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Finding the Simple Life at Sea—On a Shoestring

Think an island-hopping cruise across the Pacific is only for the elite? Not if you take the slow boat.

Deck of the Velella

The view from the deck of Hinman and Wilcox’s sailboat, the “Velella.” Photo by Wendy Hinman.

Every free spirit probably dreams about it at some point: trading a life of modern cares for the adventure, beauty, and self-sufficiency of the high seas. And it may be more of a possibility than you think.

Wendy Hinman and her husband Garth Wilcox are living proof that escape by sailboat can be affordable—and ecologically sustainable, too—as long as you’re willing to go slowly. As in, at the pace of a brisk walk.

It took them seven years to circumnavigate the Pacific at that speed. They sailed in a great circle around the Pacific Ocean, first down the coast of North America and then across to New Zealand, the Philippines, and Japan. In doing so, they visited 19 countries, and traveled 34,000 miles on little more than wind power and nautical savvy. During the journey, their days were filled with swimming, hiking, whale-watching, tacking the sails, and baking, as well as the occasional argument. They did it all while spending less than $1,000 a month.

Hinman describes her life at sea as a distillation of sorts, an existence pared down to the essentials.

It was the realization of a lifelong dream, says Hinman, who chronicles the experience in her book, Tightwads on the Loose: A Seven-Year Pacific Odyssey. She began sailing at age six while living on islands like Guam and Hawai‘i, enjoying the fringe benefits of having a father in the Navy.

“Sailing has always given me this incredible sense of freedom,” she said. “You’re out there on the water, sometimes for days and days and days, navigating under the stars. As a kid I read lots of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on The Prairie and stuff, and I wanted to be self-sufficient like they were.”

Finding simplicity

The couple’s 31-foot wooden sailboat, named the “Velella,” was designed to be spartan and spry. Its fuel tank carried only ten gallons of diesel. Electricity was provided by solar panels, a wind turbine, and a propeller-based generator trolled behind the boat. Two 10-pound propane tanks powered a modest galley. There was no refrigerator or hot water. The cabin was so small, Wilcox couldn’t even stand up straight inside it.

Hinman cooking in the galley. Photo by Garth Wilcox.

But the lack of amenities didn’t diminish the experience. Hinman describes her life at sea as a distillation of sorts, an existence pared down to the essentials. “I would enter this meditative state, with the sky and ocean surrounding me day and night,” she says. “I realized that most of the decisions we were making were pretty important ones: where to find water, where to find food, how to stay on course. On the ocean, there was a different sense of priorities.”

She and Wilcox would sleep in 4-hour shifts, so that one person was always awake. Their longest stretch without coming ashore was 49 days, as they traveled from Japan to British Columbia on only two gallons of diesel. For more than six weeks they saw no other humans, just shipping traffic and the occasional whale.

On avoiding mutiny

That isolation was trying at times. “There were days when I felt like it was an endurance test,” Hinman says, “like a period of solitary confinement.”

They found entertainment in reading, snorkeling, preparing food together, and watching for wildlife: whales and dolphins on the open ocean, sea turtles and pelicans along the coast of Mexico. Some days, the water was too rough for cooking, so they ate Powerbars for dinner. They learned to find peace in what Hinman calls “spending alone time together.”

Living in such close quarters, arguments inevitably cropped up. Eventually, a certain shipboard diplomacy took shape. “I would sometimes ask myself, ‘Would you rather be right, or happy?’” Hinman says.

They traveled from Japan to British Columbia on only two gallons of diesel.

Informed by this dynamic, she’s become something of an expert on shipboard love. She gives a presentation at boat shows entitled, “How to Keep Your Relationship Off the Rocks.”

“When we stopped in New Zealand, we heard about couples that were selling their boats and buying plane tickets home,” she said. “It was sad, but in some ways this is the ultimate test for a relationship.”

On returning home

Despite the numerous challenges at sea, the most difficult part of the journey was coming home.

“Honestly, it was hard transitioning back into society,” Hinman says. “The consumerism, the fast pace of life, the stress we inflict on ourselves for what are mostly just annoyances.”

The journey opened Hinman’s eyes to alternative, equally valid ways to live: lifestyles not dependent on material goods, nor structured around acquiring wealth. She says that she’s become more conscious of her impact on the environment since returning, and devotes more of her time to growing food, conserving water, and using less fossil fuels.

But Hinman and Wilcox won’t stay land bound for too long. What’s next for these scrimping seafarers?

“We’re thinking about sailing around Cape Horn, maybe go up into the channels around Europe,” she said. “But first Garth wants to build a bigger boat for us, one he can actually stand up in.”


Peter Pearsall wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Peter is an online reporting intern at YES! and a freelance science writer.

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