Ocean Travel: A Life of Self-Sufficiency

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Guide to maintaining independence while sailing on the high seas.

How can 14 people travel around the world and still live at home? Easy: Home, work, and lifestyle are one spent in ocean travel aboard Sofia, our antique Baltic topsail schooner. She’s 120 feet of salt-permeated Scandinavian oak, fitted with ancient tools and machinery . . . an embodiment of a sailing tradition that has almost disappeared these days.

A Life of Ocean Travel

Sofia was built as a cargo vessel in Sweden in 1921 and has been owned communally for five years now. All that time she’s been self-sufficient . . . through fair and foul winds, continual crew changes, and even a sinking on a lonely beach in the mysterious Galapagos Islands.

Back in 1969, Sofia was on sale for $7,000 . . . not as cheap as it sounds, since she was hardly more than a hull. The 20 people of the original group each contributed $1,500 to her purchase and badly needed rejuvenation. Two years of refitting, rebuilding, and rerigging were needed to get the vessel into shape. Most of the work — including the installation of new water tanks, sails, deck planking, cabins, and steel replacements for the rotted wooden masts — was done in Spain where materials were inexpensive.

After cruising in Europe, the Mediterranean, Morocco, the Canary Isles, and the Cape Verdes, Sofia crossed the Atlantic to the West Indies. The financial situation was bleak by then, and many of the crew returned to the States.

Since the West Indies is one of the few areas that allow foreign ships to carry goods commercially, the seven of us who were left aboard decided to convert Sofia back to her original function as a trading vessel. In Barbados we located an agent who found cargo for us. Soon we were receiving about $1,000 per trip — depending on the type of merchandise — to haul commodities such as molasses, oranges, canned foods, and grains among the islands of St. Lucia, Grenada, Barbados, and Trinidad.

The ship’s whole living area — galley, saloon, and cabins served as a hold for the cargoes, and her decks were stacked to the booms with boxes, barrels, and sacks. Since we couldn’t get at the sails easily, Sofia was powered on her trading voyages by her two-cylinder, semi-diesel June-Munktell engine . . . a 30-year-old Danish powerplant. (Normally we cruise under canvas and use “Junie-baby” only to enter and leave certain harbors.)

We loaded and unloaded all the goods ourselves, at the rate of 100 to 200 tons in two days . . . hard work in the tropics, but good work, too. It felt especially good to be around the native stevedores . . . black people with flashing white smiles.

After six months of island life and work, Sofia left the rum, sugar cane, and calypso of the West Indies for the alluring San Blas Islands, golden Colombia, and the Panama redlands. Then on to New Zealand . . . where we are now, fairly broke after a year of sailing the lovely South Pacific. Many of the crew are taking jobs ashore, while others are leaving the ship and will be replaced by new members. After six months we’ll probably move on to Australia and Indonesia to find more work . . . possibly with cargo, although this is impossible in most countries because of strong local unions and shipping regulations.

Another moneymaking possibility for us has turned up here in New Zealand: An American outdoors organization has expressed an interest in employing Sofia to carry a group of 12 divers, canoeists, and hikers around the islands. Our craft is no luxury charter yacht, but we have sometimes taken on passengers who were more interested in the romance of a traditional sailing vessel than in having their martinis properly chilled.

Our most reliable source of income is from turnover in the crew (only one of the original owners is still aboard). As members of the group leave, we accept newcomers at the rate of $2,000 per year. These contributions cover all food, fuel, and port charges . . . but living expenses account for only a small fraction of the overall budget. What does gulp the dollars is Sofia’s appetite for paint, varnish, caulk, tar, steel, etc.

Our roving life helps us keep our outlay for food, household needs, and such relatively low. As we sail from port to port we’re usually able to buy in bulk certain inexpensive goods in each of the countries we visit. We purchased 700 pounds of sugar in Fiji at 7¢ a pound, for instance, and 400 pounds of dried milk in Costa Rica for 30¢ a pound. In the islands we laid in dozens of stalks of bananas, and dried the fruit by slicing it and leaving it in the sun for three to five days.

We also cure fish by rubbing a small amount of salt into prepared fillets and stringing the bits from the rigging. After a few days the flesh is like jerky. We then prepare the fish for cooking when we want to eat by soaking it in fresh water for one day. It’s good in soups and stews, and can even be eaten dry (a true sailor hardly notices the salt).

While in New Zealand we’ve found still other ways to save on food. By buying through growers’ auctions, picking fruit and vegetables, and canning the produce ourselves, we’re able to take full advantage of the bounty of this fair land.

Lots of hard work in other departments is necessary to make our venture a success. An old ship is kept alive by continuous rope repair, sail mending, painting, varnishing, cleaning, and fighting rust and rot. If a land-dweller fails to water his lawn or paint his house, his living won’t be drastically affected . . . but if we neglect to water Sofia’ s decks, the timber dries, shrinks, and leaks at the seams. And if we don’t clean and paint her hull every six months, the worms will leave her as seaworthy as a sieve. One way and another, there’s always plenty to do.

The work is less burdensome than it might be because we’re our own bosses and have no buses to catch or schedules to meet. Decisions about the running of the ship are made by the crew. In that sense, we’re all owners and captains. (At sea, one person is sailing skipper and we follow his judgment.) Otherwise it’s up to the individual to do his share of the various jobs: cooking, carpentry, painting, navigating, sail work, and so on. The six women aboard participate equally in all duties . . . welding and changing sails as well as baking bread.

Living at sea with such a large group results in social problems even worse than those of a terrestrial commune. It’s difficult to escape interpersonal hassles when the only true privacy is at the top of a 65-foot mast. Dealing with one another under such circumstances requires a special effort from everybody.

There’s much to be. learned about sailing and shipboard life, and Sofia is a demanding teacher. It’s not always roses . . . but throughout five years of growth, change, and learning we’ve kept the old girl afloat. To be at home, and at the same time travel where we please — to lovely, coral trimmed islands, tropical jungle paradises, and the emerald beauty of Oz-like New Zealand — is a joy we find well worth the struggle.

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