Borrowed Light

Cruisers reflect on the pleasures of a two-year voyage aboard a 50-foot catamaran. (Published Spring 2013)

Sailing our Discovery 50 catamaran for two years was a wonderful, memorable, uplifting experience: 14,000 miles of adventure, excitement and joy, making new friends and sailing with fond friends of old.

My husband John and I are back now and have just made a new home in the UK, overlooking beautiful countryside on the edge of a lovely Georgian town. We’ve only been here six weeks, yet we have a hankering to get back on the water.

Our voyage took us to France, Spain, the Azores and Bermuda before making landfall in Newport, Rhode Island. From there we headed north to the Canadian border and then turned around and meandered all the way down the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. We played in the Bahamas, met old friends in the Cayman Islands, loved Cuba and were completely wowed by the San Blas islands.

We left our boat in Panama for a while, before heading to Colombia and then east to the Windward Islands. Weaving our way through the islands of the Caribbean reignited our love for that area and our fleeting stops in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic only made us want to go back to explore further.

You might say that listing all those magical places alone is enough to want to carry on cruising, but the drive and desire to get back on the water is so much more. Cruising gives you the seclusion of being completely on your own yet endless opportunities to get to know people in the countries you visit and to explore their culture and history; it gives you the excitement of having little idea of what to expect from each day combined with the freedom to drop an anchor for as long or as short a time as you wish.


On a recent country walk we enjoyed carpets of bluebell flowers canopied by majestic beech trees that created dappled light through a woodland bursting with new growth. But walks are so two-dimensional and tame compared with snorkeling.

In the Cayman Islands, while waiting for John to clear customs, I took a stroll in the “back garden.”  Grabbing my mask and snorkel I plopped into the warm water and was so amazed by the density and variety of fish that I gave an involuntary shriek. The coral was spectacular too; fans of purple and yellow waved with the swell and great domes of brain coral with its intricate designs rose from a seemingly lifeless seabed.

Close to the surface was a haven for schools of golden, striped fish. Further below, the angelfish were well fitted out with precisely suited scales and flouncy tails, while individual blue fish with fluorescent fins provided little gems of brilliance. Add to all that the privilege of a turtle allowing you to swim alongside as it glides gracefully along or watching an octopus stealthily coil itself over the coral, or having a sting ray swim right up to your nose to check you out and you can see why doing a bit of gardening doesn’t have the same allure.

Compared with cruising, coming back to live in a house is as though life is experienced through a slightly opaque filter. Cruising is simple, uncluttered and defined by space. Before setting off on our Discovery 50 catamaran we sold our house, rented for a while and spent a couple of years getting rid of possessions. It was hugely liberating and made us realize how so much of what we had we just didn’t need. And having now moved into a new home we are trying hard not to fill it with “stuff.”


When you live on a boat, no-one expects you to have a full dinner prepared, you have no corners of a room which need filling with expensive ornaments, there is no junk mail falling through the letter box, the house plants don’t need watering and you don’t feel obliged to cut the grass. Yes, a boat does need love and care, but there is less of it than a house and it is not as complex.

By taking away the land-based clutter that steals your time ashore, you earn the freedom to live at a gentler pace that renews the soul. There is much more space to “be” rather than the frenetic drive to “do”, that I so often have at home. I have found that the more I have spent time just “being,” the more time I have had. The days seem to expand, giving a clearer perspective on life and a much greater feeling of contentment.


Cruising puts you in the right frame of mind to enjoy the people around you. We have had the privilege of cruising on a superbly comfortable yacht, yet it is reassuring how couples who are living on small yachts, often for several years at a time, still seem to get along remarkably well. I suppose there is an element of having to, but the shared experiences definitely make you closer. We found that if we weren’t researching and planning where we were going next, we were either making a passage or, having arrived at our destination, we would want to be off exploring—living together in the “here and now.”


The very essence of sailing together as a couple is that you have to rely on each other. When you are on watch and your partner is fast asleep, it is your judgement, your actions or lack of them that will make your passage safe and keep you both alive. But that is being very dramatic. With a simpler life and more space in the day you have time for each other, you value the other’s strengths and protect their weaknesses, developing an equal partnership.  Best of all, you rekindle all the feelings that led to you committing to each other in the first place.

Then there are the people you meet. Cruisers are a very relaxed group of people, comfortable in their own skins, with nothing to prove and eager to swap ideas including weather information and passagemaking details, or just handy tips. I have often been amused at some of the in-depth conversations around the table: substitute the effect of the euro-crisis or the impact of negative-equity in the housing market with the inner-workings of a bilge pump or the best place to snorkel.

The sea is a great equalizer and regardless of the size, age or type of boat, cruising sailors all have similar concerns and face the same challenges. Some love the isolation that cruising can give, while others embrace the opportunity for a get-together. On land it can take months to be introduced to your neighbors or get invited to dinner, but a quick scoot around the anchorage and you will soon have people bringing drinks and food on board for an impromptu party. It’s true that some friendships are only for the length of time you are in the same anchorage, but you will often find that your routes crisscross with others and that you build lasting friendships very quickly.

In all the countries we have visited, we have always been made to feel very welcome and have never felt there to be a threat. Perhaps it comes back to being relaxed and feeling good that leads to so many great experiences and finding people so friendly. In Maine, the harbor master offered us her car so that we could go get groceries; on a small Caribbean island we were invited into someone’s house for tea when we went there to buy bread; and, I spent a wonderful afternoon with Kuna Indians in the San Blas taking family photographs for them.


We really like our new home and its location but a large draw to return to cruising is the freedom to “park” your home where you please and stay for as long as you choose. It was extremely rare for us to stay in a marina and I don’t think we ever had a truly “bad” anchorage—many of them were absolutely sensational.

Houses are such static things and the view stays the same. In nearly all places in the world, some of the most expensive properties are those with a waterside or sea view. It may sound daft to say it, but on a yacht you have the most sensational sea view and it is one that can change many times a day. The full horizon makes the sky so much more imposing and the reflected light of the water gives any view an extra dimension. It is almost sacrosanct to savor the sunset each day.

Just recalling our experiences, it’s not surprising that we have a hankering to return to the cruising life. It is the lightness gained from few responsibilities and commitments, having the freedom to embrace what each day brings. It is living a simpler life with a realization that so much of what we have and do is not important and the lightness of mood that comes from enjoying each other’s company to the full. But one cannot step into this parallel world forever and such light is just borrowed for a time. If you have the chance to go blue water cruising, then seize it while you can. You will not be disappointed.

Caroline and John Charnley, co-founders of Discovery Yachts, set sail on the first Discovery 50 Cat in 2010 and have since crossed the Atlantic and cruised the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. and Caribbean Sea.