The Official Magazine of the Bluewater Cruising Association

Rookie Mistakes - And The Things We Did Right!

Tara Donley

Solstice Tide
Van de Stadt 36'
July 27th, 2023

We departed BC last fall, headed for our first year of long-term cruising, foolishly believing that we had read enough, learned enough, knew enough to avoid the mistakes that many new cruisers make – we were so wrong!!!  We have loved our travels, and there have been soo many high points in the last year, but there have been so many mistakes as well – here are the biggest mistakes and the couple of things we did absolutely right:

The Mistakes

Mistake No. 1:  We went too fast and covered too much ground.  We left Canada in mid-September, with hops down the US west coast, the Baja west coast, up to La Paz, across to La Cruz, down to Barra de Navidad, back to La Cruz, up to Mazatlan, back across to La Paz and then north until we jumped over to Puerto Penasco, where our boat currently awaits our return to Mexico after a summer at home.  This has been our biggest mistake – we left later than we wanted and then felt like we were always running. We set some unrealistic timelines and then were left racing to get to destinations by certain dates – all the while rushing through places we wished we could have stayed at longer.

Mistake No. 2:  We did not get a water-maker.  I have always argued that we would do just fine without a water-maker.  We were always able to find water when we needed it but getting the water to the boat was often a long, frustrating and sometimes very difficult process (it was ALWAYS very lumpy in the anchorage when it came time to load jerry cans on board!!).  The couple of times we were on a dock, it was of course easier, but even then, we had to plan for a delivery, wait around for its arrival and of course pay per jug.  If we had had a water-maker, we could have possibly stayed out longer in places we were enjoying, without the fear that we were going to run out of water or clean clothes.  We could have showered far more often, rather than living like feral animals always afraid to waste that extra bit of water!!!  We should have gotten a water-maker and we are going to install one in the fall.

Mistake No. 3:   I was too rigid in requiring certain ingredients that were familiar from home.  But really? No canned tomatoes anywhere?! This led to spending far too much time in grocery stores and spending exorbitant amounts of money to buy those “must have” ingredients.  In the same theme, I tried to cook too much like home . I need to adjust to new recipes, hopefully ones that don’t heat up the boat, take ingredients I don’t have, and make too big of a mess.  If anyone wants to send me some (light on fish) suggestions, I would love to see them!

Mistake No. 4:   We have not created enough shade on our boat (especially when we are underway). By the end of some days we would be so overheated that the thought of doing anything, even going for a swim or boondoggle in the dinghy, was just too much. So, instead, we would retreat below deck and waste what was often our one and only afternoon in a place.

Mistake No. 5:   We did not look enough into the cost of staying at Ensenada.   We ended up staying in San Diego for quite a long time, waiting for a part to be delivered so that we could fix our wind speed sensor. While we stayed at anchor, costing us nothing, the City itself if just so expensive and we had nothing to do but go out and spend money!!  Had we looked into it further, we would have realized that, for not much more than the cost of the 4 days we stayed at the dock after checking into Mexico, we could have stayed for a month in Ensenada.  That would have left us in a slightly less expensive city, on the dock where it might have been easier to complete a few (still as of yet incomplete) projects. If you know that you will be waiting for parts, or holding off until after hurricane season, it might be worth checking on the cost to stay at Ensenada for a month.  There are of course a few things to consider – there is a pump out fee and you need to be willing to forego the temptation of going out for dinner every night! But it might be a great chance to meet the crew of other boats that will be heading down the Baja coast, and to knock a few jobs off your list!

The Wins

After reading the above, you would think we didn’t do anything right! But, we do feel we had a few wins along the way:

Win No. 1:  We put a Hydrovane on our boat before we left. This was possibly the best money we have ever spent on our boat. The unit is not inexpensive but it drove for us nearly the entire way down the west coast and on all our big crossings. If you are considering a self-steering vane – do it. We love our Hydrovane but of course there are many options – anything that lets you let go of the wheel (maybe get into a bit of shade) is a bonus – especially when it is not costing you precious power!!

Win No. 2 :   We took a satellite texting device.  In our case, we used a Zoleo. This is a win for a couple of reasons. Firstly of course for safety. Knowing that we could always reach out if we were ever to run into trouble, and having our location sent to 5 of our contacts every time we “hit the button”, was comforting.  More than that, though, was the connectivity. I was getting text updates from my Mom in the middle of the night (to warn me of a fishing fleet or cruise ship she could see on AIS) and was able to check in with friends and family every day.  I know that some people enjoy being totally off the grid but for me, with my Mom sick at home, being able to check in was essential.  I was also able to keep up middle of the night text check-ins with other cruisers also out on their night shifts. This kept us alert and a little less lonely out there!  We did not have Starlink, which of course would have given us even greater connectivity, and we are still considering adding it to the boat for next year. So far it is a “nice to have” thing. Yes, it will give us better weather reports along with all of the other access to the “real world”. But that is not a must have in our minds.

Win No. 3:   I kept a good daily log and published a blog when we had access to internet.  I also kept up with updates on Facebook and Instagram. This allowed us to bring our family and friends along for the ride, as well as reminding us of all the places that we rushed our way through – often needing to look back at that log and our position reports just to remember exactly where we might have pit-stopped!  We also took tons of pictures, most just on our cell phone. Very few places, and even fewer sunsets went undocumented.   I love to look back at the places we went and know that in coming years, as the list of places grows, we will value those snapshots in time even more.

Win No. 4:   We upgraded our solar before we left. We have never particularly liked the look of a solar arch, but we realized that we definitely would need more solar and so we added the arch (it doesn’t look so terrible after all) and ordered new panels (those were still in boxes on the stern of the boat when we left the dock in September!). We could have, should have ordered (and likely will) slightly bigger panels than we did. We were so concerned about them looking too big or bulky… But the solar we had managed to keep up with our demands during all but the shortest, gloomiest days of the year. Marinas are few and far between, and the demand for them mostly outpaces the availability, so having the ability to remain off-grid without the need for a generator (we do not have one) or to run the engine every day was essential.

Win No. 5:   We added a small 12 volt freezer. Owen would likely argue whether or not this was a win as he liked to point out that it is likely our biggest power draw, but I definitely think it was a win. We have a smallish drawer style fridge with a miniscule freezer that does not really freeze anything. Having a freezer (with a small overspill refrigerated area) was essential to being able to stock up on meat when we were in a location with good prices and to keep some extra milk, cheese and butter on hand. It also allowed me to batch cook some items and store them in the freezer to pull out when we were on passage when prepping was difficult. In the past, I have put up some canned meats (ground beef and steak), and will do so again before we cross the Pacific. I also really like Kirkland canned chicken. These items are great to have but it is even nicer to be able to throw some chicken breasts or steaks on the barbecue. The freezer we purchased was not one of the “higher end” brands and that is likely why the power consumption is higher, but it was the only one that fit into the only spot we had on the boat to put it and in my mind it made our trip just a little bit easier. I know that there are those that cruise without any refrigeration and I am truly in awe of them, but I love having both the fridge and freezer on board.

Overall our first year of cruising was amazing: great places, people and food. We have learned a few lessons and hope that the next season will be a bit easier and even more entertaining!


  1. Rod Morris says:

    Bravo! What a great article and I could not agree more with your choices of “Mistakes 1, 2 and 4”. Time to read your blog is high on my list of things that need to be done. Thank you for your contribution to Currents.
    Cheers from Rod and the catamaran Oh!

  2. Stefanie Schulz says:

    Hi Tara; thanks for sharing your experiences. SV FortitudeX and crew were on the same paths last season and we are looking forward to catching up with you in Puerto Penasco in October.

  3. Hugh Bacon, ARGONAUTA I says:

    Excellent report. Yup, a water maker we found very worthwhile for the reasons you state. Basic options are low output/long duty cycle or the reverse. We went for 10 GPH ie short duty cycle. Another: along the way we encountered among fellow cruisers enough steering failures to prompt our purchase of a back up rudder. I believe your wind vane offers one. Our Cape Hotn model did and we eventually bought one.

  4. Al Kitchen says:

    Great article Tara. I’m sure the rest of the fleet group appreciate you sharing your experiences and insights. It gives me great pleasure to hear about you and Owen embracing your dreams and reaping the rewards that brings. Cheers!

  5. Mary Ann Unrau says:

    Well done, Tara and Owen. We were delighted to finally see your name again and to read this well-written article. We’ll have to look for your blog. We spent a month in Ensenada (topsides were being painted) and found it a terrific Boat Yard and (also) a terrific way to renew our Spanish. All the best as you return to Solctice and continue your trip.

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