Stormy Petrel

I notice lots of discussion on social media these days about finding a boat to live on and go cruising. The questions range from basic to extreme, from simple to complex.

So much has been written, and many seminars developed, to offer assistance in the selection and outfitting process. I have heard hundreds, if not thousands, of questions from couples eager to get started, but often overwhelmed or overthinking it at the same time. It is easy to make it get bigger and more complex than it needs to be.

So I would like to retell the story of Stormy Petrel, and Howard and Jane Brubaker. I briefly mentioned them in a larger, previous blog: https://www.followingseas.media/blog/2017/7/10/how-big-is-big-enough

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I met this couple back in 1996. Their story is one of inspiration, and should be repeated as a shining light for couples struggling to pull a cruising and liveaboard thing together. The plan of this California couple (who I recall met in Hawaii) was to visit every state in the U.S. with a seaport, excluding Hawaii. They considered trucking the boat between coasts, but in the end decided to do it on its own bottom, going the long way through the Panama Canal. It was to be the ideal retirement plan. It was a fantastic experience.

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Stormy Petrel was a 1967, wood Grand Banks 36, with a single 135hp Ford Lehman diesel engine. They occasionally had guests, but most of the time they were alone together. The 30-year-old GB was a perfect choice for them, plenty big enough.

When I met them in Annapolis, they had already traveled to Alaska, explored the Pacific Northwest, then headed down the West Coast to California. That is where they planned to jump off on this whirlwind adventure. Leaving San Diego, they went south to Mexico, going from Cabo San Lucas down the major stops of Puerta Vallarta, Manzanillo, and Acapulco before crossing over to Central America and the Panama Canal. They cruised the San Blas Islands, spent a couple of years in Columbia at Cartagena, before heading up to Cancun. Then it was across the Gulf of Mexico to the Dry Tortugas and Key West. When I met them in Annapolis, they had already reached 10 states and gone 5,000 miles.

  Stormy Petrel's  simple lower helm. Notice the microwave stowed on the left. They had installed it in Columbia. See below how it swings out.

Stormy Petrel's simple lower helm. Notice the microwave stowed on the left. They had installed it in Columbia. See below how it swings out.

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All this, on a 30-year-old wood Grand Banks with a single engine.

I asked Howard to summarize what they did to the boat to prepare for this adventure, and how it worked out. Howard and Jane explained they spent two years planning this adventure in California, and focused most of the effort on communications, safety, and Stormy Petrel’s seaworthiness. They had the wood boat surveyed and the Grand Banks passed with flying colors.

For communications Howard installed a SSB radio, including the copper mesh ground and 23-foot antenna. He said it worked well and was helpful while far from facilities. This was years before AIS and weather overlays on plotters and affordable sat phones, but they did have GPS, depthsounder, VHF radio, and radar. He felt it better to avoid the super expensive electronics that come with so much unneeded functionalty. Sometimes, simpler is better...and cheaper.

They used weather faxes to understand the area weather systems for the next five days, which they used to determine their cruising timeframes. Today, we have Sirius/XM weather that makes it much easier now to understand the weather around you.

They chose not to take firearms, and instead had a flare gun, small canisters of pepper spray, and, as Howard put it, an overwhelming desire to avoid trouble. While they rarely traveled with other boats, they usually anchored in company of other cruisers. A form of buddy boating.

 The carpenters in  Cartagena  did work on the boat when they stayed in Columbia, expanding the aft cabin. Not the red Mola pillow from the San Blas Islands.

The carpenters in Cartagena did work on the boat when they stayed in Columbia, expanding the aft cabin. Not the red Mola pillow from the San Blas Islands.

They had a Dometic top-loading freezer and a Norcold refrigerator that worked well even in the heat and humidity of Central and South America. A house bank of 800Ah batteries gives them plenty of electrical power, and a Heart 2000 inverter supplies other needs. They had a small generator with a 100Ah alternator.

The Grand Banks carries 100 gallons of water, which they learned to live with, as they did not want the complexity and headaches of a watermaker. The couple took on local water all along their travels and simply added a bit of chlorine for safety. They have never had any issues, and they know how to conserve their water supply. Howard laughed when he said he knew when he'd added too much chlorine to their drinking water when it turned Tang white.

Their Ford Lehman never gave them trouble, and they never got bad fuel, but were careful to check the fuel going into their 500 gallon supply before for filling the tanks. Examining a fuel sample in a white bucket is not a bad thing to do.

 Howard was cleaning out lockers when I met the couple in Annapolis. Notice the Hawaii burgee on the bow.

Howard was cleaning out lockers when I met the couple in Annapolis. Notice the Hawaii burgee on the bow.

Now to support the simplicity of conservative cruising. Stormy Petrel had no bow thruster, and they felt they never needed it. They knew how to handle the boat with a single screw and large rudder, much like almost every commercial fisherman. Good for them. Ditto get home. Nope, never needed it.

They also did not carry a liferaft. In all of their travels, they were seldom more than a few miles offshore, so they felt their dinghy was a suitable rescue craft. On their run from San Diego to Panama, for example, they were only more than three miles offshore twice, crossing the Sea of Cortez and crossing the Gulf of Tehuantepec. They stayed within 10 miles of land and kept the 10-foot dinghy ready to launch at all times.

The crew of Stormy Petrel did go on to hit all U.S. states reachable by boat, did the Great Loop, and saw much of Canada. I am certain their recommendations ring as true today as they did years back: Ask plenty of questions and learn from others. There are no dumb questions. Be open to finding out what works for you.

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The Brubakers also found there is only one absolute in cruising. Do NOT have a schedule. Allow plenty of time to make sure weather conditions are right for you. Don’t rush into anything. Travel at your own pace, on your own timetable. Don’t ever get trapped into a schedule, and don’t plan your cruising around other people and their schedules. You will be much happier.

Fair winds, Howard and Jane. You still inspire.