Voyaging Skills: An educational adventure


Phil Nance originally grew up in Charleston, S.C., and spent most of his childhood and early 20s messing about in boats. Phil and Aimee met at the University of Oregon in 1997 and they have been inseparable since. Phil earned his Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, Riverside, and worked in vaccine research in San Diego prior to setting sail.

Aimee grew up in San Diego, Calif., and spent the majority of her childhood on the beach. Born into a family of landlubbers who get sick at the sight of boats, she is amazed at how well she’s adjusted to living at sea and is excited to be serving as first mate. With a teaching credential and master’s degree in education, she enjoys boat-schooling her daughters and blogging about their adventures.

The Nance family sailed away from San Diego in January of 2015, bound for Mexico and beyond. After years of long commutes, long working hours and little family time, Phil and Aimee decided to embark on their sailing adventure. Their goal was to leave the daily grind and provide a meaningful and educational adventure for themselves and their two daughters, Jessica and Emma, now 14 and 12 years old. The family spent their first two years cruising the Pacific coast of Mexico from Baja to Huatulco. In 2016, they made the decision to cross the Pacific and left Banderas Bay for the Marquesas in April 2017. Since then, they have been cruising the islands of the South Pacific on their 45-foot Dufour ketch Terrapin. They are currently in Fiji and have plans to continue west after cyclone season.

Jessica and Emma show off their fresh catch.

OV: What are the top skills voyagers need to know?

P&AN:The top skill that comes to mind immediately is navigation. More than a few boats have been lost just in the South Pacific this season, and almost all of these cases involved a navigational error. Many voyagers have become too reliant on electronic charts and do not pay enough attention to their surroundings. We have seen this over and over again with boats ending up on reefs that were clearly visible — if the skipper had been paying attention. It is important to remember that all charts are tools that need to be supplemented with a vigilant watch and prior planning.

OV: What is your planning routine prior to a voyage?

P&AN: Before any passage, we are first looking at weather. When we are in port with Internet access, Windyty is our favorite source since it uses multiple models and can show a variety of variables such as pressure, swell, wind gusts, rain and even CAPE index. When the Internet is not available, we download grib files from Saildocs using our Pactor modem.

Once we have identified a safe weather window for our passage, we both go over the intended route with the weather in mind to determine if there should be any variations due to wind direction or intensity. We then go over our charts to identify any islands, reefs, rocks or other hazards along the way and add waypoints if necessary. During this process, we pan our chartplotter along the route at different zoom levels to identify any potential hazards. Obstacles along the route are marked on the chartplotter so they can be easily anticipated. After this is done, we decide on our watch schedule based on the length and nature of the trip.

Phil after some successful fishing.

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

P&AN: Resourcefulness. Ocean voyaging will put you in an environment with limited resources where lots can go wrong. Whether it be jury-rigging your autopilot underway, figuring out how to get parts sent to Tonga, rebuilding your transmission when there is no mechanic to be found, or just learning to cook tasty meals with unfamiliar or limited ingredients, being resourceful is key to successful voyaging. Although we may have considered ourselves resourceful people before, voyaging has required all of us to hone this skill. This is definitely something I wish for my daughters to take with them and apply to their lives going forward.

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

P&AN: As a skipper, I want to be able to sleep well when I’m off watch. This doesn’t necessarily mean having a crewmember on watch with years of voyaging experience; more important is a crewmember that is not afraid to ask questions or wake up the skipper if things don’t look right. Especially on night watch, it is easy to get disoriented or confused when looking at ships, land or other objects at sea. Many times things don’t seem to line up with the charts or it may be difficult to determine the direction and/or range of another vessel. In these situations, things can unfold very quickly and by the time you figure out that the freighter is coming right at you, it may be too late.

This is why it is important to have a crewmember who will wake the skipper if they see something that doesn’t look right. Aboard Terrapin, we have a standing rule that any lights on the water during night watch require a second set of eyes to evaluate the situation. As a result, we all sleep better knowing that the person on watch will wake us up if need be.

The Nances’ Dufour 45 Terrapin at anchor.

OV: Do you think the experience of voyaging has changed now that voyagers can stay more connected at sea?

P&AN: Absolutely. We purchased a Garmin inReach prior to our ocean crossing and used this device to keep in touch with family at home as well as other boats that were underway. Without it, we would have been limited to downloading emails once or twice daily on our Pactor modem. With the inReach, we were able to instantly text any cellphone or Iridium device worldwide.

The inReach also has a tracking feature that relayed our position to a map on our blog every 30 minutes. For us and our loved ones ashore, this was a game-changer. Our friends and family on land loved being able to send us messages, track us and hear from us in real time. We also found it very useful to communicate with other boats underway to relay information about weather, advice for fixing things or just help with the boredom of a night watch.

OV: Does the pressure to stay on a schedule sometimes contribute to you taking risks with bad weather?

P&AN: They say the most dangerous thing on a boat is a calendar. I think one of the most difficult aspects of cruising for newbies is getting used to the idea of not being tied to a schedule. We realized this early on and now we try really hard not to have one. That being said, we have on at least one occasion, taken a less-than-ideal weather window in order to stay with a buddy boat that was on a schedule. This was a mistake that was immediately recognized and thankfully without too much consequence. Since then, we have vowed to not follow anyone out to sea unless we are all 100 percent comfortable with the weather window.

Jessica trims a line while under Terrapin’s dodger.

OV: What do you find most challenging about ocean voyaging?

P&AN: For our whole crew, the biggest challenge with long passages is boredom and restlessness. We are not the type who love being out at sea for long periods of time. Our love of cruising is derived from the wonderful places that we are able to visit by boat that we would otherwise never see. During long passages, Aimee and I try to keep our daughters occupied with activities, games, meals and fishing. On very long passages, we have had to take an active role in making sure that the rest of the crew is eating enough food, drinking enough water and generally taking care of themselves.

After the initial crossing from Mexico to the Marquesas, we made the decision to get our daughters more involved with taking a more regular watch schedule and giving more responsibilities in running the boat. This helped quite a bit with their boredom and dread of passages; however, we still prefer our destinations over the journey to get there.

OV: How do you handle provisioning? Do you have a system for determining the amount of food and water needed for a voyage?

P&AN: We plan meals one week at a time, figuring the amount of ingredients needed and then doubling that amount. Fortunately, our boat has a large amount of storage, so we are able to carry an excess of provisions. We do not have a deep freeze, so we mostly rely on canned and dried goods. We try to catch fresh fish along the way for meat and also buy fresh meat when we are in port. Otherwise we use canned meats, eggs or we make vegetarian meals underway.

We try to keep it simple and do not use spreadsheets for shopping or inventories. Every month or so we go through our provisions and make a tally of what we need to purchase and identify what needs to be eaten. When we are in port, we shop once a week and base our meals on what is available in the fresh markets. We don’t have to worry too much about water. We have a 12-volt watermaker that makes about seven gallons per hour and about 200 gallons in water tankage. It is very easy for us to keep our tanks topped up by running the watermaker for a couple of hours each day.

Emma puts her back into it on the foredeck.

OV: Who or what inspired you to go voyaging?

P&AN: We were both working long hours and commuting 90 minutes each way in opposite directions. With the demands of our jobs, we had hired a nanny to pick up our girls from school and help them finish their homework and sometimes feed them dinner before we made it home. We would see them for an hour or so before bedtime and then do it again the next day. We felt like we were missing out on their childhoods and knew that we needed a change.

I had been following several sailing blogs at the time and one in particular, Sailing Totem, was a family of five who had been out cruising the world for several years. We began to correspond with them and they were kind enough to answer our many questions about cruising the world with kids. From there we made the decision to go and in less than two years, we were cutting our docklines.

OV: What are your future voyaging plans?

P&AN: We try not to make plans too far in advance because they always change. As of now, our short-term plan is to remain in Fiji for the remainder of cyclone season. We have talked about the idea of heading back to Tonga to see more, as it was one of our favorite places. We would also like to explore the Lau Islands here in Fiji and see more of the Yasawas as well. After Fiji, we will likely continue west to Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Australia. After that, it is anyone’s guess where the Terrapin crew may end up!

By Ocean Navigator