Five Things They Don’t Tell you About Sailing

I'm sure you've all seen it, at least on Instagram, YouTube, or some other social media platform: people enjoying sailing on a sea of crystal clear water, jumping into a shade of blue unlike anything you've ever dreamed about. Sailing is one of, if not my favorite ways to travel. I think everyone should experience sailing at least once in their life - even if only for a few hours. There's something so magical about being on the open ocean and being one with nature. The only sounds are the sea, the wind, and the occasional sail luff.

I grew up around the ocean and on boats, but sailing was kind of a new thing to me before I moved down to Grenada. I had sailed a couple times here and there, hopped on a HobeCat as a kid, but never realized that people sailed the world on their little floating homes. While in Grenada, I started to fall deeper in love with sailing from helping some friends with their boats, which led me to making a spontaneous decision to embark on a 1500+ nautical mile journey from the Caribbean all the way up to Rhode Island. It was easily one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and I can't wait until I get to do something like it again! 

I want to share some things about sailing (especially long-distance, but really applies to any length of trip) that some of you may not know! This isn't going to be a sailing guide by any means, more of a "things you won't think about until it happens" thing. There's ups and downs, but the absolute bliss that you feel being one with the sea is completely worth it.

Daily Tasks Can Be Tough

I'll be completely honest - it's not all sunshine and calm seas while you're out there. There's some things that make life a little more inconvenient than what you may be used to. Even the daily tasks you may be used to doing (cooking, cleaning, showering, etc) can be much more difficult at sea. 

Standing in the heat and trying to prepare a meal over a swinging stove in a galley (that's a kitchen for you landlubbers) with small portholes can make even the savviest of sailors feel a little queasy. I know I struggled with my appetite because I didn't want to be down below for long periods of time cooking over the hot stove. I started reaching for things that were easier to eat without preparation, like fruits and veggies (and Goldfish Crackers). That kept me satiated but I was definitely lacking protein (which is important!). Because of that (and other factors) I struggled a bit with fatigue during my waking hours (more on sleep later). 

Sorry for the Blurry pic, but just goes to show things aren't the most calm and stable while down below! Notice the stove on an angle? 

If you're someone that enjoys long, hot showers every day, be prepared to sacrifice those during a sailing trip, or while on a boat in general (especially long term). Most boats aren't equipped with a constant supply of fresh water like a hotel or home is, and if you're at sea, unless you have a water maker onboard then your fresh water rations are going to be limited since they need to be saved for other (more important) things like drinking water. To be completely honest, most of the time I decided to forego a true shower for a quick freshwater rinse in some cool water off the stern of the boat. I kept my hair in braids to avoid that "dirty hair" feeling, but really only took a true shower with shampoo and conditioner once or twice on our journey (no judgements allowed). You will feel salty constantly - even right after you shower or get it all off of you, it somehow sticks immediately again. Just embrace your inner mermaid and enjoy your cool water rinse!

Cleaning during a sail is necessary, but also kind of counter-intuitive. It sounds crazy to say it out loud, but it really is. Salt accumulates inside (and outside of course) so quickly at sea, so to prevent corrosion it's important to make sure you're wiping the salt off at least every few days. It becomes difficult at sea because you're fighting a losing battle. Everything has a salty feel to it, even right after cleaning. It really didn't bother me, but some people may find it unpleasant feeling humid or salty in their environment and on their skin at the same time. 

What is  there to Do?

Alright here it goes:

Sailing a long distance can get boring. There, I said it.

And no, I don't mean just being at sea for a whole day. I'm talking a few days at sea, through the night, nonstop sailing. There's only so much to do in a space that's limited to a few square feet of space. So what do you do when your daily schedules have kicked in and there's no one to keep you occupied? (It's important to note that while you are on watch, it's important to be alert and aware of all the surrounding waters). These tips are useful for the downtime you may have! 

Read! Books will be your friend, whether about sailing so you can learn, or novels to bring you on another adventure in your mind, books help to pass the time between watches. I highly recommend a physical book over an E-reader, iPad, or other electronic reading device for a few reasons: 

  1. They are great gifts to exchange with other travelers! While this may not be your first thought, it's a great way to bond with other travelers/sailors/nomads/locals, etc. 
  2. The artificial light from the electronics can destroy your night vision. Utilizing a red light helps to preserve night vision so that you are better equipped to see at night. I highly recommend avoiding any artificial light after sunset or before sunrise, but if you have to use it, make sure it is a red light! 
  3. They don't utilize the boat's batteries to charge, don't run the risk of being destroyed (and losing the entire story) if they get splashed, and physical books hold more sensory association to further immerse yourself in the story!

Not everyone is big into reading, but it's a great way to pass the time! 

Games with your crew members can be a lot more exciting than you would think! Our little crew of 3 played Cards Against Humanity more than once on our voyage, and even with only three of us, we had such a fun time playing! Maybe it was because we were sleep deprived, but everything seemed so much more amusing than playing on shore! Find some card games, board games, hand games, etc., that you enjoy now, or enjoyed as a kid. You'd be surprised how much fun they can be as an adult! 

Music! Sing, dance, learn to play an instrument - depending how long your voyage is, there is always time for music! From a couple hour day sail to a week long ocean voyage, music can make you feel "human" again. You may find yourself enjoying songs you've never heard before, or have never liked before. If you have an instrument (like my new Ukulele), all this down time is a good time to learn to play it! You may not be a musical wizard by the end of your voyage, but you can share a new skill with other travelers and sailors that you meet! After all, music is a universal language! 

Can't tie a knot? Tie a lot! - An old saying that holds true to everyone that walks onboard a vessel. If you're unsure of tying knots, practice them! Try them with both your dominant hand and non-dominant hand, try them backwards, upside down, with your eyes closed. You'll be surprised how quickly you can pick them up after you've tied them wrong a hundred times (and trust me, you will). Knots are super important in any boating endeavor, so if you have the down time and some extra line, try tying knots you don't know! 

Watch Schedules & Sleep

What the heck is a watch schedule??? 

For those of you who don't know, a watch schedule is the time allocated to each crew member to keep watch - or look out for other vessels, squalls (storms), wind changes, waves, dolphins, random floating debris, etc. Boats may have an autopilot, but that doesn't mean that the vessel is safe from everything. Squalls, or little storms at sea, can appear out of nowhere, with gusting winds and strong rain. Even with autopilot, it's important to know when you need to adjust the sails, change your heading, turn on radar, etc. It can be the difference between a comfortable sail and a dangerous sail. Your autopilot just holds your heading, it doesn't account for changing conditions, so having a human to watch the environment is super important! 

With that being said, watch schedules can vary wildly. Some people that sail solo do nearly 24 hour watches, with 15 minute naps here and there, while a larger crew may have a rotating watch and get a full night's rest every night at sea. My experience is with a rotating watch, of 3 hours on watch, followed by a 6 hour break. This watch schedule made it fair for the entire crew (of 3), so no one person had the hard watches, while others had the easier/daytime ones. We were constantly rotating, which made getting on a sleep schedule extremely difficult. Some people sleep great at sea - I felt like I needed to be semi-conscious in order to help if something went wrong. 

Sleep is so important, regardless where you end up falling asleep! Just make sure you're alert for your watch! 

I had some of the best sleep I've ever had in the cockpit of the boat. Laying out in the warm fresh air, on the low side of the boat, just listening to the wind and ocean as we sailed by. It was a much more enjoyable sleep than being down below in the hot cabin. The dreams you'll have as the boat rocks you to sleep are amazing.

But with that watch schedule, and my changed appetite - fatigue hit me way harder than I ever imagined it could. I of course, was awake for my watches, but staying awake was difficult at times - even with copious amounts of caffeine. It was like my body knew I needed about 24 hours worth of deep sleep to try and readjust, even though we never actually switched time zones. 

So learn from my mistakes regarding sleep: don't try and stay up during your breaks, even if it is mid-day. Your rest can be the difference between feeling confident and safe, or unsure and dangerous. Make sure your diet stays balanced. It's amazing how greatly diet affects our bodies and I definitely realized it during both 5 day sails. No amount of caffeine can make up for a balanced diet and adequate hydration and rest. Trust me, you'll thank me in the long run when you finally reach shore and don't have to sleep for 18 hours straight and miss an entire day of exploring! 

It's Not All Sunshine and Rainbows

Remember that fun little thing I mentioned earlier called a squall? Yeah we're going to talk weather, and it's truly, not all sunshine and rainbows, or sunsets and Mai Tais - especially if you're sailing for multiple days. 

Squalls can come out of nowhere out on the open ocean. This storm was a little more predictable when my boyfriend and I went sailing for the day, but we still got stuck in it with no good way back to shore (except through it). 

A huge part of sailing is being aware of the weather before you leave. Is there a huge storm approaching? What's the wind doing? Another huge part of the weather on the ocean is the possibility of spontaneous weather changes. A squall can roll in from the horizon, pour buckets of rain down, pick up wind speeds to 30+ knots, and then all of the sudden float away in the sky like nothing ever happened (but trust me, your soggy hair and clothes will prove otherwise). Sometimes weather is unavoidable, or more drastic than planned. Crossing the Gulf Stream once we got close to New England was a shock to the system. We went from warm tropical air to cold fog that didn't lift for a few days after we had docked in Rhode Island. Being prepared and aware of weather changes are really important, and is something you should be aware of if you've never spent time on (or near) the water.

While you may not need to be planning your trip around the weather (that's the captain's job), it's important to be aware of the weather and what it's doing. Making adjustments confidently will make sure everyone stays safe and has an enjoyable trip!

Post-storm dip after being freezing on our sail through that storm! Even in the best foul weather gear, the weather can still take a toll on you!

It's Surreal

It may sound like most of what I've written are negatives, but that's definitely not the case or my intention! Sailing, even for a few hours, is an incredible experience, rain or shine. There's something truly incredible about being on the water, with no sound of the engine running, and getting to truly experience the magic of the world. 

Sunsets have a different kind of magic at sea, it's hard to describe until you see it in person.

Just gaining a new skill and learning a variety of new things every day builds you up as a person. It's amazing how much you can learn and how quickly you can pick things up when you are thrown head first into it. I went into a huge sailing journey with very little sailing experience, and walked out feeling far more confident in my abilities. 

There's so many incredible experiences you may not think about when you embark on a sailing journey. Seeing dolphins never get old, especially when they come play under the bow of the boat. The millions of different shades of blue that shine as the ocean dances in front of your eyes makes you realize that blue is the most beautiful color in the world. Watching the sky is incredible. Clouds come and go, in all different shapes, sizes, and colors. Sunrises and sunsets have a different kind of magic when they're reflecting off the waves. Since there's no ambient lighting, imagine the darkest night you've ever experienced, and throw a billion stars in the sky. Believe it or not, I even saw bioluminescence, so it was like the entire world was twinkling with stars from above and below. 

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10 thoughts on “Five Things They Don’t Tell you About Sailing

  1. I absolutely loved every moment of your memories in this writing… very informative and exciting at the same time, I truly felt like I’d just taken a wonderful sail up the coast…

  2. What an awesome post! I used to sail a lot with my ex and really miss sailing. It’s my dream to sail various islands around the world. It’s definitely a lot of work and love your honesty and great tips! 😁

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