Sip, don’t gulp.

I recently read Matt Haig’s Reasons to stay alive. It was amongst a pile of books a friend was giving away, so I took it, intrigued and curious. I am grateful that I have never experienced either depression or anxiety, but I hoped reading the book might provide some insight into the experiences of family members and friends who suffer or have suffered from one or both.

The book – part memoir, part reflection, part self-help – was a revelation, allowing me some small understanding, through Haig’s very personal experience, of the psychological, emotional and physical pain caused by depression and anxiety. I recognised some of what Haig went through in the behaviours and debilitation of people I know and love. However, much of what he wrote about was entirely novel to me and helped me to understand, to come degree, the hidden anguish of others.

Whether or not you have directly or indirectly experienced depression or anxiety, the book provides some wonderful advice that we all should take to heart. The enduring quote for me is ‘sip, don’t gulp’. By this he means take life more slowly, savour every experience. The implied metaphor of drinking or eating slowly and with care can be applied to many areas of our lives. Rather than rushing headlong (and often mindlessly) through our days, we should strive to slow down, to take our time, to savour the people in our lives, the places where we find ourselves, the spaces where we live, work and play.

But I don’t have time to slow down, I hear you say. I bet you do! I bet, like me, you waste precious time. On Twitter, on Facebook, doing things that don’t need to be done. I’ve noticed recently that I get annoyed with my children if they try talking to me while I’m gazing mindlessly at my smartphone, following my social media feeds. But, which is more important: social media, or this precious and very short time (in the great scheme of my long life) that I have with my girls? How much more patience I have when I give them my full attention. How much more I enjoy them. Similarly, I work better when I devote my full attention to the task at hand. When I am not distracted by other things. Social media is great, but give it its own space and time too.

Haig writes, ‘Wherever you are, at any moment, try and find something beautiful. A face, a line out of a poem, the clouds out of a window, some graffiti, a wind farm. Beauty cleans the mind’. I would add to that. Being outside, in fresh air, going for a walk (or cycle or row or run or swim, etc) also clears the mind. Haig, like many people I know who have discovered a way to live better with their depression, has taken up running.

He writes that we live in a world that is increasingly designed to depress us. ‘Happiness is not good for the economy’. If we are content with what we have and who we are, we will not desire to spend our money on things we don’t need. So consumer capitalism-driven marketing attempts (and all too often succeeds) to make us feel that our happiness is dependent on the stuff we buy  (whether that’s a new item of clothing, a hair cut or a holiday in the sun). I recently read an article by Ann Patchett in the New York Times, who decided to not buy anything other than food and necessary toiletries for a year. As someone who probably spends no more than €30 on clothes for myself every year, I found it difficult to empathise with Patchett’s resolution. But then I thought of my own addictions (chocolate and cake, mainly) and could understand her state of mind when trying to not buy something she briefly believed she wanted! But what Patchett discovered from her year of no shopping drew me back to thinking about Matt Haig and his reasons to stay alive. Choosing not to shop freed up time, freed up money, made Patchett less anxious and helped her realise how much material stuff she had in her life that she didn’t actually need.

From reading Haig and, more recently, Patchett, I was reminded of how our emotional, mental and physical well-being is affected by the world around us. But we have it in ourselves to improve our well-being, by slowing down, mindfully focusing on one thing (or person, or task) at a time, not filling our lives with unnecessary material stuff, going outside, and finding beauty in the world around us.

Remember: sip, don’t gulp!

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A simple matter of choice

These days I often find myself giving new arrivals on the river directions to the local shops. Berthed along the pontoon as we are most of the time now, I’m often the first person people meet when they come ashore from their anchorages up and down the river. Many people ask about the shops, and I provide details of opening hours, of which shop is best (in my opinion) for fresh food and which is cheaper for non-perishables. I tell them the whereabouts of the bakery, which is well-disguised as a regular house, and I inform them of other shopping options – Manoli sells produce at her house that she and her husband grow on their land a little down river, Karin does likewise from the back of her van on Friday mornings. I tell them about the Saturday market in Alcoutim, of the fresh eggs from one of the Sanlúcar pubs, the honey man and the cheese man, and the various vans that come through each week, selling bread, fish, meat and vegetables. And I advise them that if what they want isn’t out on display, they should ask for it anyway, and they’ll likely be surprised by what is stored ‘out back’.

Often, I’m the last person people see as they untie their dinghies and return to their yachts. More often than not I find people are disappointed by the lack of choice. ‘They didn’t have mushrooms’, someone will say. ‘I couldn’t buy a whole chicken anywhere’, someone else will moan. ‘Did you ask?’, I ask, knowing the answer will probably be no. Which is understandable, given the language barriers, and that this is unlike the type of shopping we have grown accustomed to, where everything is under the roof of one massive multi-national supermarket.

And I remember my own thoughts about shopping options when I first came here, before I knew about Manoli and the honey man and the cheese man, and the hidden treasures in Reme’s storeroom. I wondered how and when I would manage to get to a ‘proper’ supermarket to buy the things I thought I needed and couldn’t live without.

However, the months went by and when I finally got to one of those supermarkets of my dreams, I was overwhelmed by choice – too much choice – and over time I have come to realise that with the exception of only a few foodstuffs (soy sauce, noodles, peanut butter and hot chillies), the tiny shops and other shopping options in Sanlúcar and Alcoutim provide everything my family needs to enjoy a healthy, varied and interesting diet. And everything is extremely inexpensive to boot.

We have become so used to large supermarkets with their thirty varieties of toothpaste and twenty different brands of natural yogurt, that when we are faced with only three varieties of toothpaste and two of natural yogurt (with or without sugar), we panic. ‘There’s no choice here’, we tell ourselves. ‘How can I possibly be expected to eat and live well if this is all there is on offer’. We believe that two-metre high shelves stretching to infinity offer us a much needed variety. But how much variety is there really? And how much variety do we need? How much time do we spend seeking out the same brand we buy week after week amidst multiple almost identical brands of the same product? And in all the different supermarket chains, the same products are repeated over and over again.

There’s a great freedom in not having to make those choices. I want salted butter? There’s only one brand and size available. I want orange juice? Ditto. I’ve had to make slight adaptations to my cooking and baking to accommodate a lack of certain ingredients, but that’s hardly a challenge.

And what we lack in choice is more than made up for in two ways. First, the vegetables, eggs, honey and often cheese that I buy are locally produced and often produced by the people I know – the very people who are selling them to me. 100% organic, zero food miles, zero packaging. It’s an environmentalist’s dream come true. Second, when an unexpected ingredient suddenly appears, I make hay while the sun shines and we enjoy a treat. Last Friday, for example, Helen had fresh lemon grass, bright green limes and red shallots in the back of her van. I can’t remember the last time I saw lemon grass, and I have never seen or smelled it as fresh as this. And the limes and shallots were heavenly. Yippee, I thought to myself, Thai green chicken curry tonight, and we enjoyed a meal that, back in the UK we had taken to eating so regularly it had started to become humdrum. On Friday evening it was a wonderful and unexpected delight.

Julian and I have written and published before about simple living, about striving to simplify our lives by removing unnecessary clutter and opting for a lifestyle that treads lightly on the Earth. In being supermarket free, the little villages on the Rio Guadiana have given us the gift of simplifying our shopping choices. We no longer spend time driving or taking public transport to out-of-town supermarkets, of comparing and contrasting, checking minute differences between products, standing in check-out queues with trolleys full of groceries. These days we shop little and often, and if there are no mushrooms or broccoli or minced beef to be had, then we compromise and improvise and look forward to getting them on another day.

 

At the helm

After two and a half weeks on a fore and aft mooring in the absence of Julian, I moved Carina on to the Sanlúcar pontoon. I woke on the first day of the last week of the school term feeling tired. Tired of trying to maximise every trip ashore by loading the dinghy up with rubbish and recycling bags and empty 5-litre water bottles to be refilled. Tired of returning to Carina having forgotten to refill the water bottles to top up our onboard supply. Tired of having to think of our battery usage and the limits of our solar panel to power cabin lights and recharge the laptop and smart phone. Tired of the time it took all three of us to get to shore – helping the girls into and out of their life jackets; adding a few extra minutes to wipe early morning condensation from the dinghy seat and to pump out any excess water that had accumulated overnight to soak our feet. Tired of worrying whether the outboard would start and tired of having to pump air into the dinghy on an almost daily basis. Sorry to say, I’m not hard core enough. Or I would be hard core enough if I didn’t have two kids to look after and writing jobs to do besides.

Besides all that, it was the last week that Lily’s and Katie’s other live aboard friends would be on the river and both boats happened to be berthed on the Sanlúcar pontoon. I wanted the girls to be able to make the most of their last week with their friends and being on the pontoon meant they could run around together, play on each other’s boats and have the freedom to roam the village. And it meant I could enjoy a few glasses of wine with my friends before they left, without worrying about having to get my two kids back home by dinghy! So, at €7 per night, I chose the pontoon.

I had never manoeuvred Carina on my own before. Julian and I have made sure that we swap roles aboard and I have brought Carina alongside pontoons many times before, but always with the reassurance that Julian was there, ready to give advice and instructions to help me along. I wasn’t about to do it on my own this time either. I asked Paul, one of our live aboard friends, if he would come aboard Carina and crew for me. He was only too happy to assist.

As luck would have it, the tide turned at the same time as the girls started school on Monday morning, and about an hour later Paul came aboard. I had already set all the lines and fenders and I instructed Paul how I wanted to come off the fore and aft mooring. I took the helm and Paul untied the mooring lines. I turned Carina around and slowly motored two hundred yards down river, turned again to face into the ebb tide and gradually brought her alongside. Paul said little, but just having him sitting beside me in the cockpit gave me the confidence to bring her along smoothly. Paul’s wife Emma was standing on the pontoon waiting to take the lines. Paul never moved from his seat in the cockpit, but quietly instilled confidence in me to bring Carina gently alongside so that Emma could effortlessly take the bowline from the guardrail. They helped me set the lines and then I was comfortably on the pontoon.

Ah blessed mains electricity, blessed electric water pump, blessed hot water on demand! Usually I am very happy living without these things, but it had been over a month since we’d last been on a pontoon and over two weeks of that I had been acting single parent to the girls.

Our final week without Julian turned into two weeks, as French air traffic controllers went on strike and on the morning he was due to fly back his flight from Birmingham to Faro was cancelled. As it was Easter week, there were no flights to be had for an entire week, causing him to miss the girls’ Easter holidays from school and Lily’s seventh birthday. In the end, we were without Julian for four and a half weeks. But the time flew by, as we were busy with school, friends, village Carnival, Lily’s birthday party and the birthdays of two of the girls’ school friends.

I think next time I might just have to confidence to come alongside on my own!

Calling all hoarders

All going well, at this time a couple of days from now we will be back aboard Carina. The past five or six days have been a marathon of sorting and packing in preparation for our Tuesday morning flight. Five days ago, the bedroom we sleep in at my father-in-law’s house looked like a cyclone had blown through, with all our belongings strewn everywhere as I began the task of choosing what to pack.

One day last week Julian and I took four bags of unwanted clothing, books and miscellaneous other stuff to a charity shop, and I have now filled two more bags to donate to charity shops tomorrow. Our two pieces of hold luggage have been packed, unpacked, repacked, at least five times each, as I assess how much they weigh and what’s left over and what still needs to be packed. With each unpacking and repacking, stuff gets jettisoned in favour of other stuff. Clothing, books and toiletries that I thought would definitely be coming with us have been discarded in favour of other things. I have decisions to make about what I want aboard and what we need aboard.

When we flew to the UK in May the girls and I had two pieces of carry-on luggage. When Julian joined us three weeks later he had one piece of hold luggage and one carry-on. We’re going back with two hold (packed right up to the 20kg weight limit) and four carry-ons. Why are we going back with so much more stuff than we brought over?

All of this has got me thinking more generally about our accumulation of stuff; about how, once we have something, we find it hard to let it go; about our commodity addiction. We find we suddenly don’t want to live without stuff we never even knew we wanted before it was given to us. We burden ourselves with material possessions, physically and emotionally weighing ourselves down. As I jettison unnecessary stuff this week I’ve been thinking about what we really do need.

Why was I even considering a dolphin-shaped eraser that Lily got free with a magazine and that she’s never even taken out of its plastic wrapper? Why was I feeling guilty about leaving behind a book Katie was given over the summer in which she is not even remotely interested? The girls and I came over with four pairs of knickers each; four pairs of socks each; four changes of clothes each. Why am I now stressing about the excess clothing we’ve all acquired over the summer? Do I really need ten pairs of knickers and eleven pairs of socks (in addition to the five or more pairs already aboard Carina)? Does anyone need that much?

The answer, of course, is that I shouldn’t be getting my knickers in a twist about any of these things. As we get closer to our return date more and more stuff is jettisoned, mostly out of necessity, to get our luggage below the airline weight allowance, but also out of my growing realisation that we don’t need all this stuff.

Why are so many of us hoarders? Even as I embrace a lifestyle of uncluttered simplicity I find it difficult to get rid of stuff once I have it. Once something is in my possession I have this gnawing angst over getting rid of it, even if it is of completely no use or value and takes up valuable space. I can understand when it’s something I’ve paid money for, but why am I so indecisive when it comes to things given to me either by someone else or acquired free with some other purchase – things I never asked for or wanted in the first place? I’m more ruthless than a lot of people, but I still find discarding unwanted stuff tough. What is it about our material possessions that makes us want to hoard them to us, keep things that have no value, that are neither utilitarian nor bring us joy? Why do we stuff our stuff into cupboards, store it on shelves, bury it under more and more stuff?

I’m not talking here about the things we have in our homes that are without utility or monetary value but that give us joy and pleasure simply to have around. We all have things that are precious to us, that give us joy to look at or touch, that remind us of who we were or are or who we want to be. I’m talking instead about all that stuff that is hidden away, that takes up space, that is worthless to us in every sense.

I have tried very hard not to accumulate anything over the past five months. Yet accumulate stuff I have. The past week has been a tiring and often emotional de-cluttering of unwanted and unnecessary excess. I still think we’re bringing too much back to the boat. Admittedly, we’ve stocked up on teabags and factor 50 sun screen (which is more expensive in southern Europe), the rapidly-growing Lily and Katie have new clothing and foul-weather gear to replace the now too small ones aboard Carina, we’ve got some Spanish-language resources to help us with our studies, and books to keep us all going for another few months.

But here’s the thing. I bet I could halve the amount of stuff we’re bringing back to Carina and we wouldn’t miss what I’d left behind. Maybe I’ll have to jettison more in the next twenty-four hours. Maybe I’ll do it because I want to. In the past week I’ve filled six grocery-bags worth of stuff we no longer need (or never needed in the first place) to take to the charity shop, and I have recycled at least three other bags worth.

So, here’s a challenge to you. Can you find one thing in your home that you no longer want or need? Can you find ten things? Twenty? More? What can you do with that unwanted stuff? It might go straight in the bin (landfill or recycling?). But I bet the chances are you can give it away (to a friend, a charity shop, Freecycle), or you can sell it and make yourself some money (eBay, Gumtree). One person’s unwanted junk can be someone else’s treasure. Does it make you feel good to make a little space, empty a shelf, clear a little clutter? Let me know how you get on!

House or boat?

What do you miss about living in a house?
What’s it like living on a boat?
What’s the most surprising thing about living on a boat?
In the past couple of months I’ve been asked these and similar questions by newfound friends, by acquaintances, by people who’ve contacted me via this blog, and even by someone who interviewed me for a magazine article.

To my ears, these questions are all of a similar theme, and there are two distinct lines I follow when attempting to answer them. The easier approach is to think about the material realities of living on a boat; the more difficult is to think about the affect our lifestyle has on emotional and relational aspects of life. The two, of course, are bound together, but it’s easier to tease them apart and explore them separately. Today I want to write about the material realities of living on a boat and save the more difficult question of the emotional side of things for another day.

Although it’s only a little over three years since we first moved aboard Carina, and despite currently working on a memoir about our life aboard, I genuinely find it difficult to remember what I imagined life aboard would be like as we prepared for the transition. I remember thinking a lot about sailing – inclement weather, running repairs, capsizing, pirates; and I thought a lot about idyllic anchorages, warm turquoise seas, spectacular sunsets. I thought far less about mundane day-to-day life on a 36 foot boat with three other people. The reality is, however, that we sail very little relative to the amount of time we spend in situ, engaged in mundane day-to-day life. The few times I had sailed prior to buying Carina I had enjoyed the caravan-type living arrangements but I hadn’t given much consideration to living like that for months and years on end.

Lily, in princess garb, and Julian preparing lunch.

Lily, in princess garb, and Julian preparing lunch.

But reflecting on our life aboard now and having been living in a very comfortable house for the past five months I can honestly say there are very few things I miss about living in a house. The one thing I really do miss is a bath! I like nothing more than a long hot soak in a bath on a cold winter’s night, a strong cup of tea resting on the edge of the bath and a good novel in my hand (careful not to let it fall in!). So I’m enjoying the occasional soak now that I’m back in a house, knowing that once we’re back aboard Carina next week it could well be a long time before I have a bath again!

So here’s perhaps the most surprising thing about life on a boat. I don’t miss any of the things I might be expected to miss – all those mod cons that are supposed to make life easier. I don’t miss a fridge or a washing machine or a shower. I don’t miss unlimited water and energy at the touch of a button or turn of a switch. I certainly don’t miss owning a car or a television, a vacuum cleaner or an iron. And there are things I have never owned, so can’t possibly miss – microwave, dishwasher, freezer.

Julian in our tiny (and not very lofty) galley

Julian washing dishes in our tiny (and not very lofty) galley

We have a fridge aboard which we use when we are on a pontoon, plugged into mains electricity. The rest of the time, when we’re at anchor or mooring, we live fridge free, because it requires more power to run than our 80 watt solar panel can provide. When we had a car and a continuously working fridge, we would shop for fresh food once a week, stocking our fridge to bursting with a week’s worth of dairy and vegetables. I’ve recently realised how much not having a fridge has become normal for Julian and me by the way we both react to the similarly packed-to-bursting fridges and freezers of my parents-in-law. ‘Surely you didn’t need that much stuff’, we gasp in disbelief, used as we are now to buying fresh food little and often and forgetting that, until recently, we used to shop in the same way.

Life without a washing machine or tumble drier is no big deal. When we have access to a launderette we do one bag of laundry a week. When there is no launderette nearby, I hand-wash small amounts of washing two or three times a week. Aboard the boat we take a different approach to our clothing. We have a lot less of it for starters. We own fewer items of clothing and we don’t own anything that’s delicate or requires special treatment. And every item of clothing is put through a sight and smell test before it goes in the laundry bag. Just because a shirt or pair of trousers has been worn doesn’t mean it’s dirty. If it’s not stained or doesn’t smell then it gets worn again the next day. Just like we used to do years ago, prior to the advent of ultra-convenient washing machines and tumble driers.

We adjusted quickly to our limited supplies of water, energy and cooking fuel aboard. We have adapted everything from the way we wash our bodies and brush our teeth, to the way we cook pasta and rice, in order to maximise our water supply. Over the past couple of years energy has become less of an issue as Julian has replaced all the old bulbs with low-energy LED bulbs, our anchor light is now powered by its own mini-solar panel, and our laptop recharger is now far more energy efficient than the one we had before. Still, energy isn’t on tap and we have grown accustomed to acting in ways that are energy efficient – making the most of daylight hours to achieve tasks that require strong light, religiously switching off cabin lights, and making decisions about whether certain uses of energy are necessary.

We’ve gotten used to this way of life relatively easily, in part because when we decided to buy a boat one of our main motivations was to live a simpler, less consumption-led life. We were both driven by a certain environmental and social consciousness and so it feels good to live that simple frugal life that we wanted.

Alice in Wonderland has nothing on Julian emerging from our bedroom!

Alice in Wonderland has nothing on Julian emerging from our bedroom!

With mod-cons out of the way, the other glaringly obvious aspect of living on a boat is size. Let’s face it, Carina is not big. She’s 36 foot from bow to stern and 11 foot wide at her broadest. Headroom is slightly less than Julian’s six feet two inches. The girls are growing with alarming speed and before long I’m going to be the shortest person aboard. And, with the exception of those few boxes of stuff stored with Julian’s parents, everything we own is aboard the boat.

Sometimes the lack of space isn’t a problem; other times it drives me mad. When the boat is tidy, when the sun is shining, when everyone’s in a good mood, space is no issue. When the boat is messy, when all four of us are trying to do things in the saloon at the same time – one of us cooking, one repairing, kids dressing up and playing noisily (or worse – fighting) – it can get a bit wild and uncomfortable. But, for the past five months we’ve been living in a house that would engulf Carina’s living spaces ten times over and it’s just as annoying when the place is messy, the kids are running wild, two or three of us are trying to do things at the same time. So I think space is as much in the mind as in the physical space around us.

Who needs space to relax? Julian, under kids, with naked dolly; bra, shoes, pepper mill and who knows what else on the table in front. We are a messy bunch.

Who needs space to relax? Julian, under kids, with naked dolly; bra, shoes, pepper mill, mobile phone, play mobile people and who knows what else on the table in front. We are a messy bunch.

On a practical note, the lack of space aboard is most obvious when we sit down to family meals, which we do three times a day. The table takes up the entire saloon when fully extended; and the four of us can barely fit around the wobbly unstable table in the cockpit. To get around these tables requires advanced contortionist skills and if the make-shift worktop in the saloon is in place (which it usually is) then you can expect to be stabbed in the back by its sharp outer corner as you try to squeeze between it and the edge of the saloon table. Thankfully both saloon and cockpit tables are collapsible so they’re not a burden most of the time.

Because of the lack of space, stored items aren’t always easy or convenient to reach. Over the years we’ve learned by trial and error and have moved food and other items around, depending on how regularly things are used. But if I run out of peppercorns half way through making dinner, gaining access to the spare tub is rarely easy, or if the weather suddenly changes and I need to get my cold weather gear, I have to strip my bed in the aft cabin, remove the mattress and burrow like a badger to reach those rarely worn clothes.

The longer we live aboard Carina the more used we grow to her idiosyncratic living space and the more tricks we develop to make life easier. But living aboard has never been a trial. I have never once regretted the decision to move from a substantial house with a huge garden in the countryside to a tiny self-contained boat. What our lives lack in mod-cons and living space is more than made up for in an abundance of time together as a family, opportunities to travel where and when we want, and opportunities to learn and grow each and every day.

From familiar to strange

Around this time twenty-five years ago, in October 1990, I attended my first anthropology lecture at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth. A fresh-faced 17-year old, I was immediately hooked on this new subject I had chosen to study at university. In that first lecture, Professor Eileen Kane, the glamorous Irish-American head of department, told us that by studying anthropology the strange would become familiar and the familiar strange. We would soon see the cultural logic and appropriateness of far flung habits and customs that might on the surface seem weird and bizarre to our Irish sensibilities – polyandry, witchcraft, the Kula Ring – and we would start to see the weirdness in cultural practices we took for granted – Christmas, school, organised sports.

It was a memorable first lesson in anthropology and I’ve thought about that phrase – making the strange familiar and the familiar strange – quite a lot over the years, especially when I’ve found myself returning home having lived abroad and experiencing what might be termed reverse culture shock. Japan, Nunavut and the UK became normal and ordinary to me and, when I returned to Ireland, life, customs and habits felt strange and unfamiliar.

I’ve been feeling the same way this summer, having returned to the UK, the country that has been my home for a decade. The feeling of strangeness and unfamiliarity comes partly from living in a house in suburbia for the past few months and partly because as I revise the book I’m currently writing I reflect on how moving onto and living on a boat at one time seemed such a strange and exotic thing to do. But now the boat is our familiar life and life on land, in a house, has become strange.

Perhaps the thing that most encapsulates that strangeness is my altered perceptions of space, and in particular how much space an individual or family require and how that space is utilised.

By anyone’s standards, our home is tiny. Carina is 36 feet (11 metres) long and at her widest 11 feet (3 metres) wide. Four of us live in that space, including one who is 6’2” and built like the proverbial brick s**t house. But it no longer feels like such a tiny space to us. We have adapted to it and transformed it into a home. We have space to stow our belongings and space to eat, sleep, play, work, relax and even entertain. We have adapted to the space and made it work for us.

So I’ve felt like a visitor from another planet at times this summer when people have, with reference to what seem to me to be incredibly spacious homes, made comments such as ‘It’s not big enough’, ‘We need a bigger house’, ‘It’s not much’. I look around at these spaces that are huge in comparison to Carina and wonder what exactly people need more space for.

I’ve also been hyper-aware of the utilisation of space. Or, to be more correct, the under-utilisation of space. Given her size and our number, each space on Carina has a purpose or multiple purposes. Most people here in suburbia own sizable gardens. But few home owners make productive use of those gardens. One of my few regrets about living aboard a regularly moving home is that we don’t grow any food. I’ve always enjoyed growing food (with varied success) and this summer I find myself looking longingly at ample suburban gardens, transforming them in my mind into attractively productive food plots.

Other things feel alien too – the length of time and distance people commute to work; how success is measured; how often people feel the need to shower (you think I’m kidding!); how complicated and full of time-consuming activities many peoples’ lives seem to be. But the thing that has bothered me more than anything else this summer (I need to stop saying ‘summer’. I realise we are now firmly in autumn) is waste.

Sure, we produce waste aboard Carina – plastic packaging, tin cans, paper – but the quantities of waste we produce are far less than what we are currently producing in a house in suburbia. Aboard Carina we buy little and often. I realise that our consumer choices are partly dictated by geography. Living in southern Europe probably has as much to do with the amount of waste we produce as living on a boat. We buy fresh bread from the baker (unpackaged), fresh fruit and vegetables from the greengrocer (unpackaged), meat and cheese and dairy products from the general store (packaged). And in certain places on our travels we’ve been lucky enough to forage fruit, vegetables, herbs and shellfish and we’ve fished or been given fish by friends and other boat owners.

With our small living space and frugal environmentally-orientated lifestyle, we are conscious of the waste we produce. In suburbia, certainly in this particular suburbia, waste is pernicious. Food in supermarkets is far more heavily packaged than in the greengrocers, butchers and bakers. And, where we are currently living, without a car it is difficult to shop at places other than supermarkets or chain stores.

The cycle of plastic waste is disturbing – in the front door, through the house, out the back door and into the recycling bin. I think I am less disturbed by the amount of waste than by the fact that it’s taken for granted. Recycling has become normalised, but reducing is more difficult. Having lived around other frugally-minded sailors for the past year or more, I have grown used to minimal waste. The disposal of waste from the boat is annoyingly cumbersome. Certainly on smaller boats there is no room to store separated plastic, glass, metal and organic waste, and carrying it ashore by dinghy in search of bins in which to dump it is a royal pain in the ass. It’s far easier not to produce the waste in the first place. So we opt for unpackaged or minimally packaged produce. It’s easier on us and easier on the environment.

We have now set a date for returning to Carina. When we step aboard the girls and I will have been away for five and a half months. I’m sure UK suburban living will have seeped into my bones and I will find life afloat strange all over again and it will take some time to readjust. In the meantime I will continue to seek out strangeness in the once familiar and familiarity in the once strange.

An attachment to stuff – part I

It’s amazing how quickly we can devalue our material possessions, so that they become virtually meaningless to us, devoid of the emotional connection we once felt for them. Four years ago, when Julian and I were in the process of ridding ourselves of so many of our material possessions, we often faced tough choices about what to keep and what to get rid of. I like to say we rid ourselves of 90% of our belongings, but the truth is I don’t actually know.

We lived in a sizable house with a big garden shed and an outhouse. We owned a car. Julian had an office at work and, later, when we swapped roles, I had an office at work. Our possessions were spread amongst all those places. By the end of summer 2011 we had downsized from a three-bedroom house to a two-bedroom flat and by June 2012 we had moved aboard Carina and sold the car. With each move we downsized, ridding ourselves of more and more stuff – at car boot sales, on eBay and Freecycle and to charity shops. The first summer we lived aboard Carina we had far too much stuff and when we moved aboard for the second time in early summer 2013, we brought far less on board. We culled even more for the final and permanent move aboard in spring 2014. These days the sum of our worldly possessions fit aboard Carina, with an overflow of about twenty boxes in my father-in-law’s loft and a few items stored in cupboards at my mother-in-law’s house. It’s not a lot.

Yet in the past couple of weeks Julian and I have been de-cluttering even more. We’ve been sorting through the boxes in my father-in-law’s loft and have amassed another pile of items that we no longer desire to keep. Some things, such as a potty, children’s clothes, blinds for a car window, are no longer necessary. But other items are things we had previously put into storage because we had some emotional connection to them, but now we can’t remember what that emotional connection was. So we’ve sifted and culled and made a pile in one corner of the loft to take to a car boot sale in the next few weeks. Anything we don’t manage to sell we’ll take to a charity shop.

There are still many things that we love – gifts and books and photos to which we have a deep emotional connection – for now. That connection might fade over time.

This culling makes me realise how little we need in order to be happy and to find contentment, and how transient are our attachments to things, compared to our deep connections to the people who gave us those things. Our happiness does not reside in this material stuff and our lives are not diminished by not having that stuff in our lives. On the contrary, our lives are free of material clutter. I have moved nineteen times in the past twenty-five years. When I think back on all the packing and unpacking that accompanied many of those moves and all the stuff that only ever saw the light of day when it was moving from one house to another, I realise how much time, effort and money I squandered.

Our lives are not diminished by owning one corkscrew instead of four, one set of cutlery instead of three, one rolling pin instead of two. Our deep affection for family and friends is not diminished by not having in our possession the photo frames, candle holders and wind chimes they have given us over the years. We don’t need that stuff and in ridding ourselves of it we have lightened our load and can walk our path through life more freely and less encumbered.

These days we take greater care of the few possessions we do have and we treasure the few precious objects from loved ones that we have chosen to keep or the few objects that remind us of particular times or places in our lives. We have kept those because they are beautiful or quirky or unique objects, and we have kept a small selection of household items in case we one day want to move back into a house. But the less we have the less we need. And the less we need the less we want. And that feels good.

So, how would you de-clutter your life for the better? And what would you do with your unwanted stuff?

Green living

by Julian

Modern consumerism and its effects on the world’s oceans has been mentioned in recent blog posts by Martina (Leviathan and Behemoth and Picking through the plastic). A lot of energy is required to power our convenience filled lifestyles – energy mostly supplied by the increasingly more complicated and risky extraction of fossil fuels. The ever growing quantity of carbon in our atmosphere has been demonstrated, by scientific methods which show a characteristic isotope fingerprint, to be partly a result of the burning of fossil fuels. The related warming of the planet produces even more atmospheric carbon. It looks like we have tipped the balance and are warming the planet at a faster rate over the last half century than at any time in the past few millennia (this is shown by methods such as Arctic and Antarctic ice core studies). As a former geophysicist and glaciologist, who has worked with climate and ice core scientists, and published academic papers on the topic, I have some insight into this and am not glibly stating stuff presented in the mass media.

I have always been conscious of the need to save energy and resources but I have rarely acted on this with any serious effort. However, I have started thinking about how our current lifestyle onboard Carina has caused us to adapt in ways that seriously curtail our use of non-renewable energy and resources. Being at anchor and living on a tight budget forces us to do this.

Here are some of the ways we have minimised our non-renewable resource use:

We have an 80W solar panel. Summer in southern Europe provides plenty of sunlight, but our panel is not sufficient to run our fridge, charge our computer and run the domestic and navigation lighting. We have to be selective about our electricity use. The fridge was the first thing to go. We don’t need it. Instead, we buy small quantities of fresh food every day and use the fridge as a storage space.

As our light bulbs and fittings failed I started to replace them with LEDs. Now all our main domestic lighting uses LEDs and this has cut electricity for lighting to less than 20% of previous use without cutting down on light. In fact, in some cabins we now have better light than before. The latest technology in LEDs has fast created a whole array of options from harsh white light to softer light and bulbs are produced for all sorts of DC light fittings.

Last year Martina and I decided to trade in our four-stroke Yamaha outboard motor for a small two-stroke Mariner, partly because the Yamaha was becoming unreliable and partly because Martina could barely lift it, so getting it from Carina into the dinghy was a nightmare. An advantage of the trade in that I hadn’t considered is how little fuel a 2-stroke engine uses. Motoring twice or even three times a day between Carina and the shore, often against a strong current, and with four people aboard the dinghy, a 5-litre can of petrol lasts two weeks.

Next comes water use. At anchor we have to conserve water and we switch from electric water pump to foot pump, which minimises our consumption. It’s amazing how little water you actually need to brush your teeth, cook food or wash the dishes. Another revelation this year has been digging out the old solar shower. We can enjoy a good hot shower in the cockpit using very little water, heated directly from the sun. Sometimes the water gets too hot so we have to be careful! We also handwash our laundry, which is not too onerous if doing a little every couple of days and the clothes dry well in the spring/summer heat.

I have started to forage again. Unfortunately, we arrived on the river too late for the spinach and asparagus seasons, but I just caught the wild fennel and there is a lot of mint and rosemary planted around the towns. The grass near the beach at Sanlucar is overrun by mint and Martina says it makes great tea. I have collected oranges and lemons from the odd stray tree, neglected and not on anybody’s land. (A lot of land around the river is fenced off – people seem to like their oranges to rot on the ground rather than people being able to collect them). I am looking forward to the profusion of figs and plums ripening, and I hope the olives, almonds and grapes will follow.

Needless to say this is a mere drop in the ocean of the sort of  reduction in consumption that we all need to do. Even environmentally conscious people such as ourselves have only taken these steps because of our circumstances rather than out of a conscious drive.

But I am pleased by our efforts that benefit both the planet and our bank balance. Sailing (rather than motoring) nearly all the way here from the Mediteranean, even passing through the Straits of Gibraltar, against the normally prevailing current, pleased me a lot. I certainly felt good about not having an expensive fill up with diesel when we got here.

The important thing is that we don’t miss the conveniences, really we don’t! Life is simple and enjoyable. Life can be pretty good without a fridge, even in the summer heat. There’s a great river to swim in, great walks along the river bank, food for free, and healthy fresh air to breathe. I’d give up my fridge for that any day.

River anchorage

I’ve written about life at anchor before but each time the experience is different because each anchorage is different. We’ve anchored in calm bays and behind islands, in deserted seas alongside empty golden beaches and amidst crowded moorings. This time we’re in the middle of a fast flowing river, with river banks on either side only 75 metres or less away. Even 22 miles from the sea, the Rio Guadiana is esturine and all day every day the river flows fast downstream on the ebb tide and fast upstream on the flood tide. Carina swings on her chain facing downriver or upriver, in line with the current.

Carina in the middle of the river

Carina in the middle of the river

Our days have some semblance of routine. I get up at 6.20 or 7.20 (I aim for the former, but often the reality is the latter) and write until the girls wake up. Or I leave at 8.30, take the dinghy to Alcoutim to spend a few hours writing and carrying out online research at the library. Some mornings Julian or I go ashore for an early morning walk, some mornings we all go ashore, for a picnic, to run errands or to play.

At some point most mornings either Julian or I do an hour of lessons with the girls – right now Lily’s working on addition with carrying, subtraction and multiplication and on report writing and Katie’s working on reading, recognising numbers in the teens and simple addition. Apart from that all other learning happens organically, in fits and starts, when inspiration knocks on the door. Many of our trips ashore focus on the world around us. Yesterday, for example, we talked about the life cycles of ants, bees and butterflies, we examined the capillary networks of a dead cactus, we examined the roots of a pine tree and talked about the differences between coniferous and deciduous trees.

Any laborious work needs to be accomplished before the day gets too hot. I do small amounts of laundry every three or four days – two small bucketsful of hand washing, and anything that doesn’t fit into those two buckets goes back into the laundry bag for the next laundry day. I use water from a large jerry can refilled whenever we go ashore. I wash and rinse, sitting on the foredeck, the buckets at my feet. In this hot weather, clothes dry on the guard rails in less than two hours and have to be brought in before they dry to boards or bleach in the sun.

This year, for the first time, we have started to use the solar shower that was on board when we bought Carina. This ingenious devise has transformed our lives at anchor. It is simple and highly effective. It is a rubber bag, black on one side, transparent on the other. It holds about 8 litres of water, and has a plastic tap and hose at one end, so when it is hung up on the boom, it works like a shower. We lay it on the foredeck, the black surface facing the sun, and after three hours we have piping hot water. We use this to wash dishes, to shower the girls in the cockpit twice a week (they LOVE their solar shower), and with all modesty and decorum long gone and not caring who might be strolling on deserted rural paths above the river banks, I too shower in the cockpit a couple of times a week. It’s bliss.

We spend most afternoons onboard, shaded from the scorching sun. We try to get the girls to relax, but it’s tough. We encourage them to play quietly with Lego or Play Mobile or jigsaws, or, at the moment, we’ve got a couple of sewing projects on the go – dresses for their dolls and a handbag. We all need to conserve our energy during the hottest part of the day. By 4.30 or 5 we are ready to go out again, and we board the dinghy for Alcoutim bound for the river beach. In mid-May Katie finally got the hang of swimming, and Lily has progressed in a few short weeks from the doggy paddling of last year to proper swimming, swimming on her back, underwater swimming, and diving down to touch the river bed. Julian and I are agog at how suddenly and quickly their swimming skills have developed with no input from us! (I noticed Lily’s improvements came from observing older boys in the water, and she copied them). After a couple of hours on the beach we might join other live aboards for a cold drink at the bar by the beach, returning home around 7.30 to make dinner.

At night, after we’ve eaten dinner in the cockpit, we watch the stars come out one by one, Lily and Katie each eager to spot the first star. By the time we are all ready for bed the sky is awash with stars, the sky clear and bright and unpolluted by artificial light. We’re all in bed by 11pm.

We live at anchor without a fridge, as we rely on one 80 watt solar panel for all our energy requirements. Life without a fridge is no burden. We simply shop for small amounts of fresh food more often at the small shops in Sanlúcar and Alcoutim (for Edenderry readers, think Tommy Lowry’s back in the 1970s!). We use UHT milk which, when once opened, even in the heat of summer, will last a day and a half. Butter melts quickly and we’ll probably soon give up on it and resort to olive oil to moisten our bread.

Each time we go ashore we top up our water supply – in small bottles, the large jerry can, and the solar shower. The longer we can eke out the water supply in our tank, the longer we can stay away from the pontoon. Inevitably, though, after about two weeks (we could probably last a bit longer) we spend two days and one night on the pontoon at Alcoutim, to refill our water tank. We have mains electricity when we are on the pontoon, so it’s an opportunity for the girls to watch some of their favourite DVDs and, if we’re on a stretch of the pontoon with good Wifi access, I might watch some TV shows late at night. And then we’re back on the hook, finding a different spot on the river each time.

It’s a slow and mellow way of life, lived to the rhythms of the river. We come on and off anchor and on and off the pontoon at slack water; we watch for the best times to set out on the river in the dinghy; and we keep an eye on what the wind and tide are doing to us – watching Carina’s distance to other anchored boats and to the river bank, and making sure our anchor chain doesn’t become entangled in the tree trunks and big branches that regularly float along on the current.

It’s not a bad way to experience the world.

Never look a gift-horse in the mouth

We live frugally and on a limited budget. Anything else and we couldn’t afford this life of sailing a lot and working a little. But there are four mouths to feed aboard Carina and so Julian and I are always on the lookout for food bargains. And with a certain alignment of stars this week, we couldn’t pass up a great opportunity to restock the food stores.

One Spanish supermarket chain, El Árbol, was recently taken over by another, Dia. Because of this take-over, all the old El Árbol own-brand stock is on sale in the stores for a pittance. Julian went out yesterday to our nearest El Árbol and came home laden with multiple bags of pasta – spaghetti, fusilli, macaroni, etc. My eyes widened when he told me that each 500g bag had cost a mere 25 cent (reduced from 67 cent). He told me the 400g tinned tomatoes were also on sale for 25 cent (reduced from 47 cent). I was beside myself with excitement. Not only was there a huge reduction on items we use a lot in our cooking, in a shop not far from the boat; we also have the use of my father-in-law’s car, so we could buy as much as we pleased, rather than having to satisfy ourselves with what we could carry on our backs and in shopping bags, as would normally be the case.

Pasta anyone?

Pasta anyone?

Within minutes I was in the car with Barry, headed for El Árbol. I filled a shopping trolley with twenty 500g bags of pasta, 36 tins of tomatoes, as well as some other items that were greatly reduced – rubber gloves in my size, and shampoos and shower gels that will easily see us through the rest of 2015. Barry drove the car around to the front of the shop and I pushed the heavy trolley out to meet him, and we loaded the boot with our booty.

We eat pasta about twice a week, and a 500g bag gets used up approximately two and a half meals. So the pasta should last to the autumn at least. We use tinned tomatoes for bolognaise sauce, chilli, lentil dahl, tomato soup, and more dishes besides, probably using three tins per week. Although those 36 tins won’t stretch as far into the future as the pasta, as they are a key ingredient to much of our cooking, they’ll get us some way there.

But buying the tomatoes at almost half their normal price, and buying the pasta at almost a third of its normal price was such a godsend that my only thought as we drove back to the marina was ‘Where am I going to store all this stuff?’

Barry drove the car right to the back of the boat, and I off-loaded the tins and bags of pasta directly from the boot of the car and into the open hatch of the aft cabin – dropping everything down onto my bed. The spring clean of the food cupboards that I had carried out while Julian and the girls were away now paid dividends. For the next 45 minutes I stowed tins and pasta in every spare stowage space I could find – in the aft heads (used exclusively as a storage room), in the quarter berth food storage boxes, and in the rather depleted long-term storage space by the removable worktop in the galley. The shampoos and shower gels were stowed with the all the other spare toiletries in one of the aft heads cupboard. And it was with some satisfaction that I finally sat down to lunch and a much needed cup of tea.

Opportunities like these don’t come along too often, but when they do, we have to take them. Between us, Julian and I spent less than €25 yesterday, buying staple non-perishable foods and toiletries that, if bought over time and at their normal price, would cost us between double and treble what we paid. Like foraging for wild fruit, vegetables and shell-fish, and occasional attempts at fishing, being frugal and smart with our money means that what little we have stretches farther. We can eat well, cooking nutritious and tasty meals at home, and we can sail towards the horizon, without having to work too many hours to do so.

Alas, all this talk about food is making me hungry. Time to make lunch, I think!