I should have been born a woman of independent means; enjoying the leisure life supported by compound interest on the fruits of my forebears’ labors. Having mistakenly chosen ancestors of limited net worth, I failed to correct this oversight when I married for love, not money. Gracefully, I accepted my circumstances and joined the working class.
After more than 20 years of steady employment, responsible behavior, fiscal prudence and Yankee thrift, my husband and I needed a break, a small detour, a temporary mid-life retirement, a slice of our golden years while we still could enjoy spending the gold. I didn’t want to be the person about whom it was said, “She’s a wonderful gal, never misses a day of work.” How about a little time off for good behavior? How about a gap year?
When young people delay their plans to enter college or the workforce and take time to explore, travel or volunteer, they are lauded for seizing this unique opportunity. The gap year is viewed as a time of growth and maturation, not indulgence and idleness. It’s the perfect time of life to see the world and explore your passions before other responsibilities eat up your time. Our sequencing was a little off, but a gap year was just what we were looking for. Informed of our plans, some of our acquaintances applauded enviously; others warily thought it a risky mid-life crisis. Undeterred, we upended our comfortable lives in Boston, leaving jobs and selling a home.
Suddenly we had time to indulge our dreams. We opted to travel and spent a summer touring our national parks; we dropped in on old friends, wearing out our welcome in most of the lower 48 states. When winter approached, we sailed our boat south to warmer weather like migrating geese and then returning to New England for the summer. The sailing life agreed with us and so the gap year turned into years.
At all times a tight eye was kept on our budget and an even tighter fist on our wallet. For most of a decade we lived like gypsy time travelers from a past century — no cable TV, no freezer, microwave, washer or dryer, no fixed address. When the nest egg was addled, we found what temporary work would have us. Still not a woman of independent means, I was enjoying a life of idle ease, just not on a grand scale, to say the least.
The rhythm of boat life is vastly different than life on land. On the water we moved at 5-6 mph and on shore we walked. The slower pace was a dramatic change from a hectic, sometimes chaotic working life. I rarely drove a car and on the rare occasions when I did I would find myself going 50 mph on the highway — the slowest car on the road — gripping the steering wheel fiercely, feeling like I was traveling at jet speed.
Anchored in lovely remote spots up and down the East Coast and throughout the Bahamas, we spent hours watching osprey build their nests, marveling as bald eagles lazily circled high overhead or observing a great blue heron quietly stalk fish in the shallows, spearing dinner with lightning-quick speed. Countless dolphins playfully criscrossed our bow as we sailed. In Block Island Sound, a seal swam alongside us for almost half an hour, eventually touching our boat as if to identify what type of creature we were, before sleekly sliding underwater and away. Off the north coast of the Dominican Republic, we saw humpback whales in their winter breeding grounds.
We lived on the edge of the frontier. We could see civilization and development from the boat’s cockpit, but we didn’t always feel a part of it. Overnight passages from Miami to Nassau would mean hours and hours of empty ocean stretching to the horizon in all directions. At night the complete darkness brought the stars so close we could touch them. Alone standing watch on an overnight passage, I felt simultaneously insignificant yet completely connected to and a part of the vastness of the universe. The return sail to the United States was equally memorable and totally different. Instead of sailing into the isolation of a dark ocean, we were sailing toward a thriving, populated continent. The glow of lights can be seen many, many miles offshore, hours before their source is visible. The hum of 300 million lives radiates outward from the land, an enormous force just out of view. Forty miles from port we could feel the nation’s pulse.
Living comfortably in isolation did require careful planning on our part. Basic items of everyday existence, ensuring enough food and water, became the focal points of our day. If we ran out, it meant doing without, possibly for several days or a week. After a while there is only so much marsh grass and empty horizon this city girl can enjoy. Supplies would be getting low and we would head toward a town where we could provision, exercise our sea-legs, find a wi-fi connection, drink a latte, get our fix of concrete.
In port a simple trip to the grocery store for a few items could take hours. Getting into town involved leaving the big boat at anchor and taking our dinghy to shore. We would need to find the public landing dock, which invariably was located at the opposite end of town from the grocery store. This provided an extra incentive to stay on budget and buy only what we really needed, as every item purchased ashore had to be lugged back to the dinghy, hauled up on deck then carefully stowed below to avoid breakage. During our boating years we amassed a large collection of backpacks and totes and amazingly we never lost anything overboard.
Water was hand-transported from shore to the boat in 5-gallon plastic containers. Our water tanks held a maximum of 80 gallons, so we became adept at using three to four gallons a day, for both of us, total. The average person in the U.S. uses 80 to 100 gallons a day. Sponge baths and baby wipes replaced long hot showers and relaxing bubble baths.
The forfeiture of most modern conveniences and comforts and the need to constantly watch our expenditures were at first a challenge, but one to which we did happily and quickly adapt; the notable exception being the sudden and constant need to feed ourselves without paying someone else to do it. In our previous life, the kitchen was where I went to get plates for the take-out that was delivered. I know how to cook, but I know how to order off a restaurant menu too and I know which I think is more fun. Nonetheless an hour of KP duty proved a reasonable price for a day of leisure.
This sojourn was always to be a temporary holiday, and unexpectedly, it lasted almost 10 years. Eventually we returned from our wanderings, settling in Mystic, buying a home and reclaiming our membership in the working class. A steady income has led to more restaurant meals and looser purse strings, but obviously less free time.
Yes, I should have been born a woman of independent means. I would have been very good at it. But choosing a mid-life gap year filled the gap in my fortunes and, for a while, I lived as if I were.
Mary Wood lives in Mystic with her husband, Mark.
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