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What makes ocean voyagers special?

Jan 1, 2003

I've come to believe that live-aboard, voyaging sailors are a small, very special community. Full-time live-aboard voyagers make up a group that I would estimate at perhaps 4,000 individuals around the world and 1,000 in the Western Hemisphere. A very small number when compared with the total population of marina, weekend, charter, and racing sailors. No one knows exactly how many voyagers there are; they don't stay in one place long enough to be counted. Besides, who's counting?

Live-aboards, as we refer to ourselves, are true sea gypsies who have deliberately given up houses, cars, TV, grass cutting, snow shoveling, and other appurtenances of 21st century life "on the hard" for a life on a sailboat. Many of our voyaging friends have lived aboard for 10 years or more and have voyaged to remote, and not so remote, places all over the world. Early on, in my attempt to find a retirement paradise, I asked a group of sailors where they would go when they "swallowed the hook." An amazing number said they would go down with the boat. I thought this was just salty bravado. Not so. I've since learned many will never get off their boats. We've seen examples of long-term live-aboards anchored nearby in some very beautiful places. Those who leave the life usually do so for health reasons, not age or lack of interest.

The closest I have come to knowing a reincarnated Joshua Slocum is my 78-year-old brother-in-law, Jim Melcher. The picture of my sister Diane and brother-in-law Jim having lunch in the cockpit of their boat Alert while drying out in the sea grass below our cottage in Maine says it all. Alert is a seaworthy, homebuilt 34-foot wooden lee-board sharpie. They are heading to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and then on to Europe for two years before sailing back. He will be 80 when they return. I would be concerned except Jim has already crossed the Atlantic in the boat, and last year they toured the Bahamas and Cuba. Intrepid sailors like Jim and Diane inspire us to make the long passages when we expect to be uncomfortable for at least part of the time. Jim and Diane are true voyagers and are an example for us all.

Kathy and I have tipped many a glass and swapped sea stories with countless sailors during the years we have been voyaging on both sides of the Atlantic from Canada to the Caribbean. Without a doubt our voyaging friends become closer every day. Thirty years ago when we bought the lot on the north shore of Broad Cove, Islesboro, Maine, I dreamed of having a place where our friends could anchor out in the cove and come ashore. And for the past 10 years we have had an increasing number of new and old friends visit and help us plan for our next voyage (this time to the Virgin Islands). Forty-nine boats anchored in the cove in front of our cottage during the Seven Seas Cruising Association "Down East" rendezvous in August.Who are these people who choose such an alternative lifestyle? They are extraordinary, resourceful adventurers and dreamers from all walks of life, many of whom have become world-class, blue-water sailors. They are sensitive people, some of whom have not found happiness or peace in leading ordinary lives. A number have circumnavigated the world. Voyagers we've met here in Mexico represent a number of seafaring countries of the world: the U.S., France, Germany, Great Britain, Holland, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Austria, New Zealand, Italy, Mexico, Belize, Turkey, Spain, and South Africa. Our social life includes these people. We talk, in whatever language works, of family, boats, places, passages, weather and sea conditions, cultures, and, of course, world politics. Lately, we've been talking a lot about e-mail, computers, software, and voyaging electronics. Regular e-mail communications with family and friends have become possible using on-board high-frequency radio even from remote places in the world. I'll never tire of hearing languages other than English spoken on the local harbor radio; it's a constant reminder that we are fortunate to be among our international peers. All voyagers had previous lives as business people or professionals of one kind or another; engineers, doctors, carpenters, boatbuilders, teachers, mariners, musicians, and retired military. Age doesn't seem to matter; sailors vary in age from 30 to 80. What does matter is attitude and commitment to the life. They, and we, are living a dream. But there is a lot more to the dream than romantic faraway places, gin-clear water, and tropical sunsets. At sea, shore-side materialism quickly fades to humility and hard work as the ocean passages get longer, the wind howls, and the seas rise.

A straw poll of the 114 live-aboard sailors who attended our recent Down East rendezvous revealed that they dream and live a simpler, more rewarding life emanating from a wanderlust and wide-spread rejection of many of the adjuncts of ordinary life in the 21st century. Outsiders ask, what do we do all day? Days on the hook are remarkably filled with boat projects, reading, provisioning, writing, listening to music, swimming, fishing, and, most important, visiting other boats and exploring ashore. We follow the seasons, mingle with other cultures, and enjoy the company of other sailors. Many voyagers, and wannabe voyagers, are members of the Seven Seas Cruising Association based in Ft. Lauderdale or the Ocean Cruising Club based in Hants, U.K. When arriving after a long passage in an unfamiliar harbor, seeing the Seven Seas Cruising Association burgee flying from other boats means friends are there to help you get settled and tell you what's ashore.

Voyagers are the ultimate eco-tourists; environmental awareness is a basic part of the credo. We always try to leave a clean wake. Living on a small boat away from marinas requires being frugal with energy, water, and other natural resources. Voyagers have concerns for and are a witness to the creeping demise of our natural environment. It's a commonly held belief that voyaging is one of the very few environmentally friendly adventures left to 21st century man that can be physically, psychologically, and intellectually challenging. It can be as adventuresome as following the seasons up and down the Intercoastal Waterway crossing the Atlantic to Europe every year, wintering in the Arctic, or circumnavigating.

Relationships and health seem to thrive, at least for the long-time live-aboards who have made it to the remote anchorages. The majority of sailors are couples. Most are married, some are not; many are in their second or third marriages. Happy voyaging couples have a positive attitude, share responsibility for the voyage, and have a commitment to the life. A voyaging couple must live and work together on a small boat day after day and get along. We have learned, and often remind ourselves, that attitude is the difference between an adventure and an ordeal. Facing discomfort and danger on a sailboat requires teamwork as well as physical fitness. It's very hard to know whether a relationship will strengthen or fail before setting out because very few couples have ever faced danger together when only their skills and experience can save the day. Voyagers we know are confident, physically fit, happy individuals who regularly turn ordeals into adventures.

Health is another amazing attribute of the voyaging life. Few sailors are overweight and colds and other illnesses are uncommon. Fortunately shore-side doctors and dentists are generally available everywhere. Physicians are voyagers too, and it's likely one is anchored nearby, willing to help if necessary. Most attribute good health to favorable climate, early to bed and early to rise, exercise including long walks ashore, a diet of simple, healthy foods and minimal exposure to crowded, cold-laden places. Injuries are always a concern since a sailboat is in constant motion, and falls do happen. The old rule of "one hand for me and one hand for the ship" always applies when moving about the boat. Voyagers are as self sufficient as possible in the 21st century. Many make their own fresh water using energy harnessed from the wind and sun. They spend money ashore for food, boat supplies, repairs, car rentals, and other necessities, and that's it. When problems arise along shore, as they have with sailors throughout history, voyagers simply up-anchor and move on, spreading the word as they go. Fortunately, there are still many beautiful, secure, friendly anchorages remaining.

Individual qualities required at sea are different from those on land. Many of the sailors we have met are quiet, introspective people who have deliberately acquired the necessary skills and experience. Successful voyaging couples share planning and responsibility in a democratic fashion. An amazing number spent years getting ready. Like our friends, we studied piloting and navigation, read and re-read the literature, and finally, after three small sailboats, bought a very well-equipped, well-designed and -built 34-foot Tartan centerboard sloop and began outfitting her as best we knew how. We still cruise on her today. We have noticed that sailboats are getting bigger. When we started voyaging, the average length of offshore boats was 35 feet. Now it's close to 40 feet, a reflection of the affluence of today's voyager along with the belief that bigger boats are safer, have more space and provide a more comfortable ride. Still, we manage very well on a 34-foot sloop. We know it's not the size of the boat, it's the size of the commitment.

Early in the 1980s Kathy and I hadn't met any true ocean sailors or live-aboard couples who had done "overnights" at sea, much less crossed oceans. Even though we lived in the mountains we have always been water people. We day-sailed a lot, and as practice we sailed all over Cape Cod and the Islands and finally "gunk-holed" from Cape Cod to our cottage in Maine in our 23-foot sloop. Like other sailors we have met since, we sold our house (kept the summer cottage on Islesboro, Maine) and cars, had a huge yard sale, closed our business, packed the rental car, and left for the boatyard. Few voyagers have independent means, and neither do we. Voyagers typically are individuals who have chosen a lifetime of adventure regardless of the money. It is not a life for people accustomed to creature comforts who have an aversion to the occasional uncomfortable, lumpy ocean passage. A number of younger sailors stop from time to time along the way and work to rebuild their "cruising kitty."

If you see a tanned, healthy-looking couple walking purposefully along the road to town carrying sailbags, offer them a ride. Or, if a well-seasoned, busy-looking sailboat anchors out in the cove with a dinghy upside-down on deck, solar panels on the dodger, and a wind generator on a post aftmaybe with a self-steering windvane on the transomit's probably a voyaging couple. Stop by and visit, offer them a place to tie up their dinghy, use of a phone, maybe a shower and fresh water and a ride to town; their stories will amaze you.

Dick & Kathy de Grasse are Commodores in the Seven Seas Cruising Association, and they live aboard their Tartan sloop Endeavour in southern waters in the winter and summer at their cottage in Islesboro, Maine.