While we are waiting in Port Townsend for weather to clear and for our replacement radio to arrive, perhaps I should share some of the FAQs (frequently asked questions) about living and traveling on a sailboat. Many of you may have the same questions.
Do you stop at night?
The ocean is very deep, an average of 12000 feet (about 2.25 miles) with 36000 feet (almost 7 miles) at the deepest measured place in the Mariana Trench. So anchoring is not possible, there is just nothing to hook to. And popping into shore each night is not possible in many places and would slow us down terribly. Besides, as sailors soon learn, the most dangerous place is near shore – the dangers at sea in decent weather are much less. So we sail all night and all day, which is made much more possible by our self-steering wind vane. Having a windvane which keeps the boat on a constant heading with respect to the wind, no one has to actually sit and steer, but someone is always on watch to look for ships that could run us down, check that the boat is proceeding well, check for wear and chafe, and watch out for changes is weather or wind that would require a change of sails or resetting the self-steering to a different heading. As long as we pop our heads up and look carefully all around every 10 minutes or so even the fastest ships below the horizon (about 3 miles away) would just be reaching our position in 10 minutes. Luckily these fastest ships are generally also the large ones that are required to broadcast their position via AIS. Our AIS is set to alert us if a ship is to pass less than 1 mile away. So the AIS and the windvane make our watches easier, but human eyes are still essential.
With only two of us to trade watches, getting enough sleep can be difficult. Longer watches give the sleeper longer to sleep, but can be cold and tiring for the person on watch. I wrote about our favorite watch system in an older article if you want to know the details.
What if something breaks while you’re far from land?
This is why we carry lots of tools and spare parts. Things do break, and things start to wear down. If we are clever, diligent, and lucky we can catch some problems before they break, so we constantly look for wear, loose pins, bolts backing out, etc. But you can’t catch everything. When breakage does happen we first evaluate whether it can be fixed at sea or needs the stability of shore or parts we don’t carry at sea. If it can be fixed, we try to do so. If it can’t be fixed we have to “jury-rig”, the time-honored tradition of making do with what you have available. When our steering broke a thousand miles from land we were lucky to be able to jury-rig without slowing down our progress. If you’re interested in that story, read about Steering Repairs at Sea.
What do you eat?
Pretty much the same things we eat on land. We have added a small refrigerator this trip (about the size of two of the vegetable drawers in a standard US fridge!) which does give us an easier way to carry dairy products and other highly perishable items. But with canned foods, dried foods (like mushrooms), properly stored vegetables, canned / UHT soups and liquids, sprouting and fermenting – well, the sky is the limit in terms of the types of food we can eat. If you are interested, read more about storing foods for long-life.
Preparation however is another issue! For one thing, counter space on a typical monohull sailboat is very limited, I have about 3 linear feet of counter space and most of that is on top of the fridge and the pantry bins. Two burners and a cool oven further reduce what I can cook. And then add to that cooking while on a moving boat and you’ve got cooking as an olympic sport! Simplified recipes and good preparation before the fire goes on help quite a bit. Two other devices I depend on are the pressure cooker and the “thermal” cooker. The pressure cooker not only cooks things quickly but keeps them safely sealed in the pot even in high seas. The thermal cooker, basically a heavily insulated pot cover, allows me to bring things to a boil and then finish cooking them away from the stove top at leisure. The thermal cooker cannot burn foods, and they never boil over, two saving graces. I use it for grains, particularly rice or oatmeal, but you can do most foods this way.
Do you have internet? Cell phones? TV?
Not really. Not that you’d recognize. I can connect to the internet indirectly by making a radio call to a shore-based repeater that passed my message onto the internet. So I can make a call a request weather downloads or send/receive emails. Then I need to connect again to get the weather that is sent back. The messages sent this way are extremely limited, no pictures, only small attachments, certainly no videos! But we get vital information this way and also can report our position so that folks back home know that we are proceeding.
Of course we have our cell phones, but they don’t work very far off shore. Likewise our iPads can only work with the data that is on them – so we carefully look for apps that can download information ahead of time for the area we will be in. Email and facebook don’t update of course, but we can get tidal data or charts as long as we remembered to download them ahead of time.
We don’t have a TV. If we are lucky enough to have a great internet connection at a marina we could watch netflix or amazon on the laptop while in port, but usually we have not found great internet at the marinas / anchorages we have been in.
Books are great. Again, we have to remember to download Kindle books onto our devices BEFORE we leave.
For more about what we have available, read about our Nav Station.
Are you crazy? (Why do you do it?)
Ah. This is the crux. We do it because we want to travel the world relatively inexpensively. And it’s nice to have our home with us while we do that. Imagine traveling to Nice, France but not having to worry about hotels! And there are so many places in the world that are difficult and expensive to travel to without a boat. The South Pacific has thousands of islands that non-boaters will never see. I’m eager to see these places.
Strangely, during our first sea voyage we discovered the voyage is at least as thrilling for us as the destination. This was unexpected for me – what’s to see after the first day at sea? But being at sea, far from land, is possibly the most at home I’ve ever felt. It’s like a constant meditation, the mind is free to wonder and wander and the whole body relaxes. Here is an article I wrote about my first three weeks away from land during our last trip to Hawaii.
What do you do all day?
What indeed? It’s actually hard to figure that out, but there is plenty to do, even in calm weather. I was never bored. The actual jobs are straightforward: keeping watch, cooking, eating, and cleaning up, doing laundry, gathering and interpreting weather data, gathering water if it rains, updating our position to the internet, navigating, fixing minor things. We also read, write, watch the dolphins, have sex, be alone, watch the stars, wait for morning. All the important stuff.
What do you wear?
Hats, sunglasses are a must of course. I wear shoes most of the time because I tend to break my toes. Sandals or non-constricting shoes with good grip are the best. As for clothing we preference fleeces and polyester materials at sea because they don’t collect water, don’t perpetuate body smells, use very little water to wash, and dry quickly. Wool (think smartwool) and silk are also good. Cotton just holds too much water and stinks if not washed frequently. Linen is better than cotton, but not as fast-drying as polyester. But, weather permitting, bare skin is the easiest material to take care of! For more information see my article on clothing at sea.
Questions no one asks but should:
How do you get weather reports?
Most coastal boaters get their radio on the VHF radio. However VHF has a limited range of 20-30 miles so is no good offshore. We use our HF radio which has two modes – Ham Radio and Marine radio share the bands on a high-frequency radio. We both have our Ham licenses which allows us to use both sets of frequencies. The advantages of HF Radio is that it is free or close to free to use, but the equipment is expensive if bought new. Our boat came with the equipment so using it is a no-brainer. Another advantage to radio is that it is one to many – one transmission has the potential to reach many people – significant in emergency situations. Ham Radio can also be used in emergencies to reach shore-side telephones. This is how Jon reached me when the tip of his finger was chopped off mid-ocean. I got care advice from a doctor and waited for him to call me back. Weather is downloaded by GRIB files that are very efficiently packed sets of forecast data that can be displayed on your navigation system. Read more about weather downloads by radio.
A more recent system is Satellite phone. The equipment is about the cost of a cell phone, but the ongoing usage rates can be quite high. Satellite phone is one-to-one so in emergency situations it is only good if you can reach the person you need. Weather downloads are great and can interface with weather software such as PredictWind. We have decided we do not want this ongoing cost.
What do you do with your trash when you are offshore?
Trash is a problem. It’s a problem on land but we can ignore it. At sea we work very hard to reduce our impact on the ocean or on the countries we visit, some of whom will not have the resources to treat waste that we are used to in the US.
At sea we dispose of glass, metal, and food and bodily wastes overboard. Paper is also allowed, but we try to to collect this for disposal on land. We store what cannot be thrown overboard in trash bags (yes, sadly, plastic but there are better biodegradable brands if you look) and save them for proper disposal when we arrive.
Plastic of course is the problem. To combat plastic we first reduce our dependence on plastic materials (think containers – toothpaste, shampoo, bags etc) and then strictly collect anything that does need disposal. For more on our efforts read about Reducing Plastic Onboard.
Bodily waste is also an issue. Most boats flush their toilets directly into the sea while offshore, and store it in tanks when coastal sailing. We have a composting toilet. Pee collects in a gallon container and goes overboard every day or so. Solid waste is collected in the composted toilet and constantly dried with the aid of an extraction fan. The material is dirtlike and pretty dry and not very stinky when we dispose of it in dumpsters ashore (like diapers) or at sea if necessary.
And Your Turn
What have you always wondered about?