How to Get Mail at Sea

Offshore voyagers share how they solved the vexing problems of receiving mail and having an address while cruising.

Offshore voyagers have unique mail needs
You’ve got mail!Ellen Massey Leonard

Like most big undertakings, offshore voyaging requires a lot of organization and preparation—everything from planning one’s route to outfitting the boat. Every sailor is familiar with those pre-departure lists of boat projects, and once underway, those lists tend to continue, albeit renamed “maintenance” and “repairs.” Most sailors like to talk shop about these things over sundowners, but somehow almost no one mentions one of the biggest organizational requirements of cruising: what to do about your permanent address.

On the face of it, having a physical address might seem superfluous in today’s world. You can have almost everything delivered to your email, such as bills and bank statements, or things are available online, like insurance renewals, tax filings and the like. So why would a sailor need an address at all?

Well, unfortunately for the long-term cruiser, most institutions, both governmental and private sector, require some kind of physical address before they will let you do anything (government) or do anything for you (private companies).

So how to deal with this? From personal experience and from a survey I took of most of the voyagers I’ve known over the years, there are basically two solutions. One is to use a professional mail service, and the other is to lean on the kindness and goodwill of a friend or relative. In my survey, family members were by far the most common answer, followed by mail services, then friends. Even the most ardently self-sufficient sailors—some of my survey respondents have never lived on land as adults—are not able to escape the reality of modern society entirely: They all use a physical address somewhere.

Most of the full-time voyagers I surveyed replied that they were fortunate enough to have a family member who was willing to let them claim his (or her) residence as their own. In this way, the sailor could satisfy all the institutions requiring a physical address, and also have any paper mail delivered to someone trustworthy and willing to deal with it.

Using OCENS Mail
Technology has enabled cruisers to take care of life’s logistics from afar. The author uses OCENS Mail to keep in touch via satellite phone.Ellen Massey Leonard

Automatizing as much as possible was a strong theme throughout the survey responses. Without exception, everyone mentioned how much easier the internet has made this aspect of cruising. Each sailor had some combination of auto-pay with their banks or credit cards and receiving important notices and correspondence by email. Alaskan sailors Andy and Daneen Looby, who sailed full time for over a dozen years aboard their Hans Christian cutter, reported that they were able to set up direct deposit for incoming checks, auto-pay on their credit cards for their bills, and auto-pay for the minimum due on their cards, transferring the remaining balance whenever they had internet access. Similarly, Blue Water medalist Jeanne Socrates reported that she is always careful to cover outstanding payments before setting off on long passages and, she adds, online banking and tax filing have made these aspects of life much better. Implicit in everyone’s responses was that minimizing physical mail and having as much as possible either be automatic or come by email was essential. It reduces the burden on the friend or relative who is helping out, and it provides peace of mind to the sailor regardless of whether he has a reliable and willing relative or a paid-for mail service.

A few, however, warned that the internet is not without problems, especially in certain areas of the world. Blue Water medalists Tom and Vicky Jackson, for example, who have raced and cruised 200,000 miles aboard their wooden Sparkman & Stephens sloop Sunstone over the past 35 years, said that although online banking became common during their years cruising, they never used it on account of security issues, especially with internet cafes, because you never know when someone may have compromised a public computer. Today, with internet cafes disappearing in favor of open Wi-Fi ­networks, the issue still remains. Jim Heumann and Karen Sullivan, Pacific Northwest sailors who ­ventured to New Zealand aboard their Dana 24 Sockdolager, were able to address the problem by paying $60 per year for a virtual private network, or VPN, which “prevented nefarious activity at public internet spots.”

U.S.P.S. Informed Delivery
U.S. Postal Service offers a free service called Informed Delivery that emails you a scan of the exterior of your mail.Ellen Massey Leonard

Even with so much existing online today, there are the occasional items one needs to receive physically: special medications, boat parts, new credit cards either when they expire or when (unfortunately when is more apt than if) they get stolen. Usually this is not difficult because most marinas will receive packages for customers. In places without marinas, my husband, Seth, and I have never had a problem receiving items: For example, the post office closest to us in New Zealand allowed us to use poste restante (or general delivery), and a machinist in Fiji was happy to receive a box of gaskets for us despite the fact that we were planning to install them ourselves. One of the couples I surveyed, however, reported having important mail lost en route to them, and their solution was to use FedEx or DHL from then on. Of course, the practice of having any visitors to your boat bring items in their luggage is at least as old as the 1903 novel Riddle of the Sands, which opens with a letter (to the soon-to-arrive crewmember) that is really just a long list of boat parts needed.

Today, each of the mail services used by my surveyed sailors operates by scanning your mail and either emailing you or posting the scans to a Dropbox folder or online account. The service scans the outside of all envelopes so you can choose what you would like them to open (and send you a scan of the contents) versus what you would like them to shred. They will send any physical mail you would like whenever you wish to receive it. The mail services mentioned in the replies to my survey were St. Brendan’s Isle, Dockside Mail and Earth Class Mail, and each respondent was pleased with the service they received. Two crews had also used their mail service as their “physical” address. Diana Doyle, founder of Birding Aboard—a citizen-­scientist group dedicated to appreciating and documenting bird sightings while cruising—and author of On the Water ChartGuides for the Intracoastal Waterway, explained that with St. Brendan’s Isle, you become a resident of the Florida county where St. Brendan’s Isle is situated, and your physical address is actually your boat; Florida has a way to handle that, and St. Brendan’s Isle “steps you through all that legal paperwork as part of the sign-up.” Tor and Jess Bjorklund, who made a Pacific voyage with their 5-year-old twin boys aboard a steel Tahiti ketch they built themselves, were able to use Dockside Solutions as their physical address, which was accepted by almost all important institutions. The only trouble they had was upon their return home when they had no utility bills to prove residency for the purpose of enrolling their boys in public school.

That brings me to the final and perhaps most difficult question in all this: How can you have (and prove, if need be) a physical address somewhere? For the most part, one only really needs a physical address to put on forms, but when it comes time to renew your driver’s license or get something like the police affidavit needed for the French long-stay visa, it gets a little more complicated. For many sailors, the answer is, once again, a helpful family member. For others, particularly in the United States where there are several to choose from, it is a mail service like St. Brendan’s Isle.

Sailboat in a tropical paradise
Despite the allure of the nomadic sailing life, it’s impossible to escape the requirement of a physical address for necessities such as a passport and some visas.Ellen Massey Leonard

Only two of my survey respondents actually tried to make their boats their official physical addresses. A good friend of ours sailed to Norway in order to spend a year there for her Fulbright scholarship and lived aboard in a marina in Oslo the entire time. She described getting an address in Norway as “its own debacle, but we ended up getting a P.O. Box—which you can get only if you have a physical address, so we used a friend’s physical address—so we could receive mail there.” And a sailing couple we know in Maine, who live aboard their lovely wooden ketch, reported using the harbormaster’s address, along with a notarized letter from him attesting to their presence in the harbor, enabling them to get a P.O. Box and driver’s licenses, hold credit cards, register to vote, etc. There is, at least in Maine, a process of obtaining community references to prove the residency of those who don’t in fact have a physical address. My friend told me: “It acts as a catchall for those who may be homeless, or living in shelters or transient situations, and need a more permanent address for legal reasons.” Nonetheless, she implied that she was never very comfortable with this, telling me that “we believe we can rest easy now—we bought a plot of land this past fall.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if most long-term sailors don’t share that vague sense of unease about the permanent address question from time to time. I know I actually feel more of a sense of freedom when Seth and I voyage part time and have a real land base that we can truly and legally claim as our own. It’s certainly an ironic twist on the traditional notion of finding freedom by cutting all ties and sailing off into the sunset. But whether full time or part time, we sailors are very fortunate to have the availability of reliable mail-forwarding services and the support of family and friends at home. Without the help of those ashore, our dreams and voyages would be, at the very least, much more difficult to achieve.

Ellen and Seth Leonard are currently cruising the South Pacific.

Resources
Dockside Mail: docksidemail.com
Earth Class Mail: earthclassmail.com
St. Brendan's Isle: sbimailservice.com
Traveling Mailbox: travelingmailbox.com

But I'm going cruising! Why do I need an address?
Unless you plan to sail only in your home ­country, you'll need a passport. The application form for a passport includes sections for physical and mailing addresses. If you don't fill these in, your application will be rejected.

Let’s say you got your passport before you relinquished your land dwelling, and it’s valid for 10 years, so that’s covered. But now you’ve reached, say, the Panama Canal and have decided to head to the South Pacific, so you’d like to get that long-stay visa for French Polynesia. Well, one of the requirements for that is a police affidavit from, you guessed it, the town where you “live.” Not many police departments will buy the argument “I’m at anchor here off your town” as proof of ­residency. (I tried.)

If you are a citizen of the United States and would like to return there someday, it’s a good idea to file your taxes, even if you have no income and are not required to pay anything. In order to file, you are required to have a ­permanent address. If you are a nomadic cruiser with no real address anywhere, abroad or at home, what do you do?

Unless you figure you will never drive a car anywhere on your voyages, you need a driver’s license. In the U.S., your driver’s license is also, quite inconveniently for a sailor, proof of your residency in a certain state. So, to obtain or even renew a driver’s license, you are required to prove that you actually live at an actual physical address.

While banks and credit card companies are perfectly willing for you to use their online services, in order to have an account in the first place, they require that you have both a physical and mailing address. Even if you really did have a legitimate address when you opened these accounts, you’ll still need one while you’re sailing because they periodically send new cards by post.

S/V Good Looking Sloop might actually be where you live, but that won’t cut it with even the Coast Guard documentation people. In the U.S., at least, vessel documentation must be periodically renewed, and the paper document sent to some address somewhere.