Viewpoint: A Vagabond’s Perspective

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What do Columbus, Joshua Slocum, Tristan Jones, the Pardeys, many SAIL readers, and myself have in common?

To some degree we have all voyaged on a shoestring. For Columbus, it was Queen Isabella’s shoestring.

In April, reader Dennis Michaud wrote SAIL complaining about the “glorification” of sailors “traveling on a shoestring” while he got a PhD, taught at a university and is now about to hire 500 people and purchase a custom yacht—and “pay the onerous yard bills.”

Many readers were offended (oh my, were they offended, see, calling Michaud’s attitude “elitist.” Let’s explore where Michaud’s attitude takes us.

Slocum arguably inspired the modern ocean cruising phenomena. Following his singlehanded adventure, dozens of sailors were driven to try the same or similarly challenging voyages. Just how many were inspired is forever unknowable, but Slocum’s book, Sailing Alone Around the World, continues in print today. This vagabond, traveling in a broke-down boat he was given and rebuilt, inspires us more than 110 years later.

Tristan Jones, a true vagabond, has provided endless entertainment through his sailing adventures. How many set out after reading his grandiose tales?

Lin and Larry Pardey’s philosophy—go small, go simple, go now—directly contradicts Michaud’s. It has launched tens of thousands of cruisers to the sea and continues to feed wannabe sailors’ dreams. These vagabonds only adventured twice around the world in small wooden boats without engines.

Even my small contributions to literature have sent a few misguided souls out to see what they’re missing, and I’m surely the most underfunded vagabond, save probably Tristan.

But let’s grant Michaud’s premise that only solvent boaters should be out cruising. That would reduce congestion on waterways, anchorages and marinas, giving more room for the rest of us...except we won’t be there. We’ll be too busy making the gelt to get there.

Fewer boaters would mean fewer chandleries, sailmakers and boat builders. And since non-vagabonds buy semi-custom builds, standard brands would disappear. We couldn’t have people taking out loans to buy boats and elitism would decimate the industry for want of clientele, making it more expensive.

Sterling Hayden wrote in Wanderer: “To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest.”

The experiences of the vagabonds, in many ways, define modern cruising. Our “held together by a shoestring” boat breaks down, and another shoestringer comes along to help out. In this way, friendships form, stories are told, lives change.

Hayden also said: “Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?”

A good question.

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