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Voyaging Skills interview

Mar 25, 2015

A voyaging couple who are multihull nomads

Sue and Ed Kelly

Sue and Ed Kelly

Ed Kelly photos

Sue and Ed Kelly have spent most of their adult lives (before cruising) in Iowa. Both were originally raised in small towns far from any large bodies of water. They are grandparents who relish having their grandchildren visit them aboard their cruising cat, Angel Louise, a 40-foot Catalac Catamaran. Almost all of their cruising — which has been continuous during the last eight years — has been while double-handing their boat.

Sue worked as a registered nurse, and later as a nurse practitioner before she retired to embark with Ed on a cruising lifestyle. She and Ed are licensed by the USCG as merchant marine officers for carrying up to six passengers on uninspected vessels. Sue and Ed also received licenses from the Royal Yachting Association in the U.K. with power and sail ratings for inland and offshore operation of sail and motor vessels as part of their International Certificate of Competence for EU boating. 

Their boating took them from Georgia to London in mid-2011. While in Europe from 2011 through the end of 2014, they became the first sailors to complete a circumnavigation of Europe on their catamaran (lowering the mast for journeys through northern and eastern European waters), leaving from London via the North Sea to the Black Sea (using international rivers and international waterways), and from there transiting the Bosporus and Dardanelles through Turkey and Greece, continuing through the Mediterranean and around the Iberian Peninsula, and crossing the Bay of Biscay and English Channel to London. They returned to the Americas in a 25-day crossing.

Ed’s Twitter biography summarizes his interests: full-time cruiser-sailor, explorer, diver, IFR pilot, trial lawyer, early tech adopter, citizen activist, former Federal and Iowa prosecutor, and U.S. Senate staffer. In 2006 Ed took early retirement from government, sold their Des Moines, Iowa, home and auctioned all the non-boating “stuff” they had accumulated in a lifetime. With the proceeds, they bought a 1987 British-built Catalac 40 Catamaran and launched a career as live-aboard cruisers and explorers. In the last eight years Sue and Ed have visited 48 countries on the shores of five continents.

The Kelly’s 40-foot catamaran Angel Louise under sail.

OV: What are the top skills voyagers need to know?

S&EK: Voyagers have to learn patience. Voyagers must not try to force their journey into a set amount of time. They must learn to patiently await the good weather that will come. It is harder for those who have chartered vessels, but it can result in removing the joy of voyaging very fast if not observed. We have seen many boats come to grief when the skipper or owner wanted to get somewhere NOW or by a set date, resulting in damage to gear and putting lives at additional risk.

Voyagers have to learn communication skills (both personal and mechanics of comms aboard). When in foreign ports, voyagers need understanding of the local population’s language and culture — mañana does not always mean tomorrow, sometimes just “not today.” Many foreign cultures do not want to ever say no, so you cannot effectively communicate. It causes great frustration to those who are not prepared. It is also crucial to equip for effective communication with those back home or elsewhere who can help supply the voyager with crucial parts or supplies unavailable on their voyage.

Voyagers should have a skill for weather comprehension — even if they do not have a skill for forecasting. Voyagers need to know the trends and patterns of the weather in the area they are voyaging and have resources to get updates on the water so they can stay safe and comfortable afloat.

Voyagers should have knowledge of mechanical items and hopefully some fix-it skills. Voyagers will be faced sooner rather than later with balky equipment and systems. It is crucial to know how to get going without having to spend time in port searching for help.

OV: What is your planning routine prior to a voyage?

S&EK: On Angel Louise our planning routine is do early and frequent checks of the weather where we desire to cruise.

We try to assess if there is any critical area in which our boat needs maintenance. We rely on advice from other cruisers and also from interactive Internet resources to select cruising locations and limitations before leaving. Without that time and effort, we find we can end up replicating a “ready, fire, aim” scenario.

We still try to be spontaneous. We endeavor to have a full complement of electronic charts for both our Raymarine chartplotter and our backup chartplotters (iPad and MacBook Pro) both in system and charts for possible areas we may navigate.

OV: What is the most valuable skill you have picked up while voyaging?

S&EK: Patience. When you are dependent on seas and weather, there is no substitute for patience. You also have to develop patience for the schedules that the folks in the place you are cruising observe. You become the “Ugly American” if you try to force your standards and schedules on others. It has been crucial to learn we are guests in the host country.

Angel Louise in Greece’s Corinth Canal.

OV:What skills do you most look for in a crewmember?

S&EK: We are double-handers, so we seldom have crew. But we think that compatibility must be first, second and third on any list. The even-tempered and even-keeled crew can make the voyage fun. We have had friends who took on crew where the parties were not compatible in habit and outlook, and it turned what should be a joyful time into hell. Your crew is so close to you during a voyage it is essential that there be compatibility.

OV: Do you think the experience of voyaging has changed now that voyagers can stay more connected at sea?

S&EK: The experience has definitely changed with time, now that instant contact with others is available. Voyagers have to be careful to reach out to the local populations where they cruise and not exclusively live in a cocoon with other similar cruisers and their at-home families. Some of the instant communications keep cruisers on their own boats plying the Internet with their backs to the world where they are, when they should be exploring.

OV: Does the pressure to stay on a schedule sometimes contribute to you taking risks with bad weather?

S&EK: We try not to cruise on any schedule. Living 24/7 on a boat gives us a great advantage. We still find ourselves enticed to tempt the weather gods. Invariably, full-time and part-time cruisers violate the rule that visitors can either pick a time or a place, but not both. When it is necessary to sail on a schedule — to arrive at a certain place for visitors or to facilitate crew changes or flight reservations — you flirt with adding factors into the decision-making that increase risks. 

“Get-there-itis” is a leading cause of folks trying to push themselves and their vessels into places they would not be if they took proper time; it puts them at risk for encountering adverse conditions or more dangerous weather than should be undertaken.

OV: What do you find most challenging about ocean voyaging?

S&EK: We find the most challenging aspect is preparing for bad weather and squalls. We have had one insurance claim five years ago for a near strike by lightning. It caused significant damage on our boat. We know that when we go on very long passages, storms and squalls may be on the path we take. It causes us significant worry.

Angel Louise from atop the mast.

OV: How do you handle provisioning? Do you have a system for determining the amount of food and water needed for a voyage?

S&EK: Since we choose to double-hand when cruising, we have found that non-traditional provisioning suits our needs best. We have a watermaker to ensure sufficient good water. When we are on longer passages we avoid extensive galley-made meals. We both enjoy selecting foods that are easy to store, access and consume while offshore. We are partial to ham, cheeses, fresh popped popcorn, as well as snack foods of all kinds that satisfy hunger and any caffeine needs of the watch stander. We always have someone on watch in the cockpit all night long; food is important to the one on watch for staying alert late at night.

OV: Who or what inspired you to go voyaging?

S&EK: Ed originally was the motivating partner. Beth Leonard told us once that every cruising couple needs one person who motivates the couple to travel and another person who is conservative and cautious. We have that, and it works. We both like the sense of freedom, discovery and adventure voyaging gives to our lives. Ed was originally fascinated with the explorers of the oceans of old, and the dream of seeing distant shores fueled his wish to travel by boat as a live-aboard explorer. Living on our own wits without strings attached creates the sense of being pioneers. That sense of being pioneers means cruisers have a bond with one another that is not felt anywhere else. Cruising still remains a bastion of freedom for folks who desire to stretch their vision and their abilities.

OV: What are your future voyaging plans?

S&EK: Our future voyaging is still unlimited. In between writing and speaking, our cruising is likely to include further forays up and down the Eastern Seaboard of North America as well as future cruises to Cuba and other Caribbean islands. We are migratory nomads on a boat. We have enjoyed being able to see many parts of the world, but even though we have traveled extensively for eight years now, we still find ourselves having to say, “We’ll come back here sometime.”

We never seem to have enough time to do all or see all that we want to. Too often we find ourselves passing by locations we would like to explore further. So we intend to continue being mobile in constant cruising from place to place and finding new ports and new friends that are out there.

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