Well, the time has come. We have cast off the lines, sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge, and turned left. We said goodbye to our lives in Sausalito and San Francisco, places that we called home for the last six years. So far, we have sailed from Sausalito to Santa Cruz and from Santa Cruz to Monterey. After dreaming of this for five years, we felt ready to go. I felt nervous, too, but my friends assured me that was only normal.
Our Rafiki 35’ was most certainly ready, and has been for months. We—and I use that term loosely, because it’s mostly been Garrett—have been preparing Thisldu to be a cruiser for years. To ease the minds of our loved ones and help others who are thinking of a similar journey, I am offering a full explanation of what we did to ready ourselves to sail from San Francisco to Panama. When it comes to paperwork and certain logistical measures, I will be focusing on the needs for California and Mexico, as those are most pressing. I’ll write again later to cover what we do for Costa Rica, Panama, and the other places that we visit.
Below you will find what safety measures we have taken, what apps and tools we use for weather and navigation, how we organized our small living space, how we provisioned for our journey, and a comprehensive list of the improvements we have made to the boat, listed from bow to stern, above deck and below deck.
If you are just joining us for the first time (hello!) I recommend you check out these four posts first to learn more about how we got to where we are today:
Garrett and I are hoping to travel for two cruising seasons, which run from about October/November through April/May. We are doing what is called coastal cruising, which means we will be stopping frequently at ports and do not plan to be at sea for longer that 3-5 days. We are taking about a month to cruise down the California Coast, stopping along the way, and will meet up with over 100 boats at the beginning of November to cruise from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas in a rally that is called the Baja Ha-Ha. It is our intention to get through the Panama Canal by the end of the first cruising season, work somewhere on the eastern seaboard during the summer, and return to our boat and cruise to Columbia and up through the Caribbean during the following cruising season. They say, though, that sailor’s plans are written in the sand at low tide, so who knows where we will end up, or when. We have the luxury of time, which will allow us to sail when the conditions are good and allow us to stay where we want, when we want. Garrett and I have the goal of returning Thisldu to the East Coast, where we’d like to settle, by the end of the second cruising season, but are entirely flexible if changes to that plan need to be made.
Our safety is our number one priority and we will do our best to avoid sailing in dangerous conditions. We do believe that in the San Francisco Bay for the last four years, though, has prepared us for a lot. There’s a saying, “if you can sail the San Francisco Bay, you can sail anywhere in the world,” that has become my mantra. Whenever we sailed in the Bay, we were faced with shifting winds, changing currents, high vessel traffic, and the effects of fog. It was a great training ground for us and allowed us to see just how far we can push Thisldu. She often sails herself better than we do when the going gets rough. She is a good, sturdy boat.
Most of our sail will be downwind. And, because we are giving ourselves the time to sail when the conditions look good, we will only be sailing when the conditions look good. (However, we do know and understand that things can and do change; we just do our best to stay informed.) To stay on top of the conditions, we use apps and websites like Windy and PredictWind to help us know what we will be facing as we sail from port to port. In addition to those weather apps, we use the navigation apps Navionics and iNavX. We also have hard copy charts and books on board to help us map our coastal route by hand. Charlie’s Charts: U.S. Pacific Coast and Charlie’s Charts: Western Mexico have been among our favorites.
For additional safety measures, we have removed non-essential valuables, such as my jewelry, from the boat. I sent my rings home with a family member to store, which was harder for me to do than I’d like to admit. I’ve been wearing my engagement ring for nine years! But I don’t need sparkly things out in the middle of the ocean and wouldn’t want to risk losing them if we come into contact with thieves. When it comes to dealing with thieves (pray that we do not have to), we have been advised that wasp spray is the best weapon as it shoots a long, direct, and painful stream without creating a cloud like pepper spray. For those wondering about guns, it is universally agreed within the cruising community that having a gun on board is a bad idea. I hope it never comes to having to protect ourselves against others, but it’s always best to be prepared. To make sure that we stay on board when underway, we are tethered into safety lines that run along the length of the boat. If we are in a situation where we need to abandon ship, we have our dinghy and a ditch bag full of survival and communication essentials. Here is a great article from West Marine about preparing a ditch bag. Again, I wholeheartedly hope that we never are in a situation where we have to abandon ship, but if we need to, we will be prepared.
Let’s move onto a lighter note and talk about organization. Organization is key for living in a tiny space that is also your method of transportation…but I’ll admit that I’ve practiced an “if you don’t see the mess, it isn’t there” policy for a couple of lockers and storage spaces on the boat up until recently. We had a storage unit that provided back-up space for the last year but emptied it before casting off, so everything that we need and now have access to is on our 35-foot sailboat. There’s a lot of storage space available to us, but most of it is under seats and awkwardly shaped, so we needed to get creative. Small plastic bins have been a lifesaver. For the spaces we use frequently, like the head (bathroom), v-berth (our bedroom), galley (kitchen), and our fun cabinet (my name for the space that holds my camera, some games, electronics, etc.), I measured the space available and found plastic crates on Amazon and at Target to help organize the clutter. I bought this mirror wall cabinet for our bathroom and it’s my new favorite thing—storing toiletries was kind of a mess before. That cabinet is the right size for our space and the door closes snugly, meaning it doesn’t fly open when we sail. Our fridge is really a converted ice box, which means it’s a big rectangular space that you have to reach down into, so we bought six stackable bins and use those to organize our perishable groceries. We also got a bunch of OXO Pop Top Storage Containers to store dry goods like rice, lentils, oats, coffee grains, tea, and more. We try to get rid of cardboard as fast as possible because it doesn’t maintain well in a damp environment.
When it comes to our very, very small closet and two very, very small bedroom drawers, we use them to keep the clothes we most frequently wear, like undergarments, bathing suits, t-shirts, shorts, and pants. We have a designated cubby for our foul weather gear, life jackets, and tethers. More shirts, sweaters, and workout clothes are kept in packing cubes in one of the lazarettes in our saloon. We vacuum sealed a lot of our other clothes—things that we weren’t sure if we’d need or not—and stored those under our v-berth. We shipped the rest of our clothing and shoes to my dad’s house in South Carolina for safe keeping until we return to land life.
Another big area that we have been diligent about being organized in is paperwork. You have to check in to each marina and each country you enter, which means that, at a minimum, you have to present your personal IDs (passports, obviously, for foreign countries), boat registration, the boat’s engine serial number, and proof of insurance. Checking into a country requires a bit more, and it can differ from country to country. For Mexico, we need to have our passports, a Temporary Import Permit (TIP), a FMM, the 180-day tourist visa, which we can get from Immigration at the first port of entry, a fishing license, and liability insurance. All of these documents (the ones that we have and the ones that we will have) are kept in a watertight binder in a place that’s easy for us to grab.
For food provisioning, I built a meal planning template that outlines breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks for two-week periods. For the near future, we do not plan at being at sea for more than 3-4 days at a time and know there are grocery stores nearby most of the marinas we’re stopping at in California and Mexico. That said, we try to provision for 1.5x the amount of time we expect to be away, or more. We have lots of food stuffs like rice, lentils, pasta, and oats that we bought in bulk. If we are at a marina and connected to shore power, I’ll be making protein-packed smoothies for breakfast. We got a manual blender to use for when we’re at sea. Other breakfast options will be overnight oats, which will be stored in mason jars in the fridge, and easy for people to grab as they want. We have sandwich meats and salad packs for lunch and bars, nuts, and trail mix for us to snack on during the day and night. Dinners will mostly be a one-pot heartier affair like jambalaya, soups, chilis, and stews. Perishables will be cooked first, and we tried our best to not overload ourselves with canned goods, as those are easy to get as you go. I’m really, really excited about all of the farmers markets and local produce we’ll come across in our travels.
To keep ourselves entertained during long passages and in remote anchorages, we’ve downloaded a bunch of podcasts, books, and movies. We have a bunch of hardback books on board that need to be read and I have a few empty journals, too. I’m not too worried about being entertained. That’s what nature is for. (Well, except during the dark hours during night passages—that’s what the podcasts are for.)
Okay. Now for the comprehensive list of improvements we’ve made to the boat since purchasing her in 2016:
From bow to stern, we:
Installed a roller furling unit
Converted our 100 jib from a hank-on to a furling
Purchased and installed a 130 jib
Installed new navigation lights on the bow
Purchased 200 feet of chain and a new 45lb Mantus anchor
Purchased, refurbished, and installed a manual windlass
Cleaned, brightened, and oiled the teak at least five times
Painted everything above the toe rail including new non-skid
Re-bedded and resealed leaking hatches
Installed two new running rigging lines for halyards
Removed the baby stay
Installed new LED spreader lights
Purchased and installed stack-pack
Replaced existing running rigging
Installed a dodger
Installed a pedestal guard
Installed a cockpit table
Installed a captain’s chair
Put in new cockpit cushions
Installed fishing rod holders
Bought and set up a Magma Marine Grill
Replaced our throwable flotation device
Installed binnacle guard
Installed and wired two 175-watt solar panels
Installed the solar charge controller
Replaced the charge controller for shore power
Replaced the shore power cord
Installed battery monitor
Converted ice box to refrigerator
Installed an antenna splitter
Refurbished interior teak
Replaced cushion covers and porthole curtains
Replaced holding tank and reran plumbing
Purchased shower head with an 11-foot hose to let us shower on deck
Replaced v-berth cushions
To add on to the apps I mentioned above, we use Navionics, iNavX, and iAIS for navigation, Victron for solar and battery monitoring, Windy for weather, PredictWind and Offshore for weather routing, Garmin for inReach, and Signal for communication.
If you made it to this point of the post, congratulations. You’ve reached the end. I know that was a long one, but I hope all of the information I shared helps you understand a) how prepared we are and b) what steps need to be taken if you are planning a similar journey. Because we’ve done so much to the boat, there’s a very good chance that I’m leaving some things out of this post by mistake, so if I think of anything, I’ll add it in! Cheers!