Clark February 23rd, 2007
Strangely enough, the three questions I am most commonly asked by non-cruisers are:
- Have you been in any big storms?
- Have you ever been attacked by pirates?
- What do you eat?
We’ll take these three first. The next most common question is how I support myself. In land-based life the source of one’s money is personal, and usually a taboo subject, but no one ever seems to have any compunction about asking me thirty seconds after meeting me, so I I’ll address that one too…and some others.
Have you been in any big storms?
Dealing with the weather and all it can dish out is what bluewater sailing is all about. No one is more concerned with the weather than a sailor. I have been through lots of storms, but this makes up a very small percentage of the time I’ve spent at sea. Truly bad weather is actually a rarity. There is plenty of uncomfortable weather, weather that makes you wish you were somewhere else, but one has to be pretty unlucky to encounter weather that truly threatens ship and crew. Seamanship is learning to deal with it as it comes. I might also add that sailors are notorious exaggerators and gossips. The wind was always twice as strong, and the waves twice as high, as they really were.
The most deadly storms out there are tropical cyclones—hurricanes, typhoons, willy-willys—whatever you care to call them, and the prudent sailor stays out of tropical cyclone areas during the season. I suppose if you do sail in a cyclone region during the season, you really keep an eye on the weather and are ready to take evasive action at a moment’s notice.
I once got hit by a tropical storm (a tropical storm is one step below a tropical cyclone) in the Arabian Sea. I sort of glossed over the fact that the Arabian Sea has a funny little mid-term cyclone season around May. We took a royal pasting and got blown way off course, but this was a storm with winds up to 70 knots. When one speaks of a full-blown tropical cyclone with winds up to 100? 200? knots, survival in a small craft is tenuous.
I like to think of any weather system other than a tropical cyclone as being potentially horrendous, but not packing a tropical cyclone’s punch. To digress once again, while in Tierra del Fuego a massive low pressure system blew through the Drake passage, the notorious strait between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Penninsula. The buzz around Tierra del Fuego was ‘God pitty the boat in the Drake right now.’ The winds hit 110 knots, and the Drake has horrendous waves because it is the Southern Ocean and the Southern Ocean pinching its way between the Horn and Antarctica. I don’t know if it would have been a death sentence, but it was certainly as bad as any mid-range tropical cyclone, with the added element of cold.
To deal with these systems I have my bag of tricks, which varies considerably from boat to boat depending on the boat’s design and how it handles. My bag of tricks includes storm canvas, heaving to, running under bare poles, and finally, streaming a sea anchor from the bow.
Storm canvas means flying tiny sails and still trying to get where you’re trying to go.
Heaving to means stalling the boat out in one place, more or less, to ride out the bad weather. Condesa heaves to beautifully by flying just her mizzen and lashing the helm to leeward. She leaves the textbook slick of turbulent water to windward, which seems to deaden the breaking seas, and makes 1-2 knots of leeway. Other boats often have to use a combination of sails to achieve this result. A cruising friend calls heaving to ‘Parking the Car.’
Running under bare poles is no fun at all if it’s in the wrong direction, but at this point safety concerns have taken over and running in the wrong direction beats sitting there waiting for a wave to roll you. In bad weather it’s not the wind we’re worried about, but the waves. If you’re going the same direction they’re less likely to swat you. Condesa sails well under bare poles and her wind vane set at about thirty degrees off dead down wind.
Alas, I bought the sea anchor because I was out of tricks beyond a certain point. It a a 16-foot parachute, custom made in New Zealand, that streams from about a 350 foot combination of rope rode, chain, swivels, and chafe protection. I’ve never used it, but it’s nice to know it’s there. Theoretically it would hold the bow into the wind and waves in the worst conditions. I have never tried it out because it occurs to me that it might be quite a project to get it back in. It also occurs to me that a sea anchor could send you out of the frying pan and into the fire if there was a major cross-current running. Thus, the sea anchor is a no-go in areas where currents are strong and variable.
Have you ever been waylaid by pirates?
No, unless you count the guy who runs the boatyard in Buenos Aires.
In eight years of voyaging I have had stolen a 2.2 horsepower outboard motor and various other items stolen from my dinghy, and a few other odds and ends taken by opportunists over the years. Despite what the naysayers naysay, people tend to be pretty good out there. Of course some places are worse than others. The motor was stolen in Paraty, Brazil.
Piracy is on the rise in the world, and a growing concern among sailors. The current hot spots are the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, the Straits of Malacca, Ecuador, and Indonesia. There was an incident off the coast of Yemen, in which two cruising boats were attacked, which has changed a lot of people’s thinking. For the more cool-headed among us, the thinking was always to let them take what they want—it’s only money—and don’t risk life and limb by trying to do battle on the high seas with armed pirates. In this incident in Yemen the pirates shot first and asked questions later. Unfortunately for them, one of the cruisers was Rambo. Cruisers-2. Pirates-0.
This leads to the next question…
Do you carry a gun?
I don’t. I’ve always been one of the no-gun club. It has always seemed to me that the presence of a gun could make a bad situation worse, turn a robbery into a homicide. Plus, many countries do not look favorably on bringing guns into their waters, and having a gun creates a lot of paperwork and problems.
It occurs to me now that if I did carry a gun I certainly wouldn’t tell anyone, but I don’t, really. It also occurs to me that a level-headed person could leave the gun in its hiding place in certain situations, or get it out if there were no other options. The question is, are you level-headed enough to judge correctly when in a panicked state of mind?
What do you eat?
Salt pork and hard tack with a daily ration of rum.
It’s amazing how many people ask this question. The pat answer is: normal food, just like you…I go to the supermarket, buy food, and eat it. The boat has a refrigerator and eating patterns vary little from land-based life.
Eating different stuff around the world is one of the great joys of traveling, so obviously it’s more Thai food in Thailand, Indian food in India, etc.
I troll lines almost all the time, and fresh fish is also one of the great joys of cruising. I can do many things with fish–raw, cooked, pickled, or smoked.
With the longest passages in the world being only 3-4 weeks, very little special preparation is needed, other than stocking up. If you are truly preparing for a long time at sea, or in a remote area, then you get into the special tricks and preparations, and by doing these you can ensure fresh food for many months. Some of the basics, and my favorite tricks are:
In general, anything that had been refrigerated is destined to spoil if you don’t keep it refrigerated. Fruits, vegetables, and eggs that have not been refrigerated, if fresh, have a long life ahead of them before spoiling.
Eggs are natures perfect little protein packets. They’re sterile and last at least six week without refrigeration, months if refrigerated. Some people rub Vaseline on them to seal them. Turning them over once a week seems to keep the yolk from settling on one side and prolongs life.
Limes, when wrapped individually in aluminum foil and put in the fridge will last many months. I mean four months later you take off the foil and it’s like you just picked the thing from the tree. Really amazing.
Most fruits and vegetables (not leafy ones) benefit from a half hour soak in a bucket of water with a tablespoon or two of bleach. Dry thoroughly afterwards in the sun. This seems to kill the surface microbes that start the decay and makes everything last longer.
After this, most fruits and vegetables benefit from being wrapped, individually, in newspaper. Layer them on shelves or in laundry baskets somewhere where they get lots of fresh air, yet stay in relative darkness. The greener you can buy things the longer they’ll go. You have to go through the pile every few days and eat what’s ripe or starting to go. There’s some saying about a bad apple.
Onions are king! They keep forever, and carry a huge load of vitamins, but alas, they do not play well with the other children.
Onions and garlic need their own place. They will rob moisture from potatoes, which also need their own place. Bananas will spoil anything near them, so they need their own place too. You too will create science experiments and learn what works and what doesn’t with storing large quantities of fruits and vegetables.
Certain things that we don’t eat much at home, like pumpkins, are underrated. They keep forever, make great soups, and taste great roasted in the oven.
A small herb garden can easily be maintained aboard, and that little sprig of herb adds a lot of freshness to cooking. Oregano is almost unkillable and will supply you with a constant supply of leaves. Basil is very sensitive to salt water and will die after the slightest dowsing.
How do you do it financially?
Embarking on the cruising life was a financial adventure as well as a geographic one. We are conditioned our whole lives to making money and the idea of allowing our income stream to stop makes most people very uncomfortable. It took me about six months to stop worrying that the net cash flow was always negative.
The good news is that the lifestyle is relatively cheap. I’m a minimalist by nature, so it suits me fine.
Consider this: Living on a boat is the ONLY legal way you live in the world today without paying some kind of rent, mortgage, or tax for where you lay your head each night. Even if you live your life in a tent you are still getting stuck with campground fees, wilderness fees, or getting arrested for squatting. And living in a tent isn’t something I think I could do for more than a month or two. Living at anchor or underway in a sailboat is free almost everywhere in the world, and where it isn’t free is easily avoided.
So that’s it. If you live at anchor you are living with no rent, no electric bills, no water bills, no bills of any kind. You just need to maintain your home and pay for the incidentals, which are usually:
- Occasional port and immigration fees when entering new countries
It goes without saying that marinas are the enemy of this bill-free lifestyle. Many sailors spend much of their time in marinas because they have power and water at hand, they can step off their boat without taking a dinghy ride, and marinas usually provide a nice social environment. Marinas are part of cruising life, but I try to limit my marina time to when there is no other option, when I’m doing serious repairs or provisioning and need the power and facilities, or when I’m leaving the boat for a long period and it wouldn’t be safe otherwise.
The world gives us additional freebies by letting us buy liquor, fuel, and other products duty free when we’re leaving port. We’ve got it too good! When will the world catch on?
A yacht is not a cheap thing, and maintaining it isn’t cheap either, but when compared to paying rent in even the most modest dwelling, yacht maintenance, when averaged out over the year, is much less.
The basics of life aboard come to very little and most sailors find their money goes mostly to discretionary spending: eating out, buying souvenirs, and side trips or trips home.
I have known cruisers who get by on just a few thousand dollars a year and lead great lives. For them eating out is an annual treat, they never spring for a marina, and they go as far as grinding their own grains aboard to make flour. I have been spending something like $8,000-$12,000 per year, depending on whether I’m in cheap or expensive countries and how much I put into the boat. Every few years I’ll do some major boat projects that run into the thousands. Other years I’ll hardly do anything but routine maintenance. I have spent my nest egg at a pretty good clip over the years, but when you consider that what has taken me on a nine year odyssey is what many of my yuppie counterparts spent on new BMW, I’ve been getting a lot of bang for my buck.
I make a modest income by writing for sailing and travel magazines, and pick up occasional odd jobs when the fall into my lap and are fun.
During long times at sea or long times on remote islands there isn’t anything to spend money on, so those are months of saving. Blessed be compound interest and a bull market.