Monday, November 23, 2009

The Three Lies

On this blog we mostly write for a non-sailing audience. But over time a lot of fellow sailors have asked us what it's "really like" to chuck it all to go sailing full time. As always, becoming adept at cruising long distances is a very personal journey, and what works for us will not work for some. But, for what it's worth, Alisa and I can boil down some of the biggest lessons we've learned about full-time sailing into the three "lies" of conventional wisdom about ocean cruising:

Lie #1 - You can be comfortable at sea.
Alisa and I were both lucky enough to work on commercial fishing boats in Alaska before we went cruising. Those boats were BIG - 90 to 150 feet, and, even though they were working boats, pretty luxurious - they didn't roll anything like as much as Pelagic, and we could always get a hot shower after our work was done. Even so, we spent a significant amount of our time on those boats being slightly uncomfortable to completely miserable. We figured that was just part of going to sea.

But a lot of cruisers seem to have this slavish devotion to being "comfortable" on their boats, and people tell us they don't like passages because being at sea for a long time is so uncomfortable. We (subtly, I hope) roll our eyes at this. "Comfortable" at sea - WHATEVER! Forget about it. People who want to be comfortable on their boats end up sitting in marinas. Sailing long distances across the ocean in a small boat is an adventure, it's a damn spirit quest, it's an act of self-directed will so intense as to be almost mythically beautiful. Who cares if the sheets are salty, or you're vomiting over the side?

Lie #2 - You will have lots of free time.
Here, our experience may not be representative at all, since we set out from home with a 10-month old child, our boat is 27 years old, I have continued to work on and off while we lived aboard, and I've also pursued the time-devouring task of trying to write as we go. That's a lot to tackle. But, understand this, anyone who would go to sea full time for a year or two: there is NEVER a time when we don't have some desperately long to-do list of boat maintenance jobs hanging over us. That list is usually posted over the chart table, for all to see, and we long ago gave up any hope of ever seeing the end of it.

Lie #3 - Technology is your friend.
I'm no Luddite. I love roller furling. I couldn't explain why anyone would want to sail without GPS. But, the hyper tricked-out, super-complex state of cruising yachts that people take as a given has nothing to do with what's best for going to sea. It's a state of affairs dreamed up by yacht gearmakers and advertisers and the sailing magazines that serve them. Fancy stuff like watermakers can be nice, but it's a mistake to get stuff like that until you've been cruising for a year or three, you're on top of all the basics, and you know that you really really want a watermaker. Otherwise, you'll turn out like so many who were convinced that you "gotta have" a watermaker to cruise, and you'll find yourself wasting money and time (see #2), trying to get the thing to work, when you could have just been taking a nice dinghy ride to get a few jugs of water.

The same argument applies to networked electronics, big freezers, gensets, long-range internet access, and a lot else. All those things can be nice, individually, but paying for and maintaining and learning to use all that stuff will, collectively, keep you from a lot of sailing. Read some Bernard Moitessier before you go sailing, and go sailing to be free!


  1. Hear, hear. **applause**. For the benefit of non-sailors, here's our viewpoint speaking as sailors who haven't done a tenth of the distances you have.

    1) You can be comfortable at sea.
    We're always vaguely uncomfortable (if not actively sick) when we're at sea. We had this idea that we'd be able to read/study/work while under way.... ALMOST NEVER was this possible.

    2) You will have lots of free time.
    Because we couldn't use the cruisin' time to do stuff, we always had to fit it in when we were anchored... where it competed with maintenance and sleeping. We don't have children, but we had a degree each to study for, plus photography, plus writing... often we found ourselves staying at anchor for another couple of days just so that we could catch up with 'stuff'.

    3) Technology is your friend.
    Ha. Pull the other one.

  2. Nice one, OIAL, especially your tip of reading Moitessier. Should be the law for sailors, really.

    Let the comfortable crowd the harbours and may they be happy with their fridges, washingmachines, hairdryers, watermakers, tv's and dvd-players.

    And an ever running engine, as a matter of course. As long as it works.

  3. Hey, I agree. Not being a real sailor, but spending alot of time alone on a very small boat in all weather (and a fair portion of this vomiting), I identify. Boats are not comfortable or safe, they never will be, just like shooting guns. And like shooting guns, they are intensely satisfying in a primal way. Boats belong on the water, and anything that keeps you from the sea is an enemy. Beware of anything someone wants to sell you! keep up the good work. and congratulations!

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Excellent information! I love your take on the three lies :)

    We have a very basic setup on out boat:
    2 meter ham vhf
    Marine vhf
    two compasses.
    The boat came with radar - I have used it a couple of times, but I guess that I really should learn what everything means!
    All hank on sails still - I would like roller furling!
    Refrigeration? Nope. Ours is a cheap ice chest strapped to the cabin top! The boat came with a very fancy Teak ice chest in the cabin. It took up too much room so out it came.

  6. Hmmm, we hit a chord...Ian, great to hear an opinion from a real-live professional seafarer. Also great to hear a good gun metaphor. Once you leave Alaska you don't hear positive firearms references nearly so often.

    Reinhard, great to hear from you as well... For those of us from nations with a less proprietary feel for the English language, what does "Pull the other one" mean?

  7. Hi Mike, Alisa and Elias,
    I have been following your trip with great interest. Aussie slang can be a mystery so I offer this translation that might be of help. "Pull the other one": a person will say pull the other one when they don’t believe what you are telling them.
    Here is a link to a small sample of Aussie expressions from The Boys Brigade you might find useful:
    Happy sailing!

  8. Hi Alisa, Anna
    Interesting that "pull your other one" is listed in an Australian dictionary. It's actually very English.
    The full expression is "Pull the other one, it's got bells on". It's an extension of "pulling your leg", which means that somebody is trying to sell you a tall story. So if somebody is trying to kid you, and you see through it, you say "pull the other one" to show that you know what they're up to, and that they might get more joy out of pulling your other leg instead.

  9. Hey Reinhard - Yes, I suspected that it was something very English. I will now use the complete phrase 3 times, and thereby make it a part of my verbal repetoire forever!

    Hope you guys are well.