We transplanted our lives to live aboard Gratitude 365 days ago today. It’s hard to believe. We would not trade this year for anything. Having a catamaran is like having a condominium that you can take just about anywhere there is ocean. There is incredible freedom. Don’t like where you are? Pull up the anchor, hoist the sails, and move on. Find a place you love? You can just hang out for a while. In the past year, we’ve met amazing people, made new friends, caught our dinner more times than we can count, and seen some of the most beautiful places imaginable. Still, there have been some major life-adjustments we’ve made in our first year, and we wanted to share our top 10 (we each chose five). Here goes:
The “Caribbean vibe” is a two-edged sword. I’ve lived it for a year now, and in general, there is no sense of urgency. Everyone jokes about being on “island time”, which generally translates as “when we get to it” or “late”. When you are on vacation, this is no big deal – maybe even refreshing, but when you are living out here, it requires real adjustment. You do find some businesses and people who are punctual and professional about time, but quite a few simply take life as it comes. It’s easiest if you can learn to take a deep breath and smile. I’m still learning.
(Karen’s P.S.: While I am generally more Type B than Andy, I too have had to learn how to relax. For me that has meant holding my plans and expectations loosely. Things ARE going to break, or fail, at very inconvenient times, and I’m going to have to postpone what I want to do in favor of what I need to do.)
2. It’s not all relaxation
There are two sayings about sailing that I have come to grok over the past year…
1: “Sailing is 99% relaxation punctuated by 1% moments of sheer terror.” Yes, yes, and yes, and those 1% moments generally come without much warning. We’ve been pretty transparent about these in the blog.
2: “The sea will discover all your mistakes.” It’s true, and we’ve made our share of mistakes in this first year of sailing. The boat is 41 tons, and the sails are enormous, so the equipment comes under tremendous strain. All of that can contribute to an unforgiving environment.
My real point is that I believe many of the tense situations we’ve found ourselves in have been preventable. We’re getting better at avoiding trouble, but the lesson we’ve learned is to try and keep cool and work together when trouble knocks, and we can get through just about anything.
3. Get acquainted with a wrench
This has probably been the single biggest adjustment for me. Most sailors take pride in fixing things themselves. It’s not like having a home where you change an air filter every now and then. Winches regularly need to be disassembled and greased, filters need to be checked regularly, oil has to be changed, and things just chafe, break, and generally wear out on a sailboat. Even the work to keep things clean is unrelenting. In fairness, I heard this repeatedly before we moved aboard, but I was still not really prepared for the constant, unrelenting pace of maintenance and repair work to be done to keep the boat in tip-top condition. That said, I have found that I enjoy most of it.
4. Living life unplugged
We don’t have reliable internet most places we go. Typically, we find a restaurant that advertises wifi, but that can be unreliable in the Caribbean. So many times we’ve gone to a restaurant just to hop online, only to find that the internet is down that day or that it’s actually the proprietor’s cell phone working as a wifi hot spot, and the three people at the bar who are already on it have choked it down. We have a booster antenna onboard that can bring a wifi signal from shore to the boat, and that helps, and we do have satellite internet and phone equipment for emergencies. But the point is this: you adjust to not spending constant time online. In the absence of constant connectivity, you read books, converse, make friends, tackle boat chores and maintenance, and do offline tasks.
5. Weather, weather, weather
The weather is all-important when you are bobbing up and down on the ocean. This was driven home when Dorian missed us by a hair. First, there is the wind. In Sint Maarten, we were recently pinned down for days with the wind roaring overhead. It was so strong that when we went inside the cabin, it sounded like a jet was passing overhead, and if we ventured out on the windward side of the boat, everything got covered in a fine, sandy grit. Then there is the ocean. When the sea is stirred up and the waves are too high or if they come too close together or from an undesirable direction, you get wet and pounded. When we left, I was under the impression that the Caribbean was almost always “easy breezy” and sailing-friendly, but that’s not always how it is. The Caribbean changes daily – sometimes hourly.
1.There is always more to learn.
It’s true that we’ll always be learning about sailing, but I’ve found it’s also true for me on a personal level. Living on a sailboat has given me a whole new perspective on my own strengths and limitations. For example: This year I’ve learned that I’m a pretty good problem analyzer/solver – better than I realized. Before this year, I generally let Andy take the lead on big problems, because he’s a very skilled project manager. But out here, two heads are better than one, and I’ve had to step up. I’ve learned that I can.
Also, while I was already aware that I’m a naturally flexible, go-with-the-flow personality – generally an asset on a sailboat – I’m way less able to deal with physical discomforts (like relentless heat, and bugs) than I realized before. My flexibility has its limits, physically and emotionally. With prolonged stress, I am just as susceptible to fear and anxiety and control issues as anyone else.
2. Time is just a concept.
Time is measured and experienced very differently on a sailboat. Most days, if asked, I could not tell you what day of the week it is – much less what day of the month. We’ve developed loose routines that revolve around where we are: if we’re dockside for a few days (or weeks), our routines look different than if we’re at anchor somewhere, planning to move on in a day or two.
Also, as I’ve noted before, “Things always take longer than they do.” (Dr. Brewer, Furman University, circa 1986). I’ve had to adjust my expectations of how quickly we can move along in this journey, because delays are a normal part of the cruising life. I’m learning to think in terms of “experiences” rather than “accomplishments.”
(Andy’s P.S.: I have yet to give up making “to do” lists six days a week. Maybe one day I’ll exit the cult of productivity.)
3. Cruising is an adventure… but it’s not a vacation
When we first started this journey, I imagined daily snorkeling, hiking, zip lining, fishing, swimming, diving. But that’s not the reality. We try to squeeze in as much fun as we can – but we do less of that than I expected. We are always juggling the desire to get out and explore with the need to repair, maintain, and clean the boat. And cook dinner, do laundry, find a grocery store, and get the dinghy running properly again. In other words, the sailing life is not like being on vacation all the time. There are a lot of hassles and headaches. It’s a bit like camping: there’s more work involved in meeting your basic needs for food, shelter, and safety, but that also brings you closer to nature and to simpler pleasures.
But all of those headaches are a part of what make it an adventure. The challenges – and the delights – are all opportunities. Most days we are tackling one problem or another, and solving them brings a real satisfaction. And when we are able to zoom out and look at the big picture, I realize that almost every day we have a gorgeous view over water, a beautiful sunset, and a tropical breeze through the cockpit. It’s the combination of those extremes that make it an adventure.
(Andy’s P.S. I generally agree, but most days are still closer to vacation than not, for me.)
4.Weather, weather, weather!
Andy covered this well, but I’ll just add that sailing means accepting – embracing, even – a dependence on the elements. If there are strong winds, high seas, or dangerous squalls, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been waiting or how eager you are to get moving: you are not going anywhere until conditions are suitable. It’s rather humbling.
(Andy’s P.S. It just so happens that we are living this reality right now. The seas were reported at 14 feet this weekend, so we stayed tucked up deep in a protected lagoon rather than sail off to Anguilla as we had planned.)
5.Andy and I are a good team.
Andy and I have been married for 31 years, and some of those have been more work than others. But hanging on in the tough times is what made this past year possible, and I am unspeakably glad that we did. I think it’s important to say that, because this year did not happen in a vacuum. We aren’t just “lucky” to be out here. The opportunity to live on a sailboat was born out of many years of work, sacrifice, and risk-taking.
Also, we are very different people, temperamentally. We once took a psychological inventory that showed us that we are about as opposite as two people can be on some pretty important life scales. For example, I’m an extreme “feeler,” and he’s a radical “doer.” These extremes have led to some conflict between us over the years.
But we’ve also always believed that the upside of our differences is that they make us a powerful team. This year of sailing has shown us even more about how our strengths, and our ways of looking at things, really do balance the other’s weaknesses. Even after 31 years, we are still learning about each other and our marriage. We could not do this without each other. Together, we are formidable. And I am incredibly grateful for the chance to see that through a new lens this year.
(Andy’s P.S. Amen, but… we are still “lucky to be out here”.)