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  • Writer's pictureSarah Gibbs Underhill

How to Live in a Lifeboat

Updated: 4 hours ago

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” – T.S. Eliot

My partner and I used to spend our summers living in a rowboat. That was before we had children, pets, a mortgage, two cars, a telephone and an address, and long before the advent of the internet and cell phones. We were traveling light in those days. Everything we needed for comfortable summer living could be packed into our sixteen foot Norwegian lifeboat, and our summers used to begin in early May and last until October or November.

Just after high school, in the late 1970's, I first learned the art of small boat travel in the lifeboats of a wilderness survival school off the coast of Maine. I honed my wilderness camping skills on a kayaking course I took in Prince William Sound, Alaska, before the region became notorious as the site of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

My interest in literal survival had an urgency not matched by any interest in the idea of going to college or pursuing a conventional career. I was wary of my chances of living through a nuclear war, the threat of which hovered over my young existence like an approaching superstorm, and wanted to have some skills. I wanted to find a safe refuge, and this quest led me and my companion into some of the riskiest situations we would ever experience.

After Dave and I spent a summer kayaking between Vancouver Island and the coast of Washington state, we decided we liked this method of travel and wanted to do more of it. We both wanted to see the world, and though we had very little money, we had very little need for it either. Dave would paraphrase Thorstein Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class” and point out that “on either side of the social spectrum, there exists a leisure class.” We had no illusions as to which end of this spectrum we were at, and armed with little else but our youth, charm, and – in retrospect- our share of white privilege, we made our plan.

After working as wharf rats in Hudson river boatyards all winter, caretaking, cleaning and repairing other people’s yachts, we had amassed a grubstake and were ready to go. Our four year odyssey would take us from the Caribbean to Mediterranean Spain, to Norway and then home to New England, stopping each winter to work on the docks wherever we ended up.

Our vessel, which we bought off the deck of a cargo boat in the French West Indies, was fitted out with the basics for survival at sea: oars, a mast and sails, an anchor, a compass, and a bucket to bail with. There was no engine and no radio. Our safety equipment included flares, lifejackets and a flashlight. For navigation we usually used local charts, although we once went all summer using a Sunoco road map. Waterproof containers housed food, clothing for all weathers, a mosquito net and sleeping bags. For comfort and fine dining, the boat had come equipped with an ingenious tent designed to fit over the boat from bow to stern. Our cook gear was pared down to the essentials: a frying pan, a cook pot, two spoons, two cups, a knife, water jugs, and a couple of empty tin cans. For traveling in a northern climate we added a one-burner kerosene stove, a tent for use on land, and a small Norwegian gillnet for catching our dinner.

It doesn’t do to get in a hurry when small boat cruising. We couldn’t go very fast, for one thing [in matters of coastal sailing, it is always faster to take the bus] and we had to be patient about waiting out bad weather or adverse winds. Rowing against the wind, which happens often enough in the course of a trip, is not something to go out and do intentionally. But if conditions were right, with fair winds for sailing or calm seas and easy rowing, we would set out each morning towards our rather arbitrary goal for the year. One summer it was circumnavigating two of the Balearic islands; next year a 500 mile trip down Spain’s Costa del Sol to Gibraltar. We didn’t have jobs or lives to get back to. Boating was our life at that point, and only the advent of cold weather, or running out of pesetas or kroner for groceries would bring the sailing season to a close.

We learned to dress sensibly for the weather conditions while underway. As we basically lived outside for months at a time, we had to be careful to conserve our body heat and compensate for dehydration from constant sun and wind. Wearing hats, long sleeves and sunscreen, and being sure to drink a lot of liquids was important in the south. Good rain gear, layers of warm clothes, wool sweaters, pants and hats were necessary even in midsummer on the Scandinavian coast.

It was always smart to keep a lot of high energy food and snacks on board, usually in the form of chocolate, cheese and fruit. We had no refrigeration. Our standard evening meal in the south was a tomato based vegetable stew enhanced by whatever protein we might have to throw in with it, chicken, or fish, or dry, spicy sobrasada sausage along with pasta or rice. Root vegetables and fresh caught codfish were on the menu in Scandinavia. We often ate breakfast and lunch on board, and when we got our stove could even cook hot meals while sailing along, although this could be a bit of a balancing act. Using a handline, we could jig for mackerel and catch a fresh meal.

We rarely sailed at night. Traveling along the shore, as we usually did, almost always in sight of land, we could find protection in the smallest cove, or simply anchor in calm water by any beach that looked inviting. If it didn’t look inviting, we could pitch our boat tent and sleep on board, but going ashore to stretch our legs and explore was enjoyable after being in the boat all day.

We would anchor, and then pay out the anchor line as we rowed in to within easy wading distance of the shore. After securing the stern with a line to a tree or a light anchor on the beach, we would wade ashore with all the gear we needed to set up camp: cooking gear, food, tarps and mosquito net or tent. Using a pulley system, we would haul the boat back out to the anchor in deeper water. Then we would choose a campsite, start a cook fire and cook a meal.

Looking back, it’s amazing how rarely we were evicted by a property owner unwilling to share the beach. We got pretty good at picking our spots, isolated areas as far as possible from private homes, and became inhabitants of the linear wilderness area that follows the tideline. A wood fire, a simple meal, maybe a little Spanish wine, sunset over the sea: we asked for no more that that after a day on the water.

Being intimate with the sea, we learned its moods and were wary of its capricious strength. We had to be able to take a hint. Large seas rolling in from the east meant a storm on the way in the western Med, and we might row most of the night to get behind a breakwater before the easterly gale, the “Levante”, struck. Daily headwinds preventing us from getting around a point of land meant getting up at dawn to row around the cape in the early morning calm. When we were back on the east coast of the U.S., a knowledge of tidal currents and when to use them allowed us to navigate from New York to the Canadian border in a single summer.

Even after years of developing our sea sense, the ocean was always able to dish us up a few surprises, as when we didn’t let out enough anchor line in the Bay of Fundy and ended up drifting in our sleep through the world’s largest whirlpool. When we woke up the next morning, our boat had anchored herself safely in a new place, and after some head scratching we pinpointed our new location and sheepishly continued on our way, reminded once more of our fallibility.

Being so small meant we could go almost anywhere with impunity, but our vulnerability usually kept us humble. The whirlpool incident could have been much worse. We did manage to be safely anchored during low tide, when the ”Old Sow”, as the whirlpool is locally known, is at its worst, and only went pirhouetting through it at high tide when it’s relatively calm.

People we met along the way often thought we were nuts. Some admired what they saw as our bravery (as "Dave Arkansas", a fellow small boat enthusiast once remarked, often poverty and stupidity are mistaken for courage.) But to many people we were simply invisible. Small, quiet and unobtrusive, we would slip into port for a day, load up with groceries, and move on. It was not in the ports, but in the solitude of deserted beaches that we were truly in our element.

There are many advantages to small boat travel. Small boats are inexpensive to buy and maintain, can be stored and trailered easily, and can even be “piggybacked” on board larger vessels. We hitchhiked with the “Manzanita” on several occasions: to get her back and forth across the Atlantic, from Gibraltar to the south of France, and from the French port of Sete up to Norway. Often there was no charge for this service, because the skipper of the larger craft had the room, liked what we doing, and figured “what the heck.”

Traveling aboard such a small boat is a unique experience, like any extended camping trip. Living without a schedule, on the beach and close to the water, we led for those years a truly timeless existence which brought us in touch with the natural environment and its rhythms and laws. Many unforgettable high points and narrow escapes stand out in my memory: sighting the island of Ibiza after a fifty mile crossing of open sea; sneaking through New York City’s Hell Gate amongst the currents and barge traffic; rounding the southern tip of Norway, Cape Lindesnes, in some pretty heavy following seas; or seeing the Rock of Gibraltar looming ahead of us after months of working our way towards it. But the overall satisfaction, like the lifestyle we led, is simple and undramatic. We saw a lot of sunsets, and sailed to many new bays and islands, discovering them for ourselves for the first time.

Almost a decade later, our kids were old enough to start enjoying short trips in “Manzanita” on the nearby Hudson river, and not quite old enough to realize how crazy Mom and Dad were to have had those adventures we liked to tell them about. “Manzanita” was in the backyard under a tarp, patiently waiting for the next voyage.

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