When I was in my youth, living seasonally on the 56-foot wooden boat that was my family’s livelihood and my platform for coming-of-age, our moorage slip was on the farthest finger of the local harbor. This same finger served as the “transient” float for those vessels just passing through town or staying for a season. Each summer the transient fleet included a good number of sailboats and their crew making passage to North America from Asian waters. Ours was typically the first port of call in North America along the great circle route that came over from the Far East.
These “cruisers” who docked on our finger were among the most elite of blue water travelers. Many sailboats never make it out of the Caribbean. But anyone returning from Asia was a de facto dedicated sailor. Arriving in our town was, in itself, evidence of years’ investment in the sailing life. The winds that push a person to the Eastern hemisphere and back again are seasonal and only circulate in specific directions at certain times of year. Our occasional neighbors had necessarily spent time in Southeastern and East Asia, likely in the South Pacific, sometimes in Russia. Some of them would have made a westward crossing a year or years earlier, perhaps from South America. Some others would have come around Africa from Europe or the East Coast of North America, and through the waters of the Indian Ocean. All had opted out, at least for a time, of the “land based” life.
These people were heroes to my father, and to us, his children. He had pined for the sailing life for most of my own life. As a fisherman who cut his teeth on the old fishing grounds of New England and lived near and worked out of the whaling ports of these Yankee places, he was surrounded by tales of maritime adventure and multi-year voyages around the globe. He identified with it completely. I remember the first time he talked to me about sailing — after he and a fishing friend had somehow secured a contract to deliver a sailboat from New England to the Caribbean, despite having no actual sailing experience. He told me a sailboat was all of the good things about a boat, but without the roar of the engines constantly with you. He said you could hear the water passing by beneath the hull. I was captivated.
My father would immediately befriend any arriving sailors who tied up on our finger in the harbor. We would have dinners with them, tour their boats, give them rides around town in our beaten up truck, hook them up with the right service people, loan them anything they needed to make their stay comfortable. We spent countless evenings absorbing the stories of their journeys. I was certain that all I wanted when I grew up was to cut the ties to land and move out onto the sea, to begin to see the world and to let go of the false narratives of middle class aspiration. My dad said being in a sailboat was like being a turtle. You took your home with you wherever you went, but you never had to wake up to the same thing any two days in a row.
My parents were wanderers. They had uprooted our family from our New England home when my brother and I were tiny children, putting a continent between themselves and our extended family, bringing us to Alaska. This wasn’t a move to get away from them. We always remained close and devoted to our kin. But my parents sought some kind of adventure; something different from what they knew.
We moved constantly throughout my childhood, mostly from home to home, but also from town to town and back and forth across the country several times. Dad was often away at sea. Mom was raising us kids. We were decidedly poor. My parents also rejected many social conventions. My mom scoffed at “Hallmark holidays.” My dad never wore a wedding ring. My parents never bought a house in all of my childhood.
They also didn’t buy other things, including the boat that my father fished for most of my life. This decision proved economically catastrophic when the federal IFQ program was implemented for halibut and sablefish, which my dad had harvested everywhere from the Aleutian Islands to Southeast Alaska for years. The astronomical wealth created through that federal program was “given” to boat owners. In other words, not my parents.
Not having a home of our own conferred certain benefits. Because we had no assets, and therefore no wealth, my brother and I were able to attend an elite private school for our latter school years, for which my parents paid a tiny portion of the tuition while the rest was written off or granted to us as “aid.” Likewise our private college educations were largely gifted to us through aid packages. (Though I have no doubt that the small portion we were expected to pay as a family was a significant lift for my parents.)
Meantime, my parents continued to sing the praises of a life untethered. My mom insisted, repeatedly, that home ownership simply tied you down. It took away your options. We were free! Able to do something new at a moment’s notice.
For all my adulthood, I have felt the pull of the kind of freedom that those cruisers had chosen. I have valued approaches to housing and living that have been low on square footage, high on quality of life. I’ve coveted and planned for housing that defied conventions. I have overflowing Pinterest boards devoted to tiny houses. I spent a decade subscribing to Mother Earth News, learning all I’d need to know for my self-sufficient homestead. I’ve gone through convulsions of desire and have more than once considered derailing my life, if I could only have a sailboat and cut free from it all.
But the seeds of another great need had also been planted in my childhood, and they have created great unsettled conflict within my spirit that has torn at me for all this time. For while my parents coveted the life of freedom, I experienced it as a life without stability or certainty about “home.” By the time I was 20 years old I had lived in 20 different houses. As a 42-year-old woman, I have lived in close to 35 homes. And that reality set up a different set of bone-deep needs within me. Needs for a deeply rooted place. The need to call a home my own. The need for ownership. The need for stability and, yes, for the accumulation of wealth.
But my commitment to the ideals of the free life upon the sea lives equally strongly within me. And the two poles of need set up a terrible push and pull that creates a certain discontent no matter where I am, or how I am living. The result is that I’ve never committed to either — neither the kind of grounded ownership that would soothe the anxieties of an unrooted child, nor the sailboat and the life of unconventional freedom. To do honor to the needs of my child self, who craves stability and certainty, is to disavow the equally beautiful and compelling possibilities of the nomadic life on the sea, or the financially poor but spiritually wealthy life of a self-sufficient piece of land. This tension has sent me ricocheting from one extreme to the other for many long decades.
It’s only now, as I enter my middle age, that I can even describe this polarizing conflict with the clarity it merits. This is no “little thing.” But the understanding is instructive, and I hope to see it play itself out on my life in coming years.