Cruising skill and the mileage myth

A common benchmark of cruising expertise is number of miles at sea. It was the kickoff question to start up the Let’s Talk Sailing! panel with a spectrum of sailors – mostly cruisers – at our Annapolis meetup during the show (So.Much.Fun!).

Discussion begins: Mia & Andy, Brady, Behan, Brian, and Sarah at Let’s Talk Sailing

Mileage is a sensible way to provide context to backgrounds – or is it? It offers experience context but largely this proficiency proxy is a myth: the mileage myth. Distance sailed is a measure of enjoyment or fortitude, not a certification of expertise in the myriad of skills that make up cruising.

Supporting sailing dreams is important to us, and in Annapolis we worked to reinforce ways to help ease the path to cruising, rather than make it feel more remote. Mileage can be aspirational, but also intimidating. Putting those factors together, and we generated a few ways for sailors to build important foundation skills that don’t involve banking a bunch of miles.


Least appreciated during cruising prep, and yet most critical to our everyday comfort and safety: weather errors are a major cause of bad days and dreams terminating. A few months ago, we watched as an unusually large, low, dark cloud formed over the bay near our anchorage off La Cruz, Mexico. G’bye shoreside plans: time to hustle back to Totem! Passing new cruisers as we fast-walked to the dinghy dock, we asked if they thought it might rain. “Our weather app says 7% chance,” they replied, continuing on as if weather took direction from the forecast. But weather is dynamic, forming and changing imperfect predictability.

Jamie breaks down are three steps to building marine weather smarts. First, learn weather theory and fundamentals, like – what makes wind? For this, crack the books. Second, learn and understand weather forecast tools, such as GMDSS text forecasts, GRIB forecasts, etc. – and know the difference between the data (such as the GFS model) and the viewer (such as PredictWind’s Offshore app). Third, apply the first two! Even if you’re looking at the water instead of on it, you’ll gain a richer understanding of what it’ll be like if you choose to leave the dock. The forecast may only show four-foot waves, but remember when a similar forecast was very uncomfortable be the waves were steep sided and confused?

Mechanical aptitude

Cruisers end up needing to diagnose or repair rigging, sails, diesel engine, electric motors, steering system, electrical issues, and everyone’s favorite, toilet issues – it’s probably a good idea to have at basic knowledge of some of those systems, even if you’re all thumbs. It’s intimidating, and we definitely started behind the curve. Starting with reliable systems helps. YouTube has made it easier. Classes are an option. Another winner: be That Person who asks their dock neighbor to tag along for oil changes, rig inspections, solar panel installation, or winch servicing. You’ll be more ready to troubleshoot when the ice machine breaks!

Medical training

Sailors preparing to go cruising sometimes have nightmares imagining what-if medical disasters, and confidence gained through courses may abate that stress while imparting important knowledge. CPR and First Aid are a first step; offshore or wilderness training preferred. As important as tech skill is the softer side of responding to medical and emergency situations. As we learned from Dr. Curtis Edwards: “first, stop and take your own pulse,” a revered quote on Totem. Reasoned rather than hasty, it demands slowing long enough to say, “yes, I will clip-in before going to the aft deck to fix the towed dinghy.” The alternative could bring a real nightmare.

Where to turn? Check out WildMed’s Offshore Emergency Training (gets raves), but if it’s less accessible to you, Wilderness First Responder training in general is a good proxy for important skills when a medical event can’t be addressed through nearby emergency services. Empowered through knowledge, the nightmares abate, and the skills are real.

Exceptional depth, this one! A seminar with Lin Pardey at Cruisers U.

Woof, woof

Online forums seem to attract the salts who qualify responses to newbie questions with their miles sailed, as if expertise was implied. Who dares challenge the big dog? Perhaps only “I’ve got 200,000 miles” will shrink the 100k mastiff to chihuahua – meanwhile, we know circumnavigate I wouldn’t want to sail across a lake on a mild day with! And what is it with the temptation of cruisers and fishermen to inflate their claims, and every coastal cruiser claims “we’re sailing around the world!” anyway? We’re averse to even the appearance of big dog pretensions. At the end of the day, mileage is a flawed yardstick of cruising competency. As hopeful cruisers start to tick up their own miles, whether for enjoyment or through persistence, opportunity to develop skills to make life on the water better are endless– and it doesn’t matter if the big dog is barking at chihuahuas.

11 Responses

  1. When I was a live aboard we counted how long have you lived on the boat Not how many miles you went. I Have been on a Boat for 18 years. First one on the Pacific side for 5 years & The Atlantic side for 13 years when I was in my teenager. But we went more miles on the Pacific then we did in the Atlantic . So the mile thing dose not hold true to me. It how well you know your boat & How skilled you are about being at sea & repairs you make while you are at sea. Thats how we measured sea worthiness . In the 70’s –90’s. Just my two cents.

      1. I also think that Boat races are a breed all their own. That being said ,Its not the same as living on a boat on a day to day basics, You have to able to be atone to everything around you.

  2. True, it is a very flawed yardstick. I’ve done a lot of miles as delivery skipper, but 1/3 of those I was sleeping. And I’ve done many transatlantics, which means harbour entry sometimes just twice in a month or two, versus the family who is coastal sailing and awake every minute, and anchoring and entering harbour almost every day. I am always impressed with families who’ve cruised and made it work.

  3. I think it’s about the quality of the experience. I skippered a boat for 680 ocean miles over 4 days. We tacked once and gybed once, started the motor 3 times, put a single reef in, furled the sails once, did one bar crossing, parked the boat in a marina once and that was about it. Otherwise there was a boat to run, meals to cook and the usual minor incidents to deal with. However my first ever race as skipper, we tacked 20 times, gybed twice rounded 7 marks, came stone cold last and were disqualified for missing a mark. Next race we sank. How about that for experience? All took place over 12 miles and about 3 hours sailing.

  4. The distance sailing expertise myth is akin to the “I have 30 years on the job” experience myth. I have known many people with 30 years on the job, but only one year’s worth of experience. I much prefer to work with those whose expertise matches their number of years on the job.

  5. I think to think and talk about days, months or years spent on anchor. Prior to leaving to enjoy
    the cruising life I logged more than 100,000 miles and rarely left Newport Harbor. Anchoring is another necessary skill.

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