Cruising off the beaten track is a bluewater dream, but how can you prepare for every situation? Catherine Lawson shares remote cruising wisdom

If you sail far enough from home, you’ll eventually reach a place that looks wonderfully unfamiliar and is almost entirely your own. A place where there’s no jostling for space in busy anchorages, but where you slow down and experience a slice of the simple life.

For many adventurous sailors, this kind of escapism ends on a balmy, empty, coral-fringed beach drinking green coconuts, swimming until sunset, and grilling the day’s catch over hot coals. But your coveted backdrop could equally be an icy shoreline studded with seals, or a wild, dusty African coastline where the surf breaks are all yours.

Those of us lured to tackle long passages to faraway places often do so to find ourselves where others are not. But the reality of this ideal is that the challenges you’ll likely face when you get there will be all for you to contend with too. Testing yourself might be part of the appeal and with a well stocked boat, some careful planning and the ability to problem solve that remote cruising invariably kindles, this type of adventure will put you on a path towards a more self-sufficient life afloat.

To avoid wrangling with local boats in areas with a lot of fishing, some cruisers opt to sail much further offshore. Photo: David Bristow

Making plans

In my own sailing grounds in Australia’s far north, haul-out facilities are separated by passages of more than 1,000 miles along remote coastlines. Once you weigh anchor in Cairns and join the south-east tradewinds pushing towards Darwin and beyond, there are very few settlements to pull into.

Prudent sailors following this route towards Indonesia and beyond arm themselves with bulging medical kits and a bounty of boat spares, download satellite imagery, and beef up their boat insurance – with good reason. In the many years we’ve spent cruising our Grainger 1250 catamaran on Indonesia’s wild West Papuan coastline, we’ve barely sourced a tube of Sikaflex, let alone seacocks or float switches, and our idea of what constitutes a viable boat haul-out facility has shifted markedly too.

Right across this isolated region we’ve shopped in villages with the most basic of medical outposts, and commonly resorted to patching and treating our own motley crew.

What it’s all about – seeking the beauty of the simple life in stunning and remote corners of the world. Photo: David Bristow

Some of the world’s most enticing sailing grounds throw up all kinds of navigational challenges too. Our reliance on AIS and radar when underway is routinely bolstered by careful night watches, especially in places where the flame of a cigarette lighter or a sudden flash of torchlight may be the only beacons lighting up a local fishing boat. To avoid wrangling with nets, lines and buoys in heavily trafficked fishing grounds, we avoid entering anchorages at night where possible, and sail far further offshore on passages in search of more open seas.

We have also had to rethink our strategies around personal safety on board, and when our worst day came were able to make calm, sound decisions during an armed interception at sea. Here I’ll share all kinds of tips that have helped us – and other experienced world cruisers – through remote sailing adventures. But a sense of ingenuity is always the best thing you can take on board.

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Prepping your boat

The kinds of anchorages that make sailors swoon can be desperate places to track down boat parts. It’s pretty much a given that you’ll be fixing something on your boat in paradise, so for remote sailing, creating your own onboard chandlery is a must. There is no way of knowing which boat part will fail you first, so before you put some miles between you and mainstream marine suppliers, stock up on all the consumables and spares that your boat could possibly need.

An exhaustive list would run to hundreds of items, but be sure to carry your own engine oils, filters, belts and water pumps, outboard spark plugs, props and impellers, bilge pumps and float switches, fan motors and watermaker filters. For emergency repairs add epoxy putty, sealant adhesives, glassfibre cloth and resin, a small sheet of ply, wooden plugs, plus a decent assortment of screws, nuts and bolts, sail repair cloth and tape, and the power and hand tools required to tackle repairs.

We carry a variety of replacement blocks and shackles, and lots of basic plumbing and gas fittings including clamps, pipes and water pumps. Basically, there’s a replacement part or a suitable fix-it for just about everything already in use on our boat.

A convenient beach might be the only place for a hull scrub. Photo: David Bristow

Sara and Lee Rice of Sailing Catalpa are seasoned remote-area sailors whose YouTube channel (SailingCatalpa) attracts almost 40,000 followers. They’ve spent the past eight years cruising aboard their 44ft ferrocement yacht with their now-teenage kids, Bella and Taj. After long stints in faraway Indonesian isles – where even basic food supplies can be sparse – Sara admits that she has a hardcore habit of overprovisioning, even still.

“Our boat is always ready for an apocalypse,” she jokes, while husband Lee says he carries enough spares and consumables on board to service his boat for a full year. “Have backups,” recommends Sara. “Just imagine that every single thing on your boat is going to break while you are in the middle of nowhere, and make sure that you’ve got enough stuff on board to fix it all.”

For Lee, it’s all about knowledge. “Know how to fix your toilet, your pumps, pull off a starter motor or alternator, tighten a belt and service the engine,” he recommends, “and if you don’t know how, find a patient mechanic to run you through a few crucial lessons”.

This is the kind of coaching that’s worth paying for, especially if you’re not mechanically inclined, and it can save you a lot of angst in a faraway place when you’re desperately trying to Google your way out of trouble.

Behan Gifford agrees. She’s renowned as a circumnavigator, cruising coach, and the author of Voyaging with Kids – a bible for those raising a family afloat. She also runs, a hive of information for those hoping to glean some of her wisdom in dealing with the challenges of cruising life.

“Know your boat really well, and be hands-on, long before you need to be,” recommends Gifford. “You might be able to get on Google and get a lesson on how to fix something, but if you’ve never done something before – never actually figured out what all those steering system parts are and how they run, for example – how are you going to deal with it when you are actually having a crisis?”

Take tools and testing kit suitable to diagnose and fix any breakages or breakdowns. Photo: David Bristow

Be your own doctor

Before we sailed out of Australia in 2019, I asked my GP to show me how to suture a wound. I pored over a copy of Where There Is No Doctor, stocked the first aid kit and hoped for the best, only to find myself in the most remote of locations, staring at the inside of somebody else’s body.

Since then there have been fingers stuck in winches, toes broken on cleats and a hand fractured by an exploding jib sheet block. Add to that a foot sliced open by falling on oyster shells (remedied with superglue and lollipops), an ear partly torn off (superglue with lots of Endone), embedded sea urchin spines, and my own case of malaria. Mostly we were in locations too remote to access fast, emergency treatment, so we made very good use of our well-stocked medical kit and our collective healing skills.

When it comes to children on boats, you can immunise, sanitise and dole out as many probiotics as you like, but you’ll never escape the anguish you feel when accidents and injuries happen. Prepare as much as you can by stocking your boat’s medical kit with age-appropriate child formulations of all the usual medicines plus malaria medication for tropical adventures, a range of antibiotics, and seasickness remedies.

This lifestyle isn’t always easy, but then few bold adventures are. Photo: David Bristow

Draft your own list of instructions for administering each medicine and store it inside your first aid kit. You may want to boost your confidence and skills by signing up for wilderness-style first aid training programs that teach you to treat and manage everyday injuries in places where you can’t easily access first responders.

“Facing medical situations is a massive reality of remote area sailing,” says Behan Gifford, who has dealt with malaria, traumatic lacerations and her own scorpion bite. “Most of us who go cruising are not medical professionals and probably shouldn’t be suturing,” she says, suggesting that cruisers calmly assess each situation and lean on external resources instead.

The human body is a mightily resilient thing, and with a well-stocked first aid kit and the knowhow to use it, you might be genuinely surprised just how effective you can be when accidents happen. Good gut instincts will tell you when to run for help, but in the time it takes you to get there, your patient will be relying on you. It goes without saying that preventing accidents in the first place is always preferable, so put some thought into coming up with the safest ways to carry out common tasks on your boat, and teach your crew and kids to follow suit.

Knowing how your boat works– and how to fix it – is critical to being self-sufficient when miles away from repair facilities. Photo: David Bristow

Piracy and safety

Few topics get cruisers excited quite like piracy, but despite all the stories, genuine attacks on private, recreational sailing vessels are rare. They tend to occur in highly identifiable locales – in some ports and harbours of the Caribbean and the Seychelles, for example – where petty crime born from drug abuse can easily turn violent. The chances of an attack might be miniscule, but when you are underway and being followed, it’s difficult to decipher if you are about to be boarded or offered a catch of fish.

Behan Gifford recalls an incident aboard her Stevens 47 Totem off the Sri Lankan coast: “It went from a really nice ‘Let’s trade biscuits and juice for fish’, to this fishing boat following us too closely, for too long, too close to dark,” she said. “There was an intimidation factor to it, but we had a buddy boat in range, so we radioed them to come closer and we stood off together. We were glad to be in company,” she said.

Sara and Lee Rice have had their share of incidents too, including being boarded at sea by a boatload of 10 men who forced their way on board in search of fuel.

Stepping out of your comfort zone can reveal a richness of life you’ll not find in busier areas of
the world. Photo: David Bristow

“If you are cruising through Asia, you’re going to get followed a hundred times. Ninety-nine per cent of the time they are just curious about who you are and what you are doing, and if you start shooting a gun or flares at them, it’s going to escalate into something horrible,” warns Sara.

On a night passage from Indonesia to Thailand, Lee Rice picked up a boat on radar that kept following them despite his regular course changes. “I was thinking ‘Oh, this is not good’, but there wasn’t enough wind to shake them off.”

So Lee picked up the phone, gave a friend his position, and gathered spearguns to the helm as the 70ft boat finally approached. “They came alongside so fast and so close that they nearly hit the tender off the davits. These 20 guys all looked like pirates, and they were calling out ‘Mister, mister, you want some fish?’”

Behan Gifford agrees that guns are not the answer: “It seems that every time they get brandished by a cruiser who feels under threat, if they use them, they are more likely to wind up dead,” she said.
My own family’s weapon of choice in a 2020 at-sea encounter was a mobile phone, pointed at our armed, would-be attackers.

Filming their attempts to threaten us and disable our catamaran forced them to stand off at a safe enough distance to avoid being identified. And, as darkness fell and they retreated again to refuel, we were finally able to out-run them and push into open seas, into the night.

It was a gruelling, intimidating experience that went on for many hours, but we stacked up what we had in our favour – boat speed, plenty of fuel, a radio (for attempted coastguard calls), and a phone to record and identify our would-be attackers. In all, we had far more at our disposal than we might ever have imagined, and it pays to calmly work through response strategies to prepare for situations like this.

Lawson and Bristow had to repair a saildrive in a remote Indonesian harbour. Photo: David Bristow

DIY repairs

When cruising through truly remote areas you might well have to redefine what a haul-out facility or marina looks like. Places where fishing vessels do their annual maintenance may be unused to and unskilled at lifting fragile sailing vessels. You might be lucky enough to find a careening post or a multihull-friendly flat beach, but in an emergency, rough-and-ready local yards may well be the only option for tackling emergency repairs.

Earlier this year while transiting the shipping lane into an Indonesian harbour we hit an unknown underwater obstacle and ruptured our saildrive diaphragm. In this one chaotic moment – fenced in by fishing boats, nets and long lines of bamboo traps – we had engine failure and began taking on water.

While I attempted to dodge the fishing flotsam with one engine down, my partner Dave started pulling out tools and backing-up the bilge pumps. After we’d stemmed the leak, anchored and had a stiff drink, we reflected on how, collectively, a bunch of tools, a cable tie and lots of weekends spent tinkering in the engine room, probably saved our boat.

But making the fix more permanent proved to be far more traumatic. In a rudimentary boatyard, a four-day sail away, an excavator was needed to carve out a path before we were unceremoniously yanked out of the water over cobbled ground. The mast-shaking process was terrible to watch, but the eye-watering custom duties we paid on spare parts stung more, and we promised ourselves to buy two of everything as soon as we could.

The Rice family relishes the remote sailing life aboard Catalpa. Photo: David Bristow

This is where buddy boats can really prove their worth because between two or more boats, the collective bounty of spares and know-how can help you remedy whatever strife you find yourself in. When your own stockpile of spares falls short, you’ll find yourself trading and swapping with buddies for the parts you each need.

Investing in your boat

People get very excited about planning their great escape, but often don’t know how to properly prepare their boat. Key things to invest in include sails for all conditions (including a solid storm jib), a reliable autopilot to allow you to be hands-free when needed, good navigation equipment, and an AIS transponder. At night especially, having radar helps to reveal approaching squalls, unlit buoys, small fishing vessels and ships not using AIS.

The safety of any trip is enhanced by accurate weather forecasting, and Starlink has largely fixed the problem of getting weather forecasts in faraway places. It’s shifted our perspective of what isolation truly is, and living without it often means you are chasing a signal or sending the modem up the mast.

Prudent sailors heading into remote areas arm themselves with a bounty of spares. Photo: David Bristow

But since backup plans are vital, you’ll need more than joyfully consistent internet for emergency communications. When it comes to personal satellite devices, Iridium GO! remains a cruising favourite, and while it can’t rival Starlink’s speedy signal, it offers a vital lifeline when the power – or your boat – goes down. Other options, such as the Garmin inReach, are more basic and budget friendly, but any emergency satellite communicator teamed with Starlink forms a formidable duo at sea.

Adventurous mindset

There’s another essential that thankfully doesn’t cost a cent, and that’s having the ability “to enjoy places where things are not going to come easily” as Sara Rice says.

Behan Gifford agrees: “There’s no way you can communicate how difficult so much of it really is,” she says, having witnessed the gulf between how many sailors imagine the dream and the reality of actually living it.

Sailing with a buddy boat can help negate that feeling of vulnerability in remote region. Photo: David Bristow

“But there is so much goodness in stepping out of your comfort zone, in experiencing other cultures, experiencing the fragility of the world, and the vulnerability of other people and finding empathy for all of that.”

Regardless of how far your ambitions take you, remote area sailing demands a fresh take on life.

Learning to tackle boat maintenance, archaic banking and bureaucracy, bartering rather than shopping online, and raising your family in faraway places where health and safety is not a given, turns us into more patient, self-reliant and self-sufficient sailors.

This lifestyle isn’t always easy, but then few bold adventures are.

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