Living the #boatlife

Photo by Kristel Hayes

In my previous blog post I spent some time talking about the kind of communities that build up around individuals and families who choose to spend large portions of their time living in vans. This week I wanted to change settings slightly, moving from the open road to the open ocean.

Let’s take a look at how community works for those living on a sailing boat. It’s probably worth noting that this is speculative and a very brief look. I do not live on a boat, but I am fascinated by how communities and subcultures form. That is a look at that. And a very brief one at that. There are numerous factors which come into play when talking about all cultures and communities and an in-depth discussion on the subject is for someone far smarter than I.

Another thing; there are plenty of individuals who live on boats without ever taking them out onto the waves. I’m not concerning with them either.

Living life on the open ocean

What I want to have a look at are the individuals who live on the open ocean and who often travel from country to country.

For individuals such as these, community has the potential to look quite different. Unlike those whose lives are spent in vans and whose community also often includes other van-dwellers, boats can only really come together in harbour. When on the open ocean, the community is whoever is onboard. And while in a van, you might be able to drive for a day or two to meet up with friends, in a boat, any journey has the potential to take weeks.

As such, the concept of community has the potential to change dramatically. On her blog on the website Wand’rly, Kate Zidar talks of having a “precipitous drop in face-to-face interactions with my friends, family, and colleagues” after moving into her boat. She talks about how many of the sailors that they meet while travelling are retired and somewhat wealthier than her and her partner, Fabio. In a series of fantastic blog posts (for the link just click here) she talks about the journey to buying, building, and then sailing the boat. She also discusses some of the challenges and stresses of living in close proximity with only a few (or one) person.

Photo by Josh Sorenson

How many does it take to make a community?

Unlike vans, which can with greater frequency congregate with other vans, boats that are actively sailed are far more isolated and therefore the community that develops has the potential to be much different. Having said this, those who live life on the water are not eternally isolated. In fact, great stretches of time can be spent on land at various locations and it is not uncommon for poorer sailors to acquire seasonal work at different times in different places.

These stops, which can last for several months or more, have the opportunity to greatly impact the development of a boating ‘culture’ and as such create a sort of half-and half model of community. One half of the community, the sailors, are inconsistent. They come and go and rarely return. The other half of the community, the individuals living on shore who interact with the sailors (or even the friends and family living on shore) are consistent. They are, for the most part, always there, and so their community is its own entity, able to survive easily without the inclusion of the sailors. It could possibly be described – to a degree – as commensalism, or perhaps pseudo-commensalism as there is a degree of mutualism involved.

In commensalism, the first group (the sailors) benefit from interaction with the second group (the non-sailors) while the second group is not impacted by the interaction. The individuals living and working on land have their own community and culture which is largely unaffected by the sporadic inclusion on the sailors. However, the community and culture of the sailors, it could be argued, is heavily reliant on these interactions (for more physical needs like supplies and money, but also for sociological needs like extended community and the transmission of ideas).

I suggest this is pseudo-commensalism because while the sailors, it could be argued, benefit more from the interaction, the transmission of ideas and services can go both ways (especially if you consider that the sailors work for their pay) and therefore a level of mutualism is involved.

If you want a greater look at the different types of relationships such as commensalism, click here.

And finally

The structure of these interactions can change depending on their locations too. In busier ports there is a potential for the commensalism model to be flipped and, not unlike the tourist industry, the culture of the port may require the inclusion of the sailors, unpredictable and changing as their presence may be, to operate properly.

I realise this particular article isn’t answering any questions or concluding in any way. It is simply a quick look. I have not spent many years sailing (though I would love to) and while I would equally love to reach out to numerous individuals and conduct as many interviews as possible, my work and the scope of these articles does not allow it. These are merely articles to generate thought. Far too often we take for granted the intricacies of our own little worlds without delving into how our worlds have been created. I hope these short articles shed a little light – or spark a little flame – on this creation.