Sunday, July 15, 2012

Small-Space Living ... Afloat

So, CNN (!!) is developing a piece on small space living and they asked for contributions from people who live in less than 500 square feet.  I'd been wanting to write about what downsizers could learn from our living aboard experiences for some time anyway, I just needed a push.  Below is a slightly modified version of my very first submission for them.  The CNN version is here; the version in this blog has more photos than I was able to include for CNN, and here I was able to include captions with the photos.

Imagine downsizing to the point where everything you own now fits in the cabinets of the average kitchen.  Everything – not just your pots and pans and dishes and canned food and boxes of breakfast cereal, but also your hiking boots and tools and guest towels and computer printer and winter sweaters.  That was the challenge we faced when we moved from a 3-bedroom house to a 33-foot sailboat, 10 years ago.

The main salon in its everyday configuration
Our space is tiny – the main cabin is roughly 9 feet by 12 feet (about the size of a small bedroom) yet we have everything we need: a place to socialize with friends, a place to cook, a place to sit and think, a place to sleep.  Many people ask how living in such a tiny space affects our marriage, do we get on each other’s nerves?  Actually, the closeness has made our already solid marriage better, we’re more in tune with each other.  Perforce, communication is better and we know what each other is thinking without need for words, now. There’s no physical privacy but we give each other what we call virtual privacy. You can't really get away from each other but you can have enough respect for mental space - no shoulder-surfing, reading each others rough drafts without permission, commenting on overheard cellphone conversations or (*bathroom noises*) etc etc.  And if we really need space, well, we have the whole outdoors to escape to.  Having fewer things to take care of – no lawn to mow! No leaves in the rain gutters! – lets us spend a lot more time playing, and the financial benefits of living more simply and far less expensively than we did on land also takes away one more source of marital stress.

The actual downsizing process was very emotionally draining.  Packing up souvenirs of places we had visited was weirdly disorienting.  I felt rootless, as though I was losing my history.  A few special things, the quilt his grandmother made for us when we were married; my mother’s favorite crystal vase, are stored with good friends; the sofa was just a sofa and we sold it at a garage sale for $45. We even sold the silver goblets we used to toast each other at our wedding.  I told the buyer that as long as I had Dan, I didn’t need the goblets as a reminder, and if I didn’t have him, then the goblets would only make me sad.  (Besides, I wasn’t that crazy about the way wine tastes in metal.)

How did we decide what to keep?  Anything that would keep us safe at sea or at anchor came first, then tools to help maintain our boat, then “everything else.”  Going digital has helped with space constraints, as we scanned photo albums, moved our music to an ipod, and turned our cookbook collection into tidy computer files.  Things that we brought fit two categories.  They had to be useful or necessary; or they had to enhance our lives, which they could do by being beautiful, or making us smile, or making us comfortable or happy.  Ideally, our things would fit both of these categories at the same time, by being functional AND beautiful.  Owning fewer things, and no longer indulging in “recreational shopping” (where would we put whatever we bought?) means we can afford to invest in better quality for the few things we do buy. Wherever possible we chose things that serve two or more purposes.  I don’t have one of those fancy hard-boiled egg slicer gizmos that slices eggs perfectly but does nothing else, or a bagel-slicing machine, instead I have a good chef’s knife that can do a variety of chores.  And the “bolsters” on the settees aren’t filled with foam; they are actually stuff sacks that store our off-season clothes.  Even the furniture does double duty as the settee folds out to become a double bed and the coffee table leaves fold out to accommodate dinner for four.  At the same time, sorting through our possessions, separating what we had to have from what was nice to have, brought our priorities into clear focus.  The most important things in life take no space to store and never need dusting.  We have come to value friends, experiences, memories, knowledge more than things.

The main salon again, with the table leaves extended 

Table leaves closed again, settee folded out to make a cozy double bed
The galley is about 5 feet x 5 feet.  The fridge and freezer are both chest-type top loaders, just below the spice rack.  The range is mounted on gimbals so it can swing to stay level when at sea.  

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Business 101 – Why it’s important that employees understand the big picture

We hauled the boat out of the water yesterday to try this new copper bottom paint that everyone’s raving about. Like every haulout we’ve ever done, I’m sure it will be an eventful project.  And the adventures began before we  even got out of the water.

The marina staff has never used this material before so they really wanted to do it right.   (Of course, we want that too!)  The guys who would actually take our boat out of the water and block it up on land, knew that we were living aboard and hence wanted to put us in the most comfortable place for easy living, close to all the marina amenities (thanx, guys!)  Meanwhile, the guy who was actually going to put the paint on, wanted us in the most isolated out-of-the-way place possible to minimize the chance of dust or spray messing up his work and give us the best job possible (thank you, too!)  – which was of course the exact opposite of the place the first crew had in mind.  And neither had explained to the other the rationale behind where they wanted to locate the boat, which ended up in a bit of a shouting match - "Here!" "No, there!" "No no no, over yonder!"  In a weird way, I was very very flattered – it felt like we were more like marina family, in front of whom you’re allowed to squabble, and less like we were a marina customer in front of whom you have to maintain a professional demeanor.  And it was all predicated on each of them trying to do the very best they could for us, in their own sphere of influence, and understanding only part of the big picture.  And just like in a classic business story, as soon as everyone understood the whole project and each other’s priorities, the solution became apparent, and we’re in a place that’s both quiet and comfortable, away from traffic but close to … not the marina amenities, but the amenities for the party pavilion at the far corner of the marina.  Best of both worlds!

Chicken or Egg, Sailor or Traveler? (Addendum)

This way? or That way?

So, early in the blog hopJane asked if we’d take a stand on the question of whether we’re sailors first, who like to travel, or travelers who like to sail.  I really thought the two evolved together for us, as I wrote a few days ago.  But the question also generated a lovely long conversation with Dan in the cockpit as I was refining the first draft of my blog post.  Because although I agonized back and forth about “why” we were doing this cruising thing -- was it to fill our desire to travel or give us lots of opportunities to indulge our love for sailing -- Dan had no such uncertainty.  “Well, travel, of course!” he said.  The quickness and positiveness of his answer surprised me because of the difficulty I had coming to a conclusion, or maybe underscored that it was a distinction that made no difference to me.

I realized in the course of that conversation that he was right – travel was the most important thing for me as well, and he saw it in me before I did.  That’s the wonderful thing about living in a tiny space with someone for 10 years.  If you don’t drive each other crazy and split up, you end up knowing each other better than you know yourself.   

So okay, travel it is.  Compared to travel by more conventional means, car or train or plane (read: “travel by faster means”) the boat has all the advantages I mentioned in my previous post: it is the only way we can afford to stay long enough to get a deep understanding of a place once we get there; and our story and lifestyle is a never-fail way of starting a conversation with almost anyone.  But the other thing I realized when we got to talking is that I’m fascinated with small-space living and I just flat-out like being on the boat.  Even tied to a mooring and not going anywhere for the entire weekend.  Neither sailing, nor traveling.  Just sitting, thinking, watching the world go by, watching the water or the sunset or the birds, not doing anything, just ... being

Chicken? Or Egg?

Just peeking through the tropical vegetation, Cinderella at anchor in the Bahamas. Is it all about the travel?
En route to Oxford, MD on a light air day, Dan wonders if he can tweak and extra tenth of a knot  by adjusting the sail trim.  Is it all about the sailing?

Some people we know who are currently cruising got their start because they love to sail, and the travel was just a side note.  Others love to travel, and getting there by sail was a practical solution.  Are you a sailor or a traveler?  There’s a bloghop on this topic this month, a dozen or so of us cruising bloggers (or blogging cruisers) are posting on the same topic so you can see the range of their various viewpoints.

For me, the question of whether the sailing or the traveling came first is exactly equivalent to whether the chicken came first or the egg; or whether it’s about the journey or the destination.   You just can't know; its both and neither. I’ve written before about “how” we got into sailing.  How Dan used to have a kitchen & bath remodel business, and a client asked him to redo the countertops in his sailboat galley (just another kitchen, right?) and then after the job was complete the client took us for a short afternoon sail that got the Kansas farmboy totally hooked, sailing for the first time ever in his life in his late 40s.  That led to a one-week liveaboard/learn-to-sail charter in the Virgin Islands, which led to us buying our own first sailboat a year later.  (I refer to this as the single most expensive – for us (!!) – kitchen remodel job Dan ever did.)    And about how the love of wide open spaces, and patience, and self-reliance, and being in touch with nature, isn’t really all that different whether it's framed by a Kansas wheatfield horizon or blue ocean horizon.  And how, when we were transferred from Michigan to agency headquarters near Washington, D.C., we decided to move aboard the boat at least partly for financial reasons – the monthly mortgage payment that let us have a 3 bedroom waterfront house near Lansing would barely pay the rent on a studio apartment near my new office.  I’ve talked about the semi-accidental nature of “how” we got where we are, but never about the “why.”  So.  Chicken?  Or egg?

The chicken came first:  When we were first married, we lived in Colorado and spent nearly all our weekends enjoying the great Rocky Mountain outdoors – backpacking and canoeing, (inefficiently, we alternated these activities so that every Thursday evening was spent unpacking and repacking gear).  Winter weekends were spent cross-country skiing.  Weekday evenings were spent planning our next trip.  There is of course a common theme to these activities: they’re all about quiet transportation in its various forms, as opposed to, say, hobbies like organized sports or arts and crafts.  And they are all about a love of nature and relative solitude.  So sailing seems to be just one more kind of transportation for us to play with, an obvious extension of what we like to do.   And from there, the progression to living aboard full time and cruising seems equally obvious. 

The egg came first:  Long before we met, we were travelers.  First with our families, as kids and young adults.  Then, in Dan’s case, courtesy of Uncle Sam in the Army.  In mine, jaunts to Singapore, Jerusalem, Thailand, Venezuela.  Sleeping on the beach, using my backpack for a pillow.  After we were married, whenever either of us had a business trip, the other would try to come along.  We’d tack a day or two onto the trip for side excursions to big cities (Seattle, Phoenix, Albuquerque) but also small towns and quirky parts of the US (Billings, MT? Centennial, WY? )  

The boat aspect enhances the traveling:  Despite their vacation trips and Army stints, all 4 of our parents lived their lives within 50 miles of the places they were born.  We, on the other hand, counted 23 moves between us after graduating from college.  Maybe it’s generational, maybe it’s restlessness, maybe it’s just the nature of our careers.  What we learned from those moves is that we like to visit fewer places, more deeply.  Stay long enough to really understand what makes a place special, what unique solutions the people who live there have discovered to ease the problems of everyday living.  Traveling by boat gives us the platform for that travel in a way no other kind of transportation could offer.  It lets us visit places literally “without leaving the comforts of home” because our home, turtle-like, comes with us.  It lets us visit these places on a budget.  And, when we’re tired of cities and civilization and people, it lets us get away and recharge close to nature.  (Sometimes, during storms, a little too close, as “nature” splashes over the deck or whistles in the rigging!) My absolutely favorite benefit of boat travel, though, was completely unexpected.  Explaining that we live this quirky life is a never-fail conversation starter with just about everyone we meet, whether they’re other cruisers or total landlubbers, travelers by more conventional means or homebodies. 

The travel aspect enhances the boating:  Sometimes it’s fantastically mind-clearing to just take the boat away from the dock and dance on the breeze above the sparkling blue water, then come back home a few hours later.  At the same time, I can be pretty goal-oriented in life.  (This characteristic can be referred to as “determined” or “stubborn” depending on whether I’m being agreeable or grumpy about it.)  But I’d probably not sail in uncomfortable conditions, or lose sleep sailing at night, if I didn’t have a destination to get to.  Having a destination and the constraints of tides and currents and other factors, has forced us to push our comfort zone, which in turn has made us better sailors, which therefore makes the sailing more fun, which allows us to consider bolder destinations, and round and round.  What’s the opposite of a vicious circle that spirals down and self-perpetuates? An expanding circle, that grows and improves and self-perpetuates? Kinda like chickens and eggs.  We’re not really sure which came first, but now that we have both, they just keep on circling.
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The RAFT-UP  schedule:


Add us to the ranks of Washingtonians who learned a new word last week.  For those who might have missed it [insert sarcastic face here; I don’t know how you could have missed it if you’re local; even my friend Krissie as far away as western Australia, read about it], we experienced a derecho windstorm – thunderstorms with near hurricane-force winds that came on us with little warning.  They didn’t last very long here, only about 10 minutes for the worst of it, but those 10 minutes left an amazing amount of destruction.  Five days later, there are still a lot of people without power, and my Facebook feed is filled with pictures of LARGE downed tree limbs – the scariest pix show those limbs crushing cars or buildings.

So what was it like to experience this storm on the boat?  Surprisingly, relatively easy.  We saw the line of storms approaching on weather radar and Dan went outside to adjust the docklines. The first strong gust heeled us hard to port, and despite the dockline adjustment, we touched the pilings on the downwind side of the slip with a loud creak.  The heel was no steeper than had we been sailing…except, hey! we’re tied up in a slip, sheltered in a marina, not at sea!   Ten minutes of creaking docklines and snapping canvas, and then it was over.  The water returned to calm and the boat was flat again, and our little world was quiet except for the sound of light rain.

The aftermath of the storm was relatively easy as well.  In general, life on the boat is a little more complicated than life on land, as we have to be ever-mindful of providing our own utilities, and power and water and space are all limited.  Now, though, the same strategies that work for us providing our own power and communications at sea or at anchor – “off the grid” – worked after the storm.  Much of the damage in town came from falling tree limbs.  We didn’t have that issue -- there are no trees out here to fall on boats.  Had power gone out, well, we’re used to making our own power, in our case from solar.  A friend commented that she was hanging out in the bathroom at Nordstrom’s to charge her cellphone; we power all our devices with car-type 12-volt chargers which ultimately get their power from our ship’s batteries and those in turn from the solar panels.  Annapolis’ water plant was running on backup generator power and asked people to conserve water for the first couple of days after the storm; we generally have 2-3 weeks supply of water in our tanks so again we were well set.  And was it just in my last post that I talked about how we keep cool?

Hoping most of you have recovered from the storm’s damage now, and thinking of those that are still working.
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How Do We Beat The Heat?

The sky is more whitish than blue, and the sun is more glaring than shining.  We're experiencing the dreaded HHH (hazy, hot, humid) weather of Washington summertime, with temps in the upper 90s for the next several days.  Dan loves summer warmth, but this is definitely too much of a good thing!

So how do we keep our cool on the boat? 

You'd think we were in the ideal place to keep cool in summer.  After all, what's the first thing you think of for a hot sunny day?  Going to the beach, right?  And we basically are already there since we live on the water all the time.  For much of the summer, we do in fact have it better than folks who live in the city.  Temperatures are a little bit cooler here at the shore than in the concrete jungle of downtown D.C., of course, and there's nothing to block the light breezes that the Chesapeake in summertime is famous for.  So when it's "sorta hot" out, our favorite strategy is to get away from the dock and swing gently at anchor somewhere peaceful.   That, of course, and many pitchers of iced tea or lemonade.

But when it's this hot, with 14-plus hours of sunlight beating down on that fiberglass bubble we call home and outside temps of 95 degrees as I type this, the outdoors doesn't seem so appealing.  A house might be shaded by trees to keep it cooler in summer; obviously we don't have that option.  But we can - and do! - make our own shade by tenting over our boats. Some of the tents are elaborate custom-fit affairs, while others are more impromptu, and still others are downright lumpy; but all at least help to mitigate the solar gain for a boat at anchor while keeping the breezes.  

Some tents:
Quick and easy tent made from a tarp

The one on our boat was a hand-me-down from a bigger boat,  modified to fit (okay,sorta fit) us. 

A bit lumpy, but I suppose it works
 Boats, of course, can be air conditioned.  Boat air conditioning is a little different than land-based; it uses seawater for cooling instead of blowing hot air out the back, and is generally quite efficient.  Keeping air conditioning while at anchor, however, requires either a continuously-running generator, or a heckuva long extension cord.  For me, though, just like our friends with houses who are more comfortable staying indoors, I'd just as soon keep the boat at the dock, plugged in to shore power running the air conditioning.  

Today, though, we have tented over our boat and even with that assistance, the air conditioner is challenged to keep up.   I'm tempted to wait out the heat wave at the mall, but the best solution of all is the solution my friend Melissa has employed.  She's got her boat in northern Canada for the season.

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I owe you guys a photo of one of the custom boat awning tents I'm referring to; the boat I'd intended to photograph for this piece isn't in its slip right now.  I'll update when they come back or I find another example.  Meanwhile, stay cool, and thanx for reading!

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