Sunday, April 17, 2016

Blogging from A to Z: N is for Nautical Priorities (Litmus Tests)


During the month of April last year, I participated in the A to Z Blogging Challenge - one alphabet-themed post per day (except Sundays).  I had such a good time with it that I'm doing it again this year.  I'm loosely organized on the theme of downsizing, minimalism, and small-home living that I've learned in 14 years of living on a small boat.  I'm starting with A is for Anchoring Out, Anger-ing Out, and ending with Z is for Zout and Zwarte Peper (Dutch for salt and black pepper). Click on the A to Z logo on the lower left sidebar for links to many other bloggers participating in the challenge.

(image from here)
Back in the 1990s, the buzz in corporate America was "mission statements." Developing a mission statement for our unit was a requirement in one of my leadership classes. And while I thought it was more than a little hokey, I went through the exercise anyway. I was the supervisor of a group of scientists doing environmental research, and my final mission statement was something about creating an environment where people were inspired to do excellent science that was valuable to our agency and the scientific community and the general public and blah blah blah. I distributed funds and assigned work and approved hires, and I was also a bit of a buffer, insulating the scientists from the incessant adminis-trivia imposed on us by the bureaucracy.

Something interesting happened along the way, though. Having this statement written out led me to a super-easy litmus test benchmark for all kinds of decisions about where to invest resources for my group. Subscription to a pricey journal? Will it help them do better science? New piece of lab equipment? How about preparing that annual report on our activities for Headquarters? Should we spend a lot of energy on it, or just do a bare minimum job? Every one of these questions became a very simple yes/no, when seen through the lens of whether it would help them do better or more valuable science.

That lesson, of having a litmus test that simplified decisions, carried over perfectly in our downsizing and our life afloat. On land, our house on its better days adhered to the William Morris dictum, "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful," although "beautiful" in our case was expanded to also encompass the beauty of items that had sentimental meaning even if their aesthetic was lacking.  I suppose that making us smile wistfully when we looked at them and remembered how they came into our lives, was both beautiful and useful!

In our radical downsizing to move aboard we overlaid a second litmus test onto the Morris one. This one came to me courtesy of cruising friend Linda G.  When deciding what to bring aboard, she advised, your priorities should be: first, safety; then tools; then "everything else." It was a simple, effective hierarchy.

During the hectic years of getting ready, living aboard at a marina, working at conventional jobs during the day and doing boat projects in our not-so-spare time, we developed a third litmus test. This one was, "If it doesn't make the boat safer, or sail better/faster, it's a lower priority." So the early times involved a bigger anchor, new engine, and oversize windlass. It was only much later that we got around to things like painting, and converting the icebox to actual refrigeration.

Now that we've got the boat pretty much the way we want it, projects are just regular maintenance (although there's always some cool shiny piece of newly-invented gear to covet).  Our priorities litmus test is more about what we want to do with our lives than what we need to do with the boat. It's simple, and it was also my New Year's resolution: Be together. Be happy. Have more adventures.

8 comments:

  1. nautilus litmus test sounds like it became a bedrock for your overall plan to stay afloat. Priorities are key

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    1. For me at least, articulating them in a list was key.

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  2. I love the idea of "what we want to do with our lives" versus "endless fixing of the boat". Sometimes it can feel like we are slaves to the boat - so it's good to take a step back and get some perspective! - Lucy

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    1. In the beginning it was also so easy to get lost in the daily details, and you are right, they were endless. Experimenting with small-space living was something of a goal for me in its own right, so that helped.

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  3. When we had our first boat, a monohull, on the West Coast of the US, we wanted everything to be ready before we left the dock and went cruising. That turned into a seven month project of loads of work - and no fun - onboard. Only, to sell her again after two days of cruising! So, when we had our second boat, a catamaran, on the East Coast of the US, we decided to get the major things in regards to safety and basic necessities ready. We left after four months of hard work - and some play - and added solar panels, wind generator, more shade, ... along the way. It was a good decision, since it saw us cruising earlier than most other people, who want everything close to perfect before they set out. Sometimes, this means they never leave the dock...

    Liesbet @ Roaming About – A Life Less Ordinary

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    1. So true! And so often, you don't know what you're going to want or need until you get traveling, anyway.

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