Copyright 2017 - Woods Designs, Foss Quay, Millbrook, Torpoint, Cornwall, PL10 1EN, UK
  • home built Flica 37

  • plywood Romany 34

  • lightweight 14ft Zeta mainhull

  • Strike 15 trimaran at speed

  • 28ft Skoota in British Columbia

  • 10ft 2 sheet ply Duo dinghy

  • 24ft Strider sailing fast

  • 36ft Mirage open deck catamaran

Note this article appeared (with photos!) in Practical Boat Owner magazine. You can get a back copy by visiting their web site ybw.com

In my first article I described how I converted my race winning 32ft catamaran Eclipse into a live aboard ocean cruiser and readied it for a planned cruise from the UK to the Caribbean and then on up the east coast of the USA to the Canadian border.

In this article I will outline what equipment I took and what other preparations I made.

Because I would be leaving late in the year it was essential I got good weather forecasts until at least the Canaries. Although I have a Navtex receiver, I prefer to look at weather maps and form my own opinions rather than just rely on text messages. So before leaving any port I always look online at www.weatheronline.co.uk. This is a truly excellent free site offering wind forecasts for anywhere in the world at six hour intervals for up to 5 days ahead. Simply click on "sailing" and choose where in the world you want a forecast. Another good site is the official ECMWF site, except that it only shows isobars and not fronts which seems a strange omission.

I have a Nasa target SSB receiver which works well with an active aerial (I have also used it successfully with a wire attached to a shroud as an aerial). With this I can pick up the BBC world service anywhere, listen to cruiser nets (very popular in areas with lots of US cruisers) but most importantly download the weatherfaxes from Northwood, Offenbach or Miami. I don't use the Nasa supplied software but instead downloaded a free copy of the Dutch Mscan Meteo. I use the lite version and like it as it has a spectrum analyzer which is useful for setting the white balance. I save the charts as gif files using the free Capture Express program.

I have found that although the stations transmit regularly, Navtex is not popular with Americans and that is because for years they have used "Metal Mickey", an automated voice recording that transmits continuous weather forecasts. Either on VHF if in range or by SSB. The VHF frequencies are special weather channels and not normally available on an UK VHF set. So last time I was in the USA I bought a waterproof handheld VHF (really handy anyway as a spare or in case of mast failure or even to be taken ashore as a link back to the boat) with all the weather channels for about £60. Of course just because they are continuous transmissions that doesn't mean they are any more accurate than the UK Met office!

Offshore, Metal Mickey still transmits but not continuously. Times and frequencies vary, but in the Caribbean and Bahamian waters I got good reception on 8765 or 13090 USB at 12-12.30 and 1800-1830 local time. The transmission takes half an hour as it starts in the NE USA and extends south as far as Trinidad and as far east as 55 deg.

The British Hydrographic Office charge very much more for their charts than do other countries (although to be fair they are up to date when you buy them - unlike the American charts). To buy all necessary charts for a world cruise before leaving UK is uneconomic. The obvious first option is to try and swap charts and pilot books with friends, and if that doesn't work I suggest waiting until you arrive and buy locally produced charts. But you have to arrive first, so I did start with some second hand charts and also as pilot books I bought the new "Cruising Association" Handbook and "Atlantic Islands" by Anne Hammick.

Many of you, like me, will be using a PC on board. So here are a few freebies for you! A free chartplotting system is by Seaclear www.sping.com (but you have to acquire your own charts). As a system it works with my handheld Garmin GPS connected to the PC's serial port. For a nominal charge (25US) the Brazilian "Navigator" www.tecepe.com.br/nav is a better system and some free charts are available. If you don't want to pay anything you can still get the sight reduction program, nautical almanac (valid until 2020) and lots of other useful stuff. Another free download program I use extensively is WXTide32 (version 2.6) a tidal program.which gives the world tides for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately you may no longer be able to download the version I have, as the British Hydrographic Office wants royalties for tide data for UK ports (the only country in world to do so!). So as the program is free the author has removed the UK from ports on newer versions. There are other free tide downloads out there, but none have the UK data any more.

You can also download charts of the USA for free in GIF format at a number of sites. The resolution may only be 80dpi but on the screen they are quite legible - just don't try printing them out. I downloaded the ones that I might have to use in an emergency, while they also helped plan my trip. The US government is one of many who believe that if the tax payer has paid for something then it should be public domain and thus freely available. So apart from downloads you can also pick up free printed charts for most popular sailing areas in the US at most marinas and chandlers. Of course being free they are on cheap paper and have adverts on the back. But as cruisers we tend to only use each chart for a day or two so there's no real problem in that. Try www.uscharts.com and www.marineplanner.com In the UK of course we pay the Admiralty to draw the charts and then pay them again to buy them…

But having said all that, to be honest you don't really need charts in the Caribbean (shock horror!). The islands are so big, and visibility so good that you can always see the next island (I once saw the Pitons on St Lucia from 90 miles away), while there's no tide to speak of, and few rocks or sandbars. So I ended up using a large scale chart that covered the whole area (ie Trinidad to Cuba) and just used the absolutely essential pilot books by Chris Doyle. His Yachtsman's Guide to the Windward Islands covers Grenada to Martinique while the Yachtsman's Guide to the Leeward Islands extends north from Dominica to the Virgin Islands. For the Virgins I borrowed a Moorings chart from someone who'd been on a charter which I found was all I needed.

However, when sailing in the Bahamas you will need all the help you can get, because unlike the Caribbean the islands are low lying and large areas are very shallow and reef strewn. So you need a chart pack. I used the Maptech Chartkit of The Bahamas and also the superb pilots written by Stephen Pavlidis. Again they are absolutely essential and a real labour of love. The Exuma Guide covers the Exuma chain while The Central and Southern Bahamas Guide covers most of the other islands. To fill in the gaps I used the less detailed Tropic Isle Yachtsman's Guide to the Bahamas (which includes the Turks and Caicos). Pavlidis is now writing pilots for the Caribbean so it will be interesting to compare them to the Doyle guides.

Once in the USA you can be spoilt for choice. I used The Intercoastal Waterway Chartbook by John and Leslie Kettlewell , the Cheasapeake Bay Magazine Cheasapeake Charts and the BBA or Maptech Chart Kits further north. The Skipper Bob guides are also essential. They aren't charts or pilots but listings of all good anchorages, free docks etc from New York to Miami.

In Europe we have now got used to the fact that we can just sail from country to country without contacting customs. But that's not the case anywhere else! In the Caribbean you will have to accept the idea of clearing in and out at every island. Fees are generally low, but frustration high! Every island has a different form so you can't prepare in advance. So the other excellent web site I use is www.noonsite.com, run by Jimmy Cornell's family (of ARC fame). Apart from cruising news headlines the most important feature of the site is a list of all the worlds' countries giving basic facts, their clearance ports, fees, port information, marina locations etc.

It is always worth doing a web search for cruising sites in the areas you visit. For example, there are good ones for the Portuguese coast (eg www.manorhouses.com/ports, surprisingly enough) while obviously there are lots to choose from for US, Bahamas and Caribbean cruising. If you want paper guides then the "Rough Guide" series are worth getting from a library, while I always visit the local tourist office and pick up any free land maps.

No visas are required when travelling in the Caribbean or Bahamas, but the USA (including the US Virgin Islands, Spanish Virgins and Puerto Rico) is different! Although you may have flown to Disney World without a visa (you fill in a waiver form on the plane) you need one if arriving on your own boat. Don't make the same mistake that I did! I got my visa in Barbados, not a problem, I just had to queue for 4 hours in a hot carpark. BUT my visa cost me 100US and only lasts a year. Had I got it in my normal "country of residence" (ie the UK) it would have only cost 70US and been valid for 5 years. Incidentally, a US Visa may say "indefinite" on it, but that actually means 5 years...If you arrive in the USVI without a visa they will fine you 160US and then throw you out.

You will also need a "Cruising Permit" for the boat. This isn't needed or available in the USVI, but can be obtained in the Spanish Virgins or at any other port of entry. It cost me 37USD and is valid for a year. You won't then have to clear customs again. But you will have to inform them when you move from port to port (I cheated and only reported in every 200 miles or so. I bought a mobile phone for business reasons, so I could easily call customs. But every time I called they insisted on calling me back, which could be a bit tricky if you were relying on public phones!). But I've discovered that other English cruisers have had different experiences. Being polite I guess one can say they are changing the system…

Finally, I didn't even try to get full insurance cover for my boat, partly because I knew that much of the time I would be sailing singlehanded and also because there was little that I couldn't fix myself for less than an annual premium payment. After all, I carry nearly all the tools I used when we built the boat, plus a generator and sewing machine, while sadly if the boat was a total loss there would be a good chance I wouldn't be around to pick up the insurer's cheque. So instead I opted for just a third party policy which is a requirement in just about every marina in the world. I chose Pantaenius as they gave me a very good quote (£120). Furthermore, I knew from those less fortunate than I, that they would pay out promptly and fairly if I had to claim. So I also arranged medical cover with them as I felt that a personal accident was a bigger risk than losing the boat. A year's worldwide cover is about £250.

So at last my boat was ready and my crew organised. I knew where I was going and how to get there. What was left to do? Well, buying food for a start. There's no need to bother with the traditional buy lots of stores technique - a nice photo opportunity though it might be. After all, people eat in other countries as well! And eating local food is part of the enjoyment of travelling.

However, some things are just unavailable outside the UK. Proper teabags for a start, but also Marmite, Horlicks, Branston Pickle, Wagon Wheels etc. Fortunately these all last for ages so there's no problem stocking up. Because of the EU milk lake, milk is cheap in Europe and although UHT lasts months be careful about storing it as cartons quickly chafe through. The same applies to juice cartons as well of course.

Although it's tempting to buy big low cost bulk bottles and boxes, they are awkward to store after opening at sea so its usually better to have many smaller cartons. But if you feel you must buy in bulk then tinned food, especially baked beans and tinned peaches (ie the usual loss leaders) will never be as cheap as in the UK. Finally on the topic of food, how come I can buy bananas cheaper in the Plymouth market than I can in the West Indies?

So there we were, all stocked up and ready to go; all we had to do was wait for a break in the autumn weather. In my final article I will tell you whether the reality of ocean cruising matched my expectations.