What’s it really like to go offshore?
I have been a sailor all my life, but only started cruising in 2001. I grew up racing in small open boats, windsurfing, and day sailing. Years later when my husband proposed the cruising lifestyle and maybe a circumnavigation, I started reading to find out what this was all about.
You’ve probably read from much the same list I have and we’re lucky to have so many talented writers among our experienced cruising community. But because they’re experienced they didn’t really address one question I had… what’s it really like when you first go offshore sailing?
They told me hints and tricks and lots of wonderful ideas, but never what it was like first time out.
Many of the books I read indicated that most people who actually go offshore sailing do it for less than two years – many leave it after six months, some after their first ocean crossing. If this is something we were going to gear up to do for years, it seemed like I should know whether I’d like it or not. But no one gave me a feeling of what that experience might be.
I’m now three weeks into my first ocean crossing so I’ll try to share what it has been like.
Nature of our trip
Of course all ocean voyages and all boats are not the same. I’ll describe a little about what our trip is so you’ll know how similar your experience might be. Your trip may be in a larger more comfortable boat, or on more temperate waters, or you may have more conveniences or comforts and so your experiences may be different for those reasons.
We live north of Seattle and are doing a “shakedown” ocean cruise to Hawaii and back before deciding whether to finish outfitting the boat for extended ocean cruising- a trip of about 3000 miles each way – about a month of ocean time each way.
Although our boat is the most complex boat either of us has owned, it is an older boat (1967 hull, renovated 1984) so is still by modern standards somewhat spartan.
For this trip we have no refrigeration, no generator, no water maker, no tv or microwave. It has a diesel engine, although not a powerful one. No integrated electronics, although I did set up a laptop for this trip and connected some serial devices (GPS, AIS, Pactor modem) to my computer for communications and navigation. No electric winches or anchoring.
We do have solar panels. We also have an Aries wind vane, but no autopilot. We have a two burner stove, but the oven doesn’t work currently. So we won’t be taking hot showers or drinking cold beers, but we will have hot meals.
As for the crossing itself, paradoxically the coastal part of it is reputedly as difficult as they come (in this country), but the ocean part is fairly easy.
To leave Washington state by water you generally need to tackle the Strait of Juan de Fuca – a 100 plus mile stretch of current-ridden, wind-driven water separating the US and Canada. Some cruisers have said it was the worst part of their trip. The straits are so turbulent that fluid dynamics studies use this body of water as their laboratory to study complex turbulence reactions.
However the crossing to Hawaii is fairly easy, although the coast of Washington, Oregon, and even California can be quite treacherous. But once you get offshore (in summer) light winds are more a problem than big winds or seas. Hurricanes or typhoons are extremely rare.
In mentally preparing for this trip I expected to get beat up for the first week out and then see a gradual easing of conditions and temperatures. This turned out to be pretty accurate.
Dealing with cool weather, high seas
The first two days were mostly beating in 12 foot seas. Weather was in the 60s when we left, water temperature in the mid 50s, seas a bit mixed from earlier storms.
Already the first days’ rigors are disappearing into memory, but this is what I emailed to friends at the time:
“The first few days, off the Washington and Oregon coast, were rough and wild, with 10-12 foot seas and strong winds. Those days passed in a fog of standing watches, grabbing hot food, and trying to sleep all against a background of being slammed around the boat like popping popcorn.”
During this time we never went out of the cabin without the full foulies – fleece pants and jacket covered by foul weather jacket and farmer johns, wool socks, sea boots, ski hat and gloves. It wasn’t really particularly cold, but it was wet from the occasional wave getting the side decks or from spray over the weather cloths or from light rain. And sitting still in the cockpit would get cold, until something needed doing like shortening sail – then it got sweaty fast.
I remember watching the boat raised on a wave … up, up, up to about a story and a half, then just when you were sure you’d crash and fall, the wave gracefully slid out from under the boat. Again and again and again.
However from inside the boat it was a different experience. From my journal:
“Our first four days were demanding, occasionally debilitating. Snatching sleep in two hour increments was all we could do with four hour watches. And four hour watches is all we could do on deck. Like backpacking on a six-degree of freedom platform, voyaging has bruised and exhausted us. The simplest tasks such as eating or sitting on the toilet became Olympic events.”
Down below in early days was nearly as much work as in the cockpit. Just moving down the cabin was a full 3-D game experience. Even with handholds available from every position in our cabin I was constantly getting slammed against a bulkhead, unfailingly one with a pad eye sticking out.
I did manage to cook some simple meals from scratch during that time but I guess I would recommend sticking to heating up pre-prepared food. However I still remember the first day’s split pea soup that I made from scratch, with Bisquick biscuits. It was very tasty and did a lot to lift our spirits.
On deck was scary at first, especially at night, hurtling through the waves without being able to see what’s in front of you. The large rolling waves would come in and sometimes crash heavily on the side decks. You could really hear the weight of the water and it was a sobering sound.
My fears kept me occupied as well. What if someone falls in; what if something breaks; what if these were breakers not rollers; what if the wind, already whistling in the rigging, freshens; what if I can’t sleep; what if I can’t get the sail under control?
Gradually these fears gave way to appreciation for the boat. I stopped focusing on “what if..” and watched how the boat was made to handle these waves. I saw that if we got overpowered we could always round up and ease the pressure or the speed. The motion became more natural and not something to be fought.
And, however dark it was, there was nothing in front of us. I soon stopped worrying about running into something unseen in the dark – the somethings I needed to worry about, ships, were well lit up. But there were darn few of them in the north Pacific either. For two weeks we saw no ships, even on our AIS, and even the occasional planes were so far overhead that we heard nothing and could barely make out a glint as they passed overhead.
Even birds and large fishes were increasing rare as we got 800 or miles from the nearest land. Clouds and water were the only companions that we could rely on until clearer weather returned the stars, moon and sun to us.
Night watches are difficult for both of us. If you’re active in the cockpit, four hours is a long watch. If you’re trying to sleep, four hours is very short.
As the weather smooths out we’re compromising with five hour night watches – sundown to midnight and midnight to dawn – and seven hour day watches. This gives us plenty of time to get sleep between our two off-watches and keeps our night watches from being too difficult. Having light at one end of your watch seems to help psychologically.
And we have adjusted. I’m now falling to sleep faster and easier than I ever did on land, although a heavy roll will still keep either of us sleeping fitfully. Again, we don’t have staterooms, but keeping lights on helps the person on watch stay awake. I thought it would keep the sleeper awake as well, but this has not been a problem, even though on land I’m extremely sensitive to light while I’m trying to sleep.
However the beauty of night watches also makes them wonderful. Hundreds of miles from the nearest light source the stars are luscious and rich with variation. Warm winds caress as the boat moves effortlessly forward. It’s intoxicating.
Sounds at sea
The thing I was not expecting was the sound of cruising.
It was worse because we were beating, but the sound is unending. Water sounds, boat sounds, and stuff-shifting-around sounds all combined into a constant cacophonous background of sound. On deck it would be difficult to hear each other.
Even more unexpected were the voices. I had heard of sleep-deprived single-handers imagining voices and even seeing people, but I didn’t expect to hear them myself. But we both heard voices constantly during that first week. The words weren’t quite distinguishable, but the tones and cadence sounded like English. Some of my voices included a phantom cocktail party – some male and female voices and the clink of glassware – as well as a mom calling her kids to lunch on a summer afternoon – relaxed and unhurried. Occasionally I heard the staccato tones of a slightly worried man or the murmur of a conversation in another room that lapses momentarily into a querulous note of sharpness then subsides back into conversation.
A couple of weeks later, running downwind in warmer conditions and lighter seas we rarely hear these voices. I sort of miss them.
Hygiene, moisture, salt
We didn’t want to use water for bathing until we really knew how much water we were using for essentials. But, as I had learned from backpacking, a sponge bath can be very effective. A wet washcloth with a little Dr. Bronner’s applied to “problem areas” at bedtime is a delight.
Except for these efficacious sponge baths we didn’t try to bathe until the weather got warm enough that it was pleasant to do in the cockpit. And then washing our hair was a near religious experience. However do not attempt this with salt water. I thought it would be a relief to get the oil out, but anything with salt water in it never really dries. Rather awful. I washed it again the next day in fresh water.
A flexible bucket made of rubberized cloth (sold at camping stores) minimized the amount of water you need since you don’t waste water in the corners of the bucket – sort of fold it around your head as you rinse.
But the fact remains that we are dirty. Clothes particularly are a problem. You can wear the same clothes over and over – or you can pile up the dirty laundry – neither is an attractive proposition.
I did wash out underwear and a few shirts in a minimal amount of water to good effect. However cottons don’t dry and get dirty fast – avoid them. My microfiber, polyester (dri-wear type), rip-stop nylon, and polyprop / fleece clothes don’t get as dirty as fast as cotton, don’t hold water, don’t hold sweat, and are easy to wash.
Next trip I will not allow cotton during the voyage itself – particularly cotton sweatshirts and jeans. They just stay damp all the time.
As the weather warms I wear bathing suits almost exclusively, sometimes throwing a long sleeved shirt over for sun protection. My husband has chosen not to wear clothes. Both are better solutions than bra, panties, shirts and shorts. On the other hand, like during our backpacking in previous lives, we’re dirty together and getting used to it.
Related to hygiene is moisture and salt. Even a boat as well-ventilated as ours has moisture issues, especially in high seas. What I didn’t really appreciate was the salt that encrusts everything. In a mild morning I go forward and sit on a hatch with a cup of tea – the hatch is crusted in salt and now so are my clothes. My hands are salty, my hair is salty. I don’t miss potato chips – I just kiss my husband. Everything is salty and with salt comes moisture. Even with sponge baths before bed the sheets are vaguely damp. A separate stateroom away from companionway traffic would help, but we don’t have this luxury.
Next time I think I will have silk or synthetic sheet sacks that can be easily washed in little water and dried in little time. I did provide spare sheets stored in zip lock bags with lavender-scented dryer sheets and this worked well – at least the new sheets were dry and fresh smelling. The polypropylene blankets worked well – never seemed damp, dried readily if wet, didn’t pick up sweat smells. Wool or cotton would have been disastrous.
To counteract salt buildup in the cabin I wiped down surfaces with vinegar. This cut the salt and eliminated any mold that might be thinking of forming.
All in all ocean passages, at least for this first-timer, are awe-inspiring and exhausting – no namby-pamby boring stuff.
Time passes strangely quickly, filled with necessary activities. The work – cooking, cleaning, bathing, getting weather reports, standing watch, doing sail changes – seems to fill most of the day but is all clearly necessary, not make-work. The down time – sleeping, reading, watching, thinking has never been quite enough but is pleasingly unstructured. I have managed to do a little writing, and reading, but not as much as I thought. Knitting, games, music have stayed put away.
Except during squalls there isn’t much of a schedule. So if dolphins arrive, we stop everything else and just watch them. When the sky is clear and my watch begins, I just watch the stars until I’m satiated. We do what’s in front of us, not much planning or juggling of activities, which feels unpressured and, well, simple. I think we’re a little closer to just being.
On land I live in the future – always looking at least an hour or a day ahead. Out here I’m living in the same time I’m doing, so even though we’re always busy it’s not the frantic busy of trying to finish up x to get to y that seems to characterize my working life on land. I feel healthier, more centered, more tired, but more … at home perhaps.
About Marie Toler Raney
Marie grew up racing small boats in the Chesapeake Bay area of Maryland before becoming a software developer. Jon grew up in Davis, CA dreaming of running away to sea, finally escaping at 15 on an Alaskan fishing boat. Williwaw the Portuguese Water Dog, born on Lopez Island, WA, has an ancient and noble sailing heritage.
After years of coastal sailing in the Pacific Northwest they all decided to run away to sea together on their steel sloop, Phoenix.