Living on the Edge

Terrific editorial by Andy Deering, author of The Best Life Money Can't Buy.


I’m starting to get the firm impression that the mainspring of most people’s lives is to die in some nursing home after drooling on their plastic pillows and pissing themselves for several years. I’m a sailor. I’ve been living on boats and going to sea in small boats with my partner Lisa for about 16 years and 60,000 miles now. We have a strong, safe boat, but we don’t have an EPIRB, a designated liferaft, a SSB radio, satphone or other long-range communication ability. Nonetheless, we have good common sense and a cautious, conservative approach to offshore safety.

We've met very few others who take a similar approach. Most of them have all of the safety gear mentioned above, and most are willing — if not eager — to put it to use. Safety is a hot topic among cruisers. I think cruisers have, since they were little kids, heard stories about wild storms at sea, pirate attacks, shipwrecks, and sailors adrift in liferafts. And I think those stories sparked a kind of primordial fear in their hearts. As these people grew older, the words 'sailor' and 'seagoing' became synonymous with 'tragedy' and 'rescue'.

As I write this, we're anchored near Hobart, Tasmania. Yesterday I stopped at a shop to buy some insulation for our exhaust system. An older guy, probably in his late 50s, waited on me. As he cut my insulation wrap to length, he asked me what it was for. I told him it was for my sailboat. He right away asked if I’d done much offshore sailing. I told him that I had. He then asked me if I had a good EPIRB. I told him no, that I didn't have one. By then we'd spoken long enough for him to ascertain that I was an American — or at least not an Australian. "You’d better not get caught without that stuff by the Australian authorities," he warned me. I replied that as mine was a foreign boat, those Aussie laws didn’t apply to me. He then said something that never fails to surprise me — even though, after hearing it for all these years, I should have expected it. In a loud and indignant voice, he asked, "Well, who do you think is going to rescue you?"

There it was, the seemingly indelible connection between going to sea and being rescued. I smiled, trying to defuse the situation, and told him that I really didn’t figure on anybody rescuing me. I said the idea is not to need to be rescued, and that should I ever have a real emergency, I’d either deal with it myself or die trying. "Aren’t you required to have an EPIRB to go offshore in the United States?” he asked. I told him that no, that it wasn't a requirement. After huffing and puffing, he looked me in the eye and said, "I guess that’s why the U.S. is in such a mess then, isn’t it?" Our conversation deteriorated from that point on, so I won’t get into the particulars.

The important thing for me was that it once again confirmed my suspicions about people’s approach to safety and security where boating is concerned. And it's really starting to bug me. Since arriving in Australia some five months ago, and having cruised down its East Coast, I’ve been shocked to the lengths the Aussies go to in boating safety and security. It's absurd! With few exceptions, Aussies going out on the water for as little as a two-hour jaunt around the buoys, radio their intentions to one of thousands of Coast Guardsmen maintaining hundreds of little stations along the coast. They tell them where they’re going, all their boat registration details, cell phone numbers, alternate phone numbers of friends or family ashore, ETA’s, ETD’s, POB’s, blah, blah, blah. All of this is recorded on a Tracking Sheet held by the Coasties until the trip is concluded, or is passed on — by fax? — down the coast to the next station. At that point, the skipper again checks in to give them course, speed, POB, ETA, ETD, blah, blah, blah, all over again. I have never seen anything so ridiculous in all my years of boating, and find it to be the epitome of the nanny state on the water.

What is always surprising to me is that those who go to the most extremes about their safety and security, both at sea and in general, are relatively old people. I’m not here to say that you can’t have some really good times in your life after you’re say 65 or 70 years old, but let’s face it, those years are no longer even close to your prime. Regardless of how many EPIRBs, liferafts, satphones, seat belts, bicycle helmets, health insurance policies and First World hospitals are at your fingertips, you are going to die. To state such an obvious fact seems like it should be unnecessary, given all the years everyone’s had to think about it. But people seem obsessed with trying to guaran-damn-tee that nothing is going to interrupt that appointment with the plastic pillows and those bed-wetting, drug-induced years awaiting them in an expensive nursing home. It’s downright weird.

I don’t have a death wish and would like to live longer. But when I say live, I really mean live. I know that someday I could die at sea. In fact, I've thought about it a lot. It seems to me it wouldn’t be all that bad a way to go. I could also die on one of my treks into the wilderness, where I also refuse to carry a radio, EPIRB and so forth. I could be killed by a grizzly, drowned in some wild river or die by falling through the ice on some lonely lake. I could also die in an automobile crash, of some disease or even by some maniac going 'postal' with a gun. But I can guarantee one thing — before I die I will have really lived. And I will continue to really live right up until the time I stop living. I’m not going to work my entire life at making damned sure I live to a ripe old age. Some of that 'ripe old age' stuff really doesn’t sound too appealing to me.

So maybe it's time to ease up a little on all the safety and security stuff. Maybe it’s time to start concentrating a little more on life and liberty, and a little less on security. Maybe it’s time to accept a little risk. To try to eliminate risk is not only an effort in futility, it’s also a sure fire way to forfeit a good chunk of your time for genuine living. Don’t forget, you’re going to die. There’s no question about it. The question is how much living are you going to do before it happens? Come on, live a little!

As Abraham Lincoln so eloquently put it: In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.

Andy Deering

Author of The Best Life Money Can’t Buy