What a Boatyard Taught Me about Loneliness

Life in a boatyard isn’t romantic, but it serves as an example as to the power of friendship and community.

two women standing in a boatyard

One of the places I felt the most alone was while housesitting in a mansion in San Francisco’s Pacific  Heights neighborhood. This 6,000-square-foot historic building had three floors of living space and a penthouse office overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts, and the shimmering bay. I could choose between three different bathrooms, took a nightly hot bath, enjoyed a private infrared sauna, worked out in my personal gym, and cooked in a huge and luxurious kitchen. Tom’s clients owned the home, and we resided there off and on for years while he did projects around the house. 

I was sitting on the couch in front of huge bay windows when I realized how lonely I was. I was trapped in this huge mansion in a city made of concrete and glass, and when I walked down the street, nobody smiled or said hello. Across the way from those bay windows, I could see white light glistening from apartments, and sometimes, the vague sense of movement as people lived out their lives behind these insulated walls. The disconnect from other people and from nature hit me hard, and I couldn’t wait to escape. 

No matter how luxurious a house is, it isn’t a cure for what we all crave: connection and community.

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The Pervasive Culture of Loneliness

hanging out on the beach in Rocky Point

One of my biggest fears in life is being alone. Not alone in a temporary way, where I enjoy time by myself to read, journal, exercise, or reflect. I mean perpetual loneliness, with no visitors, no phone calls, no emails, and no social interaction for days on end. This is an epidemic that is going strong in the United States and one that is heartbreaking as it can so easily be solved. In fact, this loneliness epidemic is so bad that the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office issued an advisory saying humans are wired for social connection, but we’ve become isolated over time. That loneliness is more widespread than other major health issues, and a major public health concern.

Community is key to our survival, but in modern American life, it’s become increasingly harder to find. This is why one of my top goals in life is to maintain my interpersonal connections with friends and family, and I work hard to nourish those relationships. They are as vital to me as the air that moves through my lungs.

Think about the suburbs full of huge homes. How often do people actually see and interact with their neighbors? How much community is there? Or do we often hunker down inside our walls, entertaining ourselves with our phones and televisions? What about the people who LIVE alone and have no family and no outside interaction? There has to be a change to solve this loneliness epidemic. But how? 

A Boatyard Community 

boatyard gathering
Sailors gathering for Christmas Day tamales

You wouldn’t think of a boatyard as an example of community. People don’t intentionally come to boatyards to find friends and connections. Boatyards are places where you want to finish work as quickly as possible, as boatyards aren’t nice places to live. 

At Cabrales boatyard in Puerto Penasco, Mexico, there are constant assaults to my senses. Sandblasting throws dust and rocks into the air, pelting our sailboat and campervan. The yard machinery roars throughout the day, lifting boats out of the water and putting boats in. Saws cut pieces of metal with a bone-grinding whine. Party boats blare loud music, and the snap-snap of snare drums ricochets off cement walls. The sickly scent of boat bottom paint permeates the air. The sounds and smells are so intense that I have to leave and walk the beach on a daily basis just to get away from it all. And I’m not going to talk about the smell of sewer leaching from a harbor filled with the hulking shapes of rusting shrimp boats.

What this boatyard does have is community. Sailors from all over the world gather here to get their vessels ready for ocean-crossings or cruising in the Sea of Cortez. It’s easy to make friends with this ragtag bunch who value self-reliance, nature, off-grid living, and adventurousness. When you share the same values with a group of people, there is an instant feeling of connectedness and community. Of course, as in any group of people, it’s impossible to get a good “vibe” from everyone. But we’ve met some really awesome people here that we’ve been in touch with now for years.

tacos with friends
Going to tacos with our friends from SV Flying Free

We gather for evening fire pits and pizza. We walk to nearby taco shops. We do yoga and run on the beach together. We share stories of sailing into the eyes of hurricanes and outrunning storms, equipment failures and how boat people are so different from land people. 

And when we’re done hanging out, we wander back to our sailboats, little tiny homes perched on stands throughout the boatyard, which sailors call “on the hard.” Living so close to so many friends gives me a giddy feeling. I see the same people and their smiling faces every day. The feeling of connectedness is a balm to my soul. 

I wonder how this feeling of connectedness can be translated to other living situations to help erase the epidemic of loneliness. 

But with this intense feeling of community in the boatyard, eventually comes loss.

A Community, Scattered

If I look across the way from our sailboat, I see another row of sailboats packed together. They remind me of a row of teeth; when one boat is removed, there’s a gaping hole. I once knew the people who lived in that empty space. I’d wave to them, smile at them, chat with them multiple times per week. Now all that’s left is a reminder of where their boat used to be. This is the nature of boatyards, though. Everyone is trying to leave, and the community I have come to love becomes scattered across the globe, as distant and as interconnected as constellations. With sailors, goodbye is often temporary, as many of us run into each other years down the road, in some remote and beautiful part of the world. 

While the feeling of community is fleeting in a boatyard, it still serves as a reminder of what is possible. I imagine tiny home communities sprinkled throughout the United States, where people have regular access to activities and each other. Where community is more important than status symbols and mansions. Where people can see the same smiling faces every single day, without the perpetual goodbyes that come with boatyard life.

I know there is a renaissance happening within the U.S. RV and tiny home resorts offer snowbirds places to hunker down for winter, offering activities and social connection. A new development in the Phoenix Metro area called Culdesac Tempe eschews cars in favor of shared courtyards, bottom-floor retail, bike paths, gyms and lounges. Is change afoot in how we deal with community and loneliness? I sure hope so.

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Cooking class aboard SV Scraatch

Here at the boatyard, goodbyes between sailors are bittersweet. We are happy our friends are leaving this dusty, dirty place and heading toward waters thriving with sea life. We know we’ll probably see them again someday. And we’re thankful for the friendship we forged, even though we’ll miss each other as oceans grow the distance between us.

Although boatyards aren’t ideal places to live, this one in particular has given me reason to hope. I know it sounds weird to say, but I would take boatyard life over suburb life any day. Rather than walking past people in San Francisco with faces set in stone, I am part of a thriving community.

I’d rather say goodbye, fair winds and following seas over and over again than have nobody to say goodbye to at all. 

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4 Comments

  1. Glenn Jensen says:

    Excellent article. I enjoyed it!

  2. Yes. I was working on cruise ships and one time in Istanbul a colleague and I were having lunch. His contract was ending and he would leave the ship soon for a 30 day vacation. And he did. We never said goodby, always “see ya” because we knew we would. And sure enough, in a month or so I was standing in a flea market in Montevideo, Uruguay , and this voice said ” it’s beer time”, and there stood my colleague. And what’s so remarkable is that neither of us thought it remarkable that we would meet up like that. It seemed perfectly natural. Same thing you’re describing. Magic! Ain’t it cool?????

  3. Karen Miller says:

    Excellent article and so very true. We are recent Nomads traveling the US living full-time in our Fifth Wheel camper and completely understand the feeling of loneliness. Leaving friends and family and staying briefly at campgrounds and RV parks saying “hello” and “goodbye” each week or two has been difficult for me. Although being an RVer and meeting other RVers especially full-timers is its own community feeling as most people are friendly and typically enjoy conversation and learning about each others lives. I do miss my grown children across the country and look forward to reestablishing our lives near them in the future.

  4. Alan Schultz says:

    Kristin,
    Always good to hear about your life and travels. And even your lonliness. Travel well!

    Oh! we may be in your area this coming week (4/24/24 to 4/27/24) as we want to spend a few days to see what the area is like. We won’t be sailing however, just visiting. Maybe we’ll run into each other. Mary would love to hear about creating income on the road.

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