Originally Published in Blue Water Sailing, Fall 2008 or Spring 2009 (I can’t remember), Author: Jan Irons.
After 5,000 miles cruising the Western Caribbean aboard our 1985 Passport 37, Winterlude, here are seven things we wish we had known before leaving the U.S.
1. Blisters can happen anytime, Barrier Coat!!! In October 2004, we hauled for one last coat of Micron CSC bottom paint prior to adventuring into the Western Caribbean. We were advised to add a barrier coat, but Winterlude had never developed a single blister in 19 years! Why would we go to the extra time and expense? After spending one hurricane season in the Rio Dulce, Guatemala, we hauled for bottom paint at the LaCeiba Shipyard, mainland Honduras. Imagine our dismay to find the bottom sprouting a vicious crop of blisters. The LaCeiba Shipyard crew told a tale of woe – almost every boat coming out of the Rio has blisters whether or not they had blisters prior to spending hurricane season. Despite scientific confirmation, the warm fresh water apparently contributes to blisters. Had we known this prior to leaving the U.S., we certainly would have endured the extra time & expense to apply a barrier coat! When leaving the U.S., carefully consider the advantages of a barrier coat, even if you’ve never had blisters!
Also, if you prefer a specific bottom paint, take it with you – or realize in many countries you will be forced to select from whatever happens to be available locally. Our original white bottom paint had to be sacrificed for ANY bottom paint in Honduras!
2. Oil changes leave you slimy? Address annoyances before leaving! Annoyances in the U.S. tend to become major problems in paradise! Aboard Winterlude, the inaccessibility of the diesel made an oil change a full day event … if we were lucky. We struggled through many options beginning with a “blue can” suction oil change that never worked properly. The last straw was our decision to emulate the LaCeiba Shipyard’s high tech way to change our oil – 2 gallon baggies under the engine. Unfortunately our baggie had a mind of it’s own. Oil was literally everywhere, draining into the bilge despite our frantic efforts to stop it … covering David, which was actually humorous if it hadn’t been such a disaster. Imagine the mess that we had trying to get quarts of oil out of the bilge & disposed of correctly! Years later we are still dealing with complications from that catastrophe. These days we use an inexpensive electric pump to pump the oil out of the dip stick – originally we avoided anything electric. ANY little “hassle” you have will only get worse after you are cruising in paradise!
3. Take half as much food & twice as many spares! Believe it … you can buy food outside the U.S. For us, half the fun of cruising is shopping in local markets, finding what is available and improvising. Supplementing our food supply with fresh fish is a highlight! I will never understand boats that fill their storage space with provisions from home. Enjoy your adventure!
In case you’re worried about what to do with all that extra space you’ll have by not stocking up on all your favorite foods from the U.S., we have a solution! We debated the necessity of allocating the storage space (and expense) for a fairly comprehensive stock of spares, but they become more essential as the months go by. We planned backup systems for as many critical systems as we could anticipate. On any boat, it’s only a matter of time until everything fails – and older boats may be more prone than most! Cruising the Western Caribbean, replacement parts are not easily available or even accessible via shipping. When lightning struck across the bay in the Rio Dulce, we were happy to have a replacement regulator, echo charger & charge controller. Shipping to Guatemala is almost nonexistent because of the tendency of packages to vanish. Lots of parts are unavailable. If you don’t have a true engine manual, get one. Locals are innovative by necessity!
4. How much juice? Carefully consider how you generate the amps for your systems and multiple by two! If you are redoing your electrical system, it may be wise to use wet cells. We thought we had an adequate battery bank when we left the U.S. but increased it by 70% when we replaced batteries. Outside of the U.S., gel cells or AGM batteries are unavailable, so when our gel cells failed to hold a charge, we had to reconfigure our system to wet cells. Unfortunately, we didn’t change our TrueCharge40 battery charger, so charging still takes forever despite wind, solar and portable generator amps. Don’t make our mistake, if you upgrade your systems, upgrade your battery charger!
Refrigeration especially consumes more amps in the tropics but your entire boat will likely consume more amps than normal. Older boats often need extra insulation for the refrigerator box. One of the best last minute investments we made while waiting for weather to cross to Isla Mujeres was to purchase a small gas powered Honda generator. Despite having both solar & wind generated amps, there are always times when the little generator is worth its weight in gold … as evidenced by numerous attempts by other cruisers to buy ours!
5. Planning to leave your boat? If you’re thinking of leaving your boat and returning to the U.S., plan for ventilation and how to deal with mold and mildew. We bought a dehumidifier before leaving because our plan was to cruise for six months and leave the boat in a marina for hurricane season. We bought a relatively expensive stainless steel version that drains into the sink. After enduring frequent power failures in every marina we’ve left Winterlude, we are convinced some of the best money we spent was on that dehumidifier. Most dehumidifiers trip and shut off when the power blips or goes off – and don’t automatically turn themselves back on. If you don’t have a caretaker watching after EVERY power blip, you can end up with a moldy boat despite having a dehumidifier! Ours automatically restarts anytime the power resumes, so no worries!
Our dehumidifier is another piece of equipment that other cruisers are constantly trying to buy from us!
6. Here Kitty Kitty Kitty …. Have a favorite family pet? Mac, our Himalayan kitty was 13 years old when we began cruising more than just weekends. One of us really wanted Mac to come with us … he’d lived with me all his life! On the other hand, he was an indoor kitty, long haired with no front claws. Heaven only knows if he could swim. Leaving Mac with our daughter proved to be the right decision for us. I miss cuddling up with Mac while I read a good book and a dog can be one of the best ways to safeguard your boat, but before you move Buster aboard please think through the consequences … What kind of cruiser are you? Do you intend to leave the boat while you travel inland to experience more of the culture? Pets are frequently not welcome in hotels and restaurants. Who will take care of Buster while you explore the ancient ruins and colorful market in Antigua, Guatemala? Like us, do you want to cruise six months and live in the U.S. during hurricane season? Bringing a pet back & forth requires special vaccinations, airline hassles (sometimes when you arrive at the airport they don’t honor what they told you on the phone, despite having confirmed it twice!) in addition to the stress on the animal. And we haven’t taken into consideration daily living, taking the dog ashore, getting adequate exercise and how well they deal with heat in the tropics. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoy playing with other people’s pets aboard their boats, so keep them coming!
7. Creature comforts … Older boats are often missing equipment such as screens. Before leaving the U.S., we were beginning to think the investment we made in good screens was a waste of money. Once in paradise, abundant mosquitos convinced us otherwise! Many anchorages at sunset and sunrise are smothered with mosquitos – David once was the unwilling recipient of 8 mosquito bites at dusk in the time it took us to anchor! Mangrove anchorages tend to be the worst. Unfortunately those anchorages are the very ones that are safest in a norther or bad weather. Even more unfortunately, the night before the norther hits, there will be no breeze to assist in keeping the mosquitos at bay. Make sure your screens are in good shape & do not forget the companionway!
While a watermaker is not essential to cruising, it makes life easier. We enjoy anchorages away from the beaten path where water is often the limiting factor for boats without watermakers. We failed to anticipate other ways the watermaker helps … for example, we snorkel & spearfish almost daily. Daily, our skins, fins, masks and snorkels get a rinse with fresh water allowing them to last longer than those without access to a fresh water rinse (and they smell better too!). With an older boat, you likely will have to forgo some vital space if you decide to add a watermaker. The only space on Winterlude was under the galley sink … space that I thought I needed for pots and pans. Now I rarely miss the pans, but I LOVE having adequate fresh water. A fresh water shower daily (not a combo or just a rinse), is worth another weight in gold!
Even if you have a watermaker, engineer your own water catching system … no sense wasting all that fresh rainwater when it’s relatively easy to catch! PVC pipe and canvas are easy to buy here, but not as easy when you don’t have a car … or a convenient place to buy the materials. Six inches of rain in our dinghy overnight is not a rare occurrence. We simply dam up the sidedecks after the rain rinses off the salt and have filled both tanks on occasion but our system leaves a lot to be desired.
The same rains that provide easy amp-free water also makes it difficult to leave hatches or portholes open. We juryrigged canvas that fits close enough to our main hatch to allow keeping it open in all but sideways wind driven rains. Monsoons can last for days, so be ready! Also consider how your portholes are designed. The briefest downpour leaves our portholes with a puddle which, when opened later, tends to drain directly onto my bed when I’m not being careful. This year we’re trying awnings made of clear flexible plastic cutting boards –we’ve cut them to the exact size of the hatch & they shield the porthole from puddles, we hope!
Equally important on an older boat is insuring you have adequate shade – inspect those biminis/dodgers and sunshades to maximize protection from the sun. A shaded boat can easily be several degrees or more cooler in the tropical sun.
Thinking through the small details will insure that you can re-engineer whatever you need to add to your boat to make cruising in paradise feel like paradise, not just fixing things in exotic places!