Aaron Cook – Voyaging Interview

In November 2004, he started his sojourn on Audentes (the name comes from a line in Virgil’s Aeneid that states, in Latin, “audentes fortuna iuvat,” which can be translated as “fortune favors the brave/bold/foolish”) when he left for Bermuda. The passage was uneventful and the highlight came as the crew celebrated the Red Sox ending 84 years of futility by winning the World Series.


Aaron Cook has been voyaging aboard his 1979 Valiant 40 sloop for almost three years, departing the U.S. from Onset, Mass. Some of that voyaging he spent sailing with his brother Brian, some with two other crewmembers, but a good deal of it he has spent singlehanded. In that time he has gone from a sailor with some coastal experience to an experienced voyager.

In November 2004, he started his sojourn on Audentes (the name comes from a line in Virgil’s Aeneid that states, in Latin, “audentes fortuna iuvat,” which can be translated as “fortune favors the brave/bold/foolish”) when he left for Bermuda. The passage was uneventful and the highlight came as the crew celebrated the Red Sox ending 84 years of futility by winning the World Series.

From Bermuda, Cook proceeded to the Caribbean, where he made landfall in Antigua. After nine months in the Caribbean, Brian decided to return to the U.S. and Aaron began his quixotic attempt  to sail alone. He then sailed to Trinidad, Venezuela, Bonaire, Aruba, Colombia and the east coast of Panama. Following the successful transit of the Panama Canal and now accompanied by a friend, Cook sailed across the equator and began a trip across the South Pacific. Cook spent time in the Galapagos, the Marquesas, the Tuomotus, Tahiti, Mo’orea, Tonga, Fiji and Vanuatu.

Fleeing cyclones, Cook headed south to New Zealand. For more details on the journey of Audentes, as well as pictures, interviews and more, visit www.cooksails.com.

OV: What are the most important skills voyagers need to acquire before they go voyaging? What would you say were the top five areas of knowledge?

AC: The first key to preparing for offshore sailing is to select the right boat. Before I began voyaging three years ago, my sailing experience was woefully lacking, and I had never been a boat owner. Fortunately, my father was a tremendous help and guided my brother and I through the process. I was told that a buyer must choose between size, speed and price – it is possible to get two of those attributes, but not all three. We selected price and comfort. Ultimately, we bought a 1979 40-foot Valiant. It is a heavy boat that has a cutter rig and a long track record of offshore sailing.

Since we bought the boat in Florida, our first trip was up the east coast of the U.S. to our home port of Onset, Mass. Although we had grown up sailing on our parents’ boats and possessed a basic set of sailing skills, being captain proved to be far more challenging than serving as crew. Looking back, it is embarrassing how little we knew. Throughout the ensuing summer, we completed a number of shake-out cruises to test the boat. In addition, we outfitted the boat with an SSB radio and installed a robust below-deck autopilot.

The shake-out cruises allowed us to evaluate and improve our power consumption balance (initially, wind and engine; later added solar panels), our communications systems (VHF, SSB, SailMail), safety equipment (life raft, EPIRB, flares, life sling, harnesses, lazy jacks) and to establish our roles on the boat (anchoring, navigating, standing watch). It was helpful to gain much-needed experience by coastal cruising, which provided relatively easy navigation, comfortable weather conditions, and plenty of opportunities to practice takeoffs and landings.

If I had to pick five areas of knowledge, they would be the following:
1. Appropriate boat selection – align boat characteristics with expected needs
2. Gain necessary comfort with the boat – each boat is unique, one must be familiar with all aspects (rigging, steering, engine, electronics, plumbing, etc.)
3. Shake-out cruises to prepare for passages – evaluate power consumption, communication, safety equipment, roles on boat, engine maintenance, etc.
4. Proper planning – charts, budgeting, spare parts, food, etc.
5. Weather forecasting – how to receive and understand

OV:How do you prepare before you depart on a voyage? What is your typical planning routine?

AC: The first step is simply to plot the course. I normally use both electronic and paper charts. This allows me to observe the level of detail of each and to identify any discrepancies (surprisingly, the level of detail often varies). Based on the charts, I plot the distance and estimate my best-case, worst-case, and most-likely-case speed. Figuring out the optimal departure time takes these calculations into consideration so that I allow myself the best possibility of arriving in daylight. In addition, I adjust the departure time to safely avoid any potentially unmarked obstacles along the way that should be avoided during the night.

I’ve talked to some sailors who also chart possible alternative routes should weather or boat problems prevent the successful fetching of a destination, but I have never taken this extra step. In my experience, if I need to divert elsewhere, there is plenty of time to figure out how to adjust the plans depending on the circumstances. Not to be overlooked is arguably the most important consideration: to choose an auspicious day. Any good sailor will tell you that a Friday departure unnecessarily tempts the sailing gods and will inevitably be punished.

Next, I obtain weather forecasts to verify the best time to depart. Typically, I utilize grib files downloaded via SailMail (e-mail through SSB) and listen to the local weather predictions provided on SSB. Many large anchorages will have “cruiser nets€VbCrLf that offer local weather, but I have found offshore  forecasting transmitted over SSB to be vastly superior since professional meteorologists announce macro trends affecting voyaging areas. Based on the expected weather, I reef down the main, if necessary, prior to raising the sails.

Once I have decided and confirmed a desirable departure date, I ready the boat. This involves stowing away everything below, setting up the lee cloths, tying down the items on the deck (dinghy, jerry cans, kayak), topping off the water tanks and setting out the  harnesses. Usually, I prepare something to eat that can be reheated to provide several meals.

Finally, I provide a gift to Neptune by pouring an offering into the water. I don’t consider myself superstitious, but I see no reason to anger the gods.

OV: What is the most valuable skill you picked up while voyaging?

AC: The most valuable skill is an improved understanding of the weather. More than anything else, the weather determines how enjoyable a passage will be. In the case of long  passages, it is impossible to project weather accurately beyond five days but, in most cases, access to information and patience will ensure a much better voyage. This is one area where offshore voyaging differs radically from coastal cruising. With coastal cruising, most of the trips are day sails, so it is possible to see bad weather on the horizon and, due to the relatively short duration, changes in weather are easier to predict. Further, with coastal cruising, safety is only a short distance away. Conversely, during offshore passages, voyagers often have to deal with whatever conditions they get. It is sometimes possible to avoid the worst of a system or to prepare the boat for rough conditions but, for the most part, an offshore sailor is confined to choosing when to depart and then   living with the outcome.

Initially, I adopted the mob mentality and followed other boats headed in the same direction. By listening to cruiser nets and talking with other sailors, I based my decisions on secondhand information. For some people, this strategy might work. Throughout my time in the Caribbean, I never encountered inclement weather. However, I also ended up becalmed much more often than I would have liked. It turns out that a lot of voyagers prefer to motor between anchorages than to risk difficult sailing conditions. In my case, with a heavy boat, I prefer too much wind to too little wind.

The next stage in my meteorological education was an increased reliance on grib files. These charts provided me with basic wind speed, wind direction and barometric pressure information for a selected area over a period of  several days. This empowered me to make more knowledgeable decisions about when to depart and resulted in more successful passages. Still, as I entered the Pacific and the islands became farther apart, my short-term weather forecasts only helped me to predict weather patterns for the first few days of a passage. Partly because of my forecasting limitations and partly because of the erratic conditions in the Pacific this past season, I often found myself either reefed down running downwind or sitting becalmed, pleading with the grib files to send wind.

OV:What skills do you most look for in a potential crewmember?

AC: The most important characteristic for me is compatibility. Living together on a boat has often been compared to maintaining a successful marriage. This analogy is good, up to a point. Like a marriage, a good captain-crew relationship involves effective communication, trust, understanding, support and mutual respect. Being confined to a small space in stressful situations can test even the strongest of relationships. Unlike a marriage, one person is captain and ultimately responsible for the safety of the boat and crew. A boat is essentially a dictatorship, not a democracy.

My experience with crew has been mixed. I developed as a sailor aboard Audentes with my brother, Brian, aboard. We settled into specific roles and our skills complemented each other well. Since we have a history of bickering that goes back about 20 years, we had no trouble expressing our frustrations with one another. It was helpful that whenever something was annoying us that would be too trivial to air with anyone else, we were able to get it out of our systems simply by punching the other person or by making some nonsensical, petty comment. We knew each other’s foibles well enough that we didn’t take anything personally. I don’t know if this is healthy, but it seemed to work. After nine months Brian decided to return to the U.S. to work, and I spent the next six months singlehanding. While I missed the company, I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of handling the boat by myself. The focus required in order to attend to all the details of operating the boat was exhilarating, and entire days seemed to flow by. The experience forced me to better learn every aspect of sailing and boat maintenance, and I delighted in the sense of having complete control.

OV: Who or what inspired you to go voyaging?

AC: Sailing has always been a part of my life. Growing up, I spent my summers on Cape Cod and learned to sail dinghies on Muddy Cove. My parents are avid sailors and weekends normally included short trips around Buzzards Bay on a series of progressively larger boats. Spending time on Cape Cod exposed me to the sailing lore of epic clipper ship voyages and generations of men putting to sea. My family has a long history of voyaging and the family cemetery is full of captains, with a disconcerting amount of tombstones listing the cause of death as “drowned€VbCrLf or “lost at sea.€VbCrLf Reading the journals of ancestors recording their experiences rounding Cape Horn and visiting exotic foreign lands stirred my imagination. I was fascinated by books describing adventure and exploration.

What inspired my journey more than anything was the support and encouragement of family. Whereas friends unfamiliar with voyaging believe that voyaging is plagued with dangers, my parents recognize that excellent seamanship and good judgment can alleviate many of the potential risks. Further, my family has always encouraged exploration and discovery, whether it involves traveling or the pursuit of a specific interest.
I am extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to go voyaging and, both in finding the inspiration and in the practical undertaking of the dream, my family has been crucial in facilitating my success. Speaking to other voyagers, there is often a sense that the conversations are self-congratulatory with sailors feeling as though they have found some secret hidden from everyone else. In my opinion, cruising is not necessarily the ideal lifestyle, but it is certainly a pretty good one.

OV: What are your future voyaging plans?

AC: Audentes is currently in New Zealand and I have a number of projects that I need to complete before it will be ready for more long-distance sailing. Fortunately, it is located in a beautiful part of the world, so there are plenty of attractive options for future adventures. I am looking forward to exploring New Zealand and have been considering circumnavigating both the north and south islands. Beyond that I am undecided, and much of my plans will be dictated by time and money constraints. I would love to sail to   Tasmania, and it has been a longtime dream to sail the Inland Sea of Japan. However, both of those voyages would involve potentially difficult conditions, so I would likely need to enlist crew to safely navigate those areas.

When I set off nearly three years ago, I had planned to complete a circumnavigation. Sailing around the world has the advantage of providing an appealing sense of structure and completeness. However, after a season spent in the South Pacific, there are so many incredible places that I feel as if I could cruise the area for years without fully experiencing even a small portion of the stunning islands and fascinating culture. 

By Ocean Navigator