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Penniless sailors: Our version of smooth sailing

celia krampien The Globe and Mail

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I know I'm asking for trouble as I nudge my wife awake with the words, "is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?" Neither of us are Queen fans, to say the least. On the other hand, they're not entirely rhetorical questions. K replies with a typical morning response; a low growl that manages to convey the genome of menace. It's the sound of sweetly poisoned coffee, of warmed bath towels spiked with fish hooks. K is a morning person like Henry VIII was an advocate of relationship counselling. I'll pay for this later when she sticks some awful hair band tune – Dude Looks Like A Lady or something – on repeat in my brain. (Sorry about that, by the way.)

We're lying in the V-berth of our Morgan sailboat. The sun is pouring in through fluffy cumulus clouds and our cat, Squeaky, is purring like a contented water pump. The wind is moderate, southerly, nice and steady. Great sailing conditions. Then I realize why I woke up with that particular lyric in my head, and I ask myself, well, how did I get here?

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Seventeen years ago, K and I were penniless. She'd dropped out of school, due to the high cost of learning, and I'd been relieved of my contractual obligation to sell defective coffeemakers to the hotel trade. Neither of us being entrepreneurs, we started a business; not so much on a shoestring as on a badly executed drawing of a shoestring, by which we slowly began to pull ourselves up.

Starting with a bag of leather scraps and the craft section of the public library, we learned a trade, and slowly our nano-enterprise grew into one of the world's tiniest multinational trading corporations. Along the way, we lost our home, and for one awful year we lived in our workshop, an aluminum shed between a collision repair shop and a battery depot that left the country station on 24/7. Maybe that's where we picked up the earworm bug. It hasn't always been fun, and it's never been lucrative. As of now, we have no savings, no pension, and our retirement plan is to die, cheaply, out of everyone's way. But it's always been interesting. Like the ancient curse-proverb, we have lived in interesting times.

So interesting, that six years ago K left the business to retrain for a real job. She emerged with degree and diploma and landed a job in the GTA. Solutions tend to have a way of generating problems that can either go bad or become new solutions. K, bless her, is a raised-in-the-country girl, a solitary creature of woods and meadowlands. She doesn't do well without access to nature, and a parkette four blocks down the street from an apartment above a laundromat is not it.

Around this time a couple of friends, who had dropped off the radar, resurfaced. They had got married and sailed their 30-foot sailboat across the Atlantic Ocean, stopping at the Azores, Canary and Cape Verde Islands, before returning to Ontario and blowing our tiny minds with an awesome slide show with music. The image of their tiny boat, determinedly pushing its way through the monster-filled darkness of the immense Atlantic night, was a bright metaphor for how we felt about much of our lives. So we thought, "Let's get a boat. Don't live in Toronto, live off Toronto." That's what friends are for.

Mere days later, we were cruising yacht brokers at Port Credit, checking out our live-aboard options. It seemed as though invisible brooms were sweeping the way clear. The first person we spoke to was distracted, a tern having just made a deposit on his shoulder. However, he directed us to a co-worker who was selling the boat that he, his wife, and their cat had lived on for five years. It was love at first sight.

The bank was a shorter story. A 12-year-old with an oversized suit and Adam's apple politely showed us the contents of his hanky before shepherding us to the door. Still, the Western economic superstructure is a tenuous edifice, and we wouldn't have slept well with its collapse on our consciences. Happily, a total stranger with a boat was prepared to take the risk. Five months later we owned a beautiful, blue sailboat; our ticket to Everywhere-on-Sea. That was 2012. We have lived on the boat ever since.

K's fancy job eventually dissolved in a toxic solution of office politics, and she exited, stage left; back festooned with cutlery. She has since taught herself boat skills and is preparing for a career change into marine services. I am dusting off my writing pencil and preparing to teach my beloved language to peoples of the non-English speaking world. We have laid our plans as best we can. The tiny multinational trading company is up for sale, and should provide a cushion during the transition to a cruising lifestyle. We are frugal; we'll be fine.

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Later, we're off the Toronto Islands in a choppy 15 knots. K is at the helm humming Hot Blooded for my benefit. I'm on the winch preparing for a tack, and Squeaky's hiding below in the hanging locker. As we come smartly about, and I realize I'm going to spend the rest of my weekend with a fever of 103, K looks across and shouts above the wind: "To answer your questions, yes; and no, but kind of yes!"

Billy Ditchburn, the lovely K. and brave Squeaky the Cat live aboard the SV Artful Dodger II, just off the coast of Toronto.

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