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Voyaging Skills: Adding family members along the way

Apr 2, 2019
The Litzow/Abookire family in 2014 in Whangarei, New Zealand. From left: Elias, Mike, Eric and Alisa.

The Litzow/Abookire family in 2014 in Whangarei, New Zealand. From left: Elias, Mike, Eric and Alisa.

Mike Litzow

Alisa Abookire and Mike Litzow, aboard their 37-foot Crealock, Pelagic, sailed out of Kodiak, Alaska, in June 2007 bound for Australia. They had their 10-month old son, Elias, aboard and the idea that they would sail for two years. The family thrived living aboard a traveling sailboat. So, they continued sailing. Mike found a way to work from the boat. They had a second child, Eric, who was born in Hobart, Australia. They sold their trusty boat Pelagic, and in 2011 they flew to California to buy Galactic, a 45-foot steel cutter, and promptly crossed the Pacific a second time, sailing back to Hobart by the end of that year.

The idea of sailing to Patagonia was born during their year living aboard in Hobart, but the boys were still quite young. So they sailed to Bluff, New Zealand, and to the Auckland Islands and then back to Tonga and Fiji for a season. In 2014, they left Opua, New Zealand, for southern French Polynesia and then to Valdivia, Chile. They wintered in the Beagle Channel and in late 2015 voyaged to the Falkland Islands. In 2016, they sailed to South Georgia and then to South Africa. From there, they made their way home via St. Helena Island, onward to Cuba and Panama and through the Panama Canal. Their longest passage was 34 days from Panama to Hawaii, and they experienced the most amazing landfall with lava flowing into the sea as they approached the Big Island. Their final passage from Hawaii to Kodiak was in July 2017, and they arrived back home after 10 years and some 65,000 miles under their keel. Mike wrote a book about their travels titled
South From Alaska. It is available from Amazon or via their blog, www.thelifegalactic.blogspot.com.

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

ML: The biggest challenges in crossing an ocean are psychological. Fear of the unknown and unease at being alone and far from help are typically the biggest obstacles to people who are new to long-distance sailing. And people with backgrounds in other types of adventuring that require a high degree of self-reliance, such as mountaineering, often make an easy transition to voyaging, as the mental habit of relying on one’s own abilities and judgment predisposes people to success at sea.

The best way to develop the psychological skills for voyaging is to start sailing. Critically, the psychology of self-reliance does not develop when someone else is making the decisions. So if you want to cross oceans, the place to start is by making shorter trips in your own boat (whatever size you can afford now) at the level you are competent at, be it a daysail or an overnighter. Spending time at sea, and living with the consequences of your own decision-making, is the path to becoming an ocean sailor.

AA: Confidence in sailing your boat in all weather conditions is essential. Figure it out before you cross an ocean. My advice to men who approach me and ask how to get their wives/girlfriends to like sailing is, “First become a confident, capable sailor yourself.”

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

Galactic underway in the Beagle Channel, Patagonia.

Mike Litzow

ML: In the trade winds, not so much. We make sure that there isn’t some bad system coming through the area in the next few days, we make sure we’re sailing at the right season (i.e., outside the hurricane season) and we go. Our experience in the tropics is that you would have to be very unlucky indeed to experience a proper gale, and storm-force winds are, in our experience, unheard of outside the hurricane season. If the passage includes special features, like a crossing of the ITCZ, or transiting an area with considerable currents, like the northeast coast of South America, then we do some research on the best route for dealing with those.

Outside the trades, we make much more extensive consideration of the best time for the crossing in terms of the lowest incidence of gales. While it is possible to take some limited action to avoid forecasted bad weather on a passage, at the speed that most cruising boats make you’re pretty much committed to whatever weather develops once you’re out there. So it pays to minimize the chance of bad weather by selecting the season carefully (by examining pilot charts and other resources, like World Cruising Routes), or at least by considering the season of lowest incidence of gales against other considerations, such as having adequate time in the good sailing season at our destination.

If we’re sailing through an area with a high incidence of gales (New Zealand to French Polynesia, South Georgia to South Africa, Hawaii to Alaska), then we go to sea as ready for a gale — or even storm winds — as possible. This means we have deadlights fitted over portlights, the trysail bent to the mast, and the series drogue made fast to the stern cleats and lashed to deck, ready to deploy. The idea is that we don’t want to be digging that stuff out if the weather does go bad.

And every passage, be it in the trades or out, shares the same pre-passage preparation. We frantically work away at fixing as many things on the endless list as we can, we buy spares that we think we’re missing and we provision. Then we limp out of port, inevitably behind schedule and overtired. Managing sleep at the outset is a critical step for a successful passage. One of the best tips we ever got from a very experienced couple is to do all this prep, clear customs and then go anchor up somewhere quiet for a good night’s sleep before setting out.

Alisa hanging out the wash while sailing down the west coast of the Baja Peninsula aboard Pelagic.

Mike Litzow

AA: Generally speaking, we never sail during hurricane season in hurricane area. So this was often a factor that kept us moving. We never left our boat in Tonga or Fiji during hurricane season; many sailors do, but to us it was an easy risk to avoid. Instead we sailed to New Zealand and the next season sailed back to Tonga and Fiji for several months. Time is a luxury and we took advantage of it. I felt as though we lived by the hurricane season, that it dictated our pace and where we went each year.

We always sailed with young children, so we also considered their abilities. When we first left Kodiak for Australia in 2017, our son was 10 months old. We wanted to sail directly to Hawaii but thought that would be foolhardy to jump into a long passage with an infant. Instead we sailed to Mexico, making three-day and then seven-day jumps along the way. By the time we were in La Paz, we had our system of baby care figured out. We knew how to hand-wash cloth diapers at sea, we knew what foods our son liked on passage and we had his harness and safety stations ready to go so that the three-week passage to the Marquesas was a wonderful experience with no surprises.

Even as our children grew, we continued to plan our routes with them in mind. In 2014, we wanted very much to sail to Patagonia. We were in in New Zealand and decided to re-evaluate if the junior crew was up for the trip once we reached French Polynesia. We figured that sailing from New Zealand in the Roaring Forties was a good test trip for Patagonia in winter. We have always had long-term goals, which we broke down into smaller passages and re-evaluated as we went.

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

Eric mans a winch during a passage from New Zealand to the Tuamotus.

Mike Litzow

ML: Confidence.
AA: Self-reliance.

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

ML&AA: We took a good friend along on our very first passage when we sailed the boat we had just purchased from Vancouver Island to our home in Kodiak. Our main concern there was that we knew we could get along with him in a confined space. He had no sailing experience, which was fine with us.

Aside from that one time, we’ve never taken crew, and our experience is that successful voyagers generally don’t.

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

ML: Yes.

AA: The first time we crossed the Pacific we did not have email aboard, which was fine. We added text emails and grib weather files through our SSB radio for our second crossing. I found the text messages with family and friends to be a comfort while at sea, and as we sailed in higher latitudes it was essential to be more self-reliant with our own weather information.

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

Mike at the mast in the South Pacific.

Alisa Abookire

ML: Ah, no. Weather (and season) is the sailor’s schedule. Introducing external schedules into the demands of the sea isn’t a good idea. And, really, this is one of the great delights of being an amateur sailor on your own boat. You aren’t beholden to the schedules of passengers needing to get back to an airport or to any other extraneous demands, and you’re free to go only when you’re ready.

AA: This is another reason not to take crew.

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

ML: Sleep management.

AA: Growing sea legs can be a challenge, especially when there are children relying on me for everything from navigating the toilet to getting into warm thermals. Once the second day dawns, it is better for everyone.

Sleep deprivation was a big problem when we had toddlers aboard and napping was impossible. In recent years this was not an issue.

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

AA: The life with no distractions. There is the wind and the vessel; there are the waves and the course to follow. There is the slow progress between where you were before and where you are going. No matter how much we enjoy a place, there is something so uplifting about weighing anchor and leaving it in our wake, sealed in our minds as it is in that moment. We are living in a very determined, focused way. It is freedom. Plus there is the beauty of the sea and the magic of experiencing our planet Earth in such a unique perspective. We love being at sea, just the four of us on our floating home.

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

Alisa adjusts a jib sheet on Galactic while underway in the Falkland Islands.

Mike Litzow

AA: Provisioning food has been straightforward. Years ago, I inventoried the groceries I purchased and then after a three-week trip I inventoried what was left. This gave me an idea of our weekly consumption of food, toilet paper, boxed milk, coffee, etc.

As our children have grown, I have kept careful notes and altered the provision list.

Because we don’t have a freezer, I usually can about 40 jars of beef and chicken in my pressure canner before we leave port. There are certain food items I prepare for the initial days at sea to minimize my time in the galley while my sea legs grow. And then there are birthdays and holidays that need to be provisioned for in advance, especially with kids aboard.

Water and propane are much the same. We kept careful notes on how long a tank lasted and learned that we used a lot more propane in Patagonia than in Panama. Good thing we had two extra tanks on deck! And we are careful with water consumption, having taken good notes about how quickly we use water when we are dockside and can easily fill versus when we are on a three-week passage. We always have 20 liters of spare water in jugs on deck, and during long ocean passages we wash our dishes in salt water.

OV: Who or what inspired you to go voyaging?

AA: It was all Mike’s idea.

OV: Do you have any future voyaging plans?

AA: Once our boys leave home, we would like to set out again. The North Atlantic would be an intriguing first destination.

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