What Is A Cruiser?

By Tom Neale

There's been a lot said in boating publications about cruising. At first we all knew what we were talking and reading about. And when you said you were a cruiser, boaters had a pretty good idea of what you meant. More importantly, so did you. Now the definition of the word has expanded. And that's good.

Photo of the Chez Nous bound for seaTom's Chez Nous bound for sea.

In the old days you had to be in a double ended boat that could only make about 3 knots in a gale, carried enough water for a monthly sponge bath from a teacup and enough fuel to run the engine for about half a day ... if it had an engine. In other words, to be a "cruiser," you had to be incredibly tough and you had to be happy living like a Spartan. It was pure and simple and your identity was secure. But as time went on that began to change and you had to define yourself more carefully.

The boats morphed into fast sailing machines. These boats had big tanks, big screen TV sets, queen sized beds, plush carpeting and big motors that could push them as fast as they could sail. Then people began to realize that it wasn't really necessary for a cruising boat to have that sail, unless maybe for "steadying." People began to cruise all over the world in, of all things, motor boats. What was the world coming to?

But during all this morphing, we kept running into good cruising folks who were widely considered to be the "real" cruisers. One who always stands out in my mind is Alvah Simon who, in addition to other amazing feats, deliberately froze his steel boat into the Arctic ice for a winter. He's one of the tough-in-extremis types. He survived in style (his style), spending much of his time coaxing polar bears away from his boat without hurting them and having an occasional celebration with Jack Daniels who was there in spirit only. I'll never forget eating lunch with Alvah once and talking about how the Jack Daniels bottles contrasted against the white snow. I always admired Alvah and others like him, but I didn't fit into that group and knew that I never could.

And all along there have been those who considered "cruising" to mean "traveling long distances in a boat with great difficulty", like going around the world without a motor. Some did it because they were too pure to even have one aboard. Some did it because even though they started out with one they couldn't fix it the first time it broke down. There were also those who did repair everything that broke or tore and those that didn't repair anything that broke or tore ... both bragging about it. There were many different opinions voiced of what "real" cruising really was.

Sometimes I think that the ultimate mantra of "real" cruising has been the rejection of the marine head. Some of the "true blue" cruisers never used the head even though they had one, preferring to use the "over the side" even if bullets were flying their way, sent along by irate citizenry ashore. These folks seem exceptionally proud of their lifestyle and when they call themselves cruisers you don't argue.

Although I've been a cruiser most of my life, I don't fit into many of these definitions of cruising. And I know that if I call myself a cruiser I must explain because I don't want people to think I'm that tough. If people think you're tougher than you are it could get you into big trouble. My status as a wimp cruiser must remain secure.

Unlike the true cruisers, I love my motor. I don't like storms, and I've known a few. I do like being somewhat clean, even to the point of taking a shower once a day. I don't like being cold. I don't like being uncomfortable. I don't want to sail around the world because I'm afraid I might fall off (the boat). And I'd hate to think that people think I don't use heads. So over the years I've created a self image of my type of cruising. I don't share it here because I figure that nobody else really cares and, come to think of it, I'm not sure what it is. But I've resolved many of these cruising identity issues and finally I began to feel pretty good about myself.

But not too long ago I came across yet another concept of cruising that has once again kicked my personal angst meter up a couple of notches. You've probably known about this all along, but remember, for many years, I've been in the protected world of floating about on a boat. I learned about this in a bar in a hotel where my wife and I were staying while on a land trip.

A rather beefy gentleman was also in attendance and enjoying the beverages while he earnestly engaged in talking with every lady around; never mind that the conversations were one-sided and usually that one side was to the back side of the heads of said ladies.

I was wearing one of my old "Cruising World" shirts. I used to be Editor at Large for that magazine and wrote the "On Watch" column and other projects for many years. They gave us lots of great shirts. The gentleman who kept striking out with the ladies suddenly stared in my direction in the mirror, his florid face indicating curiosity and interest. Then slowly but deliberately he swiveled his head toward me and turned to talk.

"I'm a cruiser too," he announced.

I like to talk about boats and cruising and I was bored so I innocently opened up. "Yeah, I've lived aboard since the ‘70s and travelled thousands of miles on my boat. Can't wait to get back to her."

He looked at me strangely, tottered a little on his barstool, squinted hard at the logo on my shirt, stared at me like I was some kind of a fruit cake from Mars and turned his back to me as a new lady entered the stage. This gave my wife the opportunity to explain to me that "Cruiser" meant different things to different people, and, more to the point, it often meant hanging out in bars trying to pick up people, for reasons I'll leave to your imagination, which I am sure is more fertile and less naïve than mine. Since then, I've given all this some thought and come to the realization that I'd better be even more careful when I call myself a cruiser. When you call yourself one you can't be sure what they think you're doing in your spare time. 

Tom Neale is Technical Editor of BoatUS Magazine, with a lifetime of liveaboard and cruising experience. Read more of Tom Neale's articles here.

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— Published: July 2015

Tom's Tips About Doing It Your Way

  • Don't let the preconceived notions of others stop you from having fun cruising your way.
  • Snobbery as to which way of boating and cruising is "better" or "more pure" or more macho is way out of place on and around the water.
  • If you get into trouble on the water you'll probably quickly see how the boating community is indeed a community. We're all in it together when we're on the water. And it's a good feeling.
  • Cruising can cover boats ranging from canoes to ships. It can be power or sail or both. It can be to far distances or just up the creek.
  • You can find in the archives of these columns many very practical suggestions about how to make your boat suitable for "cruising" the way you want to cruise. See, for example, www.boatus.com/cruising/tomneale/previousarticle.asp?bid=2699

See www.tomneale.com


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