'Til the butter melts

Pursuing the cruising dream in 32' of sailing ketch


Preparing to Cruise – Arranging One’s Affairs

“So what are you going to do with your house?”

“Where are you going to store your stuff?”

“Who’s going to run your business?”

“What are you going to do for money?”

These are just a few of the questions that get asked when you announce your intention to “sail off into the sunset”. Never mind that we’re planning to sail south and the sun sets in the west.

For most people, the idea of actually living full-time on a 32′ sailboat is totally foreign. Like, crazy-foreign.  Add in taking that boat from Maine to Florida while living on it, and “crazy-foreign” tends toward just plain “Crazy”.  Who would want to do such a thing?  What about all your stuff?  What about your favorite TV shows? What about pirates and crime and exploding boats and running aground…?

I recently started following another couple’s blog entitled The Cynical Sailor. It’s a great read, well written, and follows one couple’s journey along this same path – but they’re a couple years ahead of us in the process. A post that caught my eye was called “10 Steps To Becoming A Full-Time Cruiser”, and I was struck with how much is similar even when the names and locations are different.

One of my first posts mentioned that we’d sold real estate, bought an RV etc., but I thought a more complete description of the process of becoming truly portable might be interesting, and even useful.

The house Nicki & I currently live in is a rental in midcoast Maine.  Up until about a year ago Nicki also owned a house farther inland which was a leftover from her prior marriage.  We’d never lived there together, and had no interest in it, as it was way too far from the ocean for us. The path to selling it – with a recalcitrant ex-spouse tying things in knots whenever possible – was long and rocky, but it did finally pass from our stewardship early last year. Whew! So glad to be shut of that.

So we now own no real estate. When we move from this house next spring, it will be into the 5th-wheel RV that we bought last fall. (I should say Nicki bought, since it was the small profit she made on the house that paid for it.)

2001 "Prospera" RV, 36'

2001 “Prospera” RV, 36′

Now let me just say that I’ve never thought of myself as “RV People”.  But the older I’ve gotten, the less interest I have in maintaining excess living space just for the sake of having it. The RV is, actually, huge. Almost three times the living area of “Sionna“, but as a land base for our summers back in Maine (while the boat waits for us in Florida) it suddenly made a lot of sense to me.  Actually I’m pretty excited about moving in!

So that answers the house question.  No, we don’t own a vehicle to pull it, but since we have no intention of moving it from its current location in an RV park, that’s not an issue.  When we’re done with it, we can sell it, and moving it will be their problem.

So, what about our “stuff”?  I suspect this will be the hardest part of the whole move, actually.  I’ve moved several times over the last 10 years, and each time I’ve pared down a little more, but I’ve also been working on boat projects, and as a carpenter I’ve got more than the usual compliment of tools, so there’s stuff, for sure.  We don’t have much in the way of furniture compared to some, but there are a few sentimental pieces we’ll want to keep…
In any case, we think we can reduce the “keep” pile to something we can fit in a 5’x10′ storage unit, and my tools and spare boat parts should all fit in the 8 foot utility trailer I use for a catch-all. Our most excellent friends (and former-cruisers) Patti & Ray have agreed to let us park that little trailer at their house for a couple years, so that and a big yard sale should take care of “stuff”.

And the business?  Well, our little handyman business, which we’ve run for almost two years, has just reached the point where we were starting to be known a bit, so that was a bit of a wrench, but we made the decision to “live first, work second”.  Or perhaps it was “Work to Live, don’t Live to Work”.  In any event, December 31st we officially closed our business, referred our clients to other people, and took the phone off the hook.

Which raises the obvious question, “what are you going to do for money?”  Oh yeah, that…

Compared to many, our expenses are and will be relatively modest.  We started from the beginning subscribing to the advice of the Guru’s of modern cruising – Lin & Larry Pardey (landlPardey) whose mantra “Go Small, Go Simple, Go Now” has informed our every decision.  A small boat (at 32′ Sionna is quite small by modern standards, though she feels quite ample to us!), with simple systems and minimal electronic and mechanical jiggery-pokery was at the top of the list to keep expenses down. A simpler lifestyle is next, and we’re doing pretty well there.

As for income, we’re fortunate, though I don’t recommend being disabled out of your first career as a way to fund a cruising dream! Still, I’ve got a bit of a disability insurance thing that brings in a few dollars, and both Nicki & I are able to work productively, in spite of that prior issue, so with my stipend and working in Maine during the summer to collect “Freedom (cruising) Chips”, we’re pretty sure we can bankroll this thing if we’re really, really frugal and careful. Living on the boat SHOULD be slightly cheaper than living ashore. We much prefer to anchor, rather than paying for a marina slip or mooring, and I’ve enough skills to handle almost all the boat and RV maintenance that’s required of the lifestyle. It won’t be high-off-the-hog living, but we’ll do ok.

So that’s how we’ve handled those nagging questions.  Others have come up with different answers, of course, and I’m always curious to hear from other cruisers about their choices along those lines.

Oh, and the TV shows we’ll miss? Haven’t owned a TV in 10 years – and haven’t missed it a bit. Waste of a finite life, in my opinion.


Preparing to Cruise – the Crew


The crew – Nicki & Keith

Pop Quiz!
What’s the first, absolutely most important item of safety equipment on a boat?  The one thing that will save your bacon and turn potentially dangerous conditions into “Well, that was kinda rough – what’s for dinner?” moments?

You won’t find it in the West Marine catalog, nor anywhere online, and it is clearly lacking far more often than it should be in all kinds of vessels, both pleasure and professional.

It’s a well-trained, conservative crew.

And the second most vital thing? A solid, well-found boat.

No one can be absolutely prepared for everything 100% of the time, and nobody,  I suspect, can afford to purchase and maintain every single “You’ve gotta have this piece of gear or you are gonna die!” item on the market.  In fact, purchasing technology to handle a specific potential emergency is, I believe, setting yourself up for a fall.  Vessels that we think of as relatively primitive were successfully rounding Cape Horn long before the EPIRB, emergency raft and satellite communications were around, and while there were definitely losses of life and shipping, there were also many, many successful voyages through the most violent, unforgiving waters in the world.  Ask the oldtimers how it was that most ships made it, but only a few didn’t, and you quickly discover a pattern.  First, the vessels were well found (ie: They were sound and well fitted out with strong, reliable gear) and second; they had well-trained, experienced crews and commanders who knew how to get the most out of their vessel, and how to manage her to avoid damage.

So how does the crew of Sionna stack up against those Cape Horners of old? Well… ah… see…   We’ve got some catching up to do, actually.

Keith (your author) has been sailing along the coast of Maine for seven years now.  (That is, if you don’t count prior lives – I have a feeling I may have been one of those Cape Horn guys in a prior incarnation, but I can’t prove it.)  I’ve sailed whenever I could on my own or other’s boats, done some racing (on other people’s boats – a great way to learn sail trim, by the way!) and have read every single piece of boat and nautical literature – both fiction and non- that I could lay my hands on. I also have many years of command training and experience, risk assessment and management skills, and mechanical troubleshooting and repair, all due to my prior careers as a professional pilot and aircraft mechanic.   Does that make me an “experienced sailor”?  Nope – but I think it does make me eminently trainable, particularly on the job.
There’s an old saying in aviation that applies perfectly to boats:
“The successful pilot learns from every resource available, and then applies what she has learned so as to avoid having to use her superior skills.”

Nicki (second in command) has less sailing time than I, having come to it as a result of falling in love with a guy who owned a boat and loved to share his addiction. She’s a quick study, and has a better sense of the vessel and its needs than she sometimes realizes. As is often the case in cruising couples, Nicki is often the crewmember who’s less comfortable pushing the comfort zone and stretching into an experience we’ve not had before – and this raises a really, really important point.
If you’re sailing as a crew, you have to agree to ACT like a crew, and that means that the most conservative voice has veto power.

I’m not talking about arbitrary, heels dug in, angry-tantrum-just-because-I-can-power, but reasoned, “here’s what I’m concerned about” power.  If I think the weather is going to clear in an hour,  and she thinks it might not, we’re going to wait that extra hour and see, unless there’s a damn good reason that we MUST push forward now. And when Nicki says we should reef the sails, we reef. Period.  But then, I also live by the maxim “Reef Early and Often”.

We take a pretty conservative approach to life aboard Sionna, hoping to keep our learning curve ahead of our experience curve, so you’ll note that our ambitious plans for the next year or two involve the ICW, Florida Keys and Bahamas, and not an ocean passage to the Azores and Europe.  Would I like to do those trips someday?  Yes – if we reach the point where that seems like a reasonable challenge. But we’re not there yet – we may never get there.  That’s ok – there’s a whole lot of sailing between here and the Bahamas!

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Preparing to cruise – the Boat

Making a list, checking in twice…

So how does one prepare a boat for cruising?  Not to mention preparing the crew, and arranging one’s affairs…  The mind fairly boggles!

Those last two will likely be the seed for later posts, but the first – preparing a boat – is today’s topic.  This gets a bit long, so if you’re the sort that has no interest in DIY and saving a few dollars by investing your time, you might want to skim.  Anyway, for me (Keith) it always begins with a list.

Initially my lists are usually quite short; along the lines of:

  • Find a boat
  • Sell our stuff
  • Go cruising

But then reality steps in.  Ok, which boat?  What type, what size, how much can we afford, what condition is it in…?   We have a prior blog – A Yacht’s New Chapter – that details our first approach to finding our perfect cruising boat, and for anyone considering buying a neglected or abandoned boat as a DIY project, it’s highly recommended reading. I’m not trying to discourage anyone from that approach, or even from building your own boat. But I also know that the percentage of potential cruisers who actually end up going cruising drops dramatically when restoration or construction is included in the plan.  Only you know if your primary goal is actually cruising, or if you’d actually rather be working on the boat instead.100_0158-001In our case, I realized that I simply wasn’t going to live long enough to both restore our Alberg 35,  Renaissance, AND take her cruising, and since cruising was very much the goal, we made a major shift in our approach, and after considerable soul-searching and study, bought a boat that was “ready to go”.

Note the quotes around “ready-to-go”.  Trust me, there is no such thing, at least not within the income range of 90% of us. Following the advice of the pre-purchase survey and the desires of the insurance company, I spent about 200 hours of labor and an additional $2000 in parts to address a list of concerns numbering perhaps 15 items.  Note that this was on a boat which really was in very good condition, and had been lovingly maintained by her talented and devoted owner of 23 years.  Sionna was in sail-away condition the day we first saw her (photos above), yet we still put the equivalent (had we hired the work done at local going rates) of $14,000 into her, on top of her purchase price.  And we’d never even seen her in the water yet.  What sort of work?

  • Overhaul of drive shaft system due to a lube leak
  • Remove, inspect, and reinstall two chainplates which showed minor exterior corrosion (and rebuild the deck damage caused by the removal!)
  • Rebuild two other areas of deck that showed surface cracks
  • Remove, clean and re-attach all grounding straps throughout.
  • Replace many pieces of running rigging line due to age or improper materials.
  • Install GFCI outlets
  • Install smoke/CO detectors
  • Replace fire extinguishers
  • Remove, inspect, reinstall and re-fiberglass over the centerboard pins
  • Prep and paint the bottom
  • Remove and re-stencil the hailing port name

…all this and more before we launched the boat for the first time.  Let this be a lesson to you if you’re thinking of buying a boat and taking off – you will either spend a lot more up-front than you hope so that someone else has already done all this work, or you will spend it after the purchase to assure that your new floating home will stay floating.  All boats – even very good boats – need continuing maintenance work to stay that way.


We launched Sionna for the first time in May of 2015 – a very happy day for both us and her former owners – and spent the season getting to know her.  She sailed better than my unspoken fears suggested (her sail area to displacement ratio is pretty low), and her comfort level is much better than our prior experience in other boats.  She just feels “right”. We spent almost half the summer living aboard, including our first two overnight passages, our first fog encounters, our first whale sightings…  And lots of gorgeous sunsets.

But just as important as those delightful and critical first experiences, all that time living aboard also gave us a chance to form our impressions of her as a floating, long-term cruising home.  What did we love? What did we miss? What could we just not live without? What could we let go?  Those questions became the basis for – yes – another list!

Once we’d hauled the boat for the season in October ’15, we began making a list of equipment and refit projects that we felt would make living aboard something we would truly enjoy, rather than just tolerate. Camping is fun, for a few days. Camping for 8 months might loose a little of its luster!

So below is that winter work list, containing 45 separate “projects”.  It’s interesting to note that a given project frequently has a number of component steps to completion, each of which is almost a project in itself.  For example, there’s a line item for “Install manual anchor windlass”  But in order to install the windlass, I had to fabricate & install an oak doubler plate under the foredeck to carry the loads imposed by the windlass, and then remove, modify  and replace the hawse pipe so that the anchor rode from the windlass would feed smoothly into the anchor locker below. To install the stove I had to disassemble the stove area of the galley and re-build it to allow the stove to swing on its gimbals.  I’ve got about 25 hours in each of those projects alone.

I note also that this list is roughly twice as long now as it was when I started last fall. That’s because each project makes me more intimately familiar with the boat and her systems, leading to more “good ideas” to add to the upgrade list!  This is what you call the rachet effect of boat work – one project leads naturally to another, and if you don’t draw a firm line, YOU WILL NEVER LEAVE THE DOCK!  It happens all the time.
Anyway – the list:

Install gimballed stove with oven                 Install propane system
Install solar panel and controller                  Replace fresh water plumbing
Replace head faucet                                           Install fresh water filter
Modify aft cabin to a double berth                Make outboard motor stowing block
Install AIS/chart plotter (BIG one!)              Rebuild port water tank (another big one!)
Re-bed aft cabin ports                                      Re-caulk port salon port
Install refrigeration system in ice box         Install cabin fan
build aft port screens                                         Companionway screens
Re-plumb galley hand pump                           Install head liquids pump
Add shelves in hanging locker                        Replace stern light
Exchange halyards at mast head                    Install shower in cockpit
Install engine hour meter                                 Reverse hanging locker door
Add hatch to hanging locker and install floor for additional galley storage
Install stereo (we don’t do tv, but music…)
Re-rig main centerboard winch                     Install AIS antenna
Add shelves in aft cabin                                    Make wedge cushion for aft cabin
Add insulation in fridge                                    Epoxy interior of fridge
Remove icebox sump & pump, and close off thru-hull
Secure main cabin floorboards                        Create lock for roller-furler
Install manual windlass                                    Replace main traveller car
Seal wires to solar panel                                    Install mizzen wire pass-through
Re-bed aft hatch rails                                         Service all sea-cocks
Install storm trysail track on mast           

These aren’t all going to get done, and I’m comfortable with that.  My list also includes marks to prioritize the items on it, and when it’s time to launch in the spring, I’m sure there will be items that aren’t done. I don’t care.  In she goes, I’ll pack some tools, and if I feel motivated enough and need those few “comfort items” badly enough, I’ll do them.

But come August 15th or thereabouts, this boat is heading south with us on it.



In the beginning…

… There was a dream.

That dream’s first expression was detailed in my previous blog, (see A Yacht Reborn for that story of the boat we began to restore and then abandoned).  It was – and is – to spend a large chunk of time cruising on our own boat, spending winters someplace warmer than Maine, and living life as though it was something finite and precious.

That dream hasn’t really changed much since the days of Renaissance,  the boat we intended to restore and take cruising, but it has certainly accelerated.  In the last year, Nicki and I have sold all real estate, begun the agonizing task of sorting through and distributing or discarding anything we can’t fit on the boat and don’t want to pay to store, bought a 35′ RV as our summer home, closed our small home maintenance business, and just generally been really weird and antisocial. It’s kinda fun.

And of course we bought Sionna, our 32′ floating  cruising home, sailed her for a season (including our first overnight passages and fog-bound adventures), and are now hard at work upgrading, updating, polishing and priming for the adventures that await.  Check out our pages here on the blog, on describes the boat, and the other the journey we have “planned” to begin in August of 2016.

“Planned”, because the first rule of safe, enjoyable cruising is to be flexible.  We’d like to make it to Sarasota Florida by Christmas next year, but you know, the weather and tides always trump plans, so if we’re late, or don’t make it until February, that’s ok.  We intend to enjoy the journey.

If that concept – enjoying the journey, whatever it is – appeals to you, I hope you’ll follow us and tag along. We won’t be posting every day – heck we may only manage a couple times a month, since sitting in front of the computer is a lousy way to enjoy the sunset.  But we will, hopefully, be sharing some of the ups, downs, trials and elations of our trip to the sun.

Oh, and the name of the blog? That’s not original, of course, and many folks have used the concept.  Nicki and I joke aboard – and sometimes here in our winter-bound rental house – that “The butter’s not melting!”, meaning that the ambient temperature is too cool for comfortable human habitation. We keep the butter in the bilge aboard Sionna, which is below the waterline and therefor the same temperature as the water. When we head south this summer, we’re going to be watching the butter very carefully, because there’s a bottle of champagne waiting until it forms a yellow pool in the dish.  When that happens, we’ll know we’ve gone South “’til the butter melts”.

Come on aboard!