Real Community Conversations

Paul Thornton, Living The Dream

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Have you ever dreamed of giving it all up–the winter weather, the day to day stresses, house maintenance, bills, the “rat-race”–just giving it all up and moving to the tropics? A common daydream to be sure, but have you ever known anyone that actually did it?

Paul Thornton

Longtime Milton resident Paul Thornton lost his job in 2012 due to downsizing and spent the next eight months looking for a new job in the specialized field he was in. He couldn’t find anything. Rather than taking a job that was beneath his skill set and faced with mounting bills, he was forced to really look at his situation and face the reality. He was unemployed, divorced and unattached, had a massive house in need of general upkeep he wasn’t going to be able to afford in his current situation, and he felt like he was about to lose everything.

Generally a free spirit, and always the one up for just about any adventure, the one thing that kept coming to mind was that he was closing on “the big 5-0,” and he had always dreamed of sailing around the world. Would he ever get that chance? It suddenly seemed to him like the time had come to find out. It was now or never, and he chose NOW.

Paul told his friends what he was planning to do, and every one of them laughed it off and dismissed the idea as a flight of fancy. Thornton says; “That got my back up, and I said OK. Let’s do this.”

“That got my back up, and I said OK. Let’s do this”.

The process of actually buying a boat started a few months before he left Milton, and in retrospect, he doesn’t know how he pulled it off as easily as it happened. He looked to the island of Tortola, where there was the largest fleet of sail boats available in the Caribbean, did some research on what models were the best for ocean sailing and liveaboard comfort, and found three that fit what he wanted. In the process of planning his departure, he sold his house and most of his worldly possessions. He rehomed his beloved border collie, Henry, with a good friend of his. A sailboat is no place for a high energy dog, after all. Then he took a breath, and booked a one-way ticket to Tortola. “Looking back now, I realize I knew absolutely nothing about what I was getting myself into.”

On June 13, 2013, a day after arriving in Tortola with just a couple bags and his guitar, he had an offer in on a sailboat.

Thornton writes, “The boat is an Island Packet 38 [38 foot] and loaded with everything from chart plotter, which I quickly figured out, solar and wind generator for power, an awesome stereo, auto pilot and matrix wind vein for steering in heavy seas. Also only a five foot draft so I can sail in Bahamas which is very shallow, so bigger boats can’t go there.”

He was living aboard at a local marina a few days later. He stayed close to the marina for a couple of weeks before venturing out. It was mid-June which meant “low season,” so there were plenty of unused private mooring balls beside the marina that didn’t incur any cost, so he attached his new home to one of those for the first couple months as he worked on his boat, and learned the finer points of sailing her.

“I didn’t panic,” Thornton laughs, “but I really did have to change how I approached life since everything is so slow here.”

Then, just three days after his arrival, fate moved in, and he met Daniela. “I lucked out meeting Daniela. The third night after I got here we met and she volunteered to show me around the island and help keep me somewhat sane. I didn’t know anyone, and I was a bit at loose ends. It was meant to be.”

Thornton performing maintenance on his sail boat.

Thornton has been sailing most of his life, but never as a captain of a large vessel, and he had never sailed in conditions like you find on the open Atlantic and Caribbean seas. He realized he needed to start slowly. For the first week, he went out during the day and headed back to the mooring ball before nightfall. Then he extended it to a day and a night and quickly got that up to heading out for a week before he would turn around and go back. He found sailing alone to be an exhausting endeavor, often encountering storms at night, which meant getting little to no sleep for days at a time. He had to learn the ropes fast just to make it through those first rocky journeys.

“I remember one night having to talk myself into going up to the bow to cut some lines that were tangled and causing major problems. It was large seas, and I remember thinking I’m not going to make it back, but finally I did it anyway because it had to be done.”

Thornton quickly became a part of the large boating community in the islands, where it’s common to meet a couple living on a boat, spend time with them for a couple of weeks in an anchorage; then not see them again for two years, only to pick up as though it had only been a matter of months. He notes that the majority of people in the community, while wildly varied in origin, seemed to be highly-educated people who share the experience of just wanting to “live the dream.” Some people live aboard for weeks and months every year, and some full time. The community is tightly knit, and he found that even if you had only just met, there was always someone there if you needed help.

Paul and Daniela in Italy 2014

Daniela moved aboard four months after they met–again, nothing moves quickly in the Caribbean–and the two have been inseparable ever since. Coming from Italy and knowing very little English, living with non-Italian speaking Thornton has been quite an experience for her the past four years. Thornton says they have both learned the other’s language and communicate very well now, although on their annual summer trips to Daniela’s home in Italy he still feels picked-on by her good-natured family members.

Life on the ocean is not always ideal, and rarely completely safe. Over the past four years, the sailing duo have sailed to almost every island in the Caribbean, made the long and treacherous journey to the US and up to Canada, been boarded by various coast guard-cum-naval militia in several countries (not all of them honest), were almost sunk in the middle of the night by pirates in Haiti; they’ve been through countless terror-filled storms that could have been the end of them at any time. Miraculously and with Thornton’s experience, skill, and ability to think on his feet, they made it through.

When asked what he misses most about home, Thornton paused a moment before answering. Then he said, “what I miss most is having a house, a comfortable bed that doesn’t rock all the time, my Jeep, and playing hockey and tennis with my friends. Living in Milton I had a wonderful friend base, great neighbours, and I could go out whenever I wanted to, like to The Ivy Arms for beer and wings with the boys after hockey. I miss sitting on my couch watching TV. Living on a boat, you’re always conscious about your power usage! I live on the energy I make from solar panels I installed early on. I drink and wash with only the water I make with my water purification system. However, after living this way for four and a half years, I don’t think I could go back to that way of life now. Here…here I have seen a baby Humpback whale being born, and I’ve swum with wild dolphins more times than I can count. There is zero traffic. It’s a good life.”

To read more about Paul Thornton’s adventures, visit his blog.