What's the most dramatic change you've ever had to make? Irene Panke Hopkins, winner of our 2017 Good Read essay contest, tells a story of giving up a lot—and finding even more.

By Irene Panke Hopkins
Updated March 22, 2017
Boats in Washington marina
Credit: gmc3101/Getty Images

I didn’t want to sell our house.

I didn’t want to live on a boat.

But I did. And I do.

In the fall of 2007, when my husband, Dan, proposed giving up our home and moving aboard our sailboat, I did what any sane woman with two teenage daughters, a demanding job, and the holidays looming would do. I ignored him.

Ignore this and it will go away, I reasoned as I stuck my fingers in my ears and sang, “La-la-la.”

But ignoring something doesn’t make it go away. Especially in this case, given the hard facts that prompted Dan to suggest such a move. He was convinced that the housing market was about to collapse because of the bad loans bankers had been handing out like Halloween candy. The economy was beginning its free fall. Dan’s marine business had slowed to a crawl, and my salary would not sustain our family of four. We were in trouble.

We already owned the boat, and we were no strangers to life on the water; we had cruised the Pacific Northwest Coast for 20 summers. During those long, languid trips, we lived simply, regulating our lives to the tides and winds. At anchor, we woke to bears breakfasting on beaches, turning over rocks with their immense paws to uncover the delicacies beneath. We sailed alongside pods of orcas, kayaked into fjord-like inlets, explored the ruins of native villages, and bathed in natural hot springs. Along with this immersion in nature came the liberating realization that we could live happily with so much less than we had at our house.

After a month or more on the water, I often said, “I wish we lived on the boat full-time. I could do this.” And I really believed I could.

The universe has a bothersome way of calling your bluff. When faced with the actual prospect of leaving our sweet house and squeezing onto the boat full-time, I was filled with anxiety. I lost sleep. I dug in my heels. I didn’t want to do it. I was so busted.

On vacation, a 42-by-12-foot sailboat is ideal. But for year-round living? Picture a space as long as and a little wider than a school bus pinched on both ends. With built-in furniture taking up most of the width, crossing from table to couch requires just one big step. “Bedrooms” contain only beds. A bathroom the size of a phone booth. No shower. A couple of foot-wide closets for all the clothes we own. A few drawers. Add four people, their stuff, and a dog. Insanity.

Logistics aside, my overriding fear was that this move would destroy my family. That our daughters would not want to spend time on the boat or bring friends home. Norman Rockwell fantasies of friends and grandchildren gathered around the holiday table evaporated. I did not want to rob my family of the life I had worked so hard to create for them.

Dan pushed. I panicked. We argued like crazy. We were, for the first time in our marriage, at an impasse. One of us was going to lose.

At one point, Dan, exasperated by my inflexibility, cried, “Do the math, Irene!” Expenses were up, income was down. Pretty simple calculations, even for my math-challenged brain. Later that month, paying bills and balancing my checkbook, I was alarmed by how low our account was. Sickened, I realized that Dan and I shared the same fear: failing our family. As the probability of losing our house and going under financially hit me, the logic of Dan’s plan sank in. At last, I agreed.

Our truce was just the beginning. Now we faced the daunting prospect of readying the house for sale and the massive downsizing needed to move onto a sailboat.

We started with the attic, a crawl space entered via a half door in the master bedroom. One Saturday morning, we hauled the musty-smelling contents out and looked them over. An old car seat—­definitely not legal anymore. The disintegrating animal-skin rug Dan had brought from Brazil before we met. Our daughter’s child-size softball mitt. Boxes and boxes of stuff. To the dump. All of it. We filled Dan’s work van (twice), paid the dump fees, and unceremoniously hurled our things atop the astonishing pile of discards from other people’s lives.

Over the next months, I cleared out closets and drawers. I went through family treasures, important papers, and the accumulation of 20 years in our house. If I couldn’t use it on the boat or didn’t plan to pass it on to my daughters, it ended up in one of the yard sales we had that spring.

At first, it hurt to see strangers eyeing such objects as a vase we had received as a wedding gift, trying to determine whether the meager price I was asking was worth it. I watched as a woman considered the Japanese silk parasol given to me by my funny, sweet, dearest friend, Gary. Years before, when Gary came out to his family, they rejected him, breaking his heart. Lost, Gary spent the next 10 years traveling, bringing me gifts from exotic places. A few months before we decided to sell the house, Gary killed himself.

Although the parasol had remained in its decorative box at the bottom of my closet, I struggled with selling it. When the woman opened it up and the sun shone through its beautiful red, translucent fabric, it was too much. I headed toward her, not knowing what I would say.

“What are you thinking about using that for?” I asked, trying to sound merely curious.

“I’m a teacher,” she said. “I need decorations for my section on Japan, but my budget doesn’t cover them.” She smiled, twirling the parasol over our heads. “This is perfect!” I could almost hear Gary whispering, “Give it to her.” I did.

I began to understand the extent to which our possessions hold us captive and guilt us into keeping them. How much better it is to give them new life so they don’t rot away in an attic or sit forgotten in a closet.

From then on, it became easier to identify and unload extraneous items. Each time I moved things out to the yard to sell or give to eager takers, I felt a burden lifting. The joy and freedom I experienced was the opposite of the grief I had expected.

At long last, it was finished. We closed on the sale of our house in May of 2008. Soon after, the housing market in Seattle, where we live, collapsed, just as Dan had predicted. On our last day in the house, we posted our mattresses, by then on the floor, on Craigslist’s free page. They were gone in an hour.

We walked through the empty rooms one last time, then took the 15-minute drive to the boat.

It was strange that first night. We weren’t going on a family boat trip. We were living here now. This was home. Piles of things yet to be put away were everywhere. I walked the dog around the marina parking lot, had a shot of tequila, and cried myself to sleep.

Though we had pared down to essentials, it took months to stow everything and make the boat function and feel like home. Our new neighbors cheerfully and generously shared suggestions; there was un­deniable joy among the community of “live-aboards.” I shed more possessions and began to get comfortable with our new life. Gradually, I found my way.

We all did. Our daughters, one in high school and the other home from college for the quarter, were troupers. We danced clumsily around one another in those early days, getting dressed, eating breakfast, and gathering our things for the day. Even the dog, who’d had emergency ACL surgery the week before we moved, waited patiently to be carried up the stairs and wheeled up the dock. It wasn’t easy. But when the girls began telling us that their friends thought we were “really cool” to have done this, I knew we were going to be OK.

Nine years later, we still live at a marina, with others who have chosen a lifestyle whose main components are simplicity, efficiency, a low carbon footprint, and an inspiring daily dose of nature.

The holidays still happen and are sweeter than ever because we plan them together. We rent cabins or celebrate at the homes of family members and friends. Our daughters, now living on their own, have organized celebrations at their respective homes. It’s collaborative, different every year, and, I have to admit, a lot less work for me.

Since we left our jobs in order to pursue our passions, our days are not as regulated as they once were. I write on the boat when Dan is not home. When he is, I head to our tiny floating shed on the lake, which also functions as Dan’s workshop and a storage space for precious keepsakes. Wedged among all the stuff, under a tiny window overlooking Seattle’s Ballard Locks, are a table and a comfortable chair where I can write in complete solitude. Occasionally I mix it up by going to the library or a coffee shop. Each day is different. And that in itself is a gift. Our daughters visit often and bring their friends, who, as it turns out, love coming to the boat.

On a recent summer evening, with dinner in the oven, Dan and I watched the sun setting over the Olympic Mountains. Neighbors walked or kayaked by, smiling and waving. Children and grandchildren in life jackets ran up and down the dock with their dogs.

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By simplifying our life, we saved ourselves—and emerged with a clearer vision of who we are and what we value. More important, we came to know that our family and our home have nothing to do with a house or a place.

Wherever, whenever we are together, we are home.