From the earliest days, humans have used nature and ingenuity to stretch the limits of the known world. We have never been content to gaze upon the ocean, wondering what was over the horizon. Innate curiosity has encouraged us to go see for ourselves.
All it took was a series of sticks lashed together with twine to teach the sailors of the Marshall Islands how to navigate to unseen lands. Their stick charts representing waves, swells and currents taught them how to read the sea surface; combining those charts with an understanding of what distant cloud formations could mean, they ventured out in search of new islands.
Adventurous boaters today are kindred spirits. Those who dare to go beyond the reef replace fear with knowledge—including from GPS satellites circling overhead—and the confidence of being aboard capable motor cruisers. Advancements in navigation, stabilization, communications and weather prediction have emboldened those with an interest in pushing the limits.
The amount of planning required to go where services are sparse increases with the remoteness of the destination and duration of the trip. That’s true for experienced bluewater powerboat cruisers making ocean passages, and for boaters going remote with a few back-to-back daytime runs.
Here are some key things to consider in your planning, in addition to bringing paper charts instead of ones made from sticks.
The Right Boat
Boats capable of remote cruising can come in many forms and sizes, but their common thread is durability. A ruggedness in structure and components is necessary. The age of the vessel is irrelevant; there can be as many or more problems on a new boat as on a well-tested one.
Regardless of the vessel, before starting out, conduct a thorough inspection of all components. This is not the same as a boat survey, and the process will vary with boat size and systems complexity. A good place to source an inspection list is from organizers of bluewater cruises such as CUBAR (Cruise Underway to Baja Rally), a powerboat cruise from San Diego to La Paz, Mexico. Organizers of that and other rallies have developed inspection standards for participating boats.
Milt Baker, who wrote the operations manuals for the Nordhavn Atlantic Rally completed in 2004 and the Med Bound Rally in 2007, stresses the importance of inspecting systems in order of critical need. Begin with propulsion and stabilization components, and then look at navigation and electronics systems.
Bernie Francis, an experienced offshore captain, has used Baker’s work to further develop an inspection program for trawler owners. Francis adds the importance of a sea trial that repeatedly tests all systems.
“It is important to stress the systems in ways that they will be used in the worst conditions. This will typically produce a follow-up list of maintenance items. Testing systems during a cruise around the harbor on a calm day will only give a false sense of confidence.”
The ability to communicate is critical to safety and comfort in remote cruising. Today’s satellite communications systems allow for texting devices such as the Garmin inReach, the family of Spot units and Higher Ground’s SatPaq in areas where cellphone service is nonexistent. Features on these types of devices can include weather forecasts and registration with GEOS Search and Rescue, an international rescue coordinator.
Satellite telephones also have become easier to use with devices such as the Iridium GO and Globalstar’s Sat+Fi2. These “hot spot” transceivers allow a smartphone to place a satellite call.
And of course, there’s the trusted VHF radio, which can reach other vessels that may be nearby.
Communication is also important to maintain among members of your party. In remote areas, exploration away from the boat in a tender or kayak comes with added risk. Take satellite communication devices on excursions, and bring water and basic first aid supplies too.
Cruising guides exist for most of the world’s oceans, providing local knowledge of harbor information and water conditions.
Along with the many privately produced guides, two good sources for information about international waters are the “Sailing Directions” from the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and from the British Admiralty. They provide detailed coastal and port approach information subdivided into geographic regions.
Also within the guides is information about coastal weather, currents, predominant sea direction, potential for ice, buoyage system, fishing regulations, local holidays, local search and rescue agencies, and more.
First Aid for the Boat
The goal in remote cruising is to be as self-reliant as possible. Yes, fuel filters, impellers and belts are still the most important spares to have stowed, but remember: The farther you are from assistance, the more spares you should carry. Like the inspection list, the spares list must be specific to your boat.
A good place to begin in assembling the spares list is with each component manufacturer. For example, your generator or stabilizer manufacturer may have a spare parts list or kit available. In the absence of that, go through every system. Anything that seems vulnerable should have a spare.
Look for items with a single point of failure. Anything that would leave you stranded or out of communication range needs a backup. Consult service technicians, who know what is most likely to fail based on what they most often repair.
A typically overlooked category of spares that’s common to all boats is water, meaning the freshwater and waste systems. Life aboard a boat without working watermakers, pumps or heads becomes at best uncomfortable—fast.
Last, if you are depending on a tender for shore transportation, then remember to stow spares and load fuel for the outboard as well.
First Aid for the Crew
Just like spares for your vessel, the farther you are from assistance, the more medical supplies you should carry for your crew.
The marine store’s plastic first aid kit won’t suffice for this kind of cruising. Wilderness expedition-quality first aid kits are a good place to start. Add personal medications that anyone on board is taking. A full prescription kit is also recommended. (Our doctor helped us assemble a kit of likely needed prescriptions.)
Having the ability to communicate is part of medical readiness too. While we were anchored in a remote location recently, a brown recluse spider bit me as I was tying our tender to an old pier. No emergency medical facilities were near us. I sent a photo of the bite and inflammation to our doctor, and he instructed me to take Augmentin and prednisone, both of which we had in our kit. By starting on these immediately, we resolved what could have become an emergency.
Air and water temperature can affect more than the clothes you wear and whether you’re going swimming. Water temperature can affect the boat’s systems as well. Heat-pump-style heating and cooling systems can be compromised in extreme temperatures. In cold climates, boat comfort is better maintained with diesel furnaces or electric heat sources. Most boats are insulated poorly, if at all, which means that condensation on internal surfaces in cold water and climates can become problematic. Proper ventilation of machine spaces is important to handle internal moisture, along with dehumidifiers for living spaces.
Managing provisions and food keeping is also a challenge in extreme temperatures. Typical food packaging can be inadequate. Repackage food in sealed food containers or vacuum-sealed bags to preserve freshness and quality.
Last and most important, when cruising to cold climates, prepare rescue procedures with cold-water immersion suits and life rafts that include full canopies and inflatable soles.
If your itinerary will take you beyond your fuel range, then research sources of fuel. It’s important to know not just where to buy fuel, but also how you will get it aboard. You could be fueling from a truck, or from 55-gallon barrels, or from a rickety wooden pier, or from another vessel or barge. Understand the resources available and have additional hoses, transfer containers and large-volume funnels as the situation dictates. Also bring plenty of fuel filters, and—if you don’t already have one—consider installing a fuel polishing system.
If you yearn for adventure and view the reef not as a barrier but as a gateway, then answer the call. Just go prepared. For doing so will ensure you enjoy your voyage and return safely with stories to tell of your own—as opposed to a story about you told by others.