or How to Live Very Well . . . on Practically Nothing

by Ida Little

It’s that time of the year again. The time when early winter’s crispness and the novelty of those first downy snowfalls rapidly begins to turn into the monotonous, gray icy sludge and slush of late January, February, and March.

Wouldn’t it be great to trade this whole mess in on ... on ... on ... some kind of carefree, come-and-go-as-you-please beachcombing life In the tropics? Wouldn’t that be great!? Impossible, of course, here In the late 1970’s . . . but, nonetheless, great!

“Yes, it is great,” say Ida Little and Michael Walsh, “but not at all impossible. Because that's exactly the way we’ve lived for the past three years ... and we’ve done it all on far less money than you'll probably believe possible!”


My husband, Michael, and I enjoy independent and isolated nomadic living. So we really thought we had it made 11 years ago when we kicked over the traces, bought a 40-foot ketch, and began island hopping up and down the West Indies and along the northern coast of South America.

Eight years later, however, we’d both had our fill of that way of life. The ketch was a constant expense and every safe anchorage for a boat of that size, we’d found, was too populated by curious natives and/or other ships and yachts for our tastes.

“There must be a better way,” we told ourselves. “There must be a way for us to enjoy an endless round of sailing, swimming, fishing, shelling, contact with wildlife, and — most important of all — solitude and privacy. And there must be a way for us to do all this on little more than pennies a day.”

We found a way!

And that’s exactly what we’ve done for the past three years. We’ve come and gone as we pleased throughout the Caribbean with summer side-trips that have taken us as far north as Ontario’s Wilderness Lakes region. We’ve sailed and swum and snorkled and fished and shelled and beachcombed and otherwise luxuriated in the wonders of some of the earth’s most beautiful places. And we’ve done all this for day after wonderful day after glorious day. In blissful solitude and privacy. And on the very thinnest of thin shoestrings.

Our secret? We’ve combined the advantages of land camping with the mobility of sail . . . and come up with a way of life that, for us, has none of the irritations or drawbacks of either.

The key to our success

We made the major breakthrough into our new life of low-cost and far-ranging abundance when we sold our 40-foot ketch (which was a constant financial drain and which would never slip into the really isolated bays, inlets, and shoals we like to explore anyway) . . . and bought a 17-foot canoe instead.

Yes, canoe. Michael and I have traveled in and lived out of a canoe now for almost every day of the last three years. And we wouldn’t trade our new life for anything. There are canoes and there are canoes, however . . . and if you want to duplicate our success, we think you’d do well to heed our advice when you go shopping for this vital piece of your wayfarer’s equipment.


The most common and least expensive canoes available are made of aluminum. Forget such models for extended cruising. They’re cold to the flesh, noisy on the water, too fragile for use around coral, and difficult to repair in the field. Fiberglass is warmer and quieter, but still too prone to coral punctures and sand abrasion. And wood, while quite good, needs more regular maintenance than we’re willing to give it.

What you want is a canoe made of ABS plastic. Ours is a 17-foot Chippewa model (that we’ve fondly named Manatee, or “sea cow”) made up for us by Mr. Deane Gray of the Old Town Canoe Company in Old Town, Maine. It weighs only 70 pounds, is warm to sit on, and is tough.

At one time or another during the past three years, we’ve used a crane to pick the canoe up by the ends when it was fully loaded with 1,000 pounds of gear, left it out all night (again, fully loaded) banging against sharp coral reels, and otherwise “put Manatee through the mill.” Yet the little craft still shows only minor dents and scratches and has, to date, required absolutely no maintenance.