I've gotten to the point that when someone writes me and says to check out a new YouTube channel I pretty much prepare for the worst. So, when a friend dropped me a line a while back and said I should really check out "Sailing Blowin' in the Wind" I wasn't exactly filled with enthusiasm. Face it, most of what passes for Sailing & Cruising content more than proves that Sturgeon's Law was actually overly optimistic.
Armed with the fact that I could always just turn off the computer if things became too dire, I followed the link and watched the first episode fully expecting it to be just another "Look at us we're wonderful" selfie-fest.
Nope, it was different. It was actually interesting and far from being the same old same. Better yet, I actually enjoyed it. OK, I'll admit to being a hard audience where film and video is concerned especially where sailing, boat building, and cruising content are concerned, but the main thing is that Sailing Blowin' in the Wind actually caught my interest and eighteen episode later I'm still watching. Need I say more?
I won't go into what actually transpires on the Sailing Blowin' in the Wind channel because you'll do better watching it it from the start. So I'll just say that Anna Key and Tom Break live on a 28-foot sailboat without an engine with their two boys, Roo and Zibby, and their two girls, Mia and Xani.
Obviously not the same old same cruising story.
Now let's get to the interview...
Why not get to the important stuff first and deal with the elephant in the room. So, just how many ukuleles or musical instruments do you have aboard Blowin' in the Wind?
We've been caught red-handed—we’re already going to start sounding like very bad minimalists! Until this summer we had four soprano ukuleles, one each for the three older kids and one for Anna. Since then, we've been gifted a concert ukulele and a "guitalele," which is a six-stringed instrument rather like a very small guitar. We also bought some bongo drums, and Anna has hopes of acquiring a small steel-tongue drum and a baritone ukulele down the road, maybe after some of the kids are grown and take some of their instruments with them. (; It's getting a little out of control here, but the music has become a bigger part of our life than we expected, especially since it has become such a vital part of our video-making.
Six people on a 28-foot boat?
It's a lot of people in a small space, but in our defense there were berths for six adults when we moved aboard. When we got started looking for boats, we listened to what people around us were saying and kept our eyes out for something in that 35-40' range, but we quickly realized that those larger boats rarely had more beds: there was just more space (a bigger galley or nav station) and a bigger price tag. We ultimately decided that the extra amenities weren't worth the extra cost (costs that would keep adding dollars per foot every time we pulled onto a dock, got the bottom cleaned, etc.)
As we circled back around to what we really cared about—nimbleness and ability to be single-handed, affordability, and sturdiness—it became very clear that we would do much better with a smaller boat than a bigger one. And even if it meant being close together, we could actually be together instead of leaning on a full-time job for years to pay off the boat. When we stepped onto Blowin' in the Wind, we thought she was a 30, not a 28—the designer made great use of every foot, and we fell in love with her right away.
I get that. Having built and cruised various boats which don't pass the "group think" of what a cruising boat is supposed to be, the whole "You're going to cruise in that?" gets old real fast. Obviously you're not just doing a different boat, you're also doing things differently to make Blowin' in the Wind more livable and cruise-worthy. How is that going?
Some things are going great and some things are a struggle. The interior space that we opened up when we took out the engine is fantastic. It's created a great flow of space and the kids have lots of places that they can hide and play and make messes and create elaborate battles or creations with the few toys we have on board. And since we closed up all of the thru-hulls, Anna has been able to sleep through the night without ever waking up with dreams that the boat is sinking. We don't really miss fancy things like the water heater, electric water pumps, or the other gadgets that we've gotten rid of because those are just things that we don't have to be stressed anymore about not knowing how to fix.
Most of the changes we've made have caused very little extra hassle. It's taken some time to get used to the rhythm of managing the composting head and of taking the sink buckets out to dump them instead of using the standard pump-out system and draining water through the thru-hulls, but we don't mind that work and have adapted to it really well. And the daily maintenance work replaces the big repairs in which you're knee deep in leaky head hoses, which it's easy to overlook when things are working. In general, every time we take out a system and replace it with a simpler version, life gets a little bit harder but a little bit better. Those little additions of time do add up, and when we press toward some of our more extreme goals, like producing no trash, things can get overwhelming. But for the most part things are going remarkably well. We're becoming increasingly comfortable in our increasingly unique boat.
How's the yuloh working out?
The yuloh, and lack of engine generally, has been one of the biggest challenges. On our shakedown journey everything was going swimmingly until we got caught in a surprising current, lost sail power, and couldn't get the yuloh out fast enough to get around a tight corner. That shook us somewhat, and has led us to re-think some things. My home-made yuloh is very heavy, so we're going to try a smaller sculling oar that's easier to deploy but that can still push us, and we're going to trade out the wheel for a tiller so that there's less congestion in the aft area of the cockpit, and we'll see where we are at that point. Lots of people are telling us that we should attach an outboard or at least have one for the dinghy to tow us through tight spots. We're considering that option going forward, though I really would prefer to keep things as simple as possible so that I don't have something (that I can't fix) break at just the moment I'm counting on it.
Nothing improves one's sailing skills more than simply not having an engine. Do you have a drifter?
That's right. And I would add that nothing improves your awareness of your environment, either. When you're relying on an engine, it's really easy to be blissfully unaware of what the tides and currents are doing, and what the weather might do should you get delayed, and while it ends up being no problem for most people most of the time, I'm glad for the need to be aware. It's making me a better sailor already—though I'm starting from being a total novice, so that's not saying much. No, we don't have a drifter, but our boat does very well under our 150% genoa, even in very light winds.
That said, in the meantime, you might want to consider kedging as another needful tool in your engineless quiver.
Kedging was ultimately how we got off the dock we got caught on during our shakedown, and it's a really critical tool for us. We keep a light "lunch anchor" on hand in the cockpit as a brake and I've got a second heavy anchor there as well so that they're ready to hand if we need them.
You've mentioned the Pardeys but do you have any other influences in your quest for a simpler nautical lifestyle? Annie Hill, Jerome Fitzgerald for instance?
We hadn’t heard of Annie Hill or Jerome Fitzgerald, but thanks for the tip! As for other influences, we're big idea people, and so a lot of what we bring to sailing comes from thinkers of the past, folks like Diogenes, Simone Weil, St. Francis of Assisi. One really critical nautical influence is a family that calls themselves the Coconuts, who have been sailing an engineless sailboat with four kids for years now. Drake Paragon made a lovely 5-part documentary about them, and they've been a great encouragement to us largely because they've show that sailing with a family and without an engine is possible. We figure that if they can make it across the Atlantic, we should be able to make it to the Caribbean.
Another practical influence for us is Helen and Scott Nearing, authors of The Good Life, who bought a farm and committed themselves to working only half days half of the year supporting themselves so that they would have time to read, think and write. We really respect the way that they were able to make that a priority and stick to it. A big reason we sought out this life, and that we try to keep it simple, is to carve out time in our days for artistic work and for contemplation (both for us and for our kids). I don't think that we can underestimate the damage that lack of that kind of time is doing to our society, generally, and so it's a priority for us and something we want to protect for our whole family.
How would you define your current cruising plans?
Equivocally. Tom's just back from a trip to the Bahamas where he got some open water experience and some sailing time in around the islands, and we're all really excited to get moving in some direction, but we're not exactly sure what direction that's going to be at the moment. Hurricane season is creeping up on us, and while we have some desire to make tracks for the Luperon in the Dominican Republic before the worst of hurricane season hits, that's seeming like a long journey on a short timeframe right now. So we'll either make the leap, hide out in Florida somewhere, or head north until next season.
Beyond the short term we really want to sail the Caribbean. We want to spend good chunks of time in both Spanish and French speaking countries to get language intensives for the whole family. It's kind of amazing just how much of world history winds its way through those islands—how many cultures have met, clashed, and melded in wildly different ways from island to island, so we're excited to explore the islands and learn from them about different ways to live. Anna especially has desires to visit Chile and the boys want to surf in Hawaii, and I would love to hike the Camino de Santiago in Europe. Those points on the map seem really far away right now, but who knows what the future will bring.
Do you have a target budget?
Our target is the federal poverty level for our family, which in 2020 was $35,610, or just about $3000 a month. That's pretty attainable for us while underway, in general. It's actually pretty important to us to be able to live at the poverty line. We want to use as few resources as possible, and not spending money is the easiest way to do that. Beyond that, though, the poverty line ought to be an attainable goal for everyone, and I think we would feel bad living a lifestyle that isn't, at least in principle, open to everyone.
The target is of course a target, and we've had varying degrees of success hitting it. Some of the things that have gotten in the way are boat-related things: boat work is expensive and can crash a budget pretty quickly. Tom worked a full-time job for a couple of years that increased our income and allowed us to do work on the boat that would have been a stretch on the poverty-line budget.
Since then, Tom left the full-time job and we continue to work the budget from both ends: trying to reduce our spending to get it under the poverty line, and to increase our income to get it over the poverty line. We're getting closer, but we're not yet "in the black," and therefore continue to switch between travel and focus on our artistic work and periods when we do work to re-fill the "cruising kitty."
Any ideas or cunning plans you're currently working on?
Well, we’re artists, so we’re full of ideas. We both really love an aphorism by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “What good is a book that doesn’t lead you beyond all books?” So we’re trying to make a YouTube channel that leads us beyond all YouTube channels, that might even lead us…outside. It’s our most cunning plan yet. We are, however, still in need of a cunning plan to get out of the next inlet…