Living together in a confined space for days on end, rationing supplies, seeing no one but each other, figuring out how to home school and doing our best not to bicker like a pack of rabid raccoons ... none of this is new to me. Before we started sheltering in place, my family of four lived on a 43-foot sailboat for three years, a period spent exploring and adventuring, but also enduring long spans of time that consisted of a whole lotta nothing. At the onset of our travels, we found the self-imposed, quarantine-like nature of boat life pretty daunting. Sitting on the dock in Fort Pierce, Florida, the kids and I dripped sweat like faucets, suffering through fractions and a tattered assemblage of “Frog and Toad” books, as Trav wrestled with scores of boat projects, most of which gave him lots of useful practice in swearing like a sailor.
When our boat was finally ready, we sailed off, crossed the gulf stream and spent the next three months in the Bahamas, where we encountered a string of unprecedented cold-fronts, squalls, and an episode in which the dinghy’s outboard motor fell in the water and we had our first (and thankfully only) man-overboard experience. I won’t lie to you, those inaugural sailing days and the inherent isolation that came with them brought out some of the very worst attitudes (sulking, pouting and whining), behaviors (doors were slammed and a watermelon was spitefully thrown overboard) and comments (way too embarrassing to share here) that I’ve ever seen our family produce. We were, at many times, the very worst versions of ourselves. I share these tidbits in case there’s a chance that some of you may be finding the shelter-in-place learning curve a little steep, just like we did. There may be some of you who are similarly struggling to navigate these unchartered waters. There may be some of you who are considering throwing a watermelon or some other large object off your porch, deck or staircase. (Don’t do it, you’ll regret it. Speaking from experience here.) The good news is that our crew eventually got a lot better at being confined, being alone, being bored and being bewildered. There were changes in ourselves we had to make in order to live more peacefully, calmly and happily. When we figured out what some of those adjustments needed to be, the experience became a whole lot more palatable.
Occupying a very small space together 24/7 was tough. But cohabitation in 250 square feet became easier when we learned how to move around each other and pay attention to certain cues, like an intricate dance routine with choreographed steps. Some of our “movement rules” may sound obvious, but they were essential to living comfortably and keeping irritability at bay. If someone was going up or down the companionway (the steep staircase connecting top and below decks), we quickly got out of the way. The galley (kitchen) rule was one person at a time. If someone went up to the bow or sat up against the front of the mast, we knew that meant they needed alone time.
When we first started sailing, I knew that we’d be having a lot of long, multi-day passages at sea, and I began planning for them. Because I am a doer who hates wasting time, I created full-on agendas, with detailed, color-coded lists, as if I was some sort of professional wedding planner or motivational life coach. I fully intended that every moment of our “down time” at sea would be spent in full-throttle productivity: homeschooling like champions, deep-cleaning every surface of the boat, finding ingenious ways to make ourselves useful and to improve as individuals. I quickly learned, however, that my dreams and schemes for round-the-clock efficiency were totally unrealistic. As it turns out, ocean passages on a 43-foot monohull are not times to get things done. The constant movement of the boat, whether rough or calm, makes any kind of work or maneuvering much harder, and also tends to cast a languid spell. Accomplishing anything takes five times as much effort on a moving boat as it does when you are stationary. And as for reading, the cornerstone of homeschooling? Ha! It made us all sick. Most of our time moving at sea was spent simply looking out at the water, listening to music, telling stories and thinking. I was forced to abandon my carefully designed schedules, to let go of my compulsive need to organize and control time. I learned that allowing my mind to wander, to ponder and consider things, was not something I should feel guilty about. It was time well spent. No one knows how long this will last. If I can give you one bit of advice, culled from my years on the boat, it would be this: Be kind and patient with yourself. If our collective community experience is anything like my family’s sailboat days, I am confident that in the coming weeks, we’ll all find our own methods, solutions and tricks for living this new way, and that we’ll learn how to feel awakened and alive and connected, despite the craziness and scariness of it all. I hope that everyone, if they haven’t already, will find their rhythm. I know that it’s possible, and I send you love.