Sailing Totem: Cruising Relationships

No matter how much water has passed under the hull, friendships between cruising sailors are special.
ketch at anchor with pink clouds
SV Liquid in Playas del Coco; Costa Rica, 2018 Behan Gifford

Cruising relationships are different

Familiar names come into focus on the hulls of sailboats as Jamie and I walk along the gravelly hardstand rows. It’s like seeing old friends after the space of time and distance; variations in the gap bring recollections for some in a heartbeat, others in just a few beats more. Remarkably, among the 70-odd cruising boats here at Cabrales Boatyard are vessels that not only span our 11 years cruising, but which we encountered in almost every region of our circumnavigation.

Near Totem, Kenta Anae‘s blue hull reminds me of hot days in 2009 their boys spent belly down on the docks in La Cruz alongside our kids. The staccato of towheads teased schools of mullet and dangled bait for crabs clinging to the pontoon while their mother, Allison, and I lost ourselves in one conversation or another: about finding the nearest lavanderia, teaching our little ones how to read, or planning ahead to race their home in Banderas Bay.

long dock with sailboats pulled up
Distinctive Wharram bows on the dock; Malaysia, 2013 Behan Gifford

Passing Zephyr‘s shrink-wrapped hull reminds me when Bill and Jamie wore batik headdresses that would make Carmen Miranda proud in a marina near Singapore; I can hear Bill’s inimitable radio voice in my head. Empyrean is down the row, one of our early coaching clients – five of them in this yard! – who looked out for our teens during a trip Jamie and I made for boat shows last spring.

Wharram cat Pakia Tea‘s distinctive form stands out at the west end of the lot, immediately identifiable despite the six years since a single shared week at a dock in Malaysia. The boy who was a baby then is now tearing around the yard on a bicycle; Sonja and Tom’s open-arm greeting an example of how little intervening time can matter in the cruising community. I can’t imagine this happening with brief encounters on land, where in most places even our long-term neighbors remained largely strangers.

group of adults in a pool
We might also be a particularly social lot! Cruisers gather in the government-run Marina Santa Rosalia, Mexico, 2019 Behan Gifford

Cruiser relationships: clearly different, but how, and why? The artificial barriers that exist on shore are thinner veils on the water. Despite the pride we take in our independence, cruisers rely on each other in more everyday ways than land-based neighbors. We share information about the weather forecast and nearby anchorages, what day of the week the produce market is held, and the quality of the fishing. Another factor differentiating cruiser relationships: our safety may rely on interdependence. Assistance on land is often just a phone call away. We crave the remote, but remote means the aid, tools, spare parts, etc. could be miles or days away. Mutual assistance in times of need is a natural part of the unwritten code; rendering aid without question the solidarity among seafarers.


The steel ketch Liquid is propped on jackstands nearby; the day after we met them in Costa Rica last year, they sold us diesel out of their supply (we were unable to purchase locally without checking back into the country, a detail missed in clearance). Mutual aid afloat isn’t just cruiser-to-cruiser, either. Anchored off an uninhabited Baja island a few weeks ago, a family awkwardly paddled one of the ubiquitous Mexican pangas up to Totem as the sun sank below the Sierra de la Giganta. A split fuel hose made their outboard unworkable, and paddling eight miles to town was no option. “I hope you have more hose,” a land-based friend skeptically commented on learning we’d disconnected the one in our dinghy to share. But it was more important to get a family home than worry whether $15 of fuel hose would find a way back to us (which it did, the very next day, as we expected).

boat in travellift
Totem hauled out at Cabrales Boatyard in the far northern reaches of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. Behan Gifford

Jamie and I continued our evening boatyard stroll, enjoying the memories as they rolled in: faces flooding back of pinnacles snorkeled together with this boat, a beach we combed with that one, a passage in company with another. The cruising lifestyle is conducive to these relationships, but the real reason they’re different is because we have relearned how to share our time and ourselves.