Gardening on a sailboat?

For a while now, my fiancée and I have been talking about buying and permanently moving onto a larger sailboat with the family. The advantages for us are numerous: when on a boat / at sea, we struggle much less with our respective disabilities; our ADHD is more manageable; boats are functional units where everything has its place and its purpose as defined by practical considerations, so cleaning up is less work and takes less mental capacity; being close to the elements helps with my mental health problems; we save money compared to living in a house because we’re using less space more efficiently, and our lifestyle when at sea or mooring/anchoring forces us to save ressources. A good deal all in all.

Now, the thing is, I’m a gardener; while we both have a maritime background, my passion is digging my fingers into the soil. Many cruisers have found their own solutions for getting some fresh greens once in a while, from sprouting lentils in jars to growing rows of lettuce under the spray hood. We won’t be cruisers, our lifestyle will be less nomadic and more semi-sedentary, partly due to the kids and partly because we haven’t figured out how to permanently work off-shore yet so we’ll have to take and live off what regular employment we can get. The perspective of being moored in any one of two harbours on the Skagerrak and the Baltic Sea for most of the time gives me more opportunities for creating a food self-sufficiency that not only depends on the sea (of course we have ready-to-use fishing equipment as well) than spending large portions of the year in blue waters would.

In this post, I want to explore the possibilities and limitations of gardening aboard a 50-foot sailboat (the size we have picked for legal and practical reasons: license expenses, space aboard for a family of five and a dog, and the possibility to sail alone when in open waters while the other is resting or busy taking care of the kids). As examples for illustration purposes, I am going to use the Bavaria 50 and the Elan 50.1 Impression, two of our favourite models in that category.

First, let us talk about the limitations. The most relevant limitations to gardening on a relevant scale for human consumption on a sailboat are these four:

Moving parts: The issue is easily explained even to the most ignorant landlubber: a sailboat depends on the wind as its main means of propulsion, the wind changes direction all the time and even when it doesn’t, the boat needs to be able to adjust course. A sail acts the same way as a parachute when running from the wind, and like the wing of an airplane when sailing on the wind (we’re talking about fore-and-aft rigs here, obviously). Therefore, the sails need to be adjusted by changing their angle relative to the wind and changing their effective surface. The easiest way to achieve this is through different kinds of ropes, which in turn need contraptions like travellers and winches for easier handling in difficult conditions. In short, there are a lot of moving parts on deck that can crush or cut off plants when you’re underway or preparing to sail.

Moisture: In a nutshell, almost any space under deck is off-limits to gardening. Moisture is one of your biggest enemies on a boat – it leads to mould, which poses a serious risk to the health of everyone aboard and can lead to corrosion, and during winter moisture is what makes the almost inevitable cold even less bearable here in Scandinavia. And you’ll always get moisture in, be it in the form of wet clothes or evaporation from cooking or the sea itself, the air we breathe out, sweat… the list is long enough as it is, and you want to avoid adding to it with water evaporating from soil and leaves (not to mention that soil itself also carries mould spores).

Blocking space: As anyone who has ever sailed, be it on a dinghy or a full-rigger, will tell you, space on a boat or a ship is limited. While most modern yachts are designed for leisure and therefore have space on deck for sunbathing and other activities, we’re facing a somewhat different situation with a live-aboard sailboard: We will need space to dry your clothes, space for the kids and the dog to move about and play safely, space to work and relax, not to mention for sailing itself.

Saltwater exposure: This one is easily understood. Most food plants don’t tolerate salt very well, and when there’s rough weather or you’re sailing, you get a ton of spray, which further limits available space on deck.

Obviously, all of these limitations are highly contingent on circumstance; I am trying to highlight aspects as they are relevant in a «semi-nomadic» context, i.e. being anchored or moored most of the time while remaining ready to move the boat, either for short trips or to another city, including trips across the sea, for example to my hometown in northern Germany. Other variables here are climate and weather, or the seasons for short, and obviously one’s lifestyle; living with children always comes with a much different use of space, and having access to harbour facilities means a decreased need for space aboard.

After we’ve covered the limitations, let us move on to what actually is feasible.

While the part from the bow to the mast is pretty much off-limits to plants when we’re sailing or preparing to (let’s for example say we want to be able to fly a genoa to be able to cover more distance when travelling), there’s plenty of space available on the rear half of the boat. We can use the railing for hanging containers (using flexible hanging solutions that sway freely when the boat is rolling, minimising the amount of stress on the plants); the most important deliberation here is to choose whether to use the inside of the railing (offering more protection from the elements) or the outside (saving space for moving about). We intend to surround the railing on our boat, where possible, with low plastic avalanche fences for the kids’ and the dog’s safety, which offers more protection and stability while minimising the range of movement for the containers. Experimentation is needed to see how this would play out in practice, but safety comes first, while growing food aboard is merely a luxury and freedom I want to explore.

To limit saltwater exposure, these containers can be covered in plastic bags with holes for watering, drainage, and the plants themselves. In the past, I have experimented with simple solutions for catching excess water for reuse, which would come in handy where there is space; freshwater is a precious limited ressource on a bluewater vessel and should not be «wasted» on plants. These bags would protect the soil from the spray that would cause most food plants to wither. They would not be strictly necessary in more protected spaces aboard the vessel, but for using the railing, they are indispensible.

Most modern yachts, as mentioned before, are designed for leisure and comfort; this means ample lounging space when not under sail (and most plants tolerate being stowed away for a few days surprisingly well). The part of the deck under the foresail for example, i.e. in between the mast and the bow, is one of those classic lounging areas. Since the cockpit will always be the centre of activity on a family boat (as the centre of the mental space, the captain’s/skipper’s place when sailing, and an al fresco dining area weather permitting) and there’s still enough space for resting and sunbathing, this gives us a precious square metre or two we can use for food production without limiting the quality of life aboard; rather, as many bluewater sailors experimenting with food production report, a tiny garden tends to improve the quality of life aboard. The main limitation to this solution is that it is contingent on being moored or anchored and therefore not permanent; all those plants need another space where they can be moved when needed.

Another advantage of a sailing vessel this size is that sophisticated furling systems and a high (as in overhead) boom limit the amount of space exposed to sails and moving ropes. This means a procentually higher area on deck that is permanently (or near-permanently, accounting for maintenance, cleaning, and working the sails) available in comparison to a smaller boat, and therefore leads to fewer conflicts between stationary planting containers and people or parts moving about.

The cockpit area, while serving as a working area first and foremost, often features seating space intended for charter cruise use and therefore not strictly necessary, such as rumble seats in the aft; spray hoods on larger daysailers serve many leisure sailors as useful niches for growing herbs or decorative plants; and the almost obligatory unfoldable dining table is usually well-secured against items sliding off of it, using wood ridges or metal wiring, making it suitable for keeping plants while leaving space to eat al fresco, an important opportunity for soaking up some sunlight when living in a partially submerged vehicle that needs to have small windows for reasons of structural integrity.

Especially when using a hard top or enclosure, we are provided with opportunities for hanging up shelves with leaf vegetables that even allow for primitive hydroculture while not taking up a lot of space; this has successfully been tried before and may even be combined with basic greywater recycling. Living in Scandinavia, we are more likely to use a cockpit enclosure when remaining stationary during the cold part of the year (i.e., to be laconic about it, most of it) than a hard top, which is mostly intended to provide shade while under sail in warmer climates. Hydroculture, is an advantage here because the enclosure acts as an airlock keeping moisture out of the living spaces under deck (and warmth in), and is not disturbed much by a relatively closed water cycle.

The next one may seem a bit freaky, as in unappetising, but hear me out. The heads (for the landlubbers: we’re talking about the bathrooms) on boats in this class tend to have skylights with ample overhead space; since the heads function as wet cells, having plants here does not mean more moisture under deck as a whole, and the moist climate minimises the need for watering while the plants double as an air freshener. Don’t look at me like that, I’ve successfully grown beans in my bathroom before and they were just fine.

In general, boats come with a lot of places to hang things from the ceiling; in the Age of Sail, this was a classic stowing solution for sailors to keep their personal belongings safe from moisture and rats; in our time of fiberglass hulls and sealed hatches, we have storage underfoot, so that any area that needs good ventilation anyway, such as the galley, can provide us with some precious extra space for growing food and stabilising the interior climate (after all, plants don’t just give off water into the air, they also suck up excess water from the air). In the process of becoming familiar with our vessel, we will discover spaces both on and under deck suitable for hanging containers; this is pretty much predetermined by the design of waterbourne vessels.

To try something more extravagant: Many yachts in this class are equipped with skylights above the galley and saloon (i.e., under the boom). During winter, a small fitted hoophouse placed above these would offer protection to plants while being warmed by the excess heat from the living space and acting as a layer of insulation for that same space while not taking away too much light (using transparent material). This might even double as a plant nursery in Spring, before planting. On a fiberglass deck, this hoophouse would have been built in a way to not scratch the deck; a teak deck would make this kind of construction considerably easier. However, another viable option here is to simply hang the hoophouse from the boom, which is constructed to hold the weight of several dozen square metres of sailcloth, i.e., a lot.

In conclusion, with smart planning and enough prior consideration it should be possible to squeeze out enough space out of a 50 foot sailboat to minimise our family’s dependence on the market economy for staying healthy even further (in conjunction with food sharing and dumpster diving for example) while preserving the boat’s capacity to do what it’s built to do: being a safe, comfortable, and energy-efficient vehicle.

To help us finance our vision of a more lightweight, anti-capitalist and communal life, we are currently preparing to launch our own little independent media production firm slash production label slash design agency,  Svaberg Studio, which will be transformed into a cooperative with proper legal structure and accounting as soon as we’ve raised the funds for getting it registered. If you want to support this project, you can contribute by donating to Tale & S/Y Rosa Lusita or yours truly

A few thoughts about purpose, self-sufficiency, and looking forward

We’ve spent years entrusting our futures to our parents, our governments
The banks and the corporations who have continually lobbied for their own interests
And we’ve let them make selfish decisions
That have left our society teetering on the edge of ruin
We’re blinded from the information that would really shock us
By stories of sex and sleaze which doesn’t make the smallest difference to our lives
And so we have no desire to do anything about the things that really do

Last weekend, I spent many an hour sitting aboard Rosa Lusita with the dog, throwing out a fishing line and thinking about some of the inner conflicts many of my generation face on a daily basis, or rather, become aware of, because they aren’t something that suddenly came into existence in the last three decades. The sorry state our world is in, environmentally, socially, and morally (I would like to employ a working definition of morals as the ethical deliberations that tie the individual’s values to those of the society they life in, and by this definition we live in a time of moral crisis), combined with near-limitless communication between priorly isolated parts of society, makes it increasingly more difficult for the ruling class to maintain the illusion of wealth, order, and justice in the so-called Western world.

This is not a new observation; the late 20th century has seen a wave of literature and other media reflecting this crisis of consciousness that has subsequently been accepted into the literary canon in order to diminish their disruptive potential. But my generation, the one born into this late 20th century world of alienation, lack of binding values, and ecological destruction, is personally affected by it.

I have, by and large, lived an egoistic adult life until very recently. This is not to say I had been egocentric; I have always taken care of mine, i.e. my chosen as well as blood family, my friends and colleagues, I have been an activist, fought fascists in the street, blocked coal mines, gotten beaten off the streets by the police, organised unions and helped build local solutions to our global problems. But in between this, fighting off severe depression and insomnia, working 12-hour shifts at or sometimes under minimum wage, trying to get a degree that would eventually make me, a notorious generalist, employable while also trying to pursue my many passions, dreams, obsessions, and fascinations, and fighting an excruciatingly complex welfare system in order to get my rent paid, I have only grown more tired without making progress; it feels like my achievements are naught and the debt I owe to the capitalist system for not walking a straight path has become overwhelming, and I’m alone with it.

There is nothing unique about this; I may have travelled across the continent penniless and seen all the facets of humanity in the people I met on my way, I may have lived a rich life to this point, but I’m not more interesting than the next guy for any of this. In fact I wouldn’t be making this point at all if it wasn’t for its structural relevance: I belong to a generation of lost causes, without anyone to look up to, without the ressources to fight all the fights that need to be fought, both for ourselves and for the planet and the future of humanity. The reason I had to be egoistic, to pursue one wild idea after the other and try to get my needs met without being able to give much back is the neoliberal, meritocratic system that is breaking our backs from our first day in elementary school. No solace is found in this realisation.

These are tough times but we seek solace in our friends and co-conspirators
We make small differences in each other’s lives, and dream that we can make real progress

Having responsibility for children, the most wonderful, smart, self-aware ones, has changed a lot, my thoughts have largely stopped revolving around my eternal conflict between changing the world and getting my own needs met, my responsibilities have pushed this conflict to the back seats of my consciousness. I am in a relationship with someone who shares my visions, dreams and values. We’re moving forward, inch by inch, no matter how gigantic the challenges. And yet, we face the same vexation over and over again.

Many parents like to joke about getting to live our life when we are 50 years old and the kids have left the house; this betrays the simple and sad truth that we are left to our own devices, that our self-sufficiency is not a proud decision but rather a desperate solution, that the village it takes, not only for the modern core family to raise their children but for everyone in each and every aspect of life, is absent; there will be no true self-sufficiency without true community. And maybe what I find at the end of all these deliberation is that I have been asking for too much. Maybe the egoism that was forced on me by a society that expected me to pull my own weight without giving me the proper tools and shut my mouth about it is something I have to do away with alone by swallowing my pride.

Do I lose any value as a human being by not having much to show for the labour I do, by quietly and calmly doing the work and keeping my loved ones, my family and friends, safe, warm, and fed, by enabling those close to us who have done better at developing their skillsets they can use to improve this world to do that? Obviously not, women in the «Western world» have been doing this very thing for thousands of years without getting credit. Once more we find ourselves locked in this Time of Monsters where one system of values breaks down while another (hopefully) emerges, where the new age is punishing us for being tied up on conflicts with the values of the old one. But in the process of creating the life we want to live and raising children with these new values, giving them the tools to take care of themselves, others, and the world they live in, much is won.

Maybe our generation is not meant to solve this. Maybe those of us who were left to their own devices, who are struggling with and fighting off our inabilities or disabilities and licking old wounds aren’t meant to be high-profile figures. Maybe I will never accomplish the things I can truly be proud of. But what we can do is to take care of one another, to have each other’s back through this Time of Monsters, to see to it that those who were luckier get to make the shot. And that is something to be proud of when the dust has settled.

You can support our dream of a more purposeful, off-grid life beyond alienation by donating to or

A lack of gender: the trans inexperience

Two large black concentric metal rings in a courtyard.

This essay contains reflections on gender from a nonbinary person’s perspective. However, due to the nature of these reflections, some of the rhetoric used may sound self-deprecating or even contain use terms and phrases reminiscent of anti-transgender sentiments. This is not the case. This is, however, a personal text dealing with the author’s own experiences, and has no universalist claim to the subject matter at hand.
This text is not a political document, it is a record of personal experience and ought to be read as such.

I often find myself amazed – and I am not being sarcastic here – by the confidence, conviction, and nonchalance with which other trans and nonbinary people and our allies say things like «trans men are men, trans women are women, nonbinary people are valid». I have never felt valid, and I’m not sure if I can put the blame entirely on a society that preferred to see me as a boy and now prefers to see me as a man, categories I have struggled to find myself in for most of my life, since the nurse at the hospital lifted me up and joyfully announced to my parents that it’s a boy (I’m assuming that this is what happened some 28 years ago within normal margins of error).

Even since I have come to terms with being a nonbinary person, an identity that is, in the terms of «the queer community» (if there is such a thing to speak of) a subset of transgender persons, being transgender (or nonbinary, for that matter, but let us keep this more general and less specific) and identifying as such has always felt more like a metaphor.

I wish I were x, I wish I looked more androgynous, has less body hair, I wish my voice wasn’t this deep and maybe most of all, that I wasn’t perceived as a man – something I resemble but do not identify as or with. I wish I were this perfectly androgynous human being, and therefore I call myself such and such, I self-validate by means of the pronouns I use and the Pride colours I fly, and demand that same validation from others (to varying degrees, as one does).

What I identify as is what I lack; in fact, that is my reason to identify as such. I identify as nonbinary because I am not that which I associate with the idea of a nonbinary person. My body is not very androgynous, I take hormones in hopes of it becoming a little more so, my mind certainly isn’t either; I was raised as a boy and in becoming an adult was moulded, my reluctance nonwithstanding, by the expectations this society has to a man.

I experience «being transgender» as a lack of gender, first and foremost.

My starting point when I say «I am this» (a nonbinary person) is not that I am something, it is not a feeling of allegiance to a thing, it is that I am not this, I am not the person I would like to be in terms of this strange entity we speak of as «gender», and that is why I find statements like «trans x are x, nonbinary people are valid» vacuous and insignificant at best and tiresome at worst. I am happy for trans siblings who find comfort and pride in their gender and their identities as a whole; I cannot say for myself that I did. Sticking feathers up my arse does not make me a chicken.

What I am trying to describe here is not dysphoria, the feeling of my gender identity not matching my gender expression sufficiently; the relationship between them is a disconnection, and my «gender identity» is the feeling of something I lack.

Is there a space for this experience in the «community»? Is it possible to speak of gender not in terms of experiences of pride, but a non-experience, a gender inexperience of sorts, without feeling like a traitor?

If you enjoyed reading this text, consider buying me a coffee.