Monday, October 20, 2014

An unexpected anniversary muse ...

The cruising life enshrined in the glossy pages of sailing magazines and boat show halls usually involve nights on the hook in some of the world's most beautiful places. They are “near the edge” or “off the grid”, and it is grand living indeed. What they don't mention is that those are usually short visits made by people living something other than the life that, many of us who are cruising, live.

A large portion of those living here in long term, no-fee anchorages don't live near the edge. They are sitting on the edge with their feet dangling over the abyss. Many are over the edge, barely hanging on with bloodied fingernails. The crew of Kintala, by comparison, is sitting comfortably within view of the edge, hoping no more earthquakes trouble our world for a while.

Sailors take pride in “well founded boats”. There are not many of those around these anchored parts. Faded paint, decrepit teak, and torn canvas are the norm. Scavenged solar panels supplement noisy generators to keep the lights on and the food from spoiling. Decks are buried under cast off items that may prove useful in the future. There is very little money out here. That bit of dock line lying around cluttering up the place may look ratty and ready for discard, but next year it may be the best bit of line on the boat. Tossing it now may mean having to dig up the bucks to replace it later, and by later that hole might already be empty. Take a picture of a common "cruising boat".  Compare it to a picture of a shack in the poverty stricken Appalachian mountains.  The two will look remarkably similar.

To put it bluntly, the “This Old Boat” cruising community is a community largely trapped in poverty. This seems particularly true of two sub-groups of the cruising clan; veterans of America's never-ending love of wars, and young people.

Young people are especially vulnerable. Those who spend their 20s and early 30s “living the dream” are likely to find themselves locked in. For all of their worldly experience and independence, they have no solid footing. There are few skills the water dweller can trade to the land living for income. Some itinerant boat work in a yard, stray contract work here and there, maybe a few weeks of a minimum wage - part time schedule at a little place within walking distance of a dink landing sight, are what pass for “work” in the cruising world.  It isn't much, and there isn't much of it.  In addition the young cruiser likely has no social network that is “home” and lives outside the reach of America's expensive and limited version of health care. Unless very carefully considered, the choice to go cruising while young can easily become a permanent life of poverty.

Many dream of writing for pay to fund their lifestyle - the reason for all of these blogs perhaps.   Alas, even living modestly off of a keyboard is less likely than making the bush leagues in almost any big name sport, let alone the Big Show.  One must be an excellent word-smith and have access to good editing, with entertaining stories to tell or a keen eye for commentary. Even then one will be most likely have to remain content with writing for the love of art, not for the money.

Cruising is a simple lifestyle that doesn't take much to sustain. But food, boat parts, maintenance, health care, fuel, and travel expenses are mostly non-negotiable. Going from having little money to having no money is a small step financially, one that means going from a simple life to an impoverished one. Floating or fixed, living poor is living hard.

On land, poverty is institutionalized. The poor are born into poor neighborhoods, attend poor schools, suffer the indignities and harm of poor law enforcement, and only have access to poor food and even poorer health care. It is a social problem Americans simply don't care about enough to address. But poor people don't move onto cruising boats to escape poverty.

People living on a boat usually think they were making the choice to live modest and light. Cruisers don't start out living poor on a boat, they end up living poor on a boat, often the result of a string of bad personal decisions and/or unexpected personal or family responsibilities or tragedies. It is a risk of choosing this life that simply isn't mentioned very often. But it needs to be.

Some will insist that living poor is not, itself, a bad thing. They are welcome to their opinion.  But I doubt many of them are living poor, and by choice. Come “out here”, run out of funds, be anchored somewhere for months because there is no money to move, have no way back to land, and no options. Pick up a cruising magazine.  Look at the pictures.  See if that makes it any better.

That may sound like I am down on the “cruising life”.  That isn't true, though I am a bit down on the cruising media.  We love living this way. It is simple. It is modest. It takes very little from the planet but offers a lot for the heart in return.  If one wants to live well while living modestly, this is a good choice to make.  But we have been out here for a year now. Those living well outnumber those living hard, but there are more living hard then I ever expected. It is far easier to move from a good life to a difficult one than most will admit, and it can happen very, very, quickly.  No one will be out here long before they anchor next to someone struggling to get through each day.

Though this must be said as well: even those struggling, who wish it was easier, would still rather be struggling on the water than struggling on land.  If they would rather be living easier on land than struggling on the water, is a question no one asks ... and no one answers.  The fact is, once one is living hard on the water, it is damned difficult to get back to land without help.

Coming out here without thinking of how easily this good life can turn into a hard one, is a good way to find one's own story changing into something much different than what was expected.


Robert Salnick said...

Thanks TJ for the honest appraisal. Tho this post is a downer, it is sadly accurate. And more true down south where "the livin' is easy" than up here where you pretty much must have heat in the winter, and pay for it. Nevertheless, we have people trapped in water-borne poverty up here too (google "Bainbridge Island liveaboards").

On the other hand, it is the flip side of all those wonderful evenings anchored off of a palm tree-lined white sand beach. And a day spent on a perfect beam reach romping over the waves to the next island.

I guess what needs to be said is that Nothing Is Perfect.

But the liveaboard lifestyle is more perfect than many of the alternatives. And we should never lose sight of this.

s/v Eolian
Anacortes, WA

SailFarLiveFree said...

Excellent, sobering perspective. That's what I've come to expect when TJ posts. But I've still got to wonder if you've defined "poor" and "struggling" correctly. That is, do you think those living on boats with faded paint, decrepit teak, torn canvas, etc. consider themselves to be poor? Is everyday a struggle or a choice? Would they want it any other way?

MH said...

Nice post. In one of our French cruising forums, there was an interesting discussion recently highlighting the opposite perspective: sailing magazines that glorify young poor ill-equipped cruisers having little or no experience who head off to sail around the world. This romantic notion may sell magazines to arm-chair dreamers, but the reality can be dangerous. How many fail for each “success” touted in the magazines? And what form did that failure take? Not so romantic anymore.
Maria and Patrick
S/V Spray

Tim Kopischke said...

TJ - I am the ever-optimistic "dreamer" of being a cruiser one day. We charter boats a few times a year and sail when we can. I read tons of blogs and we have our "plan" in place. I have followed your blog for the last few years as you guys struggled thru your movement from nearby Lake Calryle to a new life aboard your evil float. I have pulled for you tirelessly and smile when you talk about the simple pleasure of morning coffee, sunsets and clear water. But, alas, today is my last day of reading your misery blog. My life has no more room for your cancerous negativity. I sincerely hope you find what you are looking for someday. It is probably right under your nose and you can't even see it ... best wishes.

Robert Sapp said...

As someone who has been losing more than a little sleep lately thinking about whether our plan to walk away from two very good jobs and take a 75% pay cut to go cruising is truly a sensible thing to do (I’m still leaning toward “yes”), I found your post to be quite unsettling. The last thing we would want is to end up afloat and destitute. But after thinking about it, I came to realize that what you’re describing is basically the marine version of a trailer park. We live in a nice home in a decent neighborhood, but we don’t have to look too far to find little clusters of dilapidated mobile homes huddled around dusty gravel drives. The nice homes in decent neighborhoods are the equivalent of well-appointed marinas and mooring fields. The free anchorages are the trailer parks. A quick survey of our community will show that there are far more decent neighborhoods than sketchy trailer parks, and a trip along the coast will show that there are far more well-maintained cruising boats moored in slips or at moorings than run down derelicts floating at anchor. But if your travels often take you through that part of town, well, it colors your perception of the world.

Before you say that poverty ashore or afloat is a social problem that America doesn’t care to address, I would ask that you consider this number: $22 Trillion. That’s how much money our country has spent in its War On Poverty, more than any other country in all of history, which in my opinion represents a great big giant heap of caring. I think I saw some figures recently that said that if we had just given that money to the poor, it would have been almost a quarter million dollars for each poor person (e.g. they would have no longer been poor), but unfortunately since we let the government manage it, well, our outcomes have been less than desired - $22 Trillion in and pretty much the exact same level of poverty 50 years later. But then the Bible does say that the poor shall always be with us. Because it’s fundamental and unalterable human nature that some people will make a steaming hot mess of their lives no matter what you do for them. And some of those people will end up on boats.

Your post tends to reinforce my core social philosophy, which is that most people (I said most, not all) end up where they are in life as a result of conscious decisions they have made. For example, the growth of the vocational education industry and the easy availability of Pell grants means pretty much any young broke 20-something that really wants to go live the dream can easily spend 18 months attending a taxpayer funded trade school learning welding or diesel engine repair or air conditioning and refrigeration maintenance or fiberglass repair, or even nursing if they’re not that good with their hands, after which they could dinghy into any shoreside village in the world and probably find work. Some do just that. But the world is full of young 20-somethings who decide that that is just too hard, spend all their time playing on their Xboxes, and then drift between jobs flipping burgers and delivering pizzas, resenting the fact that they’re poor and bitching about income inequality. I’m sure some of them end up on boats, and if they got there without having a plan to acquire a useful trade (or decided that what the world really needed was another person with a bachelor’s degree in theater management) then the person to blame is not society but the one looking back at them from the mirror. Will the lifetime earnings of someone who chooses to go cruising at a young age equal what it would have been if they’d stayed dirtside and studied accounting? No, but that’s the compromise you accept when you elect to go cruising. You’re choosing a full life over a life that’s full of stuff.

Anyway, please don’t take any of this as criticism of your viewpoint. It’s just me working through the process of convincing myself that electing to retire early and go cruising doesn’t automatically mean I’m doomed to a life of poverty and hardship. :-)


WhiskeyTrip said...

Good stuff! Great to read honest, balanced views of "the life". Keep it up...your observations will help keep our expectations realistic.

TJ said...

Robert, you will do just fine if you come this way. And I hope, if you do, we get to share putting a fes miles under our respective keels. Though we have had a rough passage so far, I can't imagine living any other way.

For whatever reason Deb and I usually find our way to the trailer parks of the world. I don't know why I thought cruising would be any different. And though I am not a believer, some day we should share a beer and talk about the kinds of people Jesus was said to hang out with, and what he had to say about those who looked down on them.

TJ said...

Oh, I absolutely agree that we should have just given that money to the poor. A direct redistribution of wealth that bypassed government, national and state, and went straight to those who needed to buy food, clothing, shelter and health care. But you and I both know neither party would have been part of anything so direct. The war on poverty should never have been a war, and it should have actually addressed poverty.

Deb said...

Robert - (Part 1)My turn to step into the long-ranging socio-economic comment discussion, but first to comment on your doubting. The one force that has more effect on cruising than any other is inertia. It happens even before we leave, that fear of changing momentum or direction because of the unknown. Simply, staying put is easy, going is hard. We were going through the same sleepless nights as you when it was still a decision of choice for us, but after Tim losing his job our cruising plans became a wonderful safety net for which we were extremely grateful instead of a choice to walk away. I'm ultimately glad for the "push" we got because it has been the most worthwhile experience we've had. Difficult? Extremely, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. That battle with inertia will continue to plague you even after you leave. You will get comfortable in a marina or on a mooring ball or yes even an anchor and you will have difficulty leaving the comfort to go on to new adventures. It is human nature. If I were you, I wouldn't worry so much because you are clearly well prepared and very thoughtful about each of your preparations. As so many people told us before we left, just go, you'll never regret it.

Deb said...

Robert - (Part 2) Now on to the socio-economic debate. Two things I wanted to address from Tim's previous comments. He said that we always seemed to end up in trailer parks on land so it shouldn't be any different on the water. I wanted to clarify that because I felt it colored his argument some in a negative way. We lived in a high-end neighborhood in St. Louis and left high-end jobs, just earlier than we had hoped so the retirement funds hadn't had time to grow to our preferred funding level. The reason he said that was not because we lived in them, but rather because we tend to gravitate to people in the lower socio-economic strata because we seem to be one of the few with the compassion to help them. I'm not making that statement out of criticism of others or a desire to pat my own back, just a recognition resulting from 43 years of experience in our relationship. The general vibe we get from others is the "Not my circus, not my monkeys" mantra that Tim and I have unsuccessfully tried to adopt on occasion. I sometimes wish we could just look the other way, but it's not who we are. I would much rather be here with these folks and be able to lend a hand once in awhile, or deliver a fresh loaf of bread, than be parked next to a bunch of mega yachts whose owners I rarely see.

On the subject of poverty, there is a common misconception that you mentioned that everyone in poverty could pull themselves out if they wanted to, that they could be elsewhere if they had just gotten different training or jobs. I can unequivocally state that is not true. My daughter was learning disabled and never made it through high school. She studied hard to earn a cosmetology license, the only thing she could do without a highschool diploma. She has since always held 2-3 jobs at the same time, working her behind off to support herself, and now her family. While I agree that there are surely some lazy and entitled people out there willing to take welfare and spend their days laying around watching Dr. Oz, most that we have encountered have landed in poverty through situations for the most part out of their control: a major medical disaster that exceeded their ability to pay, a job loss in a down market, a tragedy not backed up with insurance. The cliff between plenty and poverty is easy to fall off of. If we hadn't had the boat plan in place when Tim lost his job, we would likely have had to burn through all of our retirement savings paying down the mortgage on a condo we couldn't sell and looking for the nonexistent aviation job to move to.

One of the other reasons we seem to gravitate toward this cruising crowd is that one of the reasons we left at all was to separate ourselves from a "stuff" oriented lifestyle. I have zero interest in hanging for the long term at some of the marinas we've been to, filled with excrutiating and exorbitant displays of wealth. It's some people's desire and that's fine, it's just not mine.

I guess, while I'm on a roll, that I feel the need to address Mr. Kopischke's comment. We have always pledged to be honest in our writing on this blog. Last winter we had posts about white, sandy beaches, palm trees, aquamarine waters and rum drinks. It was our reality then. For the last 5 months we have been reeling under the weight of helping our kids to survive in a less-than-happy situation. That was our reality. I'm sorry if that didn't fit Mr. Kopischke's bill of fare, but I pledge to you all again that we will always be honest here. You will get the good when it's good, and the not when it's not.

Thank you Robert for your willingness to discuss difficult issues without prejudice. It's a refreshing trait in a highly prejudiced world.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

It never occurred to me people would be living poor on boats. I suppose it is just an extension of the poor everywhere else.

My take on the sentiment, "there will always be the poor" is this: Any economic system will benefit the skill-sets of some over others. When manual labor was the majority of the work in the US (1700-early 1800's, especially in the West), people with physical disabilities were at a great disadvantage. Currently, manual labor is less valuable in general than "brain work". People who don't have that capability are now at the disadvantage. Even the most hard-core capitalist will tell you that a certain amount of unemployment is expected and in fact is desirable; it represses wages and reduces cost to businesses. The thing I've never understood is that those that profit most by unemployment are so disparaging of the unemployed. A car that won't start can be a damned inconvenience to me but to someone with less purchasing power, it can be the difference between having a job and not having a job. Those that spend little time among the poor have a hard time understanding the problem. I think walking a mile in the shoes of others would do most of us a lot of good. I have a high standard of living and have worked for it, but I have never lost an appreciation for what facilitated it; two parents with jobs, esp. well-paying jobs, the ability to go pretty much anywhere without being judged as inferior by my skin color, being surrounded by the well-educated, a safe home with plenty of food, books, and heat, opportunities for travel and enrichment . Not everyone gets that. Some succeed in spite of not having it, some fail in spite of having it. There are far fewer of the latter than the former. I think Gladwell's book "Outliers" is a good place to start in trying to understand the advantage of circumstance.

SV Pelagia said...

I read tons of blogs and we have our "plan" in place... But, alas, today is my last day of reading your misery blog. My life has no more room for your cancerous negativity.

TJ, you write the truth. A truth the sailing media stays far away from. A truth that the "dreamers" out there do not want to know about. (We too were once dreamers....) I have never seen your blog as a "misery blog" (although certainly there were days of misery -- welcome to the sailing life!).

I fear that Tim K. may face a different reality when their "plan" is realized. I hope it not a disappointment.

Keep up the writing.