. You'll have to work it out yourself, but I can't imagine an oar of less than about 13' being effective on a boat with over 20" of freeboard aft. Keep in mind you'll want about three feet of the blade immersed. You can find more on sculling oars on the Links page.
How can I get started cruising?
I often am asked this question and it's impossible to give one set of guidelines helpful for everyone. People want to know: What type or size boat do I need? How do I learn to sail? What does cruising cost? What equipment should I have? and so on. If you've read much on this site you'll already know that I stand outside the mainstream on most of these issues and you'll have to view my advice as opinion based on my own cruising style which has slowly evolved and continues to evolve. In other words, I've been known to change my mind! And let neither of us forget that my dream is not necessarily your dream. I'm no more interested in being a leader than I am a follower, so I encourage people to go their own way. That said, I'm pleased to share my experience with a sympathetic soul. Before giving you any advice, first I'd want to ask you some questions:
What is your goal? To sail around the world alone? To gunkhole with a family of five on short coastal cruises? Are you retired with health concerns or a young couple wanting to spend a year cruising the Caribbean or two years in the Pacific? - You may have a specific goal in mind, or more likely, you think you want to cruise "as long as it's fun" as you often hear people say. Well, there's plenty of fun, but the bad news is that it's certainly not all fun. If you don't expect to have considerable obstacles to overcome and frequent physical discomfort, annoyance and unpredictable challenges ahead, you may as well declare it "not fun" and forget about making anything but the briefest of forays afloat. Know your goals and then you can prepare to make it happen.
Have you sailed at all before and how soon do you want to make your first ocean crossing? - If you've never sailed before, try getting some basic skills on a sailing dinghy and move up to a bigger boat only when you master the fundamentals. Formal sailing course instruction will speed things up, but you can certainly teach yourself with some books, a small sailboat and lots of time on the water. Check out the Books Aboard page for reference books on cruising. Hang out in boatyards and popular cruiser ports and volunteer as crew to gather experience. Resist the temptation to get a bigger boat than you can handle or one that is bigger than you need. Which brings us to...
What is your budget? - Cruising will cost much more than you expected and certainly it'll cost whatever you can afford. I don't mean to dissuade you because I know a few of you could cross the Pacific in a dugout canoe without instruments or cruise the Indian Ocean for years on a homemade junk-rigged steel boat without an engine or electrics and virtually no money. I know some of you could do this because I have friends who have done it. Some "responsible" people will tell you they are bums or leeches on society. No, these are not people looking for handouts. They live independent, low-cost, and environmentally low-impact lifestyles and they don't care about paying taxes for things they don't much utilize or approve of.
Realistically, we should be thankful that most people do not drop out from society. If all of us were to live like sailing gypsies, then life would get pretty hard and short for all of us. But that does not mean individuals of greater courage do not have the right to choose to live outside mainstream society. They can teach us that not having lots of money is no excuse for not going cruising. You merely need to trim your expenses to match your means. You may be able to find work along the way, and the more desperately you need it, and the more skills you have, the more likely you will find it.
What is your physical condition? What is your lifestyle and are you looking to maintain it as is or make some big changes? What level of complexity or simplicity in your lifestyle do you hope to attain as a liveaboard cruiser? - The yachting press and the Internet sailing message boards today are full of timid folks chanting the mantra of safety, gadgets and flotilla cruising. Many try to spend their way out of their ignorance and fear. Sure, the sea can be a tough playground and you'd better know what you're doing, but spend, spend, spend, follow the experts guidelines, and join a fleet of 50 footers is not my way to see the world. A mans got to know his limitations, someone said. Bugger that! My advice - challenge yourself; push your limits; do the things you've imagined yourself doing; go simple and go now.
What other singlehanding tips can you give?
Sailors will tell you today, as they always have, that singlehanding is unsafe, foolhardy, poses a threat to navigation, is generally unseamanlike, and should be banned. True, it's dangerous in the same general way that say, a solo mountain climb is dangerous. Bad things can happen. For example, even those who criticize singlehanders get in their cars and commute to work at 70+ MPH in bumper to bumper rush hour tafffic without an adequate clear stopping distance in front. Consider that more sailors, including singlehanders, are killed or crippled on the highways than perish while sailing across the oceans. Hell, even driving down a country two lane highway at night with the knowledge that any minute a drunk could cross the centerline and end your life in a split second wouldn't cause most of us a moment of hesitation and certainly wouldn't keep us off the road.
The point is, we all do all kinds of statistically dangerous things without a second thought mainly because of familiarity and doing what everyone else does. I call it the lemming effect. "Oh, that's different, " the safety-obsessed lemmings say. "We have a drivers license, wear our seat belts and buy medical and auto insurance." First you have to understand that people not interested in, or not psychologically or physically up to a certain task can come up with all sorts of plausible sounding excuses why you shouldn't do it either. Safety and following "The Rules" is always at the top of their list and how can you argue with that. This is the way they appear to be right and are completely wrong at the same time. There are indeed some aspects of singlehanding that are particularly hazardous, but there are ways to minimize the hazards. Your name doesn't have to be Joshua Slocum to successfully sail singlehanded.
To start with, I'm not particularly thrilled by the idea of a fleet of solo sailors on 60-foot boats racing at 20 knots across the ocean. I'd like to know when they hold their events and keep clear of it. But the idea of some 25 to 30-foot monohull being solo sailed, poking along at 4 or 5 knots in mid-ocean without continuous watch-keeping does not strike me as overly endangering themselves or other shipping. You may as well ban blind people from the streets because they may inadvertently stumble into the street or trip you with their cane. With AIS ship tracking ability, there is even less threat of collision nowadays.
The modern cruising couple co-captain team of a 50-foot motorsailer who trigger their rescue beacon because an electric winch has ripped off the designated skipper-of-the-day's finger or he's convinced himself that his wife's indigestion is acute appendicitis, and they feel entitled to have air evacuation or shipping diverted to come to their aid, strikes me as far more of a threat to others than an experienced small boat solo sailor. Yet this kind of very real risk is considered the norm and therefore acceptable, while the pontificating safety expert scorns the singlehander as selfish and foolhardy. Even though the full-crewed, big cruiser poses a bigger threat to the safety of all concerned, I wouldn't suggest they be restricted from doing whatever they want to do. At the opposite end is the rare purist who sails without rescue signal devices and has relatives ashore he can trust not to demand a search be made if he becomes overdue. He makes his own choices and lives or dies on his own terms. Let's face it though, few of us will take that path. We simply haven't got the guts. Or to put it in popular safety jargon - we're not that crazy.
For those few still with me, I'll go over a few of my own techniques and recommendations for making solo sailing easier and (reasonably) safe. First - choose the right size boat. If you can't handle most of the jobs on the boat with your own muscle power, the boat is too big. If you cannot pull yourself back aboard after falling overboard, you have a boat with too much freeboard. For most of us that means about 22-30 inches of freeboard aft with steps if needed.
I never sail alone in cold waters or beyond a harbor or small bay without a harness on at all times. For many years I've used two ropes tied to fittings amidships on the cabin top that are just long enough to reach from bow to stern. One line is led around each side of the dodger and the ends with their snap-shackles are laid on the bridgedeck at the companionway entrance. Before I step out of the boat I clip on one of the lines, usually the windward side for going forward, and if I go overboard the line will pull me up alongside the aft quarter from where I can heave myself aboard. This will be easier on the leeward side, but if the boat has low freeboard you still have a chance to get aboard on the windward side by timing your reach with the roll of the boat.
There are still certain situations that might stop you getting back aboard, such as an injury or the boat is heeled excessively in calm seas, or is going so fast that you are unable to overcome the drag. But the smaller your boat is and the lower the freeboard the less chance there is that this could happen. It's another one of those seeming contradictions to common sense that proves a small boat is in most ways safer than a big boat. If you are not always wearing a harness, but have intentions to wear one "when it's needed", then you won't have it on when the boom swings across and takes you overboard on a light air day or you slip overboard while taking a leak over the side or you'll forget it in the rush of a crises and these are the times when you are likely to be lost.
A centerline jackstay running near the length of the boat to clip a three-foot-long tether from your harness to is best to prevent you going over the side. However, you must find a way to rig it over a dodger and under the bimini and have clearance to duck under the boom to get forward of the mast. Because the centerline jackstay must run along one side of the mast there will be times when a sharply heeled deck forces you to go forward on the wrong side. Then you will either have to reclip or crawl under the boom if not blocked by a vang or dinghy. Two centerline jackstays, one on each side of the mast, may be the best solution.
What about sleep? Coastal cruising on a passage of over about two days duration is an obvious problem for solo sailors. You simply cannot get enough sleep while staying alert for the frequent shipping, shoals, reefs, and weather changes on a coastal passage. If caught in this situation, the best you may be able to do is sleep a half hour or so on the offshore tack and then stay awake on the inshore tack. It should go without saying that it makes sense to get 20 miles or more offshore before you turn parallel to the coast and then approach port at as near a 90 degree angle as is practical to minimize the dangers of coasting. Setting a radar guard zone is useful for the solo sailor if he can afford the expense, power consumption, weight and windage aloft for a radar on his small boat. Since 2009, an AIS-equipped VHF radio receiver has been available to identify shipping equipped with AIS transmitters. The radio can be set to sound an alarm if ships approach within your guard zone.
A kitchen timer is useful when you want to catch a few minutes sleep between brief scans of the horizon. The problems of sleep are much less if you plan on sailing down the trades across the oceans. When well offshore in settled weather, the boat looks after herself for hours on end with the windvane self-steering engaged. I found in those conditions I developed a natural rhythm of sleeping for a couple hours at a time through the night with brief moments between these extended naps to scan the horizon for ships or weather changes and course and sail adjustment. If I had a rough night and missed getting enough sleep, then I would take several of these naps during the following day.
When sailing alone I chose to stop mainly at ports that were easily approached without excessive off-lying dangers. I usually arrived totally rested and ready to hit the town. There were tricky exceptions to this, such as approaching heavy shipping areas near Panama, Hong Kong, or the Torres Straits with it's strong currents, reefs and low-lying islets. In those cases you need to be well rested before final approach and stay in the cockpit where you are more alert to your environment while taking naps as short as five minutes if necessary. I find using coffee or other stimulants is counterproductive in the long-term, since you can stay alert longer by taking the briefest of naps in the cockpit. At sea I quickly develop such an intuitive feel for the boat's movements that even when asleep I automatically awaken if the wind has increased or decreased, the course changed relative to the waves passing under the hull, or if there's a different tone to the sounds of the sea and wind.
As I mentioned in #10 above, there is no good substitute for a mechanical windvane backed up with a knowledge of how to balance the boat and rig sheet-to-tiller self-steering arrangements. For the average singlehander, there is no dependable substitute. Add an electric auto-pilot, and a spare back-up unit, if you want added convenience, but don't forego the windvane for anything but the briefest of passages.
The owner of any cruising sailboat, and particularly a singlehander, should consider adding watertight bulkheads forward and wherever possible in case of collision with a semi-submerged object or even hitting a reef. I described this further in my article In Search of the Unsinkable Boat.
What's the best way to avoid collisions with ships?
Whether sailing alone or with crew, whether you have radar or AIS or not, the only way to guarantee not getting run down by a ship or smaller craft such as a fishing boat is to have someone alert and on deck at all times. Most of us can't or won't do this though. How I deal with watch-keeping depends on what waters I'm in, the equipment on the boat, and the crew. I avoid or cross known shipping lanes at right angles where possible. In mid-ocean, off the main shipping tracks, you might not pass near a ship for days or even weeks. Statistically, there is little to worry about in that case and I tend to be less vigilant on keeping watch. But on a fully crewed delivery there is no reason not to keep a good watch at all times, since it's your responsibility to reduce the risk of collision no matter how remote the danger.
Often ships will not keep a good watch themselves and for a variety of reasons just won't see you. When I saw a ship that seemed to be approaching, I would take a compass bearing and keep a close eye on it. If there was time, before I altered course, I called him on VHF channel 16, stating my position, course and speed relative to him, and asking him if he will "be able to avoid me". This usually resulted in him making a course change and telling me which side he will pass. If they didn't answer, I waited until I was certain which course will most easily take me clear of his path and then I made a large enough turn to make it obvious to him what I'm doing if he's watching, and to make it obvious to myself as soon as possible that my course change is having the desired effect. At night, I would shine a powerful spotlight on my sails and briefly direct it at the ship and then back on my sails. It's not good form to embarrass the fellow by shinning a bright light for a long time on his bridge. But when done briefly and repeated often enough, this nearly always results in the ship altering course to clear us. Of course, the process described above is much easier and more effective if you have an AIS receiver because the ship's name, course, speed, and point of closest approach are given to you.
If you're inclined to have expensive electronics aboard and more weight in the rigging, then having radar is a great asset. When I'm aboard a boat with radar, I set a guard zone alarm and put it into power save mode. Both the small Furuno and the JRC units have worked well for me doing this. The radar alarm works to alert you to approaching squalls at night as well as shipping or m=land hazards. A shallow water alarm on your depthsounder is another benefit to a sleeping sailor.
The latest radars from Garmin and Raymarine are used with a multifunction display combining chartplotter, GPS, depth sounder, AIS, and more in one display. The AIS receiver or transmitter I mentioned above, cost only $400 in 2014 so it should be in most sailor's budgets and is high on my list of recommended equipment. A radar detector is helpful in theory, but all units I've tried were prone to false alarms which at times made them worse than useless. As for radar reflectors, if they are not physically huge, that's to say, bigger than I want to carry, their performance is questionable.
After uncounted thousands of miles at sea, I have only once had a collision with another boat. This occurred on a full moon night while running downwind in the Indian Ocean. Atom was sailing along at about 4 to 4.5 knots, fifty miles off Java under reefed main and poled out working jib. I had just scanned the horizon ten minutes earlier and was back in my bunk reading a book. Minutes before my next scheduled scan there was a loud crash and the boat jolted to an abrupt stop. Atom pivoted sideways to the wind. I jumped up through the companionway to see we were grinding alongside a 40-some-foot Indonesian wooden fishing boat in the high swell. Several men were reaching for my boat and shouting in great excitement. Rammed by pirates, I thought as I ran around pushing the men's hands away from my boat and eventually working Atom forward to pass off their bow into clear water. It turned out the fishermen had apparently been sleeping on deck with their engine and all lights off. As they lay ahull, sideways to the wind and sea, I came along and T-boned them amidships, scaring them as much as myself. Their heavy wood hull was only lightly damaged. If either of us would have had guns aboard it's possible at least I would have been shooting first and regretting later. A constant deck watch just might have been able to see that unlit boat in time to avoid hitting it. AIS would have been useless here. A radar just may have been able to sound its alarm before the poor target of a wooden boat got too close. It's hard to know.
Another thing this incident brought home to me is that the oft-repeated advice that sailing fast is safe because it helps you make it to the next port with less chance of encountering bad weather is not altogether correct, or at least not the whole story. If you're like me you sleep better and are less stressed sailing slower and a rested sailor is better able to safely handle a storm when it comes. Not only does sailing faster cause more wear and tear on sails and rig, you are far more likely to rip the bottom out of your boat in a collision with a whale, tree, or drifting container when going at a high speed. By putting in one reef more than is needed for fastest sailing, you will be less fatigued and have less chance of damaging gear from a knockdown by a midnight squall. Atom sustained a broken forestay and shroud, broken bow pulpit, and a small hole in the hull above the waterline in her collision with the fishing boat at four knots. At six knots we would have had much greater damage, probably including losing the mast. Sure, you just may beat a storm into port by sailing fast, but it is not safer in most respects.
Is it cost effective to rebuild an old boat?
No, usually not. Even if you do 95% of the work yourself, it's cheaper and saves you much time and hassle to pay top dollar for a Triton or similar older boat in well-maintained condition and fully fitted out than to get a cheap fixer-upper and do an extensive refit. For example, you could possibly buy a broken-down Triton for say $3,000 and then spend six months full time working on it and spending easily $20,000 in materials and equipment, like rebuilding the engine, replacing the mast maybe, installing a windvane, replacing a rotten wood rudder, replacing rotten balsa deck core, adding electronics, dodger, etc. Or you could try to buy one fully fitted out and repaired for $15K-20K and save yourself the work and probably save money in the end. Or you could get something in between these two extremes. For many people it makes sense to pay the extra money to get a boat that is as close to perfect as you can find in order to save money and time.
On the other hand, you may never find a boat of the model you desire that is already set up just the way you need it. If you do refit a boat yourself you then have it exactly the way you want and don't need to trust in the workmanship and equipment choices of the previous owner. You will also have the satisfaction and the useful knowledge and skills acquired rebuilding your own boat that will be needed later when the time comes to make repairs or another refit. Just don't expect to "get your money out of it". Rarely does anyone buy an older sailboat, refit and use it, and later sell it for near the amount they have invested. Your return on investment should be calculated by dreams realized rather than dollars accumulated.
Update: I've answered more questions in the Interview with a Cruiser Project.