#57 – The Knack of Befriending Locals

Yvonne of AUSTRALIA 31 with a Cuban child
When we outfit a cruising boat to sail away from home, our motivation is not primarily the meeting of other folks just like ourselves, but, on the contrary, to experience the differences the world has to offer. Such experience isn’t just about sightseeing, or admiring the artifacts of a culture, or purchasing souvenirs, but connecting to the people who live it.

Thus, as easy and wonderful as the making of friendships is with other cruisers, it’s a sad thing if it begins to edge out the inclination and opportunity to build friendships with local people.

Unfortunately, many cruisers do opt to hang back in the comfort zone of cruiser circles. They rationalize such self-limiting behavior as not wanting to be intrusive or as wariness about the security of their floating personal space. I know because I myself struggled with these feelings.

But when you see other cruisers invited on spearfishing trips with local fisherman, on long guided hikes to secret waterfalls, or included in unique family celebrations like Sunday dinner, holidays, festivals and weddings, you have to ask yourself, do these folks have some special knack for bridging those invisible boundaries between strangers, or do I need to change my thinking?

After surveying the Admirals – several of whom particularly seem fall into that special-knack category – what it really comes down to is a combination of opportunity, attitude, openness, and effort.

Cruisers successful at forging bonds with locals spend less time traveling in a pack and more time exploring out-of-the-way anchorages on their own.

Instead of a string of touch-and-go stops, they also invest more time in one place or make a point to return. This gives locals the chance to view cruisers less as tourists and more as real people.

These cruisers also seek out common ground, whether that’s a shared interest or a complementary one, where one party has the curiosity and the other party the information. For example, local foodstuffs and the recipes and cooking techniques for them make a simple common ground for conversation; likewise problems to be solved and broken equipment, whether it’s yours aboard the boat or their’s ashore.

Cruisers successful at forging bonds with locals give, rather than ask; listen rather than tell, respect rather than judge.

Yvonne of AUSTRALIA 31 watching dominoes on a street corner
Yvonne of AUSTRALIA 31 watching dominoes on a street corner

Two of my Admirals stand out as such have-the-knack people: Judy of URSA MINOR, whom I’ve known for years, and Aussie Yvonne of AUSTRALIA 31, the avid birdwatcher, who was one of my original Admirals.

When Judy and I worked together in the Virgin Islands years ago, I thought her a model of international relations. Not only did she have exotic stories from her years doing legal aid in Micronesia or adventuring in the South Pacific as pickup crew on a tiny sailboat, but even in the Virgins, with its dual Anglo and West Indian cultures, Judy moved between cultures unselfconsciously. Her secret, as I determined it, was that she paid attention to what was going on, whether it was the news, local politics, or community dynamics, and plunged right in.

Recently, Judy and Bryan passed through a Fijian village in which she’d spent two weeks over 30 years ago. On that occasion she’d met, while scrubbing clothes in the river with the local women, a precocious 12-year-old named Esita who shared Judy’s passion for world news and politics. In the same stop, Judy befriended the chief’s teenage son who’d taken her hiking to a waterfall.

Both these individuals were still there, remembered her well, and were thrilled to reunite. “Had our time in that village been the usual 1-3 days cruisers typically devote to small places, I doubt either would’ve remembered me, but the combination of the time we spent and our eagerness to share life as they lived it, made us memorable among the yachts that have visited since.

30 years later: Bryan with Esita and her family onboard. Judy with Tevita (David) the chief's son.
30 years later:
Bryan with Esita and her family onboard.
Judy with Tevita (David) the chief’s son.

Yvonne also has the knack. “What Yvonne does is very un-North American,” her husband Bernie relates.

She invites locals aboard first thing – even the canoes that come alongside. If we cannot speak the language, she shows them photos instead, shares a few raisins or something sweet they have never seen, and ends up with mates for life. Her greatest invite was 35 pygmies from Guyana down below to watch a movie; then we spent a month with them!

Yvonne and Bernie’s approach demonstrates that they consider themselves equals, are prepared to enjoy what the locals enjoy and “don’t pretend to be superior or on a boat locals shouldn’t see.”

Daria Blackwell, a new Admiral currently cruising Ireland aboard their Bowman 57 ALERIA, says in Ireland, “When you walk in the door of a pub, conversation stops while people size you up. But if you say hello, shake hands and look them in the eye, they’ll stare deep into your soul to quickly size you up, and, if they like what they see, they’ll take you in in a flash.

Personally, I think Daria’s strategy is appropriate for any place you might stop. Key is the respect the steady look conveys and also the ability – no, the effort you have made – to say that hello in the local language. Sure, it’s easiest if English is a common language, as it was for Daria in Ireland or Bev of CLOVERLEAF in Israel. But even when it’s not, dust off that school French or Spanish (with a little help from Kathy Parsons’ “For Cruisers” language books!) or script out some greetings in the local vernacular extracted from your cruising or travel guides. Such small efforts translate to a giant step forward.

And speaking of planning ahead, when Marcie of NINE OF CUPS and her husband David prepared to head for such out of the way places as Tristan da Cunha and St. Helena in the South Atlantic, and Juan Fernandez, Easter Island and Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific, Marcie searched the internet in advance to find contacts in each of those places. “I simply asked if we could bring any supplies or needed items with us. Establishing an email relationship in advance ensured that someone knew we were coming and would perhaps be our hosts when we arrived. In every case, we had a welcoming committee waiting for us and experienced some memorable hospitality and generosity.

Although I personally believe that expecting the best from people will get you the best in return, obviously we cannot afford to be blithely naïve. “Places where there are lots of cruising boats and cruise ships are not the best places to expect a genuine relationship to come easily,” observes Kathleen of RENAISSANCE. There are exceptions, as Kathleen was quick to point out, like Trinidad, where cruisers clearly represent a revenue opportunity – indeed one deliberately cultivated by local businesses – yet where genuine warmth flourishes.

But unfortunately, in places where tourism has boomed in the face of local poverty, crime becomes more likely and the ground often too hard for the seeds of friendship . “We’ve shied away from locals in places where the people we came across were aggressive in attitude,” says Daria.

But all in all, friendships made with local people are as varied as those we make with other cruisers. Some may result in intense closeness and end when we move on, while others will stay alive indefinitely whether by mail, Christmas cards, or, in this new era, by email and Facebook!

After 17 years, Yvonne collected 743 email addresses in her contact list,” says Bernie. “When word got around she was ill, 450 of these made contact, some after a nine year break.

That tells us a lot about the power of such friendships, doesn’t it? …And of the people who master “the knack”!

Photos: Thanks to Bernie & Yvonne Katchnor, AUSTRALIA 31; Judy Knape, URSA MINOR; Daria Blackwell, ALERIA.

Contributing Admirals: Judy Knape, URSA MINOR; Kathy Parsons, HALE KAI; Bernie & Yvonne Katchnor, AUSTRALIA 31; Marcie Lynn, NINE OF CUPS; Kathleen Watt, RENAISSANCE; Daria Blackwell, ALERIA; Sylvie Branton, mv ALBATROS; Bev Feiges, mv CLOVERLEAF.

This article was published in the April 2011 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.

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