Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The Story of Why We're Here

The Story of Why We’re Here

Dear reader,

I can give you a little insight as to what happens when you announce to the world that you’re renouncing your house and cars and conventional life style, in favor of life on a boat. The reaction of our friends and coworkers was very mixed.

Some admired us greatly because we elected adventure. An adventurous live is a risky life, and most of our contemporaries are so risk adverse that they can’t imagine themselves doing what we do. I think this group will be the biggest fans of this blog. Read daily about the excellent adventures of Dick and Libby.

Some admired our boldness. Many people have dreams yet never act on making those dreams come true. The Mills family has always been bold in that way. We chose to move overseas four times. Five times I chose to leave my job without having a new job lined up. We’ve even been homeless and unemployed at the same time, and weren’t scared by that. N Dag Reppen, a friend, once said, “Other people talk about doing things. You do them.”

Some think we are foolish and/or stupid and/or that we’ll be bored to death, or scared to death, or both, within a short time. Obviously, we don’t agree. In any case, we’ll put the question to the test.

Some friends don’t grasp the reality of what we’re doing. They seem to think that we’re taking a vacation cruise but trying to make it sound like more.


To help you understand, I’ll try to describe what we’re doing and why.

More than once when Libby and I talked of what a good life we’ve lived, it came out that our favorite memories are about life on some boat. We’ve been sailing for 30 years. We’ve owned boats, we chartered boats, we borrowed boats and we crewed with others. We sailed in the USA, in the Caribbean, and in the Baltic. We sailed with kids and without. We’ve been scared to death and charmed and treated to the great beauty of nature. Little wonder then that sailing is where our foremost thoughts lead for retirement life.

The rumor that our brains have been affected by sleeping on a waterbed for 30 years is unfounded.

Beyond that, one needs to examine one’s motivations and goals and test their compatibility with retirement plans.

Adventure is certainly part of the appeal of sailing. When one challenges nature, and masters the elements, the exhilaration is very satisfying. That’s adventure and we love it. I guess that makes us unusual because modern American culture is very risk adverse. They love to watch adventure on a screen, but they’re reluctant to live adventurously.

Isolation is also appealing. Libby and I found that we love to view nature in places where there are no other people. Escaping crowds, to the point of being isolated from all other humans has great appeal to us. We aren’t exactly antisocial but we like to socialize in small groups and small doses. We enjoy time just with each other and time for solitude every day. Life on a cruise ship, or in a retirement community would therefore be anathema for us. The cruising life lets us control how much socialization we do without risk of offending anyone.

We believe that an austere life is happier than an affluent life. Therefore, we want is to escape from affluence. Part of our motivation for moving to Sweden was that we did not want our kids to grow up with their experience limited to being children of affluent American parents. Not that we were poor in Sweden, but the experience of moving to a place where you don’t speak the language deflates stuffed heads and teaches humility.

It’s certainly true that boating can be very expensive, but after the initial costs, cruising is an inexpensive way to live. One eats simple foods, one does ones own cleaning, repairs and maintenance. Most of the days in the year we sit at anchor, free of charge. Stories from world cruisers claim that they live on $11,000 to $30,000 per year. That’s modest by modern standards. Typical land-based retirement life in America is more expensive. I don’t think we could afford it.

We are also fans of the simple life. For example, in the winter our favorite task was tending to the fire in the wood stove, including chopping the wood. It is my observation that the biggest impediment to the simple life is the number of things you own. Your stuff. If you have less stuff, your life is simpler. Routine chores involving your stuff become life’s pleasure, for example stoking a fire, or polishing brass. Needless to say, cruising life on a boat limits you to a small amount of stuff. George Carlin said, “A house is a big pile of stuff with a roof over the top.” Well a boat’s deck only covers a much smaller pile.

Exploration. Even with land-based vacations, our favorite method of vacation planning has been to get in the car, spin a bottle, and head of in the direction indicted. We love following our noses to see what we can see without prior knowledge of what we’ll find. Call us wanderers, drifters, nomads, or vagabonds. We’ll answer.

Finally, I (Dick) really want to die with my boots on. The idea of idling as I fade away, becoming infirm and terminating in a hospital is horrifying. Therefore, I choose to burn the candle at both ends for as long as I can.

Libby’s ideals regarding old age differ from mine. She wants to live close to her children and grandchildren after we are done sailing. This is a key point. Libby’s dream includes a end cruising, mine doesn’t. There’s no need to negotiate a consensus on this point because circumstances in years to come will probably change our views anyhow.

So what does the cruising life offer us? Boats. Adventure. Solitude. Austerity. Simplicity. Exploration. A quest for the perfect wave. It is a perfect fit for what we want out of life.

When I read what I just wrote, it sounds religious, indeed almost Amish. I should explain that we aren’t religious people. We are simply motivated by what we believe best.

The Decision

Love of boating aside, it’s interesting how a seemingly ordinary couple can come to make a life choice so far out of the mainstream. Here’s the story of how we made our decision.

Inspiration came from a famous book, Sailing Alone Around The World, by Joshua Slocomb. I’ve read that book four times and Libby read it at least once. I recommend it to anyone reading this blog. It’s a short book. The book is so popular that it has been continuously in print since 1900. We’d like to make our own story Sailing Together Around the World.

Finally, there’s a question of finances. Having changed jobs so often I missed out on vested benefits several times. Also I was never a good investor. As a result, we have only 25-33% of the retirement savings that are recommended for people like us. In short, we can’t afford an early retirement in the traditional affluent American style. Our limited funds stretch a lot longer in the cruising life.

Last year we were daydreaming about cruising while watching the reports of deadly hurricane Ivan on TV. Libby remarked that if I want her to sail the world that we would have to have a boat sufficiently seaworthy so that she would feel safe even if we got stuck in the middle of an Ivan.

That piqued my interest. I surfed the net for a candidate. Before long, I came across stories of the Westsail 32. The Westsail 32 is a legendary boat. It has a classical full-keel double-ended design reminiscent of Joshua Slocomb’s boat Spray. It has been used for more circumnavigations than any other modern design. It is the boat most cited by sailors when asked, “What boat would you want to have if you were stuck in a storm?”

A little additional surfing brought me to the listings and prices for Westsail 32s on the market. They were very affordable! I always had the idea that a suitable sailboat for a world cruise would cost $400,000 or more. The Westsail 32s for sale were all more than 25 years old and were listed for $40,000 to $65,000.

Just about the same time (February 2004), I was in a deep funk at work. The big SMD2 project I was working on had reached the point where those milestones that needed my leadership as project manager to make them happen were complete. We were on the back slope of the project center of activities were internal. I felt that I didn’t have any vital role to play anymore. My principle duty became producing cooked progress reports for our CEO. My instincts told me that it was time to move on to another job or another assignment.

I toyed with the idea of transferring within NYISO from the PM job to a teaching, but that didn’t work. By March 2004 I said to Libby, “Why not retire right now? I can quit my job today and we can set sail this summer.” “Whoa,” she said, “That’s too fast.” “OK,” I agreed, “How about when the project is over, say by the end of this year?” Libby said, “Yes.” So that was it. We were decided on what to do for retirement and when.

I decided not to reveal our plans to my coworkers so far in advance so I kept it quiet until November 2004. My retirement date would coincide with the project go-live date of December 1, 2004. About the same time we began telling all our friends and relatives about our cruising plans. Making your plans public is one way to prevent yourself from getting cold feet.

The December project date slipped 2 months, so I extended my retirement. I actually became a free man on midnight February 1, 2005. That was the instant that the SMD2 project went live. Libby and I could then devote full time to making our dream a reality.

The Search for The Perfect Boat

Having decided that our vessel would be a Westsail 32 (WESTSAIL 32) I surfed for all the information I could find about every WESTSAIL 32 for sale. I found 62 of them world-wide and gathered information on them. I created a spreadsheet and tracked what happened to the prices through 2004. Some were sold. Several reduced their price again and again. I also joined the Westsail Owners Association and began talking with WESTSAIL 32 owners.

I picked 14 WESTSAIL 32s on the East Coast, rejecting only three based on the advertisements. In November I began calling the brokers to arrange visits. Right away I got a call back from a Mr. Todd Duff who heard I was looking at Westsails and said that he was “Mr. Westsail” East Coat. Todd was able to arrange for Libby and I to see our first four WESTSAIL 32s in Annapolis December 2004.

The first was Sibilant. Sibilant had a superb paint job. I pinned up her picture on the wall of my office for two months. Ah, the attractiveness of beauty. Alas, Sibilant was already under contract to another buyer.

The next two boats, Amanda Jane and Ad Astra, were in need of work and were not appealing after having seen Sibilant.

Being a good salesman, Todd left the best boat for last. It was Morning Mist. She listed for $57,900. We fell in love with Morning Mist. She’s a lovely boat and she appeared ready to sail away as-is. Still I resolved to look at all 14 before choosing. We accepted the risk of someone else buying Morning Mist while we searched even though that made me anxious.

After Christmas, we went to Rhode Island to see Moondance. She was listed for only $35,000. We didn’t want to do a lot of work, but we were eager to see more Westsails. It turned out that Mick, the owner, was doing a great job restoring her, but he still had a lot to do. In her partially finished state with the engine out, I got to learn a lot about WESTSAIL 32 construction. Mick was advised to finish the project then raise the price by $20,000. I agree. We want to sail this year, not to spend 6 months preparing the boat.

Prior to retirement, I had arranged an Exodus to see the remaining 9 WESTSAIL 32s on our list. My mind set was that the exodus was merely an exercise and that we would make the offer on Morning Mist as soon as soon as we completed our diligence looking at the others.

We didn’t waste time. On our second day of retirement we hopped in the car and took off on that Exodus.

Our first stop was Oriental NC. Oriental is a charming little seaside town and coincidentally, there were two WESTSAIL 32s for sale there. Both boats in Oriental had new or nearly new engines. One broker said that the repowering cost $18,000. However, they both needed cosmetic work before being ready to be our home.

We saw a Westsail in Port Orange Florida, and my brother Ed was able to join me to have a look at the WESTSAIL 32 Nelsie. The price was excellent, but the boat had been lived on for many years and in need of remodeling.

Next we headed for Disney World in Orlando where we met our children and grandchildren for a week of fun. Mid week I took off with my two sons, John and David to see Jade, a WESTSAIL 32 on Tampa Bay. Jade was an excellent boat, at a good price, and became #2 in my mind behind Morning Mist.

Three of the 9 visits didn’t work out because of scheduling conflicts. SV Barnacle, Petrel, and Peregrina all sound like nice boats, and I’d love to see them some day.

Our last day in Florida was hectic. We arranged to see Tarwathie in Fort Lauderdale. We also had an appointment to see Amantha a WESTSAIL 32 in Indiantown FL. Then we had to drive north because we had an appointment to revisit Morning Mist, our continuing favorite.

Anyhow, I felt that we had only one hour to look at Tarwathie before driving to our next appointment. That was only half the time we spent looking at the other boats. That hour however, turned our heads around. Tarwathie is a superb boat; much better than any others we saw including Morning Mist. Further, conversation with the owner Al Hatch gave us great confidence that he knew what he was doing and that the features we couldn’t see would turn out to be pleasant surprises. Al’s printed description of Tarwathie said little on features and accessories. It discussed her sailing qualities. None of the other boat descriptions were like that.

Leaving Tarwathie and heading for Indiantown to see the last WESTSAIL 32 on our list Libby said, “We’re on a fool’s mission. Tarwathie is the one we want.” I agreed but suppressed the thought because I was determined to finish the exodus before deciding.

There was a second reason why I was hesitant to decide. We had been advised to avoid Westsails with the original boomkin, and to a lesser extent, the original bowsprits. They were subject to weakening because of rot and separation. Morning Mist had once been dismasted when the boomkin failed. Very nice stainless steel replacements are available. Tarwathie had original boomkin and bowsprit, although in seemingly excellent shape. I had to weigh that good advice from knowledgeable people against Al Hatch’s opinion that they were fine.

Two days later we got a second look at Morning Mist. After having the experience of seeing so many other WESTSAIL 32s, she didn’t look as perfect as before. Ten minutes after the Morning Mist inspection was finished, we called Al Hatch on the cell phone and gave him a verbal purchase offer for 95% of his asking price. We knew that 90% was more customary but that was OK. We were confident that we would get much more than we paid for anyhow. We also thought that we could go ahead and invest the money to have Tarwathie’s boomkin replaced if we felt uncomfortable.

So that’s the story. The search spanned 12 months. We drove nearly 5,000 miles. I spent hundreds of hours on the Internet. All without considering any other brands. I think our patience paid off. Tarwathie was the second to last boat we looked at. Ironically, the only Internet information on Tarwathie was a two line 15-word classified ad; the least appealing of all the listings. If we had failed to see her we would have ended up with much less value.

The Project Plan

Part of the deal with Tarwathie was that we would have to take possession in February. I estimated that we couldn’t vacate our house until May at the earliest. I certainly didn’t want to leave here in the Fort Lauderdale urban environment for 4 months. Our compromise plan was to sail Tarwathie from Lauderdale to Deal MD, near Annapolis, and to have her hauled out there for a bottom painting and possible boomkin replacement. Later in May, we would sail her from there to the Albany, NY area where we would finalize transfer of our household.

So reader, that’s the story that precedes Chapter 1 of this blog. I hope you found it entertaining.