Several summers ago, I went to visit my brother and his wife who were hard at work aboard their catamaran in Morehead City, North Carolina, trying to get the boat ready to begin their first cruising that fall.
Like most boats that were in the thick of projects, the boat was in disarray with lockers open and the crew was feeling stressed.
The project list was long and Margaret was very worried that they might not even make it out cruising this year.
Margaret wanted to just GO, and she wasn’t very happy that her new home looked like the storage closet in a West Marine.
Ken wanted everything to be right and shipshape and properly installed. Major stress.
“Where is your project list?” I asked. They did have one, although there were many important jobs that hadn’t made it to the list.
“And what are your cruising plans?”
- They planned to travel down the intracoastal waterway with some passages out in the Atlantic and make their way before Christmas to Marathon in the Florida Keys.
- They would spend a month in the Keys, then cross over to the Bahamas.
- After a winter in the Bahamas, they would return to the US for hurricane season, and then sail to the Caribbean the following autumn.
Okay, so now let’s start THREE LISTS:
- Things that ABSOLUTELY MUST BE DONE before we can sail south.
- Things that we MUST DO before sailing to the Bahamas, and that we could do during our month in Marathon.
- Things that we COULD do next hurricane season in the US before we set sail for the Caribbean.
List number 1 MUST include those projects that are necessary to safely sail, motor and anchor their way south to Florida.
Ironically, often these safety and maintenance projects haven’t made it to a list.
- Charts, lights, anchoring gear, sailing, reefing and preventing systems need to be installed and tested.
- Often, there are nagging problems with equipment that you keep wishing would just fix themselves – you suspect the ship’s batteries might be shot but, living at the dock, you never test them in a way to know for sure.
- You have had some fuel or overheating problems with the main engine or the generator.
- Pulling up the anchor is almost impossible because the chain piles in a pyramid and blocks the haws pipe.
- Why is it so difficult to furl in the jib? How exactly do you reef? The rigging should be inspected.
Plus all the administrative and paperwork tasks, especially if you will be traveling to another country: documentation, passports, insurance, pet vaccinations. Etc, etc, etc.
Think long and hard about what must be on this list. List number 1 will also require you to do some sailing and take shake-down cruises. You must test your systems and find out what works and doesn’t!
Don’t let yourself start putting the fun sexy projects, the new gear you’d love to have, on List number 1 until you have all the truly, truly essential items noted.
Review List 1.
Can you get those items done in time to leave this season? Hopefully, the answer is yes. BUT DO THEM FIRST. Because as you know, boat projects almost always take lots longer than you think.
Okay, now go down your original list, and add items to your new lists 1, 2 and 3.
Remember, you will have much more experience under your belt by the time you reach Florida, and certainly by the time you return to the US next spring, and you may have better ideas at that point about exactly what and how to install new equipment.
You will have had a season’s worth of happy hours to discuss boat stuff with other cruisers and learn from them as well about what works and doesn’t. You may avoid some costly mistakes by putting off some installation projects right now and saving them for next season.
As you make out your lists, research what you will have available at your next stopping point.
For example, down in Marathon, Florida, you will have access to chandleries, hardware stores, shipping services, supermarkets, mail service, car rental. You CAN work on your love-to-have list in Marathon, if you aren’t having too much fun to bother.
In fact, you will probably revise your lists somewhat while you are in Marathon – again prioritizing the items that ABSOLUTELY MUST BE DONE before you cross the Gulf Stream and sail into a different cruising environment with much less access to marine supplies and technicians.
And you will probably make another three lists the next summer as you prioritize those items you MUST DO before sailing down to the Caribbean.
Here is another scenario when making three lists becomes very important: Leaving Europe and preparing to cross the Atlantic to the Caribbean.
Often sailors will cruise Europe, then sail to the Canary Islands, finish their preparations, then cross the Atlantic in December or January.
So often, I have seen cruisers arrive in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands without having really thought through what they will NEED for crossing the Atlantic.
Their project list is so long that they have been distracted by all the “wouldn’t it be nice” items, and haven’t noted down or planned for the essentials.
Here is an example of the THREE LISTS you might prepare for this scenario:
- Things that absolutely must be done before leaving mainland Europe (with access to mail and freight service, well-stocked chandleries, marine technicians) – and that must be done to safely sail from Spain to the Canaries, and then across the Atlantic
- Things that absolutely must be done before crossing the Atlantic, but can be done in the Canary Islands.
- Things that could be done after arriving in the Caribbean.
Here, availability of parts, supplies and technicians becomes more important when making out the lists.
Although there are chandleries and marine professionals in the Canary Islands, they are much more limited than in major European sailing ports.
You may not be able to get flares, a boom preventer, liferaft certification, generator, autopilot or watermaker parts, etc etc etc!
You might not be able to find someone who can diagnose the problem with your autopilot, generator, watermaker, sideband radio or charging system.
And getting parts shipped in is not as easy any more either. Waiting for parts delays many an Atlantic crossing. Sometimes cruisers resort to flying crew home to get what they can’t find locally.
So your List number 1 needs to include longer shake-down passages BEFORE you leave Europe so that you can find out what doesn’t work and make repairs while access to marine services is still good.
Worse, cruisers often begin their Atlantic crossing from the Canaries without ever getting around to the most important projects.
A few very common examples:
- Beginning a three-week downwind sail without any way to prevent the boom from jibing, or without ever having rigged the downwind sails.
- Not having either a working sideband radio or satellite phone to get weather underway.
- Autopilot that won’t steer the boat.
- Inability to charge the batteries sufficiently.
- Bilge pumps that don’t work.
Ken and Margaret did make, use and revise those three lists as they began their first year of cruising.
They noticed that one important item for List number 1 was to get the charts and cruising guides and to research the route they would follow traveling south.
Margaret took that important project to heart and learned about the tides and currents, the low bridges and the safe inlets along their route south. When to travel inside and when to take the offshore route, how to play the currents and tides. By the time they left, Margaret was quite prepared to navigate them south.
And they did negotiate over those lists. Both Ken and Margaret placed items on List 1 and 2 that, though not essential, were important to them – items that made the boat home, that made cruising more enjoyable.
Five years later, Margaret reflects on that first year: “What a lifesaver your visit, and list-separating, turned out to be. It was early November before we got out of there, but we got out We still use that same list, it’s just much, much longer now and has pages and pages of items marked as completed. It’s kind of fun to look back over 5 years of projects…and the beginning 3 lists.”
YOUR lists will vary according to your cruising plans, the difficulty of the various legs of your voyage, the opportunities to get parts and professional help along the way.
But if you are starting out and feeling anxious that you might not get out cruising, or that you might get out there and have forgotten something important, make three lists!