Mr. Green Car: The simple life afloat

Gary Burgess and Patti Holquist of Rockford purchased a Westsail 43 in Trinidad and have spent the last three winters living aboard, off the grid, cruising in the Caribbean. Their solar panels and wind turbine provide plenty of power in the sunny, windy Caribbean anchorages. Gary said, “Sometimes, we have so much power available, we turn on everything just because we can.” (Photo courtesy of Gary Burgess)

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

For those of you who have been reading my column for some time, you know I am nuts about boats, particularly sailboats. For a couple-three decades, I’ve dreamed of taking off in a sailboat to live and explore. In boating circles, this is called “cruising.”

Some folks cruise for short periods — vacations, throughout the Great Lakes, along our coasts or with rented boats in distant exotic locations. I’ve done some of these cruises. Others have done “The Great Circle” — which is a matter of leaving the Great Lakes at Chicago, down the Illinois River, into the Mississippi River, up the Ohio, up the Tennessee River and into the constantly snaking Tombigbee River that will deposit you into Mobile Bay. From there, you go around Florida or across Lake Okeechobee, up the East Coast, mostly in the channels of the Inter-coastal Waterway system, up the Hudson River, across New York in the Erie Canal, back to Lake Erie and on home via Lake Huron and Lake Michigan — thus becoming a cruiser who has done “the loop,” or as we call them “loopers.” You can start anywhere on the loop, and it still counts, as long as you go all the way around. Typically, it takes a year to make the loop.

For some cruisers, The Loop is not big enough. For them, oceans need crossing, or circling the planet is called for. Only a tiny fraction of cruisers, nearly all of whom have done so in sailboats, have done a circumnavigation. Hardy folks are these. Some have done several circumnavigations — some by themselves.

More than any other kind of cruiser, the circumnavigators are set up for total independence. The food they carry or even grow aboard must last them for some time between stops (some racers go around without stopping). All need energy to get things done, so they make their own with solar, wind and generators. Nearly all moving along is done by wind power. The joy of sailing can’t be explained here — it must be experienced. The cruising life is so different from living on land that they are barely comparable. It’s addictive.

Cruising sailboats have large banks of batteries to store the energy needed to run lights, navigation equipment, stereos, watermakers (salt to fresh water machines) and refrigerators. Some cruisers get by without refrigerators, saving considerable energy and trouble in trying to keep things cold. Out on the oceans, the wind is nearly constant, so most have small wind turbines to keep the batteries topped off. When the wind does stop, solar panels take up the slack and provide the energy needed. Sometimes, when the auxiliary engine is running, the big alternator they have is used to charge the batteries — this is more common on coastal/lake/loop cruising where more motoring along under diesel power is often necessary.

All in all, the cruising life is one spent outdoors. Even large sailboats have small living spaces compared to even a small land-bound house or apartment, and a lot of the cruisers’ boats are not large. But out on deck is the whole world around you. Cruisers learn how to do without a lot of things — a few clothes, not a closet full. No washer or dryer — you can wash your few clothes by hand and hang things up to dry. Few are big on watching television — though many do watch movies on their laptop computers. Music is a big part of cruising life, and even that can be downsized to a personal iPod-type device. When people decide it’s time to go do a liveaboard cruise, they typically sell EVERYTHING. All report they are much happier without the burdens of stuff.

Often, cruisers will take to land again after a year or two. In nearly all cases, they do so in much smaller living quarters than they had previously. I know from personal experience of two weeks on a 26-foot boat that we were sad to return to “normal” life and this HUGE house. We ask ourselves, “Why do we need all this space?” Cruising tells us we could all live far more efficient, smaller-scale lives than we presently do while finding more joy in simple pleasures and a slower pace.

The problem is stuff. Getting rid of our substantial collection of vehicles, house, rental property and stuff in general takes a lot of work and courage. I have not found the energy or the courage yet — but it is always there in the back of my mind — get rid of it all and go cruising with a far simpler life off the grid.

From the Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 2011, issue

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