I watched an amateur movie posted recently on Vimeo — my latest lesson in new media — that got me thinking about the future of boating, particularly the trawler niche, which appears to be the one most vulnerable to a baby-boomer die-off.
Many, if not most, power cruisers came up from sail, starting as children in dinghies, racing around buoys, eventually cruising under sail and finally, feeling their age, in trawlers.
Last week I watched an amateur movie posted on Vimeo — my latest lesson in new media — that got me thinking about the future of boating, particularly the trawler niche, which appears to be the one most vulnerable to a baby-boomer die-off. Many, if not most, power cruisers came up from sail, starting as children in dinghies, racing around buoys, eventually cruising under sail and finally, feeling their age, in trawlers.
“Hold Fast” is an excellent story about a voyage of four college-age American kids — one male and three female — that begins with them refurbishing an old 30-foot sailboat in South Florida. They outfit the boat and undertake a voyage through the Bahamas to the Dominican Republic, after which they go their separate ways.
As the narrator explains at the beginning of the movie (it’s nearly an hour long), they model themselves after crazy sailors of the past. He does an excellent job of setting the context of their adventure in the age of fiberglass, when boats seem to last long past the time that anyone wants to take care of them.
I guess the good news is that beginning in 2026, when the first boomers turn 80, we may be seeing the price of power cruisers drop the way prices on older, smaller sailboats have. After all, very few young people have been enrolling in dinghy sailing during the past couple of decades, and fewer adults are buying sailboats. The question we used to ask when I worked for a trawler manufacturer: Who will take the place of the boomers once they begin swallowing the anchor?
Our quartet of low-budget cruisers had the right idea. They had a rollicking good time on the boat they self-mockingly named Pestilence, and there’s little doubt when the narrator describes having to tack through the narrow entrance to Nassau in the Bahamas — against the slab-sided hull of a cruise ship on one side and Paradise Island on the other — that they became competent mariners. I actually envied them and their Pearson 30, a better windward performer than the Cheoy Lee Bermuda I piloted engineless into the harbor in the exact same manner after midnight 20 years earlier.
I had connected with “Hold Fast”thanks to a friend on Facebook, and when I commented that Everett Pearson would probably be pleased to see one of his classic boats resurrected for such an adventure and that the movie should be shown at high schools, another guy on Facebook got really hostile.
At one point in the film, while the kids were working on their boat, they were rafted up against a big motoryacht, and they made the mistake of admitting that they used the motoryacht’s stove to cook and its toilet during their stay. He fixated on the fact that these kids were “crapping in someone else’s toilet, uninvited,” or words to that effect. Obviously this was a big sin to him because he repeated his accusation, stressing the unlawful nature of said “movements.”
I imagine the Pestilence crew probably broke a few more rules along the way. After all, they took their inspiration from “maniac sailors and anarchist castways.” I found their toilet tresspassing was a forgivable offense in the larger scheme of things. After all, these kids are ideal candidates to purchase a trawler 30 years from now, and by the way, their sailboat had no toilet of its own.
When the boating industry talks about declining participation, the obvious answer is to coax more young people into boats. And it would be great for Florida if more people took over the fleet of deteriorating 30- and 40-year-old sailboats. What everyone has to remember is that young people are going to approach cruising on their own terms.
Witness the crazy river cruises organized by a New York City artist named Swoon. A bunch of bohemian kids pilot weird and whimsical craft down the Hudson, down the Mississippi and from Slovenia to Venice. I would argue that some of the participants in these odysseys might someday want to relive their youth on a cruising vessel.
Working for that trawler builder, I met hundreds of would-be boat buyers about to retire who did not benefit from a year of pestilential adventure. Their dream, many said, was to buy a boat and cruise the Great Loop, a route that follows the Intracoastal Waterway to the Great Lakes and then down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. Life on the Loop was their “endgame strategy.”
As I took their measure — Were they fit? Smart? Youthful despite their years? Adventurous? — I would try to talk them out of it. Respectfully, I would argue, the Loop would make a fine cruise, but it would still be there when they were older and perhaps inextricably tied to the U.S. health care system. I urged them to buy a boat suitable for the challenges of the Gulf of Maine, the Bahamas and the Caribbean. Once they had mastered those waters, the Great Loop would be a piece of cake.
They should have started earlier. But as Tania Aebi proved most famously, if you want to sail the world early, it helps to have generous, if not wealthy, parents. At 18, Aebi had already earned a reputation as a barfly. Her father’s idea of intervention was novel. I could be wrong, but the “Hold Fast” kids seemed as if they might be from families with means, and their voyage was a form of walkabout often associated with kids from affluent European backgrounds.
In Aebi’s case, dad said he would pay for her college, but he offered her a Plan B. Instead of college, she could have a 26-foot sloop. Aebi had the good sense to take the boat, and her two-year solo circumnavigation became the basis for one of the finest sea stories ever written, the book “Maiden Voyage.”
Given what we know about higher education in the United States, can there be any doubt which of the two choices made her a better person? Too bad the same choices are not afforded to all of our college-age kids. That’s why I thought the “Hold Fast”video would be perfect for high schoolers.
After splendid adventures, Aebi graduated to a “normal” life. But later, with sons of her own, she got back on the water. She said she took them to sea before they grew too old to appreciate it. Aebi said she planned to sail the Pacific, and she amused her listeners at one down-island pub by describing the crossing as a “milk run.”
I was reminded of Aebi during conversations some years back with the brothers Bruyn of New Zealand. Jon van der Hoist Bruyn, 25, and his brother Paul, 23, were in the same Dominican harbor, getting ready to set off on a trans-Atlantic voyage to Spain. They said they had worked hard to save enough money for a multiyear escape, and their story illustrates an excellent point about the economics of going to sea: It costs less when you’re young.
Older, smaller monohull sailboats — and nowadays that means anything under 40 feet — can be had for short money, and once the LOA drops below 30 feet the price tag can shorten to almost nothing, as the Pestilence crew proved. Florida is positively awash in these unwanted boats, and as the price of State-side dockage goes through the roof, their owners are dumping them.
The Bruyns flew to Florida and paid $16,000 for their 1981 Seidelman 37, powered by a Yanmar diesel. By the time they’d invested another $9,000 in parts and equipment and six weeks of their own labor, the boat was a capable ocean-crosser, which they named Double Bruyn (pronounced “brown”).
There are thousands of similar $25,000 circumnavigators on the East Coast, waiting for owners with a sense of adventure. This is a historically unique distortion of the boat market. Too bad more young people aren’t taking advantage of it.
By 2010, according to the ship’s blog, the Bruyn brothers and a friend, Laura Freeman, 24, had crossed the Atlantic on Double Bruyn; Jon single-handed it on a return trip to the Caribbean.
Nothing says older folk can’t get the same great deals, but let’s face it. We tend to have egos wrapped up in the aesthetics of new fiberglass, gleaming stainless steel and virgin aluminum; we demand the comfort of bigger boats and, in the name of safety, festoon them with the latest, greatest gear and electronics.
Much of this seems to be an attempt to mitigate nature rather than connect with her. It belies the words of a young Jack Kennedy, who once said: “We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea — whether it is to sail or to watch it — we are going back from whence we came.” Somehow I don’t think even the wealthy JFK envisioned looking out from an air-conditioned saloon when he said that.
Older cruisers see themselves as having undertaken a great exploration of foreign places and cultures, but the reality is that they — and particularly the Americans among them — tend to congregate in like-minded cliques; the only natives they come in contact with tend to be waiters and marina staff.
Rare though they might be, some parents feel so strongly about the benefits of cruising while young that they raise their children under way, home-schooling them or, when convenient, enrolling them in the local schools wherever they happen to have dropped the hook. Overwhelmingly, my experience with these kids has been positive; boys and girls grow up fit and self-reliant, polite and articulate; they get along well with adults. They enjoy a seagoing culture where people are judged on their own merits.
Another way to cruise while young is to do something that lets you retire way ahead of the gang. Selling that cutting-edge software company of yours is one way to do it, but it’s not the only way. Scratch any anchorage, and you will always find one or two boats funded by police, firefighter or military pensions.
Recently I read that seven of 10 young Americans are ineligible to join the Army because they are too weak, too fat, too neurotic or otherwise afflicted. Of the 30 percent who are eligible, many are disinclined to join for reasons made obvious in our daily headlines. To overcome these challenges, I think military recruitment needs to better communicate the tremendous benefit of a full pension after 20 years and why such a benefit might outweigh the risks and sacrifice of wartime service.
The ad camera should chronicle the lives of two men, beginning in their 20s, one civilian, one in uniform. As their careers progress, the camera follows. The contrast develops when they hit their 40s. The civilian is stressed but still striving in an office setting, while the military man has begun sailing through the Bahamas. Fast-forward a decade, and the civilian is a burned-out cog in the wheel, while the retired military man is still sailing, having the time of his life.
Finally, looking blanched and bloated, the civilian is retired and cruising in a boat of his own. He meets the retired military guy, fit and tanned; this one is now keeping busy as dockmaster at a marina. “After 23 years of sailing,” he says, “I figured I’d take a year off.” Cut!
For the rest of us fiscally challenged middle-agers, the answer is to work like the Bruyn brothers and the Pestilencequartet. Many island cruisers are writers, technicians, delivery skippers or charter boat captains.
Had I to do it over again, I would have apprenticed as a refrigeration technician. Down island, there’s always a broken fridge or a balky AC unit. I’d pack a few gauges and a couple cases of refrigerant on a $5,000 boat named Mr. Chill. We’d sail from harbor to harbor, putting the ice back into old folks’ cocktails — a most worthy endeavor.
So if you’ve got a 30-foot sailboat growing moss on the outside and mildew within, consider giving her to any young person willing to step up to the challenge.
This story was originally published by Soundings Online.