The First 6 Months

It’s been roughly 6 months since I left the US to live on a sailboat, spearfish, and sail around the world. Of those things, I can safely say that there’s been more of the first than the last two.   This is a kind of recollection, in the form of stream-of-consciousness.  So I’m missing things, and some things are remembered as they exist in my memory – which is, in every human, distorted.

Month 1

Tough, but the honeymoon phase. I was in a foreign country, without the ability to communicate, without knowing anybody, having dramatically changed my life. I was happy to call Panama home, but that was because I hadn’t tried to actually accomplish anything here yet. Much like the early stages of a romantic relationship – I only saw the positives of Panama: a slower pace of life, a lush landscape, a beautiful coastline.

Shortly afterward, though, the rainy season began in earnest.

I knew the rainy season wasn’t going to be fun here. I planned on that. But stuck inside a leaky boat when it’s pouring rain outside is no fun. It sucked. I spent the days and nights figuring out where I was going to sail to – so I could escape the monsoons. The water was too dirty to dive. Things were breaking all around me. My engines were starting by themselves. I was learning that when anybody in Panama gives you a price (if you’re a gringo)– they’re likely trying to rip you off. I was learning that the Panamanian sense of time is deeply and totally flawed. If they tell you they will be there tomorrow, it will be next week if you’re lucky.  “Manana-time” is very real, but “Panama time” is a remarkable thing – to the point it seems unreal.

Month 2

So much to learn. I was gaining some level of confidence onboard. I was reading quite a bit and had learned my way around the town (Puerto Lindo). I’d figured out how to do some sailing. I even headed to San Blas for a couple of weeks. Beautiful. It was at this point I was in love with the lifestyle.

I was ignorant of the upcoming challenges; you don’t know what you don’t know.

I was making friends and learning the way the local cruiser/sailors did things. I flipped a dingy in a very remote spot and managed to get things under control. I’d learned a bit about anchoring. I’d spent nights up on anchor watch in storms. I was learning the importance of cooking. I was learning the importance of coffee. I was learning how much time would really be spent working on the boat, as opposed to freediving and spearfishing. I was trying to learn to provision and ration water.  I was trying not to violate Rule Number Two onboard:  don’t drink too much.

It was also this point that I was beginning to really feel the separation from everything back home. Some personal relationships were eroding. I had nothing in common with friends from back home. It was becoming increasingly clear that when people said “I’ll visit” – it wasn’t said in earnest. Looking back, it’s perfectly predictable – making a radical change in one’s life will surely lead to radical changes in the people around you. I was beginning to grasp the concept that people would keep living their lives, and the most you could really expect is an occasion read of your website/blog. Maybe an email. That’s enough, though.

Month 3

Shit. This is tough. Things were breaking faster than I could learn how to fix them. I couldn’t find parts. I couldn’t find reliable help. I couldn’t do much of the work myself. Between the daily chores – cooking, cleaning, exercising, hauling water, writing, and a little bit of boat-maintenance, I couldn’t even squeeze in a dive.

Projects were piling up. I needed tons of gear that I didn’t have. I bought too much useless gear. I didn’t know how to use much of the gear that I had. Every major system onboard needed maintenance. All of the minor systems too. I didn’t know where all of these systems were. Spearfishing here sucked. It still sucks.   The locals were stealing from me. They’re still trying to steal from me.

I developed a painful and worrying infection on my finger. Nobody could fix it. Nobody could diagnose it. No drugs were working. The local doctors weren’t very helpful. I headed back to the States, where I learned how much I had changed and how little everyone else had. I came back to the boat, and felt like I’d been away far too long.

After reserving cabins, in the hope that people back home would come visit – I decided to recruit some help. I did.   Damo and Chels came. Both were a welcome addition and brought a ton of personality and different skillsets. I decided having crew is great. I also decided having crew in designated roles with designated skillsets is best.  I also realized that having more people onboard, cruising in remote locations is exponentially more difficult: you need much more water, you need much more food, your boat is much heavier, you have less peace and less space….

Still, I decided crew was worth it. I still believe that, though what I look for in crew is evolving quickly. What I now value in crew changes with the state of the boat, and with my personal evolution.

Month 4

Progress, slowly. Things were breaking but I was learning how to fix them.   My crew was pitching in to kick-off to San Blas. I was learning the lingo and could even teach a bit about sailing to the crew. Damo was passing on some skills. Chels was helping keep things organized and clean. I wasn’t as frustrated with Panama, but I was itching to get back out and do some sailing.

There was now a morning routine – coffee and reading for the first hour or so. There was also an evening routine – drinks and socialization with other cruisers. I was beginning to take ownership of the boat and boat maintenance. But the boat projects (the big ones) were continuing to pile up.

When I was stuck in the engine room one day, bleeding and sweating profusely – a friend called and told me something I’d almost forgotten. It’s still with me. He said, “Chill out. You’re there. You did it. You’re a young, healthy guy on a nice catamaran. You have few obligations.  You have no schedule. You have no boss. If it takes you a year to refit and understand your boat – no problem. Part of this is learning to enjoy the journey, and quit focusing on the destination.”

I would come to realize those words are really important. I would also see that the sailors around me understood this mindset. I would also see how many people, especially from the States, could benefit from this mindset. Even when I bring on crew – I feel like this is a mindset they slowly need to learn.

Month 5

It’s about the small things. I’m appreciating the sunsets. Even when I can’t dive, I realize how lucky I am to wake up and have this view. I’m not working for somebody else. I no longer feel like an indentured servant. I don’t stress about commutes. I don’t have to listen to the world’s problems. I have the greatest luxury of all:  simply not giving a shit. I spend my time the way I want. I’m around interesting people doing interesting things. I’m learning new things in new cultures. At the end of the day, I usually make a crisp drink. When I cook I usually do it with a glass of wine. At lunch sometimes I have a cold beer.

My largest concern is my ability to begin an extensive refit. At this point, I was perfectly comfortable taking the next two to three months to fix the boat. I wrote a list of major projects that covered two pages.  The projects covered every part of the boat, and there were a myriad of skills I needed to learn.

Then I started the refit. Everything is broken. I can’t find parts. I don’t know how to fix things. Jesus Christ, this is expensive.

It’s me on my lonesome again – so now I have to clean and cook, on top of a major refit. Ouch, this is going to be painful. I really just want to sail and dive – can I please, please get somewhere better than Isla Linton (Puerto Lindo)? No fish. Poor diving. No solid help. The locals are thieves. The women aren’t attractive. Few people can hold an intelligent conversation.  At least they sell beer here…

I take another gamble with some crew, starting to default to “yes” if someone brings a necessary skillset to the table. Josh comes onboard. Things start moving. We get along. He works hard. We eat and drink like kings. We are kings; we make our own rules,we make our own lists, we do whatever the Hell we want to do.   There is, outside of the refit, complete and utter freedom.   But we want to leave. So we work hard. And that brings it’s own stress and challenges.  Much of this comes through in my writing.

Month 6

Work, play. Josh and I are alternating between working really hard and playing. We’re not getting invited to as many social/cruiser events, we’re working too hard. But we’re making up our own social events, with new friends.  There’s an increase in estrogen onboard. It’s welcome. The truth (for me) about boat-life is that it’s better when there are bikinis hanging off my life lines, when there are meals cooked, and when the dishes are clean.

Boat projects are coming along: my battery bank is replaced, solar is wired in. We’ve polished both fuel tanks. A myriad of small projects are complete. The boat is better. Things are coming together at a rapid pace, and it’s finally starting to feel like I might, someday, get out of Puerto Lindo. Hell, maybe we’ll even find some decent spearfishing somewhere. Wasn’t that a big part of the reason I started this?

I recruit for cooking/cleaning help so that Josh and I can focus on the boat. The benefits of adding another crewmember outweigh the cons, right now.

Having someone onboard to focus on cooking/cleaning will help us focus on what we need to do. When we take off sailing, we can focus on sailing. When we’re able to dive, we can focus on diving.

I find help, she seems legit and more importantly – seems like she really wants to be part of the trip. And she doesn’t have a hard return-date. Done.

Things are coming together, but old (in cruising-time) cruising friends are leaving for new cruising grounds and we’re all feeling the itch to get under way. The itch turns to a burning sensation. I’m feeling a ton of self-induced pressure, and I’m sick of throwing money into the boat. We’re back into monsoon weather patterns, which thwarts our progress in a myriad of ways: we can’t work outside much, we don’t feel like working when it’s nasty out, everything stays wet/damp. The boat is a constantly evolving, soaking wet, construction zone.  F*** this rain.

Right Now

That brings us to the present. So, here are the questions that I’ve been asked many times in emails, in conversations, and by followers/readers:

  • Nate, how do you feel about the decision?
  • Any regrets?
  • Would you do anything differently?
  • Are you happy?

Here is the answer, without bullet points:

It was the right decision. I’ve learned more in the last 6 months than I’ve learned in the last 6 years. I’m challenged everyday. I’m learning quite a bit about myself, which, without the challenges I’ve faced here – I wouldn’t have.   I’ve lost 25 pounds. I’m healthy, active, intrigued. I know more about working with my hands than I ever have. I own my own time (think about how much of your day you really own).  I feel remarkably lucky to be able to say everything in the preceding paragraph.

There are some regrets. Not many though. If hindsight is always 20/20, I’m happy to say that my foresight wasn’t as foggy as I expected. Many of the decisions I made were the right ones. The ones that were wrong were necessary learning experiences, and based upon my inexperience. Hopefully those mistakes won’t be repeated. Most of the regrets are expected – ones that involve the natural loosening of relationships as you remove yourself from other people’s lives.  I don’t have any other regrets. Not one.

The grand concept is this: I would do some things differently. But that’s only because I already did them once this way. And there is no way to determine if another way would have yielded any better results.

In a perfect world:  I would spend more time writing and learning. I would work harder to remove much of the (self-induced) pressure.   I would have brought specialized crew on earlier. I would have learned more about boat maintenance (but without needing to learn it, I’m not sure I would have dedicated the time). I would have learned more about options trading.

Wrapping Up

It’s not all lollipops and rainbows, but it’s a good life.

The decisions I’ve made over the last year have yielded some incredible results. It’s amazing the difference a year can make. But for this kind of change you must put everything behind an idea, and all the chips on the table. You have to be willing to sacrifice. You have to be willing to lose relationships, alienate yourself, and to face really huge challenges.

That said, I now live on my sailing yacht in the Caribbean. Shortly, this sailing yacht will be remarkably seaworthy and comfortable.

Everyday I wake up with an awesome view.

I have good, new, interesting friends.

And real friends from home drop me a line every now and then.

Family is visiting for the Holidays.

I have a capable crew with dedicated roles onboard.  The crew is really happy to be here, thankful, and appreciative. We usually get along. We’re healthy. We’re usually happy. We’re learning. We’re meeting new people and getting into new (and usually quite harmless) trouble.

Most importantly, I’m no longer taking part in the hollow existence of middle-class America. Where you live to work. Where you give up your time for money. Then you give up your money for objects that are unnecessary. Then you realize you’ve given up all your time, and don’t have anything of real value to show for it.  Then you ponder.  Then you realize that the only thing you ever had was your time.  And that you may, indeed, have wasted a good portion of it. And no, busy-ness doesn’t qualify as well-used time.  Promise.

To quote these lines from Thoreau is almost cliché. But I can’t think of a better way to say it. Written over 150 years ago – the words are timeless.

The mass of men lead lives of quite desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.

To really grasp what he’s saying, it may be worth it to read the words several times.

I can safely say that I’ve avoided (or maybe postponed?) that fate. Somewhere between my previous adventures in combat, traveling, spearfishing, and this – I’ve managed to break the mold. It really wasn’t hard. Anyone can do it. It just takes a bit of courage and a lot of follow-through. Of course, you also have to be comfortable swimming against the current.  To swim against the current, though, one only needs to remember how thoroughly mediocre life in-the-current can be:  school, college, marriage, kids, house, work, retirement, death. Occasionally there will be something exciting in that existence.  Occasionally there will be something stimulating.  There will be death, and love, and loss.  You will make money, and you will lose money.  But it doesn’t change (my) truth:  that existence is mediocre, at best (those of you who have shared a drink with me will appreciate that phrase more than others).

I’m not sure how we are supposed to value our lives. I suppose that’s pretty personal. These last six months have, in my eyes, dramatically increased the value of my existence.

So – how were my first six months? Exactly how they were supposed to be.

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More Refit

Night-Diving Prep

Night-Diving Prep

Then we headed into Colon.

I usually feel like being armed when you’re traveling is more trouble than it’s worth.  Not so in Colon.  I actually feel a bit naked without some means of defense there.  That’s not a place I like to feel naked in.  Josh agrees, so we pack a fair amount in the way of self-defense.  After all, we’re gringos with long blonde hair in a very dark, very poor city.  We stick out.  A full day of running around and dealing with less-than-helpful people, in a foreign language, in a city that looks more like a war-zone than a proper place to live left us exhausted and needing a few stiff drinks.  I’ve been to Baghdad and Caracas, during war (ish) times.  Colon isn’t quite at that level, but it’s getting close.

Colon's Mainstreet

Colon’s Mainstreet

All that probably doesn’t sound like much.  But all of that is real.  The dream of sailing around the world comes with a unique set of “entry-fees.”  They’re not always monetary, but I will say that the bank account drains quickly during a refit.  These entry-fees are very rarely apparent on the surface.  So while you may be looking for more crazy adventures of us diving and landing monster fish and eating crazy amounts of sashimi – that may come.  But the first part of this is, in fact, one of those entry-fees.

All that said:  we did bring on our newest crew member:  Honey.  She’ll be hanging with us for a bit, I hope.  As of now, between the three of us we have the majority of the roles covered.  It ought to be a fun when we really get in the groove.  I’ll post some pictures at some point.  We stuck with tradition:  we drank and played cards for Honey’s first night aboard.  Nothing crazy, we were all in bed before midnight.

On another note, it’s continuing the monsoon thing here.  Meaning that it pours rain on us at least once a day.  That’s remarkably frustrating when you’re in the middle of a project and you have to pack up a bunch of wet tools and hurry inside.  It also makes a mess out of everything onboard.  Leave paper out?  Trashed.  Leave a hatch open?  Major mess.  Need to dry something?  It’ll be up there for a week before it gets enough sunshine to be dry.  Ditto on wet books.

I’m ready for the dry season.  So ready.

And, although there are still a ton of work we need to do – I’m starting to feel a bit more confident about getting under way in early December. We need to tighten up the engines, but after that – there’s not much left to do.  We’ve made startling amounts of progress, something Josh deserves some real credit for.

Anyways – don’t drop off the mailing list quite yet.  We’ll do some sailing soon, and undoubtedly get into some trouble.  Then I’ll write and you’ll smirk and think about how you would never do something like that.  And you’ll probably be right.

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