#32 – How We Choose Where We Cruise – Part 1

Cruisers are unique travelers.  We can go almost anywhere in the world we get a hankering to see (some of them places no one else can reach), subject to patience, planning, ability, tolerance, plus a few rules and a nearby shoreline.  Hand-in-hand with the idea of going cruising is usually a dream destination. Where it is and how we came by it will be different for each of us.  It may be near or far, it may be a place or an activity, it may take a weekend to reach or a commitment of years, or it may have nothing to do with land at all and be the challenging sail itself. Whatever it is, the dream is what stirs us to drop the dock lines and actually go.

Getting from here to there takes careful planning.  It’s our experience that Admirals are often the boat’s “cruise director”. They do the research on destinations and routes, weigh all the applicable factors and opportunities against the interests of the crew, and come up with possible options.  Choices will also be shaped by personal styles: do we like busy anchorages with lots of cruiser activities, or do we prefer remote coves where our days pass in quiet isolation?  Do we need to keep close to civilization for air connections home or to facilitate guests visiting, or are we comfortable enough to stay out for months at a time?  Are we after a favorite activity like scuba diving, or are we looking for National Geographic experiences?  If you are anything like my Admirals, your itinerary will end up being a mix of all of the above and more.

There are infinite resources to turn to for idea gathering, the most common onboard references being regional cruising guides (available for nearly every cruising ground in the world) supplemented by land travel guides like those from Lonely Planet.  We were nearly a year into our cruising before it even occurred to me to look at a land guide, but they not only flesh out the details of a destination, but open up the potential of travel inland, a goal of many cruisers.  These days there is also the steady stream of e-letters from friends who have gone ahead, downloadable cruiser reports as collected by organizations like SSCA (Seven Seas Cruising Association), articles in magazines and newspapers available in print or online, and cruiser websites and blogs.   Many planners cut, clip, print out and file reams of material to carry aboard!

And, of course, there is word of mouth.  This could include inspiration gotten from boat-show or yacht-club seminars, but it is as likely to come from stories swapped over a few beers at a cruising crossroads.  Two of the highlights of our entire voyage – Ecuador and Mexico – were detours we inserted after persuasive recommendations by cruisers traveling in the opposite direction we encountered in Panama. The detours delayed by three years our arrival in the South Pacific (which was our original dream destination), but we wouldn’t have given up one minute.  Such flexibility and spontaneity are the joys of keeping one’s own schedule.

A quick word about word-of-mouth: beware of know-it-alls eager to dispense negative stories that might dissuade you from some really great cruising destinations. Yes, the cruising grapevine can be very helpful in spotlighting areas where real problems have cropped up, but sometimes negative stories become the preferred fodder of closed-minded, dissatisfied people who haven’t succeeded in opening themselves up to new experiences and new cultures.  Often they haven’t cruised much farther than the bar you met them in!  Always seek second and third opinions!

Wherever it is we decide to go, there are logical ways to get there – ones that maximize good conditions and minimize bad ones – as well as a preferred time to travel. Unfortunately, they are not always direct. Travel by sail (and even by motor) is shaped by the flow of climate and season, current and wind patterns, but also by practical considerations like safety and security; need for provisioning, repairs, or medical services; bureaucratic factors like visas and check-in regulations, as well as costs.

Most regional cruising guides provide all the relevant details about an area once you’ve reached it, but the best over-all view of getting around the world is provided in Jimmy Cornell’s World Cruising Routes.  One can spend years fantasizing possible itineraries by piecing together the seemingly infinite legs and seasons presented in its pages.  Another useful tool is the Visual Passage Planner program, an electronic version of ocean pilot charts.  It will calculate a prediction of the winds, currents and weather likely to be encountered on any route you plan at any given time of year plus what it will mean for your boat in terms of point of sail and travel time.

Yes, for the cruising sailor, the world is truly our oyster.  But, for new cruisers, most all the Admirals advise taking things conservatively for at least a year. Avoid setting off first thing on a long offshore passage.  Instead, go places you can get back from. Your mate may have other ideas, but this is incredibly prudent. Halfway across the Pacific, for example, is not time to start having second thoughts.  Instead, pick nearer destinations with benign weather patterns and plenty of easily accessible and protected anchorages. Give yourself time to learn your boat, develop your sailing style, and discover what YOU enjoy about cruising.  Plus, shaking the boat down is an important part of this first year.  It’s when you find out if stuff works. Many cruisers realize after a trial trip that a bigger or smaller boat will suit them better long term or that equipment they have resisted buying – like a watermaker or radar – turns out to be more important than they thought!

And finally, in that first year you will discover whether you prefer being on your own or traveling with a group.  Traveling in company can be particularly helpful for the morale of new cruisers.  Too often newbies are out there struggling in silence, because they are afraid to reveal their inexperience, only to find out later that most everybody else was going through the same thing.  The ability to chat by radio underway and then to convene later over a potluck to rehash the trip, troubleshoot a problem, and swap information about the next stop builds enthusiasm, confidence and momentum. You will likely find yourself like we did adjusting your itinerary based on input from new friends.

Traveling with other boats is a good safety mechanism, too, relieving a lot of common anxieties.  For this reason many cruisers opt to join organized rallies which have a predetermined itinerary.  For sure, rallies are a great way to meet people, and they usually facilitate entry and exit paperwork.  But sometimes rallies can be too much of a good thing: overwhelming harbors with huge numbers of boats, forcing you to travel in less than ideal conditions to keep the schedule, and generally discouraging the flexibility and independence that are the greatest features of the cruising life. Sometimes it will be worth it, but more often having a couple of good buddy boats from whom you can break away to be on your own and later rejoin is probably a more sustainable way of cruising in company.

It may seem nowadays that the major cruising routes of the world are so heavily traveled there must be well-worn ‘ruts” in the sea. Even so, every voyage is unique. We all make different decisions, and we all have different motivations.  I asked the Admirals about what has guided their travel over the years and got a huge variety of answers.  We’ll look at some of their unexpected responses in How We Choose Where We Cruise, Part Two!

Contributing Admirals:  Kathy Parsons, Hale Kai; Katherine Briggs, Sangaris; Sheri Schneider, Procyon; Jane Kilburn, Lionheart; Mary Heckrotte, Camryka; Yvonne Katchor, Australia 31;  Rachel Emery, Ventana; Debbie Leisure, Illusions; Mary Verlaque, I Wanda; Susan Richter, Wooden Shoe; Terri Watson & Kimi Harrison, Delphinus;  Betsy Morris, Salsa; Ellen Sanpere, Cayenne III; Karyn Ennor, Magic Carpet.

This article was published in the March 2009 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.

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