Far from the madding crowds of Los Angeles’ spider-webbed freeways; San Francisco’s millennial and tech-frenzy fueled, lofted start-ups; and California’s mad-grab housing market; there lies a pristine, isolated coast in a far corner of Northern California where time undeniably just pokes along. Not easily accessible by car, and aptly named the Lost Coast…
spirit of cowabunga
On land as well as on the sea, the shit will hit the fan. In a rush to get to work, the coffee maker breaks, your pants zipper malfunctions, and the car tire is flat. In my ten years of living on a sailboat, a typical bad day was a dragging anchor, a ripped sail, and our toddler throwing a vital tool overboard. At sea as on land, it always happened in three’s. Those ten years impressed certain truths upon me, and although many of them were elicited from a sea or boat-related experience, the underlying moral of the story applies equally well to my life on land today. I now find these truths to be self-evident:
- Know that the shit will hit the fan—not maybe, but yes—it will.
Murphy’s Law is unavoidable, etched in stone. What can go wrong will go wrong. Murphy’s law will seek you out and it will usually compound as a threesome. The boat engine will die as you enter a narrow channel, a vital navigation part will break for no apparent reason, the fuel tank will spring a leak and slosh diesel fuel all around the boat’s interior. And if it can happen on a boat, it most certainly will happen on land. We all know that the washing machine and refrigerator will break down the same week the car does, and that water heaters flood garages and laundry rooms.
- Plan B is your friend, so be ready!
On a boat, one always has a Plan B. There are spare parts in triplicate along with many sorts of tools for the myriad of equipment that will eventually succumb to the salt air and seawater elements. Nothing lasts forever. But sometime a quick repair isn’t the magical cure-all, and a broken part can cause a major shift in plans: a delay in departure, a change of course, or simply doing without for a while. I eventually learned not to cry over spilled milk, realizing that there can be other solutions. Above all, be flexible! Plans change due to no desire or fault of your own, and it’s uncanny how something even better comes from veering off course.
- Clutter is not your friend.
I don’t understand hoarding and I don’t understand knick-knack overload. Living on a boat, I became an anti-clutter fiend. Boats have no room for knick-knacks and free standing stuffed shelves. When the weather turns bad, or just obnoxious, you don’t want to get bonked in the head by a flying object. Besides, they are dust collectors. Sailing into a harbor, items did come out of their storage spots (especially the kids’ toys), and hang around the cabin for a few days while we stayed put. However, everything would go back into its proper slot once we set sail again. This same habit has served me well on land, and proven to be the secret to a clean and pared down house.
- There are two or three sailing knots to use for anything and everything—on a boat or on land.
I have just two or three, simple, nautical knots that have stuck with me, and they function well in a variety of circumstances and everyday life. Whether it be for camping (tying a laundry line to a tree), attaching something to the top or back of the car, on a stroller, or at the playground with your kids, these knots have become handy and second nature to me.
- Live frugally, avoid debt.
One can live frugally and be quite satisfied. True, in modern society one does need credit cards, but we have learned to be disciplined and incur minimum monthly charges that can be paid off each month. Having once had no monthly rent, mortgage, or electric or water bills, living solely on a cash basis, I do realize that life on land is not that simple. However, by keeping things structured, disciplined, and as simple as possible (only one or two major credit cards, no individual store cards; paying bills immediately; not purchasing unnecessary stuff), you keep your obligations under control, and can better handle life when the shit does hit the fan!
- It will be calm before the storm and there will be a storm.
A sister truth to Murphy’s Law and Rule #1, know that once the storm unleashes, whatever can go wrong will. But then you must try to stay calm. Easier said than done, of course, but with small children either on a boat, or in a household, sometimes you just have to keep your cool, and not let on that you are worried or panicked.
- I learned I didn’t like eating or drinking, out of or off, plastic plates.
This is where I am an avowed hypocrite, because even though I just talked about being an anti-clutter fiend, I can’t resist dishes, and most especially bowls! It’s a fetish. Maybe this is in direct revolt to my only having had limited space and plastic options for so many years while sea bound. At one point, I did throw out our plastic eating ware and invested in some Corelle, so I could pretend to have real dishes on board. Corelle was the most sturdy that I dared have on a boat. In my current landlocked kitchen cupboard, I possess six sets of table settings in different sizes, colors, motifs, and textures, because strange as it may sound, the way a dish, coffee cup, and/or silverware feels in my hand is important to me. I’m not sure why, but it changes how I enjoy my food. If somebody can explain that to me, I would be most appreciative.
- Take a leap of faith and cross that ocean, or whatever that great divide is.
It changed my life; it still affects me today, 30 years later. It can change yours.
- Cooking with a pressure cooker!
- Conserve water.
Always a mantra in California where I live now, honed by my years with such limited access to fresh water, conserving water where we live today in “droughtful” California is a no brainer. We couldn’t let water run from the faucet while brushing our teeth on the boat, so why do it on land?
No matter where and how we live, our life experiences form a good part of who we are, and why we react the way we do to people and situations. Ten years of a life on the sea are my excuse. That’s what I tell my grandkids.
It has to touch the ceiling. Always. Every year. That’s our criteria for a Christmas tree. Our living room ceiling is 8 ft. high, so that is a feasible reach, but our son’s tops out at 15 ft., presenting a little more of a challenge—especially since his living room/kitchen area makes up a large part of the second floor of his house. During the ten years we lived on a sailboat, we were occasionally able to put a tree outside on the deck, and then, literally, the sky was the limit.
But this isn’t about Christmas. Christmas is over, so why bother with this now? Simply because my husband’s annual obsession—and now our son’s as well—with procuring the tallest tree possible, got me pondering: Why? Why does it always have to touch the ceiling? Why is it so important? I didn’t have to think too much. It all pointed back to Papy.
Papy was my husband’s father, and a Frenchman, like my husband. Papy was also a French Gendarme. A French soldier in WW II (of which he spent a good portion of that time in a German prisoner of war camp in Berlin), Papy continued a career in that vein after the war, because French Gendarmes are a police faction of the French military. Consequently, he was called upon to serve in the post-WW II conflicts of the Suez Canal in Egypt in 1956, and in Algeria’s war of independence against France in the 1960s. As the family story goes, Papy missed a Christmas while serving in Egypt and it was the saddest one in my husband’s memory. Papy, it seemed, always insisted that the Christmas tree touch the ceiling, and since he wasn’t home that year, it didn’t happen. The only tree his family could come up with was something akin to scrawny, prompting my husband to swear that his Christmas trees would always touch the ceiling. We have never had anything less in our 40 years of a life together.
Our son has now taken up the mantle of the ceiling tree mantra, and with his 15 ft. ceiling perched on a second floor that is further elevated atop a 12 ft. high garage, putting the annual Christmas tree in place is a major acrobatic endeavor. Nevertheless, this annual ritual has taken on such importance for my son that this year he specifically came home for just 24 hours between business trips for the sole purpose of taking his family out to find the tree.
When my father-in-law passed away, the village French priest presiding at my father-in-law’s funeral service deviated from the ethereal fairytale that this good man would find “eternal happiness in heaven,” (apologies to those offended readers, but I am not religiously inclined), and instead queried the mourners, “What is eternity?” He volunteered that maybe “eternity” is something a little more down-to-earth, yet intangible, as in something you leave your children or grandchildren—something of your character, your smile, a ceremony, a habit, a mannerism, that quirky raised eyebrow, a legacy…something along the lines of the indisputable rule of a touch-the-ceiling Christmas tree.
Our Savory Souvenir
Papy’s wife, my mother-in-law, Mamie, has also left her eternal mark on us. She was a supreme confectioner of French fries, or “frites,” the real deal, made in France with her deep fryer, or “friteuse.” Many years later, once we began growing our own potatoes, my husband was drawn to duplicate her success, and after some trial-and-error episodes, voilà, the perfect “frites” were reborn! Again my son was smitten, and not to be outdone by his father, vowed to continue this tradition and our family’s eternal French fries have found another life at a younger generation’s table. No more McDonald’s for us as we honor Mamie with each bite!
For many years we lived with our two children and traveled aboard a sailboat throughout many countries. Although neither my husband nor I come from marine-oriented stock, I know my father fostered my curiosity for adventure and the beyond, while I’m not quite sure how that spirit came to reside within my husband. At any rate, our two children have been irreversibly impregnated with this spirit and they continue today living by this creed, nurturing adventures on land and in the water with their own families. One of our sons is so exceedingly passionate about traveling, camping, and rock climbing with his dear ones that they quite possibly spend as much time on the road in their compact mini-home van, homeschooling their two little guys, as they do at their street address.
Ah yes, the “eternities” have taken hold, and are flourishing and thriving with my grandchildren!
While we tend to forget some of the “why’s” and “wherefore’s” of these whims, habits, and eccentricities living through our mundane routines the rest of the year, we never fail to recognize the spirit of Papy past, present and future when the Christmas season dawns anew. The village priest hit on something. That might just be what eternity really is.