“I’m glad we did it, but I’m not sure I’d do it again,” was my husband Ryan’s underwhelmed sentiments about our trip down the Intra-Coastal Waterway. Which surprised me because for at least two years before this trip, Ryan found every opportunity to bring up the ICW in conversation, either to friends or total strangers at the bar. “Did you know there’s an inland waterway that runs all the way from Canada to Florida? And you can take your boat down it?”
It’s possible that not everyone (myself included) shares Ryan’s intense fascination with the ICW and its World War II naval history. But, regardless, it felt like we’d reached a major milestone when we pulled our little sailboat Hideaway into Fort Lauderdale, having covered roughly 1500 miles between New York and Florida.
And since we’re getting ready to make our crossing to the Bahamas, thus closing this chapter of our U.S. travels, I thought now was a good time to reflect on how far we’ve come, both literally and metaphorically.
In retrospect, what stands out most about the ICW is not so much the scenery (mostly trees), the weather (mostly cold) or the sailing (mostly plus one, minus one on the auto-helm). Or even the dolphins, or the time we ran aground four times in a single afternoon. What seems to resonate most is how those 1500 miles have changed us and prepared us for journeys to come.
Back in New York City, we worked long, stressful hours, like anyone else in a modern-day office job. And because our spare time was limited, whenever we needed something cleaned, fixed, made, cooked or designed, we did what most people in cities do: we paid other people to do it for us. Which means that while we got very skilled at running our own businesses, we also grew very unskilled at doing anything else.
And then we up and left that world, in which we specialized in running schools, and we moved onto a boat, where being a specialist in just one thing was not so useful anymore. Being able to clean, fix, make, cook and wire anything was a much more relevant skill on the boat. And much more useful than, say, building web sites, populating spreadsheets or hiring staff.
But it took a long time for this to sink in. So, for a few months, we were a bit lost in our new world at sea, forever trying to avoid doing things we didn’t know how to do. Which is why, when we stopped in Annapolis to examine our leaky water tank, my first response was to price up a new tank and hire someone to install it. But then I made some phone calls, got some advice, and decided to try fixing the tank on our own. And, as it turned out, all the tank needed was some hypalon patches to stop the leaks and a screwdriver to reattach the newly sealed tank to the water pipes. It was surprisingly easy; it’s just that it took time. A whole day, to be exact; a day which I wouldn’t have been willing to give up to fix a water tank when I lived in New York City.
But time was something we had an abundance of now. So why were we so reluctant to take on repairing, installing, wiring and jury rigging our own boat stuff?
My guess? A lack of confidence. And also the fact that society is so well organized that we now devote entire days, weeks and careers to one specialization, while spending a great deal of hard-earned money to hire others to do the things we can’t or don’t want to do. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you, because it means we can find an expert in virtually any discipline now. And for society as a whole, the benefit is that the world’s specialists can collaborate to create ever more powerful, more advanced technologies for anything we might need or want. Any time I use my matchbox-sized GoPro, for example, I remember my dad schlepping a 10-pound shoebox of a video recorder on his shoulder to film our family vacations, and my mind is blown. That’s what specialists do: they build stuff you didn’t even know you needed. And I’m the first to say I love my GoPro, iPod, solar panel, GPS running watch, chart plotter, LED lights, and all the other gadgets that make my life a little easier and a little more fun.
Also, specialists are crucial to the existence of a complex division of labor, which is what defines “civilization.” And it is generally perceived that “civilized” societies, such as New York City, are successful because of this division of labor. Therefore, packaged in the positive connotation of the word “civilized” is the assumption that we all aspire to be specialists living in a civilized world.
Yet I’ve come to realize, living on a boat, that it is no longer practical or sensible to hire a specialist every time something goes wrong. After all, there will be times when Ryan and I are the only people we can see for miles. So, in order for us to be truly self-sufficient, we have to become more diversified in our skills and less specialized.
That’s what the ICW has taught me. That, and we should slow down and take some time to learn about our boat. Which is something I didn’t really learn until Charleston, North Carolina, where we hired a mechanic to service our engine. We were in a hurry to get going and didn’t want to take the time to look up You Tube videos and find the right tools, so we justified our decision by saying, “Just this once. Next time we’ll do it ourselves.”
But when I checked our oil after the engine was serviced (it’s the first item on our “departure checklist”), I discovered there wasn’t a drop of oil in the engine. Bone dry. And when we complained, the mechanic replied, “Oh, I couldn’t find the dipstick.” And to make matters worse, he appeared to have loosened a screw, which resulted in an oil leakage later on down the line. So even though we hired a “specialist” to do a job we didn’t want to do, we had to learn to do it ourselves anyway. So why did we spend the extra money? Why didn’t we just spend the extra time instead, and learn to do it ourselves?
Since Charleston, we’ve gotten better at reflecting on our mistakes. So even though we were nervous about installing our new Solbian flexible solar panel, which involved drilling holes in the boat and running wires to places we’d never run wires to before, we decided it was important for us to go through the process ourselves, no matter how long it took. And luckily, we’ve found on our journey south that there are always sympathetic and more experienced sailors around who can offer the right tools, some advice and a little moral support.
After all, any sailor who has been living aboard for any amount time has learned how to fix things on his or her boat. So we try to take a leaf out of the notebooks of the old salts we meet and learn what they know. Because one benefit of becoming more self-sufficient is, hopefully, we’ll spend less money, which means we’ll be able to keep cruising for longer. Not to mention, we’ll probably enjoy it more, as well, since no one likes the feeling of being dependent on others.
And I suspect that’s really what I’m looking to gain from learning all these new skills, like how to anchor, how to wire a solar panel, how to fish, how to service an engine, and how to trim the sails. I want to know we’re in full control of our lives. That we can choose exactly how we want to live because we’re in no way limited by fear or lack of skills.
If that’s what it means to be less civilized, I’m all for it.