The Cruising Sailor's Rhythm: Getting Your Groove Back

After a break from cruising, how do you get your groove back?

Running a certain gauntlet was the portal to finding the cruising rhythm...

Years go, on a chilly fall day in Annapolis, I sat in the salon of Ave del Mar with my phone pressed against my ear, listening to my friend and Ave’s previous owner, Jamie Bryson, reel off another tale from his sailing days.

At anchor Mill Creek
Cruising vessel Ave del Mar at anchor in Mill Creek

“We shoved off because everything was right,” he told me. “We had been relaxing at anchor in this little coastal town for six weeks. The weather window was good and the ship’s stores were full, so we went. But as soon as we were underway, everyone got crabby. Tempers were short. No one was enjoying the journey at all. We each wanted to go drop the hook back in that little harbor and see our friends again, maybe share another meal.”

I nodded to myself in affirmation and squeezed in a few grunts of agreement to let him know I was still there.

“The problem,” Jamie said, “wasn’t the weather or sea state. They were all fine. It really was the right time to go. The problem was: we had lost our rhythm.”

Last fall 

The anchorage in Annapolis’s Mill Creek was perfect. It was away from the hustle and noise of downtown, and Ave was anchored a short row from the dock of a friend’s house. The creek had excellent holding, loads of swing room, and great protection. I had fetched my car and was engrossed in last-minute boat projects and provisioning. The brand new Fiorentino offshore para-anchor needed line, and that line would need splicing around a thimble. Empty food lockers needed filling. Every bit of running rigging needed to be reinstalled, adjusted, or updated. It had been two long years since Ave and I had been legitimately underway, and it showed.

I happily immersed myself in projects, fixing and organizing the boat. Runs to the chandlery or a grocery store were frequent. I watched football with my hosts and met friends out for dinner or a beer. During all this, the overarching goal of sailing offshore from the Chesapeake Bay down to the Leeward Islands remained my sole focus.

As the to-do list waned, anxiety waxed in its place. While my hands worked at a task, my mind tossed and tumbled over boat systems, weather, and my general aptitude. Was I crazy? Was I planning right? Was I being stupid? I wasn’t flying blind—I had the right experience. I had crisscrossed the Caribbean from end to end and had sailed outside from Florida to Rhode Island. I had been a’sea in gales and squalls, with crew and without, and yet for some reason doubt was the flavor of the day as time drew near to pull the anchor and go. I knew what the real problem was: just like Jamie so many years before, I had lost my rhythm.

“We never checked the weather when we had a delivery,” my friend Chris told me as we sat in the cockpit of his boat Luna, swapping stories under a starry Palm Beach night sky. “We just went. And when things got spicy, we did whatever we had to do.” 

Doing whatever you have to do is, within reason, a rhythm thing. Staring at weather files while at anchor is simply a paralyzing imagination overload, a little kid trying to sleep in a strange, old, creaky house. In the absence of having the opportunity to do whatever we have to do, like that little kid, we create monsters in our minds.

Back in Mill Creek, my friend Jim came out of his house as I filled jerry cans from the hose spigot by his basement door. I told him the time had finally come, that I was going to weigh anchor and shove off the next day. I knew that if I didn’t get moving soon the monsters would grow so big that I might never leave.

He asked me how far I was headed that first day, and I told him Solomons Island—but the real truth was that I didn’t know. I was considering Solomons, of course. It’s the cruising community’s favorite next stop south from Annapolis. I also was considering sailing just a few short miles out of the creek and around the bend—barely out of sight, but underway. How far really didn’t matter to me. Starting mattered.

cruising sailor John Herlig
On the morning he cast off, the author ratcheted up the windlass and scrubbed sections of anchor chain to dislodge the muck. These acts were the portal to the cruising rhythm.

Casting off

As morning came, I began to claw my way back into a cruising groove. The first cup of hot coffee came and went while I dressed and organized the cockpit; the second was set aside to be a reward for getting going. Toe warmers were sandwiched between layers of socks, causing my Helly Hansen offshore boots to feel a bit snug. 

The anchor came up slowly, its chain covered in a tarry black mud. My breath left clouds around me as I ratcheted the old Sea Tiger windlass. Ave’s decks were drenched with dew, but my boots and toe warmers had me warm and dry. Water spit from the boat’s exhaust with a regular whoosh, whoosh as I scrubbed sections of anchor chain to dislodge the muck. These acts were the portal to the rhythm. This was the gauntlet I had to run to get back in.

The weather was good for a gentle first day back at the helm. I nudged the throttle forward and pointed the bowsprit towards the mouth of the creek, waving at the duck hunters as I weaved my way out. In the Bay, I let the genoa out as Ave and I enjoyed an easy downwind run south. The VHF crackled with Coast Guard announcements and “sécurité” calls. 

I was regaining my foothold on my sailing world. The monsters shrank back to the recesses of my mind. I no longer felt the need to hide around the corner and regroup. I was underway. Solomons it would be.
Like the hours of the day, the miles ticked steadily by until I doused sail under a late afternoon sun and motored up the Patuxent, where I would wait out the next day’s front and its brisk south winds. The anchor spilled over the roller into 10 feet of water, caught the bottom, and Ave swung around to rest.

We were anchored again, but we were no longer stuck. The rhythm was back. 

by John Herlig

About the Author: John Herlig lives aboard his Rawson cutter Ave del Mar, teaches at Cruisers University, and is the host of the podcast Remarkable Stories. Find him on Instgram at @sailingave.

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