Category Archives: Safety


Seasickness Stinks!

It’s always sad when a person who is clearly excited as we pull from the dock, starts to turn an unhealthy shade of yellow as the first ocean swells make their presence felt. We pretend not to notice, because talking about it only makes it worse for the poor soul, but our formally gregarious guest has now fallen quiet – eyes glued to the horizon because they read somewhere that will help. They don’t want to spoil anyone else’s day but they will be vomiting in front of their friends in about, ummm, 20-minutes. It’s fine and even a little funny to talk about it later, but seasickness is horrible. It defines misery and can be dangerous if it incapacitates at the wrong time.

It’s not completely clear why some people are amazingly unaffected and others so sensitive but many doctors feel that diet, particularly hydration is a key component to not becoming sick onboard.

“What’s happening is that the brain is receiving a lot of information that it can’t resolve,” said Michael Mellman a doctor of Internal Medicine and avid sailor. There’s an overwhelming amount of sensory input to the brain that tries to keep us upright. What the eyes see is motion and the horizon and then there’s a balance center in the ears that tells the head its position relative to the body. There is also the sensation of the bottom of the feet that tells the brain what type of surface you’re on and what it’s doing and whether it’s moving or not.”

The good doctor recommends that if possible, let the “patient” take the helm, for that often times refocuses the brain on something other than the misery they are feeling. Some believe that this action tends to override all the other input.

Of course medications like Dramamine are effective for many sailors but it’s important to remember to take the pill(s) long before heading out. For those who have never taken the drug, the doctor recommends trying one on a day when they’re not getting on a boat, to ensure all is well. Another thing to pay attention to is if the sick person happens to be wearing bifocals or progressive lenses – this focus switching can sometimes wreak havoc on the unsuspecting passenger.

Seasickness is a bummer to be sure, but with the proper preparations and/or medications it doesn’t have to enter into a great day of sailing.

Here’s some tips to avoid the dreaded plague!

  • Hydrate! Something as simple as drinking a good amount of water before and during the trip can go a long way.
  • Take the helm! The brain works in mysterious ways – many people feel great relief once they grab the helm and refocus their minds on other things.
  • Take off them bifoclers! Bifocals and progressive lenses can confuse equilibrium.
  • Don’t talk about it! Asking someone who is sick if they’re “still sick” is no help – its the express train to “more sick”.
  • Drop a pill! For many, over the counter Dramamine taken an hour before the voyage is all that’s needed.
  • Ginger! For those who don’t like medications, ginger is a proven winner for fighting seasickness.
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Docking: Or, How You Can Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Marina

Once, while sailing in the San Juan Islands, I saw something I’ll never forget. A powerboater cruised into the dock at high speed with his wife on the stern, line in hand, ready to tie up. As they approached, he seemed to realize, far too late, how fast he was going, and turned abruptly in order to prevent the boat’s momentum from carrying it into the dock itself. His wife, expecting the dock to be there, casually stepped into thin air. She barely made a splash, and still held the line coiled in her hand.

ASA sailors at the dock at the Pine Island Sound flotilla
ASA sailors at the dock during the Pine Island Sound flotilla

We pulled her out of the water, shocked but completely fine. (Their marriage, on the other hand…I didn’t stick around for that part.) The incident left a strong impression on me. Roaring up to the dock might be some people’s idea of fun, but a true mariner approaches such things carefully and with respect for his/her craft, crew, and the sea itself.

A perfect day’s sailing might go something like this: blue skies, with some fluffy white clouds casting their deep shadows on the water, gentle, rolling seas, a steady breeze at around 15 knots, the skyline of some iconic city, or maybe the green cliffsides of a tropical island, as a backdrop. Good friends and a trusty crew along for the ride (all ASA certified, naturally). What could be better?

Member photo of St. Martin during ASA event
Member photo of St. Martin during ASA event

The best way to cap such an idyllic day would be to execute a perfect docking maneuver, earning the awe and admiration of your neighbors in the marina. Too often, though, we see other boaters (and sometimes even ourselves) giving what appear to be lessons in how NOT to dock. If it’s not the hotshot in his powerboat blazing in at high speed, it’s “The Drifter,” who knocks aimlessly into other boats, or “The Rammer,” who just plows into the dock and counts on it to stop his momentum. Docking is one of the most intimidating aspects of sailing for many newcomers – getting that giant boat into that (seemingly) tiny slip!

However, at its most basic level, docking is very simple: it’s about keeping the boat off of the land, while you step ashore, and it’s an essential skill for any sailor. If we keep that in mind as our baseline goal, obvious as it may seem, the more complex techniques in docking a sailboat will fall into line.

So how can you learn to dock like an expert? Get ASA’s Docking Endorsement (ASA 118)!

With this endorsement you’ll learn the most important principles of docking, and get the hands-on practice you need to master this critical skill:

  • Understanding the forces acting on the boat while docking
  • Learning which forces you can control, and how to use them to your advantage
  • How to handle the lines and tie the relevant knots
  • All safety considerations and procedures
  • Avoiding collision or grounding (keeping the boat off of the land)
  • Docking while dealing with different types of wind (wind pushing you onto the dock, cross wind, etc)
  • Docking in different attitudes (side-on to the dock, bow into a slip, etc)

So don’t be The Hotshot, the Drifter, the Rammer, or any other docking stereotype. Well, maybe just one: the Captain, that man or woman who guides the boat safely, confidently, and impressively into place, with a minimum of panic, pandemonium, and stress.

Contact your local ASA sailing school to see if they offer a Docking Endorsement!

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Anatomy of a Rescue: How ASA Sailors Saved Lives in the Open Ocean

liela b bow going underOn May 16th in the Bay of Florida, 80 miles out of Key West and the finish line of the 2013 Bone Island Regatta, Captain Roy Rogers saw something unusual – a boat on the horizon drifting with its sails down. A few other vessels could be seen in the distance, but this one stood aimlessly alone, a strange sight in the middle of a racecourse. Up in the cockpit, with the sound of the wind and the boat’s stereo playing, it was difficult to know what to make of it, but below in the cabin was a different story: two short, garbled mayday calls came through on the VHF radio, and then silence.

It was day two of the annual race, which starts from Tampa Bay and follows the southwest edge of Florida’s gulf coast to the Keys. Captain Roy, a career sailor who spent decades as a charter and delivery captain in the Caribbean before becoming an ASA sailing instructor, was in the race for the first time, skippering a 50-foot Jenneau with three of his former students, whom he had trained in ASA 101, 103, and 104 at Sailing Florida in St. Petersburg. They were not expecting to win, only to have fun, gain experience, and post a strong finishing time. It was so far, so good with 80 miles to go, but that’s when everything changed.

Captain Roy, having heard the mayday hails and seen the boat on the horizon, put two and two together and made a decision. “The race was over us,” he says, as they fired up the auxiliary power, disqualifying themselves, and set off to investigate.
men in raft
They tried several times to establish contact over the radio, with no luck. But sure enough, as they approached they saw that the vessel was low in the water, and with the binoculars, something even more alarming: 5 men in a hopelessly overburdened 10-foot dinghy that was, itself, sinking.

Captain Roy gathered his ASA-trained sailors and instructed them that they were going to get hold of the dinghy’s painter. They then snapped into action, closing the distance and bringing the dinghy alongside. “I’m not letting anybody up,” he advised his crew, “until I’ve had a conversation with them.”

Even, or perhaps especially, in an emergency situation, prudence is necessary. In these waters it is not unheard of to encounter refugees from the Caribbean, and even criminals up to what Captain Roy calls “shenanigans.” He explains that they would have rescued them no matter who they were, as long as they weren’t dangerous, but the procedure for taking on board U.S. citizens and foreign nationals is dramatically different. It also occurred to him that there were “five of them, and four of us.”
roy with liela b in background
“This was not the reception they were expecting,” he says, “but I felt obliged to do due diligence.” After a brief conversation, it was established that the men were Americans, not carrying any weapons, and also racing in the Bone Island Regatta. Within a few minutes of making contact, all 5 were safely on board.

Then it was time to watch the other boat sink. She was a 42-foot Tartan called Liela B, and her crew were an experienced, seasoned lot who had won their class in previous years. Once the foredeck was awash it took less than two minutes for the entire boat to go down.

Around that time a Coast Guard C130 aircraft swooped by low and fast, having responded to Liela B’s EPIRB distress beacon. The pilot made radio contact with Captain Roy, who confirmed that they had taken all crew onboard, there were no injuries, and that they would proceed to Key West. With that, the C130, diverted from another mission and low on fuel, was gone.

In Key West word of the sinking and rescue had already filtered from the race offices into the docks and bars. As far as anyone knew it was the first time a vessel had been lost in the race, and the first time anyone had conducted an emergency rescue. Captain Roy motored in and that evening they were met with equal parts admiration and curiosity from their fellow sailors. “Every bar that me and my crew went to, we could not buy a drink.”

What caused the boat to go down has been the subject of much speculation. The night before had seen strong winds, and Liela B had blown out her spinnaker and genoa. They had given up on the race and were motoring in to Key West when they became aware that something was wrapped around the propeller. Crab traps are numerous in the gulf, but this turned out to be something heavier that they could never identify. Someone went overboard and cleared the prop, and the engine started fine. However, when they put it into gear they heard a loud thunk in the hull. Presently they realized that water was rushing into the bilge from a leak whose source they never found, but in retrospect was most likely the prop shaft. Now, with the boat in 90 feet of water, 80 miles from shore, the mystery will probably never be solved.
awards ceremony
At the awards banquet on Saturday night, Captain Roy and his crew were given a special commendation, even though they didn’t qualify as finishers. The award was for Seamanship and Good Sportsmanship, as well as free entry into next year’s race, which they plan to use. While they say they wouldn’t trade the experience and adventure of this year for anything, they are hoping to finish next time. (Unsurprisingly, Captain Roy is no stranger to awards. He was named an ASA Outstanding Instructor in 2012.)
capt roy with certificate
Another skipper, who had listened to the entire thing on his radio, expressed wonder that Captain Roy had “sounded so professional, like [he] knew exactly what to ask for.” This captain admitted that he had heard the mayday call, but didn’t know how to respond.

Luckily for the crew of Liela B, Captain Roy and his students did know how to respond, and while other boats passed by, it was the ASA sailors who answered the call.

Captain Roy’s tips on how to be prepared for an emergency at sea:

1. Make sure your VHF radio is on at all times.
2. Know your radio protocol, how to make a call and how to respond to one. It could save your life, or someone else’s.
3. The best education is to have the VHF on and listen to the Coast Guard. They know what they’re doing, so copying them is a good idea!
4. Four pieces of information to ask for whenever you’re in contact with a ship in distress:

  • Name of vessel
  • Location
  • How many people on board/any injuries
  • Nature of emergency

rescued crew

News - ASA Credentials

How Not to Dock Your Boat

If only these people had taken the American Sailing Association’s Docking Endorsement. We’ll teach you everything from the physics of docking to how to step on and off the boat without falling in the water. (Hint #1: Don’t try to jump over the lifelines.)

Most of all, we’ll give you a lot of practice and make sure you feel SAFE and CONFIDENT when leaving the dock and coming back.

Ask your local sailing school about the ASA Docking Endorsement (118). It sure beats the alternative. A few years ago I was on a boat setting sail on a major ocean passage. Our journey had an inauspicious start, however, because as we left the dock we pulled a huge chunk of it off with us! Of course, that was partly the dock’s fault, being old and crumbly, but still… (Oh, and this was way before I ever worked for ASA!)

broken dock
This is a different broken concrete dock, but it gives you the idea.

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Rambler capsizes in Fastnet Race with ASA co-founder Peter Isler onboard

rambler capsizedDuring last week’s Fastnet Race in the Irish Sea, the yacht Rambler, which Sailing World called “the most advanced, powerful monohull race boat in the world,” capsized after its keel broke off. On board was ASA co-founder Peter Isler, Rambler’s navigator. In our latest e-newsletter, we reported on Rambler’s record-breaking performance in the Transatlantic Race. Now, Peter Isler describes a very different experience in detail.

According to his account, it was “a nice, nasty day on the Irish Sea,” with low visibility and the sea stacking up. He went on to describe how, though no one is quite sure why the boat failed to hold together, Rambler “pushes the limits.”

“There was an earth-shattering bang…and the keel broke off. The heel of the boat changed immediately.” Rambler went over on its side. Isler said it was lucky that only a few crew members were in their bunks, with the rest on deck in their life jackets and foul weather gear. Isler attempted to make a mayday call from the ship’s main radio, and received no response. As he was making another mayday call with a handheld VHF radio belowdecks, the boat turtled entirely. “I thought it was going to stay on its side,” he said.

Now Isler was faced with a harrowing swim, in frigid waters and wearing full foul weather gear and sea boots, from the hatch of the boat, under the lifelines and back to the surface. “I didn’t think I was going to make it, honestly. I didn’t pop up like you do in your skivvies…I was coming up like a sea-anchor.”

The crew huddled together for 3 hours before they were rescued, some of them fully clothed and others in nothing but long underwear. At least one member of the crew was hospitalized for hypothermia afterwards. The wait for rescue was agonizing: “Leopard went by maddeningly close, but of course, no one knew. The Volvo 70s went by…” The 21-person crew of Rambler was finally rescued by a volunteer Irish lifeboat service after dark when the lifeboat crew spotted their flashlights.

When asked how this compared to winning a race (Isler is a two-time America’s Cup champion, among many other victories), he said, “This is way better, having everyone together and everyone survive.”

On whether this experience would have a long term effect on the experienced open-ocean racers of Rambler’s crew: “Oh, yeah. It was eye opening. The lessons are: A. Wear your lifejacket. B. Stay with the boat. C. If you can’t stay with the boat, stay together.”

After several attempts, Rambler was finally righted and towed back to port without her mast or rigging. Isler said there was damage from an electrical fire, and obviously the keel was missing. What’s next for this cutting edge boat? That is yet to be decided.

You can listen to Peter Isler’s full, candid, and engrossing interview here.

News - ASA Credentials

Sailing Tragedy in Race to Mackinac 2011

Wingnuts capsized
Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Journal

As you may have already heard, on Monday the U.S. Coast Guard confirmed the death of two sailors competing in the Chicago-Mackinac Race. A late night storm had hit the racing fleet with winds in excess of 50 knots, and the boat WingNuts capsized. By all accounts, the crew handled the boat properly and made full use of their safety equipment, but the storm simply overwhelmed their 35-foot craft. Six sailors were rescued by a nearby boat, Sociable, but two were lost, one of whom was the skipper.

ASA sends our condolences to the families and friends of those who passed away, and we wish them the best in this difficult period. At the same time, we applaud the heroic efforts by the crew of Sociable to save the other six sailors in ferocious weather conditions.

For more on this story:

Sail World
Chicago Tribune
Milwaukee Journal with details of the rescue.

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Voyaging with Velella: How to Sail Across a Bar

Continuing the Voyaging with Velella series by ASA writer-at-large Meghan Harvey. Meghan and her husband Prescott have been cruising aboard their boat Velella for the past 8 months, first in Mexico and now in the Pacific Northwest.

Rites of Passage, Part 2

Anyone who has decided to sail South from the Pacific Northwest faces the dangerous prospect of having to “cross a bar.” The Northwest coast of the United States is considered a “hostile coast,” in that there are very few shelters to pull into over hundreds of miles–and those harbors that do exist are 90% of the time protected by a big sand bar entrance. While these “bars” create great quiet harbors protected from the wave swell of the Pacific Ocean, they are often dangerous and sometimes impossible to cross, depending on the weather.

On our first trip down the coast a couple years ago, we were hit with buckets of awful weather, compounded by HUGE ocean swell (8-10 feet on a good day;10-14 was also common). Sailing was nearly impossible because, in addition to seasickness I prefer not to recall in detail, every time we would slide down into a trough of one of these enormous waves, our sails would be completely blocked from the wind by the next upcoming roller. Then we would surge up with the wave, the wind would snap our sails taut, send a shutter through the entire rig, and slew the helm sharply to one side or the other. It was the kind of weather that gets you to start thinking about putting your boat up for sale in the nearest harbor.

The problem is that, as the weather gets worse, so do the bar conditions. When large swells, waving hundreds of miles across the unobstructed deep ocean, all of a sudden reaches a shallow little sand bar at the coast, all that enormous wave energy has nowhere to go but up, constricted on the sides and below by land. So the swell builds vertically into huge, steep breaking waves in an effort to cross over the bar. It often becomes bad enough that the Coast Guard will simply close off the bar to any vessels intending to cross. And truthfully, staying out at sea is often safer than attempting to cross a bar.

This summer, as we left Cape Flattery astern for the second time and turned our bow South, I couldn’t help but worry a bit about the Columbia Bar, the hurdle we would have to jump in order to make it to Portland, Oregon. The Columbia is the biggest and baddest of all of the bars on the Pacific–-over 2,000 boats have been lost trying to cross it. (In fact, here’s a website dedicated to documenting all of those wrecks!) Still, we’d made several successful bar crossings before, and learned a few things in the process.

Timing your bar crossing is critical. Tidal action moves water in and out over the bars and either compounds or subtracts from any swell that’s coming across. When the tide starts ebbing, pulling out against wave trains crashing in over the bar, this is the worst combination. Not only do the opposing forces multiply the height of the waves and their tendency to break, but certain geographical features can also cause dangerous tide rips on a strong ebb. But timing your bar crossing at the right tidal moment can drastically improve the experience.

The key is always to cross a bar on a flood tide-–preferably at the very end of the flood where the water has slowed to almost slack. It’s amazing how very dangerous bar conditions can lay down in a matter of hours with the turn of the tide.
So before we left Neah Bay to passage South to the Columbia Bar, I checked both the weather forecast and the current tables repeatedly. I wanted to make sure that we arrived during a favorable tide, AND during the daytime, because crossing an unfamiliar bar at night would be unthinkably imprudent in my mind. Luckily, we had a tide flooding until about 3pm that day, very light swell coming from the West, and only a hint of Northwest breeze. Ideal conditions for crossing. We calculated how long it would take us to sail the 145 miles in light wind, and departed from Neah Bay right on time.

Using the Coast Guard as an information resource is another important step in preparing to cross a bar. As dawn arrived and we started making our way towards the mouth of the Columbia River, I switched on the radio and started receiving periodical bar condition reports from the Coast Guard. All along the coast, the different USCG stations broadcast bar reports regularly–-and if you don’t hear one you can always call them for the current report. They provide up-to-date conditions on the bar, sometimes even breaking it down into particular sections (for example: the North main channel has breakers 4-6 feet, the South outer channel 1-3 ft). Luckily for us, as we approached the Columbia, conditions at sea were almost glass calm, and there were 4-6ft waves reported in the main channel over the bar.

You don’t know how big a wave really is until you’re on top of it. Viewed from behind, rolling waves look a whole lot smaller than they do from the breaking side. No matter how calm the conditions appear, it’s important to prepare your boat for strong forces and rough seas when crossing a bar. Secure everything down below and make sure deck-stowed gear and anchors are lashed down tightly. Everyone should be on deck, wearing PFDs, and preferably clipped in to the boat on tethers and jacklines. We had little to do to prepare Velella for the bar crossing because everything was already stowed securely for passage at sea, but we clipped ourselves in to strong padeyes in the cockpit for good measure.

One of the major causes of boats foundering on a bar is engine failure. It’s not just Murphy’s law that would cause a motor to quit just when you need it most. What often happens as you pass through the turbulent waters over the bar is that gunk sitting on the bottom of your fuel tank gets churned up and sucked through the lines, choking the engine. Or, the extra work the engine has to do to get over the rough bar waters uses up much more fuel that you’d expect, so people run out of gas! Then you’re left adrift right on top of the worst part of the bar, and good luck getting your filters changed and lines bled before your boat gets sucked sideways in the currents. We had planned for this, and brought an extra jerry jug of fuel, which we topped off our tank with before entering the channel. We also changed our fuel filters out for clean ones, just to be safe. And lastly, we kept up our main sail while going through the channel, because a sailboat is still under control if its engine dies–-as long as its sails are up!
Our preparation paid off in the end, because crossing that big bad bar turned out to be a cakewalk. As we passed over Clatsop Spit and rounded the corner towards the port of Astoria, the breeze filled in from dead behind and we unfurled the genoa into a beautiful wing-on-wing run. So, contrary to my fears of becoming “trapped” in the Columbia, I think we’ll be able to easily slip over that bar again soon, and point our bow South once again.

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One Year After Oil Spill, Conflicting Views on the State of the Gulf

gulf rainbowIt’s been just over a year since the world watched in horror as millions of gallons of oil bloomed in the Gulf of Mexico, the result of a catastrophic explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, and since then the fast-moving waters of the news cycle have swept those images far away from the national consciousness. However, for anyone who lives, works or enjoys the splendors of the Gulf, one question looms: Has anything been learned?

At the six month anniversary of the disaster, we at the American Sailing Association wrote an update on the clean up effort. How far have we come since then? Well, a lot of clean up has been done. We know the sailing is as good as ever, and ASA schools operating on the Gulf Coast are open for business. Tourists and outdoors enthusiasts (including lots of sailors!) are returning to the area in droves, which is great for everyone concerned. But what about the ecosystem as a whole? And are we protected against another such event?

The Twitter feed of BP (the company largely held responsible for the spill) would have you believe that things are heading in the right direction. The feed is relentlessly positive (a gushing well of positivity?), posting regular updates such as:

  • “See the signs of wildlife at #Gulf Shores Public Beach, #Alabama today”
  • “#BP is reviewing how they reward employees to reinforce “safety first” behaviors”
  • “Frank Patti Jr., who’s been fishing in Pensacola, FL for decades, is calling local shrimp safe”

Certainly, some real progress has been made, and BP’s money has made a difference. However, not everyone is buying into BP’s rosy view of the future. Bestselling author and Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen recently published a scathing editorial, asserting that, “The beaches have been cleaned, but miles of once-fertile marshlands in Louisiana remain goopy and barren. Elsewhere, the shrimp and fish are rebounding, but samples show elevated levels of petroleum-based hydrocarbons. Nobody is sure how much of the BP oil remains suspended in the dark depths, or the long-term effects on marine life.”
Hiaasen goes on to argue that “little has changed. Another major blowout could occur in the Gulf today, with the same harrowing results. On that point, the experts agree.” He says that the government agency overseeing oil drilling, previously hopelessly corrupt, has been reformed and is now merely underfunded and inexperienced. Finally, he describes the U.S. Congress as “disinterested.”

On this last point he is supported by a New York Times op-ed reporting that “Congress is pushing in exactly the wrong direction…to accelerate the granting of drilling permits in the gulf…” It’s not all doom and gloom, though, according to the Grey Lady: “Congress aside, there has been a surprising amount of progress, thanks largely to the hard work of thousands of people and the extraordinary resilience of nature. More than 99 percent of the gulf has been reopened to fishing, jobs are returning, and the Interior Department has tightened oversight. Yet without Congress’s help progress will slow and many crucial tasks will remain undone.”

A Fox News report quotes “oil industry insiders” as saying, “We have the technology to drill safe.” Further reading of the article reveals that what they mean by “safe” is the ability to better kill a well after there has been a leak or accident of some kind, not the ability to avoid accidents altogether. The Fox report also quotes anti-drilling organizations arguing that, “It’s not a matter of if there’s another accident, it’s a matter of when.”
Who do we believe, and where does the truth lie? It’s hard to say. There seems to be a dearth of independent analysis–most of the “experts” seem to have an agenda, such as those working for the oil industry, where there is an obvious financial incentive to declare the disaster over and future drilling safe.

This issue is especially concerning for our many fine sailing schools who rely on the Gulf for their livelihood, and who are open for business. We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

News - ASA Credentials

Pacific Tsunami — News, Updates, and How to Help

tsunami noaa
Those of us in the United States woke this morning to hear about a massive and devastating tsunami in Japan, the result of a powerful 8.9 earthquake off of the country’s northeast coast. At ASA our prayers are with the families of those who have been killed and hoping for the continued safety of the survivors.

Damage has also been reported in Hawaii and the West Coast of the US; mostly boats and docks hit by the surge. Boats that moved out to sea were unharmed. Beaches and piers are closed due to strong undertow and currents.

Here are some key places to get information about what’s going on:

I’ll be updating our Facebook and Twitter pages as there are new developments.

Youtube is compiling eyewitness footage that you can find here, and this video will give you an idea of the magnitude:

London newspaper the Guardian also has aerial footage of the surge that must be seen to be believed.

The Weather Channel is posting constant live updates.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you can visit the Red Cross and make a donation to their relief fund.

Please feel free to comment, discuss and share information.

News - ASA Credentials

Voyaging with Velella: The Cost of Cruising

velella at anchorIn this special edition of Voyaging with Velella, ASA writer-at-large Meghan Cleary answers a popular question from readers: What is the necessary budget for living aboard and cruising in a sailboat? Meghan and her fiance Prescott are currently on a 9-month cruise in the tropics aboard S/V Velella.

A number of people have asked me lately what it costs to go cruising. The answer to that question is as widely variable as what it costs people to live on land, because there is a wide range of different lifestyles even within the cruising circuit. But if you have tons of cash, you probably aren’t as keen to understand the breakdown of costs as someone attempting to do this on a shoestring. So the important question is, what is the minimum budget required to cruise? If you have more than that to work with, great! More cervezas for you.

Perhaps it is because we are young cruisers ourselves, the exception to the norm in this community, that I’m always interested to know how the other young cruisers make ends meet. If you’re cruising for retirement, it’s understood that you’ve spent your life saving up for exactly this, and while you want to be frugal to stretch it as far as it can go, you’re drawing from a relatively deep well. Young cruisers on the other hand, most often have a much more limited budget, and therefore a limited timeframe in which to cruise. We always ask young people, “So, are you working from the boat? Where’s the cashflow coming from for you?” Invariably the answer is either that they’ve found a way to make some money while cruising (like Prescott, who continues to freelance as a motion graphics artist); or they’re just sailing for the season and planning to head home to work in 6 months or so.

If your dream is to buy a boat and sail away forever to distant shores on no timeline whatsoever, of course you’re going to need to save up for a loooong time. But if you can be flexible about your cruising, it’s possible to get underway on a much smaller annual budget.
Carrying A House on Your Back

The first critical stage in financial planning for a cruise is obviously to acquire the boat itself, along with all the gear needed to outfit it. Depending on the boat you buy and what it comes with, you could spend as little as a few thousand dollars or double the cost of the boat to outfit it properly. Outfitting costs cover an enormous range, and are largely impacted by the gear choices you make. With Velella, we placed a lot of importance on making her as safe as possible. That included purchasing an offshore life raft, an EPIRB, hydrostatic PFDs, good jack lines and tethers, an SSB radio to be able to receive up-to-date weather information underway, and even a Monitor self-steering vane to alleviate the exhausting prospect of hand steering 24/7. We’ve got our trusty whisker pole from Forespar (pictured at right). We carry a full complement of engine and rigging spares onboard, as well as all necessary tools to ensure we’re as self-sufficient as possible should any sort of problem strike. However, if you plan to live aboard, even the cost of buying and outfitting a very nice boat can be far less expensive than owning a house on land!

Excluding the cost of the boat itself (our home mortgage), we spent roughly 2/3 of our total cruising budget on outfitting. We left Los Angeles this year with a plan to sail for 6-9 months and $7,000 in our pockets. That money was divvyed up into the following categories on a monthly budget:

Moorage: $100 per month
Fuel and Other Transportation: $120 per month
Boat Maintenance Expenses: $100 per month
Food $300 per month
Discretionary/Entertainment $50 each per month
Customs and Fees: $50 month average
swimming with dolphin
Other expenses we had also planned for were the ongoing boat mortgage, student loans (!), boat insurance, and international medical insurance. Your boat mortgage and insurance will vary widely; international medical insurance is cheap to come by at $600 for the year covering both of us. We added up these “unseen” expenses and make sure we had enough in addition to the $7,000 we were taking with us to cover these things while we were gone.

A $700/month spending budget is remarkably tight; I would place that at the bottom end of the cost range. It’s also worthwhile to note that Central America has become a lot more expensive in recent years; moorage in most ports in Mexico, for example, costs almost double US prices.

Jumping In

If you’re serious about saving up to go cruising, there are a number of excellent, in-depth resources you should consult, first and foremost being “The Voyager’s Handbook” by Beth Leonard. Meanwhile, here are a few planning pointers you can take away from our experience preparing ourselves and Velella to go cruising:

1. PLUG IN TO THE SAILING COMMUNITY EARLY. Cruising sailors are all on a budget, and the community is constantly swapping gear when they’re through using it. You’d be shocked at how much money we saved on gear just by checking first if anyone knew of someone getting rid of an outboard, a drogue, a spinnaker sail, whatever!
2. BE REALISTIC ABOUT YOUR NEEDS. Use other people’s budgets as models, but weight your own needs in there too. You can learn to live without many things, and you will, but certain things you just won’t be able to give up; know yourself and be realistic about what those are when putting together your budget.
3. SET YOURSELF A TIME LIMIT FOR SAVING. THEN GO, GO WITHOUT, AND THEN GO HOME. We would have liked to set out with more money on this trip; our budget is extremely tight. Spending only $50 a month for fun is HARD—try it sometime! Last month my sole purchase was a cruising guide to the Sea of Cortez. . . which I read and reread and reread for a month. And this week we’re having culinary adventures trying to stretch our last $20 to cover a week’s worth of food. But don’t let a lack of extra spending money stop you from sailing away—it’s absolutely amazing and gratifying to live so simply, and plus, there are incredible tropical reefs and hikes and other natural diversions to keep you plenty occupied for free while cruising. When the money runs out, then be willing to go home and work some more to top off the cruising kitty.
4. BE PREPARED TO PUT MONEY TOWARDS IMPROVING YOUR OWN SEAMANSHIP SKILLS. The best piece of gear we have onboard is our know-how. One of the most valuable preparations we did before leaving Seattle was to hire an ASA instructor for a week-long Advanced Offshore Cruising certification course on our own boat (from the wonderful San Juan Sailing School in Bellingham, WA). All of the skills you can develop in advance will make you more confident sailing through heavy seas or pressing on overnight, anchoring in tight spaces instead of paying to moor, and fixing problems you’d otherwise have to pay someone else to help you with.

Don’t listen to people who say you have to take 5 or 10 years to get underway. Just be practical about your plans and commit to them! If you have a burning wanderlust in you, you can devise a way to follow this dream. And give me a holler when you’re ready to meet up in an anchorage somewhere warm!

Here’s where the crew of Velella is living the good life on a shoestring budget right now:

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