Who Are You Calling a ‘Cruiser?’

By Buddy Stockwell
Published November 2007

When someone uses the term “Cruiser” what is it exactly that pops into your mind? I always thought the word was easy to define, but now I’m not so sure.

So here’s the challenge: What is it that real Cruisers are made of these days?

For example, are multi-millionaires Cruisers, or must you be on a budget? What if you only gunkhole the Chesapeake? What if you live aboard a stationary wreck? What about bareboat chartering? How about the magazine-inspired zero-experienced, can they be real Cruisers despite having no clue about clews? As of late, I’ve been asking. The deeper I dig, the more evasive the answers.

At dictionary.com the word “cruise” is defined: “to sail about on a pleasure trip.” A “Cruiser” simply does precisely that. Sounds dead-dog simple, right? WRONG! Some people demand that real Cruisers meet tougher standards.

I came to this realization partly by reading Caribbean Compass. It’s been fun to critique controversial articles and peruse travel logs. Further, the Readers’ Forum is spectacular when “firing squads” of experts emerge with guns blazing, “executing” the prior month’s opinionated authors.

Strong opinion goes hand-in-hand with Cruising. Bona fide experts are everywhere, ready to pounce and opine ad nauseam. You find them at Customs, the chandlery, eavesdropping on every VHF transmission, and “holding court” at the bar. It is no surprise Caribbean Compass is also a favorite haunt.

But despite endless tides of expert opinion, defining “Cruiser” is elusive. To my knowledge, no Guru has coined a general definition. Such efforts might be fruitlessly narrow anyway. Gurus worth their own salt would surely define “Cruiser” by holding up their own picture, and that would be too narrow.

Articles in Caribbean Compass do not settle the issue either. Authors never state what a Cruiser is. Instead, efforts focus on articulating what a Cruiser is not by delineating alleged deficient behavior(s) and implying that some people are not fit.

I’m sure you’ve read the plethora of “they are not real Cruisers” remarks bantered about in Caribbean Compass akin to the following (exaggeration added by me, of course):

Instead of landing at the fuel dock under sail only, they doused that big beautiful spinnaker and motored up to the dock instead. They obviously do not have the incredible sail-handling skills real Cruisers do!

They avoided a beautiful anchorage merely because somebody got chopped up by an attacker’s machete during a botched dinghy theft. What pitiful little small-minded stay-away non-Cruiser paranoids!

They didn’t savor the flavor of the ultra-cheap fly-encrusted bacteria-seething street vendor food. They should have stayed home and stuck to reading magazines! They don’t have the guts (literally) to appreciate culture (both historical and bacterial in nature).

They ran a generator and air conditioning last night. What noise-polluting paradise-destroying comfort-before-courage spoiled-rotten jerks! I’ll tell you what: it was damn hot on our boat too, but we quietly suffered through as real Cruisers.

They talk about Mexican Train Dominoes on the VHF. True-grit Cruisers would never so much as peripherally participate in such immature, impractical, non-oceanic endeavors!

They have not sailed 30,000 miles and/or crossed an ocean, much less circumnavigated non-stop single-handed with no GPS and no autopilot while standing on one foot. They are stumbling toddlers, not real Cruisers!

They were worried about crime reports down-island. True Cruisers never worry and never lock anything. The world loves real Cruisers. Crime is reserved for inept Cruiser-wannabe-fools and for “locals” with “axes to grind” between themselves. Crime never touches real Cruisers with good Karma!

They don’t bathe naked on deck. The poor things have “issues” about their bodies and don’t appreciate natural God-given freedoms real Cruisers enjoy such as getting naked on the transom steps and rubbing “soapy privates” while people on other boats watch through binoculars and gasp: “Good God! Honey! Take a peek at THIS! Hurry up! And please, PLEASE tell me I don’t look like that yet!”

They don’t pee over the rail at anchor while waving to neighboring boats for applause and scoring regarding impressive trajectories. They must have been potty-trained at gunpoint, poor things. They are clearly not real Cruisers or else they would heartily embrace the liberating joys of “fun with bodily functions and an audience.”

And so it goes. Reading Caribbean Compass has been both hilarious and illuminating.

On a sad note, I quickly learned that I can never be a real Cruiser in all circles. When this realization struck, I cried myself to sleep every night for about a week. But, I am happily over it now. Besides, as the old Groucho Marx quote goes: “I do not care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.”

All kidding aside, I have been asking myself broader questions. For example, what is wrong with the simple dictionary.com “sailing around on a pleasure trip” definition? What is the big deal? What motivates some Cruisers to “slice the baloney thin” and concoct definitions that exclude others? I can offer theories based on actual experiences with various personality types I’ve encountered.

First, there are the “competitors”. They are unmistakably out to prove something by cruising. They are ingenious at turning conversations so as to inform you that they are superior expert Cruisers sailing the best cruising boat. They don’t want friends; they want audiences. They clearly reserve the label “real Cruiser” for themselves (and clones). They don’t compliment anyone else and never praise other boats.

Personally, I can’t imagine how anyone could perceive that Cruising is, of all things, a competition. Why the edge? Are they constitutionally incapable of turning off a “rat race” mentality? Did they fail to earn respect in prior careers? It’s as if the Mad World (that we all supposedly left behind) snuck onto their boat and is a permanent stowaway.

Another voice emanates from “sour grapes” types. If anybody has anything bigger or better, they automatically declare that those spoiled jerks aren’t real Cruisers: “All we have on board is a bucket and a flashlight; real Cruisers only need one flashlight. People with two flashlights are not real Cruisers.”

Of course, not all minimalist Cruisers feel that way. For a few, though, hardship and jealousy make a potent mix that eclipses their ability to accept more fortunate folks as real Cruisers too. I admire those who dare to cruise in small boats on pennies a day. Their sheer tenacity commands respect. Nonetheless, they alone do not represent the entire universe of legitimate Cruisers.

A third voice comes from the ranks of “credentialed” Cruisers. To be legitimate in their eyes, you must have all the right certificates and the right burgees flying from your spreaders, or else you’re just a dummy on a boat. You have not earned the title of Cruiser. More important, you have not been voted on by them.

When I first started cruising, I was stunned to find a few people out here carefully tilting their noses up at just the right angle, like olfactory sextants continually marking the zenith of their alleged cruising superiority.

Last but not least, there is a fourth group: “adrenaline junkies” who get their kicks by traveling beyond the outer limits of caution and common sense. They love the thrill of risk-taking. Sure, they are real Cruisers too. But, the only expressions they define exclusively are “real lucky” and “real dumb” depending, of course, on the outcome of their latest stunt.

Shifting gears now, let’s get back to the issue: generally defining “Cruiser”. After shooting my mouth off, it would be ludicrous for me not to offer my thoughts.

It is my steadfast opinion that there is a solitary hurdle to becoming a real Cruiser: untying the lines in earnest on Day One. You say good-bye to a previous shoreside life (already liquidated with no easy way back). At some certain moment you look back and see your home port disappear over the horizon behind you. Sheer uncertainty rests upon the horizon ahead of you. Nonetheless, you stay the course. That is the moment that you cross the line and become a real Cruiser.

It took a lot more guts to sell my home, liquidate a successful career mid-stream, and depart the comfort zone of a well-established shoreside life than it took thereafter to face big waves, reef sails in midnight squalls, and suffer occasionally nasty Customs officials.

Being predisposed toward camaraderie, I’ll go further. I say that if you are beset with an indelible, irrepressible dream of sailing away, and you sense a genuine kinship with all other people afflicted with an insane and tragic yet wonderful and magic love of boats and the sea, then you are surely a Cruiser for whom destiny simply waits.

My layman’s opinions are romantic, I know. True-grit circumnavigators, know-it-alls, and voyaging experts are scoffing right now in utter disgust at my syrupy notions. But before you judge harshly, hold on a second. I might just be in good company.

Joshua Slocum’s account of setting sail aboard Spray in 1895 demonstrates that at the very inception of his adventures a magical transformation occurred within him as well:

“I had resolved on a voyage around the world, and as the wind on the morning of April 24, 1895 was fair, at noon I weighed anchor…. A thrilling pulse beat high in me. My step was light on deck in the crisp air. I felt there could be no turning back, and that I was engaging in an adventure the meaning of which I thoroughly understood.”

Captain Slocum’s remarks may help augment the modern dictionary definition of “cruise” as follows: to sail about on a pleasure trip… having resolved at the outset to undertake the adventure with no turning back.

Hey, that’s not too bad. But what do I know? I’m no expert.

So far, I’ve asked 50 people in the fleet to define “real Cruiser” and I have heard 50 different answers. One crotchety old salt didn’t miss a beat, saying simply: “Not you.” Go ahead and laugh, I can take it.

After ruminating about all of this further, it seems to me it would help if people would stop using the term “real Cruiser” as vague shorthand for extensive personal résumés. For example, maybe you have mastered celestial navigation, or you have accomplished great feats of sail handling during oceanic passages. Those things are wonderful accomplishments, but they should not be used to define what a real Cruiser is or is not.

Make no mistake; I am not advocating that amazing skills should go unrecognized or unappreciated. I greatly respect and congratulate those with seamanship skills far superior to mine, and rightly so. What I am saying, however, is that no level of achievement, however great, entitles anyone to belittle others out here facing the same seas with lesser skills. Green as they may be, they had the guts to come out here and they are surely real Cruisers too.

All the same, I am still searching for the perfect general definition of “Cruiser” fashioned by Cruisers for Cruisers. If you would like to submit a “Real Cruiser” definition, or learn more about me and my adventures, see my website www.indigomoon.us.

Finally, many thanks to all of you who have appeared in Caribbean Compass and risked sharing your strongly-worded opinions with all of us over the years, despite a guaranteed date with destiny at the hands of next month’s “firing-squad!”

By the way, could somebody please loan me a cigarette and a blindfold?


Buddy Stockwell and his wife, Melissa, are cruising the Caribbean aboard S/V Indigo Moon.