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Voyaging Skills interview

Mar 30, 2017

Learning a little bit about everything

Patrick and Rebecca Childress at the helm of Brick House.

Patrick and Rebecca Childress at the helm of Brick House.

Patrick Childress

Growing up in Miami, Fla., Patrick spent countless summer days constructing wood and fiberglass power and sailboats for exploring the inland waterways of southwest Florida and eventually venturing out to the Florida Keys and Bahamas. With a basic boating background, at age 28 Patrick sailed away from Miami in early January 1979 on a Catalina 27, intent on completing a solo circumnavigation of the world. That voyage took Patrick three years to cross his outbound tracks in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Patrick’s writing and photography has been published in most U.S. and many foreign boating magazines. He also co-authored the book Cruising Guide to Narragansett Bay and the South Coast of Massachusetts. Patrick worked in St. Thomas as a professional boat captain before moving back to the U.S. and operating a home improvement business in Newport, R.I. At least twice a year he has made time to deliver a yacht from New England to the Caribbean in the fall and make the return trips in the spring. In June 2007, Patrick retired to cruise a second time around the world on Brick House, a 1976 Valiant 40.

Rebecca Childress (formerly Rebecca Taft) is an accomplished sailor as well. She has owned many boats ranging from a 17-foot MacGregor, a Catalina 27, a 36 Catalina and now the Valiant 40 that she purchased a few years before meeting Patrick. (Lucky Patrick, eh?)

Before they headed out on their circumnavigation, Rebecca completed numerous bluewater passages between Rhode Island and the Caribbean and passages across the Gulf of Mexico. Prior cruising has included the Bahamas, New England, Nova Scotia, the Florida coast and the BVIs, all in preparation for the day she could circumnavigate.

Rebecca has been a licensed captain with towing and sailing endorsements, and is also a general-licensed ham radio operator.

Rebecca first crossed tracks with Patrick when she signed on for a position in the North American Rally to the Caribbean, which ran from Newport to St. Martin with a stop in Bermuda. Rebecca was assigned to Captain Patrick’s boat. She had always dreamed of sailing around the world and knew that a passage in November would teach her more about heavy-weather sailing since it is usually rough that time of year.

Several years later, captain and crew teamed up. Rebecca shifted from a longtime career in computers to real estate sales. Together they bought and sold houses. Three years later, they had saved enough money to move aboard and sail away.

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

PC&RC: A long-distance cruiser needs to know a little bit about everything, or, if they are learning as they go, have the ability to research a problem and transform information into action. Google and YouTube are great resources for information about correcting boat problems, as well as many other problems encountered while cruising from health issues to land transport.

The top-of-the-list cruising skill required for a world voyager is the ability to safely handle a sailboat in all weather conditions. Anyone can coastal cruise and race, but it is when the wind and waves kick up exponentially with no land in sight that one needs to have the confidence and skills to keep the situation manageable.

One of the biggest mistakes I have witnessed new cruisers make, and which can result in a broken boat, is the insistence on having a mainsail up in strong winds when a jib alone was more than adequate — especially when there would be a risk of gybing the main. I will always remember my first sailing lesson in Coconut Grove, Fla., when the instructor said, “The mainsail is the first sail up and the last one down.” That is simply not true. There is a better quote: “It is easier to pull a boat than to push it,” meaning that, off the wind, a jib is a better choice than a main.

Brick House, the Childress’ 1976 Valiant 40.

Patrick Childress

Before taking one’s family across an ocean on their own boat, a wise cruiser will first make a long passage on someone else’s sailboat with a very knowledgeable captain. The worse the weather, the bigger the learning experience.

Migrating with the seasons, there are plenty of sailboats moving between New England and the Caribbean on which a sailor can gain offshore experience. Offshore Passage Opportunities (OPO, www.sailopo.com) connects its members to passage opportunities and organized rallies so they may experience sailing offshore and around the world. OPO operates the North Atlantic Rally to the Caribbean, leaving Rhode Island in early November and arriving in St. Martin with a stop in Bermuda. In the spring, there is a northbound return trip. All crossings are with very experienced captains. These trips are not for beginners and participants must have a solid grasp of sailing basics.

Just because someone owns a large sailboat and has coastal cruised for years that does not mean they are fully knowledgeable about crossing oceans. You may want to interview several owners before deciding which rally to join.

Adjusting and interpreting radar images does take time and practice to master. A radar set on fully “auto” mode is not always the ideal setting for the best response, especially for weak returns from distant small vessels in inclement weather. It is well worth the hours to sit in front of a radar screen while crossing an ocean in good weather to prepare for the bad. Although AIS is a tremendous tool for collision avoidance, it does not eliminate the need for radar or a good set of eyes constantly scanning the horizon.

Of course, understanding seasonal weather patterns, ocean and coastal currents, daily weather and the installation and use of many computer programs to receive and interpret this information, as well as the use of the high-frequency single sideband (HF SSB) and VHF radios, are all parts of a navigator’s package that will have influence on a successful navigational experience.

Knowing how to use a basic multimeter is a necessity for tracking down electrical shorts in power supply wiring and getting electronic equipment such as an autopilot up and running again.

On the diesel engine side, understanding its basic operation helps to diagnose problems. Generally, 95 percent of problems with a stalled diesel engine are caused by lack of fuel. So a voyager needs to know how to change fuel filters and prime the fuel system to remove air from the lines.

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

PC&RC: Most of our pre-passage planning starts soon after we drop anchor from a passage.

Upon arriving at a new destination, we do not immediately wander off and enjoy the new scenery. We normally concentrate on correcting any mechanical and electrical problems and always have the boat ready to go to sea on a moment’s notice. This includes keeping food stocked, water in the tanks, diesel fuel topped up and all systems up and running. Our first trips into town, big or small, often involve finding machine shops, plumbing stores or LPG suppliers to ready the boat for take-off again, even if that may not be for months. Then we start having fun.

Rebecca working with the Raymarine HybridTouch eS128 and HD color radome at Brick House’s nav station.

Patrick Childress

Rebecca calculates the timing of our next passage with regards to seasonal changes in winds and currents. As departure time approaches, Rebecca will also watch the GRIB files for wind in our location to see how the accuracy compares to local media weather reporting and forecasting.

Rebecca studies and compares the chartplotter, Google Earth KAP files and other sources she has researched over our intended route, marking hazards not depicted on the chartplotter. She puts marks over areas that are hazardous but do not show up if zoomed way out … so we both are sure to zoom in to see the charted hazard when we approach that area. She always plans the most conservative routes based on all sources. In other words, if one source of data extends shallows out further than the other, we take the further-out route unless we have great visibility while in that area. Rebecca creates extremely detailed up-close KAP files from Google Earth of any potential anchorage we may encounter along the way and at the destination. She always re-tests our primary and backup electronic charting systems to be sure we always have at least two or three ways to navigate.

Rebecca creates route and destination waypoints, as well as “bailout” anchorages in case we should need a night of rest or an emergency repair in calm waters. She makes note of when weather may be at its worst and when we may see the most boat traffic. Sometimes she makes paper notes about our arrival anchorage, including what navigational hazards to watch out for and any special arrival procedures, and puts them under the Plexiglas on the chart table. Just before departure, passage dinners are cooked and stored in the freezer.

If we will be on a passage where we are cut off from the Internet, we empty our SSB SailMail and Winlink email addresses so the system will be uncluttered and not get bogged down while in transit. Since we normally have Internet prior to departure, we download the latest GRIB forecast directly to our Raymarine eS128 chartplotter. If we have no Internet, we overlay the latest GRIB forecast downloaded from the SSB to the Raymarine chartplotter for easy access even in bad weather.

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

PC&RC: Two things actually:

First, it was totally unforeseen that we would learn how to deal with corrupt government officials and equally usurious yacht “agents.” 

Because so many cruisers throw money at corrupt customs and immigration officials in the belief that the cost “is what it is,” or that it is best to not annoy these officials, the practice of graft has only been encouraged — and it is the same with “agents.” We have learned to research and know what procedures and costs are legitimate prior to clearing in or out of a country.

Rebecca can keep a smile far better than I can, so I introduce Rebecca as our “Officer In Charge of Documents” while I sit to the side and try to stay quiet.

If asked for a questionable payment, we have learned to be reluctant but very pleasant, and to ask for a receipt and an explanation for the charge before handing over any money. The customs and immigration officials know not to incriminate themselves by writing a receipt. Asking for a receipt normally will dissolve the situation very quickly as long as we have kept a non-confrontational attitude.

Most countries have ways to report these crooked officials and we encourage all voyagers to do so, so it can be a better cruising environment for those who follow. Certainly you need the name of the official along with the date and time and detailed description of the incident, and if you can, snap a picture of the official. We have had bad experiences with officials in Indonesia, Philippines and, worst of all, Cambodia. At our blog site we have listed the entities to report to for transgressions in Indonesia: www.sailblogs.com/member/brickhouse/367274.

Rebecca preps the boat for sailing, including a rigging inspection before raising sail.

Patrick Childress

But yacht “agents” in many foreign countries are equally if not more usurious than the government officials. We find it is better to handle clearing in and out duties ourselves.

The second most valuable skill we have learned is to portray in every manner that we are poor. It is a perception, even in affluent countries, that anyone who cruises on a sailboat and does not appear to go to work every day must be rich. To greedy eyes, it is far better to have the appearance of having little to take, that we are not in a position to be giving things away, and if something is stolen, it cannot be easily replaced.

When people in foreign countries ask us about our lifestyle, we explain that we cannot afford all the overhead expenses of a house mortgage, insurance, cost of electricity, a car, gasoline, etc., in the U.S., so we are forced to live meagerly on a sailboat. We go on to tell the person that if our boat sinks tomorrow, we will have to come live in their backyard, as we will be left with nothing. After reiterating this story of poverty to a villager in Fiji, he responded, “That would be great if you come to live with us, we would build you a nice bure (thatched hut) and give you a pig and some chickens — a whole starter kit.” The Fijian culture is truly special.

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

PC&RC: Voyaging communications are so easy these days. Even in the past nine years we have seen a big advancement in communications. Because of better communications, voyagers may not have to be the self-reliant independent lot that was required decades ago. Those who could not tolerate being away from family for any length of time can now stay connected with the home front while in remote islands.

Although a valuable piece of backup equipment, we hardly use the SSB or Pactor modem anymore. That is used while in the middle of oceans for receiving or sending basic emails once or twice a day. Now, even in the most remote islands in Vanuatu and Fiji and so many unheard of places, cell towers have sprung up — and with them, a 3G or 4G data connection, although sometimes the connection is very slow.

Because of this connectivity, we do not have to hire fulltime managers for our business interests in the U.S. Like many businesses these days, we deal directly with our customers over the Internet or by calling on Skype for pennies per minute. This money saved is partly what allows us to keep cruising.

Rather than morning schedules on the SSB, most of our cruising friends now gather on Facebook. Now we have immediate information on everyone’s anchor waypoints, which places they like, where they ran in to problems, how to get the best price on diesel, etc. 

Since buying our Inmarsat satellite telephone from another cruiser four years ago, it still sits in its box, unused. Modern communication makes cruising safer and takes the mystery out of things. However, it is that old mystery and sense of adventure and discovery that is now missing from cruising.

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

PC&RC: There is an excellent quote in the book The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, which says, “Puff boats have destinations, not ETAs.” That has always been our motto. We have never obligated ourselves in any way to arrive in a distant port on a particular day or to sail a tight schedule.

The ship’s cat Lily is always ready to help check engine oil level.

Patrick Childress

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

PC&RC: Boring is good. Once you have crossed enough oceans, the wonder and romance of wide-open horizons and endless rolling waves becomes “Are we there yet?” With proper preparations, most passages are very boring. Staying alert to avoid collisions with ships, especially as lack of sleep creeps in, becomes a major challenge.

A passage quickly becomes stimulating when things break and there are problems to solve, so it is better to fight the boredom and try to stay rested.

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

PC&RC: When I was doing regular boat deliveries between New England and the Caribbean, I developed a provisioning list. I would make a list of food bought then remove from the list what food was left at the end of the delivery. After a number of trips, I had a very accurate food list that would feed six people for 12 days.

Crossing an ocean, we use about two gallons of water per person per day. When coastal cruising where fresh water is easily available or rain is frequent, we could use up to four gallons of water per person per day. We often use our PathoScreen water test kits to make sure water coming from a municipal water supply is free of hydrogen sulfide-producing bacteria, which includes most pathogens. Many of the municipal water sources across the Pacific require chlorine or boiling prior to drinking.

OV: Who or what inspired you to go voyaging?

PC&RC: Inspired by the likes of Robert Manry sailing his 13-foot Tinkerbelle across the Atlantic in 1965, I just had to sail a long distance on a small boat. From January 1979 to January 1982, I completed a solo circumnavigation on a Catalina 27. I decided that if I were to again sail away on an extended trip, the woman of my dreams with the proper boating skills would have to be the motivator. Much to my surprise that woman came along and to top it off, she had a 40-foot sailboat!

OV: What are your future voyaging plans?

PC&RC: The next year will bring us from Singapore, up the west coast of peninsular Malaysia then slowly across the equatorial Indian Ocean to South Africa.

Where to go from Cape Town is the problem. The overpopulated Caribbean holds little interest and the Mediterranean, for us, seems best explored by land. That leaves the east coast of South America. Uruguay is looking interesting.

We do not see an end to cruising currently, but maybe someday we will be too old to feel good in this lifestyle and will settle into a dock somewhere in the world to be that couple that everyone wonders how we got stuck “here.”

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