Photo: DisobeyArt/Shutterstock

5 Things You Learn About Yourself Living on a Boat

by Emma Thieme Apr 1, 2014

When your friend asks you to spend a winter with him, living on his 27ft Bristol and sailing through the Grenadine Islands in the Southern Caribbean, it doesn’t matter if you’ve barely paddled a canoe and an irrational fear of sharks keeps you out of most lakes. The answer to the question is yes.

So a month later, when you find yourself in the middle of the Atlantic with no land in sight, 50 nautical miles from where you started, heading into 13-knot winds and an approaching rainstorm, you might be clinging to the safety lines and trying not to vomit again. Your brain might feel like it’s bouncing around in an empty PBR can. Peering down into the cabin for escape might feel like peering down into the satanic depths of your own personal K-hole.

You’ll want to go home. To return to your long johns and your entire wheel of Brie, to your beanbag chair and your HBO Go account.

But boat life is a challenge and a long haul. Your only chance of escape is to stay put, to allow yourself to be weathered by the elements, the lack of rules, and the freedom. You’ll have to decide: Do I sail or do I sink?

And if you sail, you’ll learn.

1. Showers aren’t necessary.

It might be days before you notice that your cuticles have ripped down to your knuckles. Your skin is literally disintegrating from the lack of fresh water.

But you’re living on a boat in the Caribbean! You’re swimming every day! You’re reading three books a week! You’re choreographing an entire synchronized-swimming routine. And it’s Olympic quality! You don’t give a shit about how you smell. You’re busy.

Living on a boat allows you to let minor issues like cleanliness fall by the wayside. Maybe once a month, a torrential downpour will hit and you’ll grab some Dr. Bronner’s, get naked, and have a little baby Jesus shower on deck. There’s no such thing as ‘body shy.’ Look around. Every self-respecting boat person is doing it. And at this point, you’ve seen one too many 70-year-old, retired-expat penises to care. So scrub-a-dub-dub.

2. People living on land have a bathroom. You have the open ocean.

If you haven’t stepped into a shower stall in weeks, your ass probably hasn’t cozied onto a toilet seat in awhile either.

Sure, most boats will have heads. They’ll have odd pumping or pulling or sliding contraptions. And you’ll have to warn every snorkeler in a half-mile radius if you’re gonna deuce it because it might land on their head while they’re investigating some coral.

But you’re coasting in on the smallest lady in the harbor, and she doesn’t have much space to spare below deck. So it’s over the railing, sweetheart.

Boat life is personal, not always socially acceptable. And after a while you might start to enjoy your new habit of cutting out the middleman. The ocean is your own personal bidet! It might feel a little too fancy sometimes.

You’ll proudly make up a song with your captain that goes, “You go in the morning / I go at night / Society says it’s wrong / But to us it feels right.” And because you have nothing else to do, you’ll actually develop that song with more lyrics and perform it acoustically in front of your boat neighbors.

“Why does anyone use a toilet ever?” you’ll ask yourself aloud on an eight-hour sail to Bequia, as you brace yourself on a cleat and tinkle over the side. (The key to peeing while underway is to brace, squat, and lean with the boat. And to have a spotter. Always have a spotter.)

3. Boat life doesn’t always make you cool in real life.

You’re waking up every morning to the sun shining through the forward hatch. You’re free diving down to 16ft to make sure the anchor is secure. You’re rowing Rosie the rowboat a mile into shore every goddam day for ‘provisions.’ You might think this trip is making you pretty fucking cool. You’re probably wrong.

Just because you picked up an old beater guitar in Saint Lucia and stumbled through the first few chords of “Wish You Were Here” does not mean you’re going to be the next singer/songwriter back in the States. Just because you started a band with you, your captain, and that guy on the Oyster 29 across the way, and you called it Caribbean Stew for the Sailor’s Soul, and you got pretty bossy last Tuesday night at band practice, does not mean you guys are going to sign a record deal.

Get that through your head. Before you make the mistake of buying a drum, custom made from the trunk of a coconut tree and stretched with a real goatskin. And you’ve used that drum to pitter-patter along with a circle on Union Island, which has led you to believe that drumming is now your ‘thing.’

So you carry your 18lb drum through five flights back home, and you immediately bring it to a party. Only to realize the hard way that you’ve been playing “We Will Rock You” this whole time. Don’t let yourself make that mistake. It’s incredibly disappointing.

4. Boat life is a simple life.

Your daily schedule might sound like this: Wake up and lay around for 45 minutes. Eat a mango. Swim for a second. Float on your blowup donkey thing. Sample some marijuana. Attempt one pull-up over the railing. Fail. Think about what your life might be like if you had toned arms. Eat some variation of beans and rice. And so on and so on for all of eternity.

Before long, boat life will have you questioning why land life even exists. Why can’t we all just Waterworld it out here?

Back home on land, you have a schedule. You have a phone that rings. You have to answer people and tell them what you’re doing.

“I’m just sitting. Staring at my geranium plant,” you might say.

“Well, why?” they might say.

And then you have to come up with an answer for them. It’s all very annoying. Boat life doesn’t present those conversations. To get through a day on a boat, you just have to solve the basic riddles of survival.

How am I going to get myself to shore to buy a popsicle? I’m going to row my rowboat.

When am I going to sail to Grenada? In two days when the wind has died down to 5 knots.

How am I going to kill this bluefin tuna that I caught? I’m going to hit it over the head with my wench handle. Then I’m going to eat it.

5. You’re stronger than you know.

Now that you’ve spent your winter on a very small boat, living a very primitive and basic life, you’ll return home a happier and more resourceful person. As you jumped from island to island, inspiration followed you. You were greeted every day with the open arms of island culture, each community different and inviting and eager to welcome you.

You’re now a person in perpetual motion. You’ve learned how to maneuver the bow of a boat underway, how to use your weight to hoist her sails and secure her lines, and how to proudly sail onto anchor when everyone else is motoring in.

And in the middle of the night, in the middle of the ocean, thousands of miles from home, you allowed yourself to be rocked into a peaceful sleep under the stars.

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