Reflections after the first season of full-time cruising

As the 2023 season came to an end, it’s time to reflect, rethink what we’ve accomplished and what we’ve learned sailing around Europe. It was not a regular year for us – it was the first season sailing and living full time on a sailboat. We’ve decided to sum up everything and share with you our experiences, challenges, surprises and lessons learnt, rather than just a list of places visited. Those will be described in separate posts soon.

We both agreed that 2023 was a hell of a ride! From finding and buying a dreamboat “Tranquility” in Sweden in March, crossing the Baltic during winter season, refitting her to finally set sail around Europe, we definitely couldn’t be bored. It was an exciting and fun year but we were also on a steep learning curve. Despite tiredness it gave us a feeling of accomplishment in many ways. Full-time living on a sailboat looks more or less how we expected. We didn’t face any serious disappointments or surprises. Preparation was the key.

Sailing in Europe – our route from Sweden and Poland to Greece

As our goal for the season was Greece, our favorite sailing ground so far, we had a long way in front of us. Still learning the new boat and a new lifestyle, we sailed Baltic Sea up to the Kiel Canal. HERE, you can read about Kiel Canal passage. After a very interesting transit of the busiest man-made waterway in the world, we entered the North Sea. We visited Helgoland, sailed to Amsterdam, and with a few other stops, we crossed the English Channel. Challenging 5 day sail across Biscay Bay finished in A Coruña, where we could finally enjoy some warmer weather. Sailing down the Atlantic coast of Spain and Portugal brought us new experiences – lots of wildlife encounters, picturesque towns and amazing cuisine.

As we approached Gibraltar, we faced killer whale issues, well known in the area. Preparations paid off and without any unwanted interactions we could mark a huge milestone of our journey – crossing the Strait of Gibraltar and entering the Mediterranean Sea. Finally turning our bow East, we have visited the South coast of Spain, Balearic Islands, Sardinia and Sicily.

Here, we had a rather unplanned stop, as Tom’s appendix decided not to sail further with us and had to be removed. For some time, we could call Syracuse in Sicily our home and it was a really nice place to be stuck in. After recovery we set sail for our last leg in 2023 – to our beloved Greece. We still had some time to spend beautiful autumn days in the empty bays of Corfu and Leukada. At the end of November, the time has come to haul out the boat for winter to do some necessary jobs and upgrades.


Highlights of sailing in Europe in 2023

Let’s start with the most amazing experiences we’ve encountered!

1.  Starting our voyage in cold and snowy Sweden in March

After buying a boat in Orust Island in Sweden, we brought enough chocolates to the yard’s crew to convince them to launch the boat way earlier than the regular season starts. We were the first boat to leave the warm and cozy winter storage. Just after one busy day of preparations and provisioning, on March 26th, we left safe harbor towards Poland. Orust Island waved us goodbye with a snowstorm, followed by the layer of ice in the marina next morning. And although our dream was mainly to sail in the tropics and drink sundowners on the sandy beaches, winter sailing in higher latitudes impressed us so much that we’ve already started to plan on coming back to Scandinavia.

You can read whole story of this trip in Module 1 of our adventures.



2.  Sailing in Europe – journey begins in our home country

Poland is not the best sailing ground you could think of. Straight coastline, lack of natural bays, mostly fishing ports and not very well-developed sailing and cruising infrastructure is not very welcoming for full-time cruisers. But despite this, starting our journey from Poland was a highlight of 2023. It was never a plan to depart for our around the world trip from our home country, so the fact that it has happened was heart melting. Even though it is our home ground we’ve managed to discover some new places!



3.  Wildlife encounters while sailing in Europe

We’ve been positively surprised by the amount of wildlife we’ve seen from the very beginning of our journey. Thanks to our fellow sailor and follower, we reached Ruden Island in Germany, known for its population of gray seals where we had an amazing encounter. 

We are always super cautious about wildlife and do our best not to disturb it. Trying to approach the seals’ habitat, we were quiet and kept our distance. Disappointed that we accidentally scared them away, we noticed to our surprise that they were swimming underwater towards us, being very friendly and curious. One of them basically surfaced right next to our dinghy to check on us. That was magical.

Sailing west towards the Atlantic, we’ve seen mola molas sunbathing on the surface. In so many years of diving, we haven’t seen one!

In Spain, a whale surfacing right next to our haul was an icing on a cake. Probably it was a quite big minke whale, but unfortunately there was no time to grab the camera. 

Things turned different directions after crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. We’ve managed to have some wildlife encounters, unfortunately it was just a fraction of what we’ve experienced in the Atlantic. 



4.  Sailing with friends and family

Passion is the fullest, when you can share it with people. We were absolutely stoked that our closest friends decided to join us during our first season of sailing. And most importantly – that they want to come back!



5.  Reaching places off-the beaten track when sailing in Europe

Many of last year’s highlights included visiting remote places which would be difficult to reach on regular travel. Although we know Europe quite well, we have still discovered places, which we didn’t hear about before, even if they are close to our home country! We have already mentioned Ruden Island. Another gem we have discovered were rugged Egadi Islands. They are not only picturesque on land and underwater, but also give us a glimpse of tuna fishing heritage in the Med. From the Egadi Islands we began our exploration of the ancient ruins of southern Sicily, where temples rival the Acropolis and few have heard of them.



6.  Full-time outdoor living

Full-time outdoor living and being out in nature for most of the time is a huge highlight not only of the 2023 season, but also of this lifestyle in general. Breathing clean air, waking up in beautiful, calm places, watching sunsets every day – it’s so healing for our stressed and overstimulated minds. It is easier to keep fit, as you move around the boat all the time and your core muscles constantly work. You have a huge turquoise pool in your backyard so there are no excuses! We’ve been eating fresh seafood and fish straight from the fishermen’s boats and the amount of processed food significantly decreased in our diet. All of the above have a very positive effect on our bodies, health and well-being.



What challenges we faced sailing in Europe? What lessons did we learn?

1.  Sailing winter Baltic

As sailing winter in the Baltic Sea was a definite highlight of 2023, it was also a challenge. New sailing grounds, new boat and winter conditions on top of that – all these factors made us busy. Thanks to the enormous amount of planning Tomek did weeks before, everything went smoothly and according to plan. Our route initially followed the coast of Sweden, we sailed Oresund Strait and through the Falsterbo Canal we entered rough Baltic Sea. It has welcomed us with rain and such a heavy fog, that we had to divert to Ystad at some point where we’ve spent lovely days in an empty marina. Once the conditions improved we set sail towards Christianso, a small archipelago off the coast of Bornholm, another hidden gem of the Baltic Sea. From there we had a final stretch with overnight passage towards Gdańsk.



2.  Learning new boat on the way

Although we’ve spent an enormous amount of time preparing for this journey and throughout the years gained sailing experience, we were on a steep learning curve when we started the adventure. But it was not the sailing itself which gave us the most experience. We can easily relate to our career, where being a pilot is not only operating flight controls. It’s rather managing an extensive task of safely transporting people and goods between A and B. It is similar now, when the sailing part is the nicest and the easiest one. But there is a whole process to prepare and execute long before you cast-off the lines and long after you set the anchor in a beautiful bay. This is what we’ve learnt by doing, which is our favorite way of learning things.



3.  Time planning while sailing in Europe

It’s difficult to make plans when you’re constantly on the way, dependent on the weather. There are so many circumstances that can possibly delay you or reroute you, that you basically cannot control it. We made mistakes by planning too much ahead, making obligations far from our current position. Sometimes we failed, sometimes we could make it. All sailors know that being limited with the schedule and trying to sail according to it is tough. We didn’t leave our roster aligned job to build another schedule in our lives. That’s the lesson for the rest of our sailing life. Don’t make plans and obligations further than for the next two weeks and don’t push to fit an imaginary sailing schedule if you don’t have to.

4.  Orcas – serious issue for cruisers sailing in Europe

Some of you probably heard about orcas attacking boats in the area of Gibraltar and North, up to Biscay Bay. There will be a separate post about it, but dealing with this issue was a challenge. We had to organize some means to scare orcas away, implement special routing close to the shore, give up night sails, set more strict watches and monitor all orca alerts in the area. We were towing a special device transmitting ultrasound noises, which had to be deployed every single day. These things made our sailing slower, more tiring and less efficient. Crossing the Strait of Giblartar safe and sound was a huge relief for us.



5.  Medical case

Not everything went according to plan. Late September in Syracuse, Sicily, Tom started to feel the pain in his stomach. We quickly realized that it could be an appendix and taking advantage of being close to the city, we went to the hospital. We were right and the same day a medical procedure was carried to remove it. Recovery process under the Sicilian sun was quick, so 20 days later we set sail to Greece! Although being sick is not what you want during your trip, we both agreed that it happened in the perfect spot, with a good hospital nearby and safe anchorage. More about this situation and our tips on how to deal with medical emergencies during travel soon!


What surprised us in the first year living on a sailboat?

1.  More normal life than expected

Many people think that living on a sailboat is like permanently camping, with lack of space, lack of good quality food, utensils and coziness of a house. It is completely not true, at least in our case. As you can read in our post “What boat to buy”, there is a right boat for every task. When you decide to live full-time on a sailboat, living space is an important factor to consider. Living full-time on a racing boat or expedition yacht can be a struggle but we’ve chosen the right boat which became our cozy home. Well equipped, carrying everything that we need and probably more. We are able to cook good quality meals almost all the time and apparently, we don’t eat dried food at all! Our kitchen is the best equipped kitchen we’ve had in our life! I was also ready to reduce the amount of clothes I have, but I didn’t have to! It’s more normal than you would think and what we’ve expected as well.

Of course, it is our case. Lifestyle hugely depends on your needs, planning and prioritizing. We opted for a sturdy, well built boat with the comfort of the house and it looked like in Malo we found a perfect match.

2.  Less social life among cruisers in the Med than expected

We’ve thought of meeting more cruisers on the way and making more friends. Probably because we sailed East while the majority of sailors headed West, every time we met people, the next day we were splitting in different directions. 2024 should be easier as we will finally go with the flow! We also had a fast pace – when you sail 4700 NM in 7 months, you need to move. Then you don’t spend much time in anchorages to socialize. Moreover, the Mediterranean Sea is a very popular charter ground and cruisers are just a fraction of sailors you meet.

3.  It was anything but slow life

As we mentioned above, we really needed to move fast to reach Greece, the goal for our first season. And because we bought the boat in Sweden, we had many miles to cover. Often, we sailed 60+ nautical miles a day in a row. At the same time, we had to maintain the boat, do some planning, sleep and try to have some fun, because at the end of the day, we do it for fun. It has resulted in a rollercoaster year rather than slow life. Our travels have always been intense and we are still learning to slow down. Second season is less ambitious regarding the distance to sail, so let’s see if we can adapt to this mysterious slow life 🙂

4.  You’re not completely free

Buying a sailboat powered by the wind, upgrading her to be self-sufficient looks like a total freedom. And it is, compared to our busy lives on land. However there are still many factors that limit you in many ways. One is the weather, but this one is obvious. We were a bit surprised by the others – entry permits, dive permits, anchoring restrictions, parks restrictions, necessary bookings in advance, local rules. It requires a huge amount of research before, often in the local language. Permits take time to be granted, while you can’t plan way ahead on a sailboat. Local rules can change day by day. It’s not possible to track all of them! Unfortunately we see that more and more places are less cruisers friendly in the Med.


Summary

Writing this post and reflecting on the previous season helped us to realize what a year it was. How much has changed in our lives and how much more we want for the years to come. The more we travel, the bigger are our plans, so we hope to share some of our experiences here so you can extract something useful for you!


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