Small boat, big ocean: an interview with James Baldwin

James sailing Atom in recent times

James sailing Atom


James Baldwin has become an established point of reference for small sailboat enthusiasts. His website atomvoyages is a wellspring of informations for people who are planning to start  cruising affordably. He is author of two books about his voyages aboard Atom, a Pearson Triton built in 1963 that has been twice around the world. Most of his sailing was done single handing on Atom, but during the time he spent in distant seas he also had other adventures aboard different boats and with crew from all over the world.

Today James’ main activity is consulting for customers, writing, sailing Atom locally and occasional longer deliveries. I had the opportunity to get to know and spend time with James in Brunswick, Georgia, while I was refitting my own sailboat and to join a “community of practice” of enthusiast cruisers that spontaneously gathered around him.

I reached out to him to ask few questions about his sailing experiences and to explore the psychological effects of sailing in his own experience.

FB: I remember reading in your first book, Across islands and oceans, how your very first passage from Florida to Panama, beating to windward in the Bahamas, everything got wet from water leaking from hatches and deck. Now, many years and nautical miles after those hard beginnings, how have you and your boat changed? 

JB: My early years of sailing, with all the minor sufferings and hard lessons, were a needed challenge to train me to move forward in my sailing career. Little by little, my boat and I evolved. She became better maintained and equipped as I grew less stressed and more hardened against discomfort. As I became a more competent sailor my knowledge base expanded on such things as technique, passage planning, acquiring the tools and equipment needed to improve my safety, comfort, and confidence in overcoming a challenging environment.

Galley, and interior of sailboat Atom

Galley, and interior of sailboat Atom

FB: What do you consider comfort on a sailboat? Did it change over time? 

JB: Looking back, as a 21-year-old seeking adventure on a shoestring budget, I had a huge tolerance for discomfort. I had equated that a big adventure meant big discomforts. I now indulge in smaller adventures with more comfort. But even now I believe that a certain amount of what might be considered suffering is essential to a true adventure. The highs in your life are relative to the lows. The degree of fulfillment is related to the roughness of the road you’ve travelled.

On early passages I lacked what I now won’t go to sea without, including stout rigging in good condition, bulletproof systems for reefing and general sail handling, extra water capacity, mechanical self-steering, backup emergency steering in case of steering system failure, dodger, bimini, and over the boom awning (most of your time is spent in port after all), oversized anchors and manual anchor windlass, a reasonably dry boat inside, even when the waves are landing on deck and spray is everywhere. All these items and more contributed to comfort directly or indirectly by putting my mind at ease and making the experience more enjoyable overall.

FB: What about sailing came naturally to you?

JB: As an only child I was well-suited to times of solitude and learned how to fill the hours in a meaningful way. Study of the world within and without came naturally. My dogged determination and an ingrained need to discover the raw world happened to mesh perfectly with traveling under sail. Even the unrelenting motion of the boat is in some way soothing, as is the womb-like embrace of a small boat on a sometimes hostile sea.

My growing skills at maintaining and modifying my barely adequate production sailboat were based on a sound background of using tools working with my father in his engineering company and then in serving as shipwright apprentice in the early years. As a child I was fortunate to be introduced by my parents to travel as well as wilderness camping, which made travel on a sailboat seem a natural extension of earlier experiences.

FB: What was the hardest lesson you had to learn while sailing solo around the world?

JB: It’s difficult to pinpoint a hardest lesson because I didn’t view the countless challenges I dealt with in that way. The sea has so many lessons to teach you and I look back on them in a state of mind that is grateful for and values each experience along the way. The lessons you will learn sailing solo that most novices would consider hard might include: effects of solitude, the craft of self-sufficiency, endurance, acceptance of the obvious fact that the sea is utterly indifferent to your wishes, that your best plans will often be shot full of holes. You will learn that your friends, lovers, and family have needs that you must accommodate while not sacrificing your own dreams to the point they become nagging, deep disappointments within you.

FB: Tell me about loneliness. Did you have difficult moments because of your isolation?

JB: There is the negative perception of loneliness and there is a character-building aspect to it. To appreciate society you need to occasionally remove yourself from it. People can become overly needy for companionship, taking it as a crutch to avoid coming face to face with themselves. They often needlessly self-inflict themselves with suffering over loneliness and magnify it out of proportion to what it is.

Certainly I craved companionship at times when sailing alone but those feelings were mostly in the background and didn’t hinder the adventures I lived. When I reached my next port I was generally eager to rejoin society. Of course, I had a few love-sick days after having to leave a girlfriend ashore when I sailed to the next port but that I accepted as a natural part of the solo adventure I was on.

FB: What is a necessary mental skill to possess to be able to make long distance voyages under sail?

JB: It goes without saying that a singlehander will have an affinity and love of solitude and the sea environment. He or she also would do well to have an unflinching belief in their abilities, judgement, and purpose. A firm grip on reality as well as the continued perception that your minor discomforts and physical and mental complaints are temporary, makes them more easily tolerated. This means you have developed that simple mental discipline of deferring gratification, which has become a rarely practiced art in today’s world.

Being offshore alone will develop your capacity for “sailing in a state of grace,” as Bernard Moitessier termed it. You will either achieve that awareness and connectedness with the sea, boat, wind, and sky or you will not care to repeat the singlehanded offshore experience.


Mei and James aboard Atom

FB: How is it sailing alone vs. sailing with crew?

JB: I enjoy sailing now with crew or my wife. Crew can make life easier or sometimes complicates it. Most people are better suited to sailing with crew. Sailing alone is always worthwhile for me, but it is not something I would choose to do for every passage, every year of my life. There are rewards to sailing alone that are not found with companions aboard just as the reverse is true. A balanced life contains much of both experiences.

The rewards of having a crew aboard are mostly obvious; the comforts of companionship, knowing that you will have at least one trusted friend in every port, easing the burdens of watch-keeping, sail-handling, boat maintenance, and so on. It is also natural to feel that an experience shared is preferable to one experienced alone. I come back from a solo passage eager to share the experience through my writing and consulting, so in a sense, I have only deferred the sharing to the near future.

An afternoon alone under sail is tolerable and helpful to anyone, but there are a select few that can thrive on an extended solo voyage. Sailing alone minimizes distractions, focuses your thought, and heightens awareness of all the senses. For example, the solitude coupled with the need to awaken frequently for watch keeping and course adjustment or sail changes allowed me to learn to dream in sequential episodes, which I found very entertaining and pleasant. I could often steer the course of my dreams and instantly pick up where I left off after a short interruption of sleep. This is not to deny that we are social animals, only that some of us require a degree of solitude to engage our deepest awareness.

FB: Could you say that sailing improved some areas of your character?

JB: It’s probably more obvious to those who know me that my character still needs improving. In a self-serving way I like to think my character has benefited from the years under sail. I hope I returned from my wildly varied experiences with an understanding of new cultures, cultivated a compassionate connectedness to people and my environment, and an invigorated self-awareness. We can never know what person we might have become if we chose different paths.

FB: Can you describe the effect of the sea on your mind and body?

JB: Sailing is filled with sedentary hours punctuated by minor or extreme activity. It’s a myth that sailing is a sport that keeps you highly fit in body and mind. It can be that way, but only if you work at it. Most of us require a daily routine to thrive at sea. Exercise, meditation, hobbies, and a sense of purpose all keep you balanced in body and mind.

Atom under spinnaker and mainsail

Atom under spinnaker and mainsail

FB: Researcher from Stanford University found that awe (the experience of something so strikingly vast that one needs to update mental protocols) expands perception of time, alters decision making and enhances well-being. Did you experience something similar or different during your voyages?

JB: To go to sea is to place yourself in an environment of awe and challenge. Knowing that we are an isolated speck on the sea is humbling and exciting and enlightening. Removing myself occasionally from the clutter and confusion of shore life by going to sea is purifying and healing. I go from distraction to focus, from that sense of harried confusion watching a runaway clock, to the calm, introspective hours focusing on the immediate.

The minimalist creed I developed at sea directed me to value quality of time over quantity of possessions. Instead of ruminating incessantly on the past and future, sailing alone on a shoestring had taught me the simple joy of mindfulness and the unbuyable gifts of self-denial. Living within the concrete boxes of the city, you are assaulted moment by moment with advertising intent on displaying your inadequacy with your present situation and the costly solutions offered.

You may practice meditation as an antidote for the poison of self-indulgent consumerism. Our advertiser/consumer relationships feed our misery and promise that the next purchase, then the next one after that, will deliver the happiness we lack.

FB: You have been helping people new to cruising with your consulting for some years now. What are the most common fears that people new to cruising face?

JB: Analysis paralysis is most common today. Too much information is available from too many sources. The cacophony of conflicting opinions makes it difficult to discern what is applicable to your needs. A Chinese expression says: “To walk one thousand miles is better than to read ten thousand books.” They might also have said that having a mentor whose judgement you value, speeds up and smooths out the learning curve.

There is another widespread belief that you can buy your way out of your fears and ignorance. That approach takes a mighty big pocketbook and is no guarantee of success. New cruisers are bombarded with advertising to the point where they feel they need a 50-foot boat to cure their insecurities and carry the gadgets that enslave them. While they may have initially come to cruising under sail as a way to make a lifestyle change, they often resist changing to a more minimalist mindset, or have unreasonable expectations, and baseless fears. All of that is to be expected from creatures of today’s society. A cautious approach needs to be balanced with an eagerness to learn new things and adopt a new lifestyle.

FB: How do you think cruising has changed in the last 30 years. It seems that with internet today everybody is out there cruising. Is it really so or it’s just a matter of visibility?

JB: It’s been several years since I have been crossing oceans and sharing faraway anchorages with other sailors, but from what I’ve seen on recent delivery trips, the local sailing I’ve done, the sailors who come to me for boat work or consulting, and what I read, there has been tremendous change in the cruising world since I began sailing.

When I sailed into a remote foreign port 30 years ago I felt an immediate kinship with virtually every other crew in the anchorage as we socialized together daily. Nowadays a young couple on a small boat may rightly feel they have little in common with the rich, aged, retired couple on a $300,000 catamaran anchored next to them who remain secluded in air conditioned comfort. A circumnavigation today is thought of as not that much more difficult than an old couple who decide to go caravanning around the country. We are socially more insular.

The ever more populated world has shrunk in many ways. There is satellite navigation, electronic charting, improved offshore communications, easier sail-handling equipment, and widespread internet access. We have bigger, more comfortable boats with nearly all the comforts of home, such as unlimited water on tap via watermakers, fridge/freezers, climate control, electronic wizardry to distract us from reality, more dependable autopilots and huge diesel engines and power generators.

Today’s sailors use their motor for their default propulsion and use sails only when it feels convenient. The floodgates have been opened to incompetent navigators with seriously flawed seamanship skills who wave their platinum credit cards at every impediment. There seems to be an increase in regional, seasonal cruising, but generally those types tend not to stray that far from home. The main cruising destinations are likely getting more crowded.

But from what I can tell, there are still plenty of places worth discovering and like-minded cruisers to share it with. I note the changes while trying to resist the urge to condemn them all outright. For better and worse, things are never like they used to be, so let’s accept that we have diverse lifestyles and a changing world and get on with making our own life meaningful.


One thought on “Small boat, big ocean: an interview with James Baldwin

  1. Pablo says:

    to sea to see

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