Friday, September 16, 2011

On the Cusp of a Dream

Posted: August 13, 9:12 am | (permalink) | (0 comments)
In honor of liveaboard boater day August 13, I chatted with some people who have just moved aboard in the past few months, or are just in the process of moving aboard. They have, on the surface, almost nothing in common. Their ages range from late 20s to mid-50s; their careers include a novelist, an airline pilot, a psychotherapist, and others; their locations range from Seattle to Miami to Boston. But they all share a dream that looks somewhat like this:
sailboat at anchor off a tropical island
And they share an incredible, and very attractive, mix of enthusiasm and trepidation for their new lifestyle.

Why move onto a sailboat?
Sometimes, your life can change in a single afternoon. That was the case for Norm and Eileen Dillon. They went for a sail aboard Annapolis’ own Schooner Woodwind and she was instantly hooked. “My soul cries out for peaceful bliss,” she writes, “something as beautiful as a small ripple on the water, a bird flying by, the sun, the moon, and the stars.” Norm is no stranger to boats and water; he spent 20 years in the Marine Corps and currently is a senior analyst working with UAV (unmanned aircraft) at the Pentagon. But for Eileen, currently the assistant director at a small private school, this will be a leap of faith; she has no previous experience. They are readying their house for sale and she plans to spend the next year learning sailing, navigation, even how to swim. That last is to me a measure of her dedication, and of how different her new life will be from her old one, that she hadn’t learned to swim before adulthood. Still, she says, “I think we have the need to make our life simple. Although we have no illusion about how hard it will be and different than anyplace we have lived, we are anxious to connect with each other on a deeper level. We feel it’s time for us….. We have 4 children and have spent our lives raising them and now that they are grown we feel passionately that is our turn.”
Norm and Eileen on Woodwind

“When I first thought of living aboard a boat, I fell in love with not just the idea, but the fact that I could pick up the boat and move it to virtually anywhere I wanted,” explains Seattle novelist Courtney Kirchoff, who is in her late 20s. “I live in the greater Seattle area, so I have the entire Puget Sound and surrounding areas in which to cruise. … My goal for next summer, however, is to cruise to the San Juan Islands and up into Canada. I cannot wait to do that. In the mean time, I love living rent free and having zero utility bills. It’s a bragging point to all my mortgage and rent bound friends. I’m sure they’ll love that.” She summarizes her list of other reasons she is making the change in a wonderfully articulate blog post titled Why I’ll Be Living Aboard a Sailboat: “freedom, romance, frugality, pride of ownership, it’s darn cool, and because I can.”

Chris Tucker (no, not the comedian!) describes himself as “one of those IT guys;” he helps customers specify big systems, servers and storage. He lives in Cincinnati and is in his early 40s. He began to feel a general dissatisfaction with his life, and started asking questions. “Was I passionate about what I was doing in my life? My job? What was the reason that I worked?” After some reflection, he realized he was caught in a crazy cycle of working to buy the things to project the image of success to advance in the job to get more money to buy the things, and on and on. His dream is to work less because he needs less, and go exploring on his boat. “I looked at the stuff I had - the house, the stuff in it. How much of that stuff did I use? Very little. How many rooms did I use? A couple. I found myself wanting... [a] simpler life, one more in touch with the world around me.” When I asked him about including his story for this article, he clarified that because he’s a divorced dad of the mid-life crisis age whose two children will both be in college next year, “I imagine some people will think that maybe I'm just running away from an unsatisfactory life, and taking the easy way out. … I am under no illusions that life on a boat will be easy. There is plenty of work to do to keep a boat (your home) safe and working properly.”

Not so easy to just ditch it all, says Melissa Feinmel, an airline pilot (Captain) for American Airlines who is in her mid-fifties. Two months ago she moved onto her 2006 Hunter 36 sailboat "Rhapsody in Blue," currently in Key Biscayne, full time. “Asking a woman to give up her home is huge. They may say a man’s home is his castle, but for us women [it] is more than a castle -- it is our security ... The home is where we make a statement of who we are and defines us. We build our relationships of family and friends here. We gather things to make the home a safe environment and nurturing our family ties. In essence it [may be]what defines our gender. Having the last two days just getting rid of my household goods, thru yard sales, Craigslist, eBay, donate to charity and storage of those things precious in my life is probably one the hardest things I have ever done. It has been a sobering week.” Like Chris, she wants to travel and adventure by sailboat, although in her case she’ll wait to retire first; she’s only a few years away.

How long did it take to translate dream into action?
It would seem that shedding possessions, moving, researching the right boat, buying it, learning to sail and learning boat systems all would take a lot of preparation and time. And indeed, for some, turning the dream into reality has been a long time coming. I first met Boston psychotherapist Jack Cleary online, he was asking about tips for wintering aboard, and the vibrant excitement in his online ‘voice’ led me to think he was in his 20s. That must be the anti-aging effect that sailing has on us; he’s actually in his 50s and has been dreaming about moving aboard for 20 years. When he was first divorced in ’95, he was unwilling to subject his then 4-year-old daughter to the New England weather, but now she – and he -- are on their own. He just bought his boat, a 1984 Pearson 303, last week and hopes to move aboard at the end of September; it’s all so new he hasn’t settled on a name for the boat yet.

Courtney is the other extreme – words like “impulsive” and “audacious” come to mind -- she got the idea to live aboard in a sudden burst of inspiration last May after a visit to a friend’s sailboat, and by August first, she had already bought a boat, sold her stuff, moved out of her apartment, and moved aboard with her dog Riley. “I’ve only seen a few boats in my lifetime, having always been a horse and barn sort of girl, but I’ve always marveled at a boat’s clever use of space, coziness, and how cool it is to just be on a boat,” she said. “It tickles me hot pink to think of traveling with my home and my dog, all on my own, to gorgeous places, dolphins, whales and seals as my company as I make my journeys.”

What still ties you to land?
What ties them to land varies, but at least for now, all the folks I interviewed were still working. Jobs sometimes helped, and sometimes complicated, their liveaboard dreams, but weren’t the only ties to land. Chris won’t move aboard until next year when his daughter leaves for college, but he envisions for himself: “At first as I'm living aboard and working on land, I will still have a vehicle. Other than that, the only ties I plan on having are just my kids, parents, and brothers. Nothing else material is important. The only land ties are emotional/family ties!” For Norm and Eileen, in addition to jobs, land ties include car, gym, bikes, church. “I will keep my friends, but add the boat liveaboard community,” says Jack, who plans to move into a marina in the Boston area. The job will be a big tie holding him in place – he’ll keep his work at the clinic, and will probably rent a small office near the marina to continue his private practice. The job accelerated Melissa’s plans to move aboard case, instead of tying her down. She was commuting on a weekly basis from her home in New Jersey to Miami where she worked and sailed when she decided to quit the commute insanity and just live on the boat full time. The job wasn’t an issue at all for Courtney. As a writer, her job is portable; she can work from anywhere she has a laptop and an internet connection. Her first published novel, completed before she even contemplated living on a boat, has nothing to do with boats or sailing; she’s currently working on a second book. What ties her to land is her horse Dante, who is staying at her parents’ home as he has for her last 3 moves.

What has been your biggest challenge so far?
Jack and Courtney will have to face a winter aboard before they’ve had a lot of time to learn their boats; for Melissa, winter in Miami isn’t much of a threat. On the other hand, this season she is carefully watching for hurricanes.

Learning mechanical and electrical systems is a challenge all are grappling with, but there are other challenges. “My biggest challenge so far has been the overall adjustment to a smaller space and limited resources,” said Courtney. “It’s not a surprise, though, I knew it would take some getting used to. I’ve learned so much about electricity in the past few weeks than in my entire lifetime. Now I look at the bottom of appliances and determine what stays on the boat and what must be boxed up (my Mr. Coffee uses 600 watts of power! Yikes!) because it sucks up too much of my limited electricity. I’m also finding that I still have too much stuff, so there’s going to be another purging to make more space aboard.”

Melissa agreed. “Storage by far has been my biggest challenge. … I have very little closet space for my uniforms, coats, dresses, shirts and pants. 95% of my nice clothes are in storage. Most of my non-uniform clothes are boat clothes, very causal. I keep 2 nice outfits on the boat with one [pair of shoes] that match both.”

Maintenance, and learning their boat’s systems, is on the minds of all the new liveaboards. Melissa describes herself as very mechanically inclined and has the advantage of having owned her boat for three years before moving aboard earlier this summer. Jack acknowledges his good fortune when he got his boat, “the elderly gentleman who is selling it for health reasons will be my mentor for as long as I want/need (within reason). He even offered to help me touch up the teak, etc.” he said. “I KNOW how it sounds like a sales gimmick, but the guy HATED to sell it - and because it's for age/health issues, it really bothered him. I think he's delighted that I'll be keeping the boat in the same area and that we'll probably become friends; I'll invite him out often - and get free lessons to boot!”

Has it changed you? Do you feel different from your land-based friends?
The challenge of untangling their identities from their possessions may be related to age, or it may be a coincidence. At least, the two youngest new liveaboards, Chris and Courtney, seemed fairly unconcerned. Jack said he “may get a storage unit at first just to keep the things I can't bear to part with NOW. Then I'll filter through things a second time.” Melissa also found her relationship to her possessions complex. Selling her condo and most of her furnishings has, on the one hand, been very liberating. On the other hand, she says, “since I am approaching retirement age, with no land base house or furnishings, I am back to square one like when I moved out of my parents’ house at age 18. I have 35 years of good living and in some respects nothing to show for it from society's point-of-view.” Still, she puts it in a broader context. “I think any lifestyle change as drastic as living on the water in a very small space has to change that person. Many things come to mind about how we as Americans live or are supposed to live … chasing the American Dream. For me it changed/re-enforced the notion of the material world we live in and how false that perception is to make one's inner self happy. The old saying "Money cannot buy happiness" comes to mind. The move has been very liberating in what is really important in my life.”
Leaving it all behind -- Melissa at the helm

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