10 Things I Wish My Friends Understood About Cruising on a Small Sailboat

What you think I’m doing…

What I’m really doing…

pump change

Replacing a manual pump with an electric pump.  Pump for what?  Shit.  Pumps shit overboard.  I cleaned those lines as much as I could before removing the old hose clamps but still got shit everywhere.  And this is right under my bunk, by the way.  More on that later.

So here’s the reality of cruising on a small sailboat – what is really going on versus the tropical Shangri-la you think I’m living in.

1. Fresh water is liquid gold.

water can
Before I finished the plumbing I had the desalinator lines coming from under the settee and into a 5-gallon can. I could fill it up halfway in a couple hours and after using a significant amount of my daily electrical budget.

What’s your record for standing under the hot water in the shower early in the morning and just zoning out? Mine is about fifteen minutes. Comes out to over 20 gallons of water. Feels great, doesn’t it?

Small boat sailors typically only carry on the order of 50 gallons of fresh water. This water is either caught as rain, purchased for up to $1/gal, or made via an onboard desalinator.

I grab the soap & washcloth and run up on deck to scrub down in front of my neighbors when I see heavy rain approaching.  Other rain that I catch in my dinghy gets pumped into a bucket to use as laundry water. I clean dishes in salt water and then rinsed with dribbles of fresh water. Not a drop is wasted! My daily water ration is about 1.5 gal/day.

To put that in perspective, a water-saving shower head goes through my entire daily ration in only one minute. Needless to say, there are days I just flat-out stink, but that’s the life.

I do have a desalinator but that doesn’t give me unlimited fresh water because it does consume a fair amount of electricity.

2. Don’t talk to me about your newborn keeping you up at night.

Oh, sleep. What I wouldn’t give for an uninterrupted eight hours of sleep. Hell, I’ll even take six. There’s always something happening.

  • I forget to completely secure the coffee press before bed, and the rocking through the night eventually frees it up to fall on the floor with a bang.
  • Rain comes in at 2am, waking me up when my face gets soaked, so I have to get up and close the hatches, and now it’s hot and stuffy.
  • A cross-swell comes through and sends me crashing into the hull, waking me up and making it impossible to go back to sleep unless I get out of bed and make a swell bridle while naked and still half-asleep.
  • Boats upwind of me aren’t secure and drag backwards into me.
  • Or I’m worried about my own anchor in heavy winds that make it hard enough to fall asleep already. Always something.

And let’s not forget the actual sailing passages, when I sleep for fifteen minutes at a time throughout the course of the day.

This is the most calm night I ever had in Prickly Bay, Grenada:

3. There’s that saying…it’s 23 hours of terror followed by one hour of pure bliss.

sailing storm
Sure, the majority of the pictures you see me posting are of some kind of tropical paradise. That’s because the rest of the time I have my hands full with tending sails and whatnot, getting knocked all over the place!

Taking pictures is the last thing on my mind in some of these situations where I honestly think I may lose my home & belongings and end up drifting for days in a liferaft.

4. “Checking the weather” takes on a whole new meaning.

Open up an app on your phone, look at the picture, and that’s the end of it, right?  Five seconds and you’re done.

Examining the weather while cruising on a small sailboat is much more involved.

The direction & strength of both the winds and the ocean swell determines if I can stay where I’m at, or if I have to move, or if I can even move at all. I’ve been unwillingly stuck in places for weeks because of bad weather.

Or I might be perfectly content where I’m at and even have commitments ashore to tend to, but if there’s a storm hundreds of miles away influencing ocean swells that might enter the bay where I’m at, I have to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice and find better shelter.

“Better shelter” could be a full day away, or more.  Can I make that passage without putting myself in danger?

5. Salt. Everywhere. All the time.

No matter how hard I try to keep salt water from coming into the cabin, it somehow finds a way.

Salt water does not dry on its own inside a boat – it has to be wiped away. And clothes – always damp and salty.

Chances are you have a tiny dinghy if you’re cruising on a small sailboat. The general rule is, the smaller the dinghy, the wetter you’ll get when going ashore.

It’s futile to try to wash clothes every day to remove salt stains because you’ll just get covered in salt again tomorrow. Deciding which clothes to wear ashore is determined by 1) least smelly and then 2) least salty.

6. I store poop less than a foot away from my face where I sleep.

Really, it’s actually something like eight inches.  See the second photo in this post.

It all goes into a holding tank that I can only empty when there’s no chance of swimmers in my backyard. There aren’t many options for where to put the holding tank on small sailboats. The only option on mine was underneath the head of my bunk.

I guess I’ve never really thought about how close that shit is to my face until I wrote this post.

7. You just have to learn to live with certain smells and sounds.

You eventually get used to most of them but it makes for some good fun when you have visitors!

It’s funny – I can now sleep on passage through all the racket, but when a flying fish lands in my cockpit and the wings start buzzing (happens more than you’d think), that’s the noise that will wake me up. But the rest of the clashing and creaking and splashing? I’ll sleep right through it. That’s how in-tune you become to everything living on a boat.

As far as the smells…see number 6. Storing trash can get nasty after a week or two when there’s nowhere else to put it but in the house.

And some smells just can’t be identified, and therefor not remedied – those are the worst.

8. Sometimes you just want to quit.

Hundreds of miles from nowhere

I don’t like to think of myself as a quitter. When I start something, I see it through. When the going gets tough, I buck up and charge forward.

But then you wonder, “why am I torturing myself like this?” Why am I getting into this nasty, filthy water in this crowded harbor in order to inspect something on the bottom of the boat? Why is this “to-do” list getting bigger and bigger and more expensive despite my efforts to check things off? How can this special hardware fitting, that I desperately need before I can move anywhere, cost so much money?

Going out to buy some milk isn’t as easy as hopping in the car and driving down the road. It can sometimes be a huge risk-management decision that you thought you’d never have to make for a liter of milk.

Sometimes you just want to go back home and have a burger & cold beer with your friends instead of wondering if someone will board your boat at night and shoot you or hack you with a machete (as happened to others during my last trip to the islands).

9. The range of emotions will strain your soul.

Everyone has their ups and downs – no one is immune.

Cruising on a small sailboat amplifies these ups and downs and increases their frequency. You could be sitting in the hammock enjoying the sunset one minute, in pure ecstacy, then an hour later be in complete despair for one of the many reasons the lifestyle can bring – maybe a critical boat component broke, you received distressing financial news, thoughts of a loved one, it hit you that you have no clue what you’re going to do the next few months, and so on.  Or you might be on the best sail of your life when suddenly a piece of rigging breaks and compromises the mast.

You can feel euphoria, despair, awe, joy, fear, outrage, dismay, frustration, distress, nostalgia, irritability, panic, fatigue, loneliness, apathy, agony, ecstasy, serenity, boredom, and anger in a span so short it’s a miracle your brain doesn’t fry.  All due to many of the above reasons.


10. I wish words and pictures could describe the experiences.

Going back to number 3. That one hour of bliss is…bliss. Pure, indescribable bliss.

Dolphins always seem to show up right after a storm when the stress is high. They were with me on my very first passage one night, swimming through the phosphorescence.  They left bright green glowing tunnels through the water as they did laps around my boat. There’s no way I can show you or tell you what it was like to be out on the ocean with that. Really, no words or pictures.  I wish I had a way to share it short of employing the DreamWorks CGI department.

Watching the sun set over the horizon while sailing in open ocean, and then watching the colors of the sea and sky change early the next morning is another thing that words and photos could never truly describe. Some authors have tried. You just have to be there.

Many islands are also only accessible by boat, and not commercial ferries. They’re really off the beaten path and the only way to see them is on your own. Some are inhabited and some aren’t; either way you’re in for a treat that only a relative handful of other visitors can claim to have experienced.

Sunrise sailing into Grenada
sailing sunset
Sunset a day out from Dominica

So do numbers 1-9 make number 10 worth it? I think so.

Some final words from an old salty sailor:

“But even when things are at their worst at sea, we rarely wish to be anywhere else than where we are at that blessed moment…”


“For me to try to tell them of it exactly would be like attempting to describe at the same time all the colors in a shifting kaleidoscope to someone who’d been born blind.”

– Tristan Jones, Encounters of a Wayward Sailor.

What do you other small-boat cruisers have to add to this list?  Let’s get a good one going!  Leave them below.


  1. Had to laught out loud about the holding tank being inches from you face… but in truth it is in a plastic container, and there is 3/4 inch of ply and hopefully 6 inches of foam between you and it…. On my last boat I put in a electro san but then never got a chance to use it.
    The salt issue is one which keeps me wondering if I will go cruising under sail when I retire or just go with a RV… Between the salt and the wind, and sun, and not to mention rolling… but then can’t go where I really want to be on a RV so…..

    • “Cruising” by RV will definitely be more comfortable and clean – but yes, having to stick to roads? No thanks! Don’t worry, you’ll get past all the nasty stuff once you realize how good it is ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Well put John. I’d never really thought about the people who give me funny looks when I talk about sailing “out of sight of land”. I just figure they’ll never get it. You hit the nail on the head. And given the 9, do they make the 10th worth it? For me Absolutely YES. Also, I never gave the location of my holding tank much thought. Fortunately my berth is several feet away.

  3. Ultimately it is worth it all for number ten, but there are do many maddening things about the lifestyle the land bound don’t anticipate.It’s *life* for us, not just a nonstop vacation. And all those little things you take for granted – like turning on the tap for a long hot shower, turning on the lights, or flushing the toilet and never having to worry about what happens next…they all do make it more challenging and less glamorous than you’d ever pick up on from the glossy sailing magazines.

    Nobody at cruising world wants to see the pictures from the head valve job I have in front of me…

    • When I first cast the lines off I knew it wouldn’t be a vacation, but there was definitely a huge learning curve to it – things you can’t anticipate as you said!

  4. My first short crossing was in my CD 25 was from Andros Isl Bahamas to New Providence (Nasau) In Jan 1989 . Not having much exp. and only minimum Nav skill I figured 3-4 hrs out of site of land would be a piece of cake…Running my 150 jib and moving hull speed was the idea a Novice like myself could expect. About 2 hrs after leavin site behind, I reach out to relocate my Boom box cassette player, for some reason in doing so I watched the Magnetic compass swing at least 100 degrees? When I discovered what I was doing was the spookiest feeling I had since first single handling 6 months earlier. I was lucky as the day was young and my ENE headind was easy to aproximate..I did document a lesson..

  5. Spot on! Priceless luxuries of living on land: sitting up straight in your bed in the morning, taking a shower lasting more than ten seconds, pouring a coffee of that doesn’t spill, flushing a toilet, a fresh apple in a fruit bowl, sleeping on a bed that doesnโ€™t move, food that stays on the stove, power plugs, getting through your morning routine without four new bruises, doing dishes with warm water, walking more than ten meters, friends to talk to, WiFi…

    The luxury at sea: BLISS!
    Great article John!

  6. Great article. How about a number 11) How my friends make me feel when they say for the ten-thousandth time, “must be nice to not have to work!” It’s always hard for me to understand how they can lack so much understanding, even when I try so hard to describe the whole picture. I think usually they aren’t very interested in the adventure part of our life — only the escape from their own drudgery and boredom.

    • Haha yeah, I think the “it must be nice to not have to work” thing that I hear also is their way of saying, “man, I’m so jealous and wish I had the guts to do what you do!”

  7. Loved this! I recognise myself in so many of the things you mentioned. It’s all worth it though.

  8. So true about risk management decisions just to go to the grocery store. Sometimes wearing a diving face mask was the only way I could see to steer the dinghy in choppy water. We loved soaping up in rain storms, and catching rainwater in awnings. Who knew you needed awnings until you left the States? Put the anchor down and get the awnings up to make the cabin bearable. And who knew you should have studied meteorology, electrical engineering, and diesel mechanics for the last five years before you left? Good writing!

  9. It makes you get your priorities straight. There’s only right now and the immediate future. It builds self reliance nobody- to blame but you when things don’t go right. It also makes you appreciate the small things in life. Someone brings you a piece of fresh fruit at anchor. Nothing has ever tasted so good. You catch a fish and clean it and cook it and eat it. all in an hour. Nothing better. You meet people and swap sea stories and laugh at your shared experiences and mistakes. Or maybe you help someone out just because it’s the right thing to do. ‘Cause you may need help one day…

    • Well said Mark. I love it when locals row their dugouts to my boat to barter fish & fresh fruit in exchange for spare rope or whatever else I may have laying around. It’s a good feeling.

  10. Excellent article again. (I am binge reading your web site!).
    You forgot one moment: Landfall. The moment you drop the anchor after a passage, when you turn smartly upwind run to the bow flick the safety pin and the chain goes: Cling ,cling, cling-cling-cling… To the bottom.
    Immense sense of satisfaction, relief and maybe a touch of pride.

  11. Sure enjoyed this one! Solo challenges intrigue me. Fancied myself a mountaineer for many years, but always relied on a partner. Never had the guts to solo anything too risky, so I eventually got addicted to ultrarunning. Training is mostly a solo effort and, though 50- and 100-mile “races” have a group start, I (a slow old dude) end up alone for long stretches — best times are overnight in a forest or on a mountain ridge somewhere. I’m not one of the fast kids, so I can’t write about sub-24-hour or top-10 finishes, but I should consider a post that parallels yours, it would even have 8/10 very similar entries. Indeed, #7 through #10 I could just steal outright (does pixsy check for that?!). Even the part about the dolphins, because after 30 straight hours on the trail, I’ve seen ’em. It can be terribly hard to explain to friends, but there’s poetry and beauty in putting yourself in a position to receive those gifts.

    Hope you’re re-learning your navigation and get to put it to use very soon. Thanks for the email. I’m good for chat or a rant if you’re stuck in a boatyard somewhere…

    Keep going…

    • For the record, ultrarunners are crazy. But then again, people say the same thing about solo sailors too, so… But we all do it for the challenge and satisfaction, right? I can imagine a lot of these apply to you also!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.