Tell someone you’re going sailing, and invariably the reaction is an audible sigh and a faraway look. Sailing is like that – everyone imagines a clean white boat ghosting into a quiet bay in warm, turquoise-colored water, off a white sand beach on an uninhabited, palm tree-lined island. I’ve seen photographs of places like this, so I am sure they exist – even in an un-PhotoShopped world. Certainly, the image of a liveaboard sailor carries with it a kind of romance, freedom and independence that many people believe are unattainable in their onshore world of jobs, mortgages, children and grandparents. Faced with those more common kinds of responsibilities, many people – especially men – dream of stepping on board a boat and leaving it all behind. The reality of living aboard, however, is something more – and less.
Of all the people who dream of sailing away, I’ll estimate that about five percent actually go sailing. Of those who have actually gone sailing at one time or another, about five percent are ever on the water for more than seven days at a time. Of those who have spent at least one continuous week on the water, about five percent actually buy a boat. Of those people who have bought a boat, about five percent move aboard to live. Of all liveaboards, about five percent sell all of their onshore possessions. Of those who have sold everything, about five percent quit their jobs. Of those liveaboards who are no longer encumbered by onshore employment, about five percent leave the dock to cruise coastal waters. And of those costal cruisers, about five percent ever make an ocean crossing. Such is attrition in the world of sailing.
Attrition happens for all kinds of reasons. It has been my experience that some plans fall apart and couples stop cruising after one or two years (assuming they leave the dock at all), even when they have new, well-found boats and unlimited time and resources. Somehow things turn upside down for these couples, but not for lack of money or opportunity. I have known other couples who for years have worked hard and enthusiastically on outfitting their boats, only to abandon their cruising plans when the outfitting nears completion. Over time, one or the other partner’s priorities quietly shifted, so the original goal is no longer desirable for one or attainable for the other. Some plans are changed by external circumstances: health issues, relatives in need, a resolutely unwilling spouse who can no longer be denied. Sometimes, plans are changed when the sailor realizes the dream, but encounters a reality he or she had not expected: the fundamentally different challenges between coastal/inland sailing and ocean sailing (even in calm seas and fair weather); the fear that goes on for hours when getting the boat through heavy weather and high seas; the sleep deprivation; the sudden and persistent seasickness; or the continuous attempts to make broken or malfunctioning equipment work.
The most common form of attrition, however, may be when reality confronts those people who have pursued dreams instead of goals, and perceive themselves as a kind of person they are not. Some people enjoy characterizing themselves as free spirits, unencumbered by society’s rules and conventions; in the boating world, they perceive themselves as ocean cruisers, world sailors. In reality, they spend years dreaming, reading, planning and preparing – but never actually take any significant steps toward attaining their dream, because in truth they are not prepared to embrace all of the actual challenges the liveaboard cruising lifestyle demands.
This is not to imply that living aboard a boat, crossing oceans or circumnavigating the globe are the only worthwhile goals in a cruising lifestyle. Quite the opposite – it is perfectly acceptable (even commendable) if all you ever do is charter a small boat and go sailing one or two weekends a year, if that is your goal, it is a realistic fit with your life, and it fulfills you.
Bottom line: if you dream of sailing away forever, but for whatever reason can’t make it happen, that’s OK. Acknowledge that it is just a dream. In contrast, this liveaboard life is indeed a lifestyle - a huge set of commitments and value changes - that is hard to make work, and to maintain, over time. Along the way, so many people drop their plans at various stages for so many different reasons. And that is all just fine - as long as you remain honest with yourself and your partner about what it really is that you want out of the rest of your life and your relationship. If you succeed in that, your goals will fall into place. And I'm not just talking about sailing, here.
What does all this mean for GB and me, and our own plans to quit the jobs and slip the mooring lines in another 13 months?
We don’t know. Anything can happen. And something certainly will.