Ocean Hermit – sailing, solitude and stories

My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.

* Why people take to the sea in small boats – part 1 of 4

Why do people sell up, move aboard a small boat and sail off into the blue?  Some years ago, Cruising World magazine interviewed some of the best known longtime voyagers and liveaboards and asked them what motivated them and what they’d learned along the way.  It makes for fascinating reading.

“It all began when I was 12 years old and spent two summers taking sailing lessons at Cedar Point Yacht Club on Long Island Sound,” wrote three-time circumnavigator Scott Kuhner. “It wasn’t the racing tactics that excited me, no. It was the ability to use just the wind, to sail beyond the horizon to see what was there.

“One very hot and lethargic day in July 1957, my best friend and I were sitting under a shade tree on his front lawn. Doug said to me, ‘What do you want to do, Scott? ‘ Out of the blue I replied, ‘Sail to the South Pacific. ‘ In that instant, the dream was born and never left me.”

What makes a cruising sailor tick? On the eve of Cruising World’s 30th anniversary, they contacted more than a dozen sailors, many of whom have been corresponding with the magazine since its editorial infancy, and asked them to comment on their lives under sail. What follows is a patchwork quilt stitching together decades’ worth of motivations and solutions and lessons sometimes practical, sometimes soulful.

Part one – Genesis

We Just Kept Going: an Oral History of the Cruising Life

By Elaine Lembo and Tim Murphy
(published by Cruising World 10-Sep-2004)


Ida Little and Michael Walsh: We began cruising in June 1972 and continued to cruise for at least half of every year, in various boats, until 1997. Having no idea what cruising was all about when we started cruising, we headed for England because a sail had been made there for the boat. We ran into the aftermath of Hurricane Agnes en route to Bermuda. This made our crew so reluctant to continue that we diverted to Puerto Rico on his request. On arrival in San Juan, he promptly flew back to Minnesota, leaving us to manage the old, leaky, 40-foot ketch by ourselves. After cruising the West Indies to South America we sailed north to the Bahamas where we shipwrecked (see “Castling the King,” June 2004). A year later we returned to the Bahamas to cruise for the next 25 years. With all that clear shallow water, protected seas, miles and miles of uninhabited shoreline, balmy climate, fish and lobster infested reefs, and some of the kindest people on earth, these islands are ideal cruising grounds for us.

Lin and Larry Pardey: We’ve been out cruising since 1968, except for three and a half years when we stopped to build our new boat, Taleisin. First we sailed around the world, eastabout, for 11 years and 47 countries. Then westabout by way of the great southern capes with detours to Norway and Maine, with many points in between. At first we did it just to feel free, to see Mexico, and be free of 9-to-5 work for a while. We had enough money for six months off. But we found we could work along the way, so we just kept going.

Reese Palley: I didn’t commence my circumnavigation until I was more than halfway through life’s passage. Because I was already an old man in a young man’s world, I developed an early resentment and disdain for racing. In my mind, and in the sailing mags of the time, sailing was all about young, over-pected deck apes (sacrificial lambs?) prancing about and swooping up all available nubiles.

It was, therefore, with a sense high delight that I ran across a curious fellow named Murray Davis who endeared himself to me since he agreed with all of my personal prejudices. I had already decided that the sailing life was more a matter of spirit and patience than of muscle and speed, and the appearance of Cruising World suddenly justified my general contrariness and confirmed my persona as a sailor. I had found a venue.

Beth A. Leonard: Our first trip from 1992 to 1995 was an Atlantic circle and then a “tropical milk run,” a westabout circumnavigation via the Panama Canal, Torres Straits, and South Africa. When we left corporate life and went sailing, we had been living a very extreme, intense life as international management consultants working with top management of Fortune 500 companies. We worked 70-hour weeks, stayed in five-star hotels, ate in world-class restaurants, and jetted around the United States and Europe. But we were drifting away from friends and family and even from each other, and losing touch with things we had valued. We wanted a life as completely opposite to all that as we could find, but we recognized that we were too goal-oriented and driven to drift around from place to place without some sort of a specific challenge. Circumnavigating gave us a clear goal and a clear end date. We both thought we’d be finished with sailing after that and go back to the “real world” in some different capacity.

Instead, we got hooked on the vividness and intensity of the cruising life and found we no longer fit when we tried to go back to suburban America. We missed the highs and the lows of life on a boat, the close-knit sailing community that was always there when we needed it, and the joy of learning about new cultures and meeting new peoples. The things about ourselves we had come to most like and respect during three years of cruising–like our self-sufficiency and independence on the boat, the small amount of resources we used when cruising, how we worked as a team and how we thought about the world–seemed the hardest to hold on to ashore. Within a few months we decided we wanted to sail away again, but this time we wanted to explore areas like those we had most enjoyed on our circumnavigation –not the tropics, but New Zealand, South Africa, the Azores. We were drawn in particular to the Chilean channels, which we had heard about from a few people we had met who had cruised there. Sailing in an area where glaciers calve right into the sea, a remote and rugged area where humans have barely
left their mark, amidst all sorts of wildlife, was very appealing to us.

That meant we wanted a boat designed for the high latitudes, and it took us four years to build that boat. But it also meant we needed to build the skills to sail there, skills we didn’t acquire during our circumnavigation. So we spent the first two years after we left aboard the new boat in 1999 sailing the North Atlantic and learning to deal with big tides, strong currents, cold weather, ice navigation, and gale-force winds before heading down the length of the Atlantic for the Beagle Channel. Our second trip has been a high latitude tour from above the Arctic Circle to below Cape Horn including large stretches of the Southern Ocean.

Dave Martin: Jaja and I have been cruising together since 1988. When we met I was three months into a solo circumnavigation aboard my Cal 25, Direction. I wasn’t looking for a “crewmate,” nor was Jaja looking for a boyfriend. The best things in life are discovered when you aren’t looking for them. More about children later. Jaja had been traveling from country to country for three years, teaching sailing for a major hotel. Although she knew all about small boats like Hobie Cats, Laser, and 470s, Jaja had never been on a cruising boat. The first time she saw 25-foot Direction , she was amazed. “Wow!” she exclaimed. “It’s so roomy inside! There are beds, a sink, a toilet, and a stove. This is great!”

Needless to say, I was careful not to let her go aboard larger boats until we were married. Anyway, what began as a winter cruise in Virgin Islands in 1988 evolved into a voyage around the world where we’ve raised our three kids and made going places a preferred lifestyle.

Thies Matzen: It started the moment my 3-year-old eyes met the 99-year-old eyes of my great-grandfather??and never forgot them. He was a South Seas captain and later harbormaster of Apia, Samoa, for nearly 30 years, both sides of 1900. He had been in charge of boats that had sailed far. So had my grandfathers, as professionals and as amateurs. One of them doubled the Horn, first under sail, then later under steam. Apart from my early cruises in dinghies and a self-built clinker double-ender on the Baltic, which is a sea, I started to cross oceans in 1978. In pre-Satnav times, a good hand on the sextant was always in demand, which helped me en route to my forebears’ home, Samoa. I have lived and cruised aboard Wanderer III since 1981.

Kicki Ericson: I met Thies in June 1989 while doing historic-preservation architecture on St. Croix, U.S.V.I. I had never realized people lived on sailboats; I had never sailed. In June 1990, I moved aboard Wanderer III with whatever would fit into the 15- by 18- by 24-inch locker Thies emptied for me. I took to the lifestyle like a fish to water, hampered only by seasickness.

Annie Hill: I first set foot on a sailing boat in 1973, when my boyfriend showed me the catamaran that he was building, and my first sail was just after she was launched. Stormalong had no engine, and we sailed out of a narrow river in England’s Morecambe Bay, with 35-foot tides and 5-knot tidal streams.

The destination was another river where we’d laid a mooring, and because of the time of the tides, part of the passage was at night. My second trip was a 110-mile passage, again overnight. The next year we sailed across the Atlantic to the West Indies. Apart from a couple years, I’ve lived on boats ever since.

Mimi and Dan Dyer: We started cruising on our honeymoon??a Maine coast bareboat charter. Our third day out, we anchored off North Haven in a blow, following which a summer resident rowed out, asked where we were from and did we need anything. Mimi was down below, new at cruising, lamenting a bad hair day. Dan replied: “I’m Dan Dyer, we’re from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and my wife needs a bath.” Many bad hair days later, we did a six-year circumnavigation, from 1973-79. We hope to cruise until we drop. Cruisin’ is livin’!

We sailed from Detroit to Japan, then continued westabout and back to the East Coast. Dan had been in Japan courtesy of the U.S. military and had fallen in love with the country, promised himself that he would return one day on his own boat.

Joe Minick: The cruising I have done over the last 42 years would never have been attempted or even possible with out my sailing and lifetime partner, my wife Lee. Her role is little different from that of countless other cruising ladies that make up the many cruising couples that we have met along the way, but no less vital. Wives and sailing partners are fully half and sometimes even more of the cruising equation, and I cannot relate my own experiences without constantly referring to “we” and “us” along the way.

While our passage through the halls of cruising under sail hasn’t been anything like as adventuresome as that of many folks who have made a name for themselves in the cruising fraternity, it seems to be more typical of the average cruising couple we meet along the way in all kinds of out-of-the-way places.  We both began our sailing experience in the early 1960s getting bashed about in Mercurys and Comets while living in Honolulu. Cruising didn’t really start until a few years later when we moved to the Annapolis and started cruising as a family of four aboard a Tartan 27 named Leah.

While confined to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, we learned many of the skills we would need along the way in years to come. When a move to San Francisco became a necessity, we purchased an Ericson 41 named Altum Mare that became the family cruiser for the next 18 years. Although limited by the constraints of family and career, we expanded our horizons to coastal cruising and truly broadened our horizons and skills as we experienced the wonders of the West coast: big winds and waves, plus fog, cold water, and lots of rock. For several years we made six-week excursions to the southern coast and the Channel Islands, then spent days on end tacking west against a two-knot current and the prevailing westerlies to claw our way back to San Francisco. Once again, a move to Annapolis took us and Altum Mare to the East coast where we continued coastal cruising ranging from Maine to the Bahamas, but time constraints still confined us to along-shore passagemaking.

As retirement approached, the opportunity to really “go cruising” arrived, and we purchased Southern Cross, our Mason 43, and spent three years refitting her for extended cruising. During this time we sold the house and moved aboard, continuing our coastal trips now covering even larger distances as we worked out the kinks along the way. Within a month of retirement, we set out across the Atlantic and now almost three years later don’t foresee any end to our cruising experience for many years to come.

Alvah Simon: I began cruising in 1976 onboard a local fishing sloop in Belize.  I have lived aboard and cruised with fortunately few interruptions for the past 28 years. With a change of boats, I did a westabout circumnavigation that lasted 13 years, always seeking remote areas and intact indigenous cultures. This included the Caribbean, Central America, Oceania, South East Asia, the Indian Ocean, Southern Africa, South America, Cape Horn, and the closing of the loop in Key West. In pursuit of this interest in native people and raw adventure, we changed boats again and spent several years planning and executing a High Arctic expedition. We have since cruised the Caribbean, South Pacific, and are now in New Zealand planning a probe up the Kamchatka peninsula of Siberia.

(to be continued)

We Just Kept Going: an Oral History of the Cruising Life
By Elaine Lembo and Tim Murphy
(published by Cruising World 10-Sep-2004)


2 comments on “* Why people take to the sea in small boats – part 1 of 4

  1. Rosalind Zona Libre
    February 22, 2010

    Thank you very much for your help, this has been a great respite from the books,


  2. orlando seo
    June 26, 2010

    Thanks for this post! But, I had a difficult time viewing this article in Internet Explorer 8. Just wanted to bring that to your attention! Thanks.


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This entry was posted on January 27, 2010 by in Sailing and tagged , , , , , .
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