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How To Cope With Liveaboard Projects

When we arrived in Cartagena, Colombia, after a year of cruising, I knew we had work to do. While we had kept up with the necessary (read: constant) maintenance on our 45-year-old Bill Tripp yawl Papillon during our first year aboard, now it was finally time for some major upgrades.

When we arrived in Cartagena, Colombia, after a year of cruising, I knew we had work to do. While we had kept up with the necessary (read: constant) maintenance on our 45-year-old Bill Tripp yawl Papillon during our first year aboard, now it was finally time for some major upgrades.

Amid the talk of new shelves and regalvanizing the anchor chain, my husband Erik floated the idea of rebuilding our aging power-hungry fridge. I was keen. The box was ancient, the insulation was saturated, and I was tired of running the generator twice a day to keep food barely cold. And while I knew that being refrigerator-free for a week or two would not be fun, I was certain we could manage by living out of a cooler.

Oh, sweet, innocent sailor. When it comes to boat renovations, they are always dirtier, more expensive and more disruptive than you planned. And when you have to keep living on your boat while the mayhem is underway, you’ll need to take steps to maintain your sanity.

In the beginning, it is tempting to simply hide from the pain. A strict regimen of denial, distraction and self-delusion seems just the ticket. And while ignoring reality and generally pretending that “none of this is happening, I can’t hear you, la-la-la” works for a few days, it is tough to sustain for longer than a week. You are in fact living in a dusty pit of destruction and cannot wish it away.

Equally attractive is denial’s close cousin: escape. After all, it can’t hurt if you aren’t there. Well, maybe. For us, moving off the boat for weeks or months was not an option. Erik was doing much of the work himself, and we wanted to be on-site when the hired crew was working. If you are planning a highly destructive/dangerous/toxic project and can leave one member of the team aboard while the rest live elsewhere, then consider it. If you are one of those stuck in a hotel, bored to tears and tired of the rubber chicken in the restaurant, you should be grateful. At least your dinner isn’t decorated with sawdust and paint flakes.

This is the “you won’t feel that splinter if you cut off your hand” strategy. In my case, once the fridge had been ripped out, I was stuck. Living without a fridge in the tropics (at least when you are used to having one) can be pretty grim. I was annoyed at having to shop every day, at never having anything stay cold for more than a few hours, at eating out for far too many meals. And denial was not a long-term solution.

I found I could ease the pain of being a fridge-less cruiser by diluting it with other issues. Adding children to the equation was an excellent distraction. Kids need to be fed whether the galley is working or not, and they have no interest in your problems; life must go on. As a side benefit, they are highly skilled at communicating their displeasure. When young Jane decides to vent her frustration by drilling new holes in the cabin sole, you’ll have other things to worry about than your lack of cold beer.

Other issues will further distract you from your woes. Make sure the fridge project ties up the entire galley so you can’t so much as cook an egg. Lose your dinghy motor, then buy an ill-tuned second-hand replacement. Discover some hideous corrosion along the boom. When in doubt, total toilet failure will always grab your attention.

Still thinking about cold butter? Better add another big project to the mix! As we were rebuilding the fridge, we elected to paint the boat’s deck and interior. At the same time. While still living aboard. Now we were surrounded by so much dust and mess, I didn’t care about the fridge. We enjoyed the extra benefit of sleep-deprivation from trying to camp in the cockpit as party boats passed by, music blaring, every night at 0200. As any new parent will tell you, there is nothing like losing lots of sleep to make you forget everything.

As time passes, you may become immune to these remedies, so don’t be shy about increasing the pressure. Make sure your projects are still ongoing when the in-laws arrive for Christmas. Give your spouse the flu. These are sure to keep you from worrying about the original project.

Another welcome diversion during major liveaboard renovations is bickering with your spouse. While you should probably start out on-topic, complaining about the project at hand, a well-placed segue into other less-relevant-but-deeply-inflammatory topics will keep you fighting and distracted from project-pain for hours on end. Just take care: if you are too effective, you might earn yourself a trip to a hotel for a few days. Or forever.

Friends aboard another sailboat have named their homemade dinghy Pi, in honor of the fact that every boat project takes about 3.14 times longer than expected. I’ve come to view this seemingly unfortunate truth as a positive thing. If you accurately estimated the time involved to complete a project, you’d be too depressed to ever pick up a tool. If Erik had told me that rebuilding the fridge would take six weeks, I would have balked. Telling me it would take two weeks made the project sound reasonable. Starting is the biggest hurdle. Once you get going, you don’t have the option of stopping.

Opinions differ as to whether it is better to focus on a project’s conclusion or the present situation. For my part, I find renovations are less stressful when I live in the “now.” Now we are ripping out old soggy insulation. Now the cockpit is full of fiberglass and blueboard. Now the box is roughed in, and it looks great. Now Erik has accidentally drilled through a wire and I think his head might explode. Like that.

Focusing on a project’s current status makes it feel like you are getting somewhere and allows a detached view of the situation. It is important to feel the end is in sight, but you can drive yourself crazy yearning for that distant day. Keeping my attention on the present let me enjoy various small bits of progress along the way. (For example, now the polyester resin has melted the blueboard, and we have to make new lids.) Before I knew it, I was switching on the thermostat and the plates were cooling down. Hooray!

One of my favorite things about sailors is their boundless optimism. A through-hull will corrode, a bilge pump will fail, and yet your average cruiser will still tell you, even as he is struggling with the manual pump, “It isn’t so bad, we’ll have this solved in no time.”

This attitude is key for surviving aboard during renovations. When our two-week painting project morphed into a three-month, six-day-a-week marathon, Erik and I kept telling our friends we were almost done. If we had a dollar for every time we said that, we could have paid someone else to do the entire job. But we really meant it. We always truly believed we were almost done, even as we were adding another job to our list.

The best thing you can do during a liveaboard boat project is embrace it. Yes, there is bound to be some discomfort, but it is all for your benefit. Remember why you chose to replace the sink and rip out all the old plumbing. Carry a little picture of “The Way Things Were” in your wallet to cheer you up when the mess gets you down. Those few months of pain will buy you years of enjoyment. When we turned on our new fridge for the first time in our shiny, newly painted galley, those weeks of picking fiberglass out of my clothes instantly faded away. Once it’s over, it’s over. Let the bad memories die.

So take a deep breath and jump in–your newly improved boat awaits you. With a little luck and some good humor, you’ll almost certainly get through it without a heart attack and might even maintain your sanity.

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