Sailing the Farm

One of my favorite books I read during the years we only anticipated cruising was Ken Neumeyer’s Sailing the Farm. Long out of print (but downloadable online!), the contents live somewhere between back-to-the-land movements and the anti-establishment ideals of the late 60s counterculture. It’s packed full of ideas for growing your own food aboard and foraging from the ocean, and how to survive as your own floating island, living outside the constraints of conventional society. At the time, the yard around our house produced everything from pumpkins and tomatoes to strawberries and herbs, and I loved the idea I could keep a portion of our family’s diet coming from the work of our own hands after we moved aboard.

Lettuce growing on  Laureen and Jason’s cat

That ideal did not take into account the practical reality of an itinerant cruising life. Coming across the Pacific, we hopped countries at intervals from a few weeks to a few months. Foreign quarantine officials generally don’t take kindly to you bringing live plants in, so there was never time for growing anything of our own beyond sprouts. Saltwater spray isn’t kind to growing plants either.

Spending extended time in one country changes all that. Last year, we had an amazing community garden nearby to literally and figuratively feed us. Now it’s time to bring it home: I’m ready to start boat gardening. It’s just a question of what, and where. 

There are spectacular examples of boatsteading, like the hydroponic system used by the Plastiki expedition. I need something a little more achievable than that (I’m not up to welding), and my friend Laureen has a spectacular setup for growing plants on her catamaran that looks like the trick. 

If I can work out the right space for this, I think it’s a great model. She’s got an old over-the-door shoe rack and recycles plastic bottles into self-watering pots for plants. Water is wicked up from the base, making efficient use of precious fresh water. There’s a good, more detailed DIY for making self-watering pots like these on this instructables page (sourced via the now-defunct Green is Universal blog). Achievable, yes!

Vertical garden
Thanks to the Merlin kids for providing a little scale here.

And then… there’s the appeal of something I can start by just buying and hanging up, like this cool find at last weekend’s market.

Tubes of UV-resistant plastic (insert a groan…but I think the plastic here is probably unavoidable), filled with a lightweight growing mix. Seedlings are inserted in slits through the sides. She had samples growing everything from herbs to tomatoes.

Next, finding seedlings or seeds for plants suited to the Australian climate: lettuce that doesn’t need tons of shade, and drought tolerant varieties that suit our desire for minimizing freshwater use. They’re out there, and once again, the weekends markets are my friend here. Lettuce that grows in Darwin? Drought tolerant tomatoes? Yes, and yes.

Jamie likes to remind me how I seemed to kill potted herbs in Mexico. … so boat gardening had been off the agenda for a while. But I’ve had a little basil friend for almost two months ago. A cheap, overplanted supermarket pot that’s so root bound it shouldn’t have lasted more than a few weeks. We’re still eating from it…I’ll take that as a sign. Time to start gardening again.

15 Responses

  1. Life just doesn’t feel right unless you’re growing something, does it? That’s great — I’ll be interested to hear and see how your garden grows. You always inspire me, so maybe this will inspire me to get my Polish butt outdoors and try to get something other than ganja to grow out back.

  2. A basil plant?? You got a basil plant to survive more than 4 weeks??!! You are amazing! After growing apples, cherries, wine grapes and organic garden yummies back home, I have not been successful with one – NOT ONE! – plant on board. Not one herb, not one blade of grass, my sprouts even get gooey. But I might consider opening my own antibiotic clinic with all the mold I’ve cultivated.

  3. I think my favorite bit of that book were the directions for building your own solar hydrator. I’ve got all the materials on board… have since Mexico. Behan, you’re inspiring. I’ll pull those out and throw it together before stone fruit season is over here. Nice to have real home-dried apricots this winter.

  4. Gretchen, it is SO true. Go for it girlfriend, you backyard is calling.

    Meri, it was so hard to keep anything alive in Mexico, I stopped trying!

    RWC, for sure it did! You were probably the only other person getting that book out of the Kitsap system. 🙂

    Toast, now I wish I still had a copy to check out those plans! We’ve used our solar oven to dry food, but it only worked in a dry climate… fruit molded otherwise.

  5. Hey Behan just came across your blog.

    We built the solar dryer from “Sailing the Farm” about 16 years ago and have used it to dry fruit, etc. You know when the villagers insist that you take that stalk of bananas. Haven’t used it in years but pulled it out this summer (when we started to catch lots of Doroado) to dry an batch of marinated Dorado. Came out like beef jerky. Yum!!


  6. Hi,
    I’ve been getting your emails for some time now. We are on board a 32′ yacht out of Hobart, currently in Northern Tasmania. I too love Ken Neumeyer’s book. Sadly i heard that he had a car accident in the eighties that left him unable to sail and even live independently.

    I am interested in making the solar food dryers, but I’m stumped as to what materials to use. Rubberised fabric, such as Neumeyer suggests will leach toxins. Have you thought about one of these? I’d love to chat about it.

    Liss Deck

    P.S. Happy to photocopy pages and post them to you, my copy of the book is on board.

  7. I love your blog, and have never commented before. I, too, love gardening, and feel like life is missing something without plants. Be careful, though, in choosing a plastic container for a pot, especially if it was not intended to be used for food. Chemicals in the plastic can and will be leached into the potting soil, and taken up by the plants.

  8. Chuck, you have me at marinated dorado jerky…yum!

    Liss, so sad to know about Neumeyer. Re: pix, let’s talk! email me- behang (at) gmail. Will you be heading north or staying around Tassie?

    Anonymous, I don’t have deck space for pots- thus the appeal of vertical gardening. Plus, it’s got to deal with the fact the boat does move every once in a while. I hear your concern, it’s very much mine, but I don’t think I have a lot of options except to look for plastic without BPA. If you have any better ideas I am ALL ears! I would love any input to improve this idea.

  9. I’m the anonymous person again. I know it is wierd to post anonymously, and I feel kindof guilty about it. For various totally happy-joyous reasons, I can’t let it be known that I’m going to travel the world (yet, soon all shall be revealed :), hence the anonymity. I promise I’m nice, though. I never post mean things.

    Having said that, I live in a high rise, and I’ve been trying to come up with a vertical gardening solution for 5+ years. I have a balcony, but space is precious. I wish I had a solution, and if my next attempt works, I’ll be sure to let you know!

    I really admire your family, by the way. I think it is fabulous what you all are doing. Such a gift for everyone.

  10. Hey Anonymous, no worries… I completely understand. Would always love to hear from you on any evolution of the vertical gardening concept. Share your happy news when you can go public!

    For the benefit of anyone else following this thread and interested in Sailing the Farm, it was pointed out to me on our new Facebook page for Totem (check it out! or link in right navigation) that you can get a .pdf copy of Neumeyer’s book at

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