Cruising 101 – Getting Started


You’ve bought the best boat you could within your budget! Now, you’re standing on the dock saying, what’s next?

It’s been said before, “preparation is everything”, when it comes to preparing a boat to go cruising they are right on, but at first sight the task looks daunting. When Lyn and I bought our boat ‘Windflower’, she was raw. She hadn’t been offshore before so the preparation curve was as steep as it gets. The first season away we did the basics in preparing her and made sure that all the safety gear was taken care of and the boat would last the distance. Since then it’s been a constant evolution and we’ve learned a lot along the way, hopefully some of what we learned will help you to keep on track.

It’s fun getting there and immensely satisfying when you drop the dock lines to finally head off but to get there you need to be organised, have a goal and be prepared for some hard work. First step, sit down with pencil and paper and start on your lists, three to be precise.  The “A” list, is the list that has to be done before you head offshore. Get yourself a copy of the FSC Offshore Manual (see the next attachment) commonly referred to as the “Green Book” for cruising activities, this is the basis for your “A” list but will also include mechanicals, spares and other must haves. Join a Yacht Club, particularly one that has a strong cruising focus. Find yourself a mentor, if you can, and he or she will save you a lot of time and effort. Pick just one person that you trust for this position and listen to them, we’re available;-)

Like all lists your “A” list will get longer before it gets shorter so leave plenty of space at the bottom of  your lists. To complete your safety list pick the brains of your local safety supply specialist, they have a wealth of experience and don’t mind sharing it.

If you had a mechanic look at the boat at the time of purchase then get them to help you with your mechanical and spares lists, see inset, a good diesel engine will run practically for ever but the bolt on peripherals are more likely to cause trouble so have spares for these. Change the filters, oil and fuel, regularly and have plenty of spare “V” or Serpentine belts aboard. When it comes to a diesel engine, once you have all the spares, there are really only two things that kill them, fuel and air, lack of them or if they’re dirty. Clean the entire fuel system, including the tanks and make sure your engine can breathe. Get your mechanic to reset and calibrate the rev counter. Why is this important? While you have a clean bottom, the boat that is, on a calm day go for an engine run up. Warm the engine thoroughly and once warm push it up to full throttle check the revs against the engine manufactures manual and leave it there for five minutes, then check the engine room temperature against the recommended figures. If the engine doesn’t reach full revs you may need to re-pitch your prop and if the temperature is too high you’ll need better ventilation before you head for a warmer climate.

Good batteries and the ability to charge them is a must for cruising. Have a spare alternator aboard and check that it will bolt onto the motor without the need to adjust the mounts, not all units are built with the same mounts and chances are the sod that installed the existing unit made a few tweaks for one reason or another. The main engine may be your primary source of charging but it shouldn’t be the only one. There are many other forms of power generation, solar, wind, water and gen set it’s your choice for the ones that best suits your needs and the set up of the boat.

John’s law on spares, we always install the new “spare’ as soon as we buy it. Two reasons, once it’s on and working you know it fits and second is the old unit, after it’s service, is now in your spares locker and you know that fits. It’s also important to satisfy Murphy, make sure the boat knows about every spare you bring aboard, hold it up and say “I have a spare….”. Murphy ’s Law on spares states that if you have a spare aboard the old part won’t break down, well that’s the theory anyway. As soon as you give away a part that has remained unused on your boat for years the original is guaranteed to break, perhaps that explains why cruisers are such chronic hoarders, oops, and there goes the waterline again. 

Organising your lists into A, B and C lists allows you to prioritise. The B list is for things that would be nice to have but don’t confuse this with the A list, for example a new set of sails would be nice but repairing and maintaining your existing set would be on your A list. The new set would go on your B list if the budget allowed. The C list is the wish list and we still have items on this list that were there when we started, amazing how your priorities change with experience!

When it comes to maintenance; all part of the A list, start at the bow. Most anchor windlasses are electric, positioned in the anchor locker along with all those other wet and salty items you store there, so have it serviced and then coat it in a protective film. There are a number of good spray on films, for example CRC’s Soft Seal and carry a spare motor and deck switch. While you’re at it take the unit apart and give it a clean and grease, this will also give you an understanding of how it works, a good principal for all the systems aboard.

The next time you have the boat out of the water have your local surveyor or Shipwright along to do a hull inspection, it’s great for peace of mind and your insurer will likely want a copy of the report. While you’re antifouling remember you will be doing a lot of miles over the average season. An ablative anti-foul will wear off over time leaving you with little or no protection. Try putting a hard anti-foul of a different colour on first, then your soft, but check with the paint manufacturer first. As your paint wears off the different colour of the hard anti-foul will give you a good indication of when you will need to re-anti-foul. You might also like to take this opportunity to raise the water line a couple or three inches, your average cruiser is well over design weight. Replace your zincs but check the old ones have been working. If they’re still in great shape, they’re not working properly. The usual reason for this is the boat has too many zincs but get an expert in electrolysis to check it out.

On our first passage we had some rough weather and as the wind increased we went through the first, second and finally third reefs in the main and from the number one genny through the number two, three and finally the storm jib. All had to be dropped to the deck, unhanked and the new sail hanked on and hoisted. We had wet sails everywhere and the fore deck was at times a comedy. I remember one crew, in full wet weather gear losing his footing, landing on his backside with his feet forward as we buried the bow into a  wave. Green water rolled across the deck straight up his pants, he had his arms outstretched at the time and water erupted from his arms and neck like a fire hose. He was fortunately harnessed and clipped on but boy did he come back from the bow in a foul mood. Getting out the cockpit with just two of us aboard wasn’t an option so we put some hard yards into the sail handling gear aboard for future trips.  Fortunately we found “Garhauer” hardware, built for the cruiser, robust and at the right price.

In tandem with the sail handling gear was the need for an Auto Pilot. It took us three goes to get this one right.  We started with a “Toy” and eventually progressed to a unit that does the job, then some. We rarely touch the helm now except in close quarters or simply for fun. All boats handle differently but when it comes to an autopilot, might is right. It’s going to be running quite literally 24/7 on a passage so go big and take some spares, a good pilot is worth 1 ½  crew. 

If you need to make changes make sure you have sailed the boat for a while first and if you need new gear for your boat remember that, as a full time cruiser you’re putting your boat under more workload than the average so if a manufacturer says size ‘X’ is good, go one or even two up on the manufacturers’ specifications for the size of your boat.

Now that we had the sail handling and steering under control experience was starting to shape our lists. The next item on the list was comfort related. We’d spent the first year cruising with an open cockpit, no bimini, just a very small dog house with little protection from the sun. Consequently we didn’t spend much time in the cockpit and hand steering often meant full wet weather gear or being roasted under a tropical sun.  So a cunning plan was hatched to close the cockpit in. A solid top and flexible rollup clears all round, now we quite literally live in the cockpit. This year we added sun shades for the cockpit and a boat cover off the boom to keep the temperature below decks down. 

A good tender can have a huge impact on your enjoyment. Personal preferences aside a dingy that has a hard bottom will not be so affected by coral and one that is light enough to carry up the beach without busting a valve is a consideration. Think about how you are going to secure your dingy on passage. If it’s on the fore deck make sure the hold down points are adequate, that you can see over it, that it doesn’t restrict the sails and you can still work efficiently on the foredeck.

Where are you going to store the outboard and if it’s bigger than a 5hp how are you going to get it on and off the dingy. Make sure you have a strap connecting the outboard to the dingy, while towing, the mounting screws can loosen and oop’s there goes another insurance claim. Make your painter a really thick, floating line and keep an eye out for chafe. Fit a ‘Donkey’ line to your tender, you wouldn’t believe the number of cruisers that wakeup in the morning, look over the back and say “where’d the dingy go”. A second, or ‘Donkey’ painter attached loosely to the boat is a great backup.

Talking of chafe, take a look at your sails on all points of sailing, full sail and reefed to determine where the chafe points are. Once you have noted these take your sails into your local sail maker and have additional chafe patches put on. Make sure you put chafe patches where it counts when the sails are reefed as well. If your roller furling genoa hasn’t got one already have the sail maker put a strap around the luff foil where the sail enters the track to stop the sail popping out the track.

There’s a huge difference between a good set of “Cruising” sails and a harbor set . We have seen several cruisers this year with sail problems. Some of it’s old age but some is original manufacture. The sails on a production boat that’s designed for harbor sailing just aren’t up to the task of either extended coastal or offshore. Your sails need to be bullet proof and be capable of deep reefing. Generally we’re not racing [only if there’s another sail on the horizon] and getting around the boat while it’s well healed is a pain, so cruisers will generally obey the 15 degree rule and reef to keep the boat upright. On an ocean passage that reef may be in for 10 days, it’s got to be well made or it won’t last the distance and a saggy baggy jib won’t do you any favors on an ocean passage with the wind well forward of the beam.

Lubricate everything, become a demon and spray everything where one thing slides against another then grease everything else. Take apart your cockpit and mast winches and give them a good grease, word of warning, take these apart one at a time and put the parts into a 2 liter ice cream container, the first winch I broke down for greasing I put the barrel on the deck, lucky we were only in four meters of water. Finish one winch then move onto the next.

A trip up the rig is next. For peace of mind we usually have a qualified rigger do a rig check before leaving on our outward passage, but I always do one myself before the other passages around the islands or extended coastal passages. Remember to be nice to your deck crew, a bosuns’ chair (now part of your tool kit) is only comfortable for a short time, you don’t want to be stuck at the top of the mast while they go off for smoko.

One item we didn’t get around to for quite a while was one that Lyn had on her A list right from the get go, unfortunately it was on my C list, for me there were other items more important. However, once we made the decision, this item has had a bigger impact on our cruising than any other single item. A water maker. No more planning your cruise around where you can get water, no more rationing. Long showers, the ability to hose off after a swim and we can even hose the boat down to get rid of all that salt after a beat to windward. This year particularly there has been an increase in water borne diseases in the tropics with Guardia and Typhoid becoming a problem in many areas.   You can go complicated and expensive with this one or simple and cheap. Open Ocean have kept their unit simple, without all the bells and whistles that seem to be the first things to break, with simplicity comes reliability and low cost is an added bonus. 

On the electronics front, even before putting on a plotter or integrated system I would fit, in descending order. AIS, (Automatic Identification System) at the very least, a receive only unit, at best a Class B Transceiver, they are a real bonus for shorthanded sailing. A Radar, great for confirming your actual position (not all charts will give you a true position, there are places, in Tonga for instance, the charts are up to 0.5 of a mile out.) And one from my own wish list, an “Interphase” or similar Forward Looking Sonar for navigating through reef passes and entering unknown anchorages.

So the preparation lists are finally down under one page, the dream is now starting to take shape and you really are going to get away so it’s time to put those extra inches on the water line to good use, getting ready for your first passage but that’s a list in its own right.

Next month; Final prep for a passage, provisioning and dealing with the software [the crew]. Training, experience and getting your shore side set up.

Suggested Spares List.- Diesel engine.

Engine shop manual, download to your computer off the net, it takes up less room.

Same thing for every manual.

Fuel Filters, Oil filters.

Oil enough for two changes and usage.

Water pump impellor 2x

Fan belts 3x for each size

Air cleaner

In line emergency fuel pump.

Emergency high pressure fuel line and injector.

Gear box oil

Antifreeze for the cooling system and anodes for same

Spare hoses and hose clamps, all sizes.

Full set of frost plugs (older motors)

If you have the budget and the space then a spare water circulation pump, starter motor and alternator.

Full gasket set (older motor)


Spare bilge pump and float switch.

Toilet spares.

Spare stove burner

Spare LPG regulator

Fuses, crimps and wire. Light bulbs

Duct tape.

Silicon sealant

600 x 600mm sheet of 3mm and 9mm ply

Selection of screws, bolts and fasteners

Selection of spare hose, all sizes plus fitting to join them.

Sail repair kit

Rigging repair kit.

Shackles, pulley’s, sheaves, rope.

Anchor and rode.

Spares for the out board, gen set, anchor windlass, wind generator etc.

Full tool kit.

Side Bar:- Setting the boat up for shorthanded sailing.

Roller Furling headsail/s

Adjustable Genoa cars with lines led aft to the cockpit

All reefing and hoisting lines for the main and fore sails led back to the cockpit.

A good Boom Vang so you can take the topping lift off while sailing and the boom will hold its position and not drop to the deck, plus a good Boom preventer with lines led back to the cockpit. (A preventer line or pulley prevents accidental gybing and locks the boom in place to reduce “Slatting”).

Winches that are big enough that your weakest crew can trim the sails.

All  the above run through the proper blocks, sheaves, jammers and pulley’s.

With this gear as a minimum one person can complete most of the sail work required single handed.