Your First Year of Cruising is Part of the Refit

Your First Year of Cruising is Part of the Refit

If you are planning to buy an old boat to refit and go cruising, make sure you add that first shakedown cruise to the cost of the refit.

After nearly four years refitting our 1984 Whitby 42, Greg and I finally left the dock! Star Stuff is on her way to the Chesapeake Bay for the summer. We plan to use this trip as a shake-down cruise and initiation into the fraternity of “real” cruisers.

So far, we made it over 500 miles from Jacksonville, Florida to Oriental, North Carolina, mostly motoring up the Intercoastal Waterway. We did one overnight from St. Simon’s, Georgia to Georgetown, South Carolina, and we learned about how utterly unprepared we were for the Atlantic Ocean.

Revenge of the Incomplete Refit: Cruising for Dummies

Now, let me preface my remarks by borrowing from Maya Angelou, “when you know better, you do better.” Every expert was once a beginner. So, I am giving myself and my husband a lot of latitude for making mistakes and learning from them. The good news is that we should be experts soon at this rate!

Our first day out of Jacksonville was a nice, pleasant (if slow) sail north toward St. Simon’s. We puttered out of the inlet at Mayport and raised our sails. We decided after looking at the weather that we would do our first overnight from St. Simon’s to Georgetown. The weather looked to be extremely benign with 7-knot winds and 3-5 foot seas. No problem for a tank like our Whitby 42. Should be a cakewalk.

Greg and Julie on the first day, outside of Mayport, FL. See how happy we are?

The School of Hard Knocks AKA The Atlantic Ocean

What we learned from this overnight experience was jarring. Because we had planned to motor up to the Chesapeake Bay on the ICW, I had put the kibosh on installing an autopilot. But, we abandoned that plan on not much more than a whim and realized within a few short hours that trying to do an overnight with no autopilot is nothing short of lunacy. Having to hand-steer to a compass in pitch blackness will make you feel like you should sell the boat and immediately check yourself into a mental institution.

We also learned that none of our instruments on our binnacle lit up. Not the compass, not the oil pressure gauge, not the tachometer. Nothing. Luckily, we did have a tablet that relayed the information from our B&G charplotter. We used the GPS compass to steer by since all of our instruments were dark.

The ancient and UV-scarred Volvo gauges on our binnacle.
Can you believe these things don’t light up anymore?

Weather and Waves and Jibes, Oh My!

Also, 7 knots of wind will not push a 35,000-pound boat. Light winds are not your friend, especially when they are coming from behind you. During our overnight, the winds were light and squirrely, sneaking from one aft quarter to the other, trying to collude with the waves to toss the boom across the boat. We had the ability to pole out the genoa for light winds, but nothing really in the way of keeping our boat from accidentally jibing. Which, she was doing all during Greg’s watch so, I got zero sleep.

When I came on watch, I told him we were going to motor to the Georgetown inlet. We were both bleary-eyed and exhausted from the hours of uneven motion of the boat, the hand-steering, and the constant fight to avoid jibing. He helped me sheet in the main, roll in the genoa, and douse the mizzen. We had so much sail out, but we had no gear on board to force the main or mizzen to catch the wind. No, we had no preventer set up – we didn’t even recognize we needed one before then.

Finally got the anchor down in Georgetown/Winyah Bay

In case you didn’t know, the wave predictions are lies…LIES! We easily had 5-8 foot seas with a 3 second period on our overnight and well into the next day. (We also had NO idea what that meant!) The Atlantic became grouchy and unkempt compared to the day before. Since we were also experiencing light winds, the waves were pushing the boat around and making it difficult to hold a course (because remember we’re still hand-steering). The winds did pick up toward mid-day, but to use them to sail would have put us beam-to the waves. We were steering around them to the best of our ability, but it was the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been on a boat.

And finally, we learned we have to reef early. When we rolled in the genoa, you didn’t see me say that we dropped the main. Because we didn’t. We left the main up in all its crispy, new glory thinking we might catch a knot or two of speed. That was a mistake. We should have just taken it all down, or at least reefed it when we rolled the genoa in at 0300. Or even pulled it down at daybreak. By the time we realized we needed to get the sail down, the winds had picked up and made getting it down ten times more difficult than it should have been. But we got it down and secured, even though it was scary and dangerous.

What was I saying? Oh, yes. Refit.

I think I would feel defeated right now if I thought that we were done with the refit and could just get on with the fun part. The reality is, there is no “fun part” apart from the work. Especially that first year. Cruising means breaking and fixing and spending until you go back to the suburbs or buy a hut on a third-world beach.

At some point during our stay in Jacksonville, one of our marina neighbors told us to consider the first year of cruising as part of the refit. You use the boat completely differently underway than you do at the dock or on a mooring ball. Your shakedown cruise/first year of cruising engages different “muscle groups” on the boat. That’s good news! It’s another opportunity to fix things that break or don’t pull their weight on board. And, to add important safety gear.

Even after our four-year dockside refit, our shakedown cruise taught us that we are not as prepared as we thought for cruising. A single overnight experience educated us considerably. We’ve pulled into the Oriental Harbor Marina in North Carolina where we’ve dropped over a month’s salary getting more of the refit done. Preventer lines and hardware, an autopilot computer and new RAM arm, a new MFD for the cockpit, and new NMEA wiring and ethernet cables to run it all. We tried to install new gauges twice, but neither set would talk to our ancient Volvo Penta, so we’ve decided to try and refurbish our existing gauges.

In addition to that, our naiveté regarding the weather was appalling. We looked at it, and it seemed fine, but it wasn’t. It really wasn’t. The next day, I sent a message to our friends, Behan and Jamie Gifford to request their coaching services. They walked us through how to use PredictWind to get a bigger picture of what the weather is doing. I’ll say that Totem’s TRU coaching is affordable, and you won’t find a nicer couple to get cruising advice from. At least they were way more diplomatic about our foibles than I was being in the moment.

Will we be ready to cruise when we leave North Carolina in mid-August? Who knows? But we know better, so we’re doing better. In another month, we’ll know even more – that’s how we build expertise. One mistake at a time.