Sunday, June 21, 2009

Stay or Go?

On the dock late one summer I was confronted with a question that had become a standard greeting after a couple of winter cruises to warmer places. “Going south this year?” I was feeling a bit sarcastic, and more than a bit tired of the question, so my response was “No, I’m taking this year off.” Subsequently I noticed that the few remaining acquaintances who believed there was more to my lifestyle than madness began drifting away.

I’ve lived aboard for sixteen years now and feel quite fortunate to have escaped New England winters for four of them. I suppose the common three-season query of “Isn’t it cold in the winter?” would indicate that many land dwellers think I should instead begrudge the twelve northern winters. It’s taken a while, but I feel like I’m finally reaching the point where I can see the silver lining and the cloud both in staying and in voyaging. As crazy as it sounds, I actually enjoy looking ahead toward a season “off.” I didn’t decide to live aboard simply as a prelude to the ‘event’ of a tropical cruise. It’s a lifestyle I arrived at eyes open (and then I realized I needed glasses.)

Boldfaced self justification is probably the verdict many are passing at this point, but maybe I can explain myself. I won’t deny the challenges that the winter months present on board, headed I suppose by fresh water acquisition. But then these challenges are as individual as the people who pursue this lifestyle. It took a last minute cancelled cruise for me to sit down and quantify the pros and cons, so to the detractors I at least award recognition of the inception of these thoughts. In a particularly active early winter storm season a few years ago, I was faced with challenging arguably suicidal weather or tying to the dock. The list helped me quantify the collateral damage in terms of lost preparation costs. I didn’t start out to rethink the philosophies surrounding my choice to live afloat, but that’s exactly what happened.

At best, the offshore passages to the Caribbean from New England and back occupy one to two months on either end of the cruise. Ridiculous! Even a thirty five foot sailboat is good for 100 to 120 miles per day. Yes, but the crew has learned over time that just the right weather window is well worth the wait. Time is a principle safety factor in small boat ocean voyaging. And then there’s an island nearly on the rhumbline that makes visitors feel more welcome than any other I know. It’s always a challenge for me to leave Bermuda without an immigrations extension. So all told, there’s a healthy chunk of a given year’s cruise dedicated to the priority of getting to the other season. Since exposure to Caribbean strength hurricanes is as unthinkable as forfeiting a New England cruising summer, there’s no mid solution for me while I own one boat.

The question is, what one would be doing otherwise during those months? Before reliable central heat and breathable foul weather gear, probably not much. Before boomtown real estate prices and shifting waterfront property control banned summer access to many peaceful spots, why would one challenge the volatile weather of the cusp seasons? But things have changed in sixteen years and now the nicest sailing of all seems to work around the peak crowds. This sort of sailing is a big plus on the ‘stay’ list.

Family is a double edged sword in all of this decision making. It’s priceless to share dolphins and sea turtles with nephews a thousand miles away while they are swimming around your home. Realizing you have to carry the experience through to completion by finding and bringing home both in stuffed animal form is the downside. Complete abandon of consumerism is far more elusive than one thinks. Being present at the ever dwindling number of Holidays when Santa Claus is real and playing with the toys is as much fun as giving them are the corresponding plus in the cold winter column.

The issue of anxiety inflicted upon loved ones seems almost a wash. On the one hand there’s intense worry from land folk about the voyage on each end. Rightfully so I suppose – we all fear most what we understand least. Over time this has improved with my ability to explain my decisions more fully in terms of weather and other factors. Communication has allowed me to be in almost daily contact, though I sometimes think those ashore never quite believe it’s really me sending the e-mails. But then there’s the long period where I’m assumed to be lounging at a Club Med and therefore obviously quite safe in between. How could there be another side to such intense periods of anxiety you ask? It’s related to the assumption that anyone who would winter on a boat in a place where the ocean freezes solid must be a lunatic. This sort of realization about a loved one has to be hard to take. I’ve devoted unusual energy to this lifestyle, even to the point of earning a relatively rare degree in naval architecture and marine engineering before trying it. Yet somehow the assurance that “it’s OK, I’m a professional,” offers no relief. After all, what blue blooded American boy didn’t try to make his bike fly after Fonzi jumped his motorcycle over the barrels on “Happy Days,” in spite of the “don’t try this at home warning?”

Making friends underway is not much different than dockside for the winter. Mostly what changes is the topic of conversation. Away, talk centers inexplicably often around what commodity is available and where. In a dockside New England winter community it invariably involves heating schemes and gadgets. Either way, there is a tendency to form the elastic bonds that bring you back in contact repeatedly with the same few people.

I suppose I’d be run out on rails if I didn’t mention cost. Frankly it’s so individual as to make my observations seem almost pointless. I’ve seen many happy cruisers with little more than an iron will and a sound boat. I’ve even one or two without the latter. What you “need” is no more absolute afloat than ashore. What it takes to complete your personal level of preparation is, thankfully, one of a few remaining personal freedoms. So the purists will scoff and the belt- and-suspenders crowd will dismiss me as foolhardy, but my preparations are the best I can manage and consequently personally costly. There is a life raft repack which can be painful every few years. There are offshore flares, EPIRB batteries and ditch bag bits to assemble and renew. The satellite phone must be activated for at least a year. Provisioning is never trivial if you do it as well as know how to. Weather guidance is worth the cost to me and has been both educational and probably lifesaving over the years. Insurance for extended travel is difficult to obtain and expensive. Lest we should forget, for those planning to stop along the way, there are expenses associated with entertaining ourselves. At least we’ve brought along our own efficiency motel.

Clearly the ‘stay’ column is less costly. On the short list are items like winter dockage (I rarely use marinas when cruising,) auto insurance, heating energy, and a gym membership. This last is my alternative to installing an anchor windlass in the spring, aside from its other benefits. Time and world events seem to conspire to make the subtotal of the short list rise to meet that of the longer ‘go’ list. I had a hard time answering someone recently who asked me to compare my winter heating costs to my overall cruising budget.

Anyone who has been out and back will agree that there is a genuine hard work aspect to cruising, particularly in preparation. Even underway there will be opportunities to wonder if farming might not have been a wiser choice. The real reward of many years of living aboard has not been the few of voyaging. It has been all of the experiences along the way. I love to be warm and swim in clear tropical water. But I love to be free to live as I choose even more. The time spent wherever you are is special if you are in it for the lifestyle and not for some one time travel experience or perceived escape. The perspective that you are seeing the world but sleeping in your own bed when you do cruise won’t happen if you don’t make your boat your home. Wherever it is......


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  2. Hear hear!

    A very nice essay Chris - thanks for putting it into words.

    I must say, though, that your blog is causing me problems: I put my hand to the plow to pursue a PhD in naval architecture, and you are really motivating me to throw it over and get underway again! You gotta help me stay the course for just another couple of years!

  3. I should follow up with more detailed thoughts on the universal schitzophrenia of the human condition. Namely that when I'm wandering, I can tangibly sense my brain atrophy (perhaps it's the cheap rum) and when I'm here I rutinely wonder why I came back. But I think to stay the course all that matters is to be moving toward a thing and not away from another. My feeling on voyaging, ocean or life, is that nothing is more dangerous than to double back. Twice the landfalls, lost ground, little gained. One foot in front of the other, cruising or learning.