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Think twice before telling people you're a cruiser

I was hanging in a bar near the airport in Savannah, Georgia, one rainy evening, en route from somewhere to somewhere. A rather beefy gentleman was also in attendance, hanging out both literally and figuratively. He was clearly enjoying the beverages and was earnestly engaged in talking with every lady around, never mind that the conversations were one-sided and that the one side was usually the back side of the heads of said ladies.

The cockpit shower was an important feature in Tom's earlier cruising days.

I was wearing an old Cruising World shirt. (I used to be editor-at-large for that magazine and wrote the “On Watch” column and other pieces for many years.) The gentleman who kept striking out with the ladies suddenly stared in my direction in the mirror behind the bar, his florid face indicating curiosity and interest. Then, slowly but deliberately, he swiveled his head toward me. “I’m a cruiser, too,” he announced.

I like to talk about boats and cruising, and I was bored, so I opened up. “Yeah, I’ve lived aboard since the ’70s and traveled thousands of miles on my boat. Can’t wait to get back to her.”

He looked at me strangely, tottered a little on his stool, squinted hard at the logo on my shirt and turned his back to me as a newcomer entered. This gave my wife an opportunity to explain to me that “cruiser” meant different things to different people, and, more to the point, it often meant hanging out in bars trying to pick up people, for reasons I’ll leave to your imagination. As we left awhile later, I noticed that he had, indeed, talked someone into moving to a booth with him, from where there now came some sort of low moaning. I guess he probably got the bar bill.

I’ve given all of this some thought since then and have come to the realization that I’d better be careful when I call myself a cruiser. When you call yourself one you can’t be sure what people think you’re doing in your spare time. But that begs the question: What do I call myself?

This wasn’t much of a problem when I first started heading out in boats because we didn’t call it by a name back then, at least not in the small town where I lived. If we had, I suppose we would have called it something like boat bumming. I’d pack a tent in the wet bilge of my leaky wooden skiff, along with some cans of beans, Vienna sausages, pickles from the barrel at Cousin Percy’s store, and a few Moon Pies and grape Nehis. Thus prepared for survival, I’d head off down the river.

This 'vessel' looslely fulfills the living aboard part of the cruising equation.

Eventually I’d find a sandy beach, anchor, explore and pitch my tent. To control the mosquitoes, I’d wade just a little offshore in my bathing suit. I knew I’d find deep, soft, yucky mud there. When I did, I’d start working my feet and then legs so that I sank down into the mud as far as possible and could still get out alive. After extracting myself from the primordial slime, I’d spread it all over my face and neck. This was long before the days of perfumed DEET, and I can tell you with certainty that if the rest of humanity knew this trick, the world would have far fewer chemicals. This mud worked all night long and even into the next day. In the morning I’d wash some of it off in the river, but there was always enough to ward off daytime ’squitoes, not to mention the sun. It was better than today’s SPF 50.

This type of cruising happened in the stifling heat and humidity of summer. The mud and I were stinking, and by the second day out the food was, too. The bed was hard and wet, and when I stuck my legs into that sleeping bag I didn’t know whether I’d ever see them again. Fortunately, I could tell they were still there because they were always kicking to keep whatever was down there away. It made “restless leg syndrome” like a walk in the park. This type of cruising was fun for me, but as you’ve probably surmised, not many others seemed to enjoy it.

As the years wore on, my cruising evolved a little, as did the use of the term in boating circles. But I still didn’t talk of myself as a “cruiser.” It remained a very lonely affair for me. This all changed when I got my first official cabin cruiser: a new 18-foot Glasspar Seafair Sedan. By then I had been reading about true “yachting” and “cruising” in magazines such as MotorBoating and, yes, Yachting. I was beginning to develop a self-image — never mind that I didn’t fit that image. One of the problems was that the cruising concept usually included an essential element that was lacking in my life. It was highlighted every time someone wrote in a magazine about cruising, every time somebody wrote a song about it and every time somebody bragged in a bar about it. And this boat helped me to realize this missing essential element — and a lot more.

With the Glasspar I was sometimes actually able to talk people into going out with me, and one of them was a girl. We met early one summer, and she took day trips with me up and down the river. That winter we got married. She took her first night trip with me and learned that that this yacht didn’t have heat. It did, however, have some Rebel Yell bourbon, and she learned that bourbon could go a long way toward warming the core and nipping frostbite in the bud, or at least give you that impression.

Bosom Buddies. Proper cruisers might raft up for some social time together.

Sharing the experience with a girl brought me to a whole new level. In the last 47 years that she’s been cruising with me, our definition of cruising has continuously morphed. We graduated up to a used Tartan 27 — our first real yacht — wherein luxury knew no bounds. We had a sink for washing dishes and faces, heat in the winter, an alcohol stove that consistently cooked good meals after it consistently exploded at each lighting, and a head where you could close the door. It also had a shower and a bathtub, or so we liked to tell people.

The shower was the cockpit, with towels hung around the lifelines and a bag of water slung from the boom. My wife, Mel, couldn’t stand in it because others in the anchorage might “see.” I couldn’t stand up in it because Mel wouldn’t let me. But we could get clean in it when we didn’t want a true bath.

The bathtub was really our sink-proof dinghy, which we towed. If we filled it with rainwater or just took off from the dock with it full of hose water, the water would stay there through calm days, gradually warming until bath time. At anchor, we’d pull it up close and hop in. If we didn’t want to wait, we’d hop in underway. The sloshing would wash off the dirt as though you were in a washing machine.

And then we went to a boat show. We came back owning a brand-new Gulfstar 41. It was kind of yellow, although I don’t think they had intended it to be. Mel called it the “yellow whale.” Our “cruising” was becoming more like what they were talking about in the fancy magazines. This boat could go far distances and had stand-up showers inside, a galley and dinette, and two staterooms. We liked it so much that over the following years we got two more Gulfstars, each larger than the previous. We could travel to the islands, live independently for long periods of time. We were comfortable, we were eating well, and we had given up living ashore altogether.

You’d think that with these continuously improving lifestyle enhancements I’d be feeling more comfortable describing myself as a cruiser. But despite all this, my identity crisis kept growing. It was becoming obvious that I didn’t cut the mustard as a true cruiser.

We kept running into good folks who also cruised but were doing it differently. And they were widely touted in the magazines.

One who stands out in my mind is Alvah Simon, who in addition to other amazing feats deliberately froze his steel boat into the ice for a winter. He’s one of those tough-in-extremis types. He survived in style (his style), spending much of his time coaxing polar bears away from his boat and having an occasional celebration with Jack Daniels, who was there in spirit. I’ll never forget eating lunch with Alvah and talking about how the Jack Daniels bottles contrasted against the white snow. I always admired Alvah and others like him, but I knew I couldn’t fit into that group. And today I know that if I call myself a cruiser I must explain because I don’t want people to think I’m that tough. That could get me into big trouble.

Some cruisers just don't care about the image they project.

There are also those who consider “cruising” to mean “traveling long distances in a boat with great difficulty” — for example, circumnavigating the world without an engine. Some cruise this way because they’re too pure to even have an engine. Some may have started out with an engine but couldn’t fix it the first time it broke down.

There were also those who bragged about bathing with a cup or two of water. (They didn’t need to brag; you knew.) And there were those who survived awesome storms and lived to write glowingly about it.

Perhaps the ultimate symbol of “real” cruising is the rejection of the marine head. Some of the truer cruisers never used the head even if they had one, preferring the “over the side” method, even if bullets were flying their way, sent along by irate citizenry ashore. These folks seem exceptionally proud of their lifestyle, and when they call themselves cruisers you don’t argue. But I don’t fit into this definition of cruising, either. Actually, there are so many definitions of cruising I don’t fit into that my identity crisis continues to grow.

Unlike true cruisers, I’m not tough. I love my engine. I don’t like storms, and I’ve known a few. I do like being clean. I don’t like being cold. Also I dread a repeat of that ambiguous incident in the Savannah bar even more than I dread people thinking I don’t use the head.

So over the years I’ve created an image of my type of cruising. I don’t share it here because I figure nobody else really cares. But it resolved many issues and finally made me feel pretty good about myself until recently, when someone threw me yet another definitional complication — again at a bar, this time at a party. An elderly woman (not as elderly as I am) was talking about the trip she was going to take to the Bahamas on a cruise ship. Eager to converse about a favorite subject, I said, “Oh, I love the Bahamas.”

“Are you a cruiser, too?” she asked with a cocktail-party smile.

April 2015 issue