A Space Odyssey
By Gary Kramer
No matter where they dock their boats, many boaters spend a lot of time in a place called Someday Isle. They sit and dream about cruises they hope to take someday and the big boat that will carry them. Unfortunately, most of those Someday Isle musings are never realized. Obstacles such as finances, health problems, family obligations, and other issues get in the way.
During 51 years of marriage, El and Bill Fiero, on teachers' incomes, have cruised throughout America's coasts and heartland, more than 41,000 miles, on boats no bigger than 22 feet — the perfect size to live out their philosophy of "simplify, simplify, and then simplify some more"
But El and Bill Fiero are one couple who turned their dreams into a unique cruising lifestyle. They began by retiring in 1984 at age 50 from their jobs as educators, selling their home and most of their belongings to become full-time nomads. Following several years of exploring this country and the world, they decided to focus their wanderings on the waterways of North America. They bought a 20-foot Pacific Seacraft Flicka sailboat, put it on a trailer, hitched it up to a pickup truck with a pop-up camper, and headed off. They ended up cruising 13,000 miles on that boat, including figuring out a way in 1992 to complete what's now known as the Great Loop.
The sailboat limited their ability to travel upstream, so in 2000, they bought a tough little 22-foot C-Dory Cruiser. With that boat, they've cruised all the rivers that the United States Corps of Engineers says are navigable by powerboats. They've been in the Pacific, Atlantic, and the Gulf of Mexico; have cruised waters in 29 states; and have repeatedly been in Canada – logging more than 28,000 miles on Halcyon, named for a mythical bird that built her floating nest at sea. The Fieros don't have unlimited financial means but they didn't choose this lifestyle to save money. Their decision to live simply and small came as part of their love of canoeing, camping, bird watching, and observing nature. Those passions dovetailed with their strong desire to visit new places.
Bill says the mindset toward simplicity began when he was a boy and the writer Thoreau became "my best friend. What he was saying just struck home to me — simplify, simplify, simplify," he recalls. Bill still reads Thoreau from the same well-marked book he had as a kid. El grew up sailing and always loved the water so she enjoyed the trip they took, paddling 1,300 miles down the Missouri River in a folding tandem kayak for two months. But hiking the Appalachian Trail for six-and-a-half months made a profound impact on her. She says the experience "teaches you how little you need." She realized, for instance, she really didn't need ice, so now the boat's cooler only holds a few things.
Their wanderings started early in their 51-year marriage. After Bill earned his doctorate in geology, he accepted a split appointment at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV) and the Desert Research Institute (DRI). His career allowed them to make explorations part of their lives. He led adult education trips both here and abroad and became an official guide for the Ecuadorian government to the Galapagos Islands. Their adventures have been far ranging and filled with quests. Although a great number have been land-based, such as trekking in Nepal, crossing the Himalayas, and hiking and exploring in Australia and New Zealand, many were connected to water. They've rounded both Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope in small cruise boats. They've boated up part of the Amazon; paddled down the most remote river in North America, the Thelon; and watched Arctic seals from an inflatable off the Antarctic Peninsula.
They knew that aging would limit their activities so they scheduled their most strenuous trips early and slowly reduced the physical demands as time went on. Now, Bill laughs, "We haven't been to Europe for quite a while but we'll go back when we're older and can't boat."
Traveling lightly is connected to their views about the difference between wants and needs. They're not burdened by wants, which makes it easier to live on a small boat. When they feel an item has given them their money's worth or they don't want or need it, they give it away. Their giving has included a truck, camper, and boat engines. "We know people whose income is very small, but because they can differentiate between wants and needs, they can live a life of freedom," Bill says. As for the size of their boat, Bill says, "Fundamentally, we're backpackers, so living on a boat of this size is a luxury." He feels that a lot of people equate space with comfort, but that doesn't hold true for them. "We use the boat as a means to get places we wouldn't see otherwise, simply and easily," he continues. "It lets us do what we want and go where we want. Smaller is better for us."
El and Bill share a laugh while using their 22-foot C-Dory as an RV.
Bill and El are so content with their means of travel that Bill says if he made lists of advantages and disadvantages of his boat and a larger one, the list for Halcyon would only have advantages. It's simple, economical to operate and maintain, easy to load, transport, and launch, and travels and anchors in places bigger boats can't. The list for a bigger boat, he says, "would just be disadvantages."
How they pay for all this is an important part of their story. Their teaching pensions are modest, but they always saved 10 percent of their salaries and rigorously educated themselves before investing. They each managed their own fund and overall, El's has done better. They attribute their financial health and the freedom it has brought them to thriftiness.
When they decided a powerboat could expand their cruising horizons, they felt they needed a place to sleep and cook and "maybe a good place to read a book." They wanted the smallest boat they could live on, not one that simulated a house. So their traveling home has these specifications: 22' long; 7'8" beam; 1,950 pounds; 7-inch draft unloaded; 40 gallons fuel capacity; 170 miles safe range; 20 gallons water; Porta-Potty; anchor windlass for the oversized Bruce anchor, 20 feet of chain, and 200 feet of line. There's camper canvas and it can carry an 8-foot inflatable on the roof. It has portable solar panels; two 12-volt batteries with charger; portable inverter; 15-amp power; radar; two chart plotters; VHF radio; 6'3" V-berth; a dinette that converts to a 6'2" berth; and a diesel-fueled combination stove/heater. They also have a single-burner propane stove they use for, among other things, hand-dripped coffee. There's a good first-aid kit, and a well-stocked ditch bag is kept at the ready. They use a satellite GPS messenger to send their coordinates to their family every day.
Locking through on the Tennessee River, part of a November 2001 trip through the middle of the country.
Power comes from their second pair of Honda 40-hp outboards. "We wore the first set out putting more hours on them than most commercial users do," says Bill. They log those hours now by traveling about eight months a year and keeping the boat in the water about 80 percent of that time. Their range and mileage depend on several factors. The boat's top speed is about 25 knots. Their most efficient speed is just on plane, about 12 knots, but their cruising average is seven knots. When they want to slide along shore to look for animals at twilight or early in the morning, they run quietly on one engine at around four knots.
"For all our cruising, we've averaged about 3.7 nmpg or about 2.12 gph. But on a river," he smiles, "you can turn off your engine and drift. Then your mileage is infinite."
Bill is not a gizmo guy but has quickly adapted to the advantages of the iPhone that his son gave him. Now they use several apps to check tides, watch the weather radar, and even help navigate. They avidly use local libraries to update their Web page, do trip planning and research, and also check out books. They read a lot, and at night they use headlamps to conserve their boat battery. They have accumulated library cards from all over and have learned they can check out a book in one locale, return it in another, or mail it back. Going to libraries, grocery stores, Laundromats, and post offices gives them their exercise. Those places are usually located "up the hill" so that creates a bit more of a workout. El says grocery stores also help her locate good hairdressers. When she sees a good haircut, she asks where it was done.
Bill and El step ashore during a trip through the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area in 2010.
"Our plan does not lock us into time or space," Bill says. Although they do considerable long-range planning, and seasonal weather plays a big part of that, their daily plans are frequently affected by how they feel or what they see, their moods, or simply spontaneity or serendipity. "We literally have tossed a coin to determine whether to go left or right, as it really didn't matter," Bill says, recalling once being in the Champlain Canal and being told by folks on a nearby boat they really should visit Quebec City. So they simply turned the opposite way at the St. Lawrence River from what they had planned. They don't keep a schedule, travel more by the sun than the clock, and frequently don't decide where to spend each night until late in the afternoon. "We know in advance of the places we can duck into if we need to, but other than that, we put a lot of faith in our intuition."
Their roles are interchangeable and both can perform any of the boat duties, but El handles all the marine radio calls. The Cajun pilots on towboats especially like talking to a woman. Their children and grandchildren meet up with them occasionally as they travel, and when they do, they camp on shore. This year, for instance, they have met at Lake Powell in Arizona, then again at Lake Kabetogama in Voyageurs National Park on the Minnesota-Canada border.
There's no question the Fieros' cruising style is unique, yet highly effective, and boaters hoping to break away from Someday Isle might consider their methods and philosophies. "We're boaters who love to cruise new water and see the world from a different perspective," Bill says. "We don't want to preach about how to travel and we don't want to judge how other people do." Their goal, he says, is to have experiences and use the boat for exploring. Or as El says, "I don't want get to the end, the last day, and have to say, I wish I had."
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