Living on a Sailboat: My Top 10 Favorite (and Least Favorite) Moments
After living on the yacht Long Reef for the past three weeks, I returned to land with so many incredible memories. I've narrowed down the best moments here and threw in some of my least favorite moments for good measure.
For some background, I lived and volunteered on board the Long Reef, an opportunity that I found through the volunteer exchange website, Workaway.info. Peter, the captain, has owned the boat for six years and has lived on it for the past two years. In exchange for providing food and accommodation on the boat, volunteers help with sailing, cleaning, cooking, video editing, and general maintenance of the boat. I joined Nerma, a 30-year-old Bosnian who has lived in Italy for most of her life. She had been on a previous ten-day trip with Peter. Marta, the other volunteer crew member, was 31-years-old and from Poland. The three of us spent most of our time together, and Peter showed us the ropes of sailing. We spent twenty nights on the boat, beginning in the coastal town of Bundaberg before sailing to Fraser Island then onto Lady Musgrave Island.
1. Watching turtles lay eggs on Lady Musgrave Island.
Every October to February, hundreds of Green female turtles make their way to the shores of Lady Musgrave Island to lay their eggs. Towards the end of our trip, Peter woke Marta and I up at 4:15am to go to the island to try to see if turtles were still laying eggs. Since they make their way up the beach in the evening, it was possible we had woken up too late to see them. But as I rounded the corner of the beach, I was surprised to see more than ten turtles lining the shore, in the process of making their nests to lay eggs. We were very quiet as to not disturb them and we never approached them head on. The turtles are easily disturbed as they climb up the beach and dig their nests; they will turn around and go back to sea if they feel unsafe. Peter spotted two turtles that had already dug their nests and egg chambers. Marta and I sat in stunned silence as we watched these incredible animals lay 100-120 eggs in the span of 10 minutes. Then, after that hard labor, they instantly use their back flippers to cover the eggs and start heading back to sea! It was an amazing reminder of how resilient nature is when it comes to survival, and watching turtles lay eggs was one of my favorite memories from this trip.
2. Enjoying a panoramic view of the ocean from the boat's mast.
At Lady Musgrave Island, Peter used an old paragliding harness to lift each of us up the mast of the boat! At 21 meters high, the views were incredible - you could see the entirety of the island, the variety of boats that were anchored, and the brilliant colors of the ocean. I snapped a photo to let my mom know I was okay, all the while praying that my sweaty hands wouldn't drop my iPhone!
3. Playing with dolphins at the front of the boat.
The morning we left to return to Bundaberg, there was not a lick of wind. At all. Not only is it really difficult to sail with no wind, it's also extremely boring and makes for a very long, slow day. We were in the midst of this boredom when Nerma shouted that there were dolphins at the front of the boat! We scrambled over the ropes to reach the front and were amazed to see a pod of dolphins swimming alongside us. There were ten of them! They jumped in front of the boat, played with each other in the ocean, and came up for air right in front of us. I loved how social they were; they knew we were there and that they were keeping us company. After twenty minutes, they continued on their way, but our whole day had been brightened by their visit.
4. Sailing the day away.
While our trip back to Bundaberg may not have been the greatest sailing day (the wind did pick up in the afternoon, thankfully), we did have a handful of other great sailing days. Sailing meant waking up at the crack of dawn -- usually 3:30am or 4am. We would pull the anchor up as the tide changed and the first light would show any reefs or potential hazards that the boat might hit. It would take all of us to hoist the sails and get the boat ready to go, but once we hit the open ocean, the waves would lull Nerma, Marta, and I back to sleep. Peter joked that we would sleep 95% of the day when we sailed. Which was true, but we all enjoyed being surrounded by the ocean and feeling the wind in our faces. We usually sailed for 10 hours, depending on the wind, before we reached the next island. I tried to learn as much as I could about sailing, but you really have to be on the boat for a much longer period of time to get the hang of it.
5. Swimming in the pristine beaches of Fraser Island.
I've mentioned before that four-wheeling Fraser Island is a bucket list item for many backpackers. The excursions cost $500AUD, so I skipped it, and am thankful I did because we ended up going to Fraser Island as our first stop! I didn't pay a dime and got to experience the other side of Fraser Island: its pristine beaches. The photos don't even seem to do it justice. The beach stretched for miles, the water was clear and warm, the sand was soft, and it was all ours. We also kayaked through a mangrove forest, kept an eye out for dingos, played beach volleyball and frisbee, and snorkeled along the beaches' edges.
6. Making friends at an impromptu bonfire.
One night, we gathered old branches to make a small bonfire alongside the beach. We were joined by a father and son who had been camping and fishing during our stay there. We ended up talking by the fire for almost two hours. Marta set up her camera to take timelapsed photos, and we had fun spelling words and making shapes with pieces of firewood.
7. Bonding over battered fish.
During our first few days on Lady Musgrave, Peter introduced us to the gloriousness that is homemade battered fish. Peter made the batter himself, then I would mix it and squeeze all the lumps out. Marta was the cooking queen of battered fish. She ensured every piece of fish was covered in batter before dipping it in the hot oil, then removed it only when it was a crispy, golden brown. It was amazingly unhealthy and everyone's favorite meal. We set up a makeshift table on the back of the boat and ate outside where we could feel the wind and see the stars. Peter's been making battered fish on Lady Musgrave with friends and crew members for decades. I copied down the recipe and instructions; I think it'd be cool one day to make the recipe with my kids. I could be that cool mom who ate battered fish on an island years ago.
8. Climbing the sand dunes at Fraser Island.
After a week spent anchored in a creek at Fraser Island, we sailed to the north tip of Fraser Island for a different view. The north tip of Fraser Island had a lighthouse, graveyard (well, there were only two graves), and the huge sand dunes that Fraser is well known for. The sand dunes were stunning and we managed to climb them before it started raining. You could see wisps of sand blowing from the edges of the dunes. It was a unique experience to be climbing such massive sand dunes, only to see the ocean surrounding you from every side.
9. Watching sharks eat fish bait at the back of the boat.
While at Lady Musgrave, we would take the remnants of the fish we had filleted that day and tied them to a rope with twine (we did not use hooks). Then we would lower the rope and wait for the current to carry the scent of blood to the deeper parts of the reef where sharks circled. On our last day at Lady Musgrave, when we were anchored near the deeper part of the channel, there were three whaler sharks circling a fish we had tied as bait. I loved watching them; I'm fascinated with sharks and think they are beautiful, misunderstood animals. We waited patiently as they circled the fish, until the moment the larger shark lunged for the fish and snapped the line. The underwater footage that Peter caught was phenomenal; you can see the shark open its huge mouth to take in the fish, its strength evident in its jaw and fins. It was a great moment to end our stay at Lady Musgrave with.
10. Witnessing the best sunrises and sunsets of my life.
Sailing required us to wake up early, and even though it was hard to roll out of bed, the view that often greeted us was breathtaking. I have never seen the sun rise or set the way I did from the boat. The most stunning sunrise was the morning we set sail for the north tip of Fraser Island, at 4:35am. And my favorite sunset? It was actually on our last day as we neared the port of Bundaberg. The sun set behind clouds, but the colors reflected from the sky were magnificent on the water. These were some of my favorite photos.
BONUS FAVORITE MOMENT!
11. Cleaning and gutting a fish.
Surprised this made the list? While it wasn't one of my most favorite moments, it is a moment that I am very proud of. Peter knew from the beginning that I was squeamish around fish and blood, so of course I was the first one he asked to clean and gut the fish he had caught that morning. With his encouragement, I de-scaled the fish, cut a slit to open it up, and pulled out half of its guts (Peter pulled out the other half -- that was the deal!). Cleaning and handling the fish also showed me the other side of fishing sustainability; killing, cleaning, and prepping food that you catch yourself. My experience cleaning the fish also made for one of the best videos we filmed during the trip - my reactions are as genuine as they come!
Every trip also comes with its challenges, and this trip was no exception. These were small challenges, but I thought I'd share them to show more insight about what it's like living on a boat.
LEAST FAVORITE MOMENTS
1. Getting 150 bug bites on Fraser Island.
I am not exaggerating about the bug bites. I counted. It was probably closer to 200 by the time we left Fraser Island. For whatever reasons, the bugs loved me the most and they annihilated my ankles, legs, and forearms. The worst bites were from the sandflies, which are nearly invisible. You don't feel them biting you, but their bites are intensely itchy. They covered my ankles and the tops of my feet. I was scratching incessantly, even while I slept, until Peter scared me about the possibility of getting a staph infection if I kept scratching the scabs off (cute, I know). Thankfully, I didn't get any bug bites at Lady Musgrave, but even now, I have scars from the bites on my legs and arms.
2. Getting stuck at Fraser Island.
After a week at Fraser Island, we sailed to the northern tip of the island, which we subsequently got stuck at for three days. We couldn't leave because there was a high wind warning. The weather was also constantly rainy and overcast. We were anchored far from the shore, so the only way to get to the island was to take the "ducky" (little rubber boat). We didn't leave the boat for almost three days. We were going stir-crazy and the poor weather wasn't helping. We played card games, watched movies, and slept a lot. When the wind finally died down, we were anxious to leave and set sail for Lady Musgrave immediately, even with the huge waves ahead of us.
3. Losing items to the sun / heat / salt water / sand / wind.
The sun is merciless and so is the ocean. During my three weeks on the boat, my favorite bathing suit lost most of its color, my sandals broke apart from the constant saltwater, and I lost a bathing suit top to the wind because I didn't tie it down to the line tight enough. I also had this odd moment at the beginning of the trip when I realized, "Where the f*ck are my pink tennis shoes?" I always keep them tied to a carabiner to my backpack, but they weren't there. With sudden clarity, I realized I had forgotten them weeks ago at a hostel in Airlie Beach when I was cleaning out my backpack due to the shampoo fiasco. Every misplaced or ruined item is money lost in my eyes, so it always feels like a hit to my budget.
4. Being given a game fish.
Halfway through our stay at Lady Musgrave, we noticed a small speedboat next to ours. One afternoon, as the three of us were sunbathing, one of the guys on the boat hollered and held up a massive fish. He joked that it could be our dinner, and the next thing we knew, he was swimming over to our boat with the fish in hand. He hauled the fish up on the back of the boat, and we were so astounded by its size that we just had to take photos with it. He left the fish with us. After chatting with the guy for a bit, he swam back to his boat and Peter returned a bit later.
Peter took one look at the fish and told us that it was a two-star fish, not even good for eating. "You know what they did? They were out spearfishing, saw this beast of a fish, then shot and killed it so they could get a good photo with it. So instead of this fish living a long life and reproducing, it's dead and useless. They handed it over to get rid of it." We didn't even eat the fish. Peter tied it to the line to try to bait sharks with it, but the sharks never came. He ended up cutting the line and the huge fish sank to the bottom of the ocean, killed only for its size and a good photo op. I took it as a lesson and it reminded me to be aware of where the food I am eating comes from and how sustainable its practices are.
5. Adapting to the food.
Peter tore out the fridge and freezer in his boat shortly after buying it, and he hasn't eaten wheat or dairy for the past 16 years. On the Workaway description, he made it pretty clear what his expectations were when it came to food and what kind of food we would be eating (lots of fish, curry, cabbage, carrots, beetroot, rice rolls). I bought peanut butter, rice cakes, granola bars, and honey before coming on board, but I tried not to buy too much so that I could still eat most of what everyone else was eating on the boat. I struggled with the salad that we ate because I didn't like the dressing, but for the most part I really enjoyed the food once I began to adapt to it. I did try curry, which I had never had before, and I tried a lot of different kinds of fish. Towards the end of the trip I was eating a lot of pesto pasta as a comfort food (hello, carbs). So while I never went hungry, it was a challenge to adapt to someone else's diet, especially given the limited choices we had when it came to food.
Overall, it was an incredible experience that I wouldn't trade for the world. I'm still working on compiling all the videos and photos from the trip, and I definitely have a few more blog posts to write about the adventure, but I felt I just had to start with my favorite memories.
Do you think you could live on a boat for three weeks? Let me know in the comments!