The Gift of Life Afloat

“Would I like to WHAT!?” I asked my husband with utter shock and dismay. “What would you think of living on a boat one day…selling everything…and maybe sailing around the world”, he repeated in a voice so calm I could hear my heart beat. In seconds it became apparent he wasn’t joking. In those same few moments I sensed my world was about to turn upside down and never be the same again.

That was fourteen years ago. Up to that point in my life I had not set foot on a boat with sails, or for that matter spent time on any vessel larger than a sixteen foot runabout. Neither had my husband. This, he would remind me in the ensuing years, was irrelevant. “You’ve always said that any one can do anything, learn anything, and go anywhere, if they put their mind to it”, he would remark. I took this as a veiled threat to put my money where my mouth was or better stated, to walk my own talk!

But a boat?! Actually live on a boat!? I struggled to imagine how we’d survive in a small confined space , and more importantly, how I would deal with my deeply rooted fear of the water. I’d never fully revealed my fear to my husband; there’d been no need. Sun-baked frolics on strips of sandy beach sandwiched between palm trees and glistening turquoise water had posed no threat. A lazy day of fishing with a rod in one hand and a keener eye on the novel in the other was equally benign. To venture forth on a steely gray ocean that seemed to fall off the end of the earth, where rogue waves, hurricanes and sharks threatened my very existence almost scared me to death

In the early years before we acquired our first cruising boat, my partner’s desire to abandon our land life and take to the sea dominated our every conversation. More than anything I hoped his desire to live afloat would diminish, that it had been generated by nothing more than a mid-life crisis. It’s not that I couldn’t learn to sail, or learn to manage my fear of the water, or rise to the challenge of living in a small space: The truth was, I simply did not want to. I loved my land life. I adored our home, painstakingly renovated by the two of us. I delighted in my gardens where things grew despite my worst efforts. And I thrived in a career I’d never dreamed possible. I loved being able to don my roller blades and take to city streets in the quiet of the night or launch my mountain bike from the back door for hours of exploring. I did not want to surrender my land bound life for a lifestyle with which I had no familiarity and which paralyzed me with fear.

My partner wanted to make a major lifestyle change in part because he wanted a simpler life, one in which he was more self-reliant, and in part because he needed new challenges. The cruising lifestyle held the promise of both. I on the other hand, was just beginning to taste the freedom that came with having a little extra money to dream about the possibility of extended exploring in the south of France. I envisioned house exchanges, biking through vineyards, hiking in the Alps; my partner envisioned the freedom that is inherent in traveling with one’s home in tow from one port to the next and the self-satisfaction that comes from depending on more natural forces. Neither of us wanted more material ‘stuff’; rather, we wanted more time for self reliance (him) and self-expression (me). It would be several years before we were able to reconcile our divergent dreams – years that were characterized by an almost incessant conversation about what each of us wanted out of life, and more importantly, how devoted we were to each other's happiness.

Many couples face similar dilemmas: he wants to ‘sell out’ and sail away and she does not. The idea is considered nothing short of ludicrous (by her) while in every sense liberating (by him). In some instances, the realization of their divergent wants and the concurrent refusal of one or both of them to explore how they might very well integrate their dreams, causes the relationship to be vulnerable to external forces that are more accommodating or compatible: he finds someone who shares his dream or is sufficiently enamored with him to risk embracing his dream and off they sail with not a backwards glance.

On the other hand, I’ve known women who sacrificed their home and hearth to satisfy their partner’s longings primarily because a husband on a boat was better than no husband at all. Instead of focusing on what they stood to gain from life afloat, these women carried the enormity of their sacrifices to every port. Eventually they got off the boat and flew back to the sanctity of their land-based communities where their anger and grief was intensified only by the thought of him living carefree with buxom babes ready to embrace him at every port! And him? Well, life alone on a boat is no different than life alone on land. It is a rather lonely and often times depressing existence that just about any solo cruiser will confess to after a few beer at the local pub.

Fortunately, I have met many women who either embraced their husband’s dream from the outset or, took a risk and set out to discover what it was about the cruising life that so captivated their partners. In the process they experienced the magic, serenity and fulfillment that comes from life afloat. It is these women who became my teachers and mentors, and it is their learned wisdom along with my partner’s encouragement, patience, and understanding that enabled me to eventually embrace the cruising life.

But I was not an easy convert. Initially, I countered every one of my partner’s reasons why we should embark on the cruising life with equally compelling (I thought) reasons why we could not. We talked for three years before we stumbled on our first boat, a classic old wooden cruiser, that would eventually lay the foundation for my truce with the water. In the mean time, I hoped our seasonal cruising on Georgian Bay would satiate my partner’s desire for extended cruising on less benign waters. Of course precisely the opposite happened. In adapting to life on Red Witch, a 33’ wooden Chris Craft Cavalier, a threshold of sorts was surpassed. And I was slowly becoming a convert. I enjoyed the simplicity of life aboard our old boat and the ease with which we could tuck into uninhabited coves, lay anchor, and be seduced by little more than loon music, starry nights, and the lull of gentle rocking. The boat offered a reprieve from our land lives which were becoming increasingly complicated and harried.

We were both self employed by choice in diverse and lucrative careers that held the promise of the flexibility and autonomy that many yearn for. In recent years however, our lives had become a maze of stressful deadlines, sixteen hour days, and my weekly sojourns to northern communities which seemed more often than not to be fogged in, snowed in, or simply too miserable for making an approach. In addition, to scrambling for flights, I was going to graduate school full time, and we were raising a lovable but challenging teenager.

I began to look forward to our stolen weekends on Georgian Bay. The boat was becoming a refuge of sorts, a place where I could temporarily retreat from deadlines, demands and distractions that had me dancing at a frantic pace. While at one time I grudgingly packed the car for our 3 to 5 day sojourns, I now eagerly loaded the car and used the two hour drive north to the boat to discard that which was inconsequential once we slipped the lines from the dock. Anchored in the lee of an uninhabited island I was distracted by little more than the whisper of the breeze and my own emerging thoughts about restoring balance in my lop-sided life. I had been oblivious to how out-of-balance my life had become and now, freed from myriad land-based distractions that can so easily confuse what’s important with what’s not, I was valuing the time for uncluttered self reflection and self discovery.

Life on a boat poses unique challenges for women who have historically defined who they are in traditional roles of wife and mother, and in more recent times as multi-tasked super-women. Many of us define ourselves by our careers and without our work we fear our lives will be without purpose and meaning. Still others define themselves by the roles they’ve nurtured in the lives of family, friends, and community. This is typified in the comment of one woman I recently met who said “I can’t just go off on a sail boat for a year…who’ll take care of the family?” She was referring to adult sons and daughters and their children. Without a second thought I retorted “Well, perhaps they’ll take care of themselves for a change!”. She looked at me with angry eyes and blazing cheeks but then suddenly said with a grin, “You’re right, they might”. Finally, there are women (and indeed men!) who define themselves by the material world they are blessed with: a comfortable home, a second car, perhaps a cottage for weekend retreats, and a never-ending stream of bigger, better, or newer ‘stuff’. Material worth symbolizes their success and achievements in an increasingly tumultuous and competitive world.

Life on a boat whether for a few days, weeks, months or a few years or more, provides numerous opportunities for us to ask ourselves ‘who am I and how did I get this way?. Liberated from the day-to-day diversions of land life, we begin to think about how we might change the course of our life and in doing so change the course of those around us.

There is little doubt in my mind that life on the water has had a cleansing, and re-awakening affect on me. Those early years afloat helped me to re-define who I am independent of my career and the many roles that I play in the lives of those around me. Living on a boat is more than just a gift I gave my partner; it’s a gift I gave myself.