It’s currently below freezing with wind gusts above 40mph here in the Sunshine State of Florida. This ‘bomb cyclone’ that forced us to seek refuge in the warmth of Mary Jo (our 27 foot Albin pocket trawler), also gave us an opportunity to update our blog to share some of the key lessons we learned over our first 60 days cruising down the Inter Coastal Waterway (ICW) from Virginia to Florida.
• Prepare for your trip, but at some point, just go!
Taking a diesel maintenance course and joining boating associations like the MTOA to attend seminars and events to meet and learn from other boaters have been invaluable. Getting the boat ready for heavy use (so far, we have ran over 200 hours, about 4 seasons for an average boater) and to make it a pleasant home is important. However, it’s easy to spend too much time and money in trying to get ready. You will never be completely done, so at some point, you just need to go. You will be working on the boat all along your adventure, and each day, you’ll learn something new, so don’t delay. Just go before it’s too late.
• Never have a schedule!
Every experienced cruiser we met warned us about having a schedule. We heard it several times, but it wasn’t until we experienced the stress of having to be somewhere by a specific time did we actually undersand what it meant. If you intend to be somewhere by a specific day, give yourself several extra days for weather and boat issues, and if you really can not miss it, have a Plan B, like getting there by land, for example, if needed.
• Marinas (Slips, fuel and pump outs)
We were lucky to have our boat docked on a floating dock behind our house in Virginia. Unfortunately, it didn’t really give us a lot of experience pulling into a slip with other boats around or having to tie knots around fixed docks. Fortunately, all the marinas so far have had floating docks, but we expect more fixed docks as we continue.
When going to a marina, we found it very helpful to find out as much detail as you need to effectively dock your boat. Where exactly is the slip? Can you use google earth to see it before you get there? Will it be to your port or starboard? Will you be able to pull in or have to back into it? Port or starboard tie up? Will there be wind or current to deal with? If you need fuel or a pump out, do that first, then walk over to see your slip if you can. It will make docking much easier. Oh, most Cruisers tip the dockhand $5 for helping you dock your boat in the slip and / or the fuel dock or a pumpout.
• If staying at a marina, the monthly slip is the way to go.
Anchoring is an awesome experience. We had intended to anchor out 4-5 Days, then stay at marinas 2-3 Days a week. However, we soon learned that transient slip rates by the day can get very expensive fast. Consider getting a slip for the month. You’ll save a lot, but more importantly, you’ll to get to know the area, meet fellow cruisers and with less time travelling, more time enjoying what you enjoy doing.
• Maintenance isn’t bad; repairs can be demoralizing.
Checking your engine before you run each day is a must, and at first, it can be very intimidating. But soon, you get into a routine and everything becomes so simple….unless you find something broken that needs to be repaired. For us, it seemed like it was a constant battle, finding one problem after another. Each repair or maintenance work that needed to be done, wasn’t really a big deal. However, having so many issues come up, all within the first few weeks has been very demoralizing. We have been lucky to have been able to do most of the work ourselves so time delay and costs involved in having mechanics schedule the work, hasn’t really been too much of an issue. We have had nights when we couldn’t sleep or mornings waking up with that sinking feeling (not literally), worried in anticipation of what might break next.
We have an old boat with an old engine. Most of the engine parts were rebuilt or replaced by the previous owner. Fortunately, the problems we’ve had so far have been on the parts that weren’t rebuilt or replaced, worn out due to age and recent heavy use, or something we broke in the process of fixing something else. Cruisers often call this the “shake down cruise”. Apparently, even boaters with brand new engines on brand new boats experience issues. To cruisers the phrase “It’s a boat” sums up the feeling that on boats, something always needs to be done.
On the bright side, we are now experienced to troubleshoot and fix problems relating to fuel fIlters, alternators, coolant hose leaks, fuel tank leaks, fuel hose leaks, glow plug solenoid failure, starter failure, water pump failure, shaft log cracks, oil pressure alarm sensor failure, oil pressure sending unit failure and stuffing box leaks. To be honest, we never even knew what these things were before we started planning for this trip, so we’ve learned a lot! And of course, now we have the confidence that if any of these parts break down again, it won’t be a big deal at all to fix!
• Solar panels
We cruised from the Maryland/Virginia line on the Chesapeake Bay through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and most of Georgia and didn’t realize that our alternator was broken. It wasn’t until a rainy and cloudy week when we noticed the alternator wasn’t charging our batteries properly because our solar panels were doing the job! We have since replaced our alternator, but being able to cruise such distance on a mix of solar and shore power (when at marinas) was awesome!
• WiFi: non-existent at most docks; consider the Verizon Plan, no contract
We use our iPads to watch movies on Netflix and Amazon, surf the internet and listen to music, just like we do when we are at home. In addition, we also use our iPads for navigation and planning for our anchorages (or marinas) and our route. We have found Verizon’s unlimited plans for data to be the best for us. There’s no contract if you have your own device, so when we get back home, we can change or cancel our plans and turn our home WiFi back on.
We spent over $800 on food and 6 cases of beer at Walmart before we left home. So far, we found that the beer was a good idea, but the 5 bins of packaged and canned food, might be a little over kill on the ICW. until we get to the Bahamas. With a little planning you can get to a grocery or farmers market pretty easily by walking, public transport or for a few bucks, with Uber. It is also very easy to rent a car and do a big Walmart trip if needed. Fortunately, for a little boat, we have a ton of storage (the benefit of having a trawler!). But, if space is limited, plan to have essentials on the boat, then supplement by weekly trips to get veggies, fresh meat, bread, etc.
• There’s never enough time!
We planned to catch up on projects while underway. We have hundreds of hours of video from our previous trips but never had time to go through them or edit. So why not work on them as we run for 6 – 8 hours on the boat? We didn’t want to!
There’s so much to see along the way down the ICW. If we worked on a project while the other was driving, we would be looking down and might miss out on enjoying a sunny day, seeing the marshes, a Creek, a boat, a house, a dolphin, or a pelican, an egret, a manatee, a cormorant, a sunset….
• The cruising culture
We have travelled a lot over the years and have never encountered a group of people like those in the cruising community: New acquaintances who invite you over for cocktails or a meal or a ride to the local grocery store. Neighbors who would go out of their way to take you on a tour of the area, jump into the engine box to help you figure out what’s going on or find a candle for an impromptu birthday celebration. Fellow boaters we met along the way later hosted dinners or a get together for us as we made it down to their home port. The other day, we met a former cruiser while shopping at a local grocery store. As soon she found out we were Cruisers, she immediately offered to give us a ride back to the boat because she knows what it’s like.
It’s not just Cruisers. It’s also the mechanics such as Al’s Mobile Service in Palm Coast Fl or Steve at Zimmerman’s in Southport, SC who have each spent 45 mins – an hour looking over the boat and giving us guidance and help, all for free. Last, but not least, it’s people like Brian at American Diesel who has already spent hours on the phone with us trying to help us identify a replacement part, or to just be that calming voice on the other line when we needed it, who truly have made these last 60 days so touching.
The jury is still out….we are not sure if this lifestyle is for us full time, but it is our life today, and it’s sunny and getting warmer out, so time to go out and enjoy today!