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The sea change that’s happening might not be the big shift escapists think it is

2024 April 1

Escapism is built into the human psyche, has genetic and evolutionary roots, and persists in story across the millennia. So the trend to sell everything and sail isn’t new, despite the mob of tan, nearly naked YouTubers asking you to click subscribe to fund their one-of-a-kind sailing dream. Indeed, there has always been a subset of humans who leave the mainstream and head for open water. The difference today is that sailors can stream their stories directly to our phones, and given the plethora of sailing channels, more are apparently trying to escape everyday.

The idea that one might cut ties and live aboard is the oft-unspoken hidden agenda of most sailboat buyers. While the majority of us won’t actually leave our home ports for long, our boats represent an available off ramp; a means to escape the rat-race and simply sail. When we’re aboard, even for a few hours, we’ve escaped. The challenge is to escape for longer and longer periods. This, for those who commit, is a change as big as, say, changing careers or moving to another country where you don’t speak the language. Some have called it their “sea change.”

The narrative arc of a sea change story goes like this: a person has had enough of work, may have lost their job, relationships are failing, they are facing mortality, or they hope to “find themselves” or “connect with nature.” 

Existential questions abound. So they cobble together a plan and craft, head out to sea, are confronted by storms and whales and broken things, and they find God or love or purpose. 

It’s a quest that appears and reappears in Greek mythology, the Norse Sagas, and in the modern legends and lore of Slocum, Lin and Larry Pardey, Moitessier, Farley Mowat and, yes, Tristan Jones, the weaver of self-reliance fiction that had many of us duped in the 1980s. 

We know this because sea changers are often storytellers out of necessity. As long as sailors have been letting loose the lines, they’ve also been sending publishers their manuscripts with the hope that royalties might keep them going for another chapter.

Over time, they developed a reputation as poets and minstrels at sea. On a practical level, sailing helped them to pick their words well because times of stress demand clear speak. But words are also well chosen in an abundance of boredom. If you’re at anchor in some distant moonlit bay having survived months offshore, you have both a tale and the time to perfect your prose. It’s easy to see why there are so many wonderful sailing writers and books.

However, economics, not poetic aspiration, often underpin the sea change. Many who have tried to live aboard did it because it was how they could afford to live. And this time, it seems, many are considering it for just this reason. 

One young friend told me recently that student debt and housing costs prevent him from living the way he wants, so if he wants a sailing life, he’ll have to get creative. If a house is too expensive, then a boat can be a house. If his employer doesn’t require office hours, then his cockpit can be his cubicle. I admire his resourcefulness but worry that he is missing the point.

Today’s sea change stories are not told in the past tense, as they once were, but in real time, as reality streaming content. Global internet has folks rushing to push off, GoPros on the stern rail, and editing software on the nav station computer. We’re not hearing about the adventure from its survivor, we’re watching the trip unfold, bloopers and barf and bachelorettes and all. 

It’s a phenomenon: every so-called sea change channel inspires and spawns another 10. So once idyllic empty anchorages now have wait lists, a nearby Geek Squad to handle the inevitable tech malfunction, brokers are running out of suitable boats to feed the sea changing trend, and, I’m told, sailing “influencers” now compete by trolling each other for subscribers, whatever that means. 

Here’s the rub: When your boat becomes another device on the internet, when work-from-home become work-from-boat, when the daily grind becomes the story, then you’re as much a part of the rat race while sailing as you were before you left.

True escapists cut the cord. And that’s the point.