Voyaging Skills: Two sailors with a thirst for voyaging

Jon and Sue Hacking live aboard their Wauquiez Kronos 45 catamaran Ocelot. Sue is from rural Pennsylvania and had her first sailing adventure in the Eastern Caribbean when she was 13 years old. 

Jon was born in England to British/African parents who moved to the U.S. when he was 2 years old. He grew up in northern California, got a degree in electrical engineering/computer science, and followed the family tradition of traveling. Jon met Sue in 1975 when he had just returned from a year in Africa and she had returned from three months in the Himalayas. They married in 1979 and took off on an extended one-year honeymoon to Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Nepal and greater Southern Africa. They stumbled upon a sailing opportunity in Cape Town, and signed onto a steel Roberts 53 for a three-month voyage from Cape Town to the Caribbean.

After they arrived in St. Lucia, they bought Oriental Lady, a 40-foot Piver AA trimaran, and went voyaging. Sue and Jon sailed the Eastern Caribbean for six years, including two after their son was born in Martinique. They returned to San Diego in 1988, where they sold the boat on the same day they learned they had a baby girl on the way.

For 12 years they lived in Redmond, Wash., before buying their Wauquiez Kronos catamaran to go voyaging again in December 2001. They sailed to Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, crossed the Indian Ocean via Sri Lanka, the Maldives, the Chagos (the last three-month permit), Seychelles, Madagascar, Mozambique and South Africa.

Sue and Jon sailed back across the Indian Ocean to Malaysia in 2009. In the intervening years, they have done a two-and-a-half-year refit in Phuket, trekked in Himalayan Nepal three times, sailed to India and back, circumnavigated Indonesia three times, joined rallies in Borneo and Indonesia, and have voyaged east to the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. Ocelot and her intrepid crew of two are now in the Philippines. 

Their website (1,000-plus pages, and NOT a blog) is at svOcelot.com or HackingFamily.com

The Hackings’ catamaran Ocelot in Triton Bay, West Papua, Indonesia.

Jon Hacking

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

J&SH: Reading weather, both the weather charts (usually gribs out here) and the sky. We’re very weather driven, and we try hard to minimize weather problems on passage, from initial planning to dodging squalls and other weather systems that materialize.

Understanding the basic workings of your boat, from sail handling to engines, is critical. Basic seamanship — especially navigation — is essential. It’s important for both partners (assuming couple-only cruising) to be able to handle all facets of sailing your boat. If one person becomes incapacitated, their life is in the other’s hands.

Standing watch, really watching, both day and night is still a crucial skill. Know what to look for: squalls, squall lines, rips, ships, fishing boats, fishing nets, fish traps and FADs. We’ve known boats with plenty of watch standers, but they were all down below watching a movie when the boat went up on a reef and was lost. We’ve also known boats that were lost because the crew depended too much on their electronic charts, and the boat went up on a reef and was lost. 

Understanding lights on ships and tugs with tows, and knowing how to use the radar when those ships don’t have AIS. Sailing at night can be confusing when other boats are around, especially inshore with background lights. 

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

J&SH: Mostly it involves weather. Our first consideration is the season, as we much prefer to go with (or across) the wind. We use Pilot Charts and cruising guides for this. 

Where will we be at the change of season? Will we return, anchor up for months, cruise locally, haul out or put the boat in a marina and travel ashore? 

Having figured out the “big scene,” we go into more detail: Where will we stop along the way? What can we learn about the anchorages? What do we want to see and/or do? We peruse the cruising guides, travel guides, blogs and websites. When possible, we talk to other cruisers who have been this route. 

We have also found that it’s quite enjoyable to cruise with like-minded cruisers, so sometimes we’ll put a plan together and then see if others want to accompany us. This worked very well for our 2019 trip over the top of Papua New Guinea and into the Solomon Islands, where all four boats in our flotilla needed help from the other boats at times.

Ocelot, a Wauquiez Kronos 45, under sail off Timor.

Jon Hacking

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

J&SH: One of the joys of cruising is that it’s a constant learning exercise. Probably foremost here, you can’t underestimate the importance of understanding and being able to interpret weather patterns, seasons and forecasts. There are very few professional forecasters out here. And while that is essential for safe voyaging, also important is the ability to be a “jack of all trades” on the boat — to be able to make repairs, assess damage and potential equipment failures, and keep the boat well found and safe for voyaging. If the weather throws something unexpected at you, it’s your boat; how well found it is and how much you trust it will see you through. 

A somewhat unexpected skill we’ve learned is the ability to change our minds, to change our plans. This can be a bit wrenching, especially if our current plans were made some time ago and have settled firmly in our brains, but when other opportunities arise, you want to take advantage of them. Luckily, it’s usually a choice between this nice trip or that even better trip. 

We’ve been cruising Southeast Asia on and off since 2006. We soon realized that all commercial charts are pretty universally terrible, offset and often produced in poor detail. So, since 2014, we’ve been making our own charts from satellite imagery. Making good charts requires a certain skill (see our “How To” page at svocelot.com/Cruise_Info/Equipment/KAPFiles.htm), but reading depths by color of water to decide on possible anchorages is an even more important skill, as we’re often well off the beaten track, where few cruisers have gone before, so there’s minimal anchoring information.

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

J&SH: Probably the most important skill is more of an attitude: helpful and fun to be around, as opposed to knowing all about sailing. We have sailed for more than six years with our children (as young adults) and with many friends, both ours and theirs, though rarely with crew who we don’t know. But we’ve sailed for even longer with just the two of us, and we know how we like things done. The most valuable asset a crew (or visitor!) can bring is a “can-do” attitude, with a willingness to learn and a desire to be part of the crew, not just a “guest” on board. That means standing back and watching, initially, to see how we like things done, and then asking questions if they are not sure what to do, and not just bumbling along trying to please us. 

They have to know when to get out of our way and when to help, and that we have systems and methods of doing things that have been developed over a long time, so they need to learn our ways of doing things. They also need to accept restrictions on things like water usage, dishwashing systems, what lights can be used, and when and how much they can use their electronics. But having someone who’s fun to be around is just as valuable as any skill, as any boat can be pretty small.

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

J&SH: Certainly! We began our voyaging in the early 1980s, in the era of “snail mail” and HF radio schedules, when it was hard to stay in touch with the cruising community. Now, with social media and ubiquitous cellular towers providing live Internet, we are connected to a huge community that extends not only from island to island but country to country. This gives us access to, and lets us share, lots of good information on anchorages, bureaucracy issues, weather, and even shopping and things to do ashore. This new connectivity has the downside of removing some of the “adventure” feeling that we had when we were not so well connected, but the upside of added fun, community and safety outweighs that sometimes-overrated feeling of wanting life afloat to be a National Geographic adventure!

Jon and Sue on Ocelot with the spinnaker set.

Jon Hacking

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

J&SH: We realized this some time ago, after making this mistake a few times, so now we avoid schedules whenever possible. We tell visitors that they can choose the time or the place, but not both (unless we get to the meeting place early). This sometimes means that they pay a bit more for airline tickets, but that’s a small price to pay for comfort and safety on board. 

Several years ago, one of the New Zealand-to-Tonga rallies left on a certain date, chosen long before the weather could be accurately forecast, and the fleet ran into some nasty weather that caused considerable damage. Now, the dates seem to be chosen much closer to the actual time, after consulting with weather experts, which seems much safer.

Over the years, we have sometimes chosen to sail in maybe more blustery weather than we like in order to meet a schedule of friends or family arriving or leaving. But in general, our schedule is the weather. Dates on calendars are only guidelines. 

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

J&SH: Dark, squally nights at sea in areas with shipping or fishing boats are the most challenging. If possible, we try to plan our passages to coincide with a full or newly waning moon so that the moon will rise during the night and stay with us until dawn. Psychologically, that bit of brightness in the sky makes long night watches easier. The most nerve-wracking part of a passage is in an area like the South China Sea where there is a lot of shipping and a lot of commercial fishing, and you can’t depend on the ships or tugs to be properly lit or to have their AIS set correctly, if they have it at all.

Sleep can also be an issue, but mainly for shorter passages. Unless it’s very flat, it takes us two to three nights to get used to the motion of the boat enough to get a good night’s sleep. If there are added stresses, like heavy weather or lots of ships, sleep deprivation becomes a more serious issue. Luckily, on a long passage we can reef the sails and slow the boat to a comfortable speed to allow our bodies to relax and recuperate after stressful sailing.

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

J&SH: Sue is in charge of the provisions and the record-keeping of what we have on board, what we need and where we stow it all (on a catamaran there are an awful lot of small spaces to hold provisions!).

Long ago, our daughter and Sue made a spreadsheet of what food we typically eat over the course of a month. It starts with breakfast food: who eats how much cereal or eggs or bread, and how much powdered milk, or whatever, each day. Ditto for lunch: listing the seven main lunches we make (crackers and cheese one day, fresh bread the next, bean salad the next, etc.), and then a list of the kinds of dinners we cook and what we need to create them. Finally, we combine all the ingredients needed and come up with a provision list that shows, for example, that we need two kilograms of milk powder, four liters of box juices, two dozen eggs, eight pounds of cheese and butter, etc. It’s detailed and could be laborious, but it’s fun too. And the benefit is that we eat really well while on passage! 

Sue plans to have some “quick food” for the passage in the event of bad weather, but 99 percent of the time she cooks. In fact, she cooks more on passage than at anchor because it’s fun and passes the time. So we’re sure to take plenty of flour and yeast and nuts for baking, and long-lasting veggies like pumpkin, carrots, onions, garlic, ginger, etc. Plus, we fill our (tiny, bread box-size) freezer with boneless meat before we go.

As far as water, in the 1980s watermakers were extremely rare. We only met one cruiser with one in 1988. And we have good friends, experienced seafarers, who built their own boat and circumnavigated with just the water in their tanks. But recently, watermakers have become cheaper and more reliable. When we set off in 2001 with our whole family, all four of us liked to swim, and we soon all had our dive certificates — and diving consumes a lot of water to rinse everything off afterward. Although Ocelot carries 200 gallons (800 liters) of water, we didn’t want to have to worry about it, so we invested in a very efficient (in terms of liters per amp-hour of electricity) watermaker. It certainly hasn’t been trouble free — no watermakers ever are — but we’re very glad we made that decision, despite water being so cheap that we’ll never make back the cost of our watermaker. We talk more about this on our watermaker page (svocelot.com/Cruise_Info/Equipment/Watermakers.htm).

A view from the masthead on Ocelot.

Jon Hacking

OV: Who or what inspired you to go voyaging?

J&SH: We’ve both always liked to travel, but our sailing started on a whim at the end of a yearlong extended honeymoon in 1980 that had taken us from San Francisco to Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Nepal and greater southern Africa. We had plane tickets to fly from Cape Town to San Francisco, but after Sue had a minor operation in Cape Town, the nurse in the recovery room mentioned that she and her husband could not crew on the exciting sailing trip as they’d planned. Sue asked her about it, and soon we were on the Cape Town docks meeting the owner of Sabi Star, a steel Roberts 53 that he had built up in Rhodesia and trucked out of the new Zimbabwe, across South Africa to Cape Town. He had filled it with a year’s worth of good canned meats and was looking for crew to pay him $15 a day to sail his boat with him across to the Caribbean. This was a fairly normal rate out of Cape Town in the ‘80s, as there were lots of folks wanting to leave South Africa and not many boats.

We were total newbies, but it sounded like a great adventure and way more fun than a 20-hour plane flight back to jobs, cars, house, mortgage and all the other palaver that goes with adulting. We turned in our plane tickets (you could do that in 1980) and used the money to pay our way on Sabi Star. It was one of those sharp-right turns in life that changed our whole future. Three months later, despite three days of full gales off Cape Town and being pirated up the Amazon, we were hooked. We bought a little plywood Piver AA 40 trimaran and began a cruising life. 

OV: What are your future voyaging plans?

J&SH: After recrossing the Indian Ocean in 2009, we have been loosely based in Southeast Asia for 11 years, with forays to India and Borneo, three loops around Indonesia, a jaunt out to the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea in 2019, and now the Philippines in 2020. Even with 25 years as full-time live-aboards, and having sailed to more than 45 countries, we will continue cruising as long as we have our health and are having fun! 

There’s still so much to see in the (tropical) world. Our boat is set up as a tropics boat, so voyaging in the high latitudes is not really an option. Palau and Micronesia are on the list, as well as a return to the Indian Ocean to explore more of the Maldives, and maybe get to the Mascarenes and East Africa. We kind of take things one year at a time, considering family, health, boat needs, etc., so we’re never really sure where we’ll be next. It’s always fun to surprise ourselves!

Categories: Ocean Voyager