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Voyaging Skills interview

Mar 24, 2016

A voyaging home afloat

Jim Coolbaugh at the helm of Asylum, the Coolbaugh’s Tayana 42 during a squall on the equator.

Jim Coolbaugh at the helm of Asylum, the Coolbaugh’s Tayana 42 during a squall on the equator.

Jim & Katie Coolbaugh

Jim and Katie Coolbaugh left Annapolis, Md. in October 1999 aboard their Tayana V42, Asylum, headed for the Caribbean and parts west. Before leaving, while still employed and with the cash flow to do it, they outfitted Asylum for bluewater voyaging and comfortable living. “This is not going to be a long-term camping trip; this is our home now,” Katie declared. People always asked, “How long are you going to do this?” and the standard reply was, “Until we get all the way around or aren’t having fun anymore.” Sixteen years later — much to their amazement — they’re still at it. 

They bought the boat in 1996 and set in motion a three-year plan to ready it and themselves to go cruising: much research, reading, attending lectures by the then-cruising gurus who cycled through Annapolis, wandering the boat show to scope out outfitting options, and getting to know
Asylum by sailing the Chesapeake Bay. A two-month shakedown cruise to Maine in the summer of 1999 forced them to start the watermaker (tank-draining guests aboard), learn how to use the radar (Maine fog) and rewire a few things (wind generator and solar panels not putting out).

Prior to life as full-time live-aboards, the Coolbaughs lived in Bethesda, Md. Jim served in the U.S. Navy’s Medical Service Corps as a microbiologist, retiring after 30 years as a Captain. Katie worked in social research and program evaluation, semi-retiring when they set off. She has continued to ply her trade here and there along the way, volunteering with local NGOs to help them develop and analyze surveys, write strategic plans and design evaluations for their programs. 

Their voyaging so far has taken them down the Intracoastal Waterway from Annapolis to Florida, across to the Bahamas and down the Thorny Path to the eastern Caribbean, all the way to Trinidad and Tobago. After two north/south zigzags through the Caribbean, they spent many months in Panama’s sublime San Blas islands before transiting the Panama Canal in 2005. What was supposed to be a few weeks in Ecuador before crossing the Pacific turned into a year of exploring South America with lovely Ecuador as
Asylum’s base. In 2007 they finally crossed the Pacific to New Zealand, moving much faster than they generally like to, unable to dawdle too long in any of the tropical postcard islands in order to get to New Zealand before the onset of the South Pacific cyclone season. Heading back north from New Zealand took them through Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Palau, the Philippines, Borneo and up the Malacca Straits to Thailand.

In 16 years they’ve visited 40 countries and sailed 34,000 nautical miles, yet they’re barely halfway around. Katie is not the regular blogger she’d like to be, but there is more about all that at:

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

J&KC: The answer to this question falls into two categories: necessary attitudes and necessary how-to skills. The first is probably more important — that whole notion of being open-minded, flexible, humble and willing to learn stuff. There is a great deal of OJT (on-the-job training) to be had in voyaging. Even as I type this, Jim is in the cockpit with a fellow voyager, someone far more knowledgeable about things electrical, who is helping him diagnose and solve a problem with a cantankerous transformer. Jim has become quite adept at dealing with most things on the boat, but every once in a while he has to raise a white flag and call in the Marines. Most of the time, however, we just sit and figure it out ourselves; sometimes through trial and error, sometimes with a manual on the floor next to us. My job often is to ask the “stupid questions” — “Could a hose be blocked?” or “What if you moved that thing the other way?” or “Would a bottle cap work?” We call it the “out of the mouths of babes” principle of diagnosis and repair. You have to be open-minded, flexible, humble and willing to try new stuff to apply it.

Asylum at anchor at Ao Po, Marquesas.

Jim & Katie Coolbaugh

As for the second category, skills, many of those will accrue from a willingness to ask for help and learning as you go, but at a minimum a voyager should start out with basic seamanship skills and some basic knowledge of the various systems on the boat — engine, plumbing, electrical, rigging — to keep it running. And weather, even if just to understand the implications of someone else’s forecast. 

“Good seamanship” may seem too obvious a skill to mention, but we’ve seen enough of the other kind — bad seamanship — over the years to make it noteworthy. One of our early cruising friends didn’t buy boat insurance, he said, because “my good seamanship is my insurance.” Although I didn’t fully understand it at the time, I have come to both understand and appreciate what he meant. Being able to dock, anchor and get your boat around a reef or sand bar are all part of “good seamanship” and among the top skills voyagers need to know. Nothing gives us the shudders like a careless anchoring job by the boat next to us. We have been known to pick up ours and move away from a risky neighbor, especially if the weather is even a bit blowy. Everybody drags or goes aground at some point, but you want those unfortunate moments to be rare and the result of bad luck, not bad seamanship. 

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

J&KC: When you live on a boat, pretty much all decisions are weather driven, from the micro (when will this squall pass so we can get back on course?), to the local (how long will this low sit over us churning up wind and seas?), to the regional (when will the trades fill in?), to the global (when and where are the monsoon/typhoon/cyclone seasons around the world?). Because we consider a “voyage” anything from a day-hop to a long landless ocean crossing, weather is always the first consideration in the voyage-planning routine. 

Much of the heavy lifting for global voyage planning has long-since been done. Jimmy Cornell can tell you the best time to go anywhere in the world. Even with changing weather patterns there’s an abundance of advice and information available on numerous voyaging websites about current and changing conditions and their implications. At sea, we keep track of the weather with GRIB files downloaded via Winlink or regular radio contact with other boats, all sharing and reporting their conditions. In port, we find the most reliable marine weather source, often the National Weather Service or other weather websites and apps like Windfinder or Windguru that provide local forecasts.

Assuming all the weather issues are sorted, then there’s boat and crew preparedness to consider. Is everything on the boat ship-shape? Are all the systems working? No known lingering problems? The same goes for the crew: Are you psychologically prepared to set off, especially if it’s a long voyage? Although we didn’t actively say to each other, “Honey, I’m not ready to cross the Pacific this year,” when we look back on the fact that it was seven years before we actually did, we admitted that there was probably an element of truth to the question of readiness. That, and the fact that we were having a blast in Panama and the rest of South America! Even for shorter hops, if we’re tired or have the slightest hesitation about whether it’s a good time to go, we don’t. 

Finally, it’s the little things, like planning the departure time to ensure arrival — especially in a new place — in daylight, at the right tide, when the officials will be there, etc. For long voyages you can’t really plan with that much precision, but for shorter ones — overnighters or a couple of days — you can time arrivals to within a few daylight hours. We usually plan our voyaging time at 5.5 knots, not blistering speed but realistic, and hope to do better. We figure it’s easier to slow down a sailboat than speed it up, so we estimate conservatively and wait a bit at our destination if we’ve had the good fortune to have a good fast sail. 

Jim and Katie showing off a new dinghy cover.

Jim & Katie Coolbaugh

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

J&KC: Making do. Which is a short way of saying being flexibly ingenious.

Whether it’s for a recipe or a boat project, we often find ourselves saying, “What will work in place of …?” In many of the places we’ve visited, perhaps most of them, it’s not as though we can run to the store to get what we need. Figuring out how to cobble something together or make something work again without the actual part you need is both very satisfying and liberating. 

Making do also means getting by with less stuff, which is also very liberating. The voyaging life quickly reveals priorities and necessities and all the rest soon falls away, largely un-missed. Making do also makes you a better planner over time. After a while, as you figure out what those priorities and necessities are, you know the kinds of things to watch for and accumulate, like good stainless hose clamps and screws, sun-tolerant wire ties, little plumbing bits, Dijon mustard…

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

J&KC: If we were to look for a crewmember it would be competence and compatibility. But we’ve never taken crew aboard, even on the long Pacific crossing, which is the only time we considered it. We actually talked about it for some time and finally decided that if we were to have someone make that long trip with us — and we only wanted one other body on board — it would only be someone we trusted to handle the boat and stand watch (the competence part), and knew really well and got along with (the compatibility part). We narrowed it down to two old sailing buddies from our Chesapeake days, but neither had the flexibility to commit for that long a trip, especially with loose start and end dates. So we did it alone, figuring lots of other couples had made that crossing just fine. In the end, we’re glad we did it that way. It was worth trading a more demanding watch schedule (which you get used to) for not having to be nice all the time when you feel really tired and cranky. 

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

J&KC: For sure it’s changed since the time of voyagers like Magellan and Columbus, but for voyagers like us, who set off with the ability — if rudimentary by today’s standards — to communicate at sea, the experience of voyaging itself hasn’t changed that much. The ability to communicate has just gotten a lot easier.

Asylum transiting the Panama Canal.

Jim & Katie Coolbaugh

When we left the east coast of the U.S. in October 1999, in addition to an SSB radio, we had the PinOak system for email communications. It was slow, character-priced and expensive. More extensive communication occurred when we made landfall and found a working pay phone or Internet cafe, but at least we could send and receive messages at sea. Columbus could never do that. Next came Sailmail and Winlink, both boons to voyagers’ connectivity at sea because, even though they were still fairly slow, as those networks evolved there was extensive access and you could send a fully formed thought. We still use Winlink when we’re on the high seas. 

When we were preparing to cross the Pacific, the big debate was whether to invest in a satellite phone. Though expensive, it gave the family and us a sense of added security, and if we couldn’t get a radio signal for Winlink we could always go through the satphone to send the message. When we were in an isolated anchorage in northern Tonga, a friend learned via Sailmail that her father had died. We gave her our satphone to call and talk to her family. If something were to happen at sea, we could use the satphone rather than have to rely on the SSB, whose antenna would be in the water if the mast had come down. Columbus could never do that. 

The explosion of cellphone technology and availability has probably been the most dramatic change to modern voyagers’ ability to communicate. Now, from country to country, we pop SIM cards in and out of our smartphones right along with changing the courtesy flag. Starting prepaid voice and data plans is the first thing we all do after clearing in. With cell towers sprouting like saplings everywhere, coastal cruising and gunkholing with a smartphone on board can mean staying connected all the time. As I’ve chatted online with family while underway I’ve often wondered, “Wow, what would Columbus think of that?”

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

J&KC: When we were preparing to go cruising we attended a lecture by the legendary and venerable voyager Alvah Simon. One of the two things we remember (and often quote) from his presentation was that the single most dangerous piece of equipment on a sailboat is a calendar. We proved this to be utterly true in our first naive months out as we raced along the notorious Thorny Path from Florida to the U.S. Virgin Islands to meet friends in St. John for Christmas. What a dreadful mistake! Not only were we hammered many times along this route as we convinced ourselves it wasn’t “that bad” to leave, we also sailed right by lovely places where we otherwise surely would have stopped and lingered. But we learned our lesson and have never voyaged with a schedule again. We won’t even do rallies because of their need to adhere to schedules. 

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

J&KC: This may sound a bit strange, but the most challenging part of ocean voyaging is quelling the “what if?” worries. What if we hit something? What if the rig falls down? What if the rudder falls off? What if the weather gets really bad?

Jim and Katie with the caretaker and his family at remote Suwarrow Atoll, Cook Islands.

Jim & Katie Coolbaugh

Ugly weather on an ocean voyage for sure can be challenging. But once you’re out there, especially if it’s a long voyage and there’s no turnaround option, you just deal with it. Knowing we have a well-found boat that’s in good condition and well maintained gives us great confidence, if not always great comfort, in rough conditions. Our bad weather experiences have been uncomfortable and tedious but fortunately not dangerous. If we’re being tossed around (what we call “Maytag moments”) and finding it hard to get in a comfortable position, I just build a nest with pillows and cushions and wedge myself in. And then I remind myself of the reassuring words from an article I read early in our cruising days: A sailboat will scare you to death long before it kills you. The key is to de-stress the boat: If the sails are conservatively set and the angle to the seas carefully adjusted (even as far as heaving to), both boat and crew will be much happier.

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

J&KC: Even after 16 years living aboard we still shop as if we’re never going to see another grocery store, so there’s always plenty — in fact, way too much — food on Asylum. We’ve never been terribly systematic planners for passage provisioning. Basically it’s fill the fridge, cupboards and water tanks (and make sure the watermaker is functioning).

At the end of our first year out, we were in Trinidad where a very earnest group of voyagers was planning for the next year’s Pacific crossing season. In addition to regular “captains’ meetings” to discuss routes, weather and charts, the mates also met to swap recipes and plan meals, including things to bake and freeze ahead of time. I found this degree of galley planfulness so many months in advance all rather intimidating and, perhaps, part of the reason it took us another seven years to get around to making that passage ourselves.
In fact, we do take two things into consideration for stuffing the cupboards: how long we will be at sea and what will likely be available at our destination. The second part is often the more important consideration. You may make a short voyage of a few days to spend weeks where there is little or nothing available. 

For actual passagemaking, we estimate the number of days we’ll be at sea, add in a slow-boat or bad-weather factor, and then count the number of breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snack-times that need to be covered. We are lucky that neither of us gets seasick, but we’ve also found that we don’t get very hungry out there either, so a little goes a long way. If we expect the conditions to be rather benign, we’ll prepare “normal” (if a bit smaller) meals underway. If we’re expecting or encounter more boisterous conditions along the way, we’ll plan on things like beans and rice or other easy, make-as-you-go dog bowl dishes. Occasionally, if I’m really organized and there’s room in the fridge, I may make a favorite soup or stew ahead of time. But usually we make it up as we go along. Lots of peanut butter sandwiches. We always hope to catch fish along the way, but don’t count on it and usually just lose lures. Sometimes, though, we do! 

OV:Who or what inspired you to go voyaging?

J&KC: We sailed the Chesapeake for years, spending as many weekends and holidays as we could gunkholing our way around that wonderful bay. After learning to sail on a friend’s Santana 21, we bought our own first boat, a lovely little Catalina 25, and continued to hone our sailing skills. Next came two Hunters, a 33 and 34. Bareboat charters in the Virgin and San Juan Islands fueled the fires and subscriptions to sailing and cruising magazines kept them burning. I vividly remember a photo in one of them of a woman lazily reading in the cockpit, sails full and by, blue sky and azure water all around, and thinking, “I could definitely handle that…” 

Then one year we spent the Christmas holidays with friends on their boat in the eastern Caribbean. They were already down there full time, live-aboard cruisers. It was a perfect (and highly recommended) way to sample the life. As we flew back to snow-bound Washington from our tropical loafing, we talked about what we’d experienced, the people we’d met, the places we’d seen and how different it was from being hotel-based tourists. I remember asking Jim, “So, what do you think, is this something we’d like to do?” and then later, saying to him, “I don’t want to wake up when I’m 85, a doddering old fool in a nursing home, and say, ‘Damn, I wish we’d gone cruising.’”

OV: What are your future voyaging plans?

J&KC: This is a timely question for us and in fact I wrote a recent blog on this very topic (“Decisions, decisions…” The short answer is: We don’t know. Among voyagers like us without a firm timetable this is a fairly typical answer, but it’s a hot topic of discussion among those of us eventually aiming for the east coast of the U.S. or the Mediterranean. Sitting here in Malaysia, as we are now, just over the halfway point in a meandering circumnavigation, the question on our and everyone else’s mind is: How do we get back? The obvious traditional route up the Red Sea has been a bit dicey in recent years, the trip around South Africa is never easy and the cost to ship the boat to the Med is always high. For now we have postponed that big decision and will continue to explore Southeast Asia.

Edit Module

Old to new | New to old
Jun 27, 2017 01:55 pm
 Posted by  Cathy K.

Jim and Katie - Happy 4th 2017. Keep in touch.

Cathy and Dick

Sep 1, 2017 09:30 pm
 Posted by  Tammi Johnson

Hello Jim and Katie,

I would like to know if you have a personal contact on Arundel/Kohinngo Island in the Solomons. This is in regard to research I've done for years on my great-uncle's ship sunk in the Kula Gulf, the USS STRONG DD 467. Arundel was where one of the men spent 39 days evading the Japanese before being rescued. There are things about the island I'd like to learn and it would be wonderful to have someone to email. Any help would be appreciated.

Tammi Johnson

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