THE TRUTH ABOUT LIFE AT SEA
The golden age of sail, the days of weevils in the hard tack and scurvy may be long past, but the hardships of a life at sea linger on, despite technologies many advances and the invention of modern inconveniences. The postcards lie! Living on the sea in a small boat is nothing like the travel agents, romance writers and yacht brokers would have you believe. And, who in their right minds would spend so much money to be so uncomfortable? We sailors, who are definitely out of our minds, keep on living like this, year after year, adapting to our chosen form of self-torture without a second thought.
Day to day living requires a few basics, like eating, sleeping, and staying clean. And there's also going to the toilet. On the tall ships of the past, the "head" was a platform at the front of the boat overhanging the water where the crew would relieve themselves, in view of whoever's eye glanced forward. And there has always been the nautical version of the chamber pot, commonly known as a bucket.
On most sailboats now, we have a marine toilet which is usually a ceramic bowl with plastic parts that break. This is a complicated piece of equipment to operate, and elaborate instructions are usually posted on the bulkhead or wall above. Most of these toilets require turning knobs, flipping open valves and vigorously pumping a lever up and down thirty times or more, all in the correct sequence. Turning that knob in the right direction could mean the difference between a floating boat and a sinking boat, a huge responsibility when all you really wanted was to pee. Oh, and these lovely marine toilets have their attitudes, too. They will squirt at you, and belch foul fumes at you, and just to make your day, they will clog. It's a messy job, tearing it apart to clear that clog, and facing the skipper's wrath could be deadly.
Here on Naga we don't have a marine toilet. Naga is a trimaran, a boat with three hulls, and the wing decks between the hulls extend out over the water so we are able to have an "in-house outhouse, literally, a hole with a seat. This is the simplest toilet I've ever found on a boat, but it too has its problems, like opening the lid, only to be splashed in the face by a wave, and the inevitable salt water douche when under way. And even weirder is looking down and seeing your shipmate snorkel past.
Hygiene is of great importance at sea, and sailors go through many strange rituals to get clean. Baths are unheard of, the waste of water too obscene to mention, so showers are the norm. Different boats have different systems, but here on Naga we take our showers in the cockpit.
The cockpit is the most utilized area on Naga, it's the shower stall, the living room, sometimes the dining room, and when sailing, from where we steer the boat and operate the many lines and winches that keep the sails trimmed. We have a five-gallon black vinyl bag we fill with water, lay in the sun to warm up, then hoist over our heads and let gravity bring the water to us.
Very simple you think? Hardly! If there is no sun, if it's a cloudy or overcast day, or if the wind shifted and the shadow of the awning rested on the bag, it's going to be a cold shower. First thing in the morning, it's a cold shower. After sunset, it's a cold shower. Left in the sun for too long, it's an unbearable scalding hot shower. And water pressure? Ha ha ha. This five gallons is for two people, and just TRY to get all that shampoo out with the trickle that comes out the nozzle. All this while crouching down in the cockpit to avoid the chilling wind and voyeuristic neighbors.
Some friends of mine have a wonderful shower system; they have a large bucket with a foot pump and long hose. They put a pot of water on the stove to boil, and add that to the water in the bucket. Then, holding the hose over their head, the foot pump is pressed up and down continuously. Waaka waaka waaka waaka. My sister, after visiting them for a week, insisted that the calf muscles on her right leg had grown considerably larger.
Several boats I have sailed on have a much more civilized system, a shower stall below decks with an electric water pump and hot water tank, nice water pressure too. Yet inescapably, after a minute and a half of this luxurious shower, the skipper is banging on the deck and hollering about wasting the water . . . so step out of the tiny shower stall and dry off not so reluctantly, because after the first thirty seconds the water was running cold anyway.
Food preparation has been known to become an adventure at sea, and on Naga the adventures continue. Ladies, you think your kitchen doesn't have enough counter space? Naga has NONE. No counter tops, no toaster, no blender, no microwave, no electric can opener and no oven. The galley (that's nautical for kitchen) consists of a two-burner propane stove and a 12"x14" sink with a hand pump for fresh water and a foot pump for sea water. Confusing the sea water spigot with the fresh water one is a mistake I have made occasionally, resulting in some very salty (and inedible) meals. Even the stove-top space is limited. Mother Ocean doesn't always cooperate with my culinary endeavors, and one rouge wave will knock the pots right onto the floor, or onto me, so using cooking oil when under way could be more harmful to your health than merely too much cholesterol. Regardless of the size and lack of appliances, I still manage to create some yummy meals, and have fun with it too. It really is possible to bake bread in a pressure cooker!
I have met a lot of gourmet chefs at sea, they are commonly but not exclusively employed on charter boats, and it still amazes me how they can prepare three meals a day, plus snacks and desserts, for so many people in such tiny galleys, and the food that comes out is not only delicious, but visual works of art as well. These chefs are usually very well paid, sometimes earning as much or more than the captains of the charter boats. No hard tack and salt pork served at these tables!
Refrigeration and food storage provide their own set of problems. Can you imagine life without your refrigerator? On those wooden beauties of yesterday, everything perishable had to be smoked, dried, pickled or salted. These methods are still in use today, but cold storage has become the preferred method of food preservation. Every marina, bait shop and bar on the waterfront sells ice, usually at escalated prices. But after twelve years of fishing soggy lettuce and sandwich meat out of melted ice, I have discovered there are much better ways.
Some boats have refrigeration systems that are powered by running their diesel engines and some are powered by 12 volts drawn from storage batteries. Both systems can work relatively well if you provide enough power for them. However, these are not the six-foot tall appliances found in most kitchens. They are usually built into cabinets or lockers, under tables or inside counter tops, and due to inconsiderate boat designers purposely placing the ice box in difficult to reach places, the cook will commonly find herself upside down trying to reach the ground beef, or actually being held around the ankles by the skipper as she blindly feels around the bottom for that last cold beer.
On Naga, our refrigerator, inconveniently located in the sail locker far away from the rest of the galley, is powered by propane, and a tiny pilot light magically keeps the 2' cubic space cold enough to keep the butter from melting.
Hollywood has typically portrayed the living quarters of sailboats as colorful roomy places where the captain entertained his guests in style, and the crew stayed forward, comfortable in their 18" wide space allotted them for their hammocks. Some modern sailboats have wonderful accommodations down below, separate cabins with queen-size beds, a large dining table surrounded by plush upholstery, and plenty of head room.
Naga isn't like that. Forward on Naga is the "v-berth," a bunk 46" wide, that tapers down to 30" at the foot, and just enough headroom so that when you sit up straight, you whack your head on the beams above. In the main cabin there are two more berths, 3'x6', these are out in the "wings" of the boat, therefore they slope uphill with the curves of the boat, and when you lie down you have a tendency to roll off the bed and into the sink. And again, just enough headroom for a serious concussion. When under way, Naga is very noisy. The hull is made of plywood and epoxy, very thin (but surprisingly very strong due to her design) and the sound of the waves pounding against the hull, and the flexing of the entire boat tend to keep you awake, even if you can manage to keep from being thrown out of bed.
We dine at the foldout chart table, just enough space for two people to sit comfortably, and if we have guests, we seat them in the cockpit with their plates on their laps. No one complains, however, about the hospitality provided here on Naga.
No, life on the sea isn't always comfortable or convenient, but when that anchor comes up and the soft fragrant wind fills the sails, the noise of the city is left behind, along with all the stress and hassles of modern life, and the vast turquoise ocean in all her majesty surrounds you from horizon to horizon, one begins to see that it's all really worth it, and it is truly a wonderful way to live.
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Living aboard a sailboat is not what you expect!