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Article by Tor Pinney                                                                                                                                        Back to List of Tor's Tips


Coping with the "Down Side" of the Cruising Life

1993 Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved


There are few human endeavors more rewarding than cruising under sail. The thrill of a fast reach across the trades, the peace of an idyllic harbor, the novelty of living aboard your floating home in a new places. It's a lifestyle rich and varied in experience.

At the same time, the cruising life presents some unique challenges. Cruising, especially long-term, isn't all blue skies and cocktails at sunset. Unless you're mentally prepared for the "other" side of cruising, the down side, you may find yourself unnecessarily disappointed. Let's take a look at some of the most common pitfalls cruisers face, and what can be done about them.

Bad Weather

One of the most daunting aspects of cruising, particularly offshore, is bad weather. No matter how many forecasts you tune in, heavy weather and head winds are an inevitable fact of the cruising life once you venture far from land. Three days into a gale at sea, under gray skies and wet decks, cruising doesn't seem quite so glamorous anymore. (I often find myself dreaming of a cozy log cabin in the woods!) The truth is, being cooped up on a boat during long spells of bad weather can be really depressing.

Then, just when things seem bad enough, the twin devils, fear and seasickness, clamor aboard to torture and dispirit even the most stalwart crew. Even if you're lucky enough to be in port when the weather deteriorates, cabin fever, concern for the boat and, sometimes, a rolly mooring can take much of the romance out of living aboard.

However, there are ways to take some of the punch out of a bad day at sea. It's common sense to reduce sail at the first sign of deteriorating weather, and to do everything you can to ensure the boat rides safely. This alone alleviates some of the initial anxiety. But if the motion is still harsh, tuck in an extra reef to slow the boat down further. So what if you get to your distant destination a few hours or a few days later! Increased safety, comfort and crew morale are more important aboard a cruising boat than an extra knot of speed. This is especially true if you're bashing to windward offshore. Ease off a bit on the sheets and on the heading to reduce the pounding. If the weather is really nasty, heave-to and wait it out. Be kind to your boat, your crew and yourself; don't push harder than absolutely necessary in bad weather. And don't yell.

Cooking in a gale isn't much fun, either. Before encountering bad weather, prepare some pre- cooked meals that can be heated up quickly. A good, hot meal can make the wet world outside more tolerable. Afterwards, clean up the dishes even if you don't really feel like it. And straighten up the cabin. A depression is less depressing if your living space is in order.

Once the boat is riding safely, the best thing to do in heavy weather is to go below and relax. Make some tea, play some music, read a book, make love, take a nap - and keep reminding yourself that all storms do eventually end.


Being afraid at sea, especially in rough weather, is perfectly normal and much more common than many will admit. Fear of the unknown (How much worse is the weather going to get?) and fear of death (How much can this boat really take?) can turn a squall into a nightmare, especially for the uninitiated.

Weather forecasts, received via VHF, short wave radio or weatherfax, are reassuring - even when they're bad! They take the mystery out of a storm, giving you an idea of whether or not it is likely to get worse and, best of all, when it'll end. Fear of foundering usually comes from lack of confidence in the vessel, in the captain, or in both. Only time and experience build confidence. The second storm isn't quite as scary as the first, and the tenth, while still no fun, is almost routine.

Seasickness, that universal mariners' curse, has spoiled many a cruise. For those afflicted, it turns passage making into a dreaded burden, and adversely effects judgement at sea. Today there are many remedies available. Find one that works for you and use it before you get ill!


One of the most surprising truths about cruising is that you can become bored doing it. Now wait a minute, I didn't say that cruising is boring! But boredom can and does creep aboard when the voyaging spans months or years, rather than brief holidays. You can only trim so many sails, comb so many beaches, read so many paperbacks, and toast so many sunsets before it all starts to seem - well, commonplace.

One common reason for this isn't so surprising when you think about it. Most people who actually manage to cast off and go cruising today have worked long and hard to get there. Many are retired or taking a break from active, stimulating careers. Suddenly, they have an unaccustomed amount of leisure time on their hands. Oh, there's the sailing, the sightseeing and the daily chores and boat maintenance - more than enough to fill the hours. But the fact is, those of us who are products of a work ethic society have a need to feel productive. I don't mean we have to "work" everyday, but in order to feel good about ourselves, we need to feel like we're accomplishing something useful. Too many people give up cruising, feeling depressed and dissatisfied, without realizing why they feel that way. This is particularly true of mates who have "gone along" with their spouse's cruising dream, but really aren't all that keen on it themselves. It's not the cruising that's boring. Cruising is, or can be, forever stimulating! It's the lack of feeling productive that gets some people down, and once you're aware of this potential threat there's plenty you can do about it. But it takes a conscious effort on your part.

By being productive I don't necessarily mean earning money. Developing hobbies or interests such as writing, painting, or playing a musical instrument can give added meaning to life afloat. Continuing your studies, perhaps through university correspondence courses, may be especially rewarding. Or consider jewelry design, woodcarving or any of a score of other handicrafts. Computer programming, shell collecting, canvas sewing - virtually anything that's portable enough to do aboard a boat is a positive, potential cure for boredom. Of course, working at a trade as you travel, even if it means stopping from time to time, has the added benefit of boosting the cruising kitty. Perhaps more importantly, the sheer contrast of "going to work" for periods of time will refresh your appreciation of the lazier life under sail.

In fact, contrast is often the other key to successful, long-term cruising. For example, getting away from the boat every so often will keep your appreciation level high. Taking seasonal or annual sabbaticals from living aboard definitely cures cruising boredom. You'll soon discover that the best part of leaving your boat is coming back to her again!


The cruising life can be a very solitary existence. When living in remote and foreign places, cultural and language differences may isolate you from the local population. Periodic feelings of isolation and loneliness are almost universal, especially among single-handers, although cruising couples and even families are not immune. Everybody gets the cruising blues sometimes.

There are, however, some practical remedies. For some, a compromise cruising schedule is an ideal cure. Six (or four or eight) months sailing, alternated with similar periods of time staying put (either ashore or afloat) allows you to satisfy the gypsy itch, yet still provides plenty of time for nurturing valuable human relationships ashore. This can be especially important to the children of cruising families.

Alternatively, having friends and family come to visit you aboard is not only a way to share your unique lifestyle with them, but it breaks up the (dare I say it?) monotony of 24-hour-a-day, close-quarters living with your regular mate(s). So do brief vacation visits home, with the boat stored safely in a marina or boat yard.

A fun way to combat cruising isolation is by sailing in tandem with one or more other yachts. Whether you set off as a group, or meet some compatible cruisers along the way and decide to continue on together, your social life will be multiplied ten-fold by cruising in company. As a bonus, this arrangement provides an added safety margin for everyone.

Aboard as ashore, a pet is always a great antidote for loneliness. So are regular phone calls home. Many countries today offer AT&T USA DIRECT and MCI CALL USA, telephone services that make calling the States fast, easy and reasonable from many public telephones abroad.

Lastly, there is a growing number of sailors' social clubs available on various radio nets. For local camaraderie, just ask other sailors you meet if there is a particular VHF frequency and time that area boaters get together. Licensed Ham operators enjoy access to maritime mobile and land-based nets worldwide for communicating with kindred spirits. There are also many less formal, regional maritime nets on single sideband frequencies which do not require a Ham license to join in. Although the SSB nets may discuss weather forecasts and useful travel information, their primary function is usually social. It's a chance for cruising sailors to chat, schedule rendezvous' and, in general, to keep in touch with each other.

Hard Work

Another unpublicized truth about the cruising life is the huge amount of work and attention a boat requires. Every cruising sailor is, in a sense, a slave to his vessel. Even if you start out with a brand new boat and equipment, the list of maintenance and repair chores is literally never-ending. If the boat is old, the list is even longer. The fact is, I don't know any cruiser who can honestly say, "I have absolutely nothing that I could be doing for the boat today!"

Boat maintenance is necessary; it can even be gratifying. But be careful that it doesn't overwhelm you and spoil your trip. You'll do well to prioritize the jobs, dealing with essential maintenance and repairs right away, and scheduling time for less urgent tasks at regular intervals. I find it easier to stop periodically, settle into a pleasant port, and work full time on the boat for a few days or weeks to catch up. Then, with many jobs accomplished and a clear conscience, I can relax and enjoy the leisure time I've created for sailing, exploring and writing.

When chores seem to pile up, I occasionally hire a local to help with the simpler tasks, like scrubbing and oiling the teak or waxing the hull. Of course, when I'm sailing with crew aboard, everybody pitches in and the jobs get done more quickly.

Once in a while it's a relief to get away from boat chores entirely. With your vessel securely moored or dry-docked, ideally with someone keeping an eye on her, you're free to leave for awhile and devote your full attention to inland sightseeing and other interests. Remember: you own your boat; don't let it own you!

Foreign Stuff

Visiting foreign lands aboard our floating home is one of the prime reasons most of us go cruising. On the plus side is the thrill of discovering remarkable places, meeting different people, learning their customs, trying new foods, and experiencing it all from the comfortable base of your own floating home.

But there are aspects of travel peculiar to boating that can try your patience. Clearing in with the various government authorities is, at times, an onerous, time consuming effort. Customs, immigration, the port captain, the National Guard, the police, the coast guard and all the king's men may require separate visits, each with forms to be completed and stamped in triplicate. Rarely are they all in the same building, nor even in the same part of town! Orderly ship's paperwork and a patient, friendly attitude are your best defenses against bureaucratic tedium.

Receiving mail is another snag in paradise. It's not uncommon to go for months between successful mail drops while cruising abroad. Often a mail packet containing your precious, accumulated correspondence will arrive in the country only to be stalled at a customs warehouse somewhere, waiting - sometimes for months! - to be inspected for contraband. Or the packet may never arrive at all.

In many larger ports you can take advantage of international courier services such as DHL and Federal Express to get the mail packets through. They're expensive but they usually work, and quickly!

Homeward bound mail posted from many Third World countries stands, maybe, a 50/50 chance of ever arriving. If you have a supply of your home country's postage stamps aboard, you can often find a tourist willing to carry your flat mail back with him, to be posted there with a much better chance of reaching its destination.

As a rule, when cruising abroad it's only in the largest cities that you'll find services for repairing things like electronics, sails and machinery. Even then, locating replacement parts can be next to impossible, and if you have repair parts shipped to you from home they may be difficult to retrieve. It's true that a vessel in transit is almost universally exempt from paying import duty on equipment that is shipped in to be used on the boat. But it's often difficult - sometimes impossible - to explain that to a customs official who doesn't speak your language, nor share your interpretation of international maritime law.

It's best to prepare for the inevitable breakdowns before leaving home waters. Stock up on complete spare parts, warranty cards and service manuals (not just owner's manuals!) for every single essential device on the boat. Thus provisioned, even in some smaller towns you may then find a competent repairman who can help because you're able to provide the necessary manuals and materials.

The Truth

The cruising life can be stimulating, peaceful, fun and endlessly rewarding. It can be, and often is, everything you've dreamed and more! Still it is life, which inevitably includes challenges and pitfalls. To set sail with the idea that you're leaving all your troubles behind is to blow a bubble destined to burst. Be aware, be prepared and be realistic. Add to that a positive mental attitude and you'll discover the real truth about the cruising life: that while it's not always perfect, it just may be life at its best!

~ End ~

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