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Sailboat Living: A Lesson in “Where it Comes From, and Where it Goes”

My name is Elizabeth. I am a mechanical engineer, a San Francisco Bay Area resident, and the secretary of Inian’s Board of Directors. I also live on a sailboat.

I’ll admit that the decision to move aboard was riddled with youthful exuberance and minimal knowledge of exactly what I was signing on for, aside from the vague sense that it would be both a challenging adventure and a learning opportunity. I remember distinctly that sailing the boat out of the slip at her previous marina, my first short voyage on the vessel, felt mildly illegal – it seemed like there should be rules against a 23 year old kid writing a check to a Craigslist seller and literally sailing into the sunset on her new prize. I had unwittingly discovered a vestige of true freedom to craft my lifestyle to my liking, and at least for the moment it tasted wonderfully sweet.

What drew me to this lifestyle shift was the unshakable desire to simplify my daily existence – to live a little closer to nature, shed some of the trappings of the modern urban rat race, and try to enjoy some damn peace and quiet (as far as this can be done while still living and working right in the middle of the SF Bay Area). But downsizing to fit your whole life on a boat that is 34’ long, 10’ across at the widest part, and about 7’ tall in the cabin would test even the firmest resolve to live simply. If my motivation was ever lacking, however, I needed only to remind myself that I was paying both Bay Area apartment rent and about $475 per month in marina slip fees until the moving and paring-down process was complete, after just having blown a large portion of my savings on purchasing a possibly frivolous and unquestionably maintenance-intensive sailboat. What resulted was a 1-month sprint of serious winnowing that would put Marie Kondo to shame. After ridding myself of 6-7 years of accumulated excess via Craigslist, the urban curbside Bermuda triangle, donations to thrift stores, and dumpsters, still an astonishing volume of what I consider “necessities” remains.

Here’s a rough categorization of what’s on board at any point: sailing equipment, safety and first aid gear, charts and instruments, radio, stereo, binoculars, engine, diesel tank, freshwater tanks, propane cylinder, stove, kitchen sink, icebox, kitchen table, seating, dehumidifier, tools and maintenance parts, kitchen gear and dishes, cleaning supplies, trash/recycling/compost bins, toilet, bathroom sink, holding tank, clothing, shoes, toiletries, fishing boots, around 2 weeks of non-perishable foods, fresh fruits and veggies, bedding, personal possessions, books, climbing shoes and harness, enough instruments to equip a folk band (keyboard, guitar, banjo, fiddle, clarinet, recorders, tin whistles), games and puzzles, camping and backpacking gear, kayak (on deck), bicycle, Toby (my amazingly adaptable 13 lb poodle), and me.IMG_20191109_162913

I promise I’m getting to the point soon, but having just taken a moment to make an honest and full account of the possessions in my home, it turned out to be a fantastic mental exercise that I recommend to you highly. It reminded me that no matter how lean and unburdened we might enable ourselves to feel by paring down to the necessities, we humans are still frail in the face of nature, and require a fair number of material goods to keep ourselves alive, well, and happy. 

Beyond forcing a reduction in volume of possessions, the real gift of living in a small space has been the habits of mind that come as a natural consequence of not having very much “swap space” for bringing in new things. See, my home is really a floating island, with all of the things needed to sustain human and canine life (at least for a short period) safely tucked inside. I have come to learn that one side effect of making one’s home on a floating island, that at any moment needs to be equipped to sever ties with land and make her own course through the world, is awareness of what I will call “throughput.” In the course of moving onto the boat, some back corner of my mind took up the post of keeping a careful accounting of goods coming in and out, partially because there is typically no space for surpluses to reside.

As an engineer and compulsive optimizer, that part of my brain soon had plenty of fodder for systemic improvement of resource management. As a small example, when I come home from work these days, it is usually with my one liter water bottle full – why pull drinking water from the finite capacity of my freshwater tanks, which will have to be refilled by hose when empty, if every day I have the capacity to tote one extra liter of water from work without even noticing the burden? Every piece of food I consume will be hand-carried down the dock, hoisted aboard, and tucked away into cupboards, so lentils, beans and rice make a more nutritionally efficient load than half a gallon of juice. Incidentally, since most of our groceries travel great distances to reach our supermarkets, this means my shopping decisions often end up accidentally reflecting reduced carbon footprint. When I’ve made good use of my groceries, *ahem*, their end product must also be shepherded to a pumpout station for proper and conscientious disposal. If I want a new pair of shoes, a book, or a potted plant, I have to decide whether it should replace something old and worn or whether it justifies taking up additional, limited space. I typically know exactly which groceries are in my icebox and which need to be eaten soonest, due to my imperfectly regulated “refrigeration” system, which has resulted in my food waste rate dropping to a truly incredible low (in the past 3 months, I have thrown out perhaps one piece of fruit that went bad by my negligence). The things I pride myself most on these days are my systems for doing the dishes with the least water and (biodegradable) soap possible, for minimizing food waste, for flushing my toilet with the freshwater condensate from my dehumidifier, and for a hundred other day-to-day tasks that typically pass us by with almost no scrutiny.

These are things you do not think about when you live in a land-home connected to city water, electricity, and sewer systems. I certainly spend more time and effort doing chores and transporting goods to and from my boat, and some might see this as a burden. However, I find it promotes an active lifestyle and serves as a useful impetus for reflection on what things are truly necessary for me to have and what up- and down-stream effects there may be from my temporarily claiming them.

And this is the real point here: nothing ever really goes away. It always comes from somewhere, and it always ends up somewhere. In some sense, we all live on floating islands with things coming in and going out, traded amongst a sea of floating islands. Some items stick around your island for a minute, or a week, others for 35 years. Some of them cost a lot to get – to you, or to the world, and some of them are very problematic once you’re done with them. I’m still very much a consumer; I haven’t really gotten away from that aspect of living in urban America. The only real change in my lifestyle is that I now have to spend 5 minutes with the hose for every 20 gallons of water I use, which makes me slightly more aware of the rate at which water flows through my floating island when I’m brushing my teeth or doing the dishes. It makes me grateful to have that hose connected to wonderfully potable water, distinct from the salty, silty marina bath all around me.

This brings me to Inian – another island home with a much more radically symbiotic ecosystem of life-sustaining goods. On the Inian campus, with very limited opportunities for resources to come and go, life is all about efficient systems of reuse, paying into the cycle with a little bit of labor in exchange for what we consume, and minimizing waste. One of the first questions I usually get when Inian comes up in conversation is, “so… what exactly do you teach at this school?” I could choose to brush off the question by saying “environmental science” or something equally recognizable as a classroom subject, but that leaves out the fact that the whole point of Inian is that it is not a classroom with limited curricular scope, it is a holistic experience of being part of the cycle of a demonstrably sustainable system, and of probing the bounds of what that life feels like and entails. It’s more than an intellectual prompt – it’s also that participating meaningfully in one’s own subsistence feels good; it is wholesome and healing in a way that our students may never have felt before. The desire to healthfully be part of an ecosystem, one that includes humans as welcome contributors, may be below the surface of that insatiable craving for nature that drives us to hike through our parks and camp out under the stars searching for meaning we cannot find when the lights and sounds of the city blaze so brightly that they drown out all else.

As a team we are very much remiss in not publicizing the following more broadly (yet!), but Inian has a carefully crafted set of values that I find so perfectly capture the heart of what we believe that I will share them in closing:

  • We value sense of place.
  • We value traditional and indigenous knowledge of living sustainably within the bounds of an ecosystem, respectfully harvesting only what is needed.
  • We value science as one way of knowing the world and our place within it.
  • We value the experience of subsistence living, teaching an ethic of sufficiency, knowledge of provenance, and appreciation of limits.
  • We value a stable climate on Earth.
  • We value public lands.
  • We hold these values to be the foundation of human and environmental well-being

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Larry #

    Great read Elizabeth – thanks for sharing.

    April 16, 2020
  2. Annie Mackovjak #

    I love the story of your moving onto your sailboat – we should all be willing to put Marie Kondo to shame, and though this virus has allowed me to begin winnowing out a few things, my house is still full of “stuff.” You made a great connection to Inian Islands Institute, and I appreciate how you reiterated Inian’s values so clearly.

    April 19, 2020

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