A few seasons ago, I was selected to be part of an elite collection of female authors who live, work, and play on sailboats around the globe. A wise and worldly group of women o’ the sea was planning to resurrect SisterShip, a magazine that had been lying dormant beneath the waves for almost three decades, and I was asked to submit a piece for the magazine’s grand re-release. I was honored to have my work selected for what will soon be the premier magazine of the international women’s sailing community.
Last winter I hunkered down against the ice and snow, considered all the reasons I’d packed away my life on land, and penned this article about downsizing and the process of moving aboard my sailboat with my husband and dog. I am pleased to share the full text of the article below. I submitted more photos than the magazine printed, so I have taken the liberty of adding them here.
I share a 1986 Gozzard 36 named Tara with my husband and our Australian Cattle Dog. We’re three years into a five-year plan to cut the lines and sail toward Canada, and then decide between a north Atlantic crossing or heading south toward perpetual island time.
I didn’t start out as a boat gal. Instead, I filled my spacious apartment with possessions, climbed the corporate ladder, and followed the masses to the high rise offices of Washington, DC. I’d never been on a sailboat until I met my husband. Prior to that, he’d labored for years to build the perfect American dream. Once he discovered it wasn’t his dream, he left everything behind, moved onto a pristine 1978 Dufour 32, and started the business that accidentally brought us together. The Dufour seemed tiny to me and smelled faintly of diesel, however, the cozy v-berth and the endless evenings in the cockpit altered my dreams from shattering the glass ceiling to dreams of the places a sailboat can take you when the wind fills your sails.
As a couple we exchanged the Dufour for a catamaran, thus beginning year one of our five-year plan. We knew the catamaran wasn’t our forever boat, but she was a perfect right now boat with a shallow draft for our river. Not yet a sailor, I wondered about keeping my stuff on a boat, about hot showers, and about storing large bags of kale in a tiny boat refrigerator. Five years seemed like a long time, and I studied the liveaboard lifestyle like a National Geographic article about remote native tribes. Sure, it can be done but I have too much stuff, and I’ll figure it out later.
Further along in our five-year plan, we moved into a 500 sq ft apartment, and the downsizing lightbulb went off. I had sets of rarely used serving platters, enough towels and linens to start a bed & breakfast, and dozens of once a year party dresses; a surplus of belongings that had always been comforting to own but were rarely used. In that moment of clarity, my perception shifted from stuff as comfort to addressing how meaningful and useful those things were in my life.
Shortly after a major parting of ways with endless dresses, bags, boxes, and cartons, I was downsized from my corporate career. During the conversation with my boss, I had an unexpected gleeful I’m free moment, complete with inappropriate giggling instead of tears. My husband and I had gleeful we’re free! moment together when I told him about the downsizing; if we had the right bluewater boat to carry us across the ocean, why not cut the lines and leave now? We immediately put the catamaran on the market, sold it in 16 days, and we began combing through boat listings and meeting brokers at far-flung marinas on the weekends.
We visited Tara as lookie-loos because she was out of our price range but appeared to be our dream boat. Other sailboats we saw seemed to say this vessel is all business in the nautical department. None felt like home until Tara, who’s siren song was clearly welcome home, I have room for your large bags of kale! We were lookie-loos no more.
Tara’s vintage brand slogan is something like yachts for two – to go anywhere. She features 5’ of closet space if you don’t mind accessing the closet by kneeling on your pillow. She has a second saloon that converts into a centerline queen sized bed which I can stand up on, by the way, and storage space that mimics a land home rather than the sailboats with all business in the nautical department interiors.
Shortly after closing on Tara the lease expired on our 500 sq ft apartment. It took only moments to begin the frantic sprint from land to liveaboard. My previous social media posts had been We’re moving aboard in a few years, I was wondering… and suddenly they were For sale: almost everything in this apartment, please come get it now. Bring a truck. Motivated seller. Cash only.
Always a methodical overthinker, I employed particularly scientific methods to calculate my new liveaboard needs. This type of science alternates wine, tears, and insomnia with joy, excitement, and wine. I recreated Tara’s closet space on my shower curtain rod, hung up exactly that many of my favorites, and stacked the hangers downwards to create exponentially more space. The shower curtain rod promptly fell off the wall from the weight.
I triumphed in the end by not having to repair the rod because we moved and by knowing exactly how much clothing would fit. The contents of my dresser fit into three measured canvas bins; whatever fit came aboard and what didn’t fit didn’t make it. My shoes tuck neatly into two 12” square cube, and I’m able to fit many pairs, simply because they fit into a cube. Thank you, excellent organization, copious storage, and small feet!
What didn’t make it onto the doomed shower curtain rod, the 12” cubes, or the myriad measured bins and baskets was tagged, bagged, and donated to a local home for formerly incarcerated women.
We have everything we need, and we want for nothing, but I do occasionally miss my fancy immersion blender. Just saying. Do we secretly have overflowing cabinets? The answer is no. Jam-packed to the gills? Not at all. Ask if we’re prioritized, organized, and pared down to the best of our things and all of our favorites and the answer is a confident and assertive yes. Tara’s liveaboard storage and our solid, thoughtful and prioritized downsizing plan work together seamlessly to create a spacious and comfortable home within our 36’. Mindful as ever, our safety gear, tools, and the necessities for life on the sea also have tidy homes aboard.
On land, my husband and I never said to each other look how much space we have however as liveaboards we’ve repeated it many times over like a love note read between us. When you share small spaces with the person you’re closest to in all the world and when you can always see every inch of your home, you realize it’s not how little or how much you need to survive, it’s about growing, flourishing, and prospering with fewer objects and more adventures, more living, breathing, and experiencing the world without excess baggage, possessions, and stuff to weigh you down. I often think of the old saying it’s not getting the things you want, it’s wanting the things you’ve got. Yes, this is us.
I imagine new and future liveaboards and cruisers much like myself eating up the no-frills advice about downsizing for a boat. There’s the kitchen box. For a month put everything you use into a large box. In a month the items inside the box can come aboard, and everything else has to go.
There’s advice about shoes. You’ll need only three pairs aboard; one for the boat, one for going into town, and one for marina showers. Brown and quick dry are best. Advice about clothing that we should probably all follow. There’s boat clothes and land clothes. Don’t mix the two. And finally, advice about makeup. Wear sunscreen. Nobody needs makeup in the ocean.
Take the advice or leave it; wear your sunscreen or your eyeshadow and pack your brown quick dry shoes that are probably cute and comfy along with your strappy wedge sandals if you have the space. If you want the items that didn’t make it into the kitchen box or extra decorative towels, study your boat ahead of time, pull out your boxed wine and your tape measure, and bring the items that make you feel at home within reason because your home is now a boat. Seriously. It’s not about living with so little that it’s a half step above camping, it’s about figuring out how to surround yourself with meaningful items that keep you safe, comfortable, and contented in a small space that rocks with the wind and waves, and carries you over the water and far away.
Remember how I lamented not bringing my immersion blender? Maybe I expressed the same woeful sentiment once or twice, or maybe it came up every single time I talked to other liveaboard women who’d also packed up their kitchens. Much to my surprise, a few weeks ago Charles came home from his travels with a shiny new immersion blender and this one even has a whisk attachment! I think my life is pretty much complete at this point.
I have a piece on the way to you about a sail to a city we love but have only ever visited by car. Please stay tuned for that! I promised it to you last time and I apologize for being late but I will share a secret: since the beginning of the year, I’ve immersed myself in creative writing projects and publishing magazine articles. My articles are all about life aboard, but my creative pieces veer far, far from life at sea. Thank you for sticking with me this far because I have so much more to tell you!
“You have succeeded in life when all you really want is only what you really need.” -V. Howard