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INTO THE SUNSET : Couples Who Chuck It All and Cruise the Seas Are Soon Tested by More Than Aquatic Vagaries

March 11, 1989|SHEARLEAN DUKE | Shearlean Duke is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

The next time you are sitting in your car, creeping along the San Diego Freeway in an endless stream of bumper-to-bumper traffic, imagine instead sitting in a sailboat at anchor in the crescent-shaped cove of a deserted island, ringed by a white-sand beach, perfectly manicured by each high tide.

Instead of traffic sounds, you hear a gentle rustling on the water as the turquoise lagoon comes alive with clouds of dense, silvery fish. Snorkeling in the lagoon--a body of water as clear as a back-yard swimming pool--is like swimming through a Jacques Cousteau special.

Welcome to the world of cruising--a world where there are no cars, no Sig-Alerts, no phones, no mortgage payments, no schedules except those imposed by wind and weather. If you have ever dreamed of chucking it all and sailing off into the sunset, you are not alone.

Each year in the United States, dozens of ordinary 9-to-5 people slip the bonds of an urban existence and sail away to live afloat for a year or longer, according to the Seven Seas Cruising Assn., a worldwide club based in Florida.

But even paradise has its hazards. Instead of traffic accidents, there are storms at sea, treacherous coasts and hostile foreign governments--and intense strains on personal relationships. Instead of mortgage payments, there are engine repair bills and port fees.

When Art and Cheresse Smoot of Rossmoor set sail for Mexico in their 37-foot catamaran last month, their departure represented 7 years of hard work preparing for a 5-year voyage that will take them from the Gulf of California to Tahiti and eventually the South Pacific.

Art Smoot, 40, and Cheresse Smoot, 39, had been dreaming of this trip since 1974, when they took a 6-month sabbatical--which stretched into a year--to go sailing with her parents, who had retired. "That's when we developed a real love for this type of life," said Cheresse Smoot, who has been sailing since she was a child. "But we had to come back and get to work."

When the Smoots returned to Orange County, both were in their mid-20s, and both set out to establish successful careers--she as a banking executive and he as a computer programmer. But they made a pact.

"We promised ourselves that we would work and save, and that we'd be out of here by the time we were 40," she said, her face flushed with excitement a few days before departure.

"We figure that if we left when we were 40 and were gone 5 years," Art Smoot said, "we could still come back and start another career and work 20 years and retire like everybody else at 65.

"Where I worked, I saw a lot of people who were there 20 or 25 years and wanted to do something. Maybe not go cruising--but something. So they waited all their lives until they retired. By then they were often physically disabled and couldn't do it."

For the Smoots, working toward their cruising dream affected the very fabric of their lives. For example, even though they bought a house in 1979 (mostly as an investment), they never bothered to furnish it with what Cheresse Smoot calls "nice things. We didn't spend money buying china and crystal because what do you do with it when you leave?"

The Smoots never owned a videocassette recorder or even a TV until her mother gave them one. "We just didn't buy those things because our attitudes were so different," Cheresse Smoot said. "We always lived below our income. We kept very tight budgets, and for 10 years we saved money for this trip."

"We just started packing away any money we had," added Art Smoot, a lanky, soft-spoken man with an air of quiet determination.

The Smoots also chose to remain childless, a decision they said was made independently of their decision to go cruising--but one that they believe made it easier for them to pursue their dream.

They said they met many couples cruising with children during the year they were away.

"We saw people out there doing very well with children, and the kids were becoming independent, marvelous kids," he said. "But having kids is a huge effort. You've got to get your head down and work, and it makes it more difficult to do something like this."

With or without children, the Smoots admitted that breaking away is not easy. They sold their home in May to pay for the cruise. "And we recognize that we may not be able to come back here," he said. "We have accepted that."

Since April, the Smoots have been living aboard the catamaran they bought and began refurbishing about 10 years ago. They sold off all their belongings, except for a car they will keep stashed in Orange County to use during occasional trips home.

"Our plans are sort of open-ended because it depends on what the budget will handle," said Cheresse Smoot, sounding more like the bank executive than the sailor. They expect to be gone for 5 years and have enough money in savings to live on. They estimate that they can live well in Mexico for about $2,500 a year and in the South Pacific for about $3,500.

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