Eight years down: how we fund the cruising life

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How can we afford the cruising life? Everybody wants to know, but few ask. Cutting to the chase: we’re not independently wealthy. How we’ve supported ourselves has changed over time. Today marks the first day in our ninth year of cruising (holy cow!): retracing those years in terms of our finances tells the tale.

On August 21, 2008, we untied the lines from our slip behind the pub in Eagle Harbor and set off to go cruising with a pocketful of savings from about a decade of anticipation, and six years of more intent planning. We never expected to be out this long. When we left Bainbridge Island for Mexico in 2008, we expected to be gone for at least two years…five, at the outside.

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2009: exploring in the Mogote, La Paz, Mexico

It was our assumption that as the kids approached high school age, they’d year for a more “normal” life. And then, we weren’t sure we’d be able to afford cruising. We were living off savings built up in anticipation of this interlude in our lives, and that money could only last so long.

2010: always a friendly lap in Fiji

2010: always a friendly lap in Fiji

At around the two year mark, we found ourselves scraping the bottom of the financial barrel. This was sooner than expected, but our hopes to fund additional years of sailing by selling our house were foiled by the real estate crash. Instead, we lost money monthly as the mortgage exceeded rental income: there was no option but going back to work. Sitting in Tahiti, we mapped out the possibilities: where could we sail to, by the end of the season, and find a job?

Pacific map

The stars aligned around Sydney, so we worked our way steadily towards the western side of the Pacific over the course of 2010 and cashed that first Aussie paycheck when our bank account had dwindled to $100. For the next year and a half, our little family embraced the experience of trying on another country for size…and we pinched pennies to save amid a high cost of living.

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2011: Australia Day in Sydney Harbor, on MV Furthur

Australia indelibly imprinted on us, but six months of attending school in Brisbane cured our kids of any urge to attend “normal” school. With enough in the kitty to sustain us for a while again, they cheered the prospect of returning to homeschooling when we had a family meeting in mid-2012 to discuss plans to move on.

2012 – school uniforms in Brissie

2012: school uniforms in Brissie

Departing Australia opened a new chapter in our cruising lives. For all the aspects of living in Oz that we enjoyed, it also showed us that we no longer fit in. Jamie and I determined to find a new ways to support our family and continue cruising, so we wouldn’t have to repeat the cycle of working in a developed country…for a while, at least. Trying to pass for normal with people who couldn’t understand our real drives and motivations was draining, and pressures on the kids not what any of us wanted.

2013: temple style, Bali

2013: temple style, Bali

And so while sailing west through Indonesia during the first six months of 2013 we worked on ways to build a few streams of trickle income to sustain us. Returning to sailmaking after many years, Jamie discovered how much he has to offer as a cruising sailmaker, helping people get the right sail. I found new energy around sharing our life through writing, and building a bit of income from freelancing, this blog, and co-authoring Voyaging with Kids. At the same time, shifts in rent/mortgage allowed us to actually earn some income from our house, a welcome cushion when bigger boat projects piled up as we prepared Totem for the Indian Ocean.

ditch kit

2014: reviewing and repacking the ditch kit

Last year, we spent our cruisiversary in East Africa, anchored off Cosmoledo—a  remote atoll in the southern Seychelles. Hunkered down to take shelter from rough conditions en route to Comoros, we had the company of friends for shared hikes, snorkeling, meals and laughs. Headed toward South Africa, our thin earnings weren’t going to be enough for extras: for the first time, we dug into retirement savings to avoid missing out on the rich experience of inland Africa.

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2015: weathering a blow with friends on Shakespeare

Now, with our eighth year behind us, financial dynamics are shifting yet again. Our house returns to the status of net expense instead of net income (curse you, adjustable mortgage!). But we’re building new sources of income doing something we truly enjoy: cruise coaching service, where we share what we know to help others through the steps to go cruising. What’s also different now is we’re a little more accustomed to the instability in ways our 2008 selves could never have imagined. We live on a thin margin. To make that work, in most years, our expenditures are well below the US poverty line for a family of five. Sure, it’s stressful! But we balance that with the opportunity, and it’s not a difficult choice. Our priorities are different.

2016: sunset on the Mystic river

2016: sunset on the Mystic river

Nobody is more surprised than I am that we are cracking into our ninth year of cruising: still out adventuring, exploring as a family, no plans beyond “Cuba sounds good” for this winter. Happy cruisiversary to us! Raising a glass to celebrate on the Mystic river tonight as the sun sinks behind Noank, grateful to chalk up another year of living adventurously.

Privileged cruisers

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Turquoise water, white sand, the stretch of a tropical island…contrast of our dinghy and a local outrigger. We are so tremendously privileged in our experiences. But our privilege extends far beyond this: most importantly, our privileged lives stem from the place in the world we were just plain lucky to have been born in. A place with a wealth of opportunities and support. Not always easy, but nearly endless possibilities.

My last post, about how cruising wrecks lives, speaks plain truths of uncomfortable differences in the way we look at our culture now, through the lens of the last eight years. It shouldn’t be interpreted as it a rejection of our home. As more than one commenter (friends, thank you!) pointed out – you can be perfectly happy living differently. We don’t have to “go back”…as if we could! But we’re all impacted by our experiences in life, we can use that to make choices or changes.

Sunfish and a sunset sail, Mystic River

Sunfish and a sunset sail, Mystic River

But it also shouldn’t minimize how our experiences have pushed to the fore of our minds how incredibly well-off “we” (anyone in the developed world) are. The consumption I reacted against is just one symptom. More importantly, we have dramatic control over our individual destinies compared to people in so much of the world. There’s enough to eat, and education, and medical care. We are rich enough not to worry about meeting base needs and instead contemplate luxuries like progress toward self-actualization, or benefits of the newest iPhone.

Last night I received an email from a boat that had recently arrived in the Ninigo atoll, Papua New Guinea. Longer term readers know that Ninigo is one of those very special places that’s remain close to our hearts—we’ll never forget our stay there in 2012. As usual, it was because of the people who touched our lives.

Why yes, that IS a tree kangaroo on Siobhan's head

Why yes, that IS a tree kangaroo on Siobhan’s head! Mal island, Ninigo, PNG: 2012

We only get news from the friends we made on Ninigo’s Mal island when a cruising boat stops in, because they have no communication to the outside world—just a radio to contact another island. Visiting cruisers like Carina’s crew offer a golden opportunity to trade updates. This boat in particular contacted us before they left from Palau for Ninigo, so we were able to ship a small care package, photos, and letters via the good ol’ USPS.

But the news wasn’t good: my friend Mollina, who I call sister, hasn’t recovered from her baby’s birth earlier this year. She’s struggling badly enough that she can’t work in the vegetable garden that feeds her family. She can’t hold her children for long.

Mollina and her firstborn, Finn, madonna and child

Mollina and her firstborn, Finn; Madonna and child

Mal looks like an island paradise, and in many ways it is, but it is a difficult life that shouldn’t be romanticized. Let me put it into a bit of perspective. On Mal, there aren’t any roads; just some footpaths. There’s no electricity. There’s no fresh water piped in, and no sewage piped out. There are no grocery stores or hardware stores or regular supply ships. People get by with what they forage or build. There are very few ways to earn currency.

This family just sailed outrigger back from their vegetable garden, an overnight trip in open ocean

This family just sailed outrigger back from their vegetable garden, an overnight trip in open ocean

Mollina’s illness is much more than a setback or an inconvenience. Health care is very limited: Mollina’s husband has a deep cut on his arm, thanks to chasing a wild pig from their garden with a spear, and it’s not healing well because the local health ‘clinic’ doesn’t have enough clean bandages. At least that’s an obvious problem. I can’t tell from Mollina’s message what’s afflicting her. It’s impossible to know whether she could use the anti-fungals or antibiotics on Carina, or if what she needs is actually surgical. Oh, and surgery, or access to a trained medical professional? The nearest hospital is a two-day ride in an open boat, and it’s probably not a place that you or I would want anyone we love to go for medical treatment. There is a reason we met very few people with gray hair on Ninigo.

My big indulgence during our last weeks in Mystic is attending sessions at a nearby yoga studio. I felt the absurdity of my privilege there this morning, lying on a high-end all natural rubber mat, in a purpose-heated room that mimics Ninigo’s near-equatorial position, worrying about Mollina. It felt obscene. It felt so f*cking unfair. Tears running down my cheeks remain private, indistinguishable from the sweat dripping down my face. I have no right to be so worried about whatever the h3$% is keeping my shoulder from being as mobile lately, about whatever little problems exist in my world, because they really aren’t problems at all in the scheme of things. We have ALL THE POSSIBILITIES. We have so many lifelines to call on in a time of need.

The lovely Caper...Cuttyhunk, MA

The lovely Caper…Cuttyhunk, MA

We may find some aspects of the abundance here at home to be distasteful, or uncomfortable, or whatever it is. But ultimately, cruising brings a new appreciation for how spectacularly lucky “we” are: we have so many options. We should just hope to avoid the sickness of entitlement.

Meanwhile, I asked friends for help with Mollina’s illness, and friends showed up in spades: people offering what they have, whether it is knowledge or connections or funds. With guidance, I have a set of specific questions about symptoms that hopefully can get to a likely diagnosis. In those moments, our world shrinks in the most beautiful ways: friends from Boston, Seattle, New Zealand, Australia and more, connecting through the ionosphere in my text message to a sailing boat anchored in Ninigo. And I wait, and hope, that there will be a feasible path to help her heal.

Sunset watercolors

Sunset watercolors

How cruising wrecks lives

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It’s become profoundly clear that we’ll never be normal again. Is it unsettling? A little. We were a poster family for Normal, and utterly happy. Sitting in Totem’s cockpit from our mooring in the Mystic River, looking towards Noank in the fading light, that normal life—and the security that came with it—is lost to us.

Traded it all for the excitement of boat plumbing

Traded it all for the excitement of boat plumbing

The feeling germinates being back in a sped-up world, where there’s more of a rush to the finish than an appreciation for what’s around. Close traffic, fast cars. Foul language over the VHF, disrespect for rules of the road. We have fallen out of sync with our routines on board for learning, writing, taking care of Totem, and taking care of ourselves. If it weren’t for the steady stream of family and friends we’re sharing these weeks with I’d probably feel thrown off balance.

Daphne’s crew departing just after sunset

Daphne’s crew departing just after sunset

A couple of thought provoking conversations drive the feeling home. We’ve had a few interviews in the last couple of weeks and I appreciate how they’ve pushed us to better understand the space between us now, and us before. I’m not sure how to articulate it yet, but keep trying! Part of the difference is how we’ve embraced the loss of security. I’ll recount our early years, saying “when we ran out of money the first time, we stopped in Australia.” Just the idea that we might be willing to do this is anathema to our old selves. But it wasn’t going to kill us, and it did make us stronger. Our worries and priorities shifted.

Processing events of the day with Siobhan

Processing events of the day with Siobhan

“Tell me about places where you’ve seen environmental devastation?” comes one question, followed with, “and what about places of hope?” One of our early goals was to help the kids appreciate our human impact on the world. This is accomplished in spades, but to what end? We can share a litany of examples to answer the former question, but relatively few for the latter. We’re back in the middle of a consumption-driven society that seems namelessly behind so much of the imbalance we experienced between humans and our environment, and it screams at me, but there seems to be little recognition of our collective responsibility. Changed as we are by what we’ve seen, it is now anathema to re-enter the culture we once claimed.

Two cruising families in two weeks have intersected with our crew, buoying us. One has been back a year: the former crew of Daphne offer a sounding board and a lifeline. They’re proof you can pass, for a while at least, and find a way forward. Hearing their stories, sharing ours, helps center me again.

There’s Sasquatch!

There’s Sasquatch!

We see with the kids from these cruising families how that much-feared question of socialization plays out in practice. The awkward gaps of conversation in meeting fade quickly. With each family, it only takes minutes for the kids to make their way from the neutral meeting zone of the cockpit to the table in the main cabin down below. They are playing cards, sharing music, and laughing uproariously in minutes. None of them are owned by a little screen somewhere nearby, dropping bits of pixie dust to an irresistible lure away from genuine human interaction.

Dutch Blitz with new friends aboard Totem

Dutch Blitz with new friends aboard Totem

Busy weeks of exploring and experiencing the USA again are slowing down, and ready for reflection and context. One clear sign that “cruiser normal” is returning is that there’s time again to resume our routines. Exhibit A: the kids’ computer is back in action after a long haitus for repair, and Niall spent the morning helping his sisters with math lessons.

I love how she’s touching his arm while he explains linear equations

Sneaky Mama Pic: I love how she’s touching his arm while he explains linear equations

Jamie spent the morning working on the watermaker, and cleaning some apawling (ba dump bump, bad sailor pun) winches.

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Winch maintenance: at least as fun as plumbing

Balance is found, for now. It’s supported by the company with like-minded humans who recognize we’re not crazy for walking away from our secure, safe lives.

Rigging Darrin’s 110 for racing

Rigging Darrin’s 110 for racing

“Becoming a parent wrecks your life…for the better.” This was the sage advice of my cousin when I was pregnant with Niall. While we couldn’t quite grok it at the time, he was right. Your life is profoundly impacted, and the lens through which you see the world is forever shifted. Cruising is much the same: our lives, as we knew them, are wrecked. There’s no going back to before. Looking at how it’s changed us and shaped our kids, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

aloha shirt, jam jar of wine...must be sundowners

aloha shirt, jam jar of wine…must be sundowners