“Se fosse facile, lo farebbero tutti” says Max, a good friend of mine,talking about sailing and cruising. In English it sounds more or less like this: “If it was easy, everybody would be doing it”. I have been working on sailboats for 8 years now, but only after three years sailing on my own boat I am starting to realize what Max’s words really mean.
Despite what people who push their books, websites and youtube channels tell you, it is not for everybody. Like anything else, sailing and cruising has a cost. What I didn’t know is that is not merely a financial one. It is more complicated than that.
Sailing per se is easy. I say that because, in my humble opinion and personal experience, there is nothing too difficult about it. Despite the complicated jargon and the many moving parts involved in sailing, it’s no rocket science, as some may say, and with enough practice and dedication it is possible to quickly become competent in using the wind to move through water, to navigate across oceans and near shore and to keep your vessel in good working order
However very few people seem to be out there enjoying the cruising lifestyle. That stands true even if today we benefit from a lower knowledge barrier than 30 or more years ago, thanks to the GPS, reliable auxiliary propulsion, step-to-step DIY resources like youtube, to name some technological improvements that make sailing more accessible. It still takes effort and dedication to learn how to sail, but that’s the easy, even fun part.
The costs of sailing
A recent article by Fiona McGlynn on BoatUS magazine takes a wide look into this subject while trying to answer the question why the so-called Millenials don’t own sailboats as much as the same age group did in the past. This arbitrary label apparently is stretching its ends and now I fall in this group too.
Like many times when you focus on age groups there is the tendency to fall into stereotypes and prejudice (see ageism), but I think the author did a good job collecting different voices on the matter, drawing a comprehensive picture of the phenomenon, and leaving open questions.
According to the article, the main reason for fewer young boat owners is a financial one. Today salaries are simply not enough to take on an expensive hobby like sailing. But despite of this economical barrier, we still meet younger people on the water that get away with the costs of ownerships adopting a shoestring approach.
This was definitely what we did when we bought Tranquility. We bought the boat that we could afford at the moment, cash, and we slowly put her and ourselves in the water, instead of taking a loan or waiting to save a huge cruising budget. We ended up with a small old boat, but at least we could pay for it.
Unfortunately, there are also other dimensions than money that are easily overlooked, and those constitute nonetheless a cost that can be as limiting as the financial one.
The workplace is becoming more and more competitive as the adult population increases and work longer in life. Having a good job today could be a good enough reason to stick with it. Successful careers entice people with status, income and a sense of a higher purpose. Workers without access to good jobs live with the expectation of finally landing one and focus obsessively on their career path and skill set, to the point to make it unthinkable to “lose ground” joining a more time consuming sailing lifestyle, like cruising your own boat on a sabbatical. The time we pass in school to develop these skills also extended, and an activity like sailing can be hard to justify in the overall picture, especially at a younger age, when students are challenged to think a bout their future.
The Fear Of Missing Out while cruising means much more than losing the last trend or gossip on websites and Social Media because of limited internet access. It means fear of missing the joyful and sad events of one’s closest family and friends. Cruising distant destinations puts more obstacles between family visits, that require expensive airfare and logistic hassles. I sometimes regret not being able to participate to a group vacation, celebrate births, being close to beloved ones in face of deaths or personal needs, attending family celebrations like Thanksgiving or Christmas, or simply reaching out to a friend for a chat and a bite of food. While traveling it is always possible to meet and enjoy the company of interesting like-minded people, but the disconnection from family and friends is definitely an emotional cost of this lifestyle.
The assumption that you are able to keep your car, your apartment, health or dental insurance, retirement savings and also take off for a long distance cruise is an illusion for most. Bills and cruising are mutually exclusive. There is definitely who is able to go sailing and take care of assets as well as a safety net back home, but most of the people we meet cruising don’t have such luxury, and have to risk and sacrifice their security for an endeavor that could end in a hole in the water.
On one side this situation is a gift, because it could bring a reboot of the system, and open up space in life for new and interesting projects. On the other side there is the risk that the “economy of staying afloat” could prevent any future move for lack of funding.
There are good reasons why human beings evolved in the direction of living indoor and on land. Excessive heat or cold, light or dark, avoidance of bugs and parasites and bothersome if not dangerous wildlife, impacts from severe weather are some of the nuisances of outdoor life in general, and cruising in the specific. As you learn while cruising distant locations, this is still an inescapable reality for many people on earth, and you could learn from their example how to deal with it.
One clear example is the simple act of bathing. What we perform everyday in our home bathrooms mutates when you step on a boat. It becomes more similar to what I learned from my grandmother’s stories. From the expectation of having pressurized heated water, you are happy when you find clean, spring water to fill your jugs.
Even if this experience can be eye-opening about the insane consumption typical of our developed societies, you find yourself thinking a lot of times about the long hot shower you can’t have, an air-conditioned room or the full collection of snacks and leftovers waiting inside a refrigerator.
CONSTANT PROBLEM SOLVING
Problems are the salt of life, but self-reliance on a boat that visits remote areas means being able to cope with various number of problems. I learned it the hard way myself, as I watched my hands change look when I started to use them for manual hard work, instead of just for typing on a keyboard and playing basketball. It was a painful process like most of changes in life.
On a positive note, I discovered how rewarding solving problems can be, especially if you have to find creative ways and have limited resources. It enhances self-perceived efficacy and pride. As a downside, the feeling that reality constantly put you under test and challenges generates stress that could provoke avoidance of the problem in the first place and high doses of frustration and procrastination. A boat not able to perform can be a haunting entity and diminish the pleasures of cruising. While you grow in resourcefulness and competence, you definitely go through moments of feeling stuck and unable to progress, as it appears that there is always something unexpected that has to be taken care of.
I hope my words don’t sound excessively like a whine or a plead for pity. In this blog I attempt to overcome the solitude of my own thoughts and to help the process of sense making, a process that have to pass necessarily through the difficult parts as well as the good ones.
I can assure you that overall Kate and I are doing great and we feel very fortunate about our decision. I also want to avoid depicting us as martyrs or heroes because we deal with such harsh condition. I feel very privileged for being born in a certain geographical location and family, both of which I did not chose nor I can say that I deserve. I am blessed that because of this special situation I have the opportunity to travel and to gift myself with time and new experiences.
The reason I wrote about the less desirable parts of this lifestyle is because I wanted to be honest about it. There is a tendency to depict the entire thing as an endless vacation, full of awe and unforgettable moments. Worst, there is another assumption that you can only do it if you have the money, but as I hope to have shown in this post money is not enough.
I love sailing, but I would be a liar if I tell that it’s only fun. It is expensive, uncomfortable and demanding. Part of it is fascinating, but another part feels unnecessary and masochistic at times. Everything has a price. The cruising lifestyle has its own way to charge for the experience, but we are happy to pay this price because we really like the rewards. As one of my readers wrote: “once you are hooked, there is nothing like being out there with just the wind and the waves”.