How Much Is Really Necessary?

It’s starting to feel cold now as we approach September, cruising the beautiful outer Maine islands. Yesterday, our morning satellite weather forecast confirmed that we’d be seeing a strong NW wind starting overnight. We impatiently waited for fog to lift from our exposed anchorage on the north side of Isle Au Haut. Couldn’t beat the view, but it wasn’t a good spot to weather thirty knot wind gusts. By 1030, the fog showed little sign of improvement, but our mild anxiety pushed us to weigh anchor anyway. So with trusty radar fired-up, showing anything solid nearby, AIS identifying many surrounding boats (mostly of lobstering type), and updated electronic charts accurately plotting our course, we set off into the gloom. Our autopilot couldn’t be used, as our seven mile course consisted of zigzagging to avoid countless lobster buoys, and the occasional working lobster boat. Kelly doubled my strained eyes as we never took a break, peering into the fog, often announcing “red one to starboard”, etc, making certain we didn’t hit any. A line wrapped around Fayaway’s fixed three-blade prop wouldn’t be tragic, but it’d likely require an unwanted chilly swim to cut it free.

Kelly spotting lobster buoys in pea soup

With impeccable timing, fog lifted as we approached the rock-strewn inlet, and dropped anchor soon thereafter at a protected cove of Vinalhaven, where I sit writing now. Our experience is far from unusual, but it got me thinking again about the modern marvels we take for granted, and ironically how we combine them with the rather archaic act of simple sailing.

Seal Bay, Vinalhaven, Maine.

In 1512, at the age of 32, Ferdinand Magellan wanted to try sailing around the world. With financial support from Spanish royalty he navigated and discovered many uncharted remote reaches. Talk about an adventure! His navigational tools were a wooden backstaff (early version of the “modern” sextant), a compass (w/ rose) and a simple lead line. Only 18 of his 200+ crew eventually returned, not including Magellan. Hundreds of years later, in 1768, Captain James Cook couldn’t imagine (could you?) crossing an ocean as Magellan did, or at least without some basic maps. Sure a few bodies might have been lost, but at least the captain knew circumnavigation was possible.

The earth is flat!
Borrowed from somewhere on the Internet. I’m not that artistic, and please let me know if you know the artist so I can give credit.

Sure, Magellan’s goal was more simple- to prove the world was round. But Cook and many others to follow built on each other’s accomplishments to make ever more discoveries, and also create more detailed maps of previously discovered lands. Standard equipment at the time, Cook carried a higher quality bronze sextant, several compasses, as well as a chronometer. His resulting maps were incredibly accurate for their time.

Fast forward another 200 years, to 1968, when Hal Roth first sailed his newfangled Whisper, a 35 foot fiberglass sloop for a trip around the northern Pacific Ocean. Hal navigated entirely by the sun and stars with a then state-of-the-art sextant and simple mechanical wrist watch.

Yup, these tools didn’t progress much. Commercial jets and battleships still used them! Well, they had a few other tricks too, but back to Hal…

He obtained additional daily time synchronization via public stations available on free high frequency radio. Accurate time is essential for accurate longitude, but fairly decent latitude fix can come from simple sights on celestial bodies. At least star locations don’t change… much.

Check out Longitude, by Dava Sobel, for an interesting documentary of the Longitude Act, John Harrison, and early development of chronometers, driven by the simple yet critical need for locating oneself accurately on the open ocean.

Now we’re a true sailing vessel once again!

Hal Roth, aboard Whisper, upon hearing a crash-bang below, and finding that his little two-cylinder auxillary engine had fallen off its motor mounts, and has thus been rendered useless.

Hal’s light-hearted satisfaction of the simplicity of long distance sailing is truly inspiring. A hard-core traveler sometimes facing adversity, Hal didn’t wince at heading out without weather forecasts, or even losing the use of his motor, which had reached the point in those days as being considered standard equipment. Setting off in a fiberglass resin composite (then a material yet to be proven), leaky vessel, he at least started with fairly accurate charts. And his remote islands weren’t newly found, yet still offered much thrill of discovery to him and his wife Margaret. The islanders and their cultures they “discovered” were again somewhat new, having progressed through generations of cultural changes.

Today considered essential, Fayaway carries oodles of navigational tools, charts, and redundant communication devices.

Fast forward again, more than fifty years later – to present day. Consider now all the modern technology, and what we now think is minimal necessity. Times have certainly changed again. I feel unprepared without simply updated local knowledge from recent cruising guides. We carry 12 (yes, twelve) different global positioning devices onboard Fayaway, not including a modern sextant. It would be difficult to get lost, as we carry oodles of paper charts along with two plotters, PC, iPads, cell phones, all containing global positioning and additional electronic maps covering most of the world. Maybe all this is a bit overkill, but we consider multiple redundancy to be standard equipment. I can’t imagine going offshore without all this stuff. Our boat doesn’t leak (yet… knock on teak), and now after three years the motor hasn’t fallen into the bilge!

That’s the future. It’s a fascinating modern age we live in!

Captain Jack Aubrey, 1805, HMS Surprise, (auth. Patrick O’Brien).
Captain Jack Aubrey, from the film, Master and Commander., (courtesy photo).

So what’s next for Fayaway and her crew? We’ve spent many hours asking ourselves this question. Quite simply, I’ll resolutely say that we’re not done yet. But COVID-19, as it has for many, threw a wrench in our plans. And as said before, we’re making use of this in a good way. Since US citizens aren’t as welcome in foreign countries right now, we’ve decided to instead top up the cruising funds, and search for a larger boat. Yup, I just said that.

Our beloved Fayaway is truly everything we’ve wanted in our home. She’s got every imaginable amenity, in practically new condition. She’s simple, fast and safe to sail, circling in tight coves, as well as comfortably holding a course line in heavy seas offshore. However, we just want more storage space. I consider myself a handy guy, but couldn’t bring any but the most essential tools because we don’t have the room. Every time I want to use something from my “big” tool bag it was like playing that game of sliding the little plastic squares to make a picture. But otherwise she’s cruising perfection. If we could simply slice Fayaway athwartships, and bolt-in another nine feet, I’d never ask for anything else!

So as we wait for the world to accept us again, we’re soaking up the last warm New England summer, then putting Fayaway up for sale. We’ve taken a lease for a small furnished house for the winter, putting a few coins into the piggy bank, and searching for the more-perfect vessel. This story is not over!


7 thoughts on “How Much Is Really Necessary?

    1. Yes, we’re looking at bigger boats; and we do have our ideal in mind. If Fayaway doesn’t sell, and we can’t find that next ideal boat, then we’ll happily keep going as-is, when we can again be readily accepted at a foreign port. I guess you could say we’re trying to upsize, but it’s not for certain.


  1. Steve Merrill

    Hi Captn Chris
    Im sailing out of Little Harbor next Thursday on a friends 41ft sloop. Just for the day. I haven’t sailed for 30 yrs. His brother who is one of my best friends since we were 5 yrs old will be on board too. I’m looking forward to it very much.

    Liked by 2 people

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