Friday, August 7, 2015

10 Things I learned from Sailing the Thorny Path

When we set sail from Key West on December 30, 2014 we had no idea what we were doing and had only sailed a total of 3 times equaling about 4 hours of sailing time total.  We didn't even know where we would end up because we had no idea if our untested boat would even get us there - so we just kept going....all the way down to Trinidad.  

And now, after 17 countries and 2,100 nautical miles, I can safely say that it continues to be an adventure of a lifetime and what we learned from it has only been experienced by a small group of sailors - and even a smaller group if you consider we sailed the entire Thorny Path in our first season.

So I thought I'd pass on a few tid-bits of information that I observed along the way - things that can be useful information or just an odd observation.  So here goes my top 10 things we learned on our first season sailing the Thorny Path.

1.  Even salty sailors worry a lot.  Throughout the trip, we would occasionally meet other sailors - and got to be good friends with a select few - and it always surprised us to find out that some of them worry about weather and passages just as much or more than we did.  Some of them wouldn't do any passage without the company of another boat.  We actually did all of our night passages alone - we left when I thought the weather looked good - even the big one - Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico, a 47 hour passage over the course of two days that we were completely alone.  Would it have been nice to have another boat within radio shot?  Of course, but I was never in the habit of finding a buddy boat - we were loners just about the entire time and only hooked up with other sailors on a couple of day passages because they were our friends and just happened to be going the same way on the same day.  We were confident in our boat and our equipment and my ability to determine when the weather looked good enough to leave.  We were either good at picking a weather window or we just had dumb luck - probably a little of each as we never had any problems or disasters on any of our passages, day or night.  

2. Some put a little too much stock in weather guru Chris Parker.  Now I don't have any particular problem with Chris Parker and I also think that any information is good information when it comes to making and planning for a passage.  But the total amount of times I actually listened to his broadcasts were exactly zero.  I'm not sure that I even picked him up on our SSB because I just didn't wake up that early.  What I don't understand is that GRIB files are rampant out here and if you have sailed any amount of time at all, it was easy to tell by a quick glance if it was a good time to set sail or not - I really didn't need someone else telling me when to go - it was obvious.  Trust in your boat and trust in the knowledge you've built up as the miles continue to pass under you and use all the information you obtain to make an informed decision for yourself.  But I would advise against depending on him too much but rather take in all your resources and make your own decision. But there is an exception:  if I were going to make a massive offshore passage that included more than 3 or 4 days at sea, I would definitely hire him to help me decide when to leave, but not for anything under that.  

3. Sailing east against the trades really sucks.  Its called the Thorny Path for a reason.  And really, I should be saying motor-sailing east because that is what you do most of the time.  I recently had an idiot that left a comment on my YouTube channel that told me we must not be "real sailors" because we didn't seem to enjoy the trip, just the destination - "for real sailors, its the trip, not the destination" he said.  And for anybody to come at us with this stupid and over-used saying - its obvious that person does not live on a sailboat.  For all the sailors and cruisers we met along the way, none said they were having a blast as we pounded to the east day after day.  And for the sailors that do love sailing - those people go out on the weekend and sail around the bay and do it for "the love of sailing."  Those people don't travel the thorny path or live on a sailboat.  But don't get me wrong, when we have sailed at 8 knots with a sweet 22 knot wind and 4 foot seas...its really the greatest feeling, and something that has to be experienced for yourself.  But that is not what the thorny path is all about - its about surviving it and has little to do with enjoying it. 

4. People have a tenancy to overstate the size of the seas.   Not that I've ran into too many sailors along the way that did this, but I read a lot from other sailors that seem to do this quite a bit.  We've seen our fair share of rough weather - although we haven't crossed the Atlantic or the Pacific (which I hear can get pretty hairy) we have sailed through a lot of different types of conditions.  And the first thing I can tell you is that there is good reason a lot of cruisers stop at George Town, Bahamas - because by the time you make the crossing to the DR, you might just find out what a 3 meter wave really looks like.  And if you were lucky enough to make it to Saint Martin unscathed, you will most definitely find out on your way south to Grenada at some time or another.  We've heard time and time again that the seas "were not properly predicted - they are always bigger." I saw video evidence of what another sailor called "12 foot seas" where the nose of the boat wasn't even getting covered with the oncoming sea and I have to wonder if they really know what they're in for when the actually see a 12 foot wave.  A two meter swell at 7 seconds is still a big wave...bigger than you can imagine.  In fact, I bet that when you see one you'll swear it was better than 10 feet - but it wasn't...what you witnessed was a 6 foot wave.  Believe me, when you see a wave bigger than 3 meters, you will know it - it will throw your boat for a loop.  Just refer to the cute little video I posted of a decent sized wave hitting us on our beam - that one, we think, was somewhere around 9 feet or so and it took our 23 foot beam catamaran for a ride. 

5.  Sailing at night is not as bad as you would think.  Well, I kinda went back and forth on this one....I almost titled it "Sailing at night is pretty scary" but when I reflected on our night passages, I realized that it was never as bad as I was expecting.  As the night crossing approached, I was always a little nervous about it.  But after we'd get out there and hoist the sails, we'd watch the sun set and our eyes would quickly adjust.  And if the moon was shining, we could see just about everything - but on the flip side, if the moon wasn't shining it can make the experience quite a bit more intense.  But in the morning, after we had made it through just fine, I always ended up saying, "that wasn't that bad."  Although tame seas, a good moon, and mild winds really help to make a great overnight passage - so picking a good weather window is really important to a safe and enjoyable overnighter.

6.  Sailing really isn't that hard after all.  Sailing may seem like driving a car to some of the more experienced sailors but to the non-sailor the thought can be overwhelming.  I get questions all the time about how much experience we had before we set sail and I get the impression its folks just like us that are wanting to leave the rat-race and sail off into the sunset but have never even stepped on a sailboat before.  But rest assured, anybody can do it.  If you are diligent enough to research the dream of sailing, you have all the tools needed to learn how to do it...and even learn how to do it on the fly.

7.  Grenada is surprisingly awesome.  Who would have thought?  You hear about Grenada all the time, but never as a vacation destination.  Its always where you go to be safe from hurricanes.  Everybody talks about St. Lucia and the BVI's but Grenada is never mentioned in the same breath.  But we had the best time there and had a great time hiking, touring and snorkeling and would recommend it as a place to consider for your next vacation.

8.  Monohulls do just as much motoring as Catamarans.  There's a big misconception that cats are the only ones motoring to their destinations but this theory doesn't come from the land of reality.  We've had a lot of conversations with many monohull sailors from George Town to Grenada and compared notes with a lot of them - and the reports disprove this myth.  In fact, some owners even motor-sailed on days that we were able to just sail.  I don't understand it - wind is wind and it actually takes less wind to move a lighter boat so I'm just not sure where this misconception ever came about - but believe me, don't buy a monohull just because you think you'll be able to sail when cats are motoring - it just doesn't happen.

9.  You don't need near as many clothes and shoes as you would think (this one is for the women only).  We tried to tell my wife every time she was packing her suitcases for another trip to the boat, that she didn't need that much stuff - but she didn't listen. And then when we got to Trinidad, she gathered up all the stuff she didn't need to take back to the states - she needed two gigantic checked bags just to carry it and I'm still not sure she got it all.  When they tell you all you need is a few bathing suits, a couple of shirts, and one pair of flip-flops - it really is the truth.  

10.  I really, really love solar and wind power. We have 1024 watts of solar power on Catchin' Rays and a 400 watt wind generator and together they produce enough energy to power all our refrigeration, navigation, and entertainment equipment with ease.  We'd go weeks on end without ever having to run anything else to recharge our batteries.  In fact, we'd go so long without running our generator that it would loose its prime and we'd have to burp the air out of its fuel line.  Living off the sun and wind slowly turns into an addiction - I dream of more solar, more wind, and more battery storage and I can now easily understand the people on land that live "off the grid" and it is definitely something I will take with me when we leave sailing completely - whether it will be filling up the roof of our future motorhome or if it will be  integrated into our home - it will be part of our life in some form or another.  

So there you go...a few things I learned on our Thorny Path adventure.  Maybe next season I'll post something on what we learned from sailing west from Trinidad....but that will be for next season.

Check out our latest video from our first season "Sailing the Caribbean"


  1. Wow! What a great post, we really enjoyed it. Glad to see you back at the blog, great information too. We are looking forward to our next season of sailing, not sure yet where we are going yet though. Today though, we are going lobstering again, wish us luck!
    Chris and Joyce
    SV Saltrun

    1. Thanks Chris...and as I sit here wasting the days away...I realize we could have just stayed with you and been lobstering today too!!! Thanks for the invite and thanks for letting us crash on your boat for the night when we got back to the country and even more for the steak and lobster that was waiting on us, it was awesome. Oh, and that non-stop trip home SUCKED!!! We left your marina around 9:15 am or so....and didn't get here to my brother-in-law's house until 3:00 pm eastern time the next day - it was a long trip. Good luck with the lobstering...I'm sure you guys will clean up like you always do.

  2. Excellent post and gives me confidence for when I 'bust out'. While I trust you and the crew are diligent, please don't become so overconfident that you disparage the old salts and their miles of experience. Fair Winds!

  3. I thought this was right on. We are all learning all of the time. I like the fact you make your own decisions and not let other influence you. We have always felt this is best. We have only ourselves to blame when something goes wrong.

    I love to sail at night. I will always be first in line for a night watch. I like to look at the stars and reflect on how small we are and how short our time is on earth. It is humbling to think about the time it takes for light to travel from the star to us and the star could have even been extinct thousands of years ago. I will also argue that it is easier to see at night as the dimmest light will be visible for miles (on a clear night). And, let’s face it, lightning at night is just spectacular (so long as it is far away).

    The bottom line is each of us has a comfort zone and feel we know what is best for us. My way is no more correct than your way (although some peoples personalities are such they will try to convince everyone their way is the only right way). What is most important is you have a dream and are following it. Live life hard and enjoy every moment.


    1. Hey Mark, thanks for the comment but I guess I have to say that I really don't understand how it turned into "my way" or "your way" kind of thing. As I read back through the top 10 things that I wrote about, I don't see anything that would reflect something I did that others might perceive "my way.' Although some have found a way to take exception to what I've wrote about and it always surprises me what the know-it-all's will pick apart and get offended by.

      But part of the angle I write from when it came to this list if from the stance of a newbie sailor taking on his first big challenge in sailing a boat. I get emails and messages all the time from people that dream of sailing but have never done it - just like us. There are so many dreamers out there that want to do this but the unknown can be scary - having never sailed before, they ask me, "how much did you really know before you set sail" and "the first time you sailed at night, how scared were you?" And some of the salty sailors can be real Debbie-downers when talking to or talking about newbie sailors. They'll scare the hell out of people when in reality its not that bad - yes its dangerous (you're on a freakin' boat in the ocean) but if you get some basic knowledge under your belt, it can be done without too much effort.

      And really, when it comes to "things I learned" I'm not sure how anybody could argue with what I learned - it isn't a "my way" to do it or a "your way" to do it, its things I learned and that's what I wrote about.

  4. Hi Kevin,

    I was referring to decisions you've made and learned for yourself (sailing at night and looking at weather etc.). Too many old salts out there think that sailing is hard and their way of doing things is the only way things should be done. Like you we are finding our way and learning as we go.

    Keep having fun!