It’s Perfect!

That’s the name of my sister’s and brother-in-law’s sailing vessel.  It’s a 44-foot ketch, if you know what I mean.  No, not a yacht, and Linda and Rod are not rich.  “On a shoestring”, every spare penny, for years on end, of what they might otherwise have prudently invested for retirement, went into saving for a boat to sail the world.  In 2004 they found an unfinished sailboat at a bargain basement price, posted on the internet.  It was a project they could afford, but it was a mess when they hauled it out of an Ohio shed.  The former owner had worked for years to build it from a kit, but, sadly, died of cancer before he could finish it, let alone put it in the water.  Rod had it hauled all the way to Lake Texoma.  Their bargain inspired incredulous stares, and probably some derisive laughter from owners of shiny manufactured boats. They just couldn’t see the vision. Those guys might have named it Texan’s Folly.  They would have been wrong.

There were eight years of back-breaking labor as Rod’s and Linda’s considerable skills created sweat equity, after-hours and on weekends. All while they held full-time jobs to pay the bills and purchase raw materials for the boat. Later they sold their McKinney, Texas home and poured the equity into finishing their ocean-going version of sole residence and magic carpet (I can show you the world!) all in one.  It wasn’t a mess anymore.

It’s Perfect

In 2012 they quit their jobs and launched their adventure from Houston, living aboard.  Space below deck is compact, complete with built-in water-powered rocking effect, which is great for lulling you to sleep in one of its berths.  Unless even that sentence makes you pukey, when it will have the opposite effect.  There’s Dramamine for that.

Un-phased by seasickness, Rod and Linda sailed the Caribbean for three years, all the while never having an insurance policy on the boat.  (Not only is boat insurance pricey, insurance companies like to have a say about the boat’s whereabouts near tropical storm areas. Where’s the fun in that? Say some sailors.) Talk about risk-takers!  You can read about all their ocean travels on their blog at

Some of It’s Perfect’s highlights:

Oh, I don’t have space to say much about how, just after they hauled the partially-finished boat south from Texoma to set it into the water of the Gulf, a tropical storm hit their Houston marina. Boats around theirs were reduced to toothpicks.  Or how the rudder broke on their shakedown cruise.  Kind of a big deal, the rudder. In their first year, getting the feel of their new life and new vessel, they made their way from Houston around the tip of Florida, up the Atlantic coast, and by the next spring, back down to Miami.  But let’s skip to the fun!  Here’s where it gets complicated.

Their adventuring really got started in 2013, in a grueling 16-hour rough crossing of the gulf stream, from Miami to the Bahamas.  Little boat, big ocean. Friday, February 22, they sheltered in the port of the first small island in the Bahamas they encountered, and checked in with customs agents there.  The motor of their rubber dinghy, which provided transport while they were at anchor, failed while they were there for the overnight stop.  Long story, but Rod had a plan for the repair once they were safely settled in the capital of Nassau, and priorities were attended to.

Rod in the prow of It’s Perfect

Sometime during the high winds and waves of the voyage, a rope fell off her stern deck, unspooled into the water, and dragged behind, unnoticed. (Ominous movie music rises here.) On sunny Saturday, It’s Perfect motored into Nassau harbor. Linda was driving, turning to position the boat to set an anchor in the harbor (a money-saver over costs of a marina slip in port.) Rod directed, navigated, and monitored a hundred variables.  Unseen below the waterline, the rope tangled in their propeller as it turned. A thingamajig (I’ve learned all the technical terms, you see,) broke. Causing the engine to instantly shut down. That prevented an engine burn out, but for the time being they couldn’t move. Yes, it’s a sailboat, but in a tight place, “parking” requires a motor.

They were drifting into the middle of traffic in the channel, with no way to stop.  Impeding the commercial harbor traffic now, Rod radioed for a tow boat. Harbor police showed up and boarded them, and soon insisted on escorting my sister and her husband in their official speedboat to their official headquarters, where they came within a quarter-inch of being officially jailed.  Mostly-law-abiding Rod and Linda frantically argued to clear up a customs paperwork error created on the previous day’s registration at the smaller Bahamian port. A clerk had neglected to provide them a copy of one of the declaration forms. They were now suspected of smuggling firearms. Really.

Meanwhile, on a dock a quarter-mile away, I was blissfully ignorant of the tense drama unfolding.  Here was a great plot point for the blockbuster movie.  Think Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver as confident skipper and capable first mate, with Kathy Bates as me, unseasoned traveler (gullible, clueless, nervous) fresh off the plane from the states.  But I was trusting.  So, I relaxed against my suitcase and swung my legs off the edge of a wooden dock, awaiting our prearranged rendezvous. Vacation!  It was my sixtieth birthday, and I was cautiously set for a modest splurge of risk-taking.  After waiting several hours beyond the scheduled meeting time, it dawned on me that I was forsaken all alone in a strange country, my reliable big sister a no-show.  My cell phone didn’t work, but I finally remembered to check in with the marina office for a message, as previously planned.  I was notified of the Police Incident, which kicked up my anxiety several notches.  But in time to quell my rising panic, Rod and Linda were released from custody and ferried directly to pick me up and deliver us all back to the boat.  It’s Perfect had been towed to another marina, at considerable cost. After the perilous day, the watery swell lulled me to a good night’s sleep.

2013 Linda and me at Nassau dock

A couple of years later, in the midst of a thunderstorm, a lightning bolt struck the mast of It’s Perfect while anchored in the idyllic San Blas Islands.  Rod and Linda were aboard at the time.  They were unhurt, but all their electronics were fried (navigation systems, water-maker, air conditioning, television, DVD, laptop computer, refrigerator, and more.)  Remember, no insurance.

Climbing the mast

Another time, off the coast of Nicaragua, they had a scary near-disaster as an old fishing trawler manned by ragged pirates (one of a very few career paths for natives of hopelessly impoverished coastal societies in third-world countries) made a dead-on rapid approach, and didn’t respond to a friendly radio hail.  Drawing nearer, their menacing faces loomed frighteningly close. Rod brandished a flare gun, aiming steadily at their wheelhouse. It was a terrifying game of chicken, but the pirates blinked first, and turned away.  Nobody was harmed, and Rod and Linda had a suspenseful story to tell sailors at the dock gatherings.

They’ve lived well on a tight budget for decades, with vast imagination and inspiring resourcefulness. (Rod is master electrician, machinist, carpenter, all-around handyman, and navigator. Linda is visionary, designer, practical planner, financial finagler, skilled upholsterer, and relentless laborer.)

Linda making a friend

Both will try nearly anything.  They have guts far beyond mine.  They rode the rush of elevated blood pressure for the pleasure of the breathtaking sunrises and sunsets. And unparalleled stargazing.

Dusk on the water

They were accompanied by sharks, whales, manatees, pods of dolphins, exotic fish, and sea birds, all from a far more intimate vantage point than a giant cruise ship ever could have offered.  They lived by their sweat and muscle, wits and common sense, stubbornness and hard work.  I guess it kept them young.

Captain and First Mate

So, what’s perfect about any of that?  It was hard, and scary, nerve-wracking to the max. Those of us who prioritize safety and predictability would never sign on.  For some, the risks they took every day might be terrifying to consider for a month, let alone for years on end, with no safety net, no home base on land to go back to, and no cushy bank account to cover the unforeseen.  I’m sure I’m their very favorite boat guest (in spite of the fact I once yarked up my breakfast, sailing a rough-water crossing to an island.) But I never stayed on with them more than two weeks at a time.  Not my style.

Is perfect the absence of difficulty?  If so, maybe the perfect life would be settling permanently on a big comfy sofa with endless bags of Cheetos and boxes of chocolate bonbons, cable TV, and nobody to irk you with conflicting opinions.  That doesn’t sound right.

It’s Perfect has been perfect for Rod and Linda because it kept them awake and alive, actively engaging with the real world beyond glorious technicolor.  Their first-hand cultural experience beat out a lifetime of National Geographic channel videos.  They became intimately acquainted with a young Colombian family in Cartagena, when Rod sought out a local Spanish tutor to expand his linguistic limits.  They shared meals and stories with living-aboard sailing families from all across the globe.  Rod and Linda rode local public transport—it’s the “chicken bus” in Panama, where livestock rides the crowded bus alongside villagers–sitting elbow to elbow with native men and women. They were trusted to cradle babies in assistance of parents who were corralling children, animals, and bundled market goods.

Chicken bus

They learned their real place in the world.  Not of privilege and power, but of respect for the needs of the next human being, no higher or lower than their own needs.  They understood that even those pirates were desperate to make a living for their families.  They didn’t surrender the boat, but they didn’t have to hate them either.

Maybe each of our own lives, with the fears and hurdles and frustrations and smack-downs we suffer, really are the perfect venue for individual paths of learning how to negotiate this world.  My messy, challenging life has been my own perfect adventure in learning to be human, even for a slow learner.

It really was perfect, Rod and Linda’s sailing life.  And it still is—until their next chapter resettles them among the cactus, cedars, and boulders, the blisters, backaches, and obstacles of building a cabin on a wooded mountain in New Mexico.  That’ll be perfect.