There is continued interest in recreational boating in this country, during these times as a way for people to expand their activities while staying safe with family and friends. That is a great thing, and a wonderful recipe for family memories.

In addition to these new to boating, many others have made the decision to not wait and go out now to explore beyond their home waters. If one follows social media, there are numerous accounts of new cruisers heading south this fall to southern waters. And the number of calls for advice in the various groups and forums speaks to their interest in learning how to do this cruising thing. It is all new to them. I see the same level of basic inquiry in the daily exchanges among the Great Loop folks, with questions that range from how to bring dog along to understanding bridge clearances.

While it is a bit unsettling to me that these people ask so many basic questions for answers and suggestions from people they don’t know, rather than do any kind of research themselves, it may just be the new normal in this digital age. Perhaps it is just easier having someone tell you what to do, where to go, or what to see. Certainly not the case for my generation, but hey, times have changed.

This is really nothing new, people new to cruising wanting to learn how to do it right and avoid the mistakes that can occur on the water. Is there a better way than to just shove off and figure it out as one goes? (Which appears to be a common approach from what I read on social media.)

(Driving your boat in choppy waters with someone experienced can be a great way to learn how to handle inclement weather.)

boating in choppy water

One of the best ways to get up to speed on the intricacies of cruising is to do it in company with experienced cruisers, people willing to share their knowledge and experience. To become a seasoned cruiser may take years to figure it all out. Every trip brings something new, and a combination of unrelated circumstances one has not had to deal with before. While it may be stressful, it is the reason why the call to go cruising is so strong. Life as an adventure!

The anxiety experienced by someone taking a boat to new waters for the first time is nothing to ignore. While it later makes for funny stories, it is quite real, and many of us know it firsthand. A couple I know planned one year to take their trawler yacht up north from the Pacific Northwest to British Columbia and Southeast Alaska. While getting ready for their summer cruise, word on the dock got around and soon got the attention of a couple who had just purchased a twin diesel, 45-foot DeFever trawler. The couple wanted only to go a bit north of the San Juan Islands to get used to the new boat that first summer. They asked my friends if they could go along with them at least across the often-rough Strait of Juan de Fuca.

I don’t recall all the details, but Charlie told me when they departed for points north, they proceeded at their agreed-upon engine speed and course to make quick work of the nice weather window for the 20+ mile crossing across the strait. For some reason, however, Charlie noticed that the DeFever only made 7 knots or so, even though the DeFever owner confirmed on the radio that he was indeed at the normal cruising rpm on both engines. He too could not explain why they weren’t making better boat speed as originally planned.

Long story short, the gripping anxiety got the better of them. The new owners were simply terrified about running a new boat across a scary and daunting body of unprotected water. Once they completed the crossing and prepared to stop for the day, the man realized he had never put his port engine in gear…so strong is the fear and state we can work ourselves into.

(Seen below: There is safety in numbers when it comes to cruising unfamiliar crossings.)

yachts cruising together

One year we decided to host a grand adventure of inexperienced trawler owners to cruise the Bahamas as a group. Our Pokie Run consisted of a fleet of 39 trawlers, with plans for all of us to cross the Gulf Stream for the very first time together, from Palm Beach to West End. Once in the Bahamas we would then enjoy a guided, ten-day introductory cruise of the tropical paradise.

It was a magical experience for the 70+ people in the event. I vividly recall the concern of each boat crew about crossing the Gulf Stream for the first time. The slower of the two groups was led by friends aboard their Grand Banks 42. They took their fleet across the Stream, like shepherds with their flock, and Jim laughs when he recalls how the smaller boats would bunch up on his transom, literally feet off his swim platform. He kept shooing them off to fall back to a reasonable distance for the 54-mile crossing at trawler speed. But after so many minutes they would be back on his stern, needing the comfort of the mothership to keep them safe, like ducks in a row.

We all had a good laugh at it, but by the end of the ten days, these cruisers were both experienced and comfortable about cruising on their boats. It was wonderful listening to them talk on the radio, people who were total newbies only two weeks before, as they planned their return across the Gulf Stream to Florida with their new cruising friends. I recall one of the more timid men even called the Coast Guard to inquire about clearing back into the country. He sounded like a seasoned cruiser to me. They had come a long way, and their confidence was inspiring. (Several of these couples retraced their steps a couple of years later with others from the Pokie Run to enjoy a long winter cruise in the Bahamas.)

So speaks the power of cruising with buddy boaters. My own experiences on both sides of the fence reinforce my belief that buddy boating is one of the best ways to get to learn to use your boat properly…in the real world. You can crew for many years on other people’s boats, and learn lots of useful tips and techniques, but it becomes a different story when it is your own boat for the first time. Having skin in the game changes everything, as you are responsible for taking care of your boat, your crew, and yourself. Nothing is more focusing, in my experience, than facing a potentially difficult situation for the first time on your own boat…where it is all on you.

What You Never Would Have Known

I can’t begin to document all that one can learn from an experienced cruiser. Among other things, it is learning the difference between what is “normal” and when it is not. When to reef, slow down, change course, and leave the flybridge for the lower helm. As you build experience, knowledge, and confidence, you will eventually know what to do when expecting to anchor or pick up a mooring in a cozy New England anchorage, while the radio warns of a severe approaching storm with high winds and rain. You don’t want to learn from your mistakes in that situation, a much better scenario is to follow the lead of an experienced buddy boater. Have you put down proper chafe protection (did you even know to do that?), have you taken precautions to put things away that might become dislodged during a brief microburst? These things are best experienced among friends and more experienced cruisers. Next time you will know what to do without second guessing everything.

Even mundane activities become learned skills, such as calling for a bridge opening, or knowing who goes first when a bridge opens on a restricted waterway. When is the best time to run the generator at anchor? It is best to follow the lead of others who know details that may not be obvious to you at first, such as timing it to recharge batteries while also making hot water for dish washing and evening showers. And what exactly do I check when I do the daily morning engine room inspection?

(Seen below: Boats cruising on the Great Loop wait for a lock to open. Become experts through consulting experienced boaters and trying easier trips first.)

boats waiting at lock on great loop

Even stopping to buy fuel and pump out the holding tank has its lessons. Do you know what is appropriate for tipping the young man or woman who helps you get these tasks done, while also answering your questions about the best restaurant near the marina, or marine store, or supermarket?

How else can you learn the hands-on approach to come into a new anchorage and mooring field at sunset and getting properly settled down for the night? Not to mention the etiquette of not disturbing others when you leave quietly the next morning?

Not all this experienced knowledge is life or death, of course. I clearly remember a woman who had several of us aboard her liveaboard Pearson 425 ketch for a July 4th holiday weekend on Puget Sound. She showed us the proper course line to run to avoid the worst of the infamous water-balloon barrage from the nearby shoreside residences not far from the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. I remember it as if it happened yesterday, and it brings a big smile.

Avoid the Group Mentality

With everything positive that I’ve said so far, let me add that, on the flip side, I urge you to avoid becoming a member of a cruising “group,” when several cruisers decide to cruise together for any number of reasons. The group camaraderie is, in my experience, often a self-defeating experience if you really want to learn how to go cruising on your own.

The inevitable group discussion to decide the next destination may not be what you would have chosen if left up to you and your crew. If you always heard about walking the lovely streets in the neighborhood around Isle of Hope Marina in Savannah, it would be a bummer if others in the group wanted to stop at Thunderbolt Marina to get repairs done on their generator or fuel system.

I don’t know about you, but going cruising is about being the star of your own experience, not a supporting role for others in a group. And, of course, there is always that one boat in any group, tour, or event, one crew that always has issues, is never happy, and can find fault in everything and everyone. Who wants to spend time around that negative energy?

In WWII, they knew a convoy could only go as fast as the slowest ship. Today, this translates into serving the group while catering to the needs of the weakest link. No thanks, I’m not worried about U-boats these days. Not my kind of cruising.

Thankfully, along most cruising routes, you always have the option to stay put an extra day, or go on ahead, and catch the group in a day or two…or next week. For the new cruiser, every day adds to your experience, knowledge, and comfort level. No need to stay when the urge to break free fits the occasion.

Cruising with more experienced cruisers will always be a big help when you need help with a problem, or a special tool you didn’t know existed, or you need knowledgeable input as plans change. Any boat issues you encounter will likely already have happened to a more experienced cruiser, whether it relates to provisioning or technical air conditioning issues. Why not take advantage of this and remove some stress?

And you will give back some great experiences to your buddy boaters, who get to see cruising again through the eyes of newbies, for whom everything is fresh and new. It makes it fun again.

(Seen below: Quiet times at anchorage without a group can be a peaceful and rewarding experience.)

yacht at anchor

Take It Slow and Enjoy Learning from Others

All experienced cruisers began at the beginning, thinking they knew more than they really did. So, any helpful advice or wisdom they gained from cruising over the years can be a huge help as you develop self confidence in your boat, your crew, and yourself. I can never thank all of the wonderful people enough who helped me learn how to do things better, safer, and easier. It adds tremendously to my cruising satisfaction, no matter if it is a trip down the ICW, pieces of the Great Loop over several years, or any number of other adventures along the waterways and over distant horizons. You will one day amaze your friends when you can make tasty pancakes from seemingly non-existent ingredients in your pantry, or how to cleat a line from ten feet away. I’m still waiting to learn how to scrimshaw whalebone, but I’m afraid that ship has sailed…

To all my boating mentors over the years, I owe a big debt of gratitude that I hope to continue to repay over and over as my way of paying it forward.

And someday you will do the same. Good cruising!