Places spur the dreams that fill voyagers’ sails. Places like the South Pacific atolls, Sydney Harbor, Alaska, Patagonia and the coast of Ireland beckon like sirens, urging boats away from homeports. But ask any cruiser who’s been out here: Enduring memories are more often about the people we meet than the places in which we meet them.
Sadly, until we went cruising, I had a single reference for anticipating the kinds of interactions we’d have with people in the places we would visit. It’s an iconic reference, a cruiser’s image from Panama’s San Blas Islands: a sailor kneeling on the side deck, looking down at the diminutive, costumed Guna woman in the dugout canoe alongside, surveying the molas she’s offering for sale.
Fortunately, through dumb luck, advice we’d been given, and our own initiative, our interactions didn’t go down this way. Following are some of the tenets we followed and examples of the ways they helped us get to know the people who enriched our journey.
Speak the language: It’s cliché, and it’s true. While stumbling over foreign words pulled us out of our comfort zone when we began cruising, our inhibitions faded, and we realized that our efforts projected a vulnerability that made us more approachable. In Mexico we learned that fluency isn’t required. Upon landing our dinghy in front of a remote Isla San Benito fishing camp, the guys we met didn’t speak a lick of English and we spoke little Spanish. But we extended greetings and opened our cruising guide to show them pictures of the elephant seals that were supposed to be there. They graciously took us on a hike to the beach where the seals were. Later we enjoyed lunch with our new friends.
But be aware of nuances. In French Polynesia, the simple word for hello changed with each island group we visited. And while local Polynesians all understand the French bonjour, there was a clear preference for the respective Marquesan, Tuamotuan and Tahitian greetings.
Ask permission: In the remote, smaller settlements we visited in Mexico and French Polynesia, we learned it’s appropriate to ask permission before leaving our dinghy and exploring. This is because these places, despite appearances, often lack public spaces; you could be on someone’s property the moment you land. Also, because small villages and communities are intimate in their settings, arriving unannounced can seem intrusive. And introducing yourself ashore is a good conversation starter.
This is exactly how we met Geronimo and his family in the small community of Aqua Verde, on Mexico’s Baja peninsula. Our introduction sparked a connection. During the week we spent there, we weren’t strangers strolling through the tiny community; we were friends of Geronimo. His girls played and kayaked with our girls. His oldest daughter led us on a hike in search of petroglyphs. We enjoyed fresh goat cheese, broke bread with his family, and he proudly showed us the home addition he was building.
Seek to learn from the people you meet: In what we thought were wild spaces on a sparsely populated island in French Polynesia, we noticed deliberate plantings. We found the farmer and introduced ourselves. Steven spent hours with us, demonstrating his cultivation techniques and showing my daughters how to plant seedlings. He opened coconuts for us to drink, and explained the cultural and medicinal uses of local plants. We left with a new appreciation for a place we’d seen only as a lush, amorphous green. In Mexico, our oldest daughter, Eleanor, was keen to learn how to make the flan she ate at a family-run restaurant. On a subsequent visit, we asked whether she could shadow them in the kitchen when they made it. Two afternoons later, Eleanor was in the kitchen, working alongside the owner, making flan. We ended up befriending the family.
Participate in nontourist activities: Traveling at a slow pace with our home, we have the luxury to engage in ways that reveal the real character of a place and make it easy to meet locals. In Victoria, British Columbia, our daughters volunteered at a petting zoo for months.
In La Paz, Mexico, we played weekly soccer with Mexican families and volunteered regularly at a spay-neuter clinic. Friends of ours meet locals attending synagogue services wherever they are. Other cruisers we know temporarily enroll their kids in school—in Mexico, American Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand and Australia.
Open your home: People everywhere are curious about life on a boat. It’s been our pleasure to host new friends aboard just about everywhere we’ve been. (Surprisingly, many had never before been aboard any of the boats anchored near their own homes.) Often, this gesture serves to bring a meaningful parity to the relationship.
Remain mindful of the kind of help you can offer: When we once learned our girls’ new playmate was sick with a high fever, we offered the mother medicine we had aboard. Back home, we’d never have thought to offer the girl’s mother a fever reducer—surely she’d have her own or would go and buy some. But we were in a remote community with little in the way of supplies and services, and our offer was welcome.
When the dog of another new friend was wounded, we were again able to offer medical supplies and care. I once passed on a spare pair of reading glasses when I realized a new friend had none. In island nations in particular, where families are spread across islands separated by open ocean, there might be opportunities to deliver messages or supplies between communities.
After you reach the places you set out cruising to discover, don’t sail away without meeting and engaging the locals who live in those very destinations. They have knowledge that will inform you, perspectives that will surprise you, and kindness that will enrich your life.
Michael Robertson broke free from the rat race in 2011, and for seven years cruised from Mexico to Alaska and across the Pacific with his family aboard Del Viento, their 1978 Fuji 40. These days, Michael has returned to the workaday world as editor of Good Old Boat magazine.