Friday, December 27, 2013

I get buy with a little help from a friend ...

s/v Bella, the Albin Vega I bought
Almost seven years ago I decided to leave the Rat Race and pursue the life of a sea vagabond. It has been harder than I expected to extricate myself from 'normal' economic life. Seemingly small decisions can have long term consequences. The tentacles of bills and banks squeeze tighter and tighter. From the very start I have been humbled by the love and support of my family and friends. That support became drop dead amazing this month.

In August I sold the Cape Dory that I shad bought in April 2007. My initial strategy had been to buy a boat that I knew needed a lot of work. I didn't have much money, but I had time and skills. Like a lot of restoration projects, however, she needed way too much. I chose badly. She was the wrong boat.

Nearly everything I've done in the last seven years has been to ready myself and a boat to sail off. In keeping with that tradition, after selling the wrong boat, I went back to truck driving as its more lucrative and I began saving aggressively for my next boat; the right boat. A boat that is ready to go, turnkey, in the water and sail-able.

The plan was to save for two years, but a sailor is always looking at boats. Like the Home Shopping Network in a trailer park, whenever I had a spare moment – I looked at used boats. And then I found her. A boat showed up for sale in Milwaukee that looked like the right boat. A solid boat of known ocean sailing capability with lots of extras and upgrades; relatively inexpensive. An undiscovered bargain or too good to be true? I had to find out.

I emailed the ad to a couple friends who knew my plans; sounding board friends. “Holy crap,” I said. “Look at this! Now I have to find a credit union that will back a 1975 sailboat before someone else realizes what a deal she is.” I expected chuckles and the occasional “Good luck, man.” Instead, a dear friend, Nancy, wrote back and offered to help. Nancy and I have known each other since we were nine years old. Our families were close and we have kept in touch. She said “If [this boat] is the right one then don't let cash flow stop you. I have ... cash I could send as a loan...”

I told her I would keep her offer in mind. I had to see the boat first. She insisted that we could work it out, straight business. My initial ambivalence faded knowing the credit union would mean hassles, and extra time and money. Part of preparing for a vagabond lifestyle is avoiding banks or credit unions as much as possible. Nancy and I started working on the details and I planned a trip to Milwaukee. I was going to have enough cash for a decent offer, but would not be able to get close to his list price – I wasn't going to be able to negotiate.

I exchanged a couple emails with the owner and talked with him for about an hour on the phone. The deal was solid and the guy sounded for reall, so I made an appointment. On a freezing day in Wisconsin, I met the boat's owner and saw the boat. I knew right away that she was the right one. No used boat is perfect, but she has been meticulously cared for and is already set up for long distance, singlehanded sailing. The owner is a true blue sailor. All kinds of little details that he has already set up on the boat simply shout “bluewater sailing.”

The boat's owner is my kind of sailor; and my kind of guy too. If something 'feels right,' I tend to go for it. I think he just wanted to find her a good home. He is heartbroken for having to relocate because he can't take the boat with him. The night before I left for Milwaukee, he emailed to remind me that “no one pays the asking price for a used boat.” The guys at work would laugh at his negotiating but he wanted me to think about an offer on the drive over. Likewise, after I had fallen for the boat, I told him “well this isn't the usual way to start but I have this much money to play with.” It was a quite a bit less than the asking price. He didn't want to take “all my money" and offered her for $500 less! I think we both had a good feeling about each other and wanted the deal.

The other thing I have a good feeling about is taking Nancy as a backer. She is one of my closest lifelong friends, a supporter of my vagabonding plans and a fan of the blog. That she would step in right at that moment is more than humbling. My plan is back on track well sooner than I expected. The boat funds I had already saved were a little less than half what I needed. A good down payment for approaching a loan officer, but keeping the deal out of the bank let me grab the boat right away. She really was an undiscovered gem.

The check went through on Christmas Eve, she is mine.

More on the boat later.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Altered States of a Vagabond Heart

The fits had been coming on with increasing regularity for more than a year. With all the cold sweat and terror of the DT's, I would start fretting about what I could do, or should do, with my life. Like William Hurt in 'Altered States,' I was a shape-shifting, grotesque mass of pain and dissatisfaction pounding the floor and banging against the nearest wall, howling in agony – mostly in my head. I could think of a hundred things that I might rather be doing, yet could not imagine actually being happy doing any of them. The six year old project that was to be my life's work could not retain my focus. Bump. Howl. Bump. Howl.

In 2007, I had bought an old sailboat to refit and sail away, a wanderlust dream. She was a solid shippy design built of fiberglass. My boat search was reasonably methodical with a long list of what I wanted in a boat. I planned to do my own survey and fix up a neglected boat as I had a fair amount of fiberglass experience. Doing your own survey (inspection) is akin to representing yourself in court, your mileage may vary; mine did. The boat I found met nearly all of my criteria and seemed like a good investment at the time. The plan was to move to the boat, find a job for grocery/rent money and work on the boat in my free time. In South Bend, I had cashed out my 401(k) and sold all my furniture for the funds to purchase and fix up the boat. And then the economy started to crumble around the edges.

In mid-2007, Eastern Michigan, especially the Northern fringes, was already feeling the tremors of the coming economic collapse. Fresh off a nine year gig at a career-type job, I couldn't get anyone, not even Walmart or McDonalds, to call me back. I was living on funds meant for the boat and going broke at a breathtaking pace. A couple days past broke, I got sponsored to a truck driving school in Ft. Wayne, IN. Three weeks on a sun baked driving range and a month on the road with a trainer, I was a trucker. Being on the road made it difficult to get much boatwork done. When your weekend is a couple days during the week, a weekend is nothing like Friday evening to Monday morning, it is nearly precisely 48 hours. In the beginning, I was out for weeks at a time anyway. I invested in moving the boat closer to my home base, but even that was a hollow victory. An old boat is like an old house, I uncovered as many new projects as I completed.

Trucking was good money but it consumed my life. It did allow me to pay off most of my bills and cut up the credit cards. The first key to life as a vagabond is to avoid having people chase you down for money. Ever closer to, yet still frustratingly far from my elusive goals, I began to look at other options. I needed more boatwork time. I came off the road, took a community college course and became a Certified Pharmacy Technician, a specialized field with a decent wage.

Working part time, I dug into boatwork and had two relatively productive summers. There was work to be done that didn't require money – lots of sanding, followed by sanding and then more sanding. But there was work that required lots of money too. Ultimately, the part time gig wasn't working so well either. I tried two part time gigs at once for a while, but that was a drag. One scheduler would never have me work late one night and then early the next morning, but the two schedulers had no reason to coordinate.

When my Altered States began, the wind would disappear and my mental sails would go slack. Forward progress slowed to a gurgle. Frequently, I was just plain morose. Sailors will know that without any 'way' – forward motion – a boat has no steerage. Moving the rudder, even frantically, will not change the direction of the boat - you are adrift. Suddenly, I was interested in homesteading, or teaching English in China, or a months long silent retreat, or serving at a homeless shelter. Productive boatwork days dwindled as I wallowed in mindless daydreams, silently howling in agony. Something else always needed to be accomplished; things that were forgotten as soon as they were done.

Thinking money was the issue, I went back to factory work to get full time hours again. I had a few dedicated days of boat work between the wailing and the wall banging, but I was miserable. And then a strange thing happened when half of my coworkers got laid off. Our main customer stopped paying their bills on time. In response, production was suspended. Those of us that management wanted to keep a string on were sent to work for a sister company building boats. At first it seemed like a temporary problem. We all figured we'd be back in a week or so. In the first several days building boats, I hadn't even paid attention to people's names. In the confusion, a strange freedom sprouted in the dry, cracked soil of my vagabond soul. In this new department among new, vaguely known co-workers, my story was missing. I was no longer the guy working on an old sailboat. I was just a guy.

As this permanently temporary work arrangement languished for weeks, the elaborate, gordian mess of chains, rusty padlocks and knots of braided rope began to loosen around my heart. For six years, everything, literally everything in my life was on the table – except the boat. The complicated psychology of making a bold move after a second and more miserable divorce further clouded my vision. I was blindly holding on to the ever diminishing chance the boat project could succeed; all else be damned. It was a formula for emotional and financial disaster.

Flavoring the roiling stew, this was already my second attempt. In the mid-nineties, I had come back to the Midwest from Florida where I had lived on a boat for a time. My mission to gather the more lucrative Midwest wages and buy a bigger boat had been interrupted by a beautiful young woman who I married. Your mileage may vary here as well. The marriage was simply a ten year detour from my original boat plan.

The temporary work was repetitious enough that I mindlessly shoved boards through an edgebander while stewing on my options. With a glance and the run of a gloved hand along the new edge, I could mind the quality of my output without really being engaged. Old rope flopped to the floor, rusty chains rattled and clanked, my heart began to beat with a new freedom. For the first time in six years, I was considering the boat a negotiable piece in the whole game. It was soon obvious that the math wasn't working out. I had been hiding from the financial and physical requirements. Just as likely, I wasn't brave enough to think about the budget and what I had left to accomplish. It was going to take $8000 or $10,000 more, and four or five years more work to get the boat in the water. It was too much. I couldn't go on.

Late one Sunday afternoon, I placed an ad on the Cape Dory Sailboat Owners Association website that began “I'm broke, I'm exhausted . . .” and I offered the boat to a good home. In five hours, I had six emails. I found her a good home with a retired guy who seems to have ample patience and money. I wish him well, and her too. The process of selling the boat was one part bittersweet and three parts great relief. What followed was another blast of life options, but once the dust settled, I still stood right where I've been all this time.

I am out of the Rat Race – that's most primary. If the boat project was poker, I've been 'all in' on a losing hand for a long time. I'm basically broke, impoverished according to standards I no longer accept. Moreover, I could never have gotten this far without the love and support of many friends and my entire family. And while I've been drawn to some kind of service, this path I'm on could be of service to others somehow.

My plan wasn't bad and I'm sticking with it, I just bought the wrong boat. The basic outline of the plan is long term wandering adventure. The original iteration included a boat and the next likely will as well. Right now, however, I am focusing on collecting 'adventure funds.' I'm back on the road where the money is good. Two years as a trucker with a focused savings plan and in the Fall of 2015, I will decide what's next.