[photo: St Brendan's Isle mail-forwarding service owner Doug Moody and employee Anna Eden with one day's incoming mail]
I love it when people who are thinking about living aboard and traveling ask me about how we get the mail. It means they’ve gone from the fantasies of crystal water and pristine beaches, to the practical realities of “how could we make this life work?”
Think of every form you’ve ever filled out. What goes in the little boxes right after your name? Ninety-nine times out of 100, it’s your address. So automatic, you don’t even need to think about it. But what if you don’t have an address? What if you’re truly wandering? “John and Jane Jones, sailing vessel FreeBird, somewhere in the Atlantic …” probably just wouldn’t cut it.
So, how do we deal with the mail?
The first thing we did was decrease the amount of mail we get. When you think about it, you realize that most of the time you do not need the actual piece of paper, you need the information printed on it. So we shifted our banking and bill paying and news and magazines to online-only. We could access these from anywhere, and – extra bonus – we no longer had to file and store the paper copies.
Other times, though, we need the actual physical thing. From holiday cards to prescription meds, to anything you order from the internet, you need someplace to ship it to. For each specific item, if it’s a one-time thing, we could use the address of the marina we happen to be at. But sometimes we’re only there for a few days, so that approach would involve changing our address on a weekly basis. We could have used the address of a good friend or family member – in fact, MVA suggested we do exactly that when we tried to renew our car’s registration early* - but asking someone to perform that kind of favor for years on end, seems to me, would get really old. We’ve been living aboard for 10 years so far, and not planning on moving back ashore any time soon. Ten years or more of favors seems quite a lot to ask.
The obvious answer became a commercial mail-forwarding service, and we were lucky enough to end up with one, St Brendan’s Isle, that caters specifically to travelers like us, cruising liveaboards and RV-ers. They collect our mail, hold it for us, and then periodically, when we’re at a place we’re going to be for a while, we contact them, they bundle up everything that has come in for us, and ship it to wherever we are.
They’re located in Green Cove Springs, FL just about a half-hour’s drive from where we are currently, so one weekend when we had rented a car, we took the opportunity to visit. I haven’t decided if it was ironic or symmetrical. Here were people we’d dealt with for years over the internet and cellphone; the whole purpose of the mail-forwarding service was to have what amounted to a virtual location instead of having to go to a physical one, so here we were going out of our way to see the physical space? Huh? But it turned out to be a very cool experience. Okay, I’m busted on geekiness – but I’ll admit that I love to get behind the scenes and under the hood and know how things work.
Not sure what I expected. What I found was a calm, quiet room with about a half-dozen employees sorting mail into rows and rows of stacked numbered and color-coded plastic inboxes, one for each of the 4,000-odd subscribers. Lots of computers and scanners, too; these guys were definitely living in the 21st century. Owner Doug Moody explained that before he bought this business 12 years ago he was in the paper-distribution business, and mail-forwarding is just a specialized kind of warehousing. I thought about the amount of mail we got every day when we lived on land, all those different sizes and shapes and packages (and junk mail, ugh) and mentally multiplied it by 4,000, and asked Doug how they kept it all straight. He talked about process and training and quality control, bringing back memories of my grad-school engineering project management course. Their focus, he explained, was to make the process extremely accurate. If they could do it right, he explained, “instead of fixing problems, [they] could spend their time on ‘extras.’” Extras meant dealing with the sometimes quirky circumstances of our mobile existence. I’ve been able to phone them – and gotten a live person to answer the phone after just a few rings – and had someone able to go to my box, and tell me if a particular piece of mail or package I was waiting for had arrived. They’ve even opened some letters at my request and read me relevant parts over the phone; or scanned the contents and emailed me a pdf. I’ve never ever gotten someone else’s mail mixed in with mine, for example (and as far as I know, no one has ever gotten a piece of my mail by mistake.) And when we received a package of refrigerated medication that needed to be forwarded, they were able to advise us on the safest way to get it. They couldn’t eliminate the sticker shock for the overnight package, unfortunately, but at least we were prepared. Being able to get it right the first go-round to have time for extras sure seems like one of those simple concepts that we’d love to see more of in so many areas of life, doesn’t it?
(* Before we left Annapolis, we wanted to renew the registration on our cars early, knowing they would come up for renewal while we were gone. Frustratingly, MVA could neither take the payment early, nor forward the registration out of state. “I’m trying to do the right thing here, what to do you suggest?” I asked. Their solution was that we use the address of a trusted friend in Maryland.)