Saturday, November 14, 2015


Oriental Harbor Marina

Deb and I probably got into cruising the wrong way around. We did not get here by fulfilling a life-long affair with sailing and boating. Our parents never lived on boats, never raised either of us to live on boats, or even spent any time on ocean-capable cabin boats. (Deb's Dad had a fishing skiff. One of my grandfathers a little wooden run-a-bout that could pull a water skier, though fishing was its main purpose.) We did not come this way as an attainable path for exploring the world or traveling to exotic locations. Mostly we (read that as “Deb”) were looking for a different way of living. One that would let us escape the relentless job search needed to keep up with the bills and allow us a sense of being in a place of our choosing.

We accepted, and in fact welcomed, the idea that such a life would be inherently modest. After years of motorcycling and camping, the idea of being mobile was attractive as well. There are (believe it or not) full time motorcycle wanderers and everyone is familiar with the RV world of the “snowbirds”. For some reason, though, neither one of those lifestyles managed to sink a hook into our dreams.

Instead we ended up “out here”, living on a 42-foot, 30-year-old sailboat, our only connections to land being friends and family. There is no storage area, no little house to visit for part of the year, no car. Within 20 feet of where I sit writing is every material thing I own on the planet. We can live for weeks “off the grid”. Making our own power, carrying the water and food we need, with a dry place to sleep, eating well from the galley (and Deb's considerable cooking skills) and with a comfortable place to sit while taking in incredible views. We have become members of an incredible tribe of gypsies, have seen things that few get to see, live at our own pace with our own priorities. We live a human dream rather than an American one.

There are down sides, chief of which is having good friends and family who don't live on boats. Instead they live deep inland, and our hearts carry the burden of loved ones far away. This is also a very exposed way to live, not as comfortable, or as safe, as some would like to imagine. The boat lacks heat and air conditioning, often making for a very humid environment. If it happens to be cool (or downright chilly) where we are, it can take a long time to shake a cold, cough, or sore throat. (The good news is we rarely visit crowded stores, don't spend much time around school aged kids, and only rarely make our way through airports.) Weather rules, we spend many a day hiding from it. Waiting days for an appropriate “window” for the next leg of a journey is normal. Indeed, we are waiting for just such a window at this very moment.

Nor do I believe this cruising life is as safe as it is often cracked up to be. Anyone who claims that driving to work each day is somehow more dangerous than working the fore deck as the weather goes bad somewhere out in the middle of the Gulf Stream, or resetting a hook some stormy and wave swept O-so-dark-thirty in an exposed anchorage, really needs a risk assessment re-calibration. Lightning sizzling overhead, the darkness seeming to suck the photons right out of the deck light, wind singing through the rigging, black water slapping a violently pitching hull and reaching out to sweep the unfortunate into its embrace... I have been “concerned” way more often in the last two years than in the previous 40. Afterwards of course, when the problem is solved and order restored, every nerve and fiber sings in celebration of a life being well lived. But that only happens when the risks are real with no guarantee of the outcome.

There is much to learn about being “out here”. Which seems to be a bit of a problem for the American cruising, and chartering, crowd. Americans have a reputation for thinking that we know everything. There is also the belief that being good at one thing automatically means we can be good at anything. Then there is the stark reality that most of us don't know much of anything about most things, but we talk a good game. And then we make the mistake of believing our own words.

Mother Ocean will cure that misunderstanding in a hurry. What follows is a crash course (sometimes literally) of mastering a diverse set of skills as quickly as possible and as if your life (and the soundness of your hull) depends on it. It does.

I like this life. I certainly like it much more than a life dedicated to making money for other people. They let me keep a little of it to try and pay my bills, which was nice of them. Some of us think those “other people” are government. Some think those “other people” are Wall Street, CEO's, and MFAs. I think they are one and the same. Every inch I manage to put between me and them is another inch of happiness.

But this is not a life of “sailing”. We do some sailing. I have met some who race weekends and Wednesday night who do a lot more sailing than we do. It is not a life of being retired. We simply work way too hard, the callouses on my hands are tougher than those I used to have when working full time as a mechanic. It is not a life of vacations. We do visit some vacation spots, but so do the people who work at those spots

It is a life of accepting that forces far beyond our kith and kin will set the rules. It is one of being responsible and accepting the consequences. It is one where humility and a willingness to learn new things will go a long way toward happiness.

It is not for everyone.

And we should be pretty honest about that as well.


Tillerman said...

Thanks for that.

It makes a refreshing change from what I call the "follow your dreams" post that most cruising bloggers seem to feel the need to post eventually. That's the one oozing with moral superiority because they had the courage to follow their dreams to live on a boat and sail round the world (not that most of them get any further than the Caribbean) as they try to shame those of us who have other dreams in life into feeling inferior.

It's not for everyone.

But good luck to you and all the others who do want to follow this lifestyle.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

So where's the problem with living on a boat without dreaming about the sea for the past 5 generations? You chose a lifestyle that gives you more satisfaction than dealing with corporate America. It just happened to involve sailing. Good for you and may you serve as an example to others believing that there aren't any alternatives.

TJ said...

It isn't a problem popsi. I am all about avoiding living in corporate America and, as you say, it is one of the reasons I am a live aboard cruiser. But it isn't the only way and it isn't my only reason for being out here. Truthfully, if avoiding corporate America is the only reason a person chooses to be a cruiser, it isn't likely that person will be out here long. A cabin in the woods, a nice running RV, living as an ex-pat in another country, all are alternatives. And all are, I suspect, easier than living on a small sailboat.

gwizard43 said...

Thanks very much for this post - I'm about 3 years out, mas o menos, from trying the liveaboard experience, possibly in conjunction with expatriation. Trying to get as much secondhand exposure to the lifestyle as possible while preparing (e.g. just bought your book), and I appreciate the honest insight in this essay. In particular, with regard to the need for humility! So again, thanks for this, TJ, and best of luck to you!