A big house with a spacious yard and a two-car garage is the American Dream for many. But as some First Coast folks have discovered, what you own also owns you.
Searching for another way, some have embraced living aboard a sailboat.
It requires major downsizing. But they’ve gained a free, healthy lifestyle that takes them literally wherever the breeze blows.
Phyllis and Mirek Chowaniok, sons Anthony, 15, and Jordan, 9
Aboard their 40-foot catamaran, “Galaxy”
Home base: The Ortega River Marina
Last winter, when most kids were in school, Anthony and Jordan Chowaniok island-hopped with their parents throughout the eastern Caribbean on their 40-foot catamaran. For seven months, they sailed about, anchored off shore, fished for dinner, swam, snorkeled and explored.
During the children’s home school, “We’d have exploring days, and we’d have study days,” says their father, Mirek.
Today, they are docked for several months at the Ortega River Marina. Anthony is taking Florida Virtual School online classes, Jordan is studying third grade subjects, and Mirek has an engineering contract job. Come winter, they’ll pull anchor again and sail to the western Caribbean.
The boat has three bedrooms. The boys each have their own room, and life is “really good,” Anthony says. For a teenager, there are a few downsides: less space, less privacy and no backyard. But he says cruising the Caribbean is better than going to school.
In many ways, it’s a less complicated lifestyle for the entire family. They purchased their boat outright. They don’t have a mortgage, or any debts, which Mirek says, “brings a lot of peace and stability” to the family.
Before moving onto the water, Phyllis worked as an accountant in Jacksonville, and Mirek as a software engineer. When Jordan was diagnosed at a young age with Asperger’s Syndrome, a type of autism, the family made serious changes. Phyllis started home-schooling both boys, and the family pursued a healthier diet and lifestyle for healing. They began spending more time on their boat than in their 2,800 square foot house. So they sold their house, bought their bigger boat, and now live a much more frugal, and freer, existence.
“We had to downsize a lot,” says Phyllis of getting rid of most of their shoes, clothes and toys. But that’s okay. All of them, including Jordan, are doing great.
“I used to have lots of shoes, and now I don’t,” Phyllis says.
Which doesn’t matter, because most of the time now she goes barefoot.
Aboard his 28.5-foot Irwin
Home base: Fernandina Beach Municipal Marina
Arden Haigley once lived in a large three-bedroom house with a garage and yard. But when he took an extended vacation from his long-time job at Ritz Carlton Amelia Island last fall to go to Hawaii, he rid himself of the house and most of his possessions.
When he returned in January, he and his then-girlfriend moved into their 26-foot sailboat at the Fernandina Beach Municipal Marina. Shortly after, he bought a 28.5-foot. Irwin that needed a lot of work for $1,000 on Craigslist. He fixed it up and now lives there solo, enjoying a frugal lifestyle that’s allowed him to pay down debt and get closer to his dream of spending his retirement sailing the Caribbean.
“I want to be cruising like people in their 60’s,” says Haigley, now in his 40’s. “So I started getting into sailing two years ago.”
Haigley has everything he needs. In his cozy kitchen, he brews morning coffee on a propane stove, keeps his coconut water, kombucha and yogurt in a small refrigerator and stores fruit in a hammock. When he cooks, he often grills fish and whips up a salad. He eats most meals at work, but also purchases fresh produce every Saturday at the Fernandina Beach farmers market, just a short stroll away from the marina.
“Everyone here is very friendly,” he says. He knows his neighbors by name, and their stories. They’re a little community of independent, interesting boaters of all ages. Later this year, he plans to sail to Key West with some of them.
Haigley once lived in a house on a third of an acre with an in-ground pool. Now he enjoys a backyard vista of brilliant sunsets, and the lulling sounds of water lapping against his boat at night.
At times, “you’ll hear the sheepshead eating barnacles off the bottom,” he says.
“Occasionally you’ll hear a dolphin go by, and sometimes fish jumping. It’s really neat.”
Sharon and Ron Reynolds
Aboard their 51-foot Morgan Out Island, “The Possessor”
Home base: Beach Marine Marina, Jacksonville Beach
A sign hanging on the wall of Sharon and Ron Reynolds’ small kitchen reads: “Just Another Day in Paradise.” For them, it’s literally true. During nine months of the year, the retired couple island-hops around the Bahamas. They sail up to an island, weigh anchor off shore and then do whatever they want: read, relax, or row their dinghy ashore to beach comb, explore or shop at farmers markets.
After dropping anchor, the living is free, except for the food, and “you learn to eat what the locals eat,” Ron says. Fish, pork, chicken, often grilled, and lots of vegetables and fruit. Once they get ashore, the couple walks everywhere, which keeps them in great shape.
“I gained five pounds quickly when I came back here,” Sharon says one day in June at Beach Marine, their Jacksonville Beach home base.
They keep a car there and typically spend May, June and July visiting family and friends. Then they’re off again to paradise.
“A lot of people say, ‘You guys are living the dream,’” Ron says. “And yes, we are.”
Ron learned to sail years ago, when he was running his construction company in Orlando “during the Disney years.” Those were boom times, but stressful.
When he turned 50, things “got too crazy,” Ron says. “So I closed the company, took everything I owned, and went sailing.”
Then he met Sharon, and they married in 2003 in the Bahamas, where Ron had been spending time. Sharon still worked, however, for a title insurance company in Jacksonville Beach. Sailing back from their wedding, Ron asked her if she wanted to settle down and buy a house.
“And she said, ‘no, I want to stay on a boat,’” Ron says. “A bigger boat.’”
So they traded his 33-foot sailboat for their 1976 model 51-foot Morgan. They named it The Possessor after a novel Ron wrote in his spare time: “Possessors of the Gold.” The couple lived on the boat at Beach Marine until Sharon retired two years ago. During that time, Ron renovated the boat, which has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a dining area that converts to additional sleeping quarters.
Living aboard a boat doesn’t leave room for much material stuff, but Ron does collect quotes. One of his favorites: “A person who owns little is little owned.”