Float us across the ocean!
June 16, 2011 8:36 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to boat across the Pacific? What type of boat would be both effective and relatively easy to build? Human- or wind-power preferred, DIY and reuse encouraged.

A lover and I are curious. I know of the Floating Neutrinos and have read their site extensively, but are there other folks who have done similar things? What are the pros and cons of different boats? What time of year is ideal? What route? How would winds and currents help or hinder us?

(If you're going to say "It's dangerous, don't do it!": Don't bother. We know. We might decide not to do it on our own, but that isn't the subject of the question.)
posted by sibilatorix to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
It's dangerous, but feel free to do it once you are aware of the dangers and how to mitigate them.

I'd prefer a monohull that is designed to be able to recover from a turtle (that is when the mast points down into the ocean, and the keel is sticking up in the air). I think I'd prefer a single mast with a rig that anyone on the crew could single-hand (all lines run to the cockpit). Some people like the idea of a yawl because you can set a sail on the mizzen and know that you will weathervane into the wind.

Attempting to take a raft across the Pacific is a suicide mission. Building your own oceangoing sailboat is doable, but takes a lot of time, effort and skill.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:51 PM on June 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

For whatever it's worth, I find homemade/wooden boats to be too fiddly and fragile to sail near shore. Sailing offshore (ie. across an ocean) is an entirely different ballgame, and an area that I have very little expertise in, although it certainly isn't easier or safer. (And, ugh, does turtling ever suck, even in a small craft; I can't imagine doing it in a bigger boat and recovering/survivng without assistance.)

Similarly, this is the sort of thing where you take baby steps. Build a small boat and sail around a local lake. Build a bigger boat and sail a few miles alongshore, etc. This will take many years -- you can not walk up to a piano and perform a sonata with no prior experience; you have to practice, and learn the skills and practical knowledge of sailing before you want to attempt anything this crazy.

Personally, I've done exactly enough sailing to know not to attempt anything like this. I can't even count the number of times that I've ended up in the water, or encountered a serious equipment failure near land (snapped a mast once. holy %*#, that was scary)

Also, why the desire to build the boat yourself? That's another layer of skill that you're going to have to pile on top of the ambitious (but totally doable) amount of stuff that you've got to learn.

If you really want a sustainable/eco-friendly boat, you'll go buy one that's already been built, and is constructed out of a nice composite material that was designed in a lab somewhere. They're strong, lightweight, and don't rot. These are all very good characteristics to have in a boat. Bear with me here -- owning a wooden boat is a nightmare and a half. The wood needs to be meticulously maintained, painted, varnished, and treated with a large array of seriously nasty chemicals, just so the hull doesn't rot away into nothing — and this needs to be done every few years. A good boat can easily outlive its owners, and when you consider that kind of longevity, the amount of material/energy required to build a boat is really just a drop in the bucket, compared to all of the packaging material and consumable goods that you're going to consume in that period of time.

Also, an experienced boat builder is going to be able to construct a working craft with far less wasted materials and overhead.
posted by schmod at 9:10 PM on June 16, 2011

Balsa log raft.
posted by Bruce H. at 9:29 PM on June 16, 2011

Sorry, I didn't click on the Floating Neutrinos link before posting.
posted by Bruce H. at 9:34 PM on June 16, 2011

"Float us across the ocean!"

Major conceptual disconnect embodied in your title. As soon as you express interest in a destination ("across the ocean!"), you are no longer floaters, you are wannabe sailors. It's vital to your progress to resolve such value traps as quickly as you can - sailors think clearly, for survival and progress of navigation. Floaters need not think at all, as they are not generally concerned with such abstract concepts as "survival" or "destination."

"... I know of the Floating Neutrinos and have read their site extensively, but are there other folks who have done similar things? What are the pros and cons of different boats? ..."

From what I can see of their site, the Floating Neutrinos are what I'd call "stunt sailors;" i.e. people who put to sea on vessels of dubious construction/provenance, for purposes only tangentially related to accomplishing a journey by sea. Often, and more often in these days of EPIRBs, sat phones, sat data uplinks and Internet followers, such people often count on the good offices of others as a backup plan for reaching safety, should the worst happen to them in their endeavors. But a lot of people, over the history of humanity, have put to sea in wholly unsuitable craft, and accomplished great journeys. I'm a big fan of Bligh's notebook, which is the story of Lt. William Bligh and his remaining loyal company, put adrift in an open small boat by Fletcher Christian and the other Bounty mutineers, and their desperate journey, mostly by dead reckoning, of nearly 3000 nautical miles to safety. Unfortunately, we don't have accounts of the undoubtedly thousands of ill-prepared, ignorant, or possibly just desperate seafarers who failed to complete journeys to safe landings, because if they kept logs at all, those logs are at the bottom of the ocean, or degraded into entirely unreadable fish poo, because they sank and drowned.

I think Bligh would be the first to tell you that, while often becalmed, they didn't "float" a single nautical mile on that trip. In my experience, long time successful blue water sailors tend to mindsets a helluva lot more independent than those evidenced by the Floating Neutrinos, and more akin to Bligh.

As far as self-building a boat to take you across the Pacific, sure, it can be done, and others have done it. Many more have failed in the attempt, both in failing to complete actual construction of a seaworthy vessel, and others of sailing something they've built successfully to a destination. Building a sea worthy vessel for blue water is no simple task - as novices, even if you have the requisite technical education, financial resources, and support network (marine architect, boat builder to supervise, boat yard for construction, etc.), it's generally a full-time multi-year endeavor. And then, after building and outfitting such a boat, you may find that such an exercise doesn't mean you'll really know the first thing about sailing it well, or general seamanship. You might just sink your new boat on your first shakedown cruise. Stuff happens.

So, the lifetime of humans being not that long, and the capacity of the human brain being not all that great, most folks with interests in boats and sailing early on self-select to become boat builders or sailors. While there are a very few who have great resumes in both worlds, they are, for the most part, exceptional folk, straddling different communities, and generally full citizens of neither.

So, I'm with schmod, 100%, if you idly dream of star filled nights rocking in South Pacific lagoons of temperate character, on your own private vessel. You want to buy a properly built, rigged, and equipped ocean going vessel, generally of synthetic materials like fiberglas, and learn to sail her well. (If you plan to spend more than 5% of your vessel's life in temperate waters, avoid wooden boats, as shipworms will eventually eat their hulls, with nearly no long term regard for your anti-corrosion and preservative measures.) Get your international owner's tickets (ICC), and learn every kind of navigation there is - never rely entirely on electronics, or charts, or even stars (all can fail in fog and adverse seas/currents). Do a few hundred hours of successful coastal sailing, and more than a few round trips to islands and other medium distance way points by your own navigation.

And then, well provisioned and with due diligence, make way as you've learned, for points and ports of your fancy. Lotsa luck turning your dreams into voyages.
posted by paulsc at 9:58 PM on June 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

Some people like the idea of a yawl because you can set a sail on the mizzen and know that you will weathervane into the wind.

Though there may be other compelling reasons for a yawl, I think it's worth pointing out that many — if not most — sloop-rigged keelboats have weather helm by virtue of the sail and mast placement relative to the keel, and in most cases will turn into the wind if given no rudder input, when sailed on the main alone in anything except a run.

I'm not disagreeing that it's a good design characteristic, it's just that it's such a good characteristic that it's built in to many modern boat designs.

Personally I have not done any blue-water sailing myself, although it's something that I'm interested in doing. But I don't think I'd want to do it on anything smaller than 35' or 40' keelboat. That is about the smallest boat that anyone I personally know (meaning that I can vouch for their relative sanity and lack of obvious deathwishes) has done a trans-Atlantic passage on. I gather that it's possible to do a Pacific Rim island-hopping circumnavigation in a smaller vessel than a straight trade winds north Atlantic passage, though, so maybe that's overkill.

Someone recently recommended the book Two on a Big Ocean to me, and although I've not read it, you might find it interesting. It's the story of a husband and wife who circumnavigated the Pacific in a 35-foot sloop in 1962, and are often credited as some of the first to do so recreationally. (More info here. Incidentally, the author also wrote a more practical volume, How to Sail Around the World, which might be worth looking at.)

As for the "green" issue ... would rehabbing a boat, so that you wouldn't be paying the ecological debt involved in new construction, be sufficient? There are lots of hulls sitting around, if you were willing and interested in refitting one, or having it refitted. Often this is not terribly cost effective from what I understand, when you factor in the skilled labor, but I assume this depends on what you are willing and able to do yourself, what the value of your time is, and how quickly you want to be sailing.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:37 PM on June 16, 2011

As others point out, the way you phrased the question implies that you have a lot to learn before you can responsibly cast off for distant shores. But you're a grown-up, I bet you can manage it if you take the preparation seriously. You might find a few of these links/books interesting:
  • Storm Tactics by Larry and Lin Pardey discusses safe design features to look for in an ocean-going sailboat and how to handle rough weather. Their ideas are disputed by people who prefer sailboats of a different design, but it's a place to start.
  • Designer George Buehler wrote a book about cheapskate boatbuilding for sailboats and diesel motorsailers. He designs sorta old-fashioned hull shapes for wood or welded steel construction and is not above using scrap metal and concrete for ballast.
  • Designer James Wharram has a different sense of what's traditional; his designs draw on the Polynesian indigenous craft, some more than others.
  • Roz Savage is in the middle of rowing across the Pacific. She spoke at TED about her Atlantic crossing and her plans for the Pacific. Phil Bolger described a trans-oceanic rowing design in Boats with an Open Mind, too.
  • Kon Tiki and The Ra Expeditions by Thor Heyerdahl are sort of seminal works about the sort of questions you're asking.
  • Jimmy Cornell's World Cruising Routes is the go-to book on when and how to safely sail across each of the world's oceans, given prevailing weather and currents.
  • You might find some interesting leads in my FPP on the Blue a few months back.
Design-wise, I've listed only a couple out of hundreds or thousands of yacht designers. Generally, production fiberglass people will tell you that Buehler's and Wharram's designs are death-traps, and followers of each of those designers will say the same about the production boats. Sloop people think they've got better rigs than yawls, and everybody looks down their noses at the biplane junk rig loonies. But people complete round-the-world voyages on all of these very different craft, following or ignoring Cornell's advice, using traditional or modern navigation equipment, etc. So the truth is there are many paths across the ocean.
posted by richyoung at 11:49 PM on June 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

richyoung has some good links above. These people built their own Catamaran and this one is in progress.
I spent 15 years at sea professionally on a multitude of small craft in all the worlds oceans. Unfortunately I never got to cross the Pacific. During this time I came across many live aboards and ocean cruisers of all ages, some with children. All had a few things in common. Versatility; and an ability to make do and improvise when necessary. Many were never happier than when taking something apart and putting it together, a very useful trait when things cease to function properly hundreds of miles from nowhere.
There is probably a lot of useful advise in Cruisers and Sailing forums.
It is completely doable and I hope you make your dream come true. Common sense and cool thinking will help a lot. Safety is foremost as it means you will get to continue your adventure.
posted by adamvasco at 12:28 AM on June 17, 2011

Check out the Plastiki project, organized by David de Rothschild. In 2010 he and a crew of six sailed from San Francisco to Sydney on a catamaran whose hull was filled with 12500 reclaimed plastic bottles filled with dry ice, giving 70% of the craft's buoyancy, among other recycled/energy saving elements.
posted by bwonder2 at 12:57 AM on June 17, 2011

You might be interested in Tim Anderson; in particular, some of his handmade boat trips.
posted by galadriel at 5:28 AM on June 17, 2011

(And, ugh, does turtling ever suck, even in a small craft; I can't imagine doing it in a bigger boat and recovering/survivng without assistance.)

From what I understand, a good offshore boat will have a convex deck so that the weight of the keel will be able to pull the boat back upright. This is only an issue in the kind of heavy seas that might take your mast off and spin you upside-down. But it happens.

Though there may be other compelling reasons for a yawl, I think it's worth pointing out that many — if not most — sloop-rigged keelboats have weather helm by virtue of the sail and mast placement relative to the keel, and in most cases will turn into the wind if given no rudder input, when sailed on the main alone in anything except a run.

Good point. I prefer the simplicity of a sloop rig. Friends who like yawls argue that the much smaller size of the mizzen sail means that you don't have to reef as soon in heavy weather. You just drop the main and jib and keep the mizzen up. But then you have to keep your jib up if you want to maintain a balanced sail plan and make any headway. So you are back to a reefed main in heavy weather. Which is why I'll take a fractional sloop.

Personally, the only way I'd want to do an ocean crossing is as part of a fully-crewed race. I'd much rather go through a storm screaming along on the edge of a broach than bobbing along waiting for things to clear up. But then I learned to sail in a heavy wind area, and think of dismasting as a rather ordinary sailing hazard.
posted by b1tr0t at 7:46 AM on June 17, 2011

Have a read of Slocums Sailing Alone Around the World. He was one of the first to do it, and its a great book. He had been a captain for years before refitting a boat and setting off.

Also have a read of The Water in Between Its about a prairie kid to decides to buy a boat and sail to Tahiti. It ended well mostly by luck, he almost gets mowed down by a couple freighters, and the concrete hulled boat he bought was slightly dodgy.

For an example of what happens when you don't do your research, this was what happened to the boat "Raw Faith" a three masted schooner that was built without naval architects, proper construction techniques, or proper materials. Among the many problems with her, the keel was "glued" with roofing tar because epoxy was too expensive, and it broke up offshore (the crew were rescued). Heck of an example to others though.
posted by Pink Fuzzy Bunny at 8:05 AM on June 17, 2011

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