We are often asked, “So, what do you do all day?”
Brochures produced by sailboat manufacturers advertise the dream of buying a boat and sailing into the sunset promising smooth seas and tropical cocktails in exotic ports. Owners are pictured with broad smiles and tanned bodies lounging about clean decks framed by perfectly varnished teak and expanses of gleaming fiberglass. While this idealized portrait of sailing is true in part, the reality is that long distance sailing is also a lot of work – a lot of work.
A land home is connected to reliable electricity that is produced miles away; fresh water piped in unlimited quantities; and sewage that disappears at the press of a button. We don’t have any of these conveniences. We have to generate our own electricity via solar panels, a wind generator and generators attached to our engines (should we run them). We store this electricity in large battery banks to power our refrigerator, two freezers, lighting, navigation instruments and myriad other devices onboard that require electricity to function.
Our fresh water is made via a very temperamental desalination system that pumps it out at the rate of 14 gallons per hour. The average land house consumes 100 gallons per day per person. We don’t have nearly enough electricity to run our desalination system long enough to deliver that much water, so we need to conserve. We never have the luxury of long hot showers onboard. On a sailboat, fresh water is turned on long enough to wet our bodies then turned off for soap to be lathered up, and only turned again long enough to rinse off. Face washing, tooth brushing, and dish cleaning is accomplished with the same efficiency. If we want to clean the outside of the boat, we wait for rain and run out of our cabin with a bucket of soapy water to scrub off the dirt and let Mother Nature wash it off. This activity would look crazy to any observers, except that the other boaters who would likely be in range to see our washing frenzy could be engaging in the same activity.
Human waste is pumped into tanks to be stored for time when our boat is offshore, and is then pumped overboard. Yes, these pumps need to be maintained, and electricity needs to be generated to power them. Prayers are directed in the direction of the forces that keep toilet lines from becoming clogged or dislodged. These primary systems are just the beginning - we also have a maze of wire used to power 12- and 24-DC, and 110 and 220-volt electrical systems that want to chafe and short.
Add radar, four VHF radios, a short wave radio for long distance communications, a satellite phone, three central air conditioning systems, inverters that turn the DC electricity from our batteries into AC current for the microwave and other AC appliances, bilge pumps, and…well, you get the idea… A cruising sailboat is a small, self-contained, self-sufficient city.
I could devote an entire column to the challenges of laundry and getting groceries in “developing” countries. Both are full-day activities, but much less interesting to me than boat maintenance and repair. I pretend to be interested long enough for my wife to feel that I am a full participant. It’s good husband stuff that I have an opportunity to practice in full captivity.
While at sea, boats take a beating, and keeping all this stuff running is a full-time job. Imagine that your house is picked up by a giant who shakes you like a snow globe that is filled with corrosive salt water that worms its way in to everything. That’s a boat. Things break frequently because they live a very hard life. The key to happiness on a boat, and to somewhat approach the idyllic portrait painted by the manufacturers brochures, is to be at peace with the fix-break-fix cycle and plan for it. We have installed backup systems for critical things like our autopilot, and we carry many replacement parts with us for gear that is likely to wear out or break. It is very hard or impossible to get replacement parts in the Third World countries we are often in, and flying them is extremely expensive and slow. We monitor key parts of our boat carefully, and if we suspect that something is not right, we try to service it before it breaks. We have learned the sounds each system makes, and when something is not right, we usually can hear it and address the issue before it becomes a problem.
The parallels to managing a business are so clear…address problems when they are small so that the odds of them becoming big and expensive problems are minimized. And, of course, business contingency and continuity plans are the equivalent of our spare parts and backup systems. So when the motorized device called a windless, which raises and lowers our anchor, started to sound labored as we were sailing south from Nova Scotia, we know something was wrong. A stop in a well-known boat yard in Cape Cod was supposed to fix the problem. Despite our concerns that it still did not sound right even after the repairs, only a few uses later, while we were in St. Thomas, it went from sounding wrong to being dead.
Fortunately the sailing community in the area came to our rescue. A friend who has a similar boat to ours lives on the island, and he had a car! He also knew of a repair person on the other side of the island in a very industrial boat yard that was once a U.S. submarine base. The facility is now used by a variety of marine businesses, including one that was able to fix our broken windless. And, in the tropics where everything takes forever to get done, he fixed it in one day, allowing us to make a critical weather departure window. Had it not been fixed that day we would likely have been pinned down by weather for several weeks, which would have necessitated a very expensive change in plans for friends that were visiting us in the next port for the holidays.
We are so grateful to have had access to transportation to get to his shop and that he made our repair a priority. I wish that we had more time to explore this fascinating old submarine base. It was a place far from the sanitized boat yards that we have spent all too much time in while in the U.S. To pass beyond the gate of the facility the yard required hard hats and closed soled shoes. My wife, Torie, was loaned both. She made quite a sight walking through this grimy yard, welders sparks flying about, in loaned shoes that were twice her size and a hard hat (at right). This is a very strange life!
We are grateful for both our friend and the service tech, also a boater, who came to our rescue. We also relearned a good lesson -- if it does not seem right, as did our windless post “repair” in Cape Cod, we needed to trust our instincts and keep working the problem until we were satisfied. I learned the same lesson in business years ago, and out here it applies even more. If it doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t.
Now with our anchor back in business, we can get back to some sailing and fixing other things that break. An old salts saying, “cruising is simply fixing your boat in exotic places,” has certainly been true for us! That said, I know that those of you who are reading this in cold and snowy climates will have little sympathy for us - we neither expect nor deserve any. For all of you, I pivot towards the north, lift this frosty cold beer and say, “Sorry!”
Rubin is a former association executive who gave it all up to sail around the world with his wife, Torie. This column chronicles their journey, as he relates his experiences to association management. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.