Our 8 Biggest Cruising Surprises

Take your breath away cruising magic to the frustration of “local features” making weather predictions always wrong were just a couple of the wide swings of our cruising surprise pendulum.   Despite the fact that we thought we were well-prepared read about our biggest surprises when we left the US commuter cruising!

First Anniversary Dancing on the Beach at Josh's Caye, Bay Islands

First Anniversary Dancing on the Beach at Josh's Caye, Bay Islands

1.  Starry Nights & Take Your Breath Away Magic.    It’s almost impossible to comprehend how black the night sky can be and how many stars dazzle with their brilliance until you’re away from all the light pollution in the USA.     The sheer delights of discovery … like being a five year old and being amazed by all the little things all over again.  For me, loving to take photos, it’s disconcerting that the best things in cruising are  not photographable — either they happen so fast there’s no time to grab a camera or there’s no way to get the shot.  I know, I’ve tried!    Phosphorescence in the water, when the waters around the boat literally glow with thousands of unexplained somethings.    Cruising overnight when unexpectedly, the waters dazzle with their brilliance as your boat sluices through daytime’s azure clear swimming pool waters.   Sometimes just after sunsetters if you glance out of the cockpit, you’ll be mesmerized by the phosphorescence surrounding your floating home, like watching a fire crackle and pop.   The magic of dolphins playing in your bow wake, or putting on a private dolphin show in an anchorage all to yourself.    Sea turtles swimming under the dinghy as you dinghy out to your favorite snorkeling spot.  Pelicans kamikaze diving for dinner, frigate birds soaring above, the grace and colorful beauty of the queen angel fish, the quiet waters of a back-river stream as you paddle along in a kayak, snorkeling in the most pristine waters imaginable, far from cruise ship and snorkel tours, just you, your partner, the amazingly clear waters and the colorful reef fishies.   I was amazed at how much fun it could be to challenge myself to find a new fish species every day — snorkeling every day for years in the most gorgeous waters imaginable can get boring after awhile, believe it or not!  But the new species game added new life to the adventure.   Dancing on the beach barefoot, enjoying a beach bonfire with friends, so many things that never happen “back home” cruising coastal waters absolutely take our breath away … even now 10 years later!  Rarely a day goes by that something doesn’t happen that absolutely makes me feel like a delighted five year old all over again!

2.  If it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen out there.   Captain Ron got that one right!   Why is it when we were cruising from Annapolis to SW Florida, virtually the boat just worked.  But once we tossed the dock lines and started cruising, everything seemed to fall apart?   We’re surprised every year returning to the boat how many things that worked perfectly when we left the boat, no longer function.  Mostly it’s corrosion, life in a tropical salt water environment is harder on everything.   When you combine commuter cruising where nothing’s been used for six months with the harsh environment, it can be an exercise in frustration.   Every year when we return to the boat, it seems there’s an ongoing laundry list of things to be fixed…   and by the time we’re ending up our season, everything’s working perfectly (well mostly…).  A normal day returning to the boat is cross three things off the To Do List and add two more.

Unfortunately, some things we cause ourselves.  Anytime anything doesn’t work, our first thought is …. what did WE do to it that might have caused this problem …. operator error is often the cause.  Especially when re-installing electronics like SSB radios that have spent hurricane season safely tucked away in the oven as protection against lightning strikes.   Our SSB is re-installed using the braille method since there’s no space to actually SEE the back of the radio when reconnecting the cables.  David is laying on the floor, holding an auto mechanics mirror on a swivel stick to see behind the radio in one hand and using the other hand to coax the cable to screw back into the correct spot.    If the two cables happen to get switched, I can tell you from experience that the radio will work … sort of … just enough to frustrate you as to what caused THIS new problem.  My response is always a frustrated “But it worked PERFECTLY when we left” … what happened?  We disconnected it to keep it safe from lightning and reconnected it.   Hmmmm…. could we have caused this?   🙂

David & Doug Replace Bearings in the KISS Wind Generator

David & Doug Replace Bearings in the KISS Wind Generator

3.  Cruising Community – Pay It Forward Pros.  Sailors everywhere have a common bond, one which provides easy camaraderie and companionship anywhere sailors gather.  But one of our biggest surprises was how close knit the outside of the US cruising community is … not in the sense that as a new cruiser you’ll never fit in, oh no … quite the opposite.     We thought we’d never be able to cruise because we’re not diesel mechanics … or refrigeration mechanics or whatever.  But anytime there’s a problem, there’s always someone in the area that volunteers to help … often going above and beyond and out of their way.  This is quite different from the indifference often encountered back home.   Our only explanation is that “out there” we’re all relying on each other.  There is no Coast Guard or Sea Tow or any support system.  As a result, the cruisers network becomes the support system.  We don’t have many special skills to reciprocate, but we’ve been surprised at the easy ways we’ve found to “pay it forward” ourselves … helping someone with sailmail or lending our special propane hose to others to refill their propane tanks in the San Blas Islands, Panama … after they discover they can’t get propane, but have to gravity drain it from a different tank connection.   There are always ways to help others.

4.  Weather – Local Features.   After being used to mostly reliable NOAA local boating forecasts in the US, the fact that the weather is never what the forecast says came as a surprise.    We learned the importance of knowing how to interpret our own weather because large range forecasters, even those as good as Chris Parker, cannot possibly predict all the nuances of local features.   A perfect example:   we were always surprised that the forecast winds and what we were experiencing were never close to the same.   Then we learned that the forecast wind doesn’t include any effects from onshore or offshore land or sea breezes.  We left Isla Mujeres one afternoon for the four day passage back to Florida, the forecast called for 10-15 knots with 3 foot seas.  So why were we seeing 20-25 and big confused seas?  The afternoon sea breeze had kicked in — we recently learned that you have to ADD the sea breeze on TOP of the forecast winds.  So we had exactly what was forecast, we just didn’t know to add the “local features”.  Similarly, when rounding the coast of Honduras heading from Panama back to the Bay Islands, we were excited to round, thinking we’d have a great broad reach instead of the wind on the nose.  Instead we had WESTERLY winds — again, right on our nose.  The problem was that the “local features” cause the winds to bend differently around the coastline and we weren’t far enough offshore to have the forecast winds.  So learn as much as you can about weather, particularly those pesky local features.  Often local cruisers are the best resource since there may not be any official coastal forecasts.

5.  You Want WHAT?   Depending on your cruising locale, you often cannot just run in and buy a part or a tool needed to fix something.   The US, for better or worse, is consumer heaven.  Other countries not so much.  One of my biggest frustrations was trying to find a decent pillow when ours wore out.  We were in some relatively big cities … Panama City, Panama comes to mind.  It seemed like I replaced pillows every year and still when we returned to the US six years later, our best pillows were the ones we left with that I laundered out of frustration in Honduras.

Quite contrary to our “disposable” society where it’s often less expensive to replace it that fix it, other countries are much more innovative when it comes to fixing things.  Often they don’t have the luxury of running out the the local store to pick up a part to fix an outboard.  So they figure out how to fix the existing parts.  We were constantly amazed at how innovative some of these craftsmen could be AND how well their “jerry-rigged” repairs worked and lasted!

What Day Is It?

What Day Is It?

6.  Out of Touch With Reality.  It’s really easy to lose track of what day of the week it is while out cruising!  Every morning the SSB net controllers would tell us the day and date, and no one would know if they got it wrong.    We found we loved not hearing CNN blaring every day, telling us all the bad news they could possibly conjure up.  Others feel differently.  We didn’t mind going for days/weeks without getting news updates on what’s going on in the world.  The isolationism was wonderful.   After our first commuter cruising season,  it was a bit of culture shock disembarking at Miami International and before we were even inside the terminal, the monitors were blaring some stupid thing that Michael Jackson did.   More and more cruisers had sirius radio or other alternatives to get news, some listened to the BBC, the only news we missed was during NCAA Tournament, the Big Dance season.   We did get a sirius radio and extended antenna, but still found ourselves rarely listening to news.

7.  Time Consumption.  It’s a fact.  When you live in a small space, no matter what you need, it will be under or behind several other things.  Often it takes us longer to get to whatever it is we need than to actually finish a project.  We’ve reorganized the boat many many times and it is getting better, but still finding stuff eats up disproportionately large chunks of time.   Plus anything we do takes longer than it would on shore.  Getting the dinghy in the water takes far longer than driving our car out of the garage!     But it’s worth it when the dinghy is skimming over crystal clear water with a sea turtle languidly swimming underneath!

8.  Check In Cha-Cha.    For the most part here in the US, rules are rules.  Even if you might not like them, you know what to expect.  Not so much in other countries.    Sometimes they don’t even know their own rules.  And often the rules and charges change from port captain to port captain.  The best advice is to check with other cruisers so you have an idea what to expect, be flexible, expect the check in cha-cha to take all day long … or sometimes multiple days and rejoice if it takes less.   Learn a bit of the local language, remember you’re a guest in their country.  Always keep a smile on your face and never never be an ugly american!  Too many are and it gives the rest of us a bad image.  If you have ugly american tendencies, please stay in the US!

So that’s our biggest surprises … if you experienced something different that surprised you, please leave a comment and share!

Thank you!  Jan




  1. Love this article! We’re not cruising yet, but last year we experienced our first overnight anchor, and as you said … the dark skies with the stars popping out everywhere … amazing!

    Your point about the weather and taking into account the local factors .. never thought of that! Thanks for sharing, and love your site!

  2. Love this article!

  3. Candy Ann Williams via Facebook says:

    Great post Jan!! This really hits the nail on the head and you said it so well!! Thanks for sharing!!

  4. Great article Jan and good points for anyone starting off their cruising life style. I have always learned when checking in or out of countries to bring a book and bottle water and be friendly. You will be in and out quicker as they realize you are in no rush.

  5. Jan, I’m collecting articles to include when my topic goes live over on the Monkey’s Fist site. I would love to link your post along with several other articles I’ve received to make new cruisers aware of the “Side Effects” of Cruising. If you have no objections, look for a few more view via MoFi at the end of July! Thanks for all you do for new cruisers out there (myself included)


    • No objection at all Tammy. I like what you’re doing at the Monkey’s Fist! But I am more than jealous that you have blog material all the way through the end of July! Cheers! Jan

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