Nov 23, 2021

With less than week left before we head to Sicily for three months, I feel the need to reflect on the past month before moving on to the next transition. Some people sail through transitions; unless we’re actually sailing, I’m not one of them.

So much has shifted since we moved aboard sv NIRVANA last June—the “ground” under our feet, the surroundings when we “walk out the door,” the mechanics of living from eating and sleeping to pooping and peeing, the “stuff” that’s required for said mechanics, the people we encounter, and temperature inside and out, to name a few. These are all things that strike me deeply and have taken some time to get used to, some more than others.

I’ve been a sailor my whole life and lived aboard a 40’ sailboat for a year when I was 22. I’ve done my fair share of cruising, mostly on my Dad’s C&C 36 and Jeanneau 41 in Europe prior to owning my own boat. I’ve done plenty of day sailing and some cruising in my Sabre 28 in Muscongus Bay and Casco Bay. So I’m not unfamiliar with what it’s like to live aboard a boat, but to do so full-time, with a partner, and as a lifestyle, now that’s new!!!

Newness is great! It keeps me feeling like I’m alive. Since moving aboard, I’ve never had that I-don’t-feel-like-getting-out-of-bed-only-to-do-it-all-over-again-today kind of feeling that I’ve sometimes had when I was working and living in a house. That said, I’m someone who has always tried to make each day count, on some level, if only in my perception of it, which includes values such as gratitude and presence.

On the flip side, I seek comfort and a sense of place like many people, so feeling like I have “found my place” often feels important. Is this my home? Is this it? More and more I’ve come to see my need for a sense of “home” as a moving target and yet another human invention that can take me away from the present. When I drop the whole idea of needing to know—anything—life gets a whole lot simpler. It’s called living in the present.

That said, we’ve been at DiMillo’s on the waterfront for just over a month, and I’m finally beginning to feel like, yes, this is my home. And in a week, we leave for Italy! So for me, it means yet another transition as I continue to stay open and present to it all.

*     *     *   

So let me describe what it’s been like living aboard a 36’ sailboat at a marina in downtown Portland. Some of the upsides include walking to Harbor Fish to get the freshest (and most expensive) fish in town; walking to any number of great restaurants for a delicious meal (yesterday Lebanese, last week Indian, this week Italian); walking along the Eastern Prom, feeling the wind in my face, and seeing some of the beloved islands of Casco Bay—Peaks, Great Diamond, Cushing; connecting with my many friends from the eight years I’ve lived in the area; continuing to dance outside with my dance community; maintaining a wonderful relationship with my 32-year-old son and his wife and my aging mother who all live in town; getting to know like-minded people who also have the desire and fortitude to live aboard their boats all winter; and not the least of which, spending a mere $500/month on rent.

In many ways, living aboard the boat remains a constant from the summer—our beautiful cabin is the same one we’ve enjoyed for months, with its rich teak, cozy settee and v-berth, and functional, compact galley; we still cook in the galley and eat by solar candlelight; and it continues to feel great to be in such close proximity with each other day in and day out.

But in other ways, living aboard at a marina feels very different—instead of being tethered to an anchor or not tethered at all, we are tied to a dock with double dock lines at three corners; instead of rowing ashore we step off the boat onto a float and walk up a ramp; we’re running an electric heater and dehumidifier to keep the chill off and remove condensation; we’ve added a cozy rug and tv to our inventory; we have many more jackets and shoes to layer up when we go ashore; instead of pooping and showering onboard, we walk up the ramp to one of the three bathrooms designated for the over 50 live aboard boats at the marina (there is no pump-out facility during the winter, and they shut off the water on the docks so we have to run a long hose to our boat to tank up); and then there is the intermittent rolling when certain ferries come and go, apparently depending on the captain as to how much he guns the engines as he makes the turn just outside the marina.

The biggest change is that now we are living inside a literal bubble under our clear shrink wrap. We do this to shed the snow and prevent condensation inside the boat. Because the shrink wrap is clear, it acts as a greenhouse on sunny days so we actually have our cockpit back as another room. After Will got practice helping our neighbors with their boat, we borrowed their heavy duty heat gun and did our own. Putting up the frame was easy compared to last year, and the shrinking was not that hard either. At one point, Will was outside and I was inside until he slit the plastic to install the door like crossing into another world.

And oddly, Will and I have been spending more time apart, as we each sometimes go off in separate directions for this or that. Will goes to the hardware store, and I meet up with a friend for an early morning coffee. I go to Saturday and Sunday outdoor dance, and Will spends two days helping another live-aboard shrink wrap his boat. I take my laptop to the upstairs area of DiMillo’s ferry boat restaurant to do work on my computer, and Will drives to Boston to meet with an architecture client.

As long as the work remains satisfying for both of us, we will continue to do it in small doses. In my case, after thirty years doing technical writing for software companies (read blech), I finally feel like I’m doing something that matters—helping a wonderful nonprofit called Raising Voices in Uganda create online learning based on their highly successful, in-person training programs that help prevent violence against women and children. Now that’s something I can get behind! As I’m only working ten to fifteen hours per week in the off-season, it still feels like a worthy pursuit. As for Will, he can design buildings in his sleep and “I enjoy helping people through what is often experienced as more stressful than it needs to be, and if it’s a small project and doesn’t feel like work, I’m happy to do it.”

*     *     *   

There have surely been some highlights in the past month. The first was Will’s birthday party at the end of October where we invited all the live-aboards we’d met to gather on the dock by our boat for conversation, squash soup, haddock chowder, and artichoke dip. There must have been 20 people, including friends from shore, such that we had to keep our wits about us to not back up too quickly on the narrow dock and land in the water when we started dancing!

We finally went to the Portland fish auction, which our friend Barry with a Freedom 38 told us about more than a year ago and Will has been wanting to attend. After years of experience, Barry knows just what to look for when bidding on fish for his buyers. The auction itself now takes place online with only a few people sitting in the auction room, where the highest bidder gets to buy as much of that species desired until the next round of bidding. While the auction itself wasn’t all that exciting, learning about the fish and the auction was more so.

It was an interesting slice of life and frankly, a sad commentary on the state of Maine fisheries. In a giant waterfront warehouse were a pathetic 4000 pounds of fish in twenty or so crates, a mere 1% of the 300,000 pounds that used to be caught and sold in Portland on a daily basis. You might think this is because the catch is down due to overfishing, but no. Rather, the Maine lobstermen’s association has such a stronghold on the economy of the working waterfront that they have convinced the legislature that they are the only fishing vessels that should be allowed to offload lobsters in Maine. As a result, commercial fishing boats, which catch lobster as a bi-catch in their gill nets and draggers, are not allowed to sell lobsters in the state. Given this restriction, all but a handful of commercial fishing boat from Maine have decided it’s easier and more economical to simply take their boats and entire catch to Massachusetts, which doesn’t have this restriction. This means hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of fish are being sold out of state and then brought back in Maine from Massachusetts! The fish auction—along with its employees, sellers, and buyers—that used to be a thriving business is now a shadow of its former self and is on the brink of demise. And this is in the state that boasts the best commercial fishing ground on the East coast.

To watch a video of our time at the fish auction, click here.

Portland is a fascinating combination of working waterfront, upscale businesses, tourism, commercial development, historic establishments, and lots and lots of boats, from small racing dinghies to tankers.

Early one morning I spent wandering around with a camera when the sun was low and glowing, and the fall air was brisk and alive. For me it was all about the juxtapositions of these elements of place. It was a glorious morning of seeing Portland with fresh eyes.

One evening after dinner we wandered onto one of the gritty piers that processes lobster bait. Across the street is one of the newest hotels at the far end of Commercial St. Attracted by the roof deck lights, we walked in, rode the elevator to the top floor for a look see, and ended up sitting outside in front of a fire pit where we ordered “deconstructed pumpkin cheesecake.” It was truly outrageous, the ambiance was super hip, and we felt like we were in Barcelona. This is just one example of Portland’s dual between retaining an active working waterfront—which it’s had for centuries—and the fierce pressure by developers to capitalize on the waterfront as housing prices soar.

Another day we walked down to RiRa, one of the half dozen or so Irish pubs in town, where we watched Will’s favorite soccer team—Liverpool—play Arsenal. Will is a big fan and played and coached for many years, including a brief professional stint after college. It was yet another slice of life where blue-collar folk go to enjoy a pint. At the same place, we sat next to a guy from Zimbabwe who has been in Portland for a year and a half. Another remarkable thing about the city is that it has been a welcoming city for immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers, so there are many people from other countries who have chosen Portland as their home. Among the many services, Portland offers free English classes for all immigrants. At the same time, Portland also has a large homeless population as well.

Though we love living on the boat, we have been missing being in nature, so we spent a couple of nights at Hidden Valley Nature Center in Jefferson. This time we stayed in their newest hut, Joe & Doe hut, named after my uncle and aunt who have given tirelessly to the organization since its inception. We were delighted to be there for a celebration that honored them and then stay at the brand new timber-frame hut with a cozy woodstove and spacious ambiance. It was a delightful time on land and in the woods…and it gave us more inspiration for building a tiny house of our own…

And now it’s time to pack some bags, put the boat to bed for winter, and fly across the ocean to Italy, where we’ll be staying on my father’s former sailboat, now owned by my half-brother Tyler. Let the winter games begin!

One thought on “NIRVANA S2:E1

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