Back when I was a young man, sailing back and forth across the North Atlantic in an old fiberglass sailboat, it seemed fairly obvious to me how all that was wrong in the world might be set right. Everyone should be issued a boat at birth! Or so I declared to any who would listen during a number of alcohol-fueled bluewater philosophy seminars conducted in beach bars and cockpits in Europe, West Africa and the Eastern Caribbean.
I was kidding, of course, but not really. For I did believe, and I still believe, that the economies of life practiced while living aboard a small sailboat are the economies we all need to learn to keep our planet habitable in the long term.
It is fashionable now to decry the gross proliferation of plastic waste on this orb of ours, but there is at least one upside. There are now enough derelict plastic boats lying about that my old edict can be implemented. Old fiberglass sailboats ranging roughly from 22-32ft in size can be had for very little money or in some cases no money at all, which means most everyone who really wants a boat can have one. Not surprisingly, there is a growing legion of idealistic young people who are taking advantage of this.
Exhibit #1 is a young man who calls himself Moxie Marlinspike, founder of what he calls the Anarchist Yacht Clubb. Moxie and three friends (all young women) bought a ruined Pearson 30 in Fort Lauderdale for $1,000 and then rebuilt it in true guerilla refit style. They tabbed in scavenged sheets of plywood as new bulkheads and stepped their mast using the dinghy davit on an unattended superyacht. When they were done, they christened their boat Pestilence and on a no-strings budget cruised it from Florida to the Dominican Republic. Moxie’s hourlong video “Hold Fast” documenting this adventure is a modern classic and nothing less than a manifesto for contemporary post-punk cruisers.
There are more of them out there than you’d think. Being anarchists they are not particularly well organized, but there have been some attempts. On the Rio Dulce in Guatemala, there have been at least three gatherings (in 2010, 2012 and 2016) of DIY punk sailors at an event called first the DIY Sailboat Meetup, then later the Salt Assault Fest. There’s also a desultory Boat Punk/Sailing forum on the Squat the Planet website (squattheplanet.com).
Scratch around and you’ll also find individual DIY youngsters blogging about their adventures. My current favorite is Emily Greenberg. After sailing around playing second fiddle to boyfriend skippers on different boats, she promoted herself to skipper and got a boat of her own. Her first was an old Bristol 24. She then upgraded to an old Pearson Ariel 26 named Vanupied (French for “barefoot peasant”) that she bought off a young Quebecoise cruiser. She’s currently in the middle of a never-ending mobile refit (aren’t they all?) and does deliveries and brokers sales of other small “classic plastic” cruisers to help make ends meet. She documents all this at her blog site Dinghy Dreams (dinghydreams.com). She has great spirit, is unremittingly honest, and it all makes for a great read.
Of course, you can also find these creatures in the wild, when you’re out cruising on your own boat. I very, fortunately, found one myself, a young Canadian fellow named Matthew, who helped me re-anchor my boat last June after she started dragging in the midst of a gale on the New Jersey coast. Matthew, his wife and their two girls were homeward bound at the time after spending a season cruising the Bahamas on a beat-up old Grampian 30. He was a Good Samaritan in the best spirit of cruising and had spent most of that morning touring the anchorage helping out those in need, including another young barebones sailor whose tiny Catalina had been blown up on a beach.
If you follow the racing scene, you’ve probably read a good bit over the past decade about how young people aren’t staying in the sport of sailing. But the people writing these obituaries have been looking at the wrong side of the sport and aren’t interested in the right kind of young people. There’s no doubt about it: for the young and the restless, cruising is where it’s at.