I’ve sampled some of the life of a cruiser now. More than I expected to, at this point in my own voyage. I’ve seen the wilds of British Columbia -that was part of the plan. But I have also seen more of the California coast than I expected. And on my recent trip, I’ve seen some of Baja California, La Paz, islands in the Sea of Cortez,and several south Pacific islands including the remote Hiva Oa. That was all a surprise, something I expected to do much later in my life. I’ve peeked ahead, read the middle of the book, as it were, and I’ve gained a lot of perspective in a short time.
There is a problem that afflicts would be explorers. I noticed it camping in the Pacific Northwest. Reasonable, fun, adventurous people, looking ahead to a weekend, decide to go camping. They go down to Powell’s Books, break out a hiking guide, and find a trail that sounds fantastic. Maybe a 15 mile loop. Or a canyon trip that goes in 8 or so miles and then back out the next day. They dream of the remote campsite where they will sleep Saturday night. And when they get there, all the spots are taken by other reasonable, fun, adventurous people, who all resent each other's presence.
With this in mind, I took to boating in part as a way to get off of the trail. RV’s arrive by road. Hikers via switchbacks and logging roads. Bikers can use both routes. But only boaters can point the bow where ever they want. My efforts in boating have returned great dividends. Not only have I found solitude in the wild and seen places well off the beaten path, I’ve also had a warm comfortable bed with fresh baked bread and nice bottles of wine the whole time.
But it turns out that the world of sailing is composed of many “gravity wells”. San Francisco is one, and it has trapped us. On Hiva Oa the harbor Tahauku exerts a very powerful pull. The vast majority of boats that leave Central and South America, or any west-bound European or East Coast US boat will pull into that harbor. The closest south Pacific Islands to the west coast of the Americas are the Marquesas. You can only clear customs on Hiva Oa or on Nuka Hiva. And Nuka Hiva is downwind of most of the Marquesas Islands, so unless you plan to skip over the islands you just sailed a month to reach, you will drop anchor in Tahauku Harbor. Right next to all the other sailors. Most of whom are delightful and welcome company. And all of whom are feeling crowded and worried that your boat may drag or foul their anchor. Its weekend camping on a whole new scale.
There is another problem that afflicts would be explorers, and that is being expected. I think this is worse for sailors because not only do they all arrive in the same ports, but thanks to global weather patterns, they all arrive at the same time. March-April in the case of Hiva Oa. So the locals regard each new boat as “another load of laundry to do” and so on. At least the boats do eventually leave the Marquesas. In La Paz, the sailboats are a floating retirement community. I worry that people think of me as a cruising sailor first, and a person second. Its hard not to get painted by the same brush when a bunch of old white people on old white boats have behaved badly in the past.
A third problem that afflicts would be explorers is that after being far from home so long, they find each other more interesting than the people they have come to learn about. I know that if I met someone on Hiva Oa from Portland, OR I would have spent hours talking to them. There are over 2 million people in the Portland area, if I liked them that much I should just go there right? But 2 Portlanders on Hiva Oa would have 2 significant things in common: being from Portland and being on Hiva Oa. Sailors on Hiva Oa have even more in common than people from Portland, and we spent hours climbing over the island talking about dinghys, rigging, boat types, etc. The 2 aluminum boats in the harbor had much to discuss. Its a kind of boat show set in paradise. If travel costs weren’t so high I would suggest marine equipment vendors station sales reps along the quays.
The greatest rewards await those who commit to a life of sailing. The Pardey’s, for instance, sell in their books a life of simple living, infrequent work and frequent travel. For decade after decade. You need a roof over your head and this is most people’s biggest ongoing cost. If your boat is small and tough and you are frugal and do without, the year-to-year maintenance costs might only be 1000$. With this in mind I can’t imagine a better platform for long term travel than a boat.
I didn’t meet any travelers like that. Sitting at anchor in La Paz living off social security doesn’t count. Everyone I met planned to sail across the Pacific and either sell their boat, or find long term employment, or both. No one I met planned to cross the Indian Ocean. Too many pirates. Rough weather. Some people had spent many years aboard to get to this “end of the road”. But they had done so by saving lots of money, and living on retirement.
Buying and outfitting a boat to sail across an ocean costs no less than 20,000$. It is more realistic to consider 30,000$. And I bet the average is around 60,000$. With 30,000$ you can buy a year of hotel rooms. If you camp 2 days on, 2 days off, that is 2 years of lodging. If you stay in hostels (in parts of the world that have them), or longer term vacation rentals, you could easily get 4 years lodging. Of course, at the end of that you wouldn’t have a boat to sell. But then, you wouldn’t have a boat to repair either. And when your boat is underwater, it isn’t a financial metaphor.
I guess I am writing to a previous version of myself, reading a Cruising World magazine off of the shelf in Rich’s Tobacco on his lunch break. I don’t know that this advice is of use to anyone else. But I say to myself back then, “Where do you want to go? Figure that out first.” At the time I decided on one-size fits all travel: commit to the boat, follow it where it wants to go. And it has very specific ideas about where it wants to go. I could have instead solved a lot of sub-problems: Sail the lower Columbia? Buy a trailer sailor on craigslist, try it out for a few weeks. Still want to do that? Drive it up to Lund, B.C. and head north to the Broughtons. Want to go faster? Sell the trailer sailor, get a little motorboat with a cuddy cabin. Tired of water? Sell the boat and the car. Fly to Spain. Walk the Camino de Santiago, camping or staying in pilgrim’s hostels. Almost out of money? Missing stability? Fly to a town where you have or expect to find a job. Enjoy living in that town. Perhaps after a while the vacations seem too short? Quit (or take a leave) and do what most appeals to you at that time, in the most reasonable way you can think of.
When I arrived in San Francisco it was the inevitable plan to one day continue south, down to Mexico, and then across the Pacific. Now that will only be the plan if that is what we really want to do when that day comes. Which is actually a much more exciting prospect. Dreams can be traps.
Hot travel tip: Hiva Oa will host the quadrennial Marquesan cultural celebration "Matavaa O Te Fenua Enana" in December of 2015. There be very few sailors there, because tropical storms will mean that they must be elsewhere.