Early one Wednesday morning in June 2016, we motored past Portland Head Light on our Valiant 42, Kite, and approached our mooring off the Eastern Promenade for the first time in almost seven years. We were completing our circumnavigation, and while we were excited to be back in Maine and a little amazed that we had actually sailed around the world, we were also sad that the adventure was over. For several years, our lives had revolved around seeing new places and meeting new people, day after day. Now, as satisfying as it was to be home, we had to adjust to life on land.
When we first started thinking about serious cruising, our big question was whether we could and would cut the proverbial cord. We had good careers and a comfortable life. What was “our number,” the amount of money needed to safely quit our jobs? It would have been easy to stay in our routine, and we would have been happy to do that—just let that number keep growing and never act. But one day we came to the realization that running out of time, not money, was the thing to worry about. So, in 2007 we quit our jobs in New York, moved to Maine, went cruising and have never looked back.
We find that time slows down and focuses tremendously when we are experiencing fresh, new things. We can still vividly recall days from several years ago, in contrast to our working lives, where the days seemed a blur and the years flew by. Not to stretch the point too far, but it does seem to us that cruising adds time to your life, if you get what we mean.
So, with that in mind, it should come as no surprise that we would heartily recommend embarking on an extended cruise. We did not originally intend to circumnavigate or be away for so long, but now that we’ve done it, we thought we would address a few questions that we are often asked, and that may be helpful to those contemplating a long-term cruise.
Were you caught in many storms?
This is the number one 1 question, and the answer is, no. We paid attention to the seasons and made our big passages when the weather was apt to be most favorable. Most of our sailing was off the wind in good tradewind conditions. We experienced plenty of squalls over the years, but those passed quickly and were easily dealt with. We had some fast passages, like to and from New Zealand, with winds in the 25 to 35-knot range and 8-12ft seas, but Kite had no problem coping with these conditions. We did encounter one strong two-and-a-half-day gale in the Indian Ocean with up to 25ft waves. We were impressed at how well Kite handled the rough-and-tumble sea state, and we never felt in danger. It is also true that as the miles accumulate, your level of anxiety about weather events diminishes considerably.
Were you worried about piracy or crime?
Not really. We decided to go around the Cape of Good Hope instead of up the Red Sea because of the continuing piracy problems in the area, but other than that, we never had reason to think about crime until we got back to the Caribbean. We had no problems with petty theft, and the incidents we heard about were few and far between. In most places, we would lock the boat when we left it, but we rarely locked the dinghy until we arrived in the Caribbean. We never locked ourselves inside the boat at night.
How about breakdowns and repairs?
It is good to have some basic proficiency in engine and systems maintenance and be able to figure out how to fix the various things that will break. A stock of spares is important, although it is easy to go overboard. We knew boats that carried hundreds of pounds of extra equipment they would probably never use. It is also true that the item you will need will be just the spare you don’t have. Luckily, the cruising community is a great resource. If you have a problem you can’t fix, chances are someone else will not only have the needed parts or expertise but will be more than willing to help.
Also, in this day and age it is possible to get parts shipped to you—albeit at some expense—in most of the parts of the world we sailed to. When our towed water generator was lost in the Indian Ocean, we ordered a new one via single sideband radio from a shop in Perth, Australia, and it was waiting for us in Mauritius when we got there. That said, when all our house batteries but one died in Tonga, we were out of luck and would have had to wait at least another month for a new bank to be shipped, which would have meant staying for cyclone season. We later replaced the batteries in New Zealand.
What was your favorite place?
We do not exaggerate when we say that every place was a favorite, but for different reasons. For spectacular scenery, it is hard to beat the Marquesas, New Zealand, St. Helena or Reunion. For friendly welcoming people, Fiji and Indonesia. For amazing wildlife, the Galapagos, Australia and South Africa. For fascinating cultural experiences, the Kuna Yala in Panama, Vanuatu, Tonga and again Indonesia. For scuba diving, the Galapagos, Thailand, the Tuamotus and—again!—Indonesia. Sailing, or rather motoring through the brown waters of the Strait of Malacca may not be anyone’s idea of dream cruising, but it was more than made up for by exploring the ancient trading cities of Penang and Malacca and experiencing Singapore.
How can you be together 24/7 for months at a time?
Treading carefully on this one! We will take the easy way out by saying that somehow it just worked for us. This is not to say that every day was one of conjugal bliss. But we were a good team running the boat, each of us with our own set of responsibilities, but also stepping in for each other as needed. Perhaps passagemaking was our escape valve, because that was one time we didn’t really see much of each other. During the night, we did three-hour watches and six hours on/six hours off by day, with the off-watch person typically asleep.
Did you ever get lonely?
No. We were constantly meeting people. In fact, one of the best things about our trip was the many friends we made from all over the world, both cruisers and locals. Sometimes it could even get to be a little much, although fortunately in most places it was easy to find a secluded anchorage whenever we felt the need for some privacy. We are also both members of the Cruising Club of America (CCA) and the Ocean Cruising Club, and the sight of a familiar burgee was always a good excuse for sundowners.
What about medical issues?
Fortunately, we never had major problems, just things like skin infections and swimmer’s ear. Although we had U.S. health insurance, we paid for the medical care we received out of pocket. We carried a fairly comprehensive medical kit, including a wide range of antibiotics. We also had several medical books, including one that gave instructions for amputating a limb and taking out an appendix. This would certainly have been interesting. A big eye-opener for us was just how good the medical system is in most parts of the world: competent and professional, easily accessible and all at a fraction of the cost here in the United States. We were also surprised at the number of nurses, doctors and dentists in the cruising community who were willing to help.
How much does it all cost?
This can be a complicated question, and the answer will be different for everyone, but it is easiest to start by thinking of what you spend cruising in the States as a baseline. In island communities, many things are either unavailable or imported and thus very expensive. However, locally grown fruits, such as bananas, papaya, limes or mangos, are cheap and plentiful. It’s also worth noting that in French Polynesia and other French islands, baguettes were subsidized and available everywhere for less than a dollar. In Indonesia and Southeast Asia, food was excellent and so cheap that it cost less to eat out than cook on board. Many cruisers also fish.
The exchange rate is obviously a factor. When we were in New Zealand and Australia, the dollar was weak and everything seemed expensive. Today, those same countries are bargains with a strong U.S. dollar. For us, South Africa was the best of both worlds, with very reasonable prices and a favorable exchange rate with the rand.
We had a healthy budget for repairs and replacement of worn-out equipment. Prices were often high for imported parts, but labor was generally cheaper. Of course, the quality of the labor can be highly variable. We had a lot of work done in New Zealand, South Africa and Trinidad.
Generally, we anchored out. In most of the South Pacific and Indonesia, there are either no marinas, or they are few and far between. We did not go into a marina once between the Panama Canal and New Zealand, a period of nearly seven months. In Malaysia and South Africa, on the other hand, marinas are generally the only option, although they are also great bargains compared to the United States. In Malaysia, we stayed at wonderful, brand-new state-of-the-art marinas for as little as $15 a night, and our daily rate at South Africa’s most expensive marina in Cape Town was less than $40 a day.
We also had a generous budget for local land travel and visits home. It would have been a shame, for example, to be in southern Africa or Australia and not explore those wonderful places. When we were in Malaysia, we took a six-week trip to northern Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. We also visited Japan.
Staying in touch with family and friends was important to us, and we both flew home for the holidays every year but the last two. Many of our cruising friends went home less frequently or not at all, but often had people visit them along the way. An alternative way of keeping in touch is by Skype and phone, with internet and phone service easily available virtually everywhere at low cost.
On balance and with the exception of our travel, our expenses were significantly lower than what we would have incurred for an equivalent amount of time cruising in the United States.
Was there any equipment that you were especially glad you had?
A good freezer/refrigerator: Many people cruise without a freezer. For us, however, it greatly contributed to our quality of life by allowing us to carry a good supply of meats and other frozen food items. We have a Sea Frost, which performed beautifully, and when we had a problem the company owner, Cleave Horton, was exceptionally helpful.
A watermaker: Again, plenty of cruisers go without one, but for us, with 88 gallons water capacity, it was worth having. We did not have to worry about water quality or finding a water supply, particularly in remote places. Our Spectra produces about 6 gph and is very energy efficient.
Solar panels: We chose not to have a generator, and the solar panels were our primary source of energy. We would add more if we could figure out where to put them.
AIS: A big help, particularly at night, though it is still not commonly used in many areas. While we watched it go crazy in places like the Singapore Strait, it did not make a beep when we encountered hundreds of fishing boats in Indonesia. Ours is a Vesper.
A good windvane selfsteering gear: For us, without a generator, this was critical. Some sort of reliable self-steering is, of course, an absolute necessity. Our Monitor steered us beautifully, even in very big following seas during an Indian Ocean gale. Unlike our autopilot, it consumes no electricity. This was key for us on passages.
A towed water generator: This may be the 21st century, but we loved our towed water generator. It steadily produced 4 to 7 amps per hour under sail, all day and all night, day after day. As a result, we produced more electricity on passage than we needed and were totally self-sufficient. As long as we had wind, we never needed to turn on the engine. We mentioned earlier that our battery bank expired in Tonga. The towed water generator kept the one remaining battery topped up on the seven-day, 1,250-mile sail to New Zealand. Without it, we would have been running the engine for hours every day and severely limiting our energy consumption. Our first generator came from Hamilton Ferris, but was eaten by something big in the Indian Ocean, so we replaced it with an Ampair. Hamilton Ferris has apparently redesigned its generator, and we are told that it will be available for sale in early 2018.
Single sideband radio: Some cruisers have questioned whether they need to carry an SSB or just a satphone. Both are important, but if we had to go with just one, it would unquestionably be a single sideband radio and Pactor modem, which enabled us to have e-mail through Winlink and receive weather files. Our satphone served as our backup, and we used it when propagation was difficult. But the SSB also let us stay in daily contact with the cruising community, either through established radio nets or through nets that we set up with friends on passage. In addition, had we run into serious trouble, the radio would have been much more useful than a satphone. On the other hand, the satphone would be pretty handy in a liferaft.
Any other suggestions?
Not every sailor is attracted by the idea of long-distance cruising. But if it’s something that appeals to you, don’t delay—go. Take as much time as possible. We were glad we had almost seven years, and even that seemed too short. We wouldn’t do one of the organized rallies such as the World Arc. They move too fast, hold your hand too much, and you’ll really only get to know the other people on the rally. We found that neither the time and distance away from home, nor the bluewater passage-making were nearly as daunting as they may have seemed at first. Hands down, this was one of the absolute highlights of our lives.
Jack and Zdenka Griswold sail Kite, their Valiant 42, out of Portland, Maine. They are both members of the Cruising Club of America (CCA), North America’s premier offshore cruising and racing organization. The club is comprised of more than 1,200 accomplished ocean sailors who willingly share their cruising expertise via their writing and photography skills with fellow club members and the greater sailing community. The club has 11 stations around the United States, Canada and Bermuda. It is also the principal organizer, along with the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, of the biennial Newport Bermuda Race. For more on the CCA, visit cruisingclub.org
Story and photos by Jack and Zdenka Griswold