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Our First Season Cruising: What We Would Do Differently And Why

Our First Season Cruising: What We Would Do Differently And Why

I cannot say enough about all the positive aspects of cruising (although I’ll certainly try). Those who have made the leap to go cruising with their families know what I’m talking about it. It’s unlike any other experience you can have on land; it changes you in the best way possible, and I don’t regret one minute of our first season as cruisers. But this post is not about that.

I’ve been preparing to write this post for several months. It is born from our time spent on land reflecting on our eight months cruising the US East coast and the Bahamas: what we liked, what we didn’t, what we could have done to make it better. We had some of the most incredible days we’ve ever had on our boat, and we had some of the hardest days in our marriage on that boat too. Put simply, cruising is not easy. It takes a significant amount of risk and sacrifice just to sever ties with land and leave the dock, not including the stressful situations and decisions that must be dealt with while cruising a coastline or traveling across any body of water. Despite what people may believe, cruising is not about kicking your feet up and living life in a hammock; it’s about embarking on a true adventure and accepting the challenges, limitations and wonders of the journey.

Beth A. Leonard puts it beautifully in her book, Blue Horizons: Dispatches From Distant Seas:

“I try to explain. ‘What’s it really like? I can only answer for me. For me it’s…vivid. Intense. Technicolor. Ashore we strive for convenience, comfort, consistency. Most people live within a very narrow emotional band. But until we went cruising, we didn’t realize that in cutting out the lows we’d also truncated the highs. After we left, we…experienced again moments that we would have been happy to have last forever. But we also had to deal with the moments when we’d rather be anywhere but where we were.’ ” (pg 20)

July 2016: Boat shopping

I want to share with you the aspects of cruising that were difficult for us to adapt to and what we will do to circumvent frustrations the next time we’re out there. This is just our perspective. Liveaboard life was new for both of us, as was full time traveling with our children. While I know every family is unique in its needs and wants in life aboard a boat, I’m hoping that you will be able to glean something from our experiences and use it to help you in your own journey, whether you’re preparing to leave or you’re already out there.

This is what we would do differently:

We would create and maintain more defined personal boundaries between my husband and myself from the start. Not having defined personal boundaries was really one of our biggest hurdles while cruising. This may seem a bit odd, but let me explain.

One of the reasons that drew us to full time traveling with our children was the time we’d be gaining with each other. No more long hours at work for my husband only to come home and spend long hours working from his home computer. No more social obligations that left our weekends sparse and stretched; we would finally be able to have quality time together as a couple, as a family and strengthen those oh so important bonds. While this is all true, we failed to see what was working for us on land, and what we would be giving up once we moved aboard: boundaries.

Just before moving aboard my husband and I went from having our own personal computers, to only one, and from two phones to just one to share between us. We’re going to be together all the time! We thought, Why would we need two of everything?! It wasn’t long before we realized this romantic notion we had in our heads of spending every waking moment together blissfully staring into each other’s eyes wasn’t realistic and it wasn’t working. We lost the autonomy we took for granted on land. We no longer had a time and space to pursue our own interests. Mike would be deep in researching a boat topic on the computer while I waited to use it to write, an important staple in my life. Our needs as individuals weren’t being met in the best way. It was a similar situation with our phone. While these are just two (seemingly trivial) examples, the point is this: we neglected to appreciate that on land we each had our own hobbies, interests and friendships that we didn’t always share, and while cruising we began to miss that personal freedom.

Dinner in the cockpit

After a few months, we realized that in order to strengthen our marriage in this unique lifestyle we needed to find ways to create not only times together, but times to be alone as well. Once we realized this, we made some changes. We soon bought a second computer, so I could write and he could pursue his own interests or watch movies at night. We also decided upon nights where I could have the main salon to myself and other nights where we would share it. It may sound silly to some, or even selfish, but if we had thought about this aspect of cruising before it would have saved us a few months of frustration and time spent trying to figure out why we were frustrated!

On that note, I want to add that I (Brittany) would also change how much time I spent at the helm, which was very little. Instead of sharing the tasks and responsibilities of cruising equally between my husband and I (something we wanted to do but did very little of) I would have taken over at the helm more often and had Mike watching or schooling the girls. In reality, we both really wanted to do this, but we fell into the habit of living like we did on land- me watching the kids all day and Mike working away from the family. Some aspects of land life we needed to keep, like a little autonomy, and other aspects we needed to toss, and the strict division of responsibilities was one of them.

We would have made outside hops more often* (only in good weather of course). This is something Mike said he would do differently. It’s hard for me (Brittany) to look back and say we should have done a few more outside hops on the Atlantic as opposed to traveling the ICW as we did, because we were new cruisers and because we had a 7 month old baby that was still waking and nursing at night. I struggled with the concept of being up with baby and taking over night watches, but as we spent more time cruising we realized that under good conditions, good preparation and perhaps a buddy boat, overnight passages didn’t have to be the daunting thing we assumed they would be. Indeed, our first overnight passage from Charleston, SC to Jacksonville, FL didn’t go perfectly, but it was still manageable and even remains as one of our most treasured times on the water- despite the persistent dense fog and sea sickness! The ICW can be a painfully slow method of travel (can anyone say bridges?) and we realized later that we could have saved a ridiculous amount of time by making a couple extra hops on the ocean and relaxed at our destination sooner.

*Ocean passages are a delicate subject in my opinion, because whether or not you choose to do them really depends on your skill and confidence level, and what kind of cruising you want to do. So take this one with a grain of salt and never make a passage you’re not willing and prepared to do!

Walking back from the library in Norfolk, Virginia

We would have made smaller cruising goals and had more modest expectations. Cruising the world. Foreign countries. Crossing an ocean. These phrases and more were buzzing around in our minds as we prepared to go cruising. While we acknowledged the challenges of cruising (only abstractly of course), I know now the ideas we had of cruising before we left were far too romantic to be realistic. There were days I woke up and wished I wasn’t on a boat with my husband and children. Days when we chose to travel when I would have rather stayed put. Days when we stayed put when I would have rather traveled. After a few months into cruising, we began to question even the route we had planned. Should we stay in Florida? Go to the Bahamas? Cuba? Does it even matter? What if we didn’t cruise a foreign country? Would it looked like we had “failed” as cruisers? After a few honest conversations, Mike and I realized that the old silly cliché is actually true. It’s not about the destination, but about the journey. Our favorite moments while cruising were not sitting on a postcard-worthy beach, instead our favorite moments almost always had to do with the people we met, the stories we heard and shared, and the relationships we gained. Spending time in Virginia was one of my favorite places, and the time spent cruising the ICW through North Carolina during the freezing winter was actually filled with surprising, breathtaking beauty.

Cruising the world can definitely be an attainable dream, but I learned there’s far more to cruising than that. It’s an outward journey as well as an inward one. It’s not always easy, but that’s ok. We shouldn’t have put huge expectations of world travel on our shoulders while cruising. Every step of the journey can be rewarding, incredible, challenging and life changing. You don’t have to complete a circumnavigation to experience what cruising is like.

If I could tell my pre-cruiser self anything I would say this: Don’t worry about where you go or where you’ll end up. You’ll meet amazing people everywhere, and the most beautiful moments will never be the ones you planned. You can be miserable even in paradise, so remember to cruise because you love it, and you’ll never want to stop. 

Our first time seeing s/v Gromit in person! Our pre-cruising selves

There were definitely things about cruising we didn’t like. Things we’d like to change the next time we untie the dock lines. I can bet every cruiser has their own list of things they’d like to change with every new cruising season. That’s ok.

In conclusion I’m going to leave you with a few more perfectly said words from Beth A Leonard’s book, Blue Horizons:

“Those highs and lows had turned out to be addicting…The one doesn’t come without the other, and the sum of both satisfies us more than what we experience ashore.

‘ “So if I don’t always want to be on the boat, if I don’t always enjoy it, that doesn’t mean I won’t like cruising?” ‘

I smile. ‘ “No one loves it all the time. It would be too easy then, and it’s not easy. It takes tenacity and determination and a willingness to be uncomfortable some of the time.” ‘

What’s cruising really like? It’s marvelous and terrible and scary and exhilarating. It’s not for everyone, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” (pg 20-21)