Five Lessons, Two Years Out


We’re two years in now, owning our first cruising boat and cruising the Pacific Northwest, and just back from the first two consecutive marvelous sailing days of the spring season, both of them occurring on a weekend, so we’re feeling expansive in twos: In love with our boat Selah, in love with sailing, in love with each other for being sailors and life companions: I’m feeling very Fatty Goodlander.

In this mood, after a boat berthing session that took way longer than it should (why is it that mooring in your home marina is like putting a toddler to bed? Some days it’s a drink and goodnight, other days an unpredictable separation trauma.), I asked the Admiral to go back to two years ago, to our first season and give ourselves some advice. “Only if you help me,” quoth she, in the typical delegating fashion of Admirals, and so here it is, five things we would have told ourselves, if only we had been there to do it.

#1 Make ‘er easy to sail

We bought a 36 foot cruising boat, when we both had 1.5 dirt jobs (that’s just like a regular job, except it’s not– even remotely– on a boat). That’s a big investment in future happiness, or depreciating folly. You’d think we’d cruise with her, right? That’s what we thought.  Of course we do, but not nearly as much as we day sail. You don’t have to rig a cruising boat or launch her from her trailer: She’s right there, waiting for you patiently at the dock, hoping you’ll get over your fussiness about how you still have to do her bright work– hoping you’ll want to play. Do what makes it easy. For us that meant: dedicated dock lines with shock absorbers. Living closer to the marina than to work. Keeping seasonal sailing clothes aboard, so we can just change there and  go. Provisioning enough of a dry and canned goods pantry to make it easy to grab a quick meal from her. If I had known how important a good full enclosure would be to comfortable 3.5 season cruising, I would have made sure we had one when we bought the boat, instead of just accepting an offer for a free enclosure from an eager  manufacturer. (We’re not always that blessed, but we try to always be that grateful when we are.) We sail her as often as we can, because it’s easy to do.

#2 Create an equipping kitty

Maybe  you’ve owned a succession of boats, or you’ve just sailed a succession of them, I don’t care– you won’t know what she needs until you’ve spent some time with her. That long berthing session we just had? Much of it involved how we haul our dinghy, and what it takes to put her away. We now know what we need, and it’s going to be expensive. But we didn’t know that when we started out, so we’re glad we took the time to find out that the current (cheaper) solution does not work for us, and we’re glad that we put some cash  aside to deal with it. Research helps, of course, but there are some things you won’t know until later. And don’t take her up the river Denial: There are going to be some things, two-three years in, that you just can’t live with (or without) anymore, even though you said that you could when you first tied the knot with your boat. (Wait– is there a Life Lesson There? OK, never mind. Back to boating:)

#3 Make her yours

The Admiral and I both love visual art, but it took us  18 months to purchase our first piece of art for Selah’s cabin. We bought cushions, dinnerware, drink ware for her, but until I installed that piece? She just looked like a well-equipped production boat. She didn’t look like ours. What is it that will make your boat feel like home to you, when you sail her? Get it, and give it to her: she will wear it proudly, and no matter how many owners are on her papers? She’s yours.

#4 Make Your Mistakes Early

I know some people who never sailed a day in their life, liked the idea, came into some money, bought themselves a 42-foot French production boat, and took to sea immediately. On their first time out, they called the salesman from the boat, wanting advice on how to come about in a 30kn breeze. Not what I’m talking about. We spent the first year of our cruising life researching and taking classes so that we wouldn’t make big mistakes. We should have sailed more. Four docking attempts in varying wind conditions can teach one a lot more than four hours in a docking class, and whatever the resulting dings in your boat, they are yours. (see “make her your own”, above) The Admiral believes that there are angelic beings assigned to beginning sailors. Given that the Admiral has greater access to Authority, she may be right. Our first season, we learned the difference between the tide table and the current table from a casual grounding in Cornet Bay and a resulting conversation with the marina manager. He didn’t fly away, or have an inordinately shiny face, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t Sent to Help Us. His advice helped us make safe passage though Deception Pass. Today, a fellow marina dweller grabbed our bowline before a sudden off-dock wind gave our slip neighbor a new complexion for their gelcoat. The most arrogant sailors I know are the ones with more knowledge than experience. (Listen to the boat-to-boat chatter on VHF channel 16 if you don’t believe me.) The most kindly ones I know use their experience to acquire knowledge.

#5 Get to know your sailing community

This one applies to new sailors, or those new to the PNW, but it can also apply to an experienced sailor with a boat type that she has never owned. Our first year, we spent learning how to sail Selah: she was seven foot longer than any cruising vessel we had sailed as a couple, carried more sail, and frankly, was intimidating. We needed more experience than advice. The second year, we needed both, and we made a conscious effort to get it, by joining boating clubs like Seattle Sail and Power Squadron and the Sloop Tavern Yacht Club (any sailing club that meets in a bar is this skipper’s preferred group). We also joined the Hunter Association of Puget Sound. It’s one thing to get with other boat owners who like to do the same things (cruise, race, fish) as you do. It’s even better if they have the same boat that you do, and have sailed her longer– or less time, and could use your advice. For both of us, the favorite time of a rendezvous is when another owner invites you aboard, and casually answers the burning question you’ve had, that no one online or in the boat profession could answer. Or when they ask you what this thing you have hanging in your cabin is for, and their eyes go wide with the recognition of a solution they had been seeking. It doesn’t matter if it’s where you store your condiments or how you keep a rudder from sticking– there are some questions that only another owner of a similar boat can answer.


The above five pieces of advice just seemed the most obvious to us, but I’m sure that other sailors have better ones.What advice would you give yourself, if you were just starting out?


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One Response to Five Lessons, Two Years Out

  1. Deborah Bach says:

    Great post, Stuart!

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