We recently met a young couple, D and J, they were in town for the Boat Show and were interested in moving aboard. They asked if they could spend a few hours talking with us about what it’s like to live on a boat. Okaaay…
The appointed day was just perfect weather – as though Annapolis had conspired to stack the deck in their favor. Sunny and dry, the water sparkled and the boats rocked at anchor; it was a weekend so we could sit in the cockpit and watch the traffic on Back Creek. They drank it in and commented on how much they envied our freedom and how they planned to cruise locally in the Chesapeake for now, with farther-ranging dreams of distant ports in the future. Most of all, in answering their just-starting-out questions, we were led back to our own boat beginnings, seeing our unique lifestyle through their new eyes.
“How did you get started?” D asked, perhaps expecting to hear tales of one or both of us growing up on the water, children of sailors or watermen of old. Instead, Dan told the story of the kitchen business he had when we lived in Colorado, how he was asked to redo a galley countertop for a small sailboat. When he returned the finished piece and was asked what the bill was, well, the job turned out to be so small that he was almost embarrassed to admit the price. Instead he said, “I spent about 3 hours on this, why don’t you take me for a three hours sail?” BAD idea – that was the most expensive job he’d ever done – he was totally, utterly, irrevocably hooked from that moment on. But far from the sea being in his veins, he’s a Kansas farmboy, he was in his late 40s when he went for that fateful first sail.
“How does living together in such tight quarters affect your relationship?” J asked worriedly. “Do you get on each others’ nerves?” I thought a minute and realized that, no, just the opposite – being together all the time got us more in sync with each other. Why live together separately in different rooms of a big house? Besides, if I really need space, I have all the outdoors to get away in! I warned her, though, that we did have to learn to respect each other's “virtual space” (something any cubicle dweller would recognize) – no shoulder surfing or reading each others’ drafts without permission, and even if you overhear each other’s conversations (or bathroom noises!), pretend you don’t.
“What about the kids? Is it safe?” I wasn’t sure if she meant ‘safe’ as in will they fall off the dock and drown, or ‘safe’ as in what kind of weirdos live here, so we talked about both. We talked about swimming lessons and life jackets and ice cleats in winter, and we talked about how instead of TV, the kids are outdoors and active and learning the natural world and its rhythms. We talked about how you scope out the neighborhood just like you would in buying a house – the difference is that it’s much easier to move your boat if you change your mind than it is to move a house. In terms of neighbors, I reassured her, most of these folks are professionals who simply are living this way because they love it. Instead of losers and dropouts and druggies and rebels, my neighbors have included an airline pilot, a judge, a nurse, a financial advisor, a Marine colonel, a systems administrator, a retired physicist. As I rattled off their jobs, I realized that when we’d lived on land, I never knew my neighbors at all. They were pleasant, but we had no connection, nothing in common except that we’d chosen to live in the same zip code. We’d say hi when we were out walking the dogs or when we got home from work, but then we’d go into our individual houses and shut the doors. When you and your neighbors live on boats, what you have in common, if nothing else, is that love of the water, always a starting point for conversations. We have the problem you love to hate – on a nice day, it can take 15 minutes to walk down the dock to the car, if everyone is outside in their cockpits and open to chat as you walk past.
“What about possessions?” I’ve written before, that people always ask this one. I reminisced about how giving up these things and the responsibility to store and maintain them has been amazingly freeing. Now, although we still have a few sentimental things in storage, we collect friends, experiences, memories instead of knickknacks.
They thanked us at the end of the afternoon, and we were mentally exhausted from the conversation, but really? I think we should have thanked them, for reminding us not to take for granted our amazing life afloat.