Cruising Cities

Much to their surprise, this cruising family finds the population density of a place to be a good measure for the length of time they spend there.

Whenn we cast off about four years ago, we yearned to get away — away from the urgent, crowded metropolis where we’d built our lives. The cruising life promised things no large city could offer. We couldn’t wait to see the shadow of our boat on the bottoms of remote, magazine-cover anchorages. By day, our kids would jump off the toerail into warm, inviting water, and by night, under clear, pitch-black skies, we’d show them the constellations. We’d kayak ashore, walk long beaches and savor sundowners in the cockpit. This was the stuff of our cruising dreams, and all of it eventually came to pass. But looking back, I find it interesting that not once, not for a minute, did I anticipate the allure we would find in something so contrary to our dreams: big cities.

Cities are the antithesis of what we sought. Anchored off a city, cruisers find that stillness and quiet are as elusive as clear night skies. The water is often too dirty to jump into. I viewed cities as nothing more than places we had to stop to tend to the more mundane aspects of our traveling life: clearing customs, doing laundry, getting our teeth cleaned, and shopping for food and boat parts. Like many cruisers, I found myself bemoaning or apologizing for these necessary interludes with centers of humanity.

“As soon as we get our fuel pump back from the mechanic, we’ll top off our tanks and go,” I’d say. “We’re dying to get back out there!”

“Out there” is, of course, another name for everything we thought cruising was about. After all, the latter term implies motion — certainly moving away from anything resembling a city. But along the way, spending much of our cruising time in lots of cities — nearly every big one between Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and Sitka, Alaska — I realized that the time spent in these places enriched our voyage.

I sometimes look back at photos from our past four years. It’s the city pictures on which I linger. Those photos often have stories to tell. The settings are complex and invite closer inspection. The faces of friends we’ve made trigger a flood of emotions and memories greater than any brought on by yet another picture of a pristine anchorage.

It turns out that the sundry tasks we stop in cities to complete are portals into population centers that vacationing travelers don’t always uncover. They’ve forced us to seek public transportation, the laundromat, the post office, the grocery store. We fumble with a foreign currency or struggle with a foreign language. In the course of tending to the mundane, cultural elements are highlighted, and we meet people.

People are key, and cities are where they congregate. Few of us are the Bernard Moitessier or Tom Neale types, the true seekers of solitude who are more at home at sea or as lone island inhabitants. People we meet illuminate places in a way that no guidebook can. Otherwise transient cruisers who stop to spend time in Mexico’s La Paz, for example, may find an opportunity to volunteer for a spell at the new whale museum, forming not only relationships, but a deeper understanding of the very wild they’re poised to explore. They might hire a Spanish tutor and enjoy not only personal development, but new cultural insight.

Many city people we’ve met have freely offered us context and perspective regarding the place they live, helping us to understand and appreciate more fully the place we’ve landed. Even small doses of this new awareness are stimulating.

Instead of leaving, we linger, wanting more. We accept dinner invitations for a week in advance, we commit to a weekly family soccer game, we sign up for art or tennis lessons with no end date. It’s still thrilling, at this point in our adult lives, to have the time — as long as we’re cruising — to readily commit to these activities that put us even closer to the rhythm and pulse of a place.

Even a city with a tourist-oriented facade, like Victoria, British Columbia, can reveal itself to the cruiser who allows time to explore. We spent an entire nontouristy winter in Victoria and found a rich, quirky, artistic and overwhelmingly warm community of locals beneath the surface. A short stay here might have netted our daughters a visit to the petting zoo, but our longer stay allowed them to experience it behind the scenes, working there for a season. Even after eight months parked in front of the Empress Hotel, I never felt like a liveaboard. We were simply exploring more slowly. My daughters joined a chess club, we tagged on to a home-schooling cooperative, and we made friends.

I don’t mean to suggest that our crew has fully traded beaches for buildings. The appeal of quiet, distant anchorages and unspoiled nature is stronger than ever. Remote islands offer the chance to get to know small, secluded communities of people who don’t live anything like we do. They offer life without intrusion, the chance to find and restore our family’s equilibrium. But I’m pleased to report that those long-anticipated respites are just a single facet of our cruising experience, and not such a large one.

So if you’re in the exciting planning stages of your first voyage, reviewing possible destinations, don’t bypass the cities or relegate them to short, necessary stops. Don’t think of them as mere waypoints en route to all the postcard firsts that are in store for you, but rather as rich destinations unto themselves, where not only memories can be made, but also friendships and perspectives that will enrich and inform the rest of your life. When you sail into your first city port, remember to look past the Walmart or stoplights that could make you feel like you’ve not yet reached the exotic landfalls you set out to find. Beyond those things (and sometimes even in those things) lies traveler’s magic in the unexpected. Discover that magic and you’ll add bustling cities to the proverbial atolls that are your sirens.

Michael Robertson is co-author of a new book, Voyaging with Kids: A Guide to Family Life Afloat. He and his family explore the world's cities (and remote anchorages)

San Diego has convenient moorings and a dinghy dock in the heart of the city. Bring a lock and cable, however, as the dock has no security.Michael Robertson
La Paz, Mexico, has a dock where, for a small fee, we could take on potable water and discard trash.Michael Robertson