by Emma Burgeson
In a society that has started to scream Green Practice, very few people have actually experienced life off the grid. Fuel efficient cars and energy saving light bulbs are just the beginning of practicing a sustainable lifestyle. To truly live off the grid, you not only have to save, but also create your own energy. How often do we walk down the street and see homes with solar panels and wind generators, though? Unless you call your house a boat, the likelihood of seeing those expensive energy makers attached to almost every home is slim to none.
One way to live off the grid is to trade in those land lubber legs and head for sea. Cruisers from all over the world drift to the warm waters of the Bahamas and Caribbean Islands. I guess the water attracted my family as well. For six months we lived on a thirty-five foot Island Packet while traveling in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and the Bahamas.
Before we left for our trip, many of my friends asked me how I was going to survive. They were jealous that I was "skipping the second half of my sophomore year," but they also admitted that their family would never last together. I would just shrug and reply "We'll manage," and we did. There were times when I felt like running to a room and slamming a door, but I couldn't. Our boat, Paradise, had only two cabins. The forward v-birth belonged to my parents, and the aft quarter birth, though containing my personal items, didn't have room for two teenage girls, so it went to my sister. Most of the time I slept up in the cockpit, the only times I didn't were when we had to lock the boat up at night or when it was buggy. Both of those occasions happened only when we were in The States. There weren't many times when I thought twice about not having a room though.
The cruisers and locals alike were a great bunch. Friends were made by just taking the dinghy over to a boat and introducing yourself. If you decided you didn't like the people, you could simply decide not to spend time with them. I loved a lot of the people we met, but throughout the trip I yearned for a person my age to talk to. My wish was granted when we arrived in Allen's Cay about a month in. We had met the first kids our age in over a month, and instantly became friends. For five weeks our routes became a dance. Sometimes we led and they followed, and sometimes they led while we followed. After the third week, we had to start saying goodbye. The first time was probably the hardest, because it was then we truly believed we wouldn't see them again, but by the third time we had said goodbye, it came to mean "See you sometime later this month!" After goodbye number five or six, it was over. They continued south while we headed back north. Besides their family, there were only two other people I met who were my age.
Though we had hoped to make our way to the Virgin Islands, the Bahamas were not a bad alternative. We found that there wasn't much elevation; the highest point measured 63 meters (206.7 feet) at Mount Alvernia on Cat Island, and there was not a great variety of vegetation on many of them. Seeing as the land wasn't much to look at, we literally dove deeper. When we heard of a good place to snorkel, we'd hop in the dinghy and motor to that spot. All of our information came from new friends we had met, and by the end of the trip, our maps were full of circles indicating good spear-fishing, snorkeling, and anchorage spots.
One of the hardest parts of the trip was keeping everything up and running. My dad became Mr. Fix It and seemed to be working on something every day. Some cruisers joke about how sailing is "going from one exotic place to another while fixing things," and "you always have five things wrong with your boat, the problem is you only know about three." There is a reality to that. Our biggest problems always had to do with energy in some way. It meant having to run the engine twice a day to keep the batteries charged, trying to get the fridge to stop sucking so much energy, and keeping lights off. It would have been great to have solar panels or a wind generator, but for such a short trip on a boat we were planning to sell, it just didn't seem like a very good investment.
The boats we traveled with varied in size and type that sometimes reflected upon their owner's personalities, but every person living down there had at least one thing in common. They lived in a world controlled not by people, but by Mother Nature. When the sun shone, solar panels were tipped this way and that to capture as many rays as possible. When the wind blew, it seemed like the hum of every generator could be heard throughout the anchorage. When it rained, the decks were dotted with pots and pans; because when it came from the sky, it meant two things: it was free and it was pure.
It is said that the average American uses one to two hundred gallons of water a day. The U.S Geological Survey found that in 2000, we Americans withdrew 408 billion gallons of water per day, and every year that number increases. Living on a sailboat makes a person realize just how much that is, not only because sailboats have small water tanks, but also because fresh water in the Bahamas ranges from ten to fifty cents a gallon. Every time we filled up our minimal water supply, the price was approximately forty dollars. Our water tank held about 90 gallons; plus we had two thirty- gallon bladders. We tapped into the bladders just three times, but ninety gallons sometimes lasted us as long as eleven days. Per day, each person in our family averaged about two to six gallons of fresh water.
There were a lot of items we lived without that played a huge part in decreasing our water usage. Washing machines and dishwashers were not present in our small home, nor was a yard. Some people might say that not having those everyday objects was cheating, that of course water usage would go down if there were fewer appliances to waste water, but the reality is this: sustainable living is all about choices. Choosing to live without the luxury of a washing machine or dishwasher is a choice. Because we didn't have a yard, we did not use gallons upon gallons of water for the sole purpose of a nice curb appeal. Every time we flushed our toilet with salt water, we saved ourselves the average of about three and a half gallons of fresh drinking water. Multiply that by four people, then again by five times per day, and that comes to a grand total of seventy gallons a day, just for flushing the toilet.
As live aboards of sixth months, we experienced just four days of rain. The first pitter patter of drops I had heard in over two months brought me above deck to check out what was going on. The last time it had rained had been when we were in Florida two months prior. Then, in the Bahamas, it seemed strange to see the ocean's surge with the pattern of rain upon its surface. It distorted the view of the bottom, but the gentle flowing of water created a mesmerizing effect. I watched it for hours. Most days of rain were anything but calm though. The other three were windy, with gusts up to 35 knots, and had huge, choppy waves. Needless to say, we stayed on the boat. Those days we battened the hatches, zipped down our rain shields surrounding the cockpit, and hunkered down. Reading and writing filled the days, with the occasional movie or episode of a favorite television series. Twice we tried to collect water, but there was never enough to really make a difference. The second time we laid a clean plastic tablecloth over the main hatch and ran the water into our metal bowls. It seemed like there would've been a greater chance of collecting water since there was more surface area, but it was to no avail. Instead, we got free showers. Being soaked with fresh water and not worrying about how much was left was a rare treat. We hung our salt encrusted towels and clothes over the lifelines in hopes of them being de-salted without physically washing them.
Water was only available on islands that were inhabited. Of the approximate 2,500 cays and islands, about thirty are inhabited. Planning the route around those islands was not difficult, but it was crucial. We did not have a water maker, although it would have been useful. They are also very expensive and not as commonly found in the cruising community as solar panels and wind generators. Most water makers found on cruising boats use the reverse osmosis system, which forces salt water through an extremely fine membrane, trapping the solute (salt and other minerals) on one side, and letting the pure, or almost pure, water get through to the other side into the tank.
Water makers vary in size. Some are small enough for your dinghy or life raft, and some take up a large amount of space between the thru hull and water tank. There are those that come in units with just one large part, or several smaller, individual parts. Of course, there is the ever nagging energy issue. Water makers run on AC power, DC power, and can be specially engineered to run from the energy generated by the engine, but they do require a lot no matter what they're running on. The costs generally run upwards from $3,000. Most cruisers debate whether the high cost is worth the availability of water, both those who make the leap are generally happy with their situation. If you're planning on living aboard in an area with very limited or no access to fresh water, a water maker would be an excellent choice. Cruising around the East Coast? Maybe not so worth it.
No matter where you cruise, there will always be that one boat with all of the new gadgets. Water makers, solar panels, and wind generators have become a way to live green and more off the grid, and everyone wants them. I truly believe that the majority of boat owners understand that their actions are impacting the earth in a positive way, so there's just one more thing to say: Get sailing, make a difference, and GO GREEN!