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The Beginning

How Did We Get Here Anyway?

Ardys' Perspective:
Before we left our beautiful city of Duluth, Minnesota and moved cross-country to Annapolis, Maryland--small U-Haul in tow,
there were many, many goodbyes to be said. During one 'farewell', we were told by a good friend (and fellow boat owner) that it would be of great interest to him to hear about how it was that we made this journey of decisions together.  How did we make the leap to leave our comfortable space in the world of home ownership on land to living entirely onboard a sailboat. To be clear, his comment was not viewed as an expression of incredulousness.  He was asking about the heart of the decision making process for us as a couple.  It was an extremely insightful question and one which I am happy to have been asked.  How did we, a couple with four adult children between us, with careers that we have enjoyed and found fulfilling, with longstanding connections in this community, with many good friends and each having extended family to leave behind--how did we get to that moment in time of saying, 'Okay, we're going to do this.'   
My feeling was that our friend already had a pretty good inkling about the "why" of the decision; he and his wife also have a "new to them" sailboat which they have been very excited about.  He understood that for us, this would be a decision that could not be easily undone--that we were leaving without having a physical home on land to return to if we found we didn't like living on the sailboat. This decision was a leap with both feet into a lifestyle change that involved committing ourselves financially, intellectually, socially and maritally.  

The topic of traveling around and living on the sailboat has been alive for several years, probably first appearing in 2002.  My husband first made noises about this by way of pointing out that a sailboat leaving the port of Duluth, just 600' below our home, could in fact, sail anywhere in the world.  As this was certainly a factual comment,  I would of course, agree, "Yup, a sailboat could do that."  That was as far as the discussion was ever going to go, as far as I was concerned.  Our first sailboat, a 30' Pearson, Sans Bruit was owned in partnership with another couple. (The reader may reference the post entitled, "The Case of the Bucking Tiller").

When that partnership ended after our two year contract, we were looking for another sailboat, and my husband pointed out that IF we were to EVER want to do some long distance sailing, it would behoove us to look for a boat that would accommodate us for that. Those was a big IF and EVER.  I could conceive of sailing for a few weeks at a time on Lake Superior, which we proceeded to do every year from 2004 to 2013--our summer vacations.  It was not a huge concession to agree that indeed it made sense to look for a boat that would accommodate longer cruises.  We are both quite tall people and three of our four children are ~6' tall.  Sans Bruit was snug for long people to sleep comfortably.  For cruising on Lake Superior, we would need to be prepared for self-sufficient wilderness sailing. We needed a reliable functioning head, refrigeration, and sleeping room for at least four, preferably 6 people, as we hoped we could lure one or more of our children and possibly their guests onboard with us.  

When we settled on the 35' Wauquiez, our SweetWater, I conceded that IF we WERE ever to go beyond sailing Lake Superior (I highly doubted that would occur) SweetWater would be an adequate boat for doing that.  I certainly would not want to be in need of a different boat after we had invested our time and money into getting this boat in the shape we wanted for cruising.  The new boat was a big commitment for us. We both understood that using our disposable income on a blue water cruiser meant that there were other travels that we would NOT be financially able to plan.  We would not be touring New Zealand or Europe, travels that some of our friends were enjoying.  With the purchase of SweetWater, I was beginning to feel a bit more pressed to plant my feet on one side or the other of this issue of

sailboat living--not that my husband was intentionally applying pressure to me to decide---it was just that the topic continued to surface at various times.  I found that when I appeared to soften a little toward the notion of long distance cruising, my husband would then seem to retreat a bit.  "Do you think we could really do this? he'd ask me.  "Do you think we'd be happy living on a boat alone, for long periods?"  Indeed.  It wasn't a question of 'did we enjoy sailing?' Yes, we did.  'Did we travel well together?' Yes, we did.  We were both flexible about our traveling preferences.  We could go along in amiable, comfortable silence for long periods, listening to the radio or "This American Life" podcasts.  And then later, launch into conversation about topics both weighty and light-hearted. Politics, religion, history, music, books and Jon Stewart--all quite safe topics in each other's company.  

But we are parents!  In 2004, our four children were in college. Each of them was just beginning to ferret out his/her direction.  None of them were married, although a couple of them were in what I now would call, "sincere" relationships.  I really couldn't envision being far from these young people.  Certainly, they were needing us less and less, but what if they did need me on hand. What if something happened to one of them and they needed me right now? And me off on a sailboat somewhere?  I would feel that I had abandoned them to go off on some frivolous venture.  I would find myself far far away and just want to be nearer to them and to the rest of the people I care about as well.

The career issue of course was important to me, too.  I was actually rather happy in my position as a medical social worker in a hospital in 2004.   I could not even conceive of the time when my career would be over.  That was surely years and years away.   Retirement was a word that seemed to belong in the mouths of other people, not mine.  I was productive.  I was committed to my profession.   I was intrigued by my clients and by the new learning that was before me daily.  I felt vibrant, I guess I'd say.  I felt that what I had to offer to my organization was very valuable and that I had much to offer to those who were newer and needed mentoring in the field as young medical social workers.  Going off to live on a sailboat somewhere-----pffft.  Nonsense.  That would mean that my career was over, already!

And then there was the issue of my obsessive nature with regard to projects. Projects!  I LOVE to make things!  I always have some project swimming around in my head.  When I am deprived of the opportunity to create things or to design something-- to make something new, to bring something to "life" that had not existed before,  I feel claustrophobic.  It's hard to explain it any other way.  All my life, I have made things.  When I was in Junior High and High School I sewed.  I designed my clothes by combining different patterns.  I drew, a LOT!  I drew portraits of people, my fashion designs.  I drew animals and buildings.  I was fascinated with architecture.  For a time I was convinced I would become an architect.  I designed houses in my free time, to scale, and with attention to electricity, plumbing and heating.  I began writing for the school paper and the HS annual.  Learned about photography and focused on artistic photography.  I wrote songs and sang, accompanying myself with my guitar.  I wrote songs that were performed in a little singing group, including one that was performed at my first wedding.  I wrote poetry.  Now and then I come across an old poem of mine tucked into one of my favorite books.  BOOKS!  There's another issue.  Books are like friends.  I organize them by "Great Books--highly recommended", "Good but not so good I will ALWAYS love it," "Fun reading, Recommend for light reading only."  I have to keep my favorites for years.  How could I live without my books around?  I enjoyed studying languages:  Spanish, German, Norwegian and Russian, not becoming proficient at any of them, but really enjoying the learning.  And I learned how to throw pottery.  Very therapeutic.  I continued to sew and to draw over the years.  Tackled some quilting projects, costumes for my children. Designed and sewed canvas projects for the sailboat. Discovered that I really liked creative writing while I was in graduate school. Wrote some farcical pieces that were published in a newsletter for my work colleagues in Wisconsin  back in the day. Loved acting and singing in musicals.  Sang as a soloist for various events, whenever I could--weddings and small celebratory gatherings.  Playing the piano was just for my entertainment.  Over the years, as houses were bought and sold, there was decorating to do, painting, wallpapering, landscape design and gardening.  If I saw a piece of furniture that I liked, I could design plans for it on paper and have my father, a skilled wood craftsman build it for me.  What would I do with all my treasures on a sailboat?  Even though I was not playing the piano very often, I kept thinking, "I can't bring a piano on a sailboat."

When I was laid off in 2009 (my contribution to the organization, apparently not quite as important as I had thought) I learned to bake bread and attacked that project scientifically and with determination.  Shortly after, I started a bread blog and then, wouldn't you know it-- I started to become actually interested in cooking as well, something which had eluded me as an enjoyable activity throughout adulthood.  How could I, this maniacal, creatively focused person possibly survive in a space the size of a sailboat?  My husband affectionately called me "Dirt Girl" when it became apparent that I could barely drag myself away from my newly designed perennial gardens.  He began to call me "Obsesso Lady" when I tackled redecorating tasks with a fervor that tended to interfere with other social outlets.   Did I have a creative "addiction?" Probably.  Could I do those things I love to do on a sailboat?  NO.  NO I could NOT! Panic descended on me when I briefly considered it.

My husband has been firmly committed to a routine of reading about sailboats and all things boat-related for many years. Intermittently, of an evening, he would casually remark about something he was reading.  And he sometimes talked about how his father did not live to be an old man.  His reflections upon being a man with a diagnosis of diabetes hit home with me.  As a medical social worker, I'd seen too many folks with diabetes related complications.  It was a sobering prospect.  Still, he never applied any pressure to me to make a commitment one way or another about living on a boat.  He DID make observations however, based on information he was learning from his "boat porn" which we had begun to call it.  "You know, a person can live more inexpensively on the water than on land."  No, I had NOT known that.  The crash in the economy of 2008 had certainly hit us.  We talked about what it would take to recover what had been lost during that time.  The discussion about the cost of living on water vs. land was an interesting one.  

In 2010, after making 100+ types of bread and being away from the workplace for nearly a year, I began working as a medical social worker again, but with a different sort of perspective, I think.  I no

longer saw my career as a contribution that defined who I was to the world. It would not be my legacy to my family and certainly not to the community at large.  All those pithy sayings, you know, about 'blooming where you are planted' made sense.  I had bloomed--WAS blooming and this was enough. In fact, it felt good and right.  My career was nearing its' end and I was finding that I was okay with leaving it as it was.  I hadn't done some of the things I thought I would do in my career, back when I was in my 20's and 30's.  But I knew that I had the respect of many people that I admired and it was enough.  I was able to do many good things to be helpful to many people and it was enough.  It was interesting work. I felt good about what I was doing on a daily basis and I had been fortunate enough to find an organization to work for that WAS actually appreciative of my time and skills.  I found myself laughing more and worrying less. Took myself less seriously and started chatting with people I didn't know in the grocery store---things that I had noticed many older people doing. Hmmm..... 

I saw my husband's tiredness and it bothered me.  Life does NOT continue on forever just as it is today.  Such a simple fact.  Such a complex reality to grasp.  I noticed that I was indeed NOT getting any younger.  Again--duh.  I started to think seriously about what our lives would be like after we were no longer working.  With my long list of creative outlets that I enjoyed, there was no question for me about what I would do in my retirement years.  I'd have more time to do all of these things that I was already doing.  But for my husband?  I saw that his major hobby was reading boat porn.  How much boat porn can one person read, you might wonder.  Well, a LOT, I have learned.  He talked about the challenges of living on a sailboat--new things to learn all the time--about the boat, navigation, places to visit and live, fixing whatever needs fixing; all things that would intrigue him and provide intellectual challenge in retirement.  I could see that my husband was not going to be one of those men who would get together every morning for coffee at Perkins or wherever those guys meet.  

I began to realize that no matter what we were to do in the next chapter of our lives, this enormous house had to go, clearly.  It was exhausting me to keep up with it. Frankly, we had burdened ourselves financially, some years before, with a 3 story, 6 bedroom house in a historic neighborhood of Duluth.  A beautiful old home that we loved being able to raise our children in. However,  it was old; poor insulation, the cost of replacing any doors or windows being astronomical, painting the house ran $13,000 given that we were obligated to hire young people with no fear of mortality to hang from ropes and scaffolding to paint the tall beast. With the children leaving the nest, the house was very large for us. My husband and I and the dog, Jax, an intellectual Border Collie (is there really any other kind?) knocked around in a house that was feeling 6 sizes too large for us. I often thought that 4 of the Hmong families that I'd known in St. Paul could easily live in the space of that huge house.  Why were we heating this enormous space?  Making such a huge footprint? 

So, in 2010, I tackled working on our big house with that same characteristic dogged tenaciousness as has been characteristic of my life, but this time with a goal of finding someone else who would love it and care for it as I had when we first moved in years ago.  There was wallpaper to be stripped, walls to be repaired and repainted, ceilings to be replaced, floors to be refinished, window furnishings to rethink, landscaping to be cleaned up.  When it was done, it really was beautiful!  You're probably thinking "she should have done those things years ago."  Right?  But I just felt satisfied and thought, "I'm finally done with it now.  If I'd waited until I was any older, this house would have 'done me in'.  We felt really good about selling our home to a musical family with three elementary school children.  In leaving that house, I actually felt that I had done my part to contribute to the preservation of beautiful old homes in Duluth.  And our old home needs little children running up and down those stairs again and hiding in the attics.

In the end, the decision to move onto the sailboat did happen in 2010 and the past years have been spent in preparation for that eventuality.  I don't remember the exact day I said, "I'm good with this.   Let's do it." I do remember a feeling kind of like "letting go" after I had resolved in my heart, that I was going to follow my husband wherever he wanted to go. There was an adventure out there waiting for us, that I would not want to deprive either of us from experiencing.  When we married, I remember feeling strongly that wherever he was, was home.  I could not, in 2010, believe that that was not still the case for me.   

In spite of our big decision in 2010, we were, by necessity, vague with others, even good friends, about our plans because of my husband's work responsibilities.  And in many ways, Duluth IS still a small city.  I do wish we'd been able to be more forthright with others about our plans--perhaps that would have been helpful to me anyhow, in thinking things through.  A few weeks before leaving Duluth, I had a bit of an emotional crisis, asking myself "Why in the world am I leaving a perfectly good community where I feel at home, and groups of friends that I care about very much.  It's not like I'm trying to get away from anything!" I cried to a friend.  And indeed, my dear friend helped me past that moment of crisis.  No I was NOT trying to get away from anything.  But I was going toward something special; something quite unique in many ways, and I'd already benefitted by lessening my load of accumulated stuff that I'd been hauling around with me through life.  And I was going with the only person that I could possibly imagine as a traveling companion. 

And so, we have retired, perhaps somewhat early by some folks' measures, my husband at 62 and me at 58.  We do live on our sailboat, 

A cool evening in April 2015
currently in Annapolis for the summer months.  We have been learning lots about this "new to us" boat (SweetWater turned out NOT to be the boat for us to live on for long term cruising) which we named NORTHERN STAR.  The name is a reference to Minnesota, which at the end of its' State song refers to herself as "....thy Northern Star," (obviously written before Alaska joined the Union.)

We still have four unmarried adult children, now scattered from Coast to Coast.  One of them is in a serious relationship, but none make me think that grandchildren will arrive anytime soon.  I suspect that if there were to be signs of a grandchild, that may alter my feelings about living on the sailboat.  So, perhaps, this is perfect timing for us.  And I am glad to enjoy it for this time, however long that may be.  

I never thought I'd be one of those people who would say this, but I am so glad that we were able to bring our Jax with us.  Originally, we thought we wouldn't/shouldn't--thinking that he, a black, furry dog, would be miserable in a warmer climate and living on a boat.  But when it came closer to the time to leave, it would have been just too sad to leave him behind, for both of us.  And it turns out, he seems quite happy to be close to us.  He knows where his pack is at all times in this small space.  I think it was the 3 story house was a challenge for him to keep us "herded" together.  

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I am fortunate to be married to the best friend I have ever had.   Oh, sure, he annoys me sometimes.  As I do him.  We're together most of each day.  But in many ways we make a good team.  We tend to be able to laugh at ourselves when it's most necessary. We share our strengths with one another.  He loves learning about boat systems--likes the challenge of the complexities that NORTHERN STAR presents to us, as daunting as they can be some days. All those years of boat porn are being put to practical use.  I am pretty good with organization and actually do enjoy aspects of that.  And I should add, that way back in 2010, before I made the final leap to saying that "Yes, we CAN do this," I had made myself a long list of all the creative pursuits which I CAN do while living on a sailboat. And I am doing them.  I can sew (new SailRite onboard) canvas projects and fitted sheets for NORTHERN STAR, draw, enjoy my photography, write (present case in point), sing pretty much whenever I feel like it (within socially acceptable limits, of course), read books on my new Kindle and I'm slowly learning to

play the mandolin--a surprise retirement gift from my husband. 

There have been some rough spots--getting accustomed to the heat and humidity in Annapolis, for one thing.  (I am accustomed to the cool summers along Lake Superior, after all.) We have to accept that our first year of living on the boat will NOT be less expensive than living on land. And it has NOT been, with new sails, new life raft, updating some other things, BUT we are slowly moving toward a more confident life aboard this vessel.  The last word hasn't been written on this topic, of course.  Carl will have his own perspective to offer, if he so chooses.

Jax, the Border Collie says, "Hi" and "Is it time for a dinghy ride yet?"


Pamela Harwood said...

Although we are in the process of moving aboard a 46' powerboat (wood, built in 1932), I am enjoying reading about your transition from dirt to water. My husband is 61 and I am 58 -- "too young" by many standards to retire, but my dad was dead at 62, and Hugh and I decided there were places we wanted to go and things we wanted to do before we were too old to do them.

We bought the boat shortly after my husband came home from the Maine Boatbuilders Show, and asked, "What would you think about selling the farm, the alpacas, everything, and moving aboard a boat so we could travel around the Caribbean?" He caught me at the right time, I guess, because after a quick thought, I surprised the heck out of him by saying, "I could do that!"

2 years later, the boat's hull restoration is near completion, only 14 alpacas left to sell, the dumpster is in the driveway. The auctioneer has bought what (few) valuables we have that he thinks he can sell, eBay and Craigslist will get more, and we will give away what doesn't sell at a yard sale. The house goes on the market as soon as it is cleared of clutter and fixed up -- not to the extent you fixed up your place, but it will be in good shape. Like you, we simply don't need a 4 bedroom house and 25 acres -- it needs children living in it!

We are excited about what lies ahead!

Ardys said...

We are eager to hear more about your progress!