Brian and I made our first crossing a year ago and have made mistakes, many mistakes. For those interested in exploring a life on board a boat, this post is for you. I don’t claim to be any sort of expert here, in fact, I started out as a complete novice. Maybe you can avoid our mistakes through my cruiser dos and don’ts to hopefully help you slide into this lifestyle with ease!
Boat Ownership Dos and Don’ts
Do Like To Fix Things
If Brian wasn’t so handy, and didn’t enjoy fixing things and working with his hands, we wouldn’t be here. If you already like to fix things, you are golden, but if you don’t, or don’t know how, take a class in mechanics or something before you buy the boat.
The sea finds out everything you did wrong.
Boats are more likely to break when and where no one else is around, so you will have to fix it or at least stop it from getting worse. I am not handy at all and even I am getting better at that stuff. In my opinion, people who can’t or don’t want to fix things won’t be happy in this life.
Do Lock Up Your Valuables
If it’s something you need, lock it up. Dinghies get stolen all the time, and we even had our gas tank stolen out of our dinghy in Martinique. It sucks, but people need money (or gas, when there was a strike in the French islands) and if you make it easy for them to steal, they just might.
Don’t Plan Too Far Ahead
Weather and broken boat parts will screw with your plans so don’t bother planning too far ahead. For example, we’ve been stuck because our engine died in Turks and Caicos and were hoping to meet up with friends in Puerto Rico but the unexpected delay cancelled that plan. Better to go with the flow. We tell potential guests to pick a time or a place. Not both.
Do be willing to change your mind and your course. Some of the best decisions we’ve made were when we decided the day before or mid-passage to go to a different port. We did this on the way down last spring when we stopped in Marigot Bay, Saint Lucia and we met a ton of cool cruisers and loved the island.
Do Bring Your Handheld VHF on the Dinghy
This goes double-time if you are making the trip alone. You could run out of gas or the engine dies and you’re floating out there alone. Rowing is fine in some harbours but very difficult in others. Having the portable VHF to call for help is essential. Don’t leave it on the boat. Bring it with you.
Do Turn On Your Anchor Light
Turn on your anchor light before you leave the boat. If you don’t return until after dark, you’ll be able to see it and so will other boaters. I say this even if you are leaving the boat at 2pm and plan to be out for an hour; you might get way-laid on shore and talked into a happy hour special. It’s happened! Better to be safe than sorry and those anchor lights don’t use a lot of power. I know some cruisers who never turn theirs off.
Social Dos and Don’ts
Do Put Yourself Out There
We made a goal before starting this journey that we would be our friendliest selves. It took us some time to get out of the typical North American city dweller mindset but being friendly is our new norm! In anchorages we stop by other boats to introduce ourselves and say hi to people in bars and chandlers. For those of you still living in cities, this is called making new friends. I know we would be marked as nutsos back home but cruisers are friendly so it works. If you don’t want to be sitting on your boat alone, put yourself out there.
For those who need extra prodding, here are some conversation starters:
- “I follow you on instagram/saw we are in the same Facebook group”
- “Do you know where the dinghy dock is?”
- “Hi. I saw your Canadian/American/Australian…flag…”
- Ask a question about their boat/dinghy/the anchorage
You don’t need conversation starters. Cruisers are a friendly bunch!
Do Say Yes to Invitations
I’m not saying you have to say yes to everything, but be social when you can. You never know when you’re going to be somewhere (French island) with no other cruisers who speak your language! It’s not bad being alone with your spouse for two weeks, but you’ll say yes to more invitations after that.
Also, say yes to the potluck even if you don’t think you have anything good to bring. There’s always more than enough food and people would rather you come with your bag of chips or bottle of ketchup than stay behind on your boat. Really.
Do Solicit Advice From Other Cruisers
Some of these people have been doing this a lot longer than you and have a lot more knowledge. I didn’t say you have to take everyone’s advice, but if it’s a choice between another cruiser’s recommendation and something from a book, heed the cruiser. I wish we had done this in Grenada when we hired someone to fix our bimini. We wouldn’t have wasted 3 months on an incompetent.
Do Help Each Other
If someone’s run out of gas in their dinghy and needs a tow, it’s easy to bring them to shore. If someone needs propane for cooking and you have extra, or can’t quite get that mooring ball and you are so close and can help from your dinghy, do it. Not only because you will need something from someone one day, but because it’s part of being a cruiser. Cruisers help each other; we’ve been on the receiving end and believe in paying it forward.
Shopping Dos and Don’ts
Do Buy a Lot of Storage Bins
Yes to storage bins. For one, you don’t want loose items rolling around – and potentially breaking or spilling everywhere – while you are underway. Plus, stuff goes bad. Non perishables get moldy, stale, any number of issues, thanks to salty air and water. We take products out of their boxes and bags and move them to secured storage bins to prolong their lives.
Another reason for taking items out of boxes is to keep out bugs. Roaches in boxes, or weevils in bags of flour. When we buy a case of beer, we take the cans out of the box before loading them into the boat, and I pour the flour into a container rather than leave it in the bag.
Don’t Buy Too Much Food Before You Go
We bought cans of fruits and vegetables in Florida and still have some of them. Unless you have dietary requirements or are going to be away from land for a long time (or Bahamas), you can buy most anything anywhere for not too much money.
They eat rice, flour, fruit and vegetables everywhere and most towns have some kind of market. Save the space for the things you really can’t get away from home.
Do Buy It When You See It
It’s the worst when you see something you want and don’t get it and then you come back and it’s gone. I have seen beautiful mangoes but I left to do something else first and the shop was closed when I went back, or the mangoes sold. It’s Murphy’s Law. This also happens with boat supplies. If you find two of something, buy the backup. The next country may have none of that item and it may be difficult to get it shipped.
Do Buy: Vinegar
White vinegar is useful and versatile. It’s good as a cleaning product in the bathroom and kitchen. Vinegar eliminates mold on almost anything instantly. It’s also cheap and widely available.
Do Buy: Marriage Savers
Paired headsets are a marriage saver for cruisers. We use them mostly when anchoring or mooring, because we are in different parts of the boat and want to work efficiently. Since we got them this summer, anchoring and mooring is so much easier, it’s even fun! We own the SENA headsets.
Do Stock: Dry Bags
Even when it’s calm on the water, we always bring a dry bag or box for dinghy rides and always put our phones and anything else valuable inside. You never know when a rogue wave will hit or you’ll slip getting in or out of the dinghy.
Do Bring Your Boat Papers When Buying Boat Parts
Chandleries in the Caribbean will input your clearance information when you buy from them, which exempts you from paying some kind of duty or tax. It’s worth it, so bring the boat papers with you.
Do Look At The Bright Side
This life can be very hard. All the cruisers we know have had some bad days. We lose and/or break things frequently, sometimes multiple times in the same day, we get bashed around at sea, in storms, the list goes on and on. We don’t have the luxuries of home like heat and hot water, air conditioning, a bed that stays still. So as not to get bogged down in the negatives, continue to remind yourself of the good things: that beautiful rainbow, the fish you caught on passage, the delicious rum punch at the beach bar, exploring a new island by land and sea: whatever makes you happy about cruising, soak that up. Hopefully that balances the bad stuff and you’ll enjoy this life.
I would love to hear from other cruisers. What are your lessons learned and recommendations that I might have missed. Share your cruiser dos and don’ts in the comments.