A lot of times, watching cruisers talk about their lifestyle, whether it be on Youtube, blogs or Instagram, it is easy to believe that theirs is a happy, perfect life of luxury, full of sunset cocktails, jumping dolphins and warm turquoise water. But to be honest, would you be in the mood to take a picture or video when shit is hitting the fan? In reality, our life is full of ups and downs, just like everyone else, but more drastic. What are the challenges that we face on a daily basis? For sure, bad weather and piracy are issues that have to be taken seriously and a lot of preparation and research goes into making sure of our safety, but there are lots of more mundane things that get on our nerves.
- Grocery runs
Congratulations! You have started living the nomadic travelling life of a cruiser. Your boat is now your house, your dinghy is now your car, and your car is now non-existent. You have sold your bikes to make a bedroom for your child, and you have a baby backpack instead of your chunky stroller. Suddenly you are taking public transport everywhere, or more often that that, walking. Even when you have to buy a months’ worth of provisions, followed by a trip to a chandlery to purchase a 15 foot whisker pole, and assorted trips to specialty stores to get Asian food you have been craving for, a climbing harness for your 1 year old, and breast pump parts for same 1 year old. Did you know that Toys R Us went out of business and Walgreens doesn’t carry breast pump parts? Carrying 50 pounds of groceries and walking for hours several times a week, your calves have never been so ripped in your life.
There is no space for a washing machine on board, the laundromat is an hour’s walk away, and there is only so much water you can carry on a boat. What do you do? Laundry by stepping on wet clothes in a 5 gallon bucket, kind of like how they used to make wine in the olden days, but less tasty. Also your child is wearing cloth diapers, so I hope you don’t easily get queasy.
- Endless boat work
Nature can be hard on a boat. UV exposure, salt water and chafing breaks even the most well made boat parts, so constant maintenance is the name of the game. The boat hull needs to be scrubbed clean of sea critters and seaweed every 3 months, more often in warmer waters. Woodwork needs to be given a new coat of varnish just as often. And all that work doesn’t include upgrades to the boat. Also, boat parts are exorbitantly expensive. Buy electrical wire at a chandlery, and it costs 5 times the price of what you found in a home improvement store. Skimp and use the home improvement store wire, and your boat catches on fire because said wire was not marine grade.
- Being mistaken for a homeless person
It is too early for us to tell what boating culture is going to be like around the world, but in California where rent is unaffordable to a huge segment of society, a lot of less well off people, the intelligently thrifty and the creatively hippy live on their boats, not to sail, but to avoid rent. In places such as Richardson Bay in San Francisco, badly maintained boats such as these often sink, drift off their anchors, are anchored in such a way as to become an obstruction to navigation, or are just plain eyesores. This results in disdain in the eyes of the public, and a drain on tax dollars as derelict boats have to be hauled out of the water and scrapped, or sunken boats refloated and disposed off. In San Diego bay, this problem is coupled with a homeless population that resorts to stealing engines off dinghies left at public docks. This puts us in an awkward position, of trying to dress well and have a nice looking boat and dinghy so that we are not thought of as homeless, but not too nice that we are targeted for theft. Recently in two separate incidents, we were offered second hand clothes by someone we had only met briefly at a dock, and a free ride by a tourist trishaw rider who saw us walking home laden with groceries. We are now contemplating getting haircuts.
- Refrigeration, or lack thereof
Here on Monsoon, we run off solar power, which has provided us with all the electricity we need, except for one thing; a refrigerator. Refrigerators are very power hungry, and boats rarely have them functioning 24/7 without resorting to a generator. So to keep things simple, we have gone completely without one for the past 4 years that we have been living on a boat. Instead, we have been doing things like buying long life vegetables such as cabbages and root vegetables, canning meat at home using a pressure cooker and mason jars, and using powdered milk instead of fresh. It has been getting harder to make food stay fresh the closer to the equator we get, and we do miss our ice cream, but like generations of cruisers before us, and all of humankind before the invention on refrigerators, we will find a way to be self sufficient.
- Personal space
Monsoon is a 32 foot boat with a 9 foot beam and a 6 foot headspace. Divide that by 3 inhabitants, and that doesn’t leave you with much personal space. In some aspects, that is a good thing. Lack of space brings families together as there is nowhere to retreat to during arguments; so all disagreements have to be resolved quickly. We have had to go thru countless rounds of downsizing to fit all of our belongings onto the boat; coming from 2 apartments, a storage unit and a car. But that gives us the discipline not to buy things needlessly, making us better at managing our finances and becoming more conscientious consumers. There are still times however, especially while doing boat work, when the entire boat is a mess, all compartments including the berths and floorboards are open, and the only place to physically be is in the cockpit with an increasingly antsy baby, when all you want to do is scream into a pillow.
- The inconvenience of getting to land
Once when we were still living at a dock in Berkeley, we had the freedom to go for an evening walk everyday, just by stepping off the boat. Now, when the majority of out time is spent at anchor, going for a walk involves loading a baby into a backpack, rowing a dinghy 15 minutes to shore each way, and locking up the dinghy at a sketchy looking public dock, hoping that we will come back to the same amount of dinghy parts as when we left it. Variably, going to shore can also require beaching the dinghy and carrying it up pass the waterline, then tying it to a rock, hoping a king tide will not come in and float our dinghy away.
- Internet availability
This can be seen either as a blessing or curse; our internet availability depends on how far away we are from civilization. Being out in the wilderness does force us to slow down, and cure us of an addiction to social media and television, but then practical uses of the internet are off limits too. Things like checking emails and physical mail that we have forwarded to us online, doing research on places that we are headed to, or keeping in contact with family members becomes difficult. At the moment, we use the internet hotspot capability build into our phone, but in the coming months as we travel down the Baja peninsula of Mexico, we are not expecting to have any reception at all. We plan to do all our research beforehand, and have a Spot device for simple texting off the grid. At the moment, we justify our Netflix binges by thinking of all the TV shows we will not be able to watch in Mexico.
Regardless of the little irritations that we have with living on a boat, Travis describes his favorite moment of the day as the times that we step into our dinghy and row away to our private island of a boat. Away from the city crowds and rumble of traffic, away from the prying eyes of neighbors and light pollution of street lamps. Waves lull us to sleep, and we feel in tune with nature enveloping us.
2 thoughts on “Challenges of living off the grid”
The wife and I spent years living on a 25 foot yacht with no refrigeration. When we purchased one of those small portable camping fridges I could not believe how much difference it made in our life. Do you store your cheese in a jar full of olive oil?
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No, we’ve heard of but haven’t tried storing cheese in olive oil. So far we have been consuming cheese as soon as possible after buying them, and cutting off the mold that may form.