Schedules, cruising, and the 800-mile passage nobody wants to make

Sailboat motoring with distant coastline ahead

“After this, no more schedules!” Jamie ranted a little while coiling lines at the mast possibly a little more vigorously than necessary while we motored into Banderas Bay yesterday morning. It’s a basic principle of cruising to avoid a schedule. Usually we’re pretty good at it, but this last week we sailed Totem more than 800 nautical miles, passing stunning cruising grounds, all to make a deadline. Jamie is over it.

pinterest image schedules and cruisingWhat’s the problem with schedules, anyway? Our pre-cruising life was run by schedules and routines that kept life nicely on the rails for a busy family. But for cruisers, schedules are incompatible on a few levels.

Weather. This is the primary enemy of the schedule: weather is unpredictable, and non-negotiable. The catchphrase for many is “weather always wins,” and it does. Want a current example? Check out the Golden Globe Race, where competitors are dropping like . Plan to depart on a particular day if you want: the weather may cooperate, and it may not. Weather does drive our big picture schedule: anticipate hurricane season, and be somewhere that minimizes risk. Swapping hemispheres is a nice way to do that.

Rushing through paradise. Time moves differently when you’re cruising, and feeling the minimum of experiential satisfaction in a place takes time; and then, there is always more to explore. Living in a world of 12 days annual vacation makes us look ridiculous when we express feeling totally shortchanged that we could only spend two and a half weeks sailing in Vanuatu before moving on to New Caledonia. But that’s exactly the conversation I had with Good Old Boat editor (my Voyaging with Kids co-author!) Michael Robertson recently; we both felt cheated by the couple of weeks we’d spent in Vanuatu. His family even flew back from Australia to Vanuatu in order to see more of the country they had only been able to cruise in for a few weeks on their way to the big land down under.

shrimp boat leaving puerto penasco

Shrimper leaving Puerto Penasco, not long before our own departure to sail south to Puerto Vallarta

Schedules are also the enemy because they get in the way of the ability of spontaneity. Being able to adapt plans on the fly because you’ve made a friend on shore and he’s like to lead you up ‘his’ volcano in a few days is the kind of flexibility you want to have in your life as a cruiser!

Kid boats. When we work with coaching clients who will go cruising with kids aboard, we try to impress the importance of flexibility so that when they connect with another cruising family and the kids (and parents!) hit it off, it’s not a big deal to make a last-minute change in plans to facilitate playdates or movie nights or whatever kid community is needed. And yet, we see new cruisers committing months ahead to places where friends or family will fly in “to see their new life!” that force the need to move on, to sail in an opposite direction from those new friends. One family wondered to us why they were struggling to connect with boats, not connecting the dots that their schedule-driven route wasn’t compatible.

Rugged Baja mountains glow at sunrise.

What about visitors?

We like to describe having intentions, vs. having plans. Of course we make an effort to match the one that lines up with their arrival, but have to impress the point that we might not be able to despite best intentions. When we’ve had crew fly in, they’re advised to consider booking a hotel for at least one night – just in case.

Next month, a production company is coming to Totem to film our life aboard (kind of exciting! Kind of scary). When we determined some weeks ago that we might not make their first choice of timing, she laughed and reminded me that when we were first discussing possibilities with them, I told her (sort of joking, sort of not) what we tell all our guests: “you can pick the date, or pick the place, but not both.” We were pretty sure we could manage the boatyard project timeline to arrive at their chosen place on the chosen date, but the weather was a wild card and entirely out of our control. The timeframe for filming was shifted to one we’re 100% sure of aligning date/place around, since we’ll spend the next few months in a relatively small range of the Mexican coastline.

Hanging out in the cockpit, mid-Gulf of California

This aspect of the evils of scheduling can be hard to explain to someone who hasn’t been cruising yet. A few times we’ve seen carefully outlined itineraries; multi-year routing plans with arrival dates and departure dates from one place to the next. Sometimes they even come with marina reservations! And sometimes I have to bite my tongue. “Your plan is never going to happen the way you imagine” is not a supportive response. But sometimes, people get so wedded to the schedule that when it fails, so does the cruise; our goal is to get people successfully, happily cruising on their terms. Schedules sabotage that success for most people. And really: when you find paradise, why rush through it, just because you laid out a timeline?

That 800 n.m. passage…

Our deadline was wholly worthwhile: meeting Niall’s flight into Puerto Vallarta, where he’ll spend winter break on Totem. But those 817 miles wound through island-sprinkled cruising grounds that many take months and even years to explore. Not gonna lie: it smarts a little! But it’s OK: we’ve been there, and we’ll be back next year, and we’ll take our time then.

dolphin spotting from sailboat bow

Yes, we have crew aboard! Sharing this passage with two of our coaching clients

This passage… it was pretty cool, honestly. A shakedown to be at sea for pretty much a week straight (we anchored one night, about halfway through) after six months on the hard. A chance to feel that slick new Coppercoat bottom. A chance to share the sail with a couple of our coaching clients, too, something new for us that enriched the experience.

Dates and deadlines inevitably creep in, but we make every effort to hold them at bay. Cruising on a schedule is an oxymoron: learning patience is the reality. Instead of rushing, we invest in our present environment as much as possible. It’s why we went cruising, after all: breaking out from a scripted life to seek the unexpected.

We did it! Decorating Totem this morning with ALL THREE kids aboard

~

Update: we have an EVENTS page now! Speaking dates / locations, boat shows, etc. at a single point of reference. Yes, I appreciate the irony of this in a post about how we avoid schedules! Ahhh… right. Embrace scheduling a little and come meet us!

Email subscribers: please note our events post about January speaking engagements in Toronto & Seattle included the wrong date for the Seattle Yacht Club. The correct date is Thursday evening, January 31st. Details on the events page.

 

Efficient Sailing: passage routing

3- asymmetric starboard

There’s a problem: many cruisers think that sailing performance isn’t important. Hey, cruising is about slowing down, right?! But dismissing performance is poor seamanship. Part two in a series.

Efficient sailing is partly about sail trim and sail handling (that’s covered here), and partly about routing. With a few rules, routing from A to B can be faster (and safer).

dsc_3791Big picture routing—should we take the northern or southern route across the Indian Ocean?—is fun and easy. String together an efficient and safe path to the places that you want to visit. Take into account big considerations: seasonal weather patterns, time limitations, access to fuel/food/etc. The scientific formula for big picture routing is: fun – harm = intentions. What you actually do depends on a millions variables that happen as you step along the path.

Zoom in on details of sailing to the next place and you’re into A to B routing. Sometimes this is easy; a straight path without complicating factors. Often subtle variables can cost you time or diesel, and elevate risk.

Going from Seattle to Friday Harbor, you look at the weather and the tide for when you expect to be at Cattle Pass. This is A to B routing. Practical experience from attempting Cattle Pass on the wrong tide (as we once did) indelibly marks this detail as one not to forget. There are many “Cattle Pass” lessons that you learn to incorporate in A to B routing. This is local knowledge and it saves time, money, and lowers risk. Venture to a new area and local knowledge is gone.

Fortunately, wherever you’re going, somebody went there and wrote about it. Many blue water cruisers reference Jimmy Cornell’s World Cruising Routes. It’s a fine book for big picture routing and guidance on A to B routing, but it’s not a roadmap.

Our passage in April from Ascension Island to Barbados was 3,100 miles long. The small group of boats doing this passage referenced Cornell, and set out with the author’s advice on crossing the equator between 28 and 30 degrees west longitude. Crossing further west into northeast trade winds can make the Caribbean upwind and hard to reach. This advice has the downside of being into a wider band of ITCZ, meaning more squalls. Off the boats went, one by one, aimed at 28 degrees west. We chose a different route.

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Landfall: Ascension Island

In A to B routing, the longer or more complicated the route, the more days in advance I study weather and variables. For weeks I studied several different GRIB models. Day after day, trade winds were not northeast as Cornell said, but east north east and just fine for getting to the Caribbean. Investigating a route along the coast of Brazil, 900 miles west of Cornell’s route, I found reference to a strong current flowing northward along the coast. Fine wind, less lightning (narrower band of ITCZ), and positive current was too good to ignore. PredictWind’s routing algorithms (that’s our track in their viewer below, automatically generated with pings from our Iridium GO underway) in the Offshore app concurred, and bingo, we were off to the Brazilian coast. It was beautiful sailing with very few squalls, averaging 180 NM per day over 17.2 days. The “book route” took boats 5 to 7 days longer, experienced more squalls, and burned a lot more diesel. Budget sailors can get similar routing through FastSeas, a free/donation tool based on NOAA data for GFS and ocean currents.

pw path

After this passage I happened to reread Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World. In 1898, Slocum sailed Spray on the same route along the coast of Brazil to reach the Caribbean in good time, noting, “the current, now at its height, amounted to forty miles a day.” Eighty-nine years later, Jimmy Cornell missed or disregarded this current. His book is still a great resource, but scenarios like this are a good reminder that it’s only one static resource.

From this lesson and others, here are six rules for A to B routing.

  1. Use multiple data sources.
  2. Schedules are inconvenient.
  3. When weather sources disagree, don’t pick one as best.
  4. Consider tidal and current flow.
  5. “Group think” weather analysis is always one opinion to many.
  6. Forecast accuracy varies regionally; compare forecasted and actual weather over time.

Efficient sailing will get you there faster, safer, and with less wear and tear. Just don’t confuse it with performance sailing! That can lead to soggy spinnaker and sour party mood.

This post was contributed by Jamie, who shares his more technical sailing experience from time to time. It’s really two legs on a three-legged stool, because routing is as important to efficient passagemaking as sail trim and sail handling…that post will have to come later.

were-in-annapolis