#12 – The Life Skills of Black Sheep

Has anyone tried to make you feel like some sort of black sheep for choosing to go cruising?

My husband Don took a lot of grief from his family when he packed up his daughter, took his Catalina 25 in tow, and moved to Florida in search of year round-sailing. Don hails from a small town in the middle of corn and soy fields, the kind of place where farmers at the morning coffee shop narrow their eyebrows when he goes in with his Dad and say, “You still livin’ on that boat? How the hell d’ya live on a boat?” Imagine what they had to say when he got a bigger boat and sailed off to the islands. It’s kind of like that old staying, “If I have to explain, you’ll never understand.”

So I was surprised, several years ago, while we were back visiting family in the States, when my husband’s brother Greg, an elementary school principal in Valparaiso, invited us to give a talk about the cruising life to his fourth grade students. I was surprised that we sea gypsies might not be seen as an inappropriate influence; surprised that he thought we might have something to say to them. But, just as I was beginning to despair about crafting a talk that on the one hand wouldn’t bore the kids while on the other wouldn’t have the principal’s office deluged by irate parents, Greg sent us his list of “LifeSkills,” a set fundamental life principles around which the curriculum of his school is shaped. Every teacher in every grade is expected to foster these life skills in the subjects they teach, and he would appreciate it if we could find a way to work them in. I was stunned. It was a checklist for cruiser character.

Here’s the list: Curiosity, Initiative, Organization, Flexibility, Patience, Common Sense, Perseverance, Responsibility, Problem Solving, Cooperation, Effort, Courage, Pride, Friendship & Caring, Integrity, and Sense of Humor

Wow! It’s curiosity – about what’s around the bend or beyond the horizon – that pushes the casual sailor over the line into being a cruiser in the first place. Then after we arrive, initiative is what gets us off the boat, exploring trails into the forest or venturing into villages to reach out for new experiences.

There’s no way we’d get there without organization. Fitting our lives into the small space of a boat while meeting all the requirements of being a world citizen – bills, bank accounts, taxes, and travel documents – demands it, and of course the traditions of good seamanship, of operating your boat anywhere, are all founded on carefully organized systems.

Flexibility in schedule is not just a perk of cruising, it’s what keeps us safe, but flexibility of mind is also what enables us to visit different places and cultures and adapt when things there are not the way they are back home.

Patience is a virtue strived for not simply between crew living 24/7 in a restricted space, but it is necessary to staying sane ashore when things don’t get done the way we are used to. Common sense is the middle ground between naïve expectations about the world and paranoia about the different. It’s what keeps us taking basic precautions like locking the boat, securing the dinghy at night, or not flaunting our (relative) wealth with jewelry and such when we squeeze into the local bus, but it’s also putting out extra rode and a spare snubber before a blow rather than during it!

Perseverance is what keeps us going through a squall, through a long night passage…or through a long squall on a night passage! Perseverance what keeps us going when it isn’t always fun.

Responsibility, of course, is what we have taken for ourselves and each other when we leave the dock, when we are out of reach of the fallbacks home affords us. We must take care of the boat and each other in a huge range of (often unforeseen) circumstances, plus we must endeavor to behave responsibly with respect to the rights of a more complicated set of others: other boaters, other peoples, and above all, Mother Nature. Having taken on those responsibilities, we find they put us in problem-solving situations on an every-day basis – breakdowns we might have taken to a mechanic or injuries we’d have taken to a doctor. Cooperation is what gets a cruising team through those responsibilities and problems, and it’s also the magic that conjures a cruising community out of an anchorage of boats, whether the goal is a potluck or rescuing a boat on a reef.

In between storms, sharks and pirates, folks back home will insist in imagining our lives as one of bohemian indolence: you know, lolling in the hammock with a book and a cold beer. Certainly, there’s some of that! But we know that in choosing the cruising life we have, in fact, taken on a life of almost constant effort, not just managing the sailing and the mental challenges of navigating unknown waters, reading the weather and learning new languages, but getting done everyday chores those folks back home take for granted.

To do all that we do, so much of it stuff we have never done before and in places we have never been and so different from home, calls for courage, no more no less than does coping with the rare dramas – storms, sharks or pirates – that those folks back home imagine as our everyday fare. Pride in all those accomplishments is not misplaced, no more than is pride in a well-maintained boat.

Friendships are almost taken for granted in a hometown community, but surely one of the greatest treasures of the cruising life are the friends we make from all over the world, the islanders with whom a special bond is formed over shared fish or the other cruisers who are there to support us when our independence slips.

A synonym for integrity is honesty, but it is more than that. A cruiser who abides by a set of firm moral principals, not necessarily the ones of his/her own country or his/her formal religious beliefs, is a person of true integrity. It would be easy in the unfixed way of the cruising life to let such principles slide. Who would know? It takes so much energy managing all these other things, that little dishonesties could go unnoticed. We all know people who have fudged customs requirements, who have shortened the paper length of their boats in marinas, or who have gotten more than they’ve given. We may have done it ourselves. But true integrity, practiced in the absence of monitoring authorities, even of judgmental communities, is something truly worthy of respect.

I’ve saved sense of humor for last. Sense of humor is the leavening in the mix of all of the above. If we needed to take the cruising life as seriously as I’ve made it sound, if it were simply as much work as I’ve made it sound, then why would we go? We go because it is fun, because we feel more fully alive than we have at any other time in our lives, because our sense of self can be more fully realized, and because that self is self-defined.

So, if anyone back home is making you feel like a black sheep, stand tall. The choice to go cruising does not automatically turn you into a misfit, drifter or beach bum. On the contrary, against the life skills checklist straight from the heartland of America, I’d say we sea gypsies measure up just fine.

LifeSkills are by Susan Kovalik and are listed in the book, ITI: The Model Integrated Thematic Instruction by Susan Kovalik with Karen Olsen, 1994 & 1997. First published 1994 and the 1997 was the Updated Third Edition.

This article was published in the July 2007 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.

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