The Three Ds of Cruising
When Evans Starzinger and I prepared for our first voyage more than a decade ago, we took our inspiration from books we'd read, including Dodge Morgan's American Promise and Tania Aebi's Maiden Voyage. We didn't know anyone who'd ever sailed offshore, let alone completed a circumnavigation. Most of our friends and family members found the idea of living aboard a boat and crossing oceans too alien to comprehend. Many thought we were crazy to be walking away from lucrative careers to sail around the world.
Five years ago, Ron and Meredith Woodward were in the same boat, so to speak. They'd spent the last few years "messing about in a Columbia 22" in the sheltered waters near their home in Vancouver, British Columbia, and they'd just started looking at offshore boats. They had their cruising dream, but they weren't sure where to go with it. They knew they needed a lot of skills, but they weren't sure how to go about getting them. Then a friend of Meredith's invited them to a slide show sponsored by the Vancouver chapter of the Bluewater Cruising Association (BCA) about a member's voyage from San Diego to Hawaii. That was a turning point for Meredith.
"We'd been looking for people who thought the way we did, and when I walked into that room, there were 120 people just like us," she says. "I couldn't stop looking at the Currently Cruising map on the wall, which showed where dozens of boats were at that very moment."
The BCA's mission is to foster seamanship and friendship for people with an active interest in offshore cruising. As of this writing, the Currently Cruising page of the organization's monthly publication, Currents, shows 94 boats actively cruising and 12 "temporarily aground" in foreign countries.
In addition to the size of the fleet sailing the world's oceans, the organization measures its success by the number of members each year who head offshore on their own boats. Ron and Meredith were at the annual Farewell to the Fleet Rendezvous in August 2006, seeing off the 20 boats that were beginning their voyages, "gathering inspiration, waving goodbye to friends, and weeping with envy," says Meredith. They plan to be among the 2007 departing fleet aboard Erramus, their Valiant 40.
Dreamers, Doers, Doners
The founding meeting of the BCA was held almost 30 years ago, in 1978, aboard the m/v Hollyburn. Since then, the organization has grown to three chapters and more than 500 member boats, representing about 900 people. "Of this number," Guylain Roy-Machabee, BCA commodore, says, "240 are in the main Vancouver chapter, 110 are in the Vancouver Island chapter, and 35 are in our Calgary chapter. The rest, about 110 boats, or about 20 percent of the fleet at any given time, are currently cruising." Those at sea are known as the Doers, while the rest of the membership consists of Dreamers and Doners. This all-volunteer organization was conceived and designed so that Doners could help Dreamers become Doers. The BCA has developed comprehensive programs to foster such transitions.
From September through May, each chapter has a club night once a month at which Doners share their cruising skills or their experiences sailing in different locations. Each month, during the same period, the Vancouver chapter sponsors several educational events covering a wide range of topics. Some of these courses are one-time events; others run twice a week for up to two months. The other chapters also run educational programs focused on the needs of their members. In the summer, BCA activity moves to the water. Several rendezvous are held from May through October, including such annual events as the Watchkeepers Barbecue in June and the Farewell to the Fleet Rendezvous in August. Smaller get-togethers are scheduled for almost every weekend in the summer.
For those looking for offshore experience, the BCA organizes a short offshore rally almost every year called VICE (Vancouver Island Cruising Experience). A group of boats leaves the Strait of Juan de Fuca and sails out to sea for three days, then turns around and comes back.
Members also receive Currents, which includes reports on voyages under way. According to Sam Sydneysmith, one of the BCA's founders, Currents "has managed to forge the link between Doners, Doers, and Dreamers." Reasonable fees are charged for these benefits: an initiation fee of CAN$100 per boat and annual membership dues of a bit less than that. Members can attend the educational courses and special events for additional, nominal fees.
Those getting ready to make the break can choose to become more involved. "The Fleet" consists of Leavers-those planning to leave in the coming spring or summer-and others who'll head out in the next two to three years. For an extra CAN$50 per year, Fleet members can participate in custom-tailored courses and activities.
The year I visited, the Vancouver Fleet consisted of about 30 boats, but according to Cameron McLean, the Vancouver Fleet coordinator, only seven of these were leavers. "There seems to be too much to learn in just one year, so many join the Fleet well ahead of time and stay in for two, three, or more years."
After they leave, the Fleet concept carries on through the first year, as most crews make their way south to Mexico, where the largest concentration of currently cruising boats can be found-between 20 and 30 at any given time. At the August Farewell to the Fleet Rendezvous, the BCA Watchkeepers provide leavers with an offshore package that includes letters from the commodore, a BCA burgee, and CDs of collated information on ports and countries around the world, weather patterns, radio frequencies, and other useful items.
"Our greatest challenge is getting information to potential new members and getting them interested in joining the association," says Gary Robertson, vice commodore of the Vancouver Island chapter. Commodore Roy-Machabee focuses on retaining Doers and Doners. "BCA is witness to the changing sailing demographics," he says. "There appears to be a trend whereby offshore cruising, rather than being a life passion, is shifting toward an extended adventure vacation with somewhat less continuity on return."
Traditionally, BCA members remained involved for several years following their return from offshore, but this changing demographic means returning members are less committed to the organization. As a result, Roy-Machabee sees the importance of fostering "member retention while on extended offshore trips and also on return as key challenges."
Closing the Circle
They may come to the BCA with common interests and concerns, but most end up taking away different things from the group. Couples I spoke with had found out about the BCA through friends or other cruisers. Anne Brevig said that she and her husband, Martin Vennesland, learned about BCA from neighbors in their liveaboard marina in Vancouver. "We joined as well, and that's how we first became involved with the organization-as Dreamers-which is how most members first get involved."
And like the 20 members who left in August, Anne and Martin set sail several years after becoming members. They left in 1991 and cruised full-time for nine years aboard Nor Siglar, their 40-foot Gib'Sea sloop. During those years, they got married on the high seas, sailed 61,000 miles, visited 81 countries and island nations, and wrote a book called 9 Years on the 7 Seas.
Like many, Anne valued the ability to get firsthand information from the Doners. "We went to all the monthly meetings to hear offshore sailors share their experiences and stories through slide shows and talks," she says. "Communicating with these enthusiastic individuals during the planning period was most inspirational and a great motivator in bringing our own plans to fruition."
For Meredith Woodward, meeting experienced sailors who'd done it helped to allay her fears and gave her confidence. "It's really good to meet people who are actually out there," she says. "All kinds of people are out cruising, including people just like me-people intimidated by everything, but who found they could actually get out there and do it anyway."
Tom Baker of Warm Rain, a Hylas 44, says he met people "who you've read about that just seem like ordinary people when you actually get to know them. They even have similar fears and challenges. I mean, who'd have guessed Lin Pardey still gets seasick?" The single most important aspect of BCA membership for Tom, however, is membership in the Vancouver fleet. The BCA is the "best boating group I've ever been involved with," he says. "Other clubs have training, rendezvous, and get-togethers. But the 'fleet concept' really makes for a united group in which everyone shares."
Dennis Nagy and Sandra-Faye Nagy had just returned from a Pacific voyage aboard Blue Heron, their Nautilus 40 Pilothouse sloop, so they have the advantage of hindsight in judging their experiences. Sandra found "the Leavers Fleet Meetings very helpful, as were the educational courses offered on many different subjects. I took as many as I could."
Malcolm and Jackie Holt joined in 1996 and left in 1998 aboard Aeolus XC, their Beneteau Oceanis 350. In a letter from Thailand they wrote: "Not only did we learn lots from others about equipping the boat; we also saved a fortune on group purchases of radars, radios, and other gear. BCA was very important, more for the boat than the cruising life. Only the years away teach you the 'cruising life.'"
While the Doers and Doners all felt the BCA had done an excellent job in helping them prepare their boats, the idea that you can't learn the cruising life until you get out there was echoed by most of them. Norm and Pat McKenzie joined the BCA 12 years ago and are now in Thailand after 10 years aboard Tsonoqua II, their Maple Leaf 48. They felt that the BCA "probably painted a picture that was rosier than reality. Slide shows usually show the best of the trip, not the worst." Sandra-Faye Nagy of Blue Heron says, "Everyone else's experiences are never going to be your own. You may think you know what's ahead, but until you go out and do it yourself, you don't know. What BCA does for those who are keen on the idea of cruising is to encourage everyone to go and try it. The club has no idea how each member will react."
And Malcolm Holt feels that the BCA sometimes overdoes it. "There was a heavy emphasis on having the boat absolutely ready-too much so, I think," he says. "My advice is to skip a great deal of the preparation and do it later if you still choose to. I'm not advocating an unsafe boat, just skipping a lot of things that otherwise cost a lot of money and cause delays."
But like the 20 boats that headed for the open ocean in August 2006, most do leave. Commodore Roy-Machabee sums it up this way: "Twenty-seven years after its inception, the organization remains true to its volunteer mission to most effectively, in terms of cost, knowledge, and support, help people realize their sailing dreams."
In the end, the goal is to make Dreamers become Doners. Any way you measure it, the BCA is doing that on a grand scale.
The revised edition of The Voyager's Handbook (International Marine) by Beth A. Leonard is just out, and like the BCA, it helps to transform Doners and Dreamers everywhere into Doers. Visit Beth and Evans' website at www.bethandevans.com.