Island Time - Cut and run: life as a working cruiser

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Some who chase the liveaboard dream in paradise must earn their keep any way they can

Some who chase the liveaboard dream in paradise must earn their keep any way they can

Some of the folks cruising southern waters are affluent beyond a care, but the majority are merely well-off — retired and living modestly adventuresome lives aboard their sailboats and trawlers. Bless ’em, I say, for they think they’ve saved the best for last.

Kelly and I belong to a different category. We managed to cut and run, as the Republicans would say, well before our eligibility for Social Security benefits. That means we’re in the small group that tries to support its cruising habit by earning money under way. Other sailing minorities include parents home-schooling children and the minutest category of all: women without men, whether in pairs or single-handing.

Present company excepted, one should be wary of sailors without means. My favorite of the breed was a Brit with a dodgy past; I’ll call him “R,” like some character out of Dickens. Having not seen my friend R for a year, I ran into him again at a beachside bar down island. Over beers and rum, he described a hat-trick of entrepreneurial activity. R said he was selling bootleg navigational software, advertising for “investors” over the Internet and acting as an intermediary for foreign men seeking liaisons with native women.

“Let me get this straight, R,” I said. “You are a copyright-infringing, pyramid-scheming pimp?”

“Exactly!”

To be fair, R was in a particularly imaginative phase of his life at sea. He had been known to make money the old-fashioned way on occasion, and that’s how we had come to know one another. We were both captains for a company that sold catamaran sailing tours to hotel guests. The job was part sailing and part showmanship, and R excelled at it thanks to his educated British accent. He confided his evil ways to me only after I had convinced him that I was not a CIA agent (which, of course, would be the ultimate cruising job). That’s the way the man thought. “R,” said I, “The CIA has better things to do than track you down.” And this was before 9/11.

In any event, captaining is one way that sailors earn their keep, either by taking out tourists or delivering other people’s boats for pay. I also worked as a mechanic, keeping a tourist fleet in service, which always amused the real mechanics that know me. Mostly, I do what you see here — I write. Writing is something I’ve been doing for 30 years, ever since my college internship at the Westfield (Mass.) Evening News.

Sadly, Caribbean anchorages are filthy with writers, when what are really needed are refrigeration technicians. I’ve never sat around a table down island and listened to a cruiser say what he really needed in his life was a better turn of phrase; they all seem to have problems with their refrigerators and air conditioners.

Which leads me to two points: 1. This is an indicator of the comfort to which retired cruisers are accustomed; and 2. It’s a hint to anyone who can fix cold-making machinery who may be thinking of escaping the stateside routine. We need you down here.

Not-so-restless natives

One aspect of the cruising culture I find a bit disappointing is that all these North Americans go cruising to see the islands, to ingest a little foreign culture, but spend all their time in port socializing almost entirely with one another. Often the only natives they really know are bartenders and waitresses.

When you’re working for a living, you enjoy a genuine place in the local economy. You are connected. You tend to have co-workers from that country; you develop business relationships that can blossom into friendships. If the place is Spanish-speaking, you begin to learn a second language.

“Gone native,” your retiree acquaintances observe, as if that were a bad thing.

In the Bahamian Abacos, Kelly and I supported ourselves by writing, and one recent assignment was technical in nature. The public relations man for various marine electronics companies asked me to test a new Navman 8210 chartplotter. (A corporate disclaimer: The company that owns Navman and Northstar — Brunswick New Technologies Marine Electronics — has since dropped the Navman name in North America and now markets all that company’s marine electronics under the Northstar banner. The chartplotter I tested is now sold as the Northstar M121.)

Presumably, Navman would enjoy some good press while I earned a few bucks from a magazine or three. But the deal was about more than money for me. Having a new plotter — even if it was just for the three months I got to play with it before sending it back to the company — would make my “other job” in the Abacos both much easier and more interesting.

But first a personal disclaimer: I once had the job of the “electronics editor” at two glossy boating magazines without ever knowing electron from atom. My chief qualification on both occasions was being the new guy; nobody wanted to be electronics editor. I was amazed when one of my colleagues tested a chartplotter for 25 minutes on the water before praising the unit in writing for a national audience. Was he being irresponsible? Not really. Fact is — and I take this as a good thing — there’s virtually no junk in the marine electronics market any more. I’m convinced you would survive magnificently if you bought only obsolete gear or the least-expensive marine electronics product in each category.

In self-defense, however, I like to really use any equipment I’m going to write about, even if I know I will be impressed before I even start. That’s where our other gig in the Abacos came into play.

Perks and bennies

A trawler manufacturer for whom I once worked wanted to offer one of its boats for charter in the Abacos — a try-before-you-buy marketing campaign. I would train the customers — usually one or two couples — in the on-board systems and boat-handling techniques, give them some advice about Abacos destinations and send them on their way.

Besides training and the drudgery of end-of-charter turnaround, I also had to be available to talk the charterers through system problems over the VHF radio and, if necessary, respond in person to make repairs. For this purpose, we had been equipped with a 16-foot center-console skiff with a 50-hp outboard motor. The idea was to be able to quickly cover cruising grounds spanning 30 miles of cays in the lower Sea of Abaco.

You pilot this skiff standing, so the plotter display had to face nearly skyward. In this ultimate test of daylight viewing, the 8210’s 12-inch screen proved bright enough to read in the brightest Bahamian sunshine. C-MAP cartography was good news too because of C-MAP’s recent incorporation of Explorer Chart data. The Explorer Charts are considered today’s standard for Bahamian waters and include tried-and-tested routes through some tricky channels.

But what do you do if you want to go someplace that hasn’t been charted? You may have to make your own.

I wasn’t kidding when I said everybody’s equipment does a pretty good job. Navman was marketed as an entry-level line of electronics designed for ease-of-use, which was exactly what I wanted. Putting it through its paces, I didn’t find myself keying down several menu levels to accomplish commonplace tasks. This came in handy as July and August approached.

Kelly and I had to take into account the possibility of hurricanes — 2006, you may recall, was originally forecast to be an active season.

I asked a local Bahamian boatman — one of those interesting locals I got to know because of the job — what he would do if he had two big boats to protect. This former go-fast boat driver pointed me to an unchartered mangrove creek that had all the earmarks of a good hurricane hole, but a shallow bar had to be crossed. No problem for the skiff, but what about our 41-foot ketch, Rio, and the charter boat?

After taking the skiff across the bar and getting a visual sense of the depths, I came back out taking soundings while pressing a single button on the plotter to record waypoints; that’s how I marked the optimal channel into the creek. In just minutes, I had created my own chart data.

A hurricane never materialized, but I’m confident we could have moved both boats inside on a single tide with the help of my crew: one woman and an aging cat.

Forgive me for meandering. My treatise on working while under way finished in tech talk, but that is one of the things I do for work. And at least you can be assured that conclusions came from three months of hands-on with the plotter, not 30 minutes.

’Til next time.