WRITING AND BOAT LIVING
I find as years accumulate, I’m drifting toward minimalist living. Things mean less. The line grows sharper between want and need. It’s the wants that do us in; we actually need little. Toward that end, I long ago made the decision to move off dirt.
Boats have been a part of my life since the seventies. Even before, in the Navy I served aboard the USS Shangri La, an aircraft carrier that introduced me to the varied pleasures of the Far East. My life of boats includes designing, building, sailing, and life aboard, for any vessel I own must also be my home. While living in Seattle during the mid-seventies to early eighties, writing screw and kill Nick Carter paperbacks, I built a 34’ catamaran that I subsequently sailed from Puget Sound to Juneau, Alaska and return (more like motored, you don’t sail the Inside Passage), looking to salmon fish and gold pan. When vandals destroyed that boat, I moved south again to San Jose, then Long Beach, California, now writing the Operation Hang Ten series of screw and kill spy novels under the name, Patrick Morgan.
During this time I became a permanent boat dweller. From 1984 onward, I have never returned to live on dirt. The vessel I bought was not only the smallest I’ve owned, a Columbia 26’ but I lived aboard her longer than any other, ten years, while I wrote a couple of memoirs and many sailing articles. I solo sailed that little ship down the Baja coast to Cabo San Lucas and around to La Paz where I lived at anchor for four months, writing screenplays that went nowhere; then I coastal and island hopped for a year through the Sea of Cortez, writing more screenplays that went nowhere. This was affordable because: my boat was small; my boat was simple; I sailed alone. Mornings after hot oats in non-fat milk and honey, I wrote. My diet became rice and fish. I dove for supper every evening, snorkeling with my Hawaiian Sling after pan-size trigger fish, a mild tasting fish so plentiful they seemed to impale themselves on my spear. By snorkeling instead of rod and reel fishing, I had the choice of what to eat. Many large grouper zipped past me down there but they were too big for one meal and I had no refrigeration. Two of the tasty fish sizzling on the small barbecue while rice boiled was enough to whet anyone’s appetite. Small villages carried some fruit and vegetables so I added a tomato, onion, cucumber salad swirling in olive oil and vinegar to the rice and fish. I’ve eaten an apple every morning of my life for decades.
While in Mexico, I started putting together the first of my continuing crime novel characters, Baylor “Bay” Rumble, a guy who designed and built a 30’ sailing catamaran and while sailing the world runs into murder, alley fights, gun-toting men, treachery and women so slick and hard they can chop trees with their heart. To date I’ve written four in the series. The character of Bay has been followed by Logan Sand, a Northwest Private Eye so tough you can light matches on his skin. There are two in that series. Logan was recently followed by the tough woman PI, Makayla “Mac” Tuff, who operates out of a little town north of Lake Havasu, Arizona where she works and lives in a 22’ Airstream. I’m currently writing the first in her series.
Ah, but sailing north, I smashed my little sloop on the wicked shore south of San Felipe in twenty-three foot tides.
Four times in my life I have been stripped of all I own and had to start over with nothing, not even a home. Each time the loss bites deeper with more stuff accumulated, but recovery is easier because the value of things diminishes. All those precious possessions turned out to be not so precious. Think about it. You wake up and everything you own, including your home, is gone. No insurance. You must begin again from scratch. How tough would that be for you?
While working as a bartender to save for my next boat, I rented an old sloop from my Australian buddy who had moved back on dirt with his girlfriend. My small Columbia was replaced, and those replaced until I bought my present boat, a Cal 29’ that has been my home for seven years.
What’s it like writing and living on a small boat?
I’ve always owned small boats because they are simpler and cheaper to keep up. Electronic-laden big yachts are for the rich and I’ve never been rich. I prefer sail rather than power boats, I enjoy covering distance by free wind, like I’m getting something for nothing, a bicycle whizzing downhill, a free ride. Although cabin cruisers certainly offer more living space per foot, they also offer more systems and gadgets to self-destruct. The sea environment quickly eats up electronics and electricity, which don’t live a happy life there. Ask any skipper and he/she will tell you that every piece of electronics aboard has failed at least once. Yes, sail boats can be complicated. My Cal 29 was set up for racing; we dock rats did race her in the Newport Beach to Ensenada, Mexico race and did well, eighth in class. I’ve tried to simplify the rigging as I did the little sloop I sailed to Mexico. These days I have as much interest in sailboat racing as I do in lawn mowing. Certainly a 30’ cabin cruiser will offer more living space but there’s nothing I can do about that, I like to sail.
The layout of most sail boats has the anchor at the bow in its own locker. Moving back there is the V-berth, which can be a double (mine is queen), then the head or toilet with hanging closet opposite. I don’t like that arrangement with the toilet next to the pillow where I sleep, even with a thin plywood door between, but almost all small boats are designed that way. Next is the main cabin which is usually a dinette of some kind. The galley may be aft near the entrance hatch or it may take up one side along a narrow aisle across from the dinette. My Cal 29 has this set-up. I don’t care for it. My little Columbia Sloop had a long seat on one side, a dinette on the other and the small sink/propane stove next to the entrance hatch. I consider the only place for a stove is under the main hatch. Otherwise cooking splatters and the result coats everything in the cabin. Some boats have seats along both sides with a folding table in the middle. My next boat will be something like that. It is considered the “traditional” layout. Most boats have a large outside cockpit aft with two seats about six feet long. An awning makes it comfortable and much writing can be done on a folding table during nice weather at anchor. An inverter gives you power from a twelve-volt system. Solar panels can provide charge but there is a Honda generator in my future. The smaller the boat the less of this you get, though in our marina there is a Columbia 22’ with a satellite dish. Down around 22’-23’, the toilet might not have its own compartment but slide out from under the V-berth. I’d rather have it along the settee or seat in the main cabin. That size boat is not going to attract much of a crowd so privacy is not an issue. A small boat means smaller costs for everything to maintain and use her.
Until you reach 27’-28’ to over 30’, you’re likely not going to have standing headroom. My Cal has six feet, I’m six-three; scars along my thinning-hair dome show the results. At 26’, my Columbia sloop had a bubble cabin top. Headroom was 5’11” in the main cabin quickly dwindling to 4’6”. That worked for me because: I stood under the open hatch while cooking, I knew there was no standing headroom and bent accordingly, most writing/reading time in the cabin was spent sitting, headroom was unlimited in the cockpit. I’d rather know I have to bend than always come up a couple inches short on headroom. Standing tall inside a boat has never been important to me.
So what are the mechanics of living on a boat?
Unless you want to look like a gypsy camp trailer (and many of us do) you’d better have everything you own in a proper place. Even in my present boat, I cannot have my computer, printer or TV out there on display. They must be tucked away, wrapped in waterproof plastic, in their slots and only pulled when used. Forget about walking from the bedroom to the bathroom and the kitchen. What you’ll do is stumble and dodge around obstacles shuffling from one place to the other, in about three steps, while bent; table, counter, narrow doorways, steps always waiting to ambush you and slow your movements.
Sound like fun?
One of the beautiful wonders of the human body is its ability to adapt. The water people of Hong Kong sleep aboard their junks on a pine board, (I’ve been there and seen them), even oldsters in their seventies and eighties and nineties. Been doing it all their life, are used to it. An ancient Chinese proverb states that Heaven is a bed, with your few items of most value within reach, and a maiden by your side. I can relate. I had a rude awakening recently when I attended a boat show. I like boat shows, not because I can afford the gleaming, plush monstrosities displayed but so I can steal ideas to use on my own humble craft. I was surprised as I moved aboard different boats that I grabbed every handhold and shuffled about slowly like a doddering old fool, being looked at with concern by sales people way down there on the floor. I know my own boat so well I swing aboard from a wobbly dock and flow around the rigging and cabin like a chimpanzee through jungle vines. Tugboat captains twenty years on the same boat never have a queasy stomach. They get on a different vessel, different quirks, layout, movement, and they’re off calling for Wyatt Earp with regularity.
Most of those reading this may not be into sail or skinny hulls or a bed shaped like a V with no room for your feet and you get into by crawling over the pillows, or all that stuff in the way. Certainly, the modern woman would never put up with such a way of life. You want a houseboat or at least a cabin cruiser. You can afford the gas, or you ain’t going no place, you’re just going to write and live on it.
There are some perks. Claustrophobic? My ex-girlfriend says, when I’ve had enough of people I dive in my cave like a bear to hibernate and be a hermit. But when I open the hatch, there’s all that water with all that water life. If I’ve sailed to anchor at Catalina Island, there’s the island, although it only takes me a week to know I’m on an island. There are other shores with other civilization—the shore and islands in Puget Sound and the Florida Keys. I’m not wild about sailing to remote places; writing is alone work. When I’m done I like to go among them, lift a few with the hale and hearty, shuffle and hug ladies on a dance floor, for I do love the ladies; and exchange ideas. That’s my type of destination. But there’s a limit even to that stuff.
Sailing is a slow way to get anywhere. You bet. I believe the ‘getting there’ is as important as the ‘there.’ My autopilot steers while the sails pull, and I’m a passenger, having my hard boiled eggs, quartered tomatoes, pitted black olives and sliced cheddar, watching the trailing ‘meat hook,’ jotting notes for future writing, and churning ideas, so many ideas, listening to the gurgle and hiss of hull through water, and inhaling the sea life around me.
The ‘real’ cost of boat dwelling? Cheaper than rent. The dark secret to success is you can’t be making payments for the boat; you have to own it, however humble. I know guys happily living on sailing vessels (that sail well) they paid $500 for; the upper limit is off the chart. Back in ’84, I paid $11,000 cash for my 26’ Columbia. My current Cal 29’, I bought for $6,000. There are places you can rent a slip for $150 a month. Slip fees can go from $10 a foot per month to Newport Beach, California where it’s $18 to $24 a foot per month. Some marinas charge for everything else too. I get free water and electricity for my $13 a month per foot. Areas like the Northwest and the Sacramento Delta are cheaper. Parts of Florida are cheap. Mexico, if you stay out of marinas, can be free. It was for me.
The cockpit of a sailboat anchored next to a beach, not only provides delightful scenery of many kinds, but is a perfect place to read. Lord, the books I’ve read in sailing cockpits. When cruising, most stops have a book exchange—you leave one and take one. I write crime novels so I’m attracted to those kinds of books. But in Mexico, I read Captain from Castile, the inside gossip dirt on Liz and Richard, the biography of Shelly Winters; endless westerns (sailors like westerns, maybe cowboys like sea going yarns); books I’d ignore in a bookstore. And loved them. You have to take what’s available. Two activities cause me to read a book every two days: cruising under sail and gold prospecting; you can’t detect or pan gold in the dark, but you can read by a lantern.
So, tell me I’m full of apple sauce and go buy your houseboat or cabin cruiser, or continue strangling with your mortgage and high rent. I’m always doodling with boat design. I’m working my ideal home now, about 30’ maybe less, a scow-houseboat-sailing junk, with a leeboard and Chinese junk sails and a eight-horsepower Yamaha four-cycle outboard with alternator to charge batteries, able to slide up a beach, and trailerable.
Can’t wait to get started.