Life In The Bus Lane*

To get out here you must first go through there.

To get out here you must first go through there.

In the past I met many people who expressed amazement and envy for my then way of life: skippering yachts on wildlife research projects. And for the most part they were right, it was an enviable way of life. And although the pay was awful and the hours endless, the rewards were colossal, not least in terms of the sights seen, the people met and the places we were lucky enough to call home, even if only for a short spell. Now, living aboard Pèlerin, we get to do the same kind of thing only with less work involved. It’s a great life—with a few caveats.

If you’re planning to embark on a similar way of life, then you’ll probably share the dreams that drew us all in—the romance of sailing your own boat to foreign shores, the wheel of stars in an ocean night and the sensory avalanche of a distant landfall, to name a few of them. But understand this—you’ll also be spending a lot of your time in boatyards.

I’ve got them boatyard blues again…

I’ve just tried to work out how long I’ve spent living in boatyards and it runs into years. I reckon an average of six weeks a year for getting on for twenty five years to be about right. And not all of those yards were the Ritz, let me tell you. During my working days, all of the maintenance tended to be compressed into two spells at the beginning and end of the working season, in the coldest, wettest months of the year in Britain.

Why? Well, we couldn’t afford to pay someone else to do the work (apart from the really specialized stuff) so we had to do it all ourselves—still do, in fact. If your boat is going to be working every day for six months without breaking down there’s only one way that can be achieved, and that’s with absolutely meticulous attention to detail and preventative maintenance in the off-season. So you must learn about every aspect of your boat and its systems until you know it inside out. Wonderful training for long distance cruising, in fact, another form of sailing where this type of knowledge will make a critical difference to the success or failure of your voyages.

It’s enough to give you nightmares

Two ghastly winters haunt my nights. The first entailed a total rig re-fit of the gaff ketch rigged sailing trawler I was then working on—endless days aloft in the bitter cold and damp of a Cornish January. After that one I knew how a snowman felt.

The second, a winter re-fit in a shed at the head of a sea loch on the west coast of Scotland, where we’d booked the boat in to re-bed hatches and deck fittings, knowing the impossibility of trying to do that work outside. Which would have been fine if the shed roof had actually existed in any meaningful sense, forcing us to erect a tent over the deck inside the building. In the short, wet, freezing days of the Scottish winter, we moved around like miners with head torches, constantly soaked by contact with the clammy awning, skidding dangerously on the icy patches on deck—I nearly took to wearing a harness. Our only consolation was a hot shower at the end of the working day in an unlit shower block inhabited solely by an enormous, avuncular rat. At such times you begin to doubt your sanity.

Great boatyards of the world

Happily, these days we tend to be based in warmer places, so at least we don’t freeze. But living with the heat and dust can be trying, too, as we found in the Canary Islands. That and the devotion of the staff to the same music played constantly at deafening volume has left us with a pathological hatred of some of the current crop of pop stars, who would otherwise have escaped our attention.

But, as with their counterparts in colder climes, there’s always the endless battle of chasing parts and services promised but not delivered, the taxi rides to cajole and plead with intransigent officialdom (with whom you share no common language)—an exercise in disappointment on a daily basis. Only the resourceful and determined should apply…And choose a simple boat.

But they’re not all bad

Consider the yard we’re in at the moment, Peake Yacht Services at Chaguaramas, Trinidad. It has all the basics: a well-stocked chandlery, snack bar, restaurant, good showers and toilets, internet café and working WiFi, friendly staff and efficient management. It’s a real pleasure to have all of those facilities on site, which make life so much easier when you’re trying to get things done. And the officials here have been nothing but friendly and helpful, which has made getting spares in a whole lot easier.

Mangoes from our transom

Mangoes from our transom

The weather’s good, so working is easy, and although it’s baking hot, that just can’t be helped so we simply accept it. There are mangoes to be picked from our transom, wonderful bird life, iridescent iguanas and cute geckos. Plenty of bugs, though, including some the size of small birds—well, it can’t all be perfect now, can it? Every time I hear a yelp from Lou I know that one has just whirred by.

A bug the size of a bird

A bug the size of a bird

And you do get to make some wonderful friends in boatyards. Everybody is in the same boat (as it were) and there’s a common sense of purpose and a ready supply of second opinions should you need them. And if the yard (like this one) has the decency and foresight to offer a barbecue area for cruisers to share, then there’s even the chance to enjoy some excellent people from all around the world of an evening. Good food, good company and cold Carib beer will all have a beneficial effect on aching limbs at the end of the working day.

That’s the life we’ve chosen

…As Lou is fond of telling me whenever I begin grumbling about something that isn’t working out as planned or my knees start protesting at their constant use and abuse. Finally, as the job list shrinks, the list of the places to visit lengthens and the anticipation grows to accompany it. Neither of us has sailed in the Caribbean before, so we’ve got a lot to learn and look forward to, and we’re trying hard to remain objective about it.

As we’re (a) not employed on a boat and (b) not used to sailing in ‘holiday’ areas, this is going to be quite different for us, to say the least. Hopefully you’ll enjoy our reports back as we travel through the islands—out of the boatyard at last!

*As opposed to The Fast Lane (Eagles Song).

{ 12 comments… add one }

  • Dick Stevenson December 1, 2013, 5:19 pm

    Colin and Lou, All boat yard stays come to an end. At least that is what I hear. Then: Enjoy the Carib. Many say it doesn’t get any better. Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie December 2, 2013, 12:33 pm

      Hi Dick

      Well.we’re back on the water, and so life is good. Just about completed all of the checks, and so we’re nearly ready to go.

      As I said in the post, this kind of sailing is completely new to us, so we’re like kids wondering what will happen. Let’s hope your analysis is right!

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Marc Dacey December 2, 2013, 11:24 am

    No sermon I’ve ever endured has been one-tenth as inspirational as this post. I have to put a Honda 2000 on a bicycle trailer today to go put a charge on some batteries in Smaller Plastic Boat…only a nice 15 km. round trip in the freezing sleet…so this for me is well-timed!

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie December 2, 2013, 12:36 pm

      Hi Marc

      I’m glad it’s improved your day, which has a familiar ring to me otherwise.

      The chores don’t change, but in the right climate they do tend to become more tolerable – to say the least.

      Your turn will come!

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Victor Raymond December 2, 2013, 1:07 pm

    Hello Colin,
    Your post was a delight and describes to the tee the life we have chosen for ourselves. Only slightly worse than a boatyard is having to work on your boat from an anchorage.
    Fortunately for us, this summer’s work site was a delightful place that we knew well, had a car onshore, Costco, Walmart, Home Depot and countless other suppliers nearby to make the chores that much easier and pleasant.

    Having spent a good time in the Caribbean recently, we know about the heat, the bugs and other facets of Nature we are just not used to. For example in Venezuela we had to get accustomed to darkness by 6 o’clock summer and winter, cold showers three or four times a day, armed guards to get in and out of the razor wire compound. Nothing like sudden awakenings at night from deep slumber to shouts, gunshots and screaming to get the adrenaline going. Fortunately for us the music in Venezuela is their own and in a Spanish we hardly can understand except amor, sueño and lo siento.
    And you mention bureaucracy, wow, wait till you get to Venezuela if you dare. Who, what, where, when and why does one bribe inspite of all instincts not to. (You do want to get out of here don’t you?) You have to play by their rules not what you do in your own country.
    But the people, the country, the excitement of being in a foreign port can not be duplicated. And there are the super delightful locales such as Bonaire and Curaçao which seem to comes as a reward for the previous austerities.
    Thank you again and please keep the posts coming.
    Warmest regards from the Pacific Northwest (Orcas Island, WA USA)

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie December 2, 2013, 1:30 pm

      Hi Marc

      It’s such a relief to be able to go a couple of hundred metres and pick up the very part you need, without which the job can’t be done. After Senegal, Cape Verdes and Brazil it’s such a relief…..

      Interesting point about Venezuela. Many years ago friends of mine overwintered there and absolutely loved the place, couldn’t say enough about the beauty of the country, the people and the way of life. I don’t think you could say that now, sadly. We look objectively at all the countries we’ve chosen to visit (see above) and I think are reasonably outgoing, but I’m afraid we’ve chosen to give Venezuela a miss, not least because our insurers aren’t keen on the place. And I’d have to say, I really don’t like overly bureaucratic places, they’re just too much hassle.

      But I can’t help feeling that we’re missing something that we’d have love to have experienced, and I hope the situation there turns itself around. After all, Colombia had the same rep for many years, but now seems to be sorting itself out.

      Thanks for the kind words

      Colin

      Reply
  • Eric Klem December 2, 2013, 9:18 pm

    Hi Colin,

    Thanks for the post. Like you, we have had to adjust from doing the yard work professionally to doing it for fun. I still tend to prefer doing a few really long days but my wife prefers doing more, shorter days. The yard that we use is next to a nice downtown so she goes exploring once it gets dark and I stubbornly try to finish whatever I am working on.

    One thing that I really dread is having to do major work away from home. When I look at the shear quantity of tools and supplies that we own for a pretty simple boat, I remember how tricky it can be to do the work in other places.

    Eric

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie December 3, 2013, 11:15 am

      Hi Eric

      It is indeed a world apart. In the old days we had a panel van that contained all of our tools and spares that went ahead of us if we were working far away from home, so that we had our own, instant support network. Obviously that just isn’t possible now, so we have to select what tools we can carry judiciously, and up our game in terms of preventative maintenance and spares.

      And, like you, I’m always on the go – I really don’t enjoy this aspect of cruising, AND I’ve been doing it for a lifetime, so it’s just a case of go flat out and grin and bear it.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Myles December 3, 2013, 8:50 am

    “Only the resourceful and determined should apply…And choose a simple boat.” ; I am reminded, almost every day but, the sunrise makes me forget.

    Myles
    s/v Skylark

    Reply
  • Matt Y. December 3, 2013, 8:55 pm

    Between 1998 – 2001 we visited much of Venezuela on a number of occasions and thoroughly enjoyed the people and places. We had no major incidences. In all we spent about 8-months there. We hauled out in a razor wired yard with a patrol guard carrying a riffle 24/7. Incidentally, Cumana was a terrific climate to sandblast our steel boat – arid low humidity and more or less predicable afternoon rains made it easy; bought the paint at IMS in Chaguaramas. We have followed the political and economic developments in that country since, and this combined with the many cruiser reports we have read leave us with a clear conclusion that we will not visit again until the security improve there.

    Reply
    • Victor Raymond December 3, 2013, 10:38 pm

      Matt.
      Cumaná was the town I was referring to in my prior comment. Would have loved to have spent time in the Golfo de Cariaco and sorry I did not make this trip 30 years ago.

      Reply

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