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Five Things I Wish I’d Known…

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We belong to the Seven Seas Cruising Association (SSCA), a mostly-unstructured group of those who have chosen to live on, and travel by, water. The Association publishes a Bulletin once a month, made up mostly of letters from members about their experiences in various destinations. In February, 2008 the Bulletin began a column called “Dreamer’s Prism” for those who are dreaming, or hoping, or planning, to move out among us. The November, 2008 edition of the column issued a challenge to existing members: “…What are five things you wish you’d known before you started cruising?” Our response:

 

Seven Seas Cruising Association Burgees

 

"Five things I wish I'd known before I started cruising..." Boy, did that start a discussion! Herewith our contributions. Our 10,000 miles of cruising over the last four years have been mostly coastwise, from San Francisco, through Mexico and Central America to Ecuador, then through the Panama Canal to Cartagena and on to Guatemala (as of mid-2008). Those who sail mostly across oceans or to Arctic wastes will have different perspectives.

 

(1) You're not alone. The community of cruisers is both ephemeral and tightly-knit. You'll get to know people by their voices on the SSB months before you meet them--if you ever do. But cruisers help other cruisers: whether a mysterious engine failure, a medical emergency, or a needed part, we've heard it happen time and again. And yet, you are alone. Be prepared to be your own weatherman, and fix your own systems. Seek input, but make your own decisions.

 

(2) Everything breaks. There's a tradeoff between modern conveniences and maintenance. Every convenience comes with a mortgage of spare parts that must be carried, and time that must go to preventive and reparative maintenance. Try to find a point on the convenience-maintenance tradeoff that you're happy with.

 

As Larry Pardey said: "Be prepared to fix it, replace it, or do without it." Skilled technicians for high-tech systems are scarce. A village mechanic, given the service manual (you have the service manual, right?) and the replacement part (you have the part?), can usually get the job done on an engine. And in outback areas, a village mechanic can often accomplish wonders in fabricating a new rifnoid out of a bit of wrecked truck chassis. 

 

More often than not, you'll be your own mechanic, perhaps with the help of the guy in the other boat in the anchorage. Since most of our breakdowns have been electrical, I will emphasize: Most often, the problem is in the connectors, not in the components.

 

The best thing is to live with your systems for several years before you set off. Learn how things break, what breaks, and how to work backward from the symptom to the disease. Do basic maintenance and fix things yourself before you set off from the dock. We had our steering go bad in the Hobbies Cays off of the coast of Honduras, where there's nobody--not even fellow cruisers--to help. If I'd never torn into that system before, I would have been terrified. As it was, it was just "Oh, bother." And never ignore a strange noise.

 

(3) Getting food, medicine, and medical care is easy. There's no excuse for carrying a 5-year supply of flour (or whatever). Wherever we've gone, there have been people, and the people eat stuff, mostly stuff they buy at a small shop within a few steps of their front door. Eat what they eat, and you'll eat cheaply and learn to enjoy new foods. Likewise, the governments of those countries want to keep their citizens well, and have provided good-to-excellent public health services at ridiculously cheap prices (by US standards). Learn basic first aid, but forego the multi-thousand-dollar medical kit. On the other hand, be aware that counterfeit pharmaceuticals are a problem in second- and third-world countries, for example, "Lipitor" and "chloroquine" made of talcum powder: if there's a medicine that your life depends on, factor that into your decision on whether to buy south of the border. Most pharmacies have an English-Spanish dictionary of pharmaceuticals, and no prescription is necessary where we've sailed (except for psychoactive drugs).

 

Update, April 2010: Mexico has instituted a requirement that one have a prescription to purchase antibiotics. At this time we have not determined whether the requirement is actually being enforced in the pharmacies.

 

(4) It's easy to travel inland to all those wonderful places you've heard about. We like to have reservations, but we have friends who do without. Both groups seem happy with their choices. Have some of the local language, though. Not only will it improve your ability to get by on your own, it shows respect to the locals, and they'll reciprocate. (Stick to your native language if you're dealing with a law enforcement official.) Wherever we've been, the locals have been warm, patient, and as curious about our lives as we have been about theirs.

 

(5) You can do this. "It is a commonplace that we cannot answer for ourselves until we have been tried. But it is not so common a reflection, and surely more consoling, that we usually find ourselves a great deal braver and better than we thought. I believe that this is everyone's experience...I wish sincerely, for it would have saved me much trouble, there had been someone to put me in good heart about life when I was younger; to tell me how dangers are more portentious on a distant sight, and how the good in a man's spirit will not allow itself to be overlaid and rarely or never deserts him in the hour of need." (Robert Louis Stevenson) Maintaining one's positive outlook is a lot easier if one spends one's time on quiet watches anticipating problems and hatching plans for what one will do when they arise. Always have a "Plan B." And another.

 

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