The Many-Headed Hydra

10 Dec

     I am, finally, back home in New Orleans after a long jaunt down the East Coast. The crew and I were completely out of touch with the world for the past few weeks as we explored some of the more remote reefs in the Florida Keys and made the jump out to the Dry Tortugas and home to New Orleans from there. Now we’re surrounded by friends, airing out stale projects, re-combobulating the trappings of life on land. There’s a bicycle hanging in a wharehouse on St. Ferdinand, a few boxes from the attic of a house on Urquhart, some clean clothes. The marina won’t let me stay without getting boat insurance. Now feels like a funny time to be starting a policy.
               These are the easy things, or at least straightforward. More difficult is recalling a sense of personal identity, just me in a sea of people. My boat is twenty-eight feet long; just enough space for two settees, a V-berth and almost nothing else.  For the past four months I’ve been always within arm’s reach of seven other people (not all at the same time) and I’ve rarely interacted with anyone else. We were a little bubble learning to act in unison while moving through a busy and chaotic world.

At the end of the trip, we ran into a German sailor who had only complaints about sailing on the U.S. East coast. ‘If there is wind, it is always a storm’, he said. It hadn’t occurred to us quite like that but he was right. Unless you want to endlessly beat to weather leaving New England in the fall means stormy sailing. Mostly we rode cold fronts down the coast and as we bounced along we developed less a rhythm of living together than a collective corporeality. At sea, in the thick of it, we were a hive mind controlling a dozen arms and legs, forever climbing and tripping over itself to work the sails, find a snack, pass the salt. It was wet, messy, difficult and great fun. There were a few perks. To remember where you set down a book, you describe the cover out loud. A set of eyes remembers where someone’s hand put it down earlier and motions to the closest set of hands, which lays it in front of you.

Our state of life in the middle of our roughest passage

     Many sailors have heard a certain joke about the two types of people who stand in companionways, but I like this one more.
Question: What is the most sensuous place on the boat?
Answer: The companionway. “Hey! Sence-youw-is there (can you grab me that)”
It doesn’t translate well to type. Consider that the second half of the punchline is just a gesture. If you’ve ever tried co-habiting in tiny boats and you’re standing in a companionway you’ll remember the one.


Even ashore we were usually together, or at least in twos. Decisions- where to go, what to eat, when to set sail- were made collectively, effortlessly. We almost always wanted the same things. We made plans with and for each other and accompanied ourselves everywhere. Invited somewhere, individually, we didn’t pause before extending the invitation to the larger body. But then to be caught individually was rare. Singular pronouns gradually pluralized and we didn’t even notice until it began to raise eyebrows in our interactions with the outside world. And we raised a lot of eyebrows. People everywhere we went were amazed that we could tolerate living so close in so little space but for us it was so easy that we soon forgot what it was like to live any other way,

In this we were lucky, I was lucky. This kind of rapport is rare, I hear. People would see us crowded into our little dingy and feel compelled to share their horror stories of bad crew and long, crowded passages. We never had much of a response. I couldn’t tell you what in particular made it work, just that it did. It takes a unique group of people, at least a touch insane, to be able not only to live together, four or five at a time, on a twenty-eight foot boat but to actually enjoy it. This was us, and we ended our months together feeling closer than when we began. So I am incredibly grateful that I had a crew to accompany me who were not only tough and very capable but also honest, open, and easy-going, a joy to live with. I couldn’t imagine anyone better to sail with and even though we still see each other often in a way I’m already starting to miss them.

This article was syndicated from Safe At Harbour But Meant For The Sea: DIY Sailing with Paul Calder


  1. denise holly

    PAUL! You have a gift for writing…like your father. I could hear you speaking. Sounds like a wonderful bowl of pasta, bodies inside the cabin! My favorite photo… the knots up close and crew in the background! Lovely.
    Thanks for this evening’s read.
    Continue your adventures, Paul et al.

  2. pippin

    Paul your a wonderful person! I think a lot of your success with tight quarters can be attributed to your generosity as a captian. That and we share some amazing friends. I’m very proud that your my brother! Can’t wait for the next adventure

  3. pippin

    Your a wonderful person paul and you have worked very, very hard on that boat. Your generosity as a captain speaks to your success sharing such tight quarters. We also share some amazing friends!! So proud your my brother! Can’t wait for the next adventure

  4. Laura Gary

    Impressed with your article and even more impressed with you sailing with an all female crew in close quarters and still remaining good friends. Uncle Ron and Aunt Laura

  5. Laura Gary

    Paul, impressed by your article. So cool that you could live in confined quarters so long and still be good friends! Happy sailing!! Love, Aunt Laura and Uncle Ron

  6. Carter Brey

    The story about “Sence-youw-is there” astounded me; my Venetian sailor uncle-in-law told me the exact same thing in his local Italian dialect just a year ago: “Xa che ti xe,” “since you are there,” literally in Venetian dialect (the x sounds like a z). The person in the companionway is said to be in the “Xa che ti position,” the “Since you’re there position.” I guess there’s nothing new under the sailing sun.

  7. Mike McGuire

    What a great description of becoming a single unit built out of many people. Must be really nice when it works out like that.

    On a lighter note…I’m imagining the potential for funky smells in that salon you have pictured! Lol.

    In all seriousness, I’m sure it’s an experience that will not soon be forgotten.


  8. Bret and Sharon LaPointe

    We sailed for 10 days on a 30 footer in the sea of Cortez with our adult daughter and her soon to be husband. We became a single organism after several days and for weeks after thought of each other’s every need and well being moment to moment. When it works it is as good as gold.

  9. Tim Purcell

    Really enjoyed your thoughts a,can relate to all of them. Took my kids sailing , Thousand Islands to Veneswala and back in a vagabond 42 in the late nineties over a four year period. We all have a perspective about life from our travels that very few people share. Now I have a Cape Dory Typhoon and getting into sailing again,lots more to learn ! Keep up your good work . Tim

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