Cruising means different things to different cruisers, but all cruising shares the following characteristics: living on the boat, traveling, extended periods of time (more than a week or two). To reduce fuel expense, the most common cruising boat is a sailboat.

Cruisers on the East coast of North America commonly visit the north (e.g. Maine, Newfoundland) in warmer months and travel south on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) as far as the Bahamas in the winter. The Cheseapeake Bay is also a very popular crusing area. It is especially good for Gunkholling, a form of cruising where each night one anchors in a different location. The Chesapeake, particular the Northern part is rich in gunkholes. Also the Cheseapeake Bay forms the central part of the ICW. On the west coast, a popular route alternates the Gulf of California in winter with the islands of Washington state and British Colombia in the summer. The Baltic Sea has terrifying equinoxial storms in the winter, but in the summer the coasts of Sweden and Finland have thousands of beautiful islands with well-marked channels. The Netherlands, the northern Mediterranean, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Australia, and the South Pacific Islands are other favored destinations with mild or predictable weather.

Many cruisers are "long term" and travel for many years, the most adventurous circling the globe over a period of five to ten years. Many others take a year or two off from work and school for short trips and the chance to experience the cruising lifestyle.

Due to the transient nature of cruising, Cruisers form their own community. Cruisers commonly, upon anchoring in a new area, will stop by nearby boats (in their dinghy) to introduce themselves and say "hello". The classic icebreaker is to hail a boat in an anchorage and ask "where there's good holding?" Many cruisers leaving an area are happy to trade charts with boats going in the opposite direction.

Table of contents
1 Problems
2 How to start
3 Equipment & tips
4 Further Reading


Money is the number-one problem. Conservative cruisers have several years of savings, and plan to work about one quarter a year. Most have or acquire skills that sell easily in many parts of the world, such as nursing, doctor or dentist, accounting, boat-maintenance handyman, sail-maker, welder or diesel mechanic. Some cruisers make a little money shipping wines, jewelry and the like, but most can't compete with large commercial firms. Smuggling and other illegal incomes cause people to lose their boats. In 2002, very cost-conscious no-frills cruisers could maintain two people and a 28-foot boat on U.S. $1000/mo. This rate roughly doubled when in a port, partying with other cruisers.

Mail is often received this way: Have all your mail sent to one address. Have all the junk mail removed, and have your mail-receiver send the rest in one package to a yacht club on one's itinerary. Yacht clubs are better than post offices because they know that cruisers can be delayed, and do not return the mail after 30 days. The single-package assures that you receive all of your mail, or none of it.

Getting money from a distant bank can be painful, sometimes taking up to 3 weeks for a check or letter-of-credit to clear. It helps to be in a large city, and bank at a large bank in a famous city of your home country. Get money no more often than every six months, as small, $10 traveler's checks. Perform haul-outs, bottom painting and other maintenance while waiting for the money. Also, plan to wait somewhere pleasant and inexpensive.

How to start

Try it out in little steps. Many people are attracted to the romance of cruising, but find that they dislike the reality.

First, take a class in sailing. This will teach you the basics, and you'll see if you like to sail at all.

Next, buy a small dinghy (6-11 feet) with sails. Sail it regularly. If you keep wishing you could go farther, you might be a real cruiser.

Next, crew on a yacht, just for fun. Local yacht clubs often have boats looking for crew. It helps if you're a good cook, or good company. Try to get references, and look the boat over. Look for bad maintenance or safety problems. If you see any, go later with someone else. Never give your return plane ticket, passport or emergency money to other crew or the captain. Consider taking your own GPS so you can detect unspoken deviations from the itinerary.

Take a class in celestial navigation. GPS works, but careful navigators use a belt & suspenders approach: They keep a continuous dead-reckoning track using a compass and a distance-measurement device called a log, and use coastal landmarks, GPS and celestial navigation to correct it. Careful navigation is needed to avoid stormy areas, shoals and other hazards. Currents can carry you into these without any warning, unless you navigate carefully.

Enjoyed the crewing? Buy a small boat, maybe 30 feet. This is small enough that you can handle it yourself, and big enough to take a family or your mate to anywhere in the world. Big boats are much more work; many rich people buy a big boat, and eventually sell it and get a smaller one because they are more fun.

Abandoned yachts are for sale cheaply in many distant places like the Panama Canal, Gibralter, and Singapore- check the gossip. This happens because many people really do not like cruising, and thought they would.

Introduce your family to sailing with the most pleasant cruise you can arrange! Share the planning so everybody buys in to the trip. Share the chores fairly, among everyone (captain takes a turn!). After they're hooked, send your significant other to a class (your relationship will thank you). Let the others take your dinghy out alone so they can love sailing, too. Teach everyone how to manage all the parts of the boat. This way they can get around even if you get sick. Women follow instruction well, and often make wonderful navigators. The small 30-foot boat will have easy equipment, well within a woman's strength.

Equipment & tips

There are two rather different schools concerning equipment:

1. I'm on vacation. Give me every comfort there is. I can afford it, and I can find a good mechanic.

2. I want to stay on vacation. I want the simplest boat I can get, so it will keep working (so I can go), and cost less (so I can stay away longer).

There are some areas of agreement. In general, try to arrange your boat to be safe, and so heavy weather or a faulty engine are interesting adventures rather than disasters:

Here are some major comforts, eschewed by minimalists; the trade-offs are given in the way they look on the water. If there's a compromise, it's presented after the extremes:
  • Air conditioning. Even most power boats can't afford this. The cruise ships are painted white to minimize the load, and built as floating generator plants: They actually run their propulsion as a minor load off the air-conditioning circuit. A few sailing yachts (the Albin Vega is the only mass-produced type with this feature) have a system that circulates air from the cockpit, past the sea-cooled hull, where it cools and condenses excess humidity into the bilges, into the front of the cabin. In the Vega, the air circulation is driven by solar heat on the hollow mast, and a wind-powered ventilator on the rear cabin top. Vegas are said to be 5 degrees cooler than outside in most summer areas. Everybody else rigs canvas sunshades and a fabric windscoop over the forward hatch.
  • A bigger boat- gives you room for all your stuff, and you can have big parties! Alas, you probably will have a terrible time trying to get crew who want to go where you want to go, unless you pay them. Also, in the U.S. many marinas charge $50 per foot per month. The price of the boat, and its maintenance costs, go up as the cube of its waterline length (it's the volume that costs, not the length). Think really hard before you get anything much over 35 feet.
  • A hot shower- The problem here is that a real hot shower requires a real on-board waterworks powered from the engine, with watermaker ($2300 in 2002), water storage tank ($200), pressurisation pump & tank ($400), water heater ($300), assorted plumbing- ($1000), ($4500 total), for a small system. A dripping faucet can cost quite a bit of diesel fuel. However, a hot shower is desperately missed even by most minimalists, who often rig solar-powered showers, and smugly mention the thousands of dollars they saved. For those who cannot commit on this issue, there are little sit-down showers with hand-pressurized tanks that can be filled from a kettle or a solar water heater. Everyone carries a kettle, washbasin and pitcher.
  • A watermaker- envied by minimalists... who compensate by carrying a multiple-hundred gallon freshwater tank in the space where your boat has an engine (they call it "freshwater ballast"). An expensive compromise is to run a small watermaker off a solar panel or windmill, just to keep the tanks topped-off, and provide emergency water. Always have two sources of water for a cruise (two tanks, if nothing else).
  • A refrigerator- iced beer is an amazing luxury in the tropics. Minimalists grit their teeth and smile thinking grimly of the extra half year they will be able to stay on vacation with the money they saved by not having a refrigerator. Everybody has an icebox, but ice, if it exists in the local economy at all, is probably only available at the fishing boat service pier. The Eastern Mediterranean, Mexico, South America, and Indian Ocean rarely have bulk ice available at any price. In the U.S. fill the box with dry ice and you can have colder stuff longer.
  • Washer and dryer for clothes. The water-works problem, plus a washer and dryer problem. You're clean, and the minimalist is negotiating with a local washerwoman. This is a toss-up. Laundry is a wonderful excuse to meet and mildly enrich locals. Many people have had success with large sealed buckets towed in the wake, or rocked on the stern. In good weather it's easy to rig clotheslines.
  • A dishwasher- the water-works problem, but you're watching a video instead of doing dishes. Everybody hates doing the dishes. Minimalists lose crew if the rotation is unfair. There's just got to be some trick with dishes in towed buckets of soapy water...
  • A barbecue- There are little stainless-steel gas barbecues that clamp to a lifeline stanchion. In the tropics you can cook outside, which is much cooler. If you like the idea, the only downside is the rather large amount of fuel they use.
  • A stereo/video system. The minimalist is in town dancing the lambada with the locals- what are you thinking? A little boom-box that plugs into the boat's 12V power eases life for music addicts. With nubile crew in bikinis, this can inspire heartening amounts of envy in locals.
  • Radar and imaging sonar- genuine, though expensive safety equipment, when it works. Try to minimize through-hull connections, connectors, wires and moving parts. Silicone grease in and around connectors can prevent salt-water corrosion and shorting. Some masters actually put a packing gland around the connectors and fill it with silicone grease, which is less extreme than it sounds after you've replaced the connectors twice.
  • A SSB marine radio, or amateur radio rig- very handy when you get tired of talking to your crewmates. There are insulators and antenna tuners to use standing rigging as the antenna. You have to have a license. The safety advantage is minimal now that EPIRBs exist. The minimalist loves his wife, plans short passages, talks to the locals and carries a short rack of great books...
  • Satellite phones (most often Inmarsat or Iridium). The phones cost from a thousand (hand-held Iridium) to twenty thousand (Gyrostabilized permanently mounted Inmarsat), and the calls cost $3/minute. The minimalist will wait seven hours for the overseas phone call to go through from Bora-Bora. If you need this, cruising might be a drag for you- just to see, why not charter a few adventures before you buy a boat? A virtuous compromise is Orbcomm e-mail. Orbcomm has satellites in low earth orbit and charges about $30/month. Delivery is a few times a day. Magellan makes a hand-held e-mail terminal for Orbcomm, for about $1000. You can even get e-mailed weather reports if you give your position! If your aunt Minnie can't manage a computer on the Internet, Orbcomm can handle TDY (deaf teletype) calls.

Further Reading