Living Aboard a Boat Reflections on Cruising

H is for Happy Home: Transitioning to Living Aboard

Saturday, April 09, 2016S.V. CAMBRIA

During the month of April, we're participating in the Blogging From A to Z Challenge where every day (excluding Sundays) we'll be posting to the blog . . . alphabetically. The overall theme we've chosen to tie all the entries together is living aboard a boat and cruising – things we've learned along the way: our thoughts, reflections, and tips for those just starting out or who are interested in this lifestyle.

On May 1, 2001 David and I boarded a Boeing 747 at LAX that would deliver us to Auckland, New Zealand and our dream of owning an offshore sailboat. It was an exciting time for us. The days and nights preceding our departure had been filled with activity – selling our homes and cars, storing our memories, and passing on our more useful possessions to anyone who would take them. Our goodbyes had been said, and we were belted in and ready for take off. Everything had happened so quickly up to that point that there wasn’t any time to think about what we were doing or what we were leaving behind. Even if there was, we probably wouldn’t have taken advantage of it. For us, this was it: This was everything we’d been working for. This is what we’d been dreaming about for so long. And it was finally happening.

Our first days in Auckland where a whirlwind of emotion as we looked at boats and tried to find the one that would become our new home and take us all over the world. It didn’t take long. I don’t remember what number it was in line (third? fourth?) but our broker knew what we were looking for and brought us right to her. The price was higher than we wanted to spend, but we made an offer anyway . . . and then waited.

The thing about boats is this: you become attached to them in ways that you don’t a house. It’s a very intimate relationship. Boats welcome you inside and keep you safe from harm. They help deliver from place to place and, for some, to you dreams and goals. Entering the right boat is like walking into a warm embrace. And this boat, whose name I can no longer remember, was really special. It had just about everything we were looking for and we could easily see ourselves living aboard. The news wasn’t long in coming and it wasn’t good. The owner decided to take her off the market and it was time to move on, but not before experiencing our first disappointment.

From there, the search didn’t go as well. We extended our range beyond Auckland to the South Island and were seriously considering flying to Australia when we found Sky Walker. She was a beautiful boat . . . and fast – a Porsche in a world of Winnebagos. We fell in love, something you should never do. But her lines were so sleek and she was so well built that we could hardly help ourselves despite the fact that she ticked very few boxes on our list of requirements. It’s at this point that we made our first major mistake – we bought the wrong boat.

Within a month of landing in Auckland, we’d found our new home and were making her own. We spent a lot of time getting to know Sky Walker in those early days, taking her out for a sail or an extended trip to check systems and see what changes we might want to make (or more often than not, what needed to be fixed). Those were the good days; the ones where we were busy and happily engaged, not just with the boat but with each other. But most other days found us tied to the dock with David buried in a book or searching online for information, trying to decide what he wanted to do about the electrical system, the battery bank, the charging system and so on. I didn’t really understand that it was all part of the process and was unprepared for what came next – loneliness.

What Was so Difficult?

The Other Woman
I’ll be the first to admit that I had a classic case of the “youngest child syndrome”: I was used to a lot of attention. I generally got my own way. I didn’t share well. And, for some reason, I was fairly confident that the world revolved around me. In the years preceding our first boat, David did nothing to dissuade me of this belief system. And then a funny thing happened once we bought Sky Walker – she became his mistress and the focus of his attention. I didn’t take the change well (going as far as declaring that Sally and I were moving off the boat and flying back to the US, even packing a bag and staying in a motel for a few days – total drama queen stuff!). I felt like I didn’t have a purpose on the boat and I lacked the confidence I needed to assimilate in a new country (I was very shy at the time). My days were spent walking the dog and trying to stay out of David’s way. It wasn’t until we were prepping the boat to go offshore that I started to find my groove and provisioning (a.k.a. shopping) had finally given me a something to focus on. The truth is, though, I should’ve been actively searching the entire time.

Come to find out, I had defined myself by what I did – I was a teacher. When we lived in Las Vegas, my days were full. From seven in the morning until 3 or 4 o’clock, I was at school. At home, I was grading papers or busy working on lesson plans. If it was the weekend, I was hiking with Sally or sailing around Lake Mead with David. If we were on a break from school, I was either flying home to see my family or entertaining someone who had come to visit me. And all of a sudden I was nobody with nothing to do. I felt like a complete failure.

David struggled as well, but a little differently. He didn’t mind being retired and having time on his hands. But in Las Vegas, he was an important man. He could pick up the phone, say his name, tell the person on the other end what he needed, and it would be done. Suddenly, that was gone and he had to wait his turn just like everyone else.

Moving to Another Country
Even when you move to a first-world country with many things in common with your own, there’s a lot to learn. And we were starting from scratch. We had no friends, no family, and no idea what we were doing (my opinion, not David’s). In hindsight, our timing was really bad. I was going through one of the worst periods of my life, one that spanned four years, and naively added another major change onto an already stressful situation without realizing (or acknowledging) what I was doing. I really don’t know what I was thinking . . . clearly I wasn’t. My support group was suddenly 7,500 miles away and I was incredibly shy so making friends was not only difficult for me, but stressful. At the end of the day, I’m glad we made New Zealand our home for all those years. I just wish I’d made better use of our time there, especially in the beginning.

My mom was the only member of our families to come for a visit. Here she is in Auckland standing next to Sky Walker after having just made the trip.
We Fell Off the Face of the Earth
When I moved away from my hometown for the first time in 1997, friends still called, family still visited and, apart from my address, not a lot changed. But a funny thing happened when we moved to New Zealand, we seemingly fell off the face of the earth. It’s as if phones stopped working and that this incredible creation called the internet was no longer able to span borders. Not only was it disappointing (for both of us), it was hurtful. I worked hard to maintain a lot of those relationships but, after a while, I gave up to some degree. Years later, some people admitted being envious but for most, it was a simple case of “out of sight, out of mind”.

We Missed a lot of Life
Graduations, weddings, funerals, holidays. We missed a lot of them over the years. In a perfect world, people understand. But I’m not so sure they do in ours.

People Aren’t That Interested
Whenever we do go back for a visit (which is yearly because my grandmother is 97), there’s a real disconnect between us and the people we know. While we’re interested and engaged in what’s happening in their lives, nobody asks about ours unless it’s to see if we carry a gun, if we’re afraid, or if we’ve ever encountered pirates along the way (apparently fear is a priority for a lot of people).

One of the biggest surprises to us is that very few people were interested in coming to stay, something we were sure would happen – I mean, who wouldn’t want to go to New Zealand? I rationalized by saying it was because New Zealand was so far away and to take full advantage, you really needed a couple of weeks (minimum) and it’s hard to get the time off from work. But nothing changed when we moved back to the US. The truth of the matter is that people aren’t that interested. We accepted that fact a long time ago but, again, we’re disappointed.

Day to Day Adjustments

Down-sizing wasn’t a big issue for either one of us. Personally, I had no problem getting rid of things or walking away from the world I knew. For two years, I’d been in the middle of a very difficult divorce from my first husband (it was finalized two months before we left the US) and was more than happy to simplify my life and move on. But there were other adjustments that we had to make: Living with someone in a small space twenty-four hours a day was probably the biggest. But after a while, you find ways to be “alone” in the same room.

I think one of the things I miss most about our landlife is dinnertime. We still eat, of course, but when we were living and working in Las Vegas, it was a lot different. We’d come home at the end of the day, open a bottle of wine, sit down at the table and talk while we ate. After dinner, the wine would continue to flow and we’d break out the backgammon board. We played for hours every night, talking the entire time. Over the years, the games stopped coming out as often and the opportunity to say “How was your day, dear?” became less frequent because we already knew the answer. But that’s okay. Our lives are richer than they were 15 years ago and we don’t need words to prove that or to make it so: It just is.

There are other things to adjust to: Doing laundry takes longer, buying groceries takes longer, fixing anything that needs to be fixed takes longer . . . basically everything takes longer. But, for me, those things were all part of the fun (except the fixing things bit).

Things We Learned

I’m sure there are thousands of things we’ve learned over the years that are more important (or interesting) than the ones I’ve listed below. And that the minute I post this, I’m going to remember them all but, for now, here’s my list: 

  • Expectations are everything! Cruising isn’t all sunsets and beaches. They’re a part of it, but there’s also a lot of truth to the old adage about fixing things in exotic locations. If you’re not prepared for the reality, it can be a very difficult and frustrating lifestyle.
  • Know your limits and respect them. Living aboard is more difficult than living on land and if you’re going to do it, you should try to make it as comfortable and easy as possible. Personally, I’m not interested in going to the bathroom in a bucket. I make no judgment against people who do, but it’s not for me. If our first boat hadn’t had a functioning head (i.e. toilet), I don’t think I’d be celebrating 15 years now. It may be extreme example to use to make my point, but I think it’s a good one.
  • Everybody needs a little “me” time. I need time to write, time to draw, time to think. David needs time to play the guitar and time to fix all of the things that break around here. If we don’t get that time, we can get a little cranky and that makes living in a small space a lot more difficult.
  • It’s important to know what your partner needs: To be tuned in and to act accordingly.
  • There’s a steep learning curve to living aboard and cruising, one that takes a lot of patience and time to climb.
  • Your relationship is everything.
  • When things click and are going well on a boat, there’s this beautiful dance that takes place: Movements become fluid. No words need to be spoken. Two people become one. It’s an amazing place to be. Conversely, if things go wrong or there’s an argument brewing, voices carry over water so everyone sitting within 100 metres knows about it.
  • The biggest mistake you can make on a boat is complacency.
  • Cruising and living aboard bring a whole new meaning to the word “trust”.

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  1. I have to laugh at your bucket example! Our first live-aboard sailboat had plumbing issues, and there was a bucket. Between that and the roaches, it's no wonder we didn't keep that boat for more than a year! - Lucy

    1. I think I could handle the bucket better than the roaches, but either one might have pushed me way outside my comfort zone.

  2. A great honest post about some of the potential pitfalls! So glad you hung in there. :)

  3. Cheers. I really had a lot of growing up to do and now that I'm in a place in my life where I feel comfortable in my own skin, I'd love to do it all over again.

  4. Brilliant. Brilliantly written, delightfully paced, poiniantly confessed...
    Just brilliant! And timely, as we prepare to move aboard, leaving our former lives mostly behind!

    1. Thank you so much! And we'll be following along as you make the move!

  5. This is a great and honest post, it is good that you learned from all of the experiences.

    1. Thanks, Rhonda. If there's one thing I can say, it's that I learned a lot in those first couple of years!

  6. Oh Diane I love this post! So very, very true! (says the girl who, sadly, has had her share of "bucket" time). But what I love best is your comment about dinnertime and the "how was your day?" conversation. We've noticed the same thing; it's hard to have much new to talk about when you haven't been more than an arm's length away from each other for the last 24 hours. Conversely, when we work on the tall ship, same job, same work hours, but we're on different ends of the ship, where we can see each other but not interact -- we have a lot more to chat about at the end of the day.

  7. I loved this post. I like how it has a balance of the positive and the negative. I think it would be so good to just disappear off into another life, but I guess the reality of it is a lot different

    1. That's so true, Debbie. And oftentimes, people looking at your life from the outside don't know what it took to get there because we all like to forget about the negatives and move on. I think that's healthy, but sometimes it's good to shed some light on the whole story.

  8. Another great, extensive and true post, Stephanie. I am sharing this on Facebook, since you basically cover all of the adjustments and changes that happen when living aboard. I used to be so disappointed, many years ago, even when I started traveling before our sailboat, in how my friendships just waned and how disinterested people were/are in our lives.

    Talking about the adjustment to a life on shore... Mark and I are finding that we have become more socially inept. Not kidding. All these years of being on our own, enjoying our peace and feeling free are biting us in the butt now. We have a hard time to be social, interested and to keep a conversation going! Our relationship with each other is doing much better, though than during those last challenging and stressful years on board...

    (PS: The photo of you boat with your mom shows up really huge in Firefox)

    Liesbet @ Roaming About – A Life Less Ordinary

    1. Thanks, Liesbet. It's funny that you should mention adjusting to life on shore. David and I spent 3 months at my mom's house over the winter and, in all that time, we probably met up with friends 3 times. We're just so much happier in our own space. And I'll adjust that picture of my mom . . . I can't imagine she'd appreciate being larger than life. Lol.

  9. What a lovely and heart-felt post. The transition to living on a boat is going to be hard, I know. I, too, struggle with finding my role aboard and am so glad you mentioned that. I think it's a huge issue for people when one person knows so much more about the boat and its systems than the other one. I am grateful we've been able to cruise locally, even if just for a few weeks at a time so I can be cognizant of the fact that sometimes I feel as though I'm just going along for the ride. Giving myself tasks to do that I know are important to the overall success of the mission is critical for me. For now I am focusing on making the boat comfortable as a floating home because, well, like you, I am done peeing in a bucket and everything that goes with it. If I didn't already have decent self-esteem, I would be very much in trouble in this transition. I guess if it were easy, everyone would do it.

    1. Thank you, Melissa. It was hard for me at the time, but I think it would go more smoothly today than it did 15 years ago. I really was a mess then (but didn't know it). My step-father died in a tragic accident, my marriage fell apart, my ex-husband decided to sue me for spousal support, I sold my house, my father fell ill and spent 3 months in ICU before dying, and I left my job. There was just way too much going on and (something I didn't mention in the post but should have) I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands to think about it all. But you're right, if it were easy, everyone would do it.

  10. A girl I went to high school with moved to England and has lived there for a long time. She comes back every August and invites everyone to meet her at a local bar. It's really replaced our need for a reunion (although I never go!). After reading this, I wonder if that's not her way to somehow stay connected to her original "home," even though she has plenty of friends over there now.

    1. That's an interesting thought, Stephanie (great name!). I wouldn't be surprised if it was.


  11. Such a beautiful post, so well written and honest.

    My husband and I have moved around a bit and I really connected with some of the points you made, we moved out to the countryside for one year (it was only a 12 month opportunity), had a fab place with land for people to come and stay and the room to host, and were really suprised when most of our busy city friends never made it out there in the full year, apart from the house warming and the house, er, leaving - or why they didn't understand us wanting to make the most of the year there - the house was old and had a range cooker that had seen better days so every meal took 10 times longer but I loved every minute of it!

    Your post really made me think and reflect this morning.

    Mars xx
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