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Dave and Anke
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Sunday, May 3, 2015

Hermit Crabbing: Another Way to Go

Hermit Crabbin'
Prints available HERE

The ideal is to feel at home anywhere, everywhere.
- Geoff Dye

Hermit Crabbing: Another Way to Go
How Michaela Poppleton aka Mimi P rolls...

Over at VolksCruiser, Bob Wise asked his readers what we would like in a VC. Among the responses was Mimi P's alternative approach, Hermit Crabbing. Michaela Popperton, the woman behind the netID, graciously expands, here, on her comments.

The beauty of the HC approach is that one can sample from the smorgasbord of possibility - both in sailing grounds and types of vessel - without the heavy investments of time, money and energy that a fully found vessel can consume. Yet one is much more connected to one's time aboard than in, say, a bareboat charter. Such kits are scalable, and can be personalized to many styles of cruising, ranging from open beach cruiser to trade wind sled.

Just find a shell!

The following is her lightly edited account, reformatted from our correspondence...


I'm just about to turn forty-four years of age, was born and raised in and around Toronto.  I studied architecture in university but never pursued it beyond that, becoming rather turned-off by the profession's narcissistic self-obsession... which is pretty ironic seeing as I've ended up in the middle of all-things-yacht which is about as self-absorbed as it gets.

I work in the marine biz, so I have a sort of love-hate relationship with boats.  It's a career that has afforded me some great opportunities to live in lands far-away, but it also sometimes takes the fun out of doing something as simple as going sailing; there are days when the last thing that I want to do is deal with another boat. even if it is my own!  I'm shore bound for a while right now, so hopefully that will help to rekindle the passion; to freshen the breeze, in a way.

I've sailed all my life, raced much of it, and being a natural tinkerer I got involved in production yacht building with the late PDQ Yachts in the late nineties.  I started on the shop floor fitting joinery into the boats, but between having a pretty solid boating background and being pretty bright I quickly moved into a role managing (ack...) the existing and in-development sailboat lines, and eventually ended up in a role as the president's right hand and acting as a sort of liaison between the engineering, sales, and production departments.  
[I'm now] acting as [...] liaison between a customer or marketing group, a designer, builders and a boatyard.  The customers know what they want and the designer knows what it should be.... then I figure out how and what it will take to build it, and then convey that to the hands in the yard.  It sounds pretty glamorous, and sometimes it even is.... but it's mostly a lot of drudgery penning specifications, populating bills of material, and schedule building.

I've built on the beaches in Thailand, in the furnaces of Taiwan, up the river in Argentina, aside the Broads in the UK, down the Eastern Seaboard of the US, and most recently in sunny, breezy Western Australia.

I took to living aboard out of economy more than anything else.  I could afford to keep a home or a boat, but trying to keep both was going to be a stretch... so I chose the boat.  Doing the kind of work that I do, one or two or three years at a time, demands that I be flexible, unencumbered, and mobile; this is reflected in my hermit crab style of boating, and living.  

The Hermit Crab Approach

I've taken [...] a cue from the hermit crab.

I have a small collection of good "stuff" that I take with me from boat to boat as my situation or locations change. Everywhere in the world I go there are countless almost-retired hulls waiting shoreside for me to move in, and they are generally of a type that suits well the local waters. It is easier, and less expensive, to pack my kit in a crate and ship it across an ocean than it is to forever keep a boat that has passage-making capability that is only occasionally used to advantage.

Essentially, it's a collection of decent and useful gear that I've collected over the years, some of it purposefully bought and some of it scavenged, that lets me move onto just about any boat in the twenty-five to thirty-five foot range without that boat having to be already well fitted and maintained.

It allows me to use (just about) any of the countless, long-forgotten hulls that litter the marinas and yards all around the world.  I have been involved in the construction of so many of them... an enabler, in a way... to the wastefulness.  It bothers me, so I find some joy in giving them even a brief bit of care and extended usefulness.

The Boats

None of them are going to be up to making long passages, so I don't get too attached to them and happily leave them behind when I need to move some place new.  Cost and effort to restore or renew any of them would be highly unlikely to be recovered, so I minimize my investment: easy-come, easy-go.

I actually put very little effort into any of my own boats, because it's the sailing that I love and not the boat; it's about the wind and the water, not the gadgets and brightwork.

When it comes to choosing a boat, I usually let the location do much of the deciding for me.  They never need to get me very far from where I already am, so those qualities that make "great cruisers" don't necessarily need to be paramount; it affords me quite a lot of flexibility and freedom.

The estuaries in the UK really cried out for a shallow-bellied, tall-rigged bilge-keeler (which was wood, and so full of rot that is sort of "oozed" over the waves!), while in Fremantle I made the most of the perpetually-gorgeous sailing conditions and picked up an older generation lightweight racer that wasn't great to live on, but absolute bliss to sail.  In Toronto I had a C&C Redwing 30 and a Niagara 30 at different times: very different boats, but both had decent headroom which made winters bearable.  In Argentina I spent the most out of any of them when I found an old German Frers IOR warhorse and proceeded to regularly get it stuck in the mud.  It was quite enjoyable to actually meet him at his home, and tell him the story ; )

I like boats that have histories, and stories.  When they're shiny and new and washed everyday they seem "silent" to me.  None of them have been over ten thousand bucks to buy, and generally they have been around five or six.

Reselling at the end is the hard part and could take forever, or even never happen. Having put little in I really don't need to get much back out so I cut my asking price right down to a few thousand dollars and someone usually jumps on it.  People are far more likely to buy an old boat that is the in the water and being used than they are a boat that has been sitting dry for years, or decades.  I look at what I spent as my rent for the duration, and my return covers the expense to move me and my gear to the next place.

The Kit

I got tired of always dealing with engines and old outboards, so I bought a shiny new 6hp Yamaha one day when I was feeling plush.  It is a little undersized at times, but the weight savings compared to the 8hp models is enormous and lends me confidence when I'm hefting it on and off of mounts, and it saves 15 kilos worth of freight each time I move.

I have a collection of plastic UN-approved and sized 20L jerry cans: two red for petrol, four blue for potable water, and two white for anything else.  This way I don't need to rely on integral tankage, and having all of them of equal and manageable size allows them to stack beautifully.  I made bicycle panniers that hold one can each side, but I fit them to whatever bike I find locally.
I have a galley box with all of the essential utensils and implements, and a single-burner MSR multi-fuel backpacking stove that happily runs on the same gasoline as the outboard, so I only need carry one type of fuel.  I have a collapsible charcoal grill at the moment as well, which generally (but not always!) gets used shoreside and sometimes with foraged wood.

I use a Sawyer gravity fed water purifier when needed.

I'll probably add a composting toilet at some point, when I come across a boat that doesn't already have something that is make-workable.

I have a hefty Whale portable manual bilge pump that so far has (luckily) been used for everything except pumping water out the bilge.

Electrical systems are the hardest part to generalize and need to be dealt with individually.
Individually rechargeable lights are always a great solution, though more often than not I manage to cobble something workable together with what's already there.  I have considered building myself a box-mounted distribution panel and harness "octopus" that I could move from one boat to another (there are really only a couple of layouts used in sailboats in this size range, right?), but again, I've not yet run into a situation where what was already there was a completely lost cause.  I like making what I have, work.

I bought a used Watt & Sea hydro-generator from a guy who was disappointed by its performance (expecting miracles, I suppose...) and that has proven fantastic as a source.  I take the moorings that nobody else likes because they are in a high-current or -tidal flow, and it happily spins out watts all day and night. I really like the fact that it encourages me to sail more.  It starts putting out current at less than two knots of flow, but really shines when it has about five... so that does create a practical minimum waterline length on any potential hull.  It is also pretty pricey...   

I've also got a roll-up solar panel that is useful at keeping the anchor light working when I'm away from the boat, or keeping the cell phone and stuff charged.

The hydro-gen comes with it's own controller, as does the solar panel.  I let them both operate independently, but it is rare that both are ever used at the same time.

All of my navigation kit (software, GPS, etc) is laptop based, and I have both wifi and cell boosters.  The cell booster isn't completely universal, but has worked fine over my past few locations.  It probably seems extravagant, but my data plan is my connection to the world and lets me work on contracts elsewhere; it's a necessity for work, not for living.

I have an old-but-oddly-reliable Simrad tiller pilot as my extra set of hands, and I generally have enough electricity from the hydro-gen to run the pilot and my laptop while sailing along and working from the cockpit all day; I reach off in one direction in the morning and then come about and reach back in for the afternoon.  Life is good sometimes : )

I use handheld compass, GPS and VHF, but mostly as a safety tool in the event that I go MOB so they are always stashed in my PFD.

Tools... Of course, I've got an assortment of the usual hand tools including fids, needles and a stitching palm that lets me keep old rags useful and earn a few extra bucks when I need to.  There is also a bunch of useful bits of rigging that I always take with me, ranging from shackles and blocks to cordage and tape.  I organize it all in canvas bags inside of appropriately sized buckets, which are always useful to have on hand.

I don't have anything too crazy, partly because I work in and around boatyards so a few bottles of beer and big blue eyes often get things "done" for me.

I have two Japanese-styled handsaws, because they are light and break down into very little space.  I like to whittle, so I have few knives and gouges and rasps.  Spanners, sockets, screwdrivers, allen keys, side cutters, linesman's pliers, caulking gun, rubber mallet, hatchet, sand paper, paint brushes, scrapers.  The outboard came with every tool that is needed for user-servicing.  It usually all sits in a bucket.

None of it is interesting or exciting, but on a boat that doesn't have too much, not much can go wrong nor needs to be fixed.

I avoid power tools, because the electricity common to each of these places varies.  There really are very few places where 110-120VAC is used in the world, but I'm still hesitant to commit to 220-240VAC tools (adapting two available 120 receptacles to one 240 line is easy enough) even though I don't have a really good reason why I haven't.  Aside from not having had to yet....  Toss in the differences in frequency, and the chargers of cordless tools get even more limiting.

Fasteners and adhesives... Ziplock baggies full of new and reclaimed screws, bolts, nuts, and washers.  In bags they all cram down into a very small space and are worth shipping especially after an Asian stint.

Fibreglass is very easily available so I don't bother, and resins have a very short shelf life so they really shouldn't be kept.  They would have shipping issues as well, I suspect.

I've always got a tube of silicone and a tube of not-too-adhesive bedding compound on hand, because old boats leak.  A lot.  I don't ship any of it.  I suppose I could figure out at which point a product becomes a candidate for saving and shipping based on weight, but I tend to look at it as partial tubes have such a short life that they aren't worth going through the hassle of listing, declaring, and proving safe to ship.  I'm really good at giving things like that away to the next guy.

Shipping the Kit

I don't have a preferred method of shipping my gear, instead trying to make the best use of carriers and agents that we're already using at the boatyard.  Using local shipping agents also lets my little and relatively light pallet ship as part of a full consolidated container, though that sometimes means that things take a bit longer to get back into my hands at the other end.

I often use an empty pallet and crate from an engine because they are sturdy and light, and let the customs agency that has been getting all of the boat building material into the country figure out how to get my stuff out. I have always had easy access to crates, so I've not thought much about what it could be if I were to want it to be reusable. Maybe a two-piece dink could be designed to close like a clamshell with everything inside....

It is always surface-shipped, as none of the previously fuel-containing articles can be shipped by air.  The same is true of lithium batteries in many cases, so that needs to be kept in mind.  
My most recent shipment coming back to Toronto from Perth had a bunch of clothing and "stuff" and weighed in just over 100kg crated and took about a month, door-to-door; those two points are just about as far apart as is possible on the globe....

General Thoughts

I think a camp cruiser kit is quite viable, with thousands of twenty to twenty-four foot boats out there to be had wherever you might be or want to go.  There were so many of them built and they are easily and inexpensively had that buying two just to merge them into a single, slightly better one is an option (especially with scrap lead selling for over a dollar a pound so the discarded keel might help finance other parts of the project).  Camping gear is readily available, and so long as one doesn't fall for the marketing it can be very affordable and all fit in the trunk of the car or a broom closet at home.  Maybe an all-in-one kit box that is freight-company-acceptable might be marketable?

Languages!  It makes things interesting, that is for sure.  I used to work really hard to learn the local language, but have found that most of the official entities and port authorities have provisions in place for dealing with English-speakers.  Learning the indigenous language makes my day-to-day life of shopping for vegetables and underwear a lot easier, even if only because I am trying and the locals appreciate that.  As far as work goes, I tend to deal largely with fairly well educated people and they have long known that being able to communicate in English is invaluable, so it has made it easier for me.  Sometimes, though, there is merit in keeping my mouth shut, my ears open, and my comprehension secret....

To Sum Up
Advantages to the way that I approach life afloat?  Two advantages, and two reasons:

(i) The biggie:  It gets me on the water wherever I might be quickly, as I usually don't have to build or repair much of anything.  I hand over an envelope with a bit of cash, shake hands, check the through-hulls, paint the bottom and go.

(ii) The fun:  It lets me pick a boat that suits the waters that I will be in and the type of sailing that I will be doing, even if that might sometimes be dock-bound.  I can afford to be a bit frivolous and try out something different if I want to because I'm not overly invested of time, money, nor sentiment in the boat itself.

(iii) The peace of mind, on a professional level:  I'm holding myself accountable for the part that I have played in creating the mess... the wasteland of forgotten dreams... by quite literally living with and in it.

(iv) The right thing, on an environmental level:  The most environmentally-friendly boat choice (at least as it relates to construction) is one that has already been built.  I'm not making anything worse.


Clearly, hermit crabbing is not for ‘all the people, all the time’. But it’s something to keep in mind when opportunity arises over some far horizon.

It’s a way to see some more of the world, accumulate inexpensive education or establish a base along any sea.

The possibilities are endless....


  1. I believe it was Buckminster Fuller who advocated the idea of the travelling business man. Before skype and such, important meetings were still face to face. he proposed the travelling man take nothing with him. he would rent a car to take him to the airport. wear disposable clothing (an industry he also thought would prosper). and rent a car while there. take nothing, return with nothing.
    Of course we all understand that this was an idea that developed during a time of excessive growth and energy availability. But the similarity of having little to carry is interesting.

    If I were young and unattached... this could be a prospective method of taking care of housing when moving about... today not so much :)

  2. Hi TMM,

    Lee Child uses that idea in his Jack Reacher novels... man on the move with everything disposable...

    (I prefer the term 'transitional' do 'disposable', ideally implying that goods we enjoy have been useful to others and will be after our tenure. But one has to choose to enact this distinction.)

    Ultimately, a credit/debit card is the ultimate lightweight kit, I suppose.

    One problem with this extreme end that Michaela's kit avoids is time spent shopping on location, especially when the goods are not widely available. If it were just a matter of clothing/lodging/transport, Bucky's way works well (at least, as you point out, in a short term context). But boats up the ante!

    As for moving about... fortunately the world is interesting without even leaving the confines of one's own skull. The first kit to pack is a rich, internal life.

    Harlan Ellison once pointed out that if you want to see an ALIEN, take a look at the spruce tree in the back yard!

    As we age, our kit might change to take advantages of travel in more local or even inner space... a microscope, say, a book of poetry or mathematics, or biofeedback devices. Stephen Hawking is better traveled than a good chunk of humanity combined, I reckon.

    After all, our minds are sailors aboard the our body's vessel. All the rest is gravy!

    Dave Z

  3. Posted on behalf of John:

    Hello Dave,
    Enjoyed reading about Mimi and her clever approach to being a world traveler and a liveaboard sailor. She shows what you can do if your talented, flexible, creative and determined.