August 10, 2006
David was cleaning up in the galley the other day when he heard someone hail our boat from the dock. Climbing up the companionway stairs, he greeted a young couple who were studying our boat from a few feet away. "I hope we're not interrupting anything important," the man said. "We were just admiring your boat. It looks like you're serious cruisers; we're dreaming of sailing away someday ourselves. We have some questions for you. First, what's that thing attached to your transom?"
The "thing" he was pointing at was our wind vane self steering gear. David, who loves lecturing on just about anything -- especially if the alternative is washing the dishes -- launched into a detailed explanation of the servo-pendulum wind vane: its history, design, and performance. By the time he had finished, our visitors' eyes had glazed over and what other questions they might have had they wisely kept to themselves and hurried off. David recounted the incident to Eileen when she returned to the boat a short while later. "I wonder how they knew we were long term cruisers?" he mused.
"Maybe because we're the only boat in the marina with wind vane self steering, not to mention multiple solar panels, a wind powered generator, and a four-man offshore emergency life raft," she said.
We do look a bit different from most of our neighbours. We're equipped for living aboard year round in the tropics and the boats surrounding us are by and large outfitted for daysailing during the summer in the Great Lakes. Big and small, old and new, sail and power -- about the only thing the other boats all have in common is that they float (and one or two seem on the verge of losing that capability). Although the liveaboard flotilla with which we're familiar also exhibits a lot of variety, most cruising boats share a number of defining characteristics. Down south, we fit right in with this crowd; in Lake Ontario, we stand out like an ugly cygnet in a flock of ducks. What makes us different?
In part to answer this question, we conducted an extensive survey of the transient boats in George Town, Bahamas, this past winter. We wanted to come up with a generalized profile of the cruising community: what is the typical cruising boat? how is it equipped? who is on board? We discovered that we and our liveaboard colleagues have more in common than we had expected.
For what it's worth, according to our numbers, the average cruising boat is a 39 foot monohull sailboat built in 1984. Only twelve percent, or 40 of the 323 boats we counted in George Town, were trawlers. It's not too surprising that sailboats dominate the scene; open ocean passages, expensive fuel, and long distances between fueling stations discourage power boaters from leaving coastal waters. However, in most of North America, including our present location, sailboats are a definite minority within the overall boating universe. Statistics compiled by the National Marine Manufacturers Association demonstrate that for the past half dozen years, the proportion of sailboats to the total number of active boats (excluding personal watercraft) has remained steady at a mere 10%.
We were surprised by how similar the cruising fleet is in terms of size and age of boat. Almost half (45%) of the George Town sample fell within a fairly narrow size range: 36 to 40 feet long. And most of the boats had been kicking around for quite some time. Seventy-one percent of the boats we surveyed were between 16 and 30 years old. By comparison, the vessels at our marina in Belleville, Ontario, come in all sizes and seem to span a much broader age range, including a good number of newer boats.
Again, for obvious reasons, almost all of the cruising boats we've encountered have had at least one alternative to the main engine for charging batteries. In George Town, fossil fuel powered generators, solar panels, and wind powered generators were roughly equal in popularity; some boats had all three. In decreasing order, 61% of the boats were equipped with solar panels; 57% had wind generators; 52% had portable gasoline powered generators; and 12% had permanently installed diesel powered gensets. One-third of the boats had both solar panels and wind generators. Only 4% had no charging alternatives. In our marina in Belleville, we have the only wind generator; only two other boats are equipped with solar panels (one being Elysium IV, owned by our friends Egon and Bonnie, who migrate south with their boat every winter). Clearly, expensive charging equipment isn't a priority when you have a dock and power receptacle to return to after a day's outing.
If the George Town crowd is representative, then the overwhelming majority (91%) of cruising boats now have refrigeration on board. Fifteen years ago, 75% of the boats cruising the same waters were equipped with refrigeration, according to an earlier survey published by Charlie Wing ("The Liveaboard Report", International Marine, 1993). And refrigeration isn't the only onboard amenity that's gaining in popularity. It seems that a growing number of cruisers are attempting to replicate their shore-side lifestyles on board their boats. Seven percent of the boats we surveyed had "follow-me" satellite antennae, allowing television reception virtually anywhere. Nine percent had automatic washing machines and 12% had satellite phones. Even in the most remote anchorages, today's cruisers can put on a load of laundry, catch an episode of "American Idol", and phone in their votes during the spin cycle. Of course, the weekend boater is buying more toys for his or her boat as well; but for many, "roughing it" out on the water is still a welcome change from the fast-paced, high tech world that otherwise dominates their lives.
It's one thing that cruising boats tend to be similar in size, age, and the manner in which they're equipped. After all, the goal is to be self-sufficient and this narrows the choices of appropriate boats and equipment. What we hadn't expected until we had done our survey last winter, however, is that the people who live on those boats also tend to be strikingly similar. While we've written before of the families with children and the single handers we've met cruising, they're definitely on the fringe. In George Town, we found that the typical cruising boat was crewed by a 58-year-old married couple that's been living aboard at least half the year for the past seven years. Only 8% of the boats we surveyed had children on board; the same number was crewed by single-handers. Indeed, according to our findings, you're three times as likely to find a pet animal on board a cruising boat than a human child.
Only 7% of the people we interviewed were 40-years-old or younger. The picture fifteen years ago was radically different. Seventeen percent of the males Wing surveyed and a full 40% of the females were under 40. The average age of his respondents was 43. We sense that this aging of the cruising community might be explained by a convergence of demographics and economics. The baby boom generation is reaching early retirement age at a time when pension plans and the overall economy are doing reasonably well. Boomers have the time and resources to drop out and go cruising. This seems to be borne out by the fact that 59% of the cruisers we surveyed fell into the 56-to-65-year-old category.
While recreational boating is still mainly a middle or upper class pursuit, you don't have to own a Fortune 500 company to afford a runabout or dinghy sailboat. Here in Belleville, the boating community seems much more representative of the population at large. On Wednesday race nights, a fairly youthful crowd descends upon our marina to compete out in the bay. On weekends, young kids tear up and down the docks, to the consternation of parents attempting to stow gear and get underway. Let's hope they retain their interest in boating. The cruising community could use some new blood.