Voyaging Skills: The voyaging benefits of prior planning

Jim in Thailand Dec 2019

Barbara and Jim Cole started sailing in Utah’s Great Salt Lake on a 16-foot Hobie Cat. A vacation trip to the Sea of Cortez with the Hobie Cat brought out yearnings for bigger experiences. They bought a 23-foot Hunter and kept it in a marina on Antelope Island in the middle of Great Salt Lake. They moved to Seattle and the next year was dedicated to a search for a suitable blue water boat. After classes, boat shows, and crawling through a broad spectrum of boats, they bought a Hallberg Rassy 36 in 1999.


After sailing and exploring the Puget Sound area of Seattle and western British Columbia for six years, they made a trip up the Inside Passage from Seattle to Glacier Bay, Alaska and back in 2005. In 2008, an opportunity to move to Australia presented itself. They made a counteroffer of a leave of absence to sail to Australia and work after arrival. They spent five months traveling from Seattle to Port Stephens, Australia with stops in Hawaii, Palmyra, Kanton Island Kiribati, Wallis Island, Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Australia.

After seven years, the Coles departed Australia in 2016 aboard their HR36. They cruised in the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Palau, Indonesia, Timor Leste, Singapore, and Malaysia before hauling the boat out for a major refit in Pangkor Marina, Malaysia.

In 2019 and 2020, they completed a passage from SE Asia to the Med, including stops in Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Djibouti, Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt, and Cyprus. As they transited through the Red Sea in 2020, international borders closed due to the pandemic. After 78 days “stranded at sea,” they cleared into Cyprus, where they are currently living aboard in Limassol.

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

B&JC: Sailing skills: Ocean voyaging and world cruising on a sailboat require so much more than being a skilled sailor. It is important to know how to sail. Sometimes being able to sail as fast as possible may help you avoid a bad weather system, but generally it is more important to know how to safely sail in rough weather or calms than to be a skilled racer. Cruisers are usually much more cautious than racing sailors in the open ocean because they are short-handed, and breaking gear is dangerous and expensive.

Self-reliance: Cruisers must build their capacity to take care of their boat’s systems and themselves. In the beginning, we took many cruising-related classes and practiced a lot. Before we crossed our first ocean, we learned how to mend sails, fix leaks, repair the engine and alternator, fix the water maker, solve battery problems, cope with contaminated fuel, administer remote first aid, troubleshoot computer and navigation problems, and much more. In addition to building their skills, cruisers must anticipate and stow aboard spare parts, fluids, tools, materials, medicines, and advanced first aid supplies that might be needed on passage or in a remote anchorage. It is important also to carry reference materials to help along the way. Voyagers must know their boat and its gear very well. They should be able to find switches, lines, seacocks, safety gear, etc. at a moment’s notice and in the dark. They need to be able to survey their boat every day to identify and fix any potential problems before they fail and cause serious problems.

Navigation skills: Cruisers must be competent navigators. The ability to plan and safely execute passages and coastal transits is fundamental. Voyagers must know how to read and integrate navigation information from pilots, paper charts, and chartplotters, or tablets, satellite images, and more. They need to understand the accuracy and limitations of the information from various sources and how to use it to maneuver their vessel safely. The ability to gather and interpret weather patterns from reference materials, observations, electronic reports, modeling results, and texts prior to and during a voyage is essential.

Planning skills: Pleasant and safe cruising relies on a skipper and crew that can gather essential information and competently plan what is needed to be self-reliant far from assistance from others.

Flexibility and adaptability: Successful voyagers and world cruisers can readily adapt to life in vastly different places, interact in a positive manner with people of diverse cultures, communicate effectively with people who speak languages they do not understand, and enjoy unaccustomed food. Flexibility is needed for voyagers to cope with gear failures, unexpected weather, and inevitable changed plans.

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

B&JC: We are always planning and thinking ahead. We generally have a big picture idea of our cruising plans for the next few years ahead. We research the attractions and disadvantages of options before deciding on one route or country versus another. We seek beautiful anchorages, gorgeous landscapes, vibrant, healthy landside and underwater ecosystems, and cultural experiences. We usually have a list of places and experiences in a region that we do not want to miss and then plan our cruising around them. We also stay open to spontaneous experiences and surprises.

We talk to other cruisers both in person and online. We read pertinent blogs of people who have travelled in areas we are considering. We find various voyaging and cruising Facebook groups to be valuable sources of information. We learn about the experiences of others but do not let negative reports of a place carry too much weight. We have enormously enjoyed places that many other cruisers have avoided, such as Papua New Guinea.

After we decide which route and countries to cruise, we dive into detailed planning. We consult reference books: Jimmy Cornell, Cruising Guides, Lonely Planet Guides, etc. We pour over Jimmy Cornell’s Ocean Atlas as we decide our schedules for ocean crossings. We identify periods of time when hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons are likely and generally rule out passages during those times. We also generally do not visit regions when they are vulnerable to such weather patterns. An exception was Palau, where cyclones are rare but can happen any time.

We read Noonsite reports and blog posts by other cruisers for the areas of interest. We read about countries on the US State Department website. We register on the US State Department Smart Traveler webpage for countries we plan to visit. We pay attention to warnings but do not generally use them as the basis for deciding whether to travel to a country.

We copy information from many sources into electronic files to be available to review when approaching an area when we do not have access to the internet. We also learn about the courtesies and cultural dos and don’ts of a country we plan to visit. We always start out very modest in our dress until we see how the local people dress. We try not to offend local sensibilities ashore. Before traveling to a new country, we often start tracking the weather and news there to get a better feel for the place ahead of time.

We read about provisioning in a new country before we go. If certain nonperishable foods or supplies are not available there, are not of good quality or very expensive, we try to stock up ahead of time. We learn how available parts and maintenance supplies might be ahead and stock the boat accordingly. We update our inventories, especially food and medicines so we will know what we have and where it is located when we need it. The inventories are especially useful on passage under rough conditions.

We research visa, quarantine, and customs rules for each country we plan to visit. We strive to be prepared for clearance into the next country before clearing out somewhere. A one-page boat fact sheet of all the information likely to be requested by officials has proven immensely helpful over the years. We do not give the fact sheet to the officials. It makes filling out forms much easier for us. We keep a binder of copies of documents frequently requested by authorities. We have copies of our vessel Certificate of Documentation, our passports, crew list with the usual details, list of last 10 ports with dates of arrival and departure from each, clearance papers from our last ports, immunization records, a photo of the boat, passport-size photos of us, visas, boat and health insurance policies, and inventories including medicines, foods, and equipment with serial numbers. We make sure our boat stamp is handy.

Before traveling to a new region, we read about health concerns and advised immunizations. We sometimes visit a travel physician to be sure we are prepared for the health risks ahead and understand how to protect ourselves. The travel doctor we consulted in Phuket, Thailand, was appalled that we planned to visit Sudan! We get any recommended immunizations. We survey and update our onboard medicines and first aid equipment. We fill prescriptions for antibiotics and other medicine that have gone out-of-date.

We go through our safety gear to be sure everything is in good working order and that the batteries will not expire before we think we will have an opportunity to service them again. We refresh ourselves on how all the gear works. We service the engine and other systems. We make sure our propane bottles are topped off. Jerry jugs are filled and lashed down.

We update all the electronic charts and software ahead of major departures. We download or create KAP files for the upcoming cruising grounds, especially for areas we know are highly likely to have inaccurate charts. Due to their larger color palette, we are beginning to use MBTile instead of KAP files. We have found that the only places for which conventional charts are dependably accurate are places where big ships and ferries call. We know of more than one boat lost on reefs by relying on official charts.

We provide written information about our cruising plans and approximate schedule to our emergency contacts, including whether there are extra people aboard and their details. We also update the information in the online database for our EPIRBs and PLBs. We send a reminder email to our emergency contacts that we will be out of reach of normal phone and internet service and remind them with written instructions how to reach us via our onboard satellite communication system.

Prior to any passage, we go aloft and inspect the rig. We lay the sails out and inspect each seam. We check the radios, electronic charting equipment, and navigation lights. We make sure everything is properly lashed down and secure before putting to sea. We rig lee cloths for our sea berths.

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

B&JC: Our navigation skills have gotten better and better over the years. And with the new high modulus polyethylene lines, splicing skills will turn a piece of line into a solution to a problem. While in Malaysia, we replaced all the standing rigs with Dyneema. The only piece of stainless wire we have is inside the roller furler extrusion.

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

B&JC: Absolutely! When we first started cruising, as soon as possible after arriving in a new country, we bought phone credits with which to call family from a phone booth! Letters could take a month or more to reach family. We greatly appreciate our IridiumGO system for staying in touch with family and friends along the way. We use IridiumGO emails and SMS to communicate with buddy boats on passage. This capability was especially helpful while transiting the High Risk Zone between Somalia and Yemen where we kept radio traffic to an absolute minimum to avoid alerting pirates of our presence. Years ago, our only source of weather reports at sea was via our SSB radio, a very clumsy and not always reliable process. The IridiumGo system and OffShore Weather app make getting weather forecasts offshore simple and reliable. Upon arriving in a place, SIM cards and mobile internet data make contacting family easy and affordable in most places. There are places though where the internet is poor and data expensive. We think that situation will get better and better.

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

B&JC: No, because we do not allow a schedule to dictate our movements. It does help that we are retired and do not have the pressure of job schedules. We do our best to let the weather patterns dictate our travel schedule. When expecting guests aboard for a holiday, we always tell them to have a plan B in case we cannot meet them when and where expected due to boat problems, weather, or illness. In our years of cruising, we only had to alter a meeting place and date once. Our guests were to fly into Gustavus on Icy Straits, Alaska, and walk down an exceptionally long dock which was floating and bucking at the far end. The raging wind made it unsafe to walk on the dock and for us to remain waiting for them. We instead instructed our guests to carry on into Glacier Bay National Park and met them the next day at the lodge.

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

B&JC: Jim finds the clearance process for entering a new country the most intimidating of all. It does not worry Barbara because she has planned and has everything ready. Jim does not want to end up in a foreign jail.

We have not found ocean voyaging challenging. Ocean passages are much easier than coastal cruising or exploring a remote island archipelago. Entering remote offshore atolls through narrow passages requires careful navigation, timing, and watching. We do a lot of planning ahead of ocean voyages and, so far, have not had any significant problems while on passage. Once our autohelm died during a passage from Australia to the Solomon Islands. It was hard work hand steering in re-enforced beam-on trade winds for days. Barbara finds the landfall at the end of an ocean passage the most challenging and is always hypervigilant to assure not hitting a rock or a reef in unfamiliar waters. We always slow down the boat when approaching a landfall to have a morning entry. For us, the hardest part of any voyage is all the work ahead of throwing off the dock lines or lifting the anchor. It is usually a big relief to be on our way.

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

B&JC: Yes. We estimate how long we think a voyage or remote cruising will last. We buy as much fresh food as we think will keep. We add canned and dried foods for use after those are eaten. We do not plan specific menus. Instead, we calculate how many servings of protein, fruits, vegetables, dairy, maple syrup, jam, condiments, etc., we will need for morale and basic good health over the duration of the trip. We cook almost exclusively from scratch using basic ingredients. We buy at least 50% more than we think we will need. We also buy ten meals that can quickly and simply be opened, heated, and served during adverse situations at sea, though we rarely need to use them. We also stock up on treats, especially for watchkeeping. If we know someone aboard has a special fondness for a specific treat, we stock up and hide them to bring out for auspicious or stressful occasions along the way. We carry dry goods for baking bread, cakes, and cookies. We stock plenty of popcorn for snacking on most days. A food inventory is absolutely essential so that we know what we have and where it is stowed. We have a water maker, so we do not have to plan much for extra water. We do carry at least one jerry jug of water on deck and have many bottles of emergency water stashed aboard. We do make sure the water maker is in good working order and that it has a fresh filter installed before we depart on a long passage.

ON: Who or what inspired you to go voyaging?

B&JC: We bought a 16-foot Hobie Cat impulsively many years ago. We towed it from Utah to the Baja for a winter camping holiday. We were instantly hooked on sailing and decided at that time to buy a blue water boat and explore the world aboard it. It took us years to realize our dream and set sail across the Pacific Ocean.

During our research and planning years, many authors inspired us: Lyn and Larry Pardey, Nigel Calder, Joshua Slocum, Steve and Linda Dashew, Brion Toss, Eric Hiscock, and others. We also were inspired by personal friends who had circumnavigated or done other extensive ocean travel who we met in Seattle. Members of the Puget Sound Cruising Club were particularly inspiring and helpful. We subscribed to Ocean Navigator, Practical Sailor, and Cruising World during the years we spent getting ready for cruising internationally. We read them cover to cover every month.

ON: What are your future voyaging plans?

B&JC: We plan to explore the Med for the next few years before crossing the Atlantic to South America and the Caribbean. After a few years there, we will explore Central America, including transiting the Panama Canal. We will then sail to Hawaii before sailing over the North Pacific High home to Seattle. We may aim north to enjoy the Inside Passage of Alaska and British Columbia again. n

By Ocean Navigator