Pontification and Circumstance

We are living the dream. Really, this is it! White fluffy clouds and white sand beaches, freshly caught fish grilling on the barbeque and spiked coconut drinks served with little pink umbrellas. Bum swinging in the hammock, soft breeze flowing over bare feet, suntanned arm resting on the handrail. Eyes lazily gazing at pink speckled sunsets. Quiet mornings where the only sound is of a distant seabird dropping soulful echo in your ear. Bliss. This is what cruising is all about – the stuff landlubbers’ dream of and sailors boast about. Idyllic days spent on your haunches hakuna mata-style, all no worries and glowing happiness.

We have these times – really, we do! The only caveat is that of these days that sailors have and landlubbers dream about is that these moments are apportioned by The Other Days. And The Other Days happen just as often. These days look like this: Sweat pouring down backsides whilst crammed into tight, enclosed spaces, furiously cursing your boat, the heat, the sea, the salt, your partner, your mother, and your mother’s mother. You’ve a spanner and wrench in hand that might do the job, only if you can figure out what needs to be done. And you’d better figure it out – because you are the only name listed in the directory for handymen. If not, you have a hammer as back up so that you can, at the minimum, fix your frustrations if not your faults.

Let me take a moment and pontificate. In particular, I feel an urgent need to pontificate about rosy-glassed pontificators. There are so many first person narrations and third-party reiterations told in cyber chat, blog posts and magazine entries that preach of the goodness, almost akin to godliness, of those committed to aquatic travel. There seems an unspoken commitment to gloss over The Other Days. We’ve universally become ambassadors for The House of Travel and we are each madly selling package tours.

I was recently forwarded an article titled, “After Living Abroad for a Year and a Half Now…” that goes on to list ten points as to why an eight-year-old child has finally become enlightened by way of shedding herself of the entrapments of shore to live life afloat. She has cast aside her flash house, her new car, her TV, her plastic toys, her local friends, and her traditional education with no pain, remorse, or regret. She no longer knows about stress, having freed herself of all first-world entrapments. Brave warrior – she can now soar high and free. But…. but… really?! I have been a juvenile world-explorer. I am now raising a juvenile world-explorer. In both first and second instances, I understand the sacrifice that is asked of children when we take them out to sea. Every day is not filled up with sunshine and seahorses, baby turtles and rainbows. Sometimes the rainbows are just days of rain. Sometimes the sunshine is just melting heat. Sometimes instead of seahorses and turtles, you get dead coral and barren reef.

I like The House of Travel, and I do not want to offend. I wouldn’t dare illuminate the Dark Side of the cruising scene; that might alienate me from my peers. But I am prepared to reveal what happens on The Other Days; those days we really wish we were somewhere else. I have provided the Top Ten as follows.

1. Resources: You’ve access to every specialist required for the job, as long as you can pull that particular hat from your drawer. Otherwise, you may want to find that hammer. Or finance a new boat. On a yacht, the directory for services looks like this:

  • Plumber:       Mr. & Ms. Self              1-800-GOODLUCK
  • Electrician:   Mr. & Ms. Self              1-800-GOODLUCK
  • Seamstress: Mr. & Ms. Self              1-800-GOODLUCK
  • Mechanic:    Mr. & Ms. Self              1-800-GOODLUCK
  • Nurse:           Mr. & Ms. Self              1-800-GOODLUCK
  • Tour Guide:  Mr. & Ms. Self              1-800-GOODLUCK
  • Money-Juggling Account                 1-800-MPTYPOCKT

Every moment of each day your alter-identities are on stand-by. You’ve ten pagers attached to your hip, buzzing simultaneously, demanding immediate attention. At no time are you not on-call – it is a permanent state of affairs for every sailor. It is for you, the expert, to assess the emergency situation and respond to calls on level of urgency. All the while wondering, in the back of your head, why can’t we just go cruising? Why wasn’t this part advertised in the brochures? At no point did I receive a Cruising World with a model poised on the front cover with her bum-in-the-air, head-crammed-in-tight-space, back-burnt-and-twisted, profusely sweating middle-aged saltwort with a bubble of swear words above her head. This is the wrong kind of bikini-clad!

2. Duplicity: Everything has a back up, because everything breaks. And eventually every back up is used so you rely on the Directory of One, a pot of glue, your favourite swear word and, as last resort, your trusty hammer. When you’ve just bought two of every system onboard, at inflated marine prices, it is demoralizing to replace everything system by system to end up with a quick fix that only does half the job.

3. Replenishment: In a land-based home environment, if your bulb burns out you drop in at the corner mart to pick up a replacement. No problem. If the handle of your garden hose breaks you pop in to the local hardware store and buy another. No problem. You’ve just pulled the last square off your loo role and hop to the cupboard to find an empty plastic wrap. No problem, TP just a quick pop to the diary. All these are 15-minute jobs, completed without thought as you grab your car keys and drive on automatic pilot on an effortless errand. However, each of these insignificants whilst cruising can eat up entire days, and even then it may end in task incomplete. First, you have no car. No problem – catch a bus. If you happen to be anchored anyplace large enough to have public transport, you spend half the day sorting out taxi ranks and bus stops, to find out that the route you have taken has delivered you to a random mystery suburb. Second, you don’t speak the language. You gesticulate madly until someone smiles and points you in a direction, and you wander in circles until it finally dawns on you that local culture is to placate and appease. After a half dozen of these courteous navigational suggestions you finally clue in: They didn’t understand a word you said but it was more hospitable to appear helpful. Third, you finally navigate yourself to the right location to find out that they closed five minutes prior to your arrival for a protracted siesta. Or every staff member fell communally ill and the place will be closed for a week – directly corresponding with the day you arrived and the day you intend on leaving. Or it is a national holiday, a religious holiday, a wedding, or the birthday of a distant relative of the owner’s neighbor’s best friend. Regardless of the reason, you’ve just mimed and hitch-hiked your way across town to hear, “Sorry, please try again tomorrow.”

4. Space (-less): You’ve shopped around and done the research and found yourself the perfect boat. You’ve taken her on her maiden voyage and have fallen completely in love. She is perfect. You leave homeport, high as a kite. Make the most of those first years, as her glory fades. Little by little, season by season, your lady ages. Soon you are looking over at the boat anchored next to you, in lust. When that moment happens you will know you’ve contracted it. Forever after, you will suffer from a condition called 5-Footitis. No matter what, at some stage, every cruiser realizes that your boat is just a little too little.

I get it when my friends express amazement and, silently, pity when learning that we are raising a toddler and infant on a sailboat. Space is tight. Toys are kept minimal. Braca has learned that only one set of toys comes out at a time because there are no corners for typically toddler chaos. There are no “silent spaces.” Ayla has adjusted to sleeping with the roar of an engine or toddler in her ear. Literally. We eat, sleep, play, and work all within a 50-foot space. Fifty feet divided by two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, a dining and living room, a work shop/engine room, a few cupboards and a closet, divided again by four active bodies, equates to half a cubic square per person at any given time. I get why friends look at me in a “thank god it’s not me” expression. At times on passage it is akin to living in the world’s smallest apartment, locking the door and throwing out the key.

5. Connoisseur’s Courtship: Cruising brings you to an entirely different level in your relationship with food. There are many people who have a great affection for food, but no one has ever courted food like a yachtie. Our relationship is physical. We don’t buy it at the grocery store and toss it in the fridge. We search for it like we are on a quest for long-lost treasure. We map it out on parchment and spend limitless time playing Hide and Seek. Rarely is a one-stop shop on offer. You have to search the town for a fresh market, a canned-food supplier, a butcher, a baker, a cheese shop, and a liquor store. Food is collected in bits and bobs. We are the modern day foragers and gatherers.

After spending all this time searching for these nutritional treasures, there isn’t a vast fridge to shove it all into. You have to select the bare minimum temperature requirements of each item and sort it accordingly. With a fridge and freezer each the size of a miniature beer cooler, competition for cold air is fierce. What doesn’t go into the fridge must withstand humidity and heat. Often a provision run must last months, so the lifespan of your fruit and veggies is critical. As a result, you coddle it and wrap it in cotton wool. We spend days searching for it and once located, attend to it like a first-born. Ancient methods of preservation are learned and implemented. Eggs are tended to and lovingly rotated each day, like Mother Hen, done so they will last months unrefrigerated. Carrots and green beans are individually washed and dried and wrapped into bags, the cycle repeated daily to protect it from moisture and rot. Potatoes and apples cohabitate, extending their freshness for weeks. Onions are individually wrapped in kitchen paper and only the dirtiest potatoes are selected as they take the longest to age. Bay leaves are tucked into all the bulk stores, fending off weevils and other unwanted pests. All this time and attention may sound endearing and sweet, however it is a relationship born out of necessity.

6. Decadence: Speaking of culinary affection, let me quickly touch on the topic of decadence. Point five, discussed above, solely focuses on foods of basic necessity; not foods of luxury and desire. Of the latter, I would like to wake up one morning and have a bakery at my disposal, all hot dough and buttery croissants, rather than spend the half hour the evening before bashing flour with my knuckles. I often crave a cappuccino with a frothy flower served in a delicate ceramic cup, the daily newspaper set to the side. I want to look at a menu with vast selection, dine on the chef’s special, and follow it with the devil’s pick in sweet delights. Superficial desire, I know. But the appeal becomes heightened when the option for a café or fine dining has been taken away.

7. Slow: Some days are just slow… too slow. Some days are on instant rewind and repeat. Somehow you’ve auditioned for the sequel of Groundhog Day and landed the lead role. Your days become a repeat of the same routines: A morning swim and a play on the beach, a siesta at noon, boat maintenance (because there is always boat maintenance), followed by sundowners with whoever straggles into your anchorage that day. Quiet nights. I miss the noise of city life. The loudness. The business. The pace. I miss live music, small pubs and rugby matches. I miss old faces. Not the geriatric kind of old faces, but the familiar old faces of long established friends.

8. Weather: Life is very much ruled by the weather. I know that grey days get people down wherever you are. But when you are stuck in a floating box in a downpour, it gets all the more oppressive. Cruisers usually pull it off because long days of rain are not the norm during the dry season in the tropics. But when bad weather hits, you better be prepared for it. It takes no time to learn that you never leave your yacht with the hatches open – better to come back to saloon filled with stifling hot air than a cabin full of water. Most often you cancel your agenda as there is nowhere to go in torrential downpour. If you do decide to be ambitious, it is inevitably awkward. You hunker down in the dingy and get pelted as you race ashore, then lumber along with gear in hand as you splash your way to your destination. Regardless of tactic, when you get where you are going you are soaked to the bone, wet as a tramp, wondering was this worth it?… wherever you head to, they’d better be serving beer!

9. Budgeting: When you board a boat with the intention of being a long-term cruiser, you slip back into the financial position of a teenager with a minimum wage job. You have cash, but you never seem to have enough of it. Money is constantly being budgeted; priority spending shifts as boat repairs claim more and more of the “reserve.” Cruising funds are further constrained each subsequent year and budgets are constantly revised in attempt to make the money last. Boats by their nature suck money, and each year there is less money available to suck.

10. Temporary Retirement & Re-Employment: You drip out your retirement account so that one day when the rest of your peers are dropping out of planes in their golden parachutes, gunning around town in their Maserati’s, sipping vintage wine in their split-level homes, you are heading back to an office. Older, slower, and grumpier.

While this Top Ten list isn’t exhaustive, I have probably succeeded in making my point: There is a Dark Side to cruising. Cruising is not an exercise in seamanship, navigation and heavy weather tactics. We rarely spend our days battling storms, big waves and nautical disasters. We usually spend our days fighting logistics and minor inconveniences.

Cruising isn’t a long holiday. It is a lifestyle choice. There are incredible highs, and these make dealing with The Other Days worth every moment of it. When back on land I often feel like I am living amidships on even keel – the highs aren’t near as high and the low’s happen less often. While I do love coming ashore and indulging in extravagances and indulgences, I find that when the novelty wears off I am soon looking around saying, “Well, this is a bit dull. What next?” Within a matter of weeks, days begin to blend into each other and months fade away without notice. All the conveniences of home you craved on The Other Days, like cars and cash machines, Google Maps and high speed Internet, seem like adventures worth their weight in pain and sweat on reflection for it made for good stories shared over a grog at sunset. At home social occasions are planned rather than spontaneous. It takes years to meet the neighbours, rather than the quick invitation that goes out with boats you share an anchorage with. Friendships ashore often come after long courtship with social circles rather than the quick acceptance you get in the cruising circuit. Eclectic Camaraderie. I enjoy the feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood that is felt between sailors, mixed by way of culture, nationality, age, religion and financial standing. All of whom share a love of boats and the sea, a passion for nature and wildlife, who are seeking out exploration and adventure. Each willing to put themselves out there to attain it regardless of the sacrifices it takes to get there.