Alvah Simon – Author and Extreme Adventurer

Alvah Simon together with his wife Diana has sailed the world, going to places most don’t. He is world wise.

Adventurism runs deep through his veins. Sailing is the vehicle he chose to explore the world, learn about people and the way they interact with the land and their environment.

To Alvah, sailing and cruising has always been a committed lifestyle choice. He has spent the last 40 years on, around or about the sea.

As a world cruiser, he has many stories to tell. A regular writer and contributor to Cruising World Magazine and Author of “North To The Night”, Alvah shares his knowledge and wisdom openly.

In this podcast interview, we chat about;

• How he started his life on the sea,

• How to avoid becoming a slave to your vessel

• His relationship with sea sickness

• Pluses and minuses of a cruising life.

• The thinking behind his wintering over in the Arctic aboard “Roger Henry”

• Escaping the Job trap

And much more. I’m confident this will inspire you, educate you and leave you wanting more from Alvah Simon, a truly authentic adventurer and writer.

CLICK OR TOUCH BELOW TO LISTEN TO THE PODCAST

Lin and Larry Pardey

LINDSAY: Okay, here we are with Alvah who’s a friend of mine from my hometown Whangarei. Now Alvah is an incredible adventurer. He’s written a book called “North to the Night” which is all about how he wintered over well north of the arctic circle. It’s an incredible book of adventure and survival and I just can’t wait to hear what Alvah’s got to say.

Welcome to this interview Alvah.

ALVAH: Well thanks for having me.

LINDSAY: Now Alvah and his wife Diane lived aboard their yacht – Roger Henry which was a thirty-six footer. Is that right?

ALVAH: Yes. It’s a thirty-six foot, french designed steel cutter. It’s my third boat and perhaps my last, because it’s still doing its job.

LINDSAY: Yeah it’s a great boat.

What I’ll do is just start off by asking you to tell us a bit about yourself and your experience, and by giving us a bit of an overview of your life on the sea.

ALVAH: I’ll start at the present day rather than the beginning. I’ve always thought of sailing and cruising as a committed lifestyle, not a sabbatical from my real life. It’s not a vacation. It was something that at a very young age, when I discovered it, I realised that there was some kind of resonance. It was my life. It became my life. I only regret that I didn’t start earlier. I’ve spent the last basically forty years on, around or about the sea. It opened up a lot of other doors besides just being a mariner, but that was the core. That was the vehicle. That started when I was quite young.

My father was a very battle hardened marine, returned from World War II and he had these very strict notions about manly behaviour, personal responsibility, but especially self reliance. When I was very young – six years old – he would drop me off at the edge of the woods on a Friday night with nothing more than I could carry inside an empty packet of cigarettes, and say, “I’ll pick you up Sunday.” The reason I mention this is because I had to sit down with a little six year old mind and think, “What’s really important. What would you put in there with that limited space.” That kind of training did two things: One, it gives you the foresight, we call this “seamanship” which is really nothing more than anticipating what your needs will be. What your minimum requirements are. It also gives you a confidence that you can work things out on the way. You carry a little bit of equipment and a lot of confidence and knowledge, and you contain whatever environment they drop you in. That’s not directly related to the sea, but it was that kind of background, and that kind of comfort level with the outdoors that made sailing probably much easier for me than a lot of people.

The first boat was a Pirogue that my father made me build by hand. He supervised. I told him I wanted a boat and he said, “Fine. Where’s the wood? Where’s the glue?” Nothing was going to come easy was his point. I built a flat bottom Pirogue a Louisiana style and we fished and did a lot of lakes and rivers with it. That wasn’t yet really related to sailing until he built an eighteen foot lightning class boat. We sailed it, but not seriously in terms of cruising and I had no notion of world cruising at the time. We had a friend who donated a year of – he was a doctor – he and his nine children, he donated all their time to go down to Central America to what was then called British Honduras, and set up a medical clinic in a roadless jungle village. He had a small local boat built for him just to get back and forth to Chetumal Mexico to get supplies. I got a call from him when I was in my early twenties saying that they had left Belize and left the boat behind, was I interested in going down there and buying the boat.

When I say, “boat,” I don’t call it yacht because it was nothing approaching what we think of as a yacht. It was just a carvill plank mahogany twenty-six footer. It had mangrove mast, a bamboo boom, cut and sails and no interior. In fact, we used to sink the boat to kill the cockroaches and clean it, and then bail it out and sail on. There was nothing in it but the backpack we put in there – my youngest brother and I.

That was down what’s now called Belize. The second largest barrier reef in the world and we couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful, pristine environment to get you excited at the beginning of your sailing career. It was beautiful, tropical, balmy, white sand beach, palm trees, pretty girls, cheap rum – all the things that we tend to think of as a Caribbean experience. Underwater it opened up a glorious new world that I knew nothing about. That was fuel enough for me to just say,” This is a fantastic lifestyle, a fantastic environment and there’s no sense in doing anything else with my life other than this.”

The boat itself wasn’t capable. I didn’t know then nor was I or my brother, we far over estimated our skills and ability. We were ignorant, arrogant and young. That’s sort of a redundant set of words those three. I pushed a little harder than my brother at most things and we actually set sail for Panama in that boat. My idea then was to sail to Africa. Not having studied the winds a currents, and not realising the boat wasn’t capable. The winds and currents wouldn’t have allowed it. My brother mutinied off the coast of Honduras. Made me turn the boat around, bring it back to Belize, fly back to the United States and work for what turned into two years to save enough money to buy something more approaching what we’d consider a modern yacht.

We did that and for those two years we made a pact that we wouldn’t drink a single sip of alcohol, that every penny would go towards the boat. There’d be no drugs and no tobacco. The reason that’s important is because I, like many young people in the 70’s – late 60’s and 70’s was on a really bad track. It couldn’t have ended well at the rate I was moving down that line. By changing my focus to getting off the land and onto the sea, it changed my life immediately. I understood the commitment it was going to require, otherwise it would take forever to get there. You don’t get there when it takes forever. Even before I really got back on the sea it had a very positive impact on my life.

We finally got that boat which was a dilapidated plywood boat built in England called “Golden Hind” a Morris Griffith design. It was in dreadful condition. We had by then developed a little more skill, had read a lot of books, developed a lot more knowledge and appreciation for the real challenges. Put that boat together and set sail from Quay West and heading back to Panama, still with Africa as my goal, but by now realising going through the Panama Canal and sailing around the world was the best and easiest way to get there.

On that boat I lived for fourteen years. Took thirteen years to circumnavigate and there’s too many stories to relay here. My brother fell in love and jumped ship in the Pacific in the Island of Tuvalu – the old Ellis Islands. I carried on obviously and had too many years and too many adventures to relate right now. It became my life and my lifestyle. I became so dedicated and passionate about cruising that there was no way to ever quit it.

I came away understanding that it transforms lives. It’s not a hobby and it’s not a sport. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a portal into one of the most amazing first physical, and then intellectual and ultimately spiritual journeys that you can treat yourself on this planet. Not sailing as much now for different reasons, but I wouldn’t give back a day of all those years at sea.

LINDSAY: What a fantastic beginning to a life at sea. Just going out there, doing it, ignorant but full of confidence and still survived to tell us the tale. You must have had a few situations where you got tripped up no doubt with the weather, but not so much in Belize because it’s all very placid weather around there isn’t it? Is it very seasonal around there? I’m not sure.

ALVAH: Quite seasonal and the Caribbean can dish it up especially during the winter months when it wants to. I think most of our dramas occurred early and that was part of this arrogance that I’m talking about. You’re told about the sea, about the forces, about when things go wrong how wrong they can go, and you say, “Yeah, yeah. I know.” But you don’t know. You have to actually get out there and experience a little bit of it.

No matter your age and your ignorance or your arrogance, it doesn’t take long to be humbled. When you feel the force, when you feel the weight of water, the weight of winds – when you realise that you’re very small speck of wood on a very large ocean. Or how hard the rocks are and how fiercely the wind is driving you in that direction, the arrogance goes away. You get through a few scrapes and then you decide to simply up-skill. To learn what went wrong, why did it go wrong, what do we have to do to ensure it doesn’t, and next time even if it does, what would better tactics be to minimise those risks. I know very few arrogant sailors.

You know there’s an old thing about flying, “There’s old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” I think that can be well applied to cruising, especially in the days when we didn’t have as much technology – weather forecasting, big engines to get us out of trouble, big capacity tanks to get through delays at sea that you hadn’t anticipated. In the old days you sailed a little closer to the bone so-to-speak and your margins of error were less. It just took experience and a bit of a humble approach to the forces of nature.

LINDSAY: It’s interesting you say that because we tend to go offshore with all these things that we’re sold through the chandleries and the online stores. We’ve got our AIS and our GPS navigation and our big engines and fuel capacity and all the rest of it, you didn’t have that then, but that helped you develop a lot of skills to off-set having all these modern things that are available now.

I guess my question is, what are the most valuable skills that you learnt in those early days? The things that carried you right through all those years? What are the big foundation skills that you learnt?

ALVAH: In terms of the physical skills, they only need to be as sophisticated as your boat is. In other words if you start very simply and you can learn to work with wood and stitching, or make a sail, or dury rig a rudder that the Pintle or Gudgeons, then that’s all you needed. Perhaps your diesel didn’t work but they were pretty simple in those days and you could pretty well figure out how to get it apart. If the alternator was broken it didn’t matter. You didn’t really need that much power because you didn’t have a big consumption. As the boats become more complicated then your skills have to follow them. I guess my caution to anyone new at this is, don’t let the technology get too far ahead of your skills or you become a slave to these things. You don’t understand them. You can’t fix them. The only way out of that is to learn to do without them.

Now back to your original question. By starting without these things and developing just a groundwork of basic skills, and basic understanding of how to make the essentials work: keep the boat upright, keep it sailing, keep people safe – If you lose your AIS you still have a foghorn, you still know how to keep watches, you still know how to read lights of ships at night – some of these older skills. If the depth sounder fails, you still have a lead line and you know how to throw it. If you were to lose your GPS due to a lightning strike or something of that nature, you still have a paper chart that you’ve done your dead reckoning and you’ve upgraded your plots. You can still say, “Alright, we don’t know exactly where we are, but twelve hours ago we know we were here because we’ve recorded. We know we’ve done five and a half knots of a course of 230 and if we factor in the currents that we’ve learnt something about, we should be about here.” And you’ll be surprised how close to about there you really are.

Just by having a background in all the old skills it gives you an immunity to catastrophe with the new equipment. By all means, get the GPS, get the AIS, get anything you want because you now have the confidence that if necessary you could do without it.

LINDSAY: Yeah, I love that. It’s amazing how accurate dead reckoning is. I’ve done ocean passages where we couldn’t get a sun sight and it was cloudy, and yet DR on and you’re not that far away from where you think you are when your next sight is available. It surprises me out there in the middle of the ocean, we’re not sure where the currents are going all the time and still it’s accurate enough to get landfall even after a couple of days without a sight. It’s good to learn the basics even though these tools are around to help our life become easier, it’s only easier while they’re still working and you haven’t had a lightning strike and they’re all gone.

You spend a lot of time at sea. I always ask this question: Do you get seasick? Tell us a little bit about how you deal with it if you do or if you’ve got crew that are seasick how do you deal with hem?

ALVAH: I’ve suffered from seasickness for my entire sailing career. I never wanted to take any seasick pills because I was always Captain of the vessel. I thought it would cloud my judgement and I was just afraid of the fatigue that it supposedly brings on etcetera. Looking back it was a really foolish decision. I only discovered this a couple of years ago when I finally took some seasickness pills – had a clear head and a wonderful trip from New Cal back to New Zealand – wondering why for thirty-five years would I go through what I went through. It was a foolish sense of machoism. I was just going to tough it out, force my body to adjust. It would after a certain number of days but never completely. It takes away some of the joy of passage making and cruising is I know mostly you say ninety percent at anchor, but most of your planning and most of the dreams are about passage making. Not necessarily being at anchor somewhere, but getting there.

I would first recommend that if people do suffer from seasickness, find one of the pills that works. Take it early and take it seriously if you have crew on board that suffers from it because it’s not dangerous for a day of two right off the coast of California, but if someone starts really getting ill and you’re way offshore it can deteriorate into a pretty serious situation.

Something else I noticed, we sailed up to Japan and after thirty something years of constant seasickness I went on to the Japanese diet because when in Rome we do as the Romans and ate only Japanese food for three months. Then we set sail from northern Japan for the Aleutian Islands and I promise you it wasn’t a quiet trip. If you were ever going to be seasick, that would’ve been that trip. I never felt a single bit of queasiness for the next several months and it can only be related back to diet. So for anyone who fears they’ll be seasick or has had that problem, before they go off on a big passage if they were to cut back on the tobacco, the caffeine, the fatty foods. I don’t have a scientific database to say this except my own personal experience. There’s no question that clean, low fat diet helped me immensely for months to come.

LINDSAY: Woah. That’s really interesting. Low fat foods and healthy eating has a big affect on whether you get seasick or not. That’s quite interesting to hear that. I’ve heard that several times, “Be careful what you eat,” from other people as well.

What were some of the downsides of life at sea, because it’s not all happy sailing all the time. There’s always gotta be some downsides. That’s life. There’s good and there’s bad. Can you tell us a bit about some of the things where you were feeling really down and weren’t happy with life and what was causing that?

ALVAH: I actually have to dig deep to answer that because I so thoroughly enjoyed all of it. Even the worst of it. Because I understood that I was learning from it all. Even when we’re cold or in dangerous situations, to me it was all bootcamp. It was all part of a training program. Even though I wouldn’t say that the moment was enjoyable, or that it was physically enjoyable I really understood, like you’ve just said, “That’s life,” and this is a good life. I don’t have horror stories about days of deep, dark depression or anything of that nature.

I’ve spent a lot of very hard times sailing and I made it hard on myself. I’m not an expert on this because I might be considered a bit of a machinists but I’ve wintered at Cape Horn in a plywood boat without insulation and no heater. I’ve frozen for over a year in the deep northern Arctic ice. We’ve done some very hard rough passages during times of the year that you couldn’t expect it to be comfortable. In perhaps a perverted way I’ve enjoyed it all because I knew it was testing the boat, testing my skills and just hardening me up.

Then when you get the good passage, it’s just all the better. We did a twenty-four day cruise from Saint Helena off the coast of South Africa. A big arc over the south atlantic high to Rio De Janeiro and you could’ve varnished on deck. It was simply glorious blue. If it was always like that I wouldn’t remember that as special. It was a good balance of some grey, some scary, but when you got to the sunny and white sand beaches it was all the sweeter for it.

I will say that being away from your family. I’ve noticed, not just me, but this is the thing that tugs most people home. Their sailing dream is based on the idea of being far away, leaving it all behind, dropping out, being out there, but especially now that most cruisers you meet are older – forty years ago it was the kids going sailing – now it’s the grandparents going sailing. The hardest thing they find is distance away from grandchildren or family. Even those distances are now – that gap is closed with technology, with Facebook, with Skype, with email on board, with cheaper airline tickets, it’s still a big world. The Pacific’s sixty-four million square miles. You can feel awfully lonely out there if you haven’t prepared yourself and planned for reunions. I think that would be my only regret is time away from my family and it took a lot of time away from my family.

Having said that, when I did get home I appreciated them more. I think they appreciated me more. I was doing something special and interesting so it’s not really a regret, just a warning that when you get lonely and you’re a long way from home it can’t be corrected instantly.

LINDSAY: So you’ve got to work through that loneliness.

ALVHA: Yes.

LINDSAY: I bet you had some good stories when you did reunite with your family. They would’ve loved sitting around what you had to say about where you’d been and all the rest of it.

ALVAH: I wish that was correct, but what I’ve found is people live their own lives and become a little saturated with that. That becomes their reality. I would do a trip across the centre of Borneo you know, where supposedly no man has gone before, I’d get home and my family would say, “How about those cubs!” or Chicago Bears. They didn’t quite appreciate or understand the type of sailing and adventuring I was doing and I became a little resistant to share it. I didn’t want people to think I was judging their life by mine, or to think less of their life and their choices than mine. My brothers and sisters were raising their children, living up to their responsibilities, doing the right things. I never wanted them to feel jealous or in any way demeaned by this wild life I was leading. I kept it a little quiet for many years.

Once I started writing about it and sharing it not just them but the world then you can’t hide anymore. That’s what you do, that’s who you are, that’s where you’ve been, but I was surprised to have a brother say, “So you were in Borneo?”, and I was there for three years.

LINDSAY: You just touched on something there that I want to just ask a little bit more about. You said that you wintered over well north of the Arctic circle. You were a hundred miles from the nearest settlement and your boat was iced in, and that’s what you wrote your book about, “North to the Night”, which is a fantastic read by the way. I’m going to read it again. I’ve got it sitting in front of me. I read it a few years back. It’s just amazing what you went through there and how you ended up being on your own there too is quite interesting. Could you just give us a little bit of an overview of that book “North to the Night” and give our listeners something to chew on, to understand the adventurism in you. If that’s even a word – adventurism?

ALVAH: Oh it’s a word. It’s an important word.

LINDSAY: If you can just talk about that book “North to the Night”, and why you did that, why you went so far north and got iced in?

ALVAH: Well the origins of it are really many years before. When I first set sail it was simply a raw, physical adventure. You’re young, you’re strong, you’re just saying to the world and to nature, “Bring it On”. It was a great physical adventure. After awhile it becomes a little bit of an intellectual adventure because you realise we’re not the only people on this planet. This isn’t the only language, this isn’t the only social structure, this isn’t the only geographical environment and pretty soon you start to realise the world’s an amazing place. It’s diverse and there’s people out there that have a lot of offer. I don’t mind in a quaint old-fashioned sense. I’ve met people, jungle people for example, that know things about relationships between certain roots and certain fish, that they can poison those fish with that root without poisoning themselves and it won’t affect other fish. Scientists don’t know some of these relationships.

I started to recognise that native people around the world had insights – scientific, philosophical and spiritual. A storehouse of information from thousands of years living on the land, that the world has forgotten. We have this new idea, “That was then, this is now. They’re jungle bunnies, we’re technocrats. We’re beyond that.” But we’re not beyond it. My eyes opened to this opportunity to learn from people. I started to understand a relationship between them and the land they were living in. To put it very quickly, people that lived on open islands were friendlier, they weren’t xenophobic, they had seen more sailors. An enemy can’t sneak up on you when you’re on a flat island in the Tuamotus they have to paddle up on you from miles away. Whereas, in the highlands of Papau New Guinea an enemy would step out from behind a tree. It’s a dark steep jungle. Down on the islands people were friendly, a lot less violence, a lot of music and free times – life was easy. Up in the highlands in New Guinea they were terrifying violent, they were afraid of strangers, they were aggressive. Life was much harder and so they developed different cultures, different skills and outlooks.

Now back to your question about the Arctic. I began to wonder why would it be that the people who live in the harshest environment on earth have the reputation for being the happiest people on earth. It seemed to be turned upside down. I just wondered if I could go up there and not go stay at an Inuit village and first learn about them, but first spend a whole year alone in a cycle of seasons in that geographic environment, then get to know the Inuit, I would fundamentally understand the land, and therefore fundamentally understand them. It was a big challenge and perhaps even a bit reckless, but I still like the order we did things in, because by getting a real grasp of the land I really developed a respect, admiration, a deeper knowledge of the people. A sailboat’s not the best way to do it. I would caution people – boats and ice don’t go well together. The idea that the boat becomes a vehicle towards this kind of exploration is just one more way to illustrate how wonderful cruising can be and the horizons it opens for us.

LINDSAY: You spent your winter in the ice and the book really illustrates how difficult that was. I highly recommend that people read that book, it’s on Amazon as an ebook is it?

ALVAH: Yes. Yep.

LINDSAY: “North to the Night”. You’ll get a good insight into Alvah Simon and how he went about learning about other cultures and the land that they live on and what makes them happy in that environment. That’s pretty much what it’s all about?

ALVAH: Well it’s about one more thing and it’d be unfair to go much further without mentioning Diana because my whole plan for the Arctic was that she and I would spend a year along in the wilderness together. It didn’t work that way. She had to be evacuated and I spent the entire winter alone in the wilderness, but my plan was to be with her and the reason is by then we had formed a team. Something that I’m not saying it can’t happen on land, but something that’s very special about going to sea is how deeply you rely on each other, how deep the trust has to be between who’s ever on watch basically has your hands in their life. We had over the years developed that deep trust. Some common interests – I’m a little reckless, she’s a little cautious so we added ourselves up, divided by two and found something she could live with that I still found exciting enough.

The experiment – even though it didn’t in the end work out this way, was really based on the fact that one; you have to be happy with yourself being alone, you have to know who you are and why you’re out there. Two; you have to be happy to be with the people you’re with on a boat. It’s a very small environment and you learn a lot of skills about getting along, about how to avoid conflict, how to resolve conflict, but especially this deep trust. When people go to see they say it’s a marriage breaker, but I think it’s actually a marriage maker. If going to see breaks a marriage I think there was a crack anyway. What I’ve found is the couples that have sailed together and families that have sailed together have a type of bond that is hard to equal on land.

LINDSAY: Yeah, I’d agree with that. I first experienced that importance of being able to get on with your crew, I was a crew on the trip from New Zealand to Tahiti, on to Hawaii and then up to Canada – the hardest part of that whole trip was keeping good relationship between myself and the owner of the boat. I learnt a lot of lessons about that. The sailing was the easy part. That just sort of happened. I think I learnt more about it when I was back and I reflected on those events and what I could’ve done better. As a twenty-eight year old I was still pretty sure of myself and yeah, what you’re saying rings true with me for sure.

ALVAH: Well there’s a saying that people don’t think deeply about how simple these words are, “We’re all on the same boat”. It’s interesting that that’s what we use to express the idea that the outcome is mutual, that we have to cooperate. They’re not talking about being at sea, they can be talking about any challenge on land. I love the fact that they have to use the sea as an example to say we’re all in this together, because when it’s a boat everyone has to do their job. It’s 24/7, it’s a big physical challenge, everyone’s relying on everyone else to do their fair share. A boat forces this kind of cooperation and discipline and it’s a good experience – not always easy.

If you were to say to someone, “Walk into this closet. We’ll close the door and spend a week in here together,” it’s not much different on a boat. It’s not much more space especially the boats I’ve owned. You develop skills.

Now back to the Arctic experience. One of the things I was so interested in is the Inuit – how they get along. They have a whole different approach to their social structure. By having been on a boat for so many years before getting there I had a lot of insight. They live in such a harsh environment that they just found different ways to cooperate than we do in a modern, western world. I didn’t feel that displaced because I recognized a lot of things that were very similar to being on a boat for long periods of time at sea. In a sense cooped up with people, because that’s what that brutal environment does – it coops you up with people.

LINDSAY: Ah interesting. Now I wanted to ask you this question – no holding back. What’s it really like living on the sea for extended periods? All the sort of things that trip most people up. You’ve already touched on it but I mean you’re a man of the sea and you love it out there. The people listening here, what should they be looking out for? The good and the bad, the highlights, the really bad parts?

ALVAH: Of course there are bad parts and there are bad moments and when they’re bad it’s amplified by a very harsh and very unforgiving natural environment. You can love the sea all you want, it doesn’t love you back. It’s completely impersonal. So depending on when and where you sail and how you sail you can expect to have cold, grey, miserable periods. You can expect a little bit of fright and a little bit of challenge. I think the first thing I’d say though is just look to landfall. You know the saying, “It’s darkest before the dawn”, well we don’t necessarily get their by dawn it could be a week, or two, or three away, but the idea still works. The landfalls are so spectacular and it’s such a relief to get in, to get safe, to get some sleep, to get clean, to get a meal someone else cooked, to be still – just for one night – be in an anchorage and still, that just anticipating those pleasures can get you through a lot of rough time.

The thing we just touched on – the big challenge is getting along in small spaces. I’ve seen so many boats that can hardly get the line tied up and people are jumping off the boat and clearly haven’t gotten along – have to get away from each other. That’s the very hardest part. I would only say select your crew or pick your Captain carefully because you’re living in each other’s pockets. If you can get past that and share the experience rather than fight your way through it makes it a lot easier.

I think having simple things like better food than I ever afforded myself and more fresh water. I put Diana through years of hell and looking back we didn’t need to make it that tough. Things that weren’t important to me but were to her – cleaner clothes, less salt, more fresh water to wash your hair with daily and a little more free time. With only two of us onboard it was four hours on, four hours off, four on, four off, constantly which is stressful. It’s hard. I think I’d break trips up more. I’d probably take someone else to help occasionally. I’d put more water onboard. I’d put better food onboard and I’d do things her way more often – sail the boat at the speed she’s comfortable at, not me. That mitigates the worst of it. You’re not making it harder than it already is.

I think the gravest times for me aren’t so much the storms – I found being becalmed was a lot harder to handle. I spun around for five days in circles once north of the Galapagos Islands and I can’t tell you how many years it felt like. It was incredible how the time stretched out and I was still in my twenties thinking I’m growing old out here. So I think just plan your trips to be quicker, shorter, got a little more comfort onboard – not overdoing it and other than that there’s very few unpleasant things. Of course now we haven’t talked about the bureaucracy of checking in and checking out of a lot of nations. That was the worst part of my whole cruising life – was the paperwork at each end.

LINDSAY: Now you’re still very in date. Done a lot in the past, you’ve been around awhile, you’ve written well over a hundred articles for Cruising World the magazine as a contributing editor, so you’re still pretty in touch with what it’s like to get from having a job and getting out and going cruising. If you had a magic wand and you got the chance to start your life all over again in today’s environment with everything that’s around us and all the legislation and all the rest of it, what would you to do maximise your enjoyment on the sea, as a life on the sea? This is about starting again and as if our listeners are just starting.

ALVAH: The key phrase in there is, “today’s environment,” I would change today’s environment. I wouldn’t try to mimic it on the sea. I wouldn’t try to take the entire financial and technological culture from land and simply transport it to something that floats because you haven’t really changed your experience then. All you’ve done is change your apartment – one that was stationary to one that isn’t. What we’re looking for is actually to maximise the difference. You know, we run away to see, we escape to sea and so I wouldn’t try to bring the old life with me. If I had a magic wand it would simply be to, like we talked a little earlier, roll back the technology, roll back some of the comforts. Take the boat out there and let it be a challenge and develop the basic skills of seamanship and then gradually add the things that make your life safer first. Not more convenient or comfortable first – safer, because there’s no excuse for unnecessary danger. Add the layers of safety be it AIS or radar – any of those things.

This connectivity that we’re all experiencing these days where every minute of every day we’re all in touch with everyone and everything is the antithesis to happiness at sea. That will create more loneliness because you’ll feel, “I’m way out here. I’m missing something” because we now have this insatiable hunger for connectivity and currency. The whole point of being out there is to let the world go away, and you can’t let the world go away if you drag it with you, all of it with you. Take some good books, talk to people onboard, have real conversations, have great debates, go away for four hours and think about it then come back and re-discuss it. Spend an hour arguing politics or philosophy or one book that you’ve read that you want to share. These are the things that we’re not getting enough of anymore. I think the human mind is something like a diode – information can only pass in one direction, and if we always have this white noise coming in, constant input – we have no time for creativity or output.

Going to sea gives you an emptiness. You’re in the middle of a sixty-four million square mile ocean. That’s a long way for land. That’s empty and if you don’t clutter that environment and try and fill it your mind will start to fill up with creativity and surprisingly enough a deep sense of wellbeing. It’s hard to explain but you talk to sailors who have been way out there – this is when they should be most nervous according to land lovers, this is when they should be fretful and afraid. Instead they find a feeling of deep peace, deep contentedness, time becomes less important just appreciating and experiencing the time is what they start to focus on and they almost resent landfall. They almost wish, “Damn if I could only get a few more days before the hustle and bustle of what I now have to face.” I think that emptiness is a gift that very few modern people get to experience and I wouldn’t bring the world with me. I’d let it come to me.

LINDSAY: That’s a fantastic answer. Thanks very much for that Alvah and I know exactly what you’re talking about. The things that come into your mind when you’re out there, they just blow you away sometimes. You think, “Where did that thought come from,” you know and it’s because your mind’s empty. You’re free of the distractions and that’s a great feeling. I know it.

Is there anything more that you can offer listeners to help them get started, gain momentum and realise their hopes and dreams of living on the sea. Maybe one of the biggest things with this question is financing their lives at sea. It’s very hard to let go of a job that’s giving you lots of money. My question is what can you offer people to help them escape the job trap and get out there and do the job of living a life at sea?

ALVAH: I’m always reluctant to answer a question like this because in a modern world for instance you pull out of the labour market you lose currency very quickly, it can be hard to get back. You sell your home so you’re out of the property market, you come home and it costs more than you could ever afford to get back into it. I understand the pressure and dangers in a sense. I also understand that we get this one life. Even when we try to make the road straight that there’s no bends and we can always see, and predict, and plan, and then health – there are other circumstances intervene. I always wanted my life’s road to wind that I couldn’t even see around the next bend and was willing to take the risks. Willing to say, “Well it’ll be what it’ll be,” and I found that that opened up so many opportunities that I’ve probably done better not worse, because I was on the move. I could see opportunities and cease them.

Life at sea can be very affordable. I used to have a five thousand dollar a year budget and that maintained me and the boat. Now I know in today’s money, market that isn’t enough. Opportunities present themselves. I worked around the world. I worked at jobs you wouldn’t necessarily want and I worked at jobs I never even aspired to. It was all because I was there, saw and seized the opportunity. Also because I developed skills just by being on boats and around boats that I found really applicable to a lot of other things and so did other people.

Everyone thinks, “Oh I’ll just be a writer” and we know how hard that is, and we know how little money there really is in the end so I would just say take a skill. If I could go back and start over and be a diesel mechanic. Absolutely. I’d fix my own engine and everybody else’s. One tool box and I could travel the world and I don’t need a work permit, just raft up next to the person with the issue.  Refrigeration people – they’re very popular in the cruising fleet. There’s a lot of things you can do. Couples that can work together end up chartering as captain and crew on boats, they end up running resorts temporarily like locum for people who need to get away. We’ve worked in hotels, I’ve worked at yacht clubs and at piers. Of course, I didn’t have a big family to raise and that’s a different responsibility. The world provided for us everywhere and every time.

Leave with a little bit of skill and a lot of confidence and I believe things just work out.

LINDSAY: Fantastic. Well, I can’t thank you enough for the time you’ve given us in sharing a small snapshot of your incredible live at sea. You’ve been to so many places and experienced so much. I really liked the bit about how you had a deep interest in people and the environment they live in and how the western world often look at them as lesser people than us, where in actual fact they have skills that we don’t even know about yet and that’s one of the things that I really like about traveling and actually being a part of communities and seeing them in a different way. In a way that you can’t see when you just go on a two-week holiday of flying to some country and back, and being a part of the tourist trap.

Fantastic insight. Thank you very much for your time. I hope it’s inspired some of our listeners to get out there and start living a life less ordinary.

ALVAH: I do too. Thank you for your interest.

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5 comments
Jeff Jones says April 29, 2017

Hi Lindsay,

Thoroughly enjoyed your interview with Alvah! Great work!

Jeff

Reply
    Lindsay says April 30, 2017

    Thanks Jeff. Our pleasure.

    Reply
Sue says April 29, 2017

Wonderful story and insights. Thank you Allah and Lindsay.. inspired me to get the book. I really want to know how a six year old copes in the woods over a weekend by themselves

Reply
    Lindsay says April 30, 2017

    Thanks Sue. Good point. Alvah certainly has plenty to offer.

    Reply
Dollie Cladel says April 30, 2017

Great interview Allah , I really enjoyed it. Your mom would be so proud, I sure do miss her. I hope you and Di are doing well. I talk to Roger and Krissy on FB, I wish you continued success.

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