My husband, Hal and I, and a dear friend, Dave, sailed from Honolulu to Florida via
the Panama Canal. Hal and I retired early to
live out the blue water dream. If you are thinking of joining your husband or
significant other on such an adventure, particularly if you are old enough to
be a member of AARP, then this is for you.
We had sailed for over 25 years in Hawaiian waters dealing
with the often turbulent channels between the islands. It took us 39 days to
get from Honolulu to our first landfall, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. This was about two weeks
longer than it should have been since we hit several storm systems going north
of the Hawaiian Islands.
We spent days crashing and bashing in 20 foot seas and 20-40
knot winds and higher gusts. I clearly
knew from our Hawaiian cruising experiences that sailing the high seas was not
glamorous or romantic but I was not ready for the fear and isolation I felt
during the storm fronts we encountered on the open ocean. It was a long long
If you are sure that you must follow your dream as a couple,
do spend many months planning, spend money and invest in the latest safety and
communications equipment, practice and have as much redundancy in systems as
you can afford. I am not an advocate of low budget equipping or provisioning if
you are going to be thousands of miles from nowhere. For your voyage planning,
I recommend the following.
1. Have a
Sturdy Boat: Probably the one most important thing to have for any ocean
crossing is a sturdy boat. Our sailboat, HENCE, is a tank. She is 35 feet of
1/4inch aluminum and takes the heat like a champ. We were never in imminent
danger with her. We were miserable many days but never in danger of capsizing. We
knew the strength of our boat having done Hawaiian channel crossings up wind in
30 plus knot winds.
2. Have An Experienced First Mate:
If you are not as good a sailor as the Skipper, if you cannot troubleshoot the
engine, the autopilot, the water maker, etc., if you cannot single-hand the
boat, then have an experienced First Mate on board. Our friend, Dave was a
superb seaman. He had a sense about the wind and waves and was able to work the
sails in all weather conditions.
3. Invest in a Satellite Phone: Being able to connect with family was extremely
comforting for me and on some days was what I lived for. We had an Iridium Motorola phone with an
external marine antenna mount so it could be used at the nav station below. We
got ours off the internet from satphonestore.com. We pre-purchased minutes for 99 cents per minute…but think
where you are using them…you can roam on your cell phone and get charged that
much. The Iridium phone worked in the middle of nowhere, literally. Yes, you
may think that you want to get away from everything, that you have your ham
radio and can do e-mails, etc., but nothing is like hearing the voice of your
loved one. We did not keep our sat phone on to receive calls. We would turn it
on just to make calls and would then schedule the next call with family. You can use your sat
phone to access the internet using your laptop and Stratosnet software
(stratosnet.com). I installed and tested it but never used it at sea as it
takes way too many minutes and is at the old 2400 baud rate.
4. Use a
Weather Router: We used a weather router to help with the initial
voyage plan to the East Coast and to have enroute weather updates. My husband
spoke with him via satellite phone every three days. Our guardian angel was
Rick Shima of weatherguy.com. Yes we hit storms, but we knew they were coming.
You can communicate with your weather router via Ham e-mail, but speaking by
phone was far easier and enabled us to have two-way conversation and problem
solving. We also accessed weather data from Sailmail and Winlink options via our
ham radio, but weather routers do the complex assessments for you since they
have macro and micro data.
5. Get Your
Ham Radio License: This takes a lot of advance planning but is well
worth the initiative. When Hal and I got our licenses, we had to pass a 15 word
per minute code test to get our General class licenses. Now you only need to
pass a 5 word per minute test. This is easy. We had an ICOM 710 and even
brought along our ICOM 706 as back up. I recommend you have a professional ham
radio vendor prep the radio for you with both the marine and ham bands. With
your radio, you are open to a world of communication and information options by
installing a high frequency modem and interfacing with your laptop. We used a
PTC-IIpro modem with PACTOR III firmware. We were able to use the PC to remote
control the radio. This enables you to do e-mails and easily access weather
data via Sailmail or Winlink (I used both services to give me more frequency/propagation
options). We worked with Farallon
Electronics (farallon.us) for radio and modem installation support. It took
many hours of work and practice to figure out the complex interface and use of
radio, modem and laptop but was well worth the effort.
extensive medical equipment and supplies aboard: For long passage
making when you are days from getting assistance, you need to think about your
own survival should serious illness or injury occur. We used a maritime health
service called Ship MD at globalmd.net out of Seattle to help us prepare our ships pharmacy
and medical supply list. We contracted with them to give us advice 24/7 via
Satellite phone in case we ran into trouble. We had antibiotics aboard to
handle almost any type of infection, we could do IV’s, set bones, handle skin
infections, treat heart disease, manage pain, you name it. We had a
defibrillator aboard. We also had a first aide class right before we set sail
from an emergency room physician. He showed us how to reduce bone breaks, do
injections, suture and staple wound and set splints. Hal wanted to learn how to do a tracheotomy,
but Doc said that if that was needed, he recommended burial at sea! The only
medical problem we had on the long passage was foot fungus due to wearing our
waterproof socks for days on end. Foot powder and more frequent sock changes
got this under control. We did not have any extensive problems with sea
sickness. I use scopolamine patches and the men went cold turkey and got queasy
only a bit in the early part of the storms.
7. Invest in
Safety Equipment: Research what is best for the size of your boat and
have a drogue, sea anchor, staysail, trysail, life raft, ditch bags, handheld
VHS radios, pilot radio to contact airplanes if need be, naturally EPIRBS, etc.
If you think you need it, buy it and practice how to use it. We bought a Jordan
Series Drogue and a Florentino Para Anchor which we never had to use. You will
need radar…there are really big cargo ships at sea and you do not want to have
them get near you. We had our radar monitor below but were able to watch it from
the cockpit and turn it to face the saloon so we could watch it while we ate or
while watching a movie on the computer. One develops an obsession about radar
while at sea. Install a safety bar across your stove and a safety harness. I
used the harness almost daily and without the safety bar, would have fallen
into the stove while cooking. Watch those wave bashes!
8. Know Your
Liferaft and Test Your Ditch Bags: One of the worst days on the ocean passage
for me was when our liferaft became loose and slipped off its cradle. Your liferaft
is your last resort. Make sure you have a hydrostatic release mechanism. We had
a 6-person Swiftsure-Global with an Offshore Pack. Have your liferaft certified just before you
leave and be there when it is opened up. Sit in it and learn how it works. We
added a mini-EPRIB to the raft along with eyeglasses, a spear gun, passport
copies,e tc. Spend time readying your ditch bags. We had a hand held Pur water
maker in one of our ditch bags along with a hand held GPS and many other safety
devices such as flares, sea dye, sea kite, extra flares, medications, etc. Fill
your ditch bags and test and retest them in the ocean to see if they leak and
to rig your ditch bag floats.
9. Invest In
the Best Water Maker You Can Afford: Having lots of fresh water was one
less thing to worry about. You could do dishes, take showers and have plenty to
drink. We had a Spectra Newport 400 rated at 17 gallons per hour. We only needed to run it about an hour every
other day. It was difficult to install but worked perfectly.
Agents in Foreign Ports: Again, spend a little money and use agents in
foreign ports, particularly for crossing the Panama Canal.
We used Agent Tina McBride (email@example.com) for Panama and she took care of the
canal crossing paperwork for us as well as customs and immigration. She
arranged to hire the line handlers you need as well as the 125 foot lines. We
also used an agent for Cabo San Lucas, Mexico (called
from our sat phone while at sea). After our 39 days crossing, it was joyous to
get to land and have an agent take care of things for us. You can get names of
agents from cruising guides.
Hints: We stored soft food
goods like bisquick, dried fruits, flour, pasta, mac and cheese, etc in clear
heavy vinyl dry bags we had gotten at K-Mart’s sport section. You can see what
you have. I spent several days peeling labels off cans. Don’t bother. If you
have enough water damage to affect your can labels, you have bigger problems
than knowing what is in the can. I put cans in canvas duffel bags so they would
not rattle, worked perfectly. I vacuum packed tortillas but remember to put wax
paper between each tortilla or all you get is a stack of mashed tortillas. Potatoes
and onions lasted for weeks layered in paper bags in separate draws. Order canned butter, canned cheese and canned
meat from the internet ( internet-grocer.com and brinkmanfarms.com). You will
only eat about 20% of what you bring.
Everything: List all your storage spots and everything you have in
them. Diagram what you have in your large cockpit lockers. Even if you do this,
you will still misplace things. Where are your running light bulb replacements?
Do you have a 12 amp fuse? Where is your back-up impeller? List anything and
Ziplocks and Playdough: Buy tons of freezer strength ziplocs in all
sizes (the 2 gallon size are very useful) preferably without the little zipper
tabs (they break too easily). You can never have enough ziplocs aboard. We used
them for all of our dry food products, clothes, nuts and bolts, all types of
gear. We fashioned drip bags out of them when our ports leaked. Ziploc’s are
second to duct tape as a sailor’s best friend! My other favorite item to have
aboard was playdough. I had read in one of the cruising magazines this tip from
another sailor. Hal thought I was daft when I put playdough aboard. But when
our head flooded out from the floor drain due to backwash, I used playdough to
plug the little drain holes and it worked. Another little helpful tool was a
spray bottle. I used it to spray wash my hair in the sink with one hand while
holding on for support with the other.
Hal and I spent a year full time
readying for our adventure. Converting your boat from a day or coastal cruiser
to an ocean cruiser means money and time and dedication. On the crossing days
when I was most dispirited from the weather and my fear, I fell back on
everything we had done to be safe. Short of having a much larger boat with
staterooms and washer/dryer and helicopter deck, we had it all.