We are counting down the tasks and days until we leave the ease of marina life and head out towards Mexico and beyond. Sometimes the tasks tick off quickly, more often the days do, but we chip away as best we can. We still are leaving time to see friends and to cement connections with those we plan to see later in Mexico. But we are still not too busy to think about what is the Sailing Life?
During a boat happy hour the other day we cursed the general trend of cold San Francisco wind that usually forces us indoor for happy hour. But on parting my friend noted that even still, this life is better than any other. “This is the best way to live; outside so much and simple living”, she averred, and I agreed. I mean we’ve sold up and given away everything else, it better be the best for us!
But then I read an article by Jeremy Hobson stating that the year you retire is the most dangerous year of your life aside from the year you are born. They mean statistically, because obviously the year you die turns out to be the most dangerous, but apparently statistically lots of people die the year they retire. I thought this was anecdotal, an urban myth: “my friend’s grandfather died six months after he retired” kind of thing. This guy asserts it is literally true. I found this hard to believe so I read on.
He explains that there are four factors that make life worth living, and that those four are interrupted or eliminated when we retire. But as he defined those four factors, why they are important, and why retirement interferes with them, I realized that what he meant by retirement and what I mean by it are completely different. In fact the way I define a sailing retirement is actually the antithesis of his definition of retirement; a sailing retirement in fact combines the best of the working life and the retired life.
So, using his four factors, why is sailing away the best thing you can do for yourself?
Structure: just the right amount
Hobson defines structure as “the reason to get out of bed in the morning”. While true that work provides this structure for most of us for most of our lives, we all know that it’s not necessary to be paid to have things we want to get done. For years I took skiing vacations that required I get up early each day on vacation to get out there on the slopes. I was excited, the payoff for getting out of bed was clear.
For live-aboard sailors the list of things to do can get depressing, but in general we love the variety and necessity of the things we have to do to live on the boat. So much of what we did for pay was of dubious value. Additionally, at least for me, nothing kills the joy of a job well done than to see it thrown away by bosses because of a change in direction. Yes, of course there is spiritual value in mundane work – it’s important and we should value what we do to take care of ourselves, our loved ones, and our environment. But this mundane work, as we all know, can get overwhelming when there is too much of it or it competes for time with the few minutes of relaxation left after the work day. Having a small “house” certainly helps keep the mundane demands low, as do simple clothing and simple healthy meals.
Most days we have great reasons to get out of bed and greet the day. There is the work of keeping our life together, and the wonderful outdoor things to do when we’re not working. Or the excitement of travel and visiting foreign lands.
We also have the flexibility, when not underway, of deciding TO stay in bed. And we don’t have to call in faking a cold. We just decide the world can wait a bit while we enjoy snuggling or reading. So cruising gives us plentiful reasons to get up but no marine-sergeant alarm clock demanding we get up NOW. That’s quality of life.
Closely related to Structure is Stimulation. Structure, having things that have to get done, is debilitating when all available time is taken, when the work seems inessential, or when it is rote work with no learning or creativity. It is this human need for learning and creativity that Hobson calls Stimulation. The combination of “stuff to be done” and “interesting things to solve” is wonderful. I think it keeps us young, it keeps us positive, it makes us feel valued and valuable. And I believe that the closer your lifestyle is to reality, to physical necessity, the easier it is to find this joy. Especially when the solution needs to work, but only needs to please you, not a boss. An example: we needed storage near the bed. I created a crazy, imperfect wall hanging with pockets for the things we wanted while in bed. It solved a problem, gave me lots of room for problem solving and creativity, but it only had to satisfy me, not some client. Perfect stimulation. If I had just had to design something for some hypothetical client and never built it, the satisfaction would be less real.
Although there is a fair amount of the “chop wood carry water” kind of work on a boat – dishes, cleaning, laundry – and generally requiring more work than on land where there are machines to help – there is also a great deal of creative work, problem-solving work. It is the creative and learning work that really makes life interesting and the huge rack of technical books on most boats shows us there is plenty of scope here, a life-time of learning available.
A typical day during voyage preparation or cruising involves work. There is the mundane work as mentioned above and then there is The List. The List includes changes, fixes, maintenance and testing of the boat systems. On a typical day I might design and sew a storage bag for the dinghy parts, or troubleshoot an issue on the computer navigation. Jon might solve an engine issue, change the oil, run some new wires or build a cockpit table. We enjoy this work (mostly!) and certainly enjoy the variety of work. When you have a job you probably hire someone to fix things because you don’t have time to figure out that system. On a boat we (eventually) relish the new things that come our way. Learning is Stimulation. New things crossing our paths is Stimulation. Life aboard is full of Stimulation. Sometimes too much, but let’s not quibble!
Hobson points out that much of our social connection revolves around our jobs. I think this is because our life all too often revolves around our paid work, instead of around our true life. I loved my work, it was stimulating and creative, mostly, but it took all my time and was not really under my control, even after I became the boss. I confused work with my real life, and I admit to years in which it was hard to remember what I would do for fun if I had time. But yes, I did lose lots of casual relationships when I stopped showing up for work. Some, I believe, will be friends for life but most were just sparks of brightness that I enjoyed running into but for whatever reason did not commit to and now may never see again.
Cruising is also full of friends that you lose, or risk losing, every time you leave a harbor for the next horizon. Some of those people we meet again and again as their paths erratically cross ours. But just like the dear friends from college that I may never see again but would welcome the chance to be with again, some cruising friends are valued long after you can spend time together. What is unusual about sailing, but similar to living with small kids in a kid-oriented neighborhood or working in a friendly job, is how easy it is to make new friends. You have already declared an interest in an activity that few do – this creates a quick bond and hours of conversational material. Even I, the avowed introvert who sometimes prefers to hide in the aft cabin reading, or quietly sewing in the salon, even I make friends with sailors faster than I ever did at work. My gregarious husband helps, but I love to talk about sailing with other sailors – and that shared interests creates easy friendships.
Story is the sense of being part of something bigger than yourself. Hobson says, believably, that this is part of what human happiness requires. This can happen through work, or any kind of teamwork, but taking on the seas, living closely to nature, traveling the world and meeting new people in unfamiliar cultures – this is a big story that feeds us and sustains us in a larger way than most jobs can. We live day to day knowing that each day’s work is part of something bigger. We have a goal, however fuzzy in the details, that gives us a focus and energy. We know why we’re here and we are moving together in our story. Story may be missing in a poorly-planned retirement, but it is not missing in the cruising life.
In short I think our good author maligns retirement by confusing it with poorly-planned retirement. You wouldn’t choose a career without thinking about what you need, I think it is a first-world mistake to think retiring is a thing in itself rather than just the lack of work. The vibrant 80-somethings I know are vibrant because they know what they enjoy and value and pursue it with the skills and perseverance that they also exhibited during their work lives. Those happy in retirement have SOMETHING they long to do – travel, or volunteer work, or getting out in nature. Do you know what you long to do?
For years now, when I meet someone entering or preparing for retirement I have asked them “what are you going to do”? All too often I get a deer-in-the-headlights look and a mumbled “well, we want to see more of the kids. And well, there’s a sewing class I was thinking about…” They haven’t thought about this increasingly lengthy part of our lives because we sell retirement as a thing in itself when it’s not really, it’s just permission and time to pursue the thing we love. But you gotta love something. For those who love cruising, this lifestyle makes it easy to give retirement a purpose.
Sailing Life is Living Life
I like Hobson’s factors of Structure, Stimulation, Social, and Story. I do think these are important to feeling fulfilled in our lives. Sailing gives us these, as does any vital activity, whether or not we are retired. Retired just gives us more time to pursue what we value, as long as we have discovered what it is we value.
Any you, my dear readers, does cruising provide you with a canvas to paint as you wish, or do you find yourself mired in the work of it? Do you find yourself more or less connected to your life cruising compared to work?