Don’t Leave It Too Late

Iron Bark II at anchor off Chaguaramas, Trinidad

Iron Bark II at anchor off Chaguaramas, Trinidad

Judging by the number and quality of comments on John’s recent piece how he financed cruising, his arguments really struck a chord with many of you.

Me, too, partly because Louise and I have both benefited in many of the ways John outlined (housing, pensions, etc.) but also because we are perhaps in the vanguard of the prototypical cruisers of the future he also identified. We both still work, and our cruising plans are dictated to a large degree by the need to travel around the world to carry out that work. With planning and strategic use of the possibilities offered by modern communications it’s just about possible. Even so, at times it can be very frustrating, especially if one of us is busy while the other isn’t. But as it’s the only way we could be living this life, there’s no point in complaining—we simply get on with it.

The luckiest generation

The point that really hit home to me was that we, the baby boomers, are perhaps the luckiest generation ever in so many ways, not least in terms of health, wealth and options. But I sometimes wonder whether we really recognize that—by which I mean do we ever stop to consider how much is enough? How often we meet people of our generation who say they intend to go long-term cruising, once the family/pension/business plans are met. Five years later, you meet the self-same people, and they’re still repeating their original mantra.

Not that any of those factors are negligible or to be ignored, as emphatically they’re not—but they should be kept in perspective, because time stalks us all. I grew up in a family just like that: nirvana was always just around the corner. And it taught me a valuable lesson: live every moment as if it’s your last. I knew from a very early age that I was happier living afloat than ashore, and I wanted to go long distance cruising more than anything else.

A dream shared

And there were the friends with whom I shared that dream, including one very dear one who in many ways was my mentor. Bill Robinson [not to be confused with Trevor Robertson, the owner of the Wylo pictured above] came into my life during my teens, about the time I bought my first sailing dinghy. Bill was in his forties by then, but I already knew of him as a local character and renowned dinghy sailor. Bill was kind enough to give me the benefit of much good advice on sailing matters, most of which I promptly (and stupidly) ignored. Fortunately for me, Bill was wise enough to know in advance that this would the case, and kind enough to forgive it as the arrogance of youth.

Bill had grown up by the sea beside the River Exe in Devon, before joining the RAF as a fighter pilot flying the early generation of jets. He had a fund of great stories of those days flying Hawker Hunters from coastal bases such as Bradwell and Chivenor, and of flying displays at national air shows. He had also got the sailing bug, and raced dinghies like National 12s and Larks at a competitive level. Later in life he had trained as a teacher, with a parallel career as a photographer and journalist, specialising in sailing matters.

A real one-off

Bill was a true eccentric—not the grotesque, fabricated kind to be found on television, but the old-fashioned English type. Bill genuinely didn’t think he was odd—he thought everyone else was. Quite what the kids he taught made of him, or his ways, I don’t know, especially as some of his teaching techniques were decidedly ‘different’, but I do know that had it been me in one of his classes, I’d have enjoyed him.

Later in life Bill suffered increasingly from hay fever, and took the opportunity to do something about it in a novel way. Out on the water he suffered far less, so he built a plywood Van de Stadt designed pocket cruiser called Idlebird, just big enough to take him down to the Isles of Scilly during his long summer holidays, where he could potter around living off the land and the sea, without the nuisance of hay fever.

Idlebird was spartan in the extreme—to describe her as basic would have been to gild the lily. But everything to enable survival was there, and together they sailed for years safely and efficiently up and down to his beloved islands. In this way, Bill became an expert on the Isles of Scilly, penning a number of excellent articles on sailing around them, full of colour, life and wonderfully barmy bits of lore.

And an inspiration

By this time I had progressed to my first “proper” yacht, a 27ft UFO, and with Bill’s advice ringing in my ears, I and three friends set off for our first cruise to the islands. Wild weather on the way, a fuel pipe that came off depositing all of our diesel into the bilges, thick fog on our way into the islands and a frighteningly near miss with a coaster on the way back were what we had signed up for. We had a fantastic and memorable time. And we had all become addicted to the islands, as, of course, Bill had known would be the case.

What did I learn from Bill? Some very simple lessons. Always retain a healthy respect for the sea, never waste a fair wind, and if you have to move, move now. Oh, and carry plenty of anchors—Bill had no less than five aboard Idlebird. Good lessons, and they have never let me down.

By the time of his retirement, Bill and I were constantly in deep discussion about our ideal cruiser for the “big voyage”. Of course, we had very different ideas about the right boat, but Bill beat me to it and bought a steel hull and deck from the board of Nick Skeates, a Wylo II, a gaff rigged ocean-going Jeep. Of course, she was to have some of Bill’s hallmarks from birth, such as no cockpit and (originally) an air cooled diesel. But as several of her sisters had been sailed everywhere highly effectively, there was no doubt in my mind that Bill would get there too. But, being Bill, and needing to make everything himself (spars, rigging, sails, deadeyes, courtesy flags, etc.), I was really worried about the length of time it was going to take, and on a regular basis I chafed him to farm out some of the work and just get out on the water.

Sadly, as so often happens, fate was waiting just around the corner, and disaster struck. One bout with the big C was defeated, but a second proved too much, and Bill’s once powerful spark was extinguished. And so ended the life and cruising dream of one of the kindest, funniest, most original spirits I have had the good fortune to know.

It’s a familiar story

Since then I have seen and heard so many similar stories (or variations thereof), and I’ll bet you have as well. And as I get older I see other sides, too. Having had my own run-ins with illness and injury, I can see as never before how transitory this life can be. And I know now that with each successive year the physical challenge becomes more difficult, and that the jobs that used to take one day now take two, and in a few years’ time? I find myself thanking my lucky stars that I didn’t wait until I had everything in apple pie order before casting off the lines.

Carpe diem, seize the moment, life’s not a dress rehearsal, you can’t take it with you, etc., the list of admonitory clichés goes on and on. We all know they’re true, but pretend that’s not the case, and that there’s always more time. Until one day we’re forced, finally, to acknowledge the flawed nature of our thinking.

Take a chance on life

So if you are a ‘baby boomer’ and you really want to convert your dream into reality, don’t wait until all the stars are in the right positions, the economy recovers, the sweetheart deal has been struck, the perfect boat has been found, and/or you win the National Lottery. Take advantage of the good fortune you’ve already got, downsize, go with the boat you have, do whatever it takes to make your dream come true—only go, go now, while your good luck holds.

Looking out across the anchorage the other day, I saw a smart Wylo II arrive and drop anchor. What a jolt to the memory that was, and I can’t say how much it would have meant to me if that had been Bill, back from making his way around the oceans. We could have swapped stories for hours on end about the life we’d dreamt of, now our reality, and the great times yet to be had.

Time—the most precious commodity of them all.

Further Reading

You can read more of Colin’s lyrical writing in this Online Book that chronicles his voyage to date.

 

{ 22 comments… add one }

  • Marc Dacey December 21, 2013, 4:32 pm

    Very wise words indeed, and I am trying my best to get off the dock.

    The part you didn’t mention is that you may have to be ruthless or at least realistically unsentiments about aging parents and other family members: I hear from people already out there that they worry a great deal about family left behind, because let’s face it, cruising isn’t seen as “work”, even when it is, and resentments can grow from this.

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie December 22, 2013, 1:00 pm

      Hi Marc

      Lou and I have both lost our parents, so that one doesn’t apply, but yes, we know many people who have to make tough decisions as to what is ‘right’ for them, and when it’s time to call it a day and return home.

      But I do have two wonderful children, both happily making their way successfully in the world. But when – hopefully – one days, grandchildren happen, how will I feel then?

      But would that stop us from going on? Who knows – I think we’d hope they’ll be bale to come and join us.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
      • Marc Dacey December 22, 2013, 2:13 pm

        Well, it’s an odd thing to move to the front of the family line, isn’t it? My parents are also both departed, and I didn’t have a kid until I was 40, so I’m in the unusual position of my son only having one living grandparent who just turned 70….and my son is just approaching his teens. But that’s not the usual situation, and I hear most often from cruisers in their active 50s and 60s with parents in their late 70s, 80s or even 90s, who are having to balance this sort of thing off. It’s a consequence of better health care, which, while it’s a bit hit-or-miss in extending the health of youth and middle-age, has been very successful at extended the period of decrepitude and decline that used to finish old folks in their last year of life!

        Grandchildren I might not live to see if my son is as tardy to breed as I and my father were, but they are welcome aboard if they are! Our own son first sailed at the age of five days, so at least one person in our family has been “born to the sea”, or at least, a Great Lake.

        Reply
  • RDE December 21, 2013, 7:24 pm

    Beautifully written, Colin. And if I must say so, a bit more mature than the quote from Sterling Hayden that I have mounted on the wall!

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie December 22, 2013, 1:02 pm

      Hi Richard

      Thanks for the kind words – and I think I know the quote you mean, and it’s a very good one!

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Dick Stevenson December 22, 2013, 9:39 am

    Dear Colin,
    A very nice piece. We all have attitudes: guidance systems if you will, which effect or determine many of our actions in everyday life. Many times these attitudes are illusions. Your article bumps up against the guidance system which whispers in one’s ear, “I have all the time in the world.” These attitudes are usually powerful and persistent, have been held lifelong and often lurk in the background such that one may be only dimly aware of their existence or their impact. It would be an interesting study to piece together the personal characteristics that have contributed to those who have gone wandering on boats to see if there is commonality.
    Thanks for the prod to think,
    Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie December 22, 2013, 1:06 pm

      Hi Dick

      I’m sure there’s a nomadic gene in all who go cruising, coupled with a willingness to live life on your own terms, and I’d love to see that subjected to some analysis. I think those are great attributes – but society and governments don’t always see things my way….

      And we don’t have all the time in the world, do we? Just what time is left allotted to us, which always runs out just when we thought we were on our way.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Pete Worrell December 22, 2013, 11:06 am

    Well said Colin.

    I am inspired to share my own view that to grow– in anything– doesn’t ever really begin with adding another thing to do. It starts first with systematically discarding the complexity we have accumulated in our lives (often accidentally) along the way. Successful people frequently have a lot of physical and mental energy (and often financial resources) and so can get into a lot of complexifying mischief.

    We only authentically open the door to learning and growing by first shutting the door on energy draining and complexifying activities and, yes… relationships. It is challenging because it isn’t the norm in our culture, and to accomplish it we have to resiliently endure what will result: the loneliness, the willingness to be misunderstood, of not conforming to society’s traditional expectations of us. It can be daunting, but for some of us, it is the only way we maximize our potential as humans.

    With Every Good Wish for a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

    Kareen & Pete Worrell
    S/V PATIENCE

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie December 22, 2013, 1:09 pm

      Hi Kareen & Pete

      That’s a very well thought through and wise comment, which I agree with wholeheartedly. Less is more, and free’s us up to find more space in our lives for the things that really matter, family, friends, adventure, reading, learning – so much that gets put into Division II if all we do is fill our lives with things we don’t need.

      And a Happy Christmas and New Year to you, too.

      Colin

      Reply
  • Larry Rudnick December 22, 2013, 11:12 am

    Very good advice and some that I took myself. My wife and I took a cruising sabbatical in 2000 and stayed out for 7 years. It was the best thing I ever did and although getting back into the “real world” was tough, it was absolutely worth it. Sailing friends knew it wasn’t a vacation, although those not so savvy certainly thought it was. We didn’t care, it was truly a dream come true – storms, breakdowns, incessant repairs and all.

    We were fortunate enough to have enough savings to do it while relatively young (late 40s into mid 50s) but we met folks much older and much younger than ourselves. Some friends said I was nuts for leaving a good career in the middle of my best earning years, but I knew I didn’t want to wait. But we had enough since I planned very carefully for 5 years (my first and only 5-year plan) to have enough.

    Now I meet people who ask how I did it. I generally don’t go into much detail since they’re really not interested, just asking since at first, it appears to be magic – how a solidly middle class couple left on a 7 year cruise. But those who have “been there, done that and have the t-shirt” understand how it’s done.

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie December 22, 2013, 1:15 pm

      Hi Larry

      It’s so very difficult to explain to ‘settled’ family and friends what causes an otherwise sane (?) and successful person to follow the call of the wild. But like Cain and Abel, the story is as old as time and learning itself, the battle between the hunter gatherer and the pastoralist. And just because we live in times when the story seems antediluvian doesn’t mean it doesn’t still hold a lot of appeal for the afflicted.

      The most disappointed people I’ve ever met have been the ones who didn’t heed the call – and no, you can’t really explain it to people who haven';t experienced it. As the old saying goes, ‘if I had to explain you wouldn’t understand’.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • FAIVET DANIEL December 22, 2013, 12:04 pm

    Un grand navigateur francais ( Kersauzon ) a dit
    Il y a ceux qui disent et ceux qui font ……..
    Cette reflexion me semble appropriee a cet article …. Il n est jamais trop tard
    Pour ceux qui ont le courage de faire ?
    Cordialement
    ULYSSE

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie December 22, 2013, 1:18 pm

      Daniel

      Notre ami l’Amiral, moitié aventurier, moitié poste, et grand ami de Tabarly, correcte comme toujours.

      Et c’est vrai – c’est jamais trop tard – saisir le moment, le baraka, jeter les amarres et sentir le grand large!

      Cordialement

      Colin

      Reply
  • richard e. stanard (s/v lakota) December 22, 2013, 4:39 pm

    here i have always considered the baby boomer phrase to be purely american because have never heard it used anywhere else until now with this post…i wonder how wide is its use in the u.k. ? other places ?actually i consider myself to be the first baby boomer as i entered this world aug 6, 1945…the day of the hiroshima atomic explosion effectively ending the war not to mention it must have been quite a boom in itself, and i will agree that the baby boomer generation may have experienced the best this world can offer despite its many uncertainties since then that seem rather pale now with the events of the last decade so i am thankful for the nearly-20,000 miles of cruising i have eked out of the last 25 years amounting to about the same number of hours, and the good prospects for many more yet to come in spite of myself with my conventional rearing telling me not to do any of it and not normally seeing how i would swing it but did so anyway learning many valuable lessons in its course…cheers

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie December 27, 2013, 5:10 pm

      Hi Richard

      Baby boomers are everywhere, including the UK!

      And, yes, we all have to cope with the good old work ethic thing (and there’s nothing wrong with it, in any case) within reason. There comes a time when it’s necessary to shake off those shackles and live life to the full. Good for you for doing so.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • dpddj December 22, 2013, 7:56 pm

    My small business was sold about 1-1/2 years ago. Things were falling into place for the September 2014 tossing off the docklines. Unfortunately, the business buyer and I seemed to disagree with what a contract means, even though it was written in quite plain English.
    Last Friday I found myself back in the captain’s seat, but that of my old business. I have a few things to fix and it will again be back on the market 1Q 2014. That fall departure date is approaching fast. And I’m not getting any younger.

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie December 27, 2013, 5:13 pm

      Hi

      Tough one on the sale, but it’s a familiar song. I got fed up with all the tyre kickers when I was selling mine, and in the end just sold all the stock, got the money in and called it a day. It’s the most frustrating thing in the world to be ready to go, but unable to do so, so good luck, stick with it, and we’ll see you out here!

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Laurent December 22, 2013, 8:42 pm

    I guess the idea of “leaving” correspond to very different questions :
    – 1) Taking some distance with the world as it is, and the part we are supposed to play in it
    – 2) Voyaging because of the pleasure associated with voyages
    – ?..

    Personally, I appreciate very much the first kind of motivations, but I do have some doubts about the second point. When I was student, I traveled 6 month in Greece (3 times 2 month..) alone in a 2-chevaux camper I made, and I did a very serious explorations of Greek antiquity an byzantine times, including Greek and byzantine philosophies and theologies. I guess it did really help me understanding the world.

    Considering the second kind of motivations, I can’t help remembering a quotation from a famous french writer that I generally don’t appreciate very much, but I can’t dismiss all his ideas just for that reason : Louis-Ferdinand Céline, who wrote : “Les voyages sont un petit plaisir pour couillons” (migth be translated as : “travels are a small pleasures for suckers”..). I don’t think he is right, but perhaps we can conclude that, even when traveling, you can only find things you very seriously looked for before leaving, and answer questions you seriously asked. So, in order to make a travel really successful, there is also some kind of psychological and perhaps, philosophical, preparations that needs to be done to get a bit more than Céline’s “petit plaisir”, and I can’t blame the guys who ask a little more time for that….

    Reply
    • Colin Speedie December 27, 2013, 5:21 pm

      Hi Laurent

      thanks for a really interesting comment.

      Like you, Lou and I both travelled extensively for business and pleasure, and like travelling – I’m just as happy on a motorcycle or in a camper van as a boat. And that love of new horizons does help.

      There’s no doubt that as you travel in this way you do meet people who are not enjoying the life. Without some sense of purpose it can seem directionless and pointless at times. And without some form of hinterland (a love of art, photography, different cultures) you can simple end up living the same life at sea as on land – there has to be something beyond just ‘cruising’ to make it all seem worthwhile.

      And thanks for there typically cynical quotation from Celine, a writer with one of the most dystopian world views of them all – but I agree – he has a point with that one.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • John Pedersen September 4, 2014, 3:49 pm

    Hi Colin,

    I never met Bill, but I bought his Wylo from his sister, and finished the building of it in the following year. I know Nick, and sailed with him once, but in very calm weather just from Plymouth to the IOW.

    I was disappointed by several aspects of the Wylo design, and found it to be the rolliest boat I’ve ever sailed (I’ve owned half a dozen boats and done a few deliveries etc). I think it might have needed more ballast in the keel. I think Bill used iron, and it might have been better with lead. But after all my careful epoxy painting I didn’t fancy opening up the keel to put some more ballast it – the boat was on its correct waterline after all, so the need for more ballast was just a theory I didn’t fancy testing. The rolliness and a couple of other aspects of the boat made me inclined to sell it all pristine as it was, rather than take it out of the water again, and attack it with a grinder.

    I sold the boat within a few months of launching it. The current owner had it in the Baltic last I heard.

    Still, I very much like the intentions behind the Wylo design, and I got a very favourable impression of Bill from friends of his that would call by to see how the work progressed. And of course, the boat was full of his inventive quirkiness, which pleased me and taught me a lot.

    I have my eye on the development of the Adventure 40 – it ticks all the right boxes for me, though I wonder how much that will roll at anchor and going downwind? I may be over-sensitive to it, as my first boat was a trimaran, and my current boat is a cat.

    Best wishes.

    Reply
    • John September 4, 2014, 4:30 pm

      Hi John,

      I can answer the rolling question, or at least point you at the answer.

      Reply
    • Colin Speedie September 5, 2014, 8:56 am

      Hi John

      I’m delighted to hear that Bill’s boat found a good home, even though you’ve sold her on. And if you found all of the quirky bits attractive and fun, unfinished as she was, then imagine what the boat would have been like had he finished her! Bill was very much the frustrated inventor, and he just loved coming up with off the wall ideas, which were often unbelievably smart and effective.

      I can imagine the Wylo would roll – especially at anchor, where I’ve always found that gaff rigged boats with heavy gear are very rhythmic rollers. But, like you, I love the concept, more and more in fact as I despair at the increasing complexity of modern boats. Bill loved it, of course, everything simple and mechanical and often with a dual purpose.

      What a shame he never got to complete her and make his dream voyage, but I’m sure he’d be glad to hear that you saw her through and admired his work.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Colin

      Reply

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