Max and I have been living on Akela for over half a year now and we have gotten used to it. So, you may be wondering, “What’s it like?” This blog is my attempt to answer that question. But keep in mind, that the response comes from my perspective. Somebody with background and interests other than mine would answer this quite differently.
To use a single word to describe life cruising the South Pacific, I would say, “f’awesome”. This is a Jim’n’Max made contraction of “fucking awesome”. (Yes, I have learned to swear like a sailor.) Beautiful scenery, comfortable climate, interesting people, high seas adventure, delicious food – as Jacque would say, “What’s not to like.” But I want to answer the deeper question, “What is it really like to live on a boat in the South Pacific?”
First of all, compared to my pre-cruising life, everything has slowed down. But it didn’t start out that way.
As University of Arizona Professor for 20 years, I was very busy with cool projects, challenging students, and I always had plenty of energy for starting something new. I would rarely take time to sit down and watch a movie, much less curl up with a good book. But I was happy to escape the flinging and heaping of bullshit at UA and retire to put my energy to the next new thing: building a company, Arizona Optical Systems. Marty Valente and I started AOS from nothing. With the addition of Mark Smith, we built AOS to be a healthy company that makes some of the world’s most challenging optical systems for aerospace, science, and industry. Moving on from AOS was hard because the job was so much fun. But taking this trip has been my dream of a lifetime, and a strong team at AOS is in place to continue to thrive without me. So, I stepped out of a high paced career.
On January 1, we started living aboard in San Diego, but we spent 6 weeks of intense activity preparing and provisioning the boat. We completed hundreds of jobs and spent thousands of dollars. We were fortunate to get plenty of help with the work from Tony and Matt. We worked 12 hour days for weeks at a time. No slowing down yet.
We started the journey with a bang. We chose to get out front of some big weather, which pushed us very quickly to the Equator. It was rough going, but I have to say that I liked it. Then, arriving in the Marquesas Islands, we were filled with wonder about the beautiful scenery and the interesting culture. We wanted to see and do everything. As we have continued our trek across Polynesia, going to 13 different islands, we still love the natural beauty of islands and the sea. We still enjoy learning about and experiencing Polynesian culture. But we have learned to slow down and live our lives on “island time.”. And it is truly wonderful.
As an example, this morning I am sitting on deck in Avea Bay on the South end of Huahine and writing this. We have a lunch reservation at a local place Chez Tara but nothing else planned for the day. I took my coffee in the dinghy and had a peaceful trip across the bay while it was still in the shade of the mountains to the East. Rowing the boat slowly, I could sip my coffee and drink in the surroundings; gazing into the clear blue water to see brightly colored fish and brain-shaped coral; looking to the beach at the rich tropical jungle with simple little houses; and turning to look across the reef where the giant waves create a steady backdrop of white foam and thunder. Nothing was fantastic or especially interesting, but the whole hour was deeply peaceful and delightful. And slow. I’ll probably spend the rest of the morning pecking at the keyboard and reading a book. After lunch, Max and I may go for a swim or may go to the beach and throw frisbee. Later we’ll cook and share dinner, play cards, and probably make an interesting rum drink. I sleep on deck, and I am usually down by 10:00 and up around 6:00.
We have no real plans for the next few days. But in 5 days, we are meeting with Christian, the local distiller, who is making a chocolate liquour for us. Next week we will sail to Raiatea to meet my friend Doug, who will join us for a couple weeks. Doug is a long-time drinking and biking buddy of mine in Tucson. When Charlie and Max were young, he sailed with us in Mexico for weeks at a time, so he knows the boat and the lifestyle. We’re going to have fun in Raiatea.
Most of the time, Akela is peacefully anchored, but we watch the weather very closely and we’re always ready for things to turn worse which can change the game entirely. In a safe, well protected anchorage, the noise from the wind and boat motion from the waves make it uncomfortable. But if the direction of the weather changes, we could be in a dangerous location in the middle of the night. On this trip we had only two such nights and I’ve been through much worse in Mexico. After one “night from hell,” we tend to be very conservative to avoid such problems.
Except for the first week out of San Diego, the sailing has really been pretty easy. We have gotten very good at setting the right sails for the conditions, and we have been able to choose the timing for our passages to avoid any serious weather.
“Isn’t it boring to relax all day?”, you’re probably thinking. In seven months living aboard, I haven’t been bored at all. I have learned to enjoy and really savor peaceful relaxation. I probably spend one or two hours a day happily doing nothing at all. I’ll sit with a book and intermittently read, think about something, or just gaze out to sea. On most days, we have some planned activity like hiking ashore, exploring some reef, or going to town. Once or twice a day, I’ll go for a swim, or row, or play on the beach. It’s always there. On the boat, we have plenty of housekeeping tasks – cooking, cleaning, laundry, moving solar panels, tying a flapping awning, cleaning the boat bottom, closing the hatches for rain, opening the hatches for air, …. I spend much more time with all the little jobs now than I did ashore. Also, there are always bigger things to do on the boat if I feel like doing them. I have dozens of boat jobs that aren’t urgent but need to be done at some point. Every few days I feel industrious and tackle one or two. And every week, a few get added to the list. Yesterday I rewired a light in the galley and now I’m hoping for the rain to stop so I can touch up the varnish.
In the evening we hang out together on the boat. Supper is our big meal of the day and we usually spend the day planning it. We often have beer with dinner and a drink afterwards. Almost every night we play a game, usually cards. We have several games that we have made up or augmented with crazy rules. One of my favorites is a variation on the kids’ card game War that includes so many wacky rules, including the possibility of mutual assured nuclear destruction where both sides are wiped out, that the craziness is literally over the top. The game is called “Over the Top” and we published the rules and gave them out for Christmas one year. The winner of the game does a victory dance and has first pick for the next day’s jobs.
We sail from island to island, but we tend to find a nice place and stay there for a week or so. We can pull up the anchor and move on any time that we want to explore a new place, check out some cool thing that we heard about, find fresh food, or get our internet fix. We can’t get tired of the scenery in a place like this when our home is easily moved
“Don’t you go crazy cooped up with only two people on a little boat?”, you wonder. First of all, we use the space efficiently, so we have plenty of space for the things we need; cooking, eating, sleeping, crapping, and storing food, clothes, toys, and boat stuff. Max and I have our own way of getting along in such a small space. For example, Max doesn’t want to see “old guy ass,” so when I’m changing, I have to make a “wugga, wugga, wugga” sound so he isn’t traumatized by accidently looking upon the dreadful scene. Everything is a game and it’s fun. We wouldn’t want a larger boat for the just two of us, and four fit nicely aboard as long as we’re all friends. We each get plenty of alone time. I spend hours by myself on deck reading and relaxing. Max creates his isolation with headphones, listening to audiobooks and doing crossword puzzles and games.
Max and I get along fine, but, wow, I greatly miss Laura’s cozy affection and bright spark and Charlie’s wit and creativity. Max has told me that he isn’t bored, but he really does miss hanging out with his friends. He loves it here, but he will be glad to return to a normal life.
If this is so great, why doesn’t everybody check out and go cruising? It can be hard to leave behind the comforts of home, even for such a nice life of leisure. The uncertainty of traveling to new places and especially the possibility of bad weather create a level of stress that I thrive on, but it’s not for everyone. At home your water, power, and sewage may as well be magic to you. You never have to see where they come from (or where they go) and you have virtually no limits on amounts. You simply spend most of your time at work to get some pile of electronic bits that are fed to some hidden machine that delivers to your house all the light, cold, or heat that you could want. You simply flip a lever on your toilet and your shit is gone. Forever. You can trade your time for your comfort. I blogged previously how we live close to our resources. We need to generate our own power and watch our resources (food, water, diesel) very carefully because they are so hard to replace.
We live with the possibility, and even likelihood that something will go wrong so we try to stay on top of everything. We are constantly adjusting lines to avoid flapping or chafe; we carefully monitor all of the engine’s systems; and we take apart things like pumps and winches if they don’t feel right. Being self-sufficient on a boat takes a lot of work. I’m not complaining, but just making the point that this isn’t for everyone.
You may think it would cost too much to go cruising. It certainly can be very expensive. Many of the boats that we see are big, new boats that cost more than our house. But we bought an old boat 20 years ago that cost less than our car. In 20 years of sailing Akela, we would typically spend around $1000 per year on maintenance and refurbishment. It’s not so different from a car. The cost of actually cruising is less then the cost of just regular life in Tucson. We live really well on about $100 per person per week. We add a few expensive activities like renting scooters for $30 apiece, but we do expensive things in Tucson sometimes also. No, the money doesn’t have to create a barrier.
What about income? Most of the cruisers that we have met are either retired with a pension or they work a few months to save up for cruising the rest of the year. I have a unique situation with Arizona Optical Systems that provides some financial security. I stepped down as Chief Technical Officer of AOS, but I maintain a close relationship. Last month AOS needed some analysis done so I worked on my laptop in beautiful Polynesia. The work was interesting, and I found that I can take a vacation from my vacation and work productively. Opportunities to make money along the way make cruising easily affordable.
So, I could do this for another year, or 5, or 20, right? Well, not really. One big limitation with this life is that it is physically demanding. Nothing like training to be a weightlifter, but everything we do requires strength and agility. This is quite enjoyable as long as I’m in good shape, but could be miserable with even small injuries. I fell hard and hurt my left elbow 4 months ago and it still creates difficulties for me getting around, working the boat, and schlepping our stuff. If the injury was worse, I would need somebody else to do things for me, which just isn’t practical on a little boat with 2 people. I know that I’m older and more fragile than I used to be, and I count my lucky stars for every day that I can still do all this stuff.
But the real issue for me is that I love my life ashore too. I started this journey with the intention of returning to regular life. I am extremely lucky that Laura is okay with me taking off for a year and meeting up a few times along the way. We just had three weeks wonderful weeks together in Bora Bora and Tahiti. But for now anyway, being at sea is not for her. I don’t know how many spouses would put up with something like this. I love Laura deeply and would never give up my relationship with her for the easy life or any other. As much as I am enjoying my time in the South Pacific, I am looking forward to the good times that Laura and I will have when I return. So as long as Laura is willing to put up with this, I can eat my cake now, and still have cake for later as well. Life’s Good, I may even say it’s f’awesome!!!!