Sunday, May 18, 2014

The (Overrated) Joys of Passage Making

Posted by Scot

The trip from Isla Mujeres, Mexico, to the Dry Tortugas in Florida is about 350 nautical miles, in a more or less north-easterly direction.  For the week we were in Isla Mujeres, the winds were strong, coming straight from the direction we wanted to go.  Even though we knew we would get a push from the north-flowing current along Mexico, and another one from the Gulf Stream flowing east along the southern edge of Florida, we definitely didn’t want to bash into the wind for 350 miles.  So we waited for things to settle down.  A lot of other boats did too.

By the time the forecast was more favourable for a crossing, there were about 10 boats hanging out in the harbour at Isla Mujeres waiting to do the same thing.  The day before we left, we consulted with Chris Parker, a Florida based meteorologist who provides forecasts for sailors around the region.  He confirmed it was time to go, and gave us suggested way points to use in order to make the most of the currents we would encounter.

Another passage.  Yay!
There are innumerable fantastic things about living and cruising on a sailboat.  People all over the world fantasize about one day chucking it all and setting out to sea.  But Sara and I are beginning to form the opinion that the joy of passage making is one of the bigger myths in the whole sailing fantasy.  Granted, the longest passage we have completed took about three days.  The passage from Mexico back to Florida is only slightly shorter.  Maybe even longer passages are somehow more fun (although I doubt it).

The myth I am referring to is that of a beautiful, euphoric time out on the ocean, enjoying the wind and waves, the sun shining gloriously overhead, while your boat glides gently along.  I am pretty sure every TV show or commercial showing a sail boat at sea makes it look like that.  In our experience, breaking it down mathematically, passages look more like this:

60 % Boredom.  Most of the time you are pretty much just sitting there, watching the miles very slowly slip by.  There is not much to see.  Really just water and sky.  After a while, seeing a freighter 10 miles off in the distance becomes a big event that can captivate you for an hour or more.  For most of us on Monashee, it is hard to read, or watch a video, or do something else to relieve the boredom, because that usually induces sea sickness.

You can get an idea how dull it becomes based on the fact that the kids are really keen to go to bed every night, since they know when they wake up, the little picture on the GPS that shows our progress will actually appear to have moved somewhat.  So they spend a lot of the day asking us if it is time to go to bed yet, and they are very keen to take a Gravol (Dramamine) to help knock them out for the night.

As the passage wears on, the boredom starts to be replaced by general fatigue.

Oooh, something to look at!

20 % Discomfort .  This number varies a bit depending on the direction of your passage and the direction of the wind and waves.  It can be higher if you are going upwind, and lower if you are heading downwind.  Which is why when people sail around the world, they tend to take the downwind route, riding the trade winds from East to West.  On the passage from Mexico to Florida, the seas got fairly confused at times due to the different currents interacting with the shifting wind.  This added some extra bounce to the boat, which increased the discomfort.  For the most part, we try to minimize this by waiting for the right weather before we make a passage.

One important point regarding discomfort, specifically with respect to sea sickness.  On our first few overnight passages, the degree of discomfort was a lot higher.  But then we learned about the sea sickness medication Stugeron (generic name Cinnarizine) from some experienced sailors (thanks Terry and Tove!).  It has made a huge difference for all of us, essentially eliminating any sea sickness.  It is way better than the Gravol (Dramamine) that we were using, and doesn’t make us drowsy at all.  Definitely a huge improvement.

Waiting for time to pass.
15% Anxiety.  Actually, any emotion on the spectrum from anxiety right up to sheer terror can fit in this category.  But for this passage, it never really got past anxiety.  This is mostly induced by weather, usually at night.  We passed through a few squalls with lightning in them on this passage (always on my watch for some reason).  Sitting and worrying about getting struck by lightning produced some of the anxiety.  Other anxiety provoking events included big waves shaking the boat about, or weird readings from our instruments that made me go and check that everything was OK.  It always was.

5% Euphoria at sailing the open ocean, free as a bird.  Maybe less.  For me, this usually comes early in the morning, as the sun is just coming up.  It only happens on relatively calm days.  At these times, I have generally just come on watch, so am relatively rested.  On average, it lasts for probably about 15 minutes before I slip back into one of the other modes.

0.001% Dolphins!!!  Still never gets old.  We love when these guys come to visit us.

Dolphins!  Big, American dolphins!  I could watch these guys for hours.  But they never stay that long.
And that’s about it.  I’m not sure how unique that breakdown is to our crew, but having talked to other sailors, I think a lot of people feel about the same.  I think for most cruisers, the joys of cruising have more to do with the places you get, than the actual getting there.  I don’t mean to belittle the moments when the wind and sea conspire to make the boat fly along as if by magic.  Those are real.   And they're spectacular. (Nod to Seinfeld).  Just not really that common in the grand scheme of things.

Sunset at sea.  One of the spectacular moments.
Now in order to make it all look suitably glamorous, and keep the sailing fantasy alive for anyone reading this, here is a video of our passage with all the boring parts sped up, and the long nights cut out.  Enjoy.


  1. Too true.... except for the boredom part, toss in 3 kids under 4.... problem solved! I think we'll need to invest in some Stugeron. Thanks for the honesty, it's just not all beer and sunshine.

    1. Yes, the Stugeron has been a great find. It has especially made a big difference for Sara and Katie. I can't imagine how you guys manage with your 3 little ones, especially a new born! I guess at least, as you say, it keeps things from getting boring.

  2. I'm not a fan of short passages--I never kick the sea sickness, even with Stugeron. Honestly though we LOVED our South Pacific passage. Enjoyed it so much more than expected. I find we hit a really nice rhythm around day 3--and passages really do become that good.

    1. Thanks Diane, Evan and Maia. Actually, in the interest of journalistic integrity, I have to admit that we have heard the same thing from quite a few other cruisers - that passages get better somewhere after day 3. For us, the first few days have always been so sucky that we've never felt much like stretching it out longer to test that claim out. I'd be keen to give it a shot some day, but for now, the crew has threatened mutiny if I push it too far, so I am biding my time.