Limited Resources

I think everyone should spend a week or two on a boat. We should all be better stewards of limited resources and learn to live a little more simply, and I can’t think of a better way to force yourself to do this than living in the self-contained, self-sufficient environment of a boat. All the services you are used to in a house in a typical American neighborhood exist as a system on a boat, but instead of things like water or sewage magically appearing and disappearing, you are now (sometimes painfully) aware of where they come from and go to and how much of them there is or isn’t.  It sure has made me more appreciative of my land life! Here are a few things that come to mind…

Electricity: Unless you’re plugged in at a dock, you either have to make it (generator fueled by dead dinosaurs) or catch it (solar panels, wind generator). Those appliances at home with lights and indicators that stay on all the time are a no-no on a boat, where every amp and volt count. I don’t really understand our electrical system, but I do know that I want warm food, and if we have to budget energy to get warm food, I’m willing to learn to be less wasteful. A small example from our boat: the electric stove has a ceramic cook-top that holds heat for a long time, so after I cook something, I fill the teakettle with water and set it on the warm burner. This covers a potentially hazardous hot spot and uses heat that would otherwise be wasted because I will now have warm water for doing the dishes.

Water: Speaking of water…our humongous boat holds 200 gallons of fresh water in its tanks, but there are six people using it. When cruising long-term, we will have a rain-water catching system to supplement water taken on at port or made with the water-maker (which uses precious electricity). Warm showers are now a luxury, as they require the use of a generator. However, a solar shower (basically a black bag of water that the sun heats up) should help some, especially in the tropics. Here’s how to shower with minimal water usage: undress; turn on water long enough to wet yourself down; turn off water; soap up; rinse off; repeat for hair. Also, how clean do you need to be? Hair really only needs washing twice a week, and sponge baths do when a full shower is too cold or difficult. To conserve further, laundry and dishes can be washed in salt water and rinsed with fresh. We just don’t realize how much water we use in a house, but on a boat, using too much could cost you precious drinking water. Incidentally, we have a good gravity-fed, countertop purifier so we don’t have to rely on bottled water for good-tasting drinking water.

Sewage: At home, you flush the toilet and all unmentionables are magically whisked away, never to be seen again. The routine on a boat is a bit different. Depending on the kind of toilet you have, usually you have to pump the potty full of sea water, then pump the poo out of the potty.  When offshore, most cruisers pump the poo overboard to rejoin the “circle of life.” But near the shore, at anchor or at a marina, the poo goes into a holding tank. If you’re in a civilized place, they will have a pump-out station, where a long suction hose sucks the poo out of the tank and it rejoins the water cycle in the city sewage treatment plant. This, by the way, is less pleasant than changing a diaper—it’s like changing your whole family’s diaper once a week.  In this area, one cannot conserve unless one chooses not to eat and therefore not to create poo. But one does become appreciative of living in a place where sewage is piped out of one’s house and processed odorlessly somewhere else. Think of this the next time you flush and just be happy.

Food: Our family has an elaborate plan for storing food for long voyages and times of shortage. It includes vacuum-packing whole grains for grinding in small batches for bread and breakfast cereal, storing canned goods and dried foods, freezing what we can, and catching fish. It means we eat simply and we teach our children not to complain but to just be thankful for what we have. Pickiness is simply not an option. Waste is to be avoided at all costs. We have manual backups for all electrical equipment, so if the generator fails and we can’t use the stove/oven, we have two portable grills—a propane and a charcoal (the “Cobb”). I guess if all else fails, there’s always sushi…

Trash: I always feel guilty after hauling my large black can to the street at home, but now I feel tired after hauling a large black bag all the way to the end of the dock to the can there. I’m not so worried about the recycling part (which is not as practical as it is marketed), but we really can do more about the reduce and re-use part. I use things in bulk which does reduce packaging, but we still fill a big bag each weekend. What to do at sea? Biodegradables are often tossed overboard, but plastic? Never!  So, no plastic bottles or baggies. I use and reuse glass mason jars for pretty much everything. And cotton towels replace paper. The baby wears cloth diapers. I carry canvas bags to shop. I feel like we’re doing our part, but we still create trash. And as a culture, it’s a little shocking to think of the volume…Without the big truck carting it to an unseen location, I’m definitely more aware of waste.

Stuff: I mentioned that I like to have a manual backup for all things electric. And this stuff has to last—we are in a stage of life now where we would rather spend more for something sturdy that will last than to pay less for something that will have to be replaced ten times in the same time period. The market in our country is based on the principles of perceived and planned obsolescence, something we fight strongly against. I’ll wear a pair of shoes to death, even if they went out of style five years ago. (My clothes are still stuck in the eighties, but they’re coming around again.) And we try to avoid things “Made in China” because they are destined too soon for the landfill. At a marine flea market last Saturday, I saw a refurbished Singer sewing machine made sixty years ago and converted to hand crank. It sewed through six layers of canvas like it was butter. I don’t have an immediate need for this thing, so I didn’t buy it (yet), but it epitomizes this principle I’m talking about. A boat is a very compact, efficient place. Because you can carry so little, everything has to have verifiable usefulness. I am both dreading and looking forward to the purging necessary to move our family of six out of a 2000-square-foot house onto a 48-foot boat. But I’m learning how much stuff I can do without and how much easier it is to care for a smaller house with less stuff.

Money: Never mind. We are all aware that this is limited. Whenever something breaks and we have to pay to buy parts to fix it, Jay says, what's the money for anyway? We were afraid if we saved it all for later, later would never come, or we would be too old to enjoy it. So we've decided use it now, give some away when the opportunity presents itself, and try to save a little for later. In any case, we refuse to worry about it.

Time: This, of course, cannot be purchased, and even if you save it, it doesn’t spend very well later.  We all try to cram too much activity into small chunks of it because the days, and our lives, for that matter, are just too short. But we are rethinking this way of life. Everything slows down when we get down to the boat. I stop looking at my watch. We wake up with the sun, eat when we get hungry, sleep when we get tired, and are generally more in tune with natural rhythms. This is the first year in my life when I am not signed up for anything, no commitments besides teaching my children and learning to live on a boat. It’s so freeing to say “No” to everything, even if for just a season. Part of the reason we are doing this is because life is short. But instead of trying to cram more in, we are actually trying to cram less in and enjoy that less more. I recognize this is not going to be an extended vacation—the work is very real—but present are the aspects of vacations that we love: no need to be anywhere at a specified time, and extra time to savor the people we love, the natural beauty around us, and worthwhile things for which we usually don’t make enough time (like books, music, laughter, games, art, etc.) Of all the limited resources of which I have become more aware, time is the greatest. I contemplate my priorities, worry less about staying on a set schedule, and enjoy life more. If the horizon is clear, the children sit with me on the coach roof at sunset looking for the green flash at the moment the sun sinks. It doesn’t matter if it’s eight o’clock or nine. If I were to put them to bed “on time” we would miss it. Every day is a gift, not to be wasted worrying or stewing. Weigh anchor and sail away for a week or two and you’ll see what I mean.