(This article appeared in the May edition of 48 North)
When I turned 16, I threw a day-long party in the backyard. No gifts, no games, no structure – just burgers and cake and a pile of people I cared about from all areas of my life. Friends I’d had for a decade met each other for the first time, forging their own lifelong friendships. The joy and energy I derived from that event sustained me for weeks. It was my first time purposefully assembling a community around me. A decade later, we planned what was basically a four-day summer camp for our wedding. Our community, spread across the globe, came to be together, to learn from each other, to celebrate friendship and love.
So yeah, community is important to us.
I knew we’d make many friends while cruising, lifelong friends drifting all over the world, but I wasn’t sure we’d build community like we had in Seattle, like when we got married, like when I was 16. Every boat is on its on schedule, has its own priorities, and moves at its own speed. I wasn’t sure we’d be with the same group of boats long enough to establish those deep community connections.
While it’s true every boat follows it’s own path, those paths perpetually intersect and merge, forming a fluid and dynamic community built on the strong undercurrents of acceptance, understanding, shared knowledge and camaraderie.
To meet other cruisers is to gain teammates – new friends watching your back and sharing their wisdom and their beers. There is no awkward get-to-know-you period. They are likely already friends with your friends; the introduction is simply a name-exchange that happens just before (or sometimes after) fixing a stubborn outboard together, discussing the next weather window, or sharing stories of passages, welders, recipes and engine failures.
We had known fellow cruisers Will and Jenny no longer than 10 minutes when we’d already decided whose boat was hosting dinner, planned a snorkeling adventure for the following morning and lent them a wrench set.
We stay in the vicinity of like-minded boats far more than I anticipated. We shared passages and anchorages with the same 3-5 boats for two months as we traveled from northern California to the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula. We did that on purpose; discussing and adapting plans and routes together until our ideas fused into one in which we made passages at the same time, kept islands on the same side, and chose the same anchorages.
There are dozens of inflection points where cruisers tend to gather and linger, allowing the back of the pack to catch up (qualifying characteristics: a large calm anchorage next to a town with snorkeling and/or surfing nearby. Bonus: accessible pool or hot tub).
At these points, the community strengthens and expands. Cabo, La Paz, Puerto Vallarta, Barra de Navidad. In each of these spots, we have met new cruisers, some that we’ve heard about for months or “know” from instagram, others that have cruised the same waters for months without yet crossing paths. We exchange boat cards, the cruiser’s version of a business card and the simplest way to collect contact information.
There is a downside of these inflection points; where boats congregate, they also must disperse. The larger community ebbs and flows as weather windows open to head south, or north, or west. As with any community, though, there are a few with whom the instant bond is even stronger- the ones that no longer knock when they come over. This is the inner circle that eats dinner together every night, that rents a car to explore inland, that changes their plans to cruise together longer.
Our inner circle encompasses three boats right now: Agape, a Tayana 42 from Ventura Califronia, Sloboda, a Nordhavn 47 from San Francisco, and us. The average age across the three boats is 32, the average cruising speed is 6 knots. Some segment of the 6 of us are almost always together – provisioning, exploring, lounging, eating, walking, swimming, discussing, playing.
There is an added intensity to time spent within the inner circle. These are not friends that own houses down the street; there is no guarantee we will be in the same port next week, and it is unlikely we will be in the same country in 4 months. So it is the “now” that is important. We make plans for today and tomorrow, for as long as that might last.
The “goodbye’s” are hard. After so many weeks of building your life around these friends, one day your paths diverge. They are heading north or you need to move faster or they decide to stay put. It takes time to recover from the break up; we often find ourselves parked in an anchorage near boats we don’t know, without the energy to venture out or introduce ourselves. It feels lonely, but it doesn’t last long, we know they are friends for good.
Without the dependability of Internet in our pockets, cruisers have alternative ways to keep in touch. When hanging out in port, we rely on our VHF radios, always on and tuned to a pre-arranged cruisers channel. When it’s time for a surfing expedition or sundowners or trip to town, we hail friend boats on the VHF to arrange the details. The radio only reaches a few miles, though, so communication changes once paths diverge.
Separated by distance, the first and easiest communication is still a quick text, cell phone to cell phone. In a surprising number of places, including uninhabited bays, there is enough reception for at least this basic chatting. When there isn’t, we turn to texting via satellite phones (I’d say more than half the cruisers we meet keep one on hand), though the zac morris-era brick phone with the alphabet lined up three to a number makes this an exercise in patience and persistence not undertaken lightly.
It is the SSB, the single sideband radio, that truly links cruisers the world over. This is a high frequency radio that, through a formula of long radio waves, 1930’s era technology and a dash of voodoo can transmit voices thousands of miles to suddenly emit from a speaker in a tiny boat bobbing in the ocean and bring comfort to lonely cruisers.
In some parts of the world, there are established nets – like conference calls for cruisers. Everyone crossing the pacific, for example, tunes it at the same time on the same channel for a roll call, weather report, check in, and jokes. As our community wanders about, we create our own nets to keep in touch and to keep tabs on friends undertaking long passages. Nothing beats hearing the sound of a good friend come crackling over the SSB from 1500 miles away.
It was on one of these friends’ nets that we heard from Richard on Firewater, a cruiser we had met only briefly in San Francisco months earlier, now crossing the Pacific to Hawaii by himself. Every day for two weeks we, along with the other four boats on the net, tracked his progress as he fought storms, lost wind, made repairs, drank wine and made his way to Hawaii. We were the only human contact he had each day. Now that is community.
We rely on this radio, together with our sat phone and inconsistent cell reception, to keep our community together even as the winds disperse us around the world. When we find full-strength service again, we read blogs, check position reports, and send emails.
All communities morph and shift over time, though perhaps none as reliably as cruisers. This fluidity, instead of straining relationships, strengthens them immeasurably. Our time together is fully exploited and our shared experiences keep us connected across thousands of ocean miles. It is a worldwide support network, it is comfort in the form of a human voice at sea, it is assistance when it’s most needed, it is memories we will carry forever, it is community.