When the cruising dream ends, reentry can be hell


Nancy and Neil Sirman on their Cape George 36, Active Light, in Victoria Harbor, Seychelles.

Nancy and Neil Sirman on their Cape George 36, Active Light, in Victoria Harbor, Seychelles.

There are countless stories in books and magazines, websites and blogs about boaters heading off for a life of freedom and adventure cruising the oceans of the world.

Those tales chronicle boaters’ enviable sun-soaked adventures in exotic locales, living a lifestyle many only dream about. But few ever confront what happens when the dream is over — when for financial, health or other reasons, cruisers must return to life on land.

For some, reentry into the world of work, bills, responsibility and a culture that suddenly feels alien can be disorienting and overwhelming in ways they’d never expected. And the challenges are not only practical, but emotional.

“Many people I have talked to have said the reentry process is both expensive and difficult,” said Neil Sirman, 69, who lives in Poulsbo and cruised with his wife for eight years until 2008.

“It’s just hell. The yachting magazines don’t tell you about this. It’s just ‘buy this stuff and it’s going to be wonderful,’ and it is. It’s truly wonderful.

“But coming back, for some of us, is difficult.”

Back to the grind

For some cruisers, returning to a full-time job can be a tough adjustment, even if it’s the same work they did before they left.

Ken and Susan FitzGerald, who live aboard their 2003 Caliber 40 sailboat at Shilshole Bay Marina, both returned to their previous jobs when they returned to Seattle in August 2011 after two years of cruising the Pacific — she as a geologist, he as a project manager for a naval architecture firm.

Susan and Ken FitzGerald at their homecoming party in 2011.

Susan and Ken FitzGerald at their homecoming party in 2011.

Ken, 43, said he hadn’t realized the impact work has on his life and his schedule until he had some distance from it.

“The biggest disappointment [in returning] was how much time you spend at work every day. Work in general, it just wipes you out and you have no energy left at the end of the day.”

And his work suddenly seemed abstract, the tasks he performed completely disconnected from what he got in return.

“It’s a totally different thing running the boat and having everything that you do related to your personal well-being,” he said.

“It’s extremely applied — whether the anchor stays on the bottom, whether the squall hits you before you reef — everything’s 100 percent applied to how successful the day is going to be. But our lives now are so abstract in terms of the reward we get for the effort we put in.”

Other cruisers might return home and look for work, only to find their work skills suddenly obsolete. When Wendy Hinman and her husband returned to Seattle after cruising for seven years, he immediately got work as a naval architect.

But Hinman, who had previously worked in Web design, discovered that technology had changed tremendously since they left in 2000. While they were gone, wireless Internet became commonplace, the era of blogging was born and Facebook was launched.

“My skills were so old,” said Hinman, who’s 48.

The couple returned to Seattle in October 2007 and Hinman struggled to find her way. For the first few weeks they anchored out in Eagle Harbor, off Bainbridge Island, until they could get a slip. They rowed ashore for showers and groceries. Accustomed to tropical weather, Hinman was constantly shivering and cold. The boat suddenly felt dark and claustrophobic.

WendyandGarthBecoming increasingly depressed, Hinman hit a low point one day when she went to the local community center to use the bathroom while the marina facilities were being cleaned. While Hinman was at the sink, a woman came out of a bathroom stall and kept glancing at her. Then she asked Hinman if she was homeless.

“I think she sensed my despair, sensed my feeling of not belonging,” Hinman said. “It was like getting kicked in the gut.”

Shocked, Hinman went back to her boat and cried.

Culture clash

When sailing on an ocean in a confined space becomes the norm, returning to life in a city — the sounds, the lights, the pace — can cause sensory overload. Susan FitzGerald, 45, recalls being taken aback at driving again for the first time after returning to Seattle.

“We borrowed someone’s car and we drove into Ballard and it was shocking to see the pace again,” she said. “It seemed just hectic and frantic, a little rude.”

For Hinman, the sheer din of mainstream society was stressful.

“The constant noise, leaf blowers and cars and jet engines overhead, was just so overwhelming. We went months without hearing an airplane.”

Sirman said cruising changed his view of who he was as a American citizen, making him realize how fortunate he was. He became kinder and more helpful toward others, he says, and felt a new sense of interconnectedness.

Neil and Nancy Sirman's boat, Active Light, off the coast of San Diego at the start of their journey.

Neil and Nancy Sirman’s boat, Active Light, off the coast of San Diego at the start of their journey.

“The cruising society is a tight-knit and special community because they all depend on each other and they know that if they get into trouble, other cruisers are going to get together and help them,” he said. “So many times, people helped me.

“It makes sense to be a helping person because you’re going to need help somebody. That [perspective] grows on you and you get used to it, and after a while you want to be like that without thinking, what am I going to get back someday?”

Arriving into port, Sirman said, fellow cruisers would often come over to say hello. Dinner invites were extended freely. By comparison, he finds landlubber culture insular and alienating. After five years of living in their house, Sirman said, he and his wife still don’t know their neighbors.

“I wouldn’t know them if I passed by them in Costco or in the street,” he said. “In a harbor, people will pop by and say, ‘Welcome, here’s a couple of local bananas, and stop by the boat to have a cup of tea with us.’ Cruising people do that and shoreside people don’t.

“I changed, I guess, and my expectations for friends and neighbors kind of changed,” Sirman said.

And while true friendships can survive time and distance, cruisers say it can be tough to return and discover that friends aren’t all that interested in hearing about the life-altering experiences they’ve had out on the ocean.

“They wanted a sound bite, and I couldn’t do it in a sound bite,” Hinman said. “I needed to talk about it. It’s seven years of my life.”

And after being gone so long, Hinman discovered, some of her friends had simply moved on.

“It’s not personal, but it’s sort of a readjustment for them to suddenly have you back in their lives when they’ve sort of worked around that hole in their lives for a while,” she said. “They’ve gotten to know new people while you were gone and they’re doing their own thing. I felt kind of irrelevant sometimes.”

A forced return

Reentry can be particularly difficult for cruisers whose journeys ended before they wanted them to, for financial or other reasons.

Teresa Sicade cruised, 53, for four years with her husband on the Pacific Ocean, embarking on a dream they’d planned for a decade. They sold their house before leaving and had no intentions of returning.

“I loved our adventure. I loved what we were doing,” she said. “It was as interesting, fun and challenging as I thought it would be.”

Rob and Teresa Sicade, who cruised for four years on the Pacific Ocean.

Rob and Teresa Sicade, who cruised for four years on the Pacific Ocean.

But then Sicade’s father-in-law was diagnosed with lung cancer, so the couple returned to the Northwest in 2010. Her father died of emphysema early the next year, followed by her father-in-law in 2012. Sicade’s husband struggled to find work in the tech sector, and Sicade suffered depression and other symptoms related to menopause. It was a bleak time, she says.

“If our parents hadn’t needed us, we wouldn’t have come back,” she said. “I don’t want to be here. I love Seattle and I love our house here, but this isn’t what I saw myself doing when we left. I loved our cruising life.”

Sirman also returned to the Northwest reluctantly. He would have been happy to continue cruising, but his wife had had enough. She wanted a house and a garden. He wanted to make her happy.

“If it had just been my decision, I would still be out there sailing. It was gorgeous. It was wonderful. It was just the best time of my life in many, many ways,” Sirman said. “But I love my wife a lot and this is what she wants to do.”

Heather Patrick and her husband cruised for six years, returning to Seattle in 2007 because her brother was diagnosed with brain cancer, her aging mother-in-law needed help and her husband was done with cruising.

Returning, Patrick said, upset the equilibrium the couple had found while cruising. The shared dream and vision they’d had was gone, leaving a void. The togetherness they’d experienced was replaced by competing demands on their time. And personality differences — she’s highly social, he’s more reserved — were suddenly exacerbated.

The couple wasn’t prepared for those challenges, Patrick said.

“So much of who we were before we left was about cruising,” said Patrick, 51. “It was about planning the trip and getting the boat ready. There’s so much energy that you both put towards that kind of big dream and that sort of defines your relationship before you leave, and then certainly while you’re out there. Then you come back and you’re no longer cruisers.

“When you come back it’s harder to maintain that balance and that focus on each other and the life that just the two of shared.  I think you have to consciously redesign your life, and that takes a lot of consciousness and a lot of effort to have it become a life that you’re both happy with.”

Finding your way

Easing the difficulty of reentry requires intention and planning, cruisers say. For Hinman, author of the memoir “Tightwads on the Loose: A Seven Year Pacific Odyssey,” writing was her salvation. She reconnected with the boating community by writing race stories for a local boating publication and joined a writing group.

Hinman recommends that returning cruisers make plans for what they will do when they get back and consider trying new things as a way to reconnect with people.

“Make a mental plan but be really open and flexible,” she said.

Patrick suggests that couples talk about reentry beforehand, anticipate the readjustment and realistically figure out what their post-cruising life will look like.

“You need to redesign a life together based on the realities that are going to be there, and really understand what you’re giving up, why you’re doing it and what you’re getting, so that there’s a greater context for reentry,” she said. “I think it’s also really important to try and find another dream, or at least interests, to share.”

Patrick suggests that couples talk about reentry beforehand, anticipate the readjustment and realistically figure out what they want their post-cruising life to be like.

“You need to redesign a life together based on the realities that are going to be there, and really understand what you’re giving up, why you’re doing it and what you’re getting, so that there’s a greater context for reentry,” she said. “I think it’s also really important to try and find another dream, or at least interests, to share.”

For Susan FitzGerald, returning to work was a given, which made reentry easier to take. Where she might have felt stuck in her life by inertia before she went cruising, she said, she’s now content in the knowledge that she is where she chooses to be.

“I come from a big family with a lot of younger nieces and nephews, and one of the things I wanted to show them was that this can be done. You can follow your dream and come back,” she said.

“You don’t have to be on the hamster wheel all your life if you don’t want to be.”

15 Responses to When the cruising dream ends, reentry can be hell

  1. Fred May May 19, 2015 at 6:57 pm #

    Its amazing to see Active Light in such pristine condition and being used for the purpose we had intended for her. I was the original shipwright on the boat many years ago for her original owner. I was also involved in a few other Cape George Cutters and numerous other cruising boats in those days. One builds boats like Active Light with the purpose of perpetuating the freedom these spirit ships give us. I’m delighted and proud to have contributed in some way to those freedoms.
    Sailed to Australia 15 years ago and still here. The waters here are beautiful and daunting at times, and a circumnavigation of our continent is on the bucket list.
    Good sailing all.

  2. Ursula K July 26, 2013 at 9:55 pm #

    I was very interested in your article, and I found it very thought provoking… My husband and I are not cruisers, we don’t even own a boat, so I’m coming from a completely different perspective. What I *heard* in your article was consistent with the observations of people who retire without a plan. Not at all surprising.
    Folks who go cruising, or make other significant changes put a lot of energy and thought in planning their departure from mainstream life. What struck me about the folks you featured in your article is that they didn’t have their re-entry as well planned out as their checking out — for many legitimate reasons. I imagine that if anyone decided to go cruising with the same level of preparation, it would be as much of a nightmare. we all like to live in the moment, but I see a life lesson in this article, beyond the context of sailing and cruising.
    thank you.

  3. Jason MacLurg March 24, 2013 at 10:52 pm #

    FANTASTIC ARTICLE. Well written and interesting. I agree with Pacific NW Boater, that you should submit this for some recognition. Keep up the stories and pictures as I truly enjoy your blog.
    As for the reader who was offended, I am glad he spoke up. We all need to be heard. Its just that I can’t help but wonder if some of his joy might be restored by getting away from his work for an afternoon and just GO SAILING. Call it a mental health break from the apparent drudgery of his work. (I love the slogan used by a local boat dealership: “Life is pretty DRY without A BOAT!”)

    • Deborah Bach March 25, 2013 at 3:43 pm #

      Thanks very much, Jason! I’m glad you enjoyed the story and like our site.

  4. Gary Seierstad March 23, 2013 at 10:47 am #


    Such a well written and enlightening article, nicely passing along a good cross-section of real-life experiences! Having lived aboard for a number of years now, I appreciated hearing and learning from their candid stories! Thank you!!!

  5. Susan Fox March 23, 2013 at 10:30 am #

    Thank you so much Deborah for this story. I ended up in therapy this year due to accumulated stress from being back in the U.S. after cruising for 4 1/2 years. It was a total culture shock to me when I came back. I missed the warmth of the locals I’d meet in each country, learning about their culture, where in remote areas I’d see children at play as they ran and laughed with just sticks and stones, dugout canoes, and butterflies, where people valued friendship and laughter more than the latest phone or other electronic device,where healthcare was available to anyone at either an affordable price or no charge, where the latest clothes or makeup was the last thing on their mind, where family and friends came first and where shopping was for mostly necessities and not loads of material goods, where the sea life is the main attraction of the day, and where I’d get up at sunrise and go to bed at sunset, and finally where I was rocked to sleep by the outer shell of my being…the boat.

  6. Mic March 23, 2013 at 10:27 am #

    Another great article! Very thought provoking.
    PS. I’m looking forward to updates the “new” boat refit.

  7. Ralph E. Ahseln March 23, 2013 at 10:17 am #

    I was offended. I read the article and then the reader’s comments, and I was offended.
    They’re always the same. Those John and Jane Doe’s Cruising here and there, from the Tropics to the Med, around the world and back again. Living “Their dream”.
    Oh, how sad it is to have to come back to a world of work-a-day and the inconveniences of civilization. How sad that they have Withdrawal Symptoms and “Trouble adjusting”.

    Well, after a life of selfish, yes, selfish living, in a society of their own making, with little or no responsibility to others, they arrive back on shore and to the reality that we all must live with. No sun drenched beaches, no cocktails in the cockpit, no little brown native kids that they can take photos of to send back home to show how democratic they are.
    No, None of that.
    They can’t be some article in a Cruising Magazine
    They just have to be like the rest of us.

    • AHJ April 7, 2013 at 6:52 pm #

      IF you are offended at the experience of others, it sugests to me that you are wrestling with compromises and holes in your own path of life, which you are not facing up to. There is no inherent constraint on people to mold themselves to fit your cultural norms, and if they express some discomfort about reentry into those norms, it seems to me the civil thing to do would be to offer any helpful advice you could.

      My own suggestion to those suffering re-entry blues is to revisit their notion of what game they are now playing, and design their thoughts toward winning at their own self-defined game, or toward defining it in terms that they are happy with. Playing at a game you do not want to play is a hard way to win at anything.

  8. Dan Leach March 11, 2013 at 9:36 pm #

    Kudos Deborah, great story. We all love the life, but we all have to land at some point. Thinking about it in advance should be part of the plan.


    • Deborah Bach March 18, 2013 at 9:33 am #

      Thanks, Dan! It’s certainly something we’ve thought about, since we hope to take off long-distance one day.

  9. Pacific NW Boater March 11, 2013 at 7:41 pm #

    Very, very well written and researched story, Deborah. And on a topic few ever talk or even think about. You should win an award for this! At least feel good knowing others who harbor those same cruising dreams will read this and be better prepared for their eventual return. Keep up the good work!

    • Deborah Bach March 18, 2013 at 9:14 am #

      Thanks very much, Darren! I’m glad you enjoyed the story.

      Apologies for the belated response – we just got back from a week-long family cruise in the Caribbean. Fortunately we weren’t gone long enough to cause any real reentry issues. 🙂

  10. thom March 11, 2013 at 6:00 pm #

    Great article Deborah and one that most of us would never have considered.
    Thank you for this great site and the work you both do on it.

    • Deborah Bach March 18, 2013 at 9:21 am #

      Thanks so much for the kind words, Thom. I really appreciate the feedback and am glad you like the site.

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