A House in Amish Country - How & Why We Moved Ashore


Today I woke up at 5:45, too excited to sleep. I came downstairs, made coffee, and began writing this. It snowed 6 inches overnight, and outside, despite being five blocks from the center of town, there is a calm and almost deafening quiet that is only possible with a blanket of fresh snow in the dark of the early morning. Christmas has passed, but that little kid inside of me still has the same feeling. I’ve got a new toy.

Before I get the ‘how’ of this story, I’ll start with the ‘why.’ For nearly six years ago now, I’ve more or less lived aboard a boat. First, on my dad’s Sojourner, then on my own Arcturus, after meeting Mia and deciding we’d buy our own boat. Over those six years we’ve sailed many thousands of miles in both of those boats and others. Though we’d spent a fair amount of time living in my parent’s basement, and occupying Mia’s childhood bedroom when we were in Sweden, it was always a boat we’d come ‘home’ to after our travels.

And then in the spring of 2012 my mom died. I feel like I keep harping on this fact, but in the time since, the result of that single day in April (and, more realistically, the cumulative effect that two-and-half years of her living – and ultimately dying – with brain cancer has had on us and my family) has affected just about every single aspect of my life, consciously or subconsciously. It was also around this time that we started working for World Cruising Club, and would need a more permanent base in the USA to run the office. Mia and I opted then to move back into my dad’s basement, where we’d keep the office and our collection of ‘stuff’, partially as a way to save money, but mostly because after my mom’s death, he needed some support (and, admittedly, so did I). We still did plenty of sailing, but ‘home’ was now in Pennsylvania.

(A short aside on the nature of sailing, and cruising specifically. I made the choice, long ago, before I met Mia in fact, that I’d pursue a career in something I was passionate about. In fact, it never really was a choice. From a very young age, my mom (and dad, to give him some credit) instilled in both my sister Kaitie and I, that if you ‘follow your heart, the money will come.’ I don’t believe in destiny, and only a little bit in luck – you make your own luck, I say – but the path that my life has followed since high school and my decision to pursue a career in golf – golf! – seems in hindsight as if it was out of my control. Obviously, the golf career was short-lived. Stuff just happened, and here I am.

Anyway, by making the choice to pursue a ‘lifestyle’ career – a job in which I’m excited to get up to in the morning to get to work, that feels as far from a ‘job’ as is possible – I’ve inadvertently made the choice that I will never be a full-time cruiser. Sailing for Mia and I comes in spurts – summers now in Sweden on Arcturus, a few deliveries throughout the year, and now, more often, some ocean racing thrown in for good measure. By deciding to take the work with World Cruising Club, we closed the door to working full-time on yachts that I thought was open right in front of me. And now, I don’t believe I would have been happy doing that. 

I have too many interests. I wrote long ago that while I grew up around boats and the sea, my family never identified as ‘sailors.’ I still don’t see myself as a ‘sailor.’ I like sailing, am pretty good at it, but it’s not what makes me me. I’m like to cycle, but I’m not a cyclist. I love to run, but I don’t think of myself as a runner. If anything, I wish I could call myself a skier – climbing mountains and skiing down them, in the moment, is far and away my favorite thing in the world, and yet I do it the least. In another life maybe.

But the point is, I’d never be content as a full-time cruiser. I get bored after a while and yearn for something different. Then, after a while of that, I want to get back on the water. So it goes.

The life we’ve now chosen for ourselves – a base ashore, far from the sea and surrounded by farmland, where I can store my myriad bicycles and ride around the countryside. And, importantly, where it’s cheap enough to enable us to afford both a small house and a small boat  – gives us the best of both worlds. When I’m tired of one, I can escape to the other.)

Anyway. This – the situation of us living with my dad – obviously couldn’t last. I’m nearly 30, and looong past the time I should have moved out. Granted, we were still traveling and sailing a lot, but by the end of this past summer, when we returned home from sailing Arcturus in Sweden, it quickly became apparent that life at 1169 Hilltop Road was no longer sustainable (though to no fault of my dad, as he was unflinchingly supportive of us, even as we took over his own house). It was just time.

It was on our annual father-son cruise this past summer that the light bulb finally went off. In the foggy haze of a nasty hangover after a big night at Fell’s Point with the boys, I started Googling properties, first in Portland, Maine (Mia and I yearn for a real, Swedish-style winter), then in Annapolis and finally in Lancaster, PA. It dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, with the historically low interest rates, and the (very) small inheritance from my mom, we could swing actually buying a place of our own. For once, Mia agreed with me. At that point, the whole thing became inevitable.

Life with Mia is a whirlwind. We seem constantly to be coming or going, and one project usually flows immediately into the next with no time to breath in between. Buying a house turned out to be no different. Following ten days in Portsmouth, VA at the start of the Caribbean 1500, Mia and I made an appointment with a realtor in Lancaster. We’d stop in on our way back to my dad’s place in Reading, after spending the night in Oxford at Ben Weems’ house (the former owner of Arcturus, then Cybele). We had three days back in PA before flying out again to Tortola in early November, and would remain in the Caribbean until December 29. One thing into the next, as per usual.

We chose Lancaster for it’s compact city center, affordable cost of real city living and fantastic access to local, organic food and raw milk, thanks to the Amish. The first house we looked at was a neat old row home a few blocks from downtown. Neat from the outside. The experience just about scuttled the whole process before it got started. The place was neat, but it was old. And a mess. Old, tangled wiring hung from the basement ceiling, the floors and walls were cracked and broken, the living room was painted an ugly yellow. After refitting two boats now (Arcturus and Sojourner), I was not interested in remodeling a house. If this is what we can afford, Mia and I thought, let’s move back in with dad.

Next stop was a gorgeous condo in an old brick warehouse. High ceilings and exposed brick and wooden beams, with a view out the front window to the Lancaster Brewing Company. It was sweet, and loaded with character, our #1 priority in looking for a place to live (just as it was when we were boat shopping). And it was newly renovated, so no work to be done. Things were looking up, we thought.

The realtor took us to a few more houses, each newly renovated and very affordable, but nothing that really got our blood flowing. 

“Haven’t you looked at 12 Plum Street?” she asked as the day was winding down. Nope. “Ah! It’s because they just brought the price down yesterday, and it previously would have been over your limit.” Take us there then!

So for our last stop of the day, as the sun was setting in the west (a sunset that my dad was enjoying far offshore, five days into his voyage south on Sojourner in the 1500), we discovered 12 Plum Street. We set foot inside to a newly renovated kitchen and living room, but one that retained all the charm and character of the house as it was built in 1867. Exposed, random width original wood flooring. The original brick fireplace in the kitchen. Original wooden doors with iron knobs and handles (none of which actually close tight). The exposed stone foundation in the unfinished basement. All this with newly painted walls, brand new windows and a new, stainless steel kitchen. The instruction booklet was still in the oven.

We walked out that day with the same feeling we had when we first looked at Arcturus – the debate was over before it started. That was going to be our house. The next day, after a fitful night’s sleep in dad’s basement, we drove back to Lancaster and put a full-price offer on the place that was quickly accepted. And then we flew to Tortola.

There is a long story in the interim between placing an offer on the house and our actually moving into it, but I’ll save that. Suffice it to say that as new home-buyers, we needed a cosigner (thanks Dad!), but because we were doing this entirely remotely (from the Caribbean no less), getting all the documentation together for the mortgage was a nightmare. But it happened, and literally hours after we returned from St. Lucia (arriving back to dad’s house at 2 in the morning on December 30), we returned to Lancaster one last time for settlement. Eli, the Amish dude we bought the house from (and who showed up for settlement complete with his chinstrap beard, straw hat and suspenders), handed us the keys, and the place was ours.

On New Year’s Eve, Mia and I moved in. And being that it was New Year’s Eve, it was literally just Mia and I doing the moving, as all of our family and friends were doing what you’re supposed to be doing on that day. We rented a 17’ U-Haul and proceeded to pillage my dad’s basement of it’s furniture, gathered up all of our books and bicycles and skis, and drove the 40 miles or so to our new home. It was 9pm until we’d unloaded the truck, the two of us, and with a scattering of unpacked boxes and furniture in the living room, Mia and I rung in the New Year, more satisfied than ever. 

So far, as sailors accustomed to living aboard, the transition to life ashore has been made easier not by the things we now have, but what we still lack. The fridge hasn’t arrived yet, so we’re working out of a cooler that is outside on the back stoop. No need for ice, as it’s been below freezing since we moved here. The leftovers stay right in the pan, and are currently kept cold under the 6 inches of new snow outside. We spent the first two nights sleeping on a mattress on the floor – the old stairway was too narrow for the box spring. We joked that it just made it feel like the ceiling was extra-high. 

But then I’m still taken aback by the very small conveniences that I think most people take for granted. Filling the Brita filter this morning I smiled at not having to pump the foot pump to get water from the tap. And doing the dishes in warm water required nothing more than a small move of the spigot to the ‘hot’ side, rather than putting the kettle on the stove as we do sometimes on Arcturus. Showers? We’ve got two of them!

And then the storage! The house is only just over 1,000 square feet, small by most standards, but impossibly huge by ours. Precisely because of all the traveling and sailing we’ve done (and will still do – this place is only a ‘base’ for six months of the year), Mia and I have made a point not to collect ‘stuff.’ All of the furniture we moved here was donated by friends or bought at Goodwill, and my entire wardrobe, winter and summer clothing included, fits in a small closet and one four-drawer dresser. The sports equipment we have takes up by far the most space, and occupies the third bedroom of the house downstairs. Between the two of us we have 7 bicycles (though two of them are in Sweden), 4 pair of skis, 1 wakeboard, 1 tennis racket, 1 set of golf clubs, 2 kettlebells, many pairs of running shoes and an assortment of fitness stuff. And yet there is no way – no way – we will ever fill this place. In fact, the challenge now is going to be to keep that mindset of not hoarding stuff just because we suddenly have the room for it.

So now, Lancaster City, Pennsylvania, the heart of Amish country, is our new home base. We’ll still travel, still sail. This place, our new home, is the furthest point, philosophically anyway, from sailing and the ocean. And that’s just how we want it.