5 things I learned cruising a sailboat as a beginner

Margriet KapteynLiving aboard15 Comments

steering a sailboat

Jon’s previous sailing experience: as a young boy he used to sail his dad’s mirror on the Keurbooms River in South Africa. After 15 days of sailing in recent years, mainly as part of the Competent Crew, Day Skipper and practice courses, he decided he was ready to deliver Goodvibes from Mallorca to Gibraltar (with the extremely valuable assistance of one Yachtmaster crew), this added around 5 days of sailing/motorsailing to his experience not to mentions the pleasure of solving fuel supply problems, leaking fresh water supply, failing waste pump etc… but that’s for another post.

My previous sailing experience: As a teenager I had sailed on the Frisian lakes in Holland a few times with a group of friends. However, this barely counts as sailing experience, because at the time I was more interested in getting a tan than in ‘pulling some ropes’. After we had made the plan to buy a sailing boat – many years later – I took a 5 day Competent Crew course and a 5 day Day Skipper course. In addition I had sailed perhaps another 10 hours taking our own boat Goodvibes out on the bay of Gibraltar.

two people hoisting sail

One of the few times I actually handled the sail in the past

I think it’s fair to say that we were inexperienced sailors when we left Gibraltar in June 2017 to cruise the Western Mediterranean. We had bought our 35′ (11 meter) Bavaria in the summer of 2016 and had been living on her since. So at least we were used to the small living space and we had made the boat our own by installing an electric head, upgrading the electronics and performing our day to day tasks (showering, cooking, sleeping etc.) in our tiny, moving abode. But we had never anchored overnight, planned routes on our own, provisioned for more than a few days, made the decision when to reef or spent multiple days in only each other’s company without talking to any other human beings.

Dog on board a sailboat with the rock of Gibraltar in the background

While Gibraltar disappears in the distance, puppy enjoys being on deck with us

So what have I learned, travelling around the Mediterranean on a boat which is also your home, depending completely on yourself and your partner for everything that is essential in your life: transportation, food, water, companionship, fixing problems, getting sleep?

1. Don’t be afraid to change your plans

It is good to have a plan and to have a goal to work towards. But when circumstances change, don’t fret about what people might say, or be disappointed in yourself because you will now have to change your plan.

Ship's logbook and chart

Your actual course can vary significantly from your initially planned itinerary

Before we set off we had planned to go from Gibraltar to the Balearics and then via Italy to Greece in one summer. In fact, we even thought that at the end of the summer we would return to the West of the Mediterranean and continue to the Canaries, so we could cross to the Caribbean at the end of 2017. Even though the itinerary is not impossible – an experienced crew could potentially get from Gibraltar to Greece in 2 weeks – it was way too ambitious for us newbies. So when after 1 month of cruising we hadn’t even left the Spanish mainland yet, we knew that we had to abandon our original plan and just go as far as we were comfortable with. We decided we would not push the boat or ourselves for the only reason of sticking to a plan we had made without any idea what cruising would be like.

Instead we decided to winter somewhere in the Med and to continue cruising in the spring of 2018. Even that plan changed various times as we first discussed wintering in Italy, then Spain, and eventually we decided to go back to Gibraltar. Does it feel like we failed because we didn’t make it to Greece this summer? Of course not! We learned so much and had an amazing time, not in the least because we refused to set ourselves any unrealistic deadlines or goals.

Cruising consists of constantly adjusting your schedule: you may not be able to leave the marina because the engine is not working, you cannot go to your planned destination because the wind is from the wrong direction, you have to leave an anchorage in the middle of the night because the swell is becoming unattainable. I learned to be flexible, just enjoy the ride, and leave deadlines and time-schedules to project managers in stuffy offices (I know, I used to be one!)

2. Make an effort to meet people

After meeting this sailing couple in Gibraltar before we left, we finally ran into each other again in Mallorca. It was so great to share our experiences and see some familiar faces.

In the 3 months we were on our way, we socialised with other people only a handful of times. We had dinner with anybody other than the two of us perhaps 2 or 3 times and met 1 or 2 other couples for drinks. This was not because we didn’t want to (even though we were on a budget and we did frequently get into bed before 9pm, we were at the same time desperate to share our experiences with other sailors ). But meeting people when you are cruising can be hard: at anchor you simply do not get to chat to people so easily. At a marina you can get to know neighbours a bit quicker, but before you know it, you are moving on, or they are leaving for their next destination and unless your routes and timing coincides, you will not see them again soon.

One very good way to meet more people along the way, is to befriend them on social media before you head off cruising. On Facebook there are many groups for sailors, subdivided by geographical area, type of boat, hobbies etc. A few of my favourites are:

  • Women who Sail. A very supportive, women-only group for anybody who sails or is interested in sailing. You can ask all sorts of questions, from the mundane, such as ‘what conditioner do you use’, to technical ones, or just post a funny picture or let the group members know how proud you are at docking your boat for the first time.
  • Med Sailing. Specifically for cruisers in the Mediterranean, this is a great group for find out marina costs in Italy, the best anchorages in Eastern Spain etc.
  • Liveaboard Sailboat. Here you can find tips and experiences related to living aboard a boat. It is less focused on sailing but more on maintenance & repairs and day to day life on a boat.
  • Dogs Who Sail. This pretty obvious: photos of dogs on board and questions related to cruising canines.

These groups are really great for gaining knowledge but also to get in touch with people who share your experiences and who may, at some point, be near you.

Instagram also plays a major role in meeting likeminded people, besides just being used for showing pretty pictures. In my experience, you will quickly get way more followers on Instagram than you will get on your Facebook page. Search for relevant hashtags such as #boatlife #marinalife #liveaboard, follow the people whose posts you like, post some cool photo’s yourself (adding appropriate hashtags) and very soon your network will expand quickly.

A lot of cruisers have a blog/website/youtube channel as well as an Instagram or Facebook account so it is very easy to get to know more about them. When you see somebody who has similar plans to yourself, just send them a message. When communication progresses you can arrange to meet up or at least to stay in touch in case you happen to end up in the same area.

3. Take breaks

When cruising, it is hard not to get caught up in jobs and worries. The dinghy needs to be put in the water or taken out of the water; the engine needs servicing; items that are broken need to be fixed or replaced… Additionally, at anchor, you will worry constantly about dragging; in a marina you will stress about spending money; at sea you hope the wind will increase or the waves will ease off.

Regardless of where you are, you are never done and there is always something that you could check or do. For this reason it’s very important to take time off. We found that after spending time in a marina where you have access to supplies and chandleries, an few days of anchor are a relief because you simply can’t just pop to the shops (and spend money). And vice versa, after spending a considerable time at anchor you are fed up with the constant swell and waking up several times at night and you long for a berth in a marina where you are tied up tightly and protected from the worst weather.

Since you don’t have the normal structure of weekdays and weekends, you can end up doing chores without a break, which will only end up in frustration and resentment. Don’t forget to take your time sightseeing and have a day or 2 (or more!) off every week, where you don’t do boat jobs and can guilt-free spend a whole day snorkelling and reading a book in the sun. After all, cruising is as much about the destinations as it is about the travel.

selfie in porto colom

Don’t forget to enjoy the places you visit

4. You need less than you think

I love clothes, I love accessories, I love shoes. All very well when you are living in a 3-bedroom house with a walk-in closet, but on a boat with just a couple of small lockers you simply cannot maintain several work-, leisure-, DIY-, travel- and party-outfits. You will have to downsize!

This was my wardrobe inventory in the spring of 2017 (when we lived onboard, but before we started cruising):

Sailboat lockers with little space for clothes

My t-shirt and tanktops locker

1 bathing suit
1 bikini
3 jackets
12 long sleeve tops
15 t-shirts/short sleeve tops
15 sleeveless tops/tanktops
7 jerseys/hoodies
3 cardigans
2 summer dresses
3 skirts
4 pairs of shorts
10 long trousers
1 pair of flipflops
2 pairs of sandals
1 pair of flat shoes
1 pair of trainers

Supplemented with underwear, scarves, wet gear etc.

Before we left in June, we put some of the winter clothes in storage. But do you think I wore all of my summer clothes when we were cruising? No way. Out of the 15 sleeveless tops/tanktops 90% of the time I wore the same 5 or 6. Most of the time I wore my jeans shorts – the other pairs of shorts were worn only a handful of times. I lived in flip-flops (I did buy a second pair while cruising). Dresses and more dressed-up tops and skirts? They came out of the cupboard maybe once, when we went into town and I felt like making an effort. I did not need as many as I had.
Of course this was during the summer, when I did not wear any of the long sleeve tops or long trousers. But even so, 99% of the time I wore probably only half of my suitable clothes. This means even this limited wardrobe could easily be reduced even further. You really don’t need that much!

Clothes are just one example. The less space you have, the more you come to realise that you really don’t need a lot of stuff. We don’t have a microwave, dishwasher, freezer, or big tv and our quality of life is not any less. If anything, it is better because we don’t have so many things that can break and that need to be looked after.

5. You can do more than you think

When you have had 2 hours of sleep and no coffee and you need to help putting a reef in: you do it… When the backstay breaks and you are at the helm: you don’t panic and follow the instructions to secure the boat within minutes… When it’s over 40 degrees and sweat is dripping off your forehead and the mooring line you’ve thrown to the marinero falls in the water: you swear internally, but you keep your mouth shut, and pull the line back in to throw it again… When you are too exhausted to cook and the boat is swaying too much to even boil some pot noodles: you have cereal for dinner.

Whether it was the fact that it was just the two of us, or the fact that our boat is our home, our transport, our everything: I realised that I could handle a lot more than I thought I could. Sure, there were times when I screwed up and times when I just wanted to crawl into a corner and cry and feel sorry for myself, but I didn’t (at least not at the moment when it matters). You just keep going because the job at hands needs to be done.

Clutches with labels to indicate the sailing lines

Make life easier for yourself: we added these labels on the line clutches to avoid confusion

The first nightwatch for example, was initially pretty scary. There was no moon so it was pitch-black. I did not know exactly how the AIS worked and at that time our radar was not yet installed. Apart from not being able to see much, this was the first time I was truly fully responsible for the boat; during the day I had taken the helm a few times but we did not yet leave each other alone in the cockpit for more than a few minutes. On the other hand, this gave me an opportunity to push myself: when a ship was coming close, I made the decision to turn 5 degrees starboard; when the main sail started flapping, I moved the traveller more to windward; when I saw a light that I could not identify coming closer and closer, I used my common sense to work out whether it was a buoy or a ship or a planet in the sky (yep, it was Venus!).

Because I was forced to make my own decisions, I gained much more confidence. If you had told me 5 years ago that I would be responsible for sailing a boat in the middle of the night, I would have laughed at you. But by taking one step at a time and just doing it, you will be able to do much more than you think.

– – – – –


You can’t beat sunset at anchor

I can honestly say that after cruising the Med for 3 months, I feel I understand what sailing is about. I am not saying ‘I can sail’ because I have not experienced a wide enough range of circumstances. (We have not sailed in a heavy storm and have not had to deal with shallow reefs beneath the surface, or crossed an ocean, for example.) But I am starting to grasp when to tighten the main, when to reef, and when and how to adjust your course when you are on a collision course with a 300m containership. I know what it’s like to not be able to buy fresh fruit or vegetables for 5 days, and to function on 3 hour sleep at night.

There have been scary moments when I knew a wrong decision could result in damage or injury, and beautiful moments where I was so incredibly proud of the two of us and so admiring of our beautiful surroundings. There have been blood, sweat and tears, but the main thing I learned these 3 months is that for me cruising is, ironically, not so much about sailing: it is about being outside, being responsible for every aspect of your life, learning new things almost every day, working together and living a simpler life. And I love it.

15 Comments on “5 things I learned cruising a sailboat as a beginner”

  1. Great article Margariet!

    Everything you have said beautifully illustrates the massive learning curve that was part of your new adventure! I’m still very envious of that as Jon well knows!

    From here on you’ll never stop learning but you’ve already worked out what’s important and how to combine time for yourselves and time for all the necessary jobs so I reckon you’re looking good for all of your future adventures!

    1. Thanks Alan. We are a lot more confident for the season ahead, although I’m sure there will still be lots to learn.
      We must try to get you on board for a trip this year.

  2. Wat leuk geschreven en wat heb je veel geleerd!
    Ben benieuwd waar 2018 jullie brengt. Of het nu wel of niet de Cariben worden, een mooie ervaring zal het zeker zijn.
    Geniet ervan!

    1. Inderdaad, dat hebben we dus wel geleerd: het gaat niet om dat afstand maar om de ervaring. Bedankt voor de reactie!

  3. Good luck for 2018, wishing you both and your wee pup fair winds and calm seas this coming season…..

    1. Cheers David. Now you know how excited we were to have some chili con carne with you :-D. All the best for the new year. Hopefully we will meet again this year.

  4. Hi Jon & Margriet: Great to hear your frank and honest conclusions. Best of luck planning next years trips. Hope to see you when you venture up to Estepona again.

  5. Well you certainly have been brave and resourceful, and look what you have both achieved. We started the same way, and after 17 years we still love the life, at present a change for us to be in the U.K. The anticipation of what is around the corner, is wonderful.
    We loved meeting you in Andratx, you will meet lots of new people, like minded, and always looking after each other. I had to smile at the photo, we were very brown and healthy! Love to you both.

  6. Beautifully written. I hope we can meet you in the med. We have been living on our boat for two years in the UK. We have just bought a sailboat in Croatia and are heading out next week to live in the med.

    My husband is an experienced sailor but I am not. Everything you said rang true to me. I hope, in three months from now I feel as you do. Able to cope and loving every minute!

    1. Great to hear! It will take some time to adjust and there is a very steep learning curve (especially if you are not experienced in sailing and/or mechanically inclined) but it’s so worth it.
      Croatia is meant to be beautiful… You picked a good location and time of the year to start sailing 🙂 Let me know if there is any way we can follow you (facebook, AIS) and we can see if our paths cross this summer. Thank you for your comment!

  7. Very nice blog, I’m going to start reading a bit more. We have lots in common… newbies buying a sailboat with big plans to start with and adjusting on the way. Well one little difference we’re 6 on the boats (3 kids, 1 dog and us parents). Where are you now ? We are in Cartagena thinking about sailing down to the Canaries to winter but never done such a large crossing before and a bit freaked out must admit. Cheers !

    1. Thank you, Kriss! This post was from last year; we have just finished another 4.5 months of cruising. The good news is: the second season is much easier. You will learn very quick, you’ll see.
      We are now in Malta where we will stay for the winter (great cruising ground, by the way). I just checked out your website (nice) and youtube channel (great! We watched a few of your videos). Sounds like you have ambitious plans. We had also planned to cross the Atlantic but are glad we are taking our time to cruise the Med first. It’s less hassle (if you’re European at least) and there are so many different cultures and countries to explore. Feel free to contact us on Facebook or email (ahoygoodvibes@gmail.com) if you want more info on destinations or anything else.
      Fair winds!

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