The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Don’t Leave It Too Late

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.

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