Living on a Boat Changes How You View the Enviroment

You may have been wondering why I haven’t blogged for a week. I was on a scheduled sailing trip in the British Virgin Islands. Living on a boat teaches you all sorts of stuff that I thought I’d share as it changes your perspective on your environmental impact. Let’s dig in.

Why Boats?

As I’ve blogged before, starting this summer I’ll be spending two months out of every six sailing with my wife. Now that the kids are grown, we were going to start traveling more and this seemed like a unique way to do it. In addition, I’ve always loved the sound of a sailing vessel. No motor sounds and no diesel fumes, just the sound of the wind and rushing water. There is little in life save for backcountry skiing in the Colorado mountains that’s more meditative.

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Why Now?

I’m in my very late 50s, so shouldn’t I wait until I’m 65 and then just retire 100% and sail? The problem is two-fold. I still have a few things I want to accomplish in medicine and the genetic lottery.

For example, I developed a groundbreaking way to treat Cranial-Cervical Instability (CCI) using orthobiologics and that procedure now needs the research to back it up. That will take another several years to get where it needs to be so the PICL procedure is left as a legacy to people with CCI and helps thousands of people each year avoid invasive upper cervical fusion.

In addition, the whole field of interventional orthobiologics as a way to replace invasive orthopedic surgery still needs work. My overarching career goal was to continue to develop the data that supports that these procedures are often more cost-effective than the scalpel. As a result, I still have work to do at Regenexx. Much of that, with fast Internet worldwide continuing to mature, can now be done anywhere I park my derriere. Even on a boat in a marina someplace.

Finally, my father as he aged developed a rare neurologic condition called Diffuse Lewy Body. It’s an awful disease. My parents had lots of plans of what they would do when they retired, but those never materialized as my dad got sick before they could unfold. So getting out there sooner rather than later is a hedge on that unknown genetic lotto ticket.


Because of all of the above, I bought a boat early last year. It’s basically a small condo with sails and engines. As for a boat name, that came to us when we were telling our kids the story of my first vacation plans as a practicing doctor. My wife and I had heard the beach boys song, “Kokomo” and we both firmly believed that this was a real place. In addition, it sounded like a wonderful place to visit in a Colorado winter. Pre-Internet, there was no easy way to check this out, so it was a week before we found out it wasn’t real from an incredulous travel agent. The kids got such a kick out of the story that the whole family came to the unanimous conclusion that this had to be the boat name.

Learning to Sail and Drive

As a middle-class kid growing up in Florida, I had no direct boat experience. However, I did get to sail a few Hobie Cats in college and then finally had a rich friend in medical school whose family owned a 40-foot sailboat. While I became defacto crew on that boat, my sailing resume was still very incomplete. So the past year my wife and I have been learning how to sail big catamarans and I’ve been getting educated in how to drive. That last part may sound simple, but when the mass of the boat is upwards of 15 tons and the amount of the boat exposed to the wind is large, getting the hang of using momentum, wind, current, and the engines takes a while. Hence, this past week was all about adding to that resume on the same exact model of boat we purchased.

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A Boat as Environmental Microcosm

When you take a day trip on a boat, you don’t get a sense of how ocean crossing vessels or what I call “condo cats” are self-contained little spaceships of sorts. For example, now that I’m home, I don’t much worry about how much electricity I’m using, I just pay the electric bill at the end of the month. Whether I use twice as much one day or half as much the next doesn’t matter much, as the power keeps flowing from the grid. On a boat, however, you do think about these things and more.

For example, in the BVI, we spent a week on mooring balls scattered in various small protected harbors, never once connected to shore power. Hence, how much energy the boat could generate and store and when we needed to recharge was a big deal. After all, if the batteries crapped out while we were in the middle of the ocean, the satellite-enabled GPS chart plotters became blank screens. Hence, you get into the habit of turning stuff off you’re not using. Lights, instruments, screens, are all sources of power drain. You are literally forced to become an environmentalist because how much energy you consume is always on your mind.

The same is true with other aspects of your little spaceship. Take water for example. Do you really know how much water you use each day? I sure didn’t. For example, this boat has a 184-gallon water tank. That sounds like quite a bit, but with 4 people on board, that’s about 4 days worth. That’s if you conserve water by taking “Navy” showers. Meaning, you wet yourself, soap up, and rinse off, and don’t let the water run for 5-15 minutes while you leisurely shower. In fact, the single biggest water user may surprise you. It’s flushing gallons away each time you use the restroom. Again, you’re forced to become an environmentalist.

Food is another issue. While our condo cat has refrigerators and a freezer, in the Caribbean, you can’t just pop into your local Whole Foods or Costco and pick up your favorite brand. You can only buy what’s local and that can be everything from no access to a grocery store at that mooring or access to a bad one, or a mediocre one. However, the panoply of food choices we’ve all become accustomed to is not there. In addition, how much you can store on the boat is also omnipresent, so you get real picky with making sure you only buy what you’re actually going to eat.

Finally, there’s waste. While that may sound gross, it’s also another environmental concern on your spaceship. What happens to the water once it drains from the shower or out of the toilet bowl is critical. On land, it just magically disappears. On an ocean-going boat, it’s a complex system of holding tanks. For example, we got woken up at 3 am one morning by an alarm and a pump whirring. My first thought was that this is a pump in the bilge (bottom of the boat beneath your feet) that was working to deal with the water from a leak. However, this one turned out to be the pump that takes the sink and shower water out of a small holding tank and pumps it overboard. I quickly learned how that system worked and that two contacts on the sensor had become dirty so that the pump thought the holding tank was full. Just wiping those contacts off fixed the issue. However, in one semi-sleepness night, I learned all about all of the valves and systems that made our grey water disappear in a way that you would never learn if you had a plumbing issue in your home.

What Impact Do You Have on the Environment?

How much energy do you consume? How is that generated? With coal or diesel or with wind or solar? How much water do you use? What happens to it once it goes down the drain or you flush it? How much of that food you buy goes into the trash because you never ate it? Finally, how is your waste handled once it goes down the drain? Do you know?

The upshot? What impact do you have on the environment? On an ocean-going boat, you quickly learn those exact metrics because they’re always at the forefront. It makes you very conscious of all of the little things we waste because we can, but likely shouldn’t. So last night, back on terra firma, when I washed my face and flushed the toilet before bed, my thoughts had been morphed after a week on a boat. All I could think about was, wow, what a massive waste of water!

Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications. View Profile

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