This is a “work in progress”, and I will amend it on an ongoing basis.
Last amended 16 July 2016.
Why did you build your own boat?
When considering buying a boat (back in the early 90’s), it seemed like a reasonably economical solution to getting what we wanted. New boats were too expensive. Second hand boats often had hidden flaws and rarely brought together all the features we were looking for.
In retrospect, I believe that building your own boat is not economical. It is far cheaper to buy someone else’s uncompleted dream or a second hand boat and retrofit. Also, there is no way I'll ever recover even close to material cost when selling the boat. It isn't a recognized brand. If you're looking for value, buy a well known brand, fix it up and use it (and keep it in good shape) and sell it when you're done.
How much does it cost to cruise?
It is impossible to answer this question. It entirely depends on the quality of life you’re trying to achieve and what your “means” are. Do you pay people to work on your boat? Do you fly back to Canada twice a year (we seem to fly back every summer). Do you want to keep your boat up to date with maintenance and renovations? For us, we live off pensions, and have no debts. We aren’t bothering to save money, but on the other hand we don’t want to spend from our savings. Bottom line, we live well at about $ 4K per month. We’ve met many who live on a lot less and some who have more, so live a little higher.
What TV reception do you get in the your boat?
Practically nothing. On shore, people almost always have cable or satellite. We have a TV on the boat, including a digital and analog receiver. In practice, we have seen digital TV in Canada, the US and a bit of analog in Cuba - and that’s about it.
What? No TV?
We keep up to date on the TV shows that we follow (House (now finished), Desperate Housewives (now finished), Dexter (also finished), Grays Anatomy, The Big Bang Theory, The Good Wife (now finished) by watching streaming TV over the Internet. Oftentimes the Internet provider isn’t good enough to bring it in, rarely it is. In practice, streaming is also getting difficult and downloading from Torrent sites is even better.
We do watch a fair number of movies, occasionally at a local movie theatre. We have bought 2nd hand DVDs in Canada or the US and brought them back with us. We’ve also bought locally copied DVDs, but are often disappointed in the quality. A lot of cruisers exchange movies (on an external drive) or TV series and books in the anchorages. Our preference now is to watch TV series after they've finished running. This allows us to follow the story better and see development of the characters.
Do you read a lot of books?
We sure do. For the first year, we relied on paper books, based on what we brought along, as well as what we bought or exchanged along the way. We discovered that paper books can be a source of bug (cockroach) infestation. We learned that when you get a “new” book, you should keep it inside a plastic zip lock bag for a week, dusted with boric acid - in order to kill any eggs that may be laying inside. Then we discovered electronic books. Currently, both Diane and I use an electronic reader (two Kindles - paperwhite). We love our E readers. Electronic books are easy to find, buy and for the most part - exchange.
Traveling in the Caribbean - is there a language barrier?
In the eastern Caribbean, a few islands are French. Not just French-speaking, but honestly French in the sense of having all of the privileges and responsibilities thereto appertaining (such as voting in National elections, for example.) Diane doesn’t speak more than a few words of French, but has always managed to get by.
The rest of the eastern Caribbean islands are former English or Dutch territories, and on all of those English is the predominant language.
The Dominican Republic and Cuba is Spanish, but we got by just fine with English. All of South America (except Brazil, of course) and Central America are Spanish-speaking. We have talked with folks who couldn't speak a word of Spanish who said they experienced no problems making themselves understood in South and Central America.
What about the rest of the world, is there a problem with language?
Not that we've experienced to date.
How do you buy food?
At local markets and grocery stores. On many of the islands there are surprisingly good supermarkets. But on some islands in some settlements the grocery stores are very minimal. We usually get our fresh fruits and vegetables from local markets, as do most of our cruising acquaintances. We, and other cruisers we know, wash the fruits and vegetables thoroughly when we return to the boat, and we have never had a problem with "stomach problems". Nor have we ever had problems with buying prepared foods at local restaurants and/or from street vendors.
Do you have a kit of non-prescription and prescription medicines?
We have such a kit, with contents largely influenced by Diane’s career as a Professional Nurse and our research into the topic. Most of it is common sense, but it includes some prescription painkillers and prescription antibiotics. It is amazingly easy and cheap to buy prescription-type drugs in many of the islands, but not in the French islands since their standards are similar to those in the U.S. And we several medical reference books onboard.
What are the negatives about living on boat as a primary residence?
Diane and I both love living on board. We have met couples in which the husband ignored his wife's misgivings, only to have to sell the boat after a few short months. It is a great life, but you both need to be on the same page in order for you to feel that way. We have met a few couples in which the wife has said she would "put up" with the experience for "x" years, and then they would have to return to "normal" living. There are any number of couples that cruise for 3-4 months a year and then return to home for 8-9 months (these are seasonal cruisers). Finally, there are also a lot of solo sailors, perhaps as many as 5-8% are solo men, and 1 in 100 of these are solo women.
But this hasn’t answered the question, has it? We don't have a list of "negatives" that eat at us. But living aboard does create some changes, however, that some folks might find negative.
- We do maintain a “mailing address / primary residence back home” but not in the sense that you may think. We do not have a home, other than SV Joana. Banks, credit card companies, even Revenue Canada - need a mailing address to deal with you. You can’t even maintain a driver’s license without a residential address. Keeping bank cards, credit cards, passports, health cards and driver’s licenses “current” brings with it it’s own list of challenges - call it personal administration. Its difficult to walk away from this area of life.
- Going shopping is sometimes a major expedition. We call it “foraging for food”. You have to take your dinghy to shore, secure it in a safe place, catch some form of transportation to the grocery and/or market, and then haul your purchases back to the boat. Whether you find this a major negative will depend in part on your attitude. We have had some experiences on these expeditions that have produced mile-wide grins on our faces.
- Some anchorages can be rolly (and therefore uncomfortable.) The solution is to use the published guides and advice from other cruisers to find protected anchorages, and to perhaps use passive at-anchor “flopper-stoppers” (which we rarely see, and have no personal experience with). Occasionally, you may have to “suck it up” for a few hours, or just haul anchor and move.
- You won’t always have internet connections, but in our experience, its about 80% (at least in the Eastern Caribbean it was).
- ATMs are widely available. We use them almost exclusively as a source of cash (in the currency accepted on that island.) We mostly pay for groceries in the larger stores by credit card (to reduce the need to handle large amounts of cash). We use credit cards to pay for marine supplies and fuel. The banks and credit card companies may misinterpret your frequent travel and think that your card has been stolen. When this happens, a phone call has always worked to correct the situation.
What mechanical services can you find while traveling - We can do most of the lighter maintenance and other repairs? How does that work?
Some islands have excellent mechanical services. Others have virtually none. Some particularly good ones are Puerto Rico, St. Marten, Martinique, and Trinidad. To a lesser extent St. Lucia and Grenada. Puerto la Cruz in Venezuela used to have a good reputation – but people say that they are having trouble getting parts and materials as Chavez increasingly nationalizes more and more sectors of the economy.
Based on your experiences - what would you do differently?
1. Maybe start earlier (when we were younger), if affordable and if personal situations accommodate.
What are the hardest things about living aboard?
Staying active, which is a real concern as we age, and no longer work - requires attention. On many of the islands, the roads are too narrow and/or steep for biking. Diane and I probably do much more walking together than in the past, and we are often working on our swimming skills. One thing that we have made an effort to do is eat less, but eat fresh. When we return to Canada for a couple of months, we always gain weight because we are even less active! Just moving around the boat, up and down stairs etc burns off calories and helps keep you limber.
What do you do about boat insurance?
I can tell you that the overwhelming majority of cruisers have no insurance. This can create tension and some sticking situations - anywhere on the water. What happens if an uninsured cruisers bumps into your boat (while someone is at the wheel, or when the boat drags at anchor and nobody is at the wheel). The answer is never obvious. We say that if YOU want your boat to be covered in case of an incident, then it falls on YOU to have adequate boat/hull insurance. To expect that you’re going to demand or sue someone in the islands - and win - is lunacy. Having said that, insurance is quite expensive, typically at least 1% of hull value (and the insurance companies don’t like it when you “low ball” the value of your hull) and require you to get a survey every 5 years (and where will you find this surveyor that is acceptable to the insurance company). We are very fortunate to have a liability only policy (no insurance on our boat) that covers up to $ 2M and costs us about $ 300 per year. We have had this policy for 3 years and hope to never make a claim. Expect to be asked for proof of insurance when you use a marina or boatyard, and you can often buy a policy just for that purpose.
Do you have pets onboard?
Simple answer - no. We love pets, but we live on the ocean and are surrounded by fish, just stick your head in the water to have a look. When you go onshore, there are usually lots of birds to look at as well. We don’t need one caged up on our boat. We have met cruisers with birds, cats and dogs. You have to appreciate that when you arrive in a foreign country, they will want to know what animals you have brought on board - and try to prevent any disease from entering. If you don’t have the right paperwork filled out, it can mean that you will be denied entry. Some islands keep a close eye on cruisers and their dogs (that need to be brought to shore regularly).
Where do you store your boat when you come back to Canada?
Well, this is kind of a loaded question. We try not to visit the same place twice and we also try not to setup a repeatable pattern. We have left the boat on a mooring, at dockside and on the hard for several weeks or months at a time. However, each place is different, presenting a unique set of circumstances regarding the weather, security, maintenance, availability of parts etc. Our boat is our home, and we try to keep it safe.
Do you use Electronic Charts?
Absolutely! When we left Canada in June 2009, we were using MaxSea vs 10.3.2.1 with CM93 vector digital charts. About a year later, we discovered OpenCPN, and using the same CM93 charts have been able to get along quite fine. We also have a lot of other digital charts that can be read by either OpenCPN or a later version of MaxSea. The primary navigation computer is a 12V PC, augmented by several laptops. We also run a small Garmin chart-plotter in the cockpit that has built-in GPS and its own set of charts. We also try to have good cruising guidebooks for the area and large scale paper charts. We also bought an Apple iPad 2, which as an onboard GPS card as part of the cell phone system. Even offshore (when we have no SIM card installed and are far distant from any cell phone towers) we are able to use the iPad for navigation with the Navionics app. We often have three concurrent and different charting systems running at the same time. So much for paper charts (although we have most of the world onboard in paper as well).
How do you buy and store wine?
We have found that bottled wine is available nearly everywhere, and much to our delight, boxed wines is “nearly” everywhere in the Caribbean. We reuse red, white and rose (white and rose in the refrigerator) bottles - refilling from the plastic bladders of boxed wine. When you buy boxed wine, it is wise to remove the bladder from the box and get rid of the cardboard ASAP, preferably before it even makes it onboard. We can easily store at least 25 bladders (25 times 3 litres) under our floorboards.
What are your thoughts on refrigeration?
We have two appliances: a store bought front loading freezer (Waeco, evaporator plate technology) and a home built top loading fridge (Technautic Cool Blue Holding Plate technology). Both are air cooled, and 12V DC. In future, I believe that I might be convinced to replace the holding plate with an evaporator plate, for more efficiency. However, I have a smart controller that allows me the opportunity to drive the holding plate down when 12V DC power is in surplus, such as when motoring into an anchorage, or when its sunny in the afternoon, or when the wind is high. Its not an obvious answer. The insulation is very thick and the gaskets very good - that’s what is most important.
We’re coming for a visit. What should we bring, or not bring?
You'll be staying in our fore cabin (sheets, blanket and pillows provided) Your bathroom (or head) is adjacent (soap, shampoo, towels provided). Both are much smaller than a small bedroom or typical hotel room. The head is compact, but efficient. You will probably join us in our daily ocean ritual, followed by a freshwater rinse - this is how we bathe.
Please bring only soft-sided, collapsible luggage - like a duffle bag. Hard luggage is very difficult to stow. I know the airlines are charging per-bag fees for checked bags and limiting carry-ons, however when possible, it's better to bring smaller bags rather than one large one.
We suggest packing lightly. Swimsuits & cover-ups, along with a few shorts, tees, tanks, casual skirts and/or dresses. You'll want clothes that are comfortable while climbing in / out of the dingy, on / off docks, etc. Almost everywhere there are tees / tanks / etc. available for sale so bring less with you and save room to take one home. A slightly upscale outfit (e.g. chinos w/polo shirt for guys, nice dress or skirt/top for gals) is nice to bring for a special evening out but certainly not required, A light raincoat, light sweater, long sleeve tops and comfortable long pants are good for the cooler days and evenings, especially if on watch during a passage. A 'surfer' board top is nice to have for snorkeling to avoid burning your back. If we're meeting in a place that is more formal, we'll let you know in advance.
Please coordinate your clothes to minimize the number of shoes you bring with you. Flip-flops and thongs are universally worn where we sail; seriously most of the time you'll be barefoot or wearing them. Keens or Crocs or similar are great for extensive walking, hiking and site seeing. Water / reef shoes great for snorkeling if you have them. If you bring a fancy pair of shoes, flats or wedges are best. Spiky high heals cannot be worn on board or in the dinghy.
Please make sure you have all necessary travel documents. Also check for mandatory shots (e.g. Yellow Fever areas) and bring documentation.
Be sure to bring at least one pair of sunglasses: polarized is best but be sure to bring whatever type you have.
The sun is strong in the Caribbean. SPF 30 and SPF 15 are good starter lotions, even if you tan easily. We have lots of SPF 50 that we can share with you. You may want to bring Aloe / After Sun Treatment to sooth sunburned skin.
Bug Repellent: You won't necessarily see them but biting bugs are everywhere; even on-board if the wind has died down, despite our efforts to keep them out. We have some bug lotion on board, but you may wish to bring your favourite product.
Beach Towels: We have bathroom towels for your use but we don’t go to the beach much, and neither do our towels.
Water Bottle: We have plenty of reusable plastic water bottles, but if you have one, you may want to bring a metal one along instead.
Snorkeling and Scuba Diving: Many of our destinations have wonderful snorkeling areas - that’s why we’re here. If you plan to scuba dive during your visit please be sure to bring your diving certification card. If you have your own equipment you might consider bringing some of your own gear along. If you haven’t dove in a long time, you should consider a refresher and possibly medical evacuation insurance. Medical treatment is not necessarily expensive, but evacuation is very expensive. Please take the time to be prepared in advance.
Prescription Medications (if you use them.): To be safe, transport them in the original prescription bottle.
Hat: Essential to bring if you already have / use one to protect your face from the sun.
Sailing Gloves: Nice to bring if you already have them to protect your hands while sailing, anchoring and mooring. We have spares on hand.
Sea / Motion Sickness Remedy (if needed):
SV Joana moves all of the time, even at anchor or on a mooring ball. If you're prone to motion sensitivity or sickness, please bring the remedy that works best for you. We usually have or can purchase, saltine crackers, ginger cookies, and ginger ale. The first couple of days are when you'll feel the most motion coming from land, so if medication works best, you may want to take it everyday for a couple of days in advance so that it's already in your system. Everyone gets motion / sea sick at some level and time. The key is to address symptoms early. If you feel queazy, seek fresh air -- please, NEVER, EVER vomit inside the boat
Food, Alcohol & Other Necessities: You will join us in our shoreside excursions to find provisions. Most people like the food we cook. We will usually go shopping when you arrive. If we will be short on time to provision.
Computers: We have a wifi network onboard. You should be able to connect to it, as long as we have an Internet connection through a shoreside provider (which is pretty much all the time).
What To Leave At Home:
Hairdryers & Other Bathroom Appliances. Our boat isn't designed for typical bathroom /beauty appliances so please leave them home.
Dark sole shoes will leave black marks that are difficult to remove. Most places we will go are fine with flip-flops or flats even with dressier dresses (women) and chinos (men). On board you'll be barefoot or with crocs.
Regardless of SPF, tanning oil leaves oily blotches on everything including the hulls, and it quickly soils the furniture. Please bring lotion style sunscreen instead.
Non-Prescription Medications & Drugs of Any Kind:
Most of the countries we visit have very strict drug laws. Most conduct random searches of boats as a security precaution. Do not even consider bringing any type of illegal contraband or drugs. Not only could you wind up in jail, we will likely as well. Worse, the authorities will confiscate SV Joana. Please make sure that everyone traveling with you is aware of the seriousness of this issue. If a teenager / young adult is traveling with you, please find an opportunity to search his / her luggage before you leave home. Explain the issue and blame it on us if you get caught in the act.
Finally, please understand that we are at the mercy of the weather. We stay in protected areas when the weather is poor rather than risk life and SV Joana to meet a scheduled time and place. Therefore, when you plan your trip, we recommend that you also research a hotel at / around the location we are planning to meet. A few days before you leave, we'll email you to let you know if we arrived at the rendezvous point, or if weather is delaying us. If we are delayed, you will have a nice place to stay and enjoy yourselves while we wait for the weather to clear. If you are joining us for a passage to a different island or country, please don’t book return airfare, one-way ticket only.
Do you travel in groups - for safety? Are there safety concerns - specific to security and personal safety?
We have rarely “buddy boated” with another cruising couple. Not that we don’t want to, its just difficult to line up schedules and interests. Having said that, we don’t think there is really any advantage, once you have put out to sea, to “buddy boating”. Unless your boats are identical, you will quickly adopt a speed and course that is aligned to your interests, even though you may leave from the same anchorage and arrive in the same destination. However, there is a lot to be said for knowing your neighbours in the anchorage, or at least recognizing and greeting them!
Are there places in the Caribbean and Central America coast line you would not go and why?
These days, there are sections of the northern Venezuelan coast that are avoided by almost all knowledgeable cruisers. Also, few venture further south than the eastern coast of Venezuela (south of Trinidad), primarily because of the direction of prevailing winds and current. There are anchorages in St. Vincent that have horrible reputations for break-ins and robberies - Wallilabou in particular. Two web sources of news of incidents on the water are: www.noonsite.com/General/Piracy and www.safetyandsecuritynet.com.
What particular security precautions do you take?
First, we try not to make ourselves, or the boat, a target. If we are going to be ashore in darkness, we make sure to lock our dinghy up in a well travelled, well lit area. That way, we have confidence it will be there when we need it. We also lock our companionway, the main entrance to the boat through the cockpit. We have talked with cruisers, and in our opinion, the majority who have been robbed (with or without violence) have “left their front door open”. Cruisers tell us that if they have to lock the doors, then they don’t want to cruise in this area. Well, by that time it may be too late. Cruisers also complain that by locking the companionway, the air flow to the main cabin is curtailed - their main sleeping area. We sleep in the aft cabin, so the airflow we get isn’t affected whether the door is open or closed. Finally, we have two doors, a winter door (that is solid teak) and a summer door that is well ventilated. This photo shows our summer door, providing ventilation and security.
Right next to the companionway door is a Hawaiian Sling (speargun), which is essentially like a 6 foot spear. It is positioned standing vertical, right next to the door, so that if necessary, it can be easily grabbed and used to keep people out of the boat.
Our security strategy is to keep people off the boat, and then definitely out of the interior spaces. If we have to, we plan to withdraw to the inside of the boat, operating the alarm siren, lights and radio. Our theory is that the perpetrators should get frustrated and leave, although we have no personal experience to draw from. We don't have guns, primarily because of the difficulties in clearing into different countries - but we do have two plastic 12 gauge flare guns. Our security alarm is a simple home alarm, wired to 12V, that we bought at Home Depot more than 10 years ago.
We do keep the hatches open above our bed and the breeze (at anchor) is definitely worth it. Recognizing that this too, may be used against us, we’ve installed high strength SS wire to “dog down” the hatches (when we think its necessary) so that they can’t open all the way. This way, it is very difficult for a robber to actually open the hatch beyond the 8 - 10 inches that the wire holds it at - and enter the boat. From the inside, it is easy to unwrap the wire so that we could exit the cabin, in case of fire. We have met people that have built strong steel bars inside the hatch frames, but if this prevents you from exiting the boat, then you may have a problem.
If one-on-one confrontation is required, we have a handy billy club. This is a wood bread rolling pin, that I modified. I drilled out one end and filled it with lead and epoxy. It has changed this club's behaviour from a "bruiser" to a "bone-cracker" - only to be used as a last resort.