Before the Tiny House Was Cool

If you’ve found your way to our website then you’re either my mother or you have some level of interest in experiencing what it’s like moving aboard and living on a cruising sailboat. In this, our first blog entry, we’re going back to the beginning of our adventure so we can share our move from a dirt-based house to a boat. Moving from a 2000-square-foot home to a sailboat was one of the more difficult and ultimately rewarding challenges we’ve faced as a family, but the payoff was worth it.

Unless you’re one of the lucky few who enjoy life on a crewed megayacht, boats are just small. The living space on our larger-than-average fifty-one-foot cutter is equivalent to around 400 square feet. And there’s a lot more packed into that space than you’ll find in an average studio apartment.

In addition to providing for her occupants to live, sleep, eat, use the head (toilet), move around, and think, all without killing each other, a cruising sailboat has to hold a diesel engine, two different electrical systems: AC and DC with an adequate battery bank, enough fresh water production and storage capacity for a month or more at sea, enough food storage for at least a month, storage for spare parts and tools to be self-sufficient until you can get yourself to outside help when things break down, fuel storage, sail storage, dinghy storage, fishing gear storage, surfboard storage, I think you get the picture. In addition, all this has to be stored securely enough to not become shrapnel when things get rough.

It’s fair to say that cruising sailors led the tiny house movement long before tiny houses were hip, and as those tiny house hipsters have discovered, there is something wonderful that happens when you make that terrifying decision to let go of your big, roomy house and all that space. Because no matter how many rooms, no matter how much storage your land house has, 1000 square feet or 4000 square feet, what is the one truth that every homeowner knows? No matter how much space you have, you will fill it with stuff. And what does every homeowner say at one point or another? “We’ve got to get rid of all this stuff.”

Your stuff all seems so necessary; it’s yours, after all. You valued it enough probably to pay full retail for it and to make it part of your life, and when you make the decision to streamline your life, you can spend hours agonizing over what you can and cannot live without, culling through dust-covered knick-knacks and musty smelling clothes, only to drive an insignificant couple of bags or boxes to Goodwill.

Or you can lose an entire Sunday filling your yard or garage with your valued possessions for sale, only to learn that you’re the only one who values them.

Or you can spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on nifty shelving units and plastic boxes that fit together just so, to get things organized, to reclaim some of that space. And what happens? You end up filling that hard-won new space with even more stuff.

When we sold the house to move onto the boat we realized that getting rid of stuff is hard because you have to grieve over it. If you’ve ever had a psychology class you probably learned that grieving is a process, a five-step process, in fact: denial, bargaining, anger, depression, acceptance. When getting rid of your possessions is a matter of necessity rather than a matter of voluntary convenience, the process can be intense and can put stress on relationships.

Another aspect of downsizing was that it had to be done in layers or passes, and each pass was more difficult than the last. The first pass was somewhat random. We wandered from room to room picking up different items and dropping them into boxes for sale or donation or setting them aside to give to friends or family.

There. That wasn’t so bad.

But the sense of accomplishment was short-lived because there was no way the stuff that remained would fit in the boat. So we went through it all a second time, and this was where grief started to kick in.

Denial: Me: “I won’t have to get rid of this camping tent because I’m sure I can fit it on the boat, and you never know when you’re going to need a camping tent while sailing across the ocean.”

Bargaining (most often with another family member): Me: “Okay, fine, I’ll get rid of this camping tent if you’ll get rid of that flower pot.”

Anger (most often with the same family member over the same items): Me: “I can’t believe you want to take that piece of crap flower pot with us on the boat. When could we ever possibly need a flower pot?” Kristi: “Oh, right. A camping tent. On a sailboat. Really?”

Depression: Kristi: “My grandmother gave me that ‘piece of crap flower pot,’ you know.” Me: “Well, that tent is the best tent ever. I slept in that tent on all my surf trips to Baja.”

Acceptance: Usually accompanied by hugs and reconciliation and little celebrations (with lots of really dark beer) after productive days of liberating ourselves from more junk.

The downsizing process took a long time. Months. And it was ugly and inefficient and more expensive than it had to be. My mother, who, as you’ll recall, is  probably the only person reading this, offered to store anything we wanted to keep but didn’t need on the boat. This was our salvation! We were going to send so much stuff to my mom’s. Our problems were solved.

My mom lives in Oregon, about a thousand miles north of San Diego. No problem. Road trip! So I rented a Uhaul trailer, and the guy at the Uhaul trailer store, of course, upsold me. So now I had the biggest trailer my vehicle could pull, which was even better because just think how much stuff we’d be taking to my mom’s now. Hot damn! When do we sail for the tropical horizon?

I forgot to mention, the Uhaul incident happened as we were closing on the sale of our home. We’d already Craigslisted and garage saled and Goodwilled for months. This was the moment of truth. We had to leave the house, and we had to leave it empty.

The Uhaul sat in the driveway for our last three days of dirt-homeownership, and it sat there with almost nothing in it. Our house still had too much stuff. And we were paralyzed.

But as everyone knows, a contractual real estate closing date is the curtailer of inaction (or maybe the saying has something to do with mothers and invention. Whatever.) In the waning hours of our land-based life we started moving with a purpose only unbridled panic can induce. We emptied the house into the driveway . . . No. It would be more accurate to say that with our help the house vomited it’s remaining contents into the driveway.

We were on fire, making split-second decisions about the fate of each item. More things went to the non-profits for donation. Many things went to the landfill. And some things, a very very few things, went into the U-haul.

We drove to Oregon. We towed our rented trailer. We had a wonderful road trip with my mom who flew down to help us move out of the house. And we didn’t even have enough stuff to cover the floor of the trailer with one layer of boxes. The trailer was almost empty.

This is the part where if I don’t admit that Kristi, from the moment I backed the oversized Uhaul into our driveway, KNEW it would be too big, I will never hear the end of it. So, yes dear. You were right, the Uhaul trailer was too big.

I think the Uhaul is important to talk about though.  It stands as a perfect symbol of the biggest hurdle in our transition. We had to accept reality. The oversized Uhaul was me not accepting reality. Some part of me wanted to believe that I could somehow preserve our old life and still move on, but there was no longer a place in our lives for stuff that was so easy to keep but never use. Until we were confronted by the close of escrow and the absolute necessity of fitting our lives into a sailboat, we weren’t ready to let go. Once we had to let go, it wasn’t that bad.

And the wonderful thing that happened is probably obvious. It is that elusive state of being sought by every homeowner who ever set out to free themselves of clutter. We learned how little we need to be happy.

It hasn’t been perfect. We still have too much stuff in the boat, and we have realized on more than one occasion that we threw away, gave away, or sold several things we wished we’d kept. But as we settle into life on Free Spirit, we learn more and more what we really need, what is important, and we learn those things are remarkably few.

As time passes, our boat, which is our home, our shelter, and our transportation, becomes more efficient, more appropriately equipped, more functional. We gain more space in which to move and think and enjoy being together. And life just gets better.

I suppose someday we’ll move back to a dirt house (Kristi just corrected me. It’ll be a sand house, or possibly a tree house, not a dirt house), and my sincerest hope is that the lessons we’ve learned from our cruising life will stick with us. I have grown quite fond of a life free of clutter and free of rooms full of stuff I don’t really need.