A Hippie Commune with a Sun-Down Clause


[Image: The Pahi 63 “Gaia”, Flagship of the James Wharram Design fleet]

We bought INTEMPERANCE in late 2007 and cruised Florida and the Bahamas in early 2008. Then my wife and daughters, and dog got back in our car and drove home, leaving me to figure out how I was going to get our boat from Darien, GA back to Montauk, NY.

Before she left, my wife and I went to a bookstore where I selected three weighty tomes: War Made New, by Max Boot; Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond; and What Hath God Wrought, by Daniel Walker Howe. These are the sort of books I have a very hard time reading when I’m surrounded by shore-side distractions, but can read in a day or two when living aboard.

One of the sections of WHGW that I especially enjoyed was: a) Howe’s account of the social experimentation that took place on the frontier, all sorts of novel ideas about family, sex, child-rearing; and, b) Howe’s account of frontier widow and widower’s practical attitudes towards taking a new spouse after the death of their first.

The reason I enjoyed this section so much is because in early 2008 it was beginning to dawn on me that this whole “internet thing” maybe wasn’t as a big a deal as I thought it was, especially around social and sexual norms, and it’s reassuring to see that no matter what you’re up to, and no matter how new it all seems to you, someone’s probably (almost certainly) given it a go before you. The lesson of one Mid-Western, early 19th century, utopian free love cult seemed especially important.

At it’s peak, the group numbered about 5,000 250. As I recall, everyone was married to everyone else. Children were not to be conceived without permission from the group, and at an early age, young men were indoctrinated by the older women of the group in ways of lovemaking that were satisfying but not procreative. (Howe leaves it up to the reader to use his or her imagination, forcing me to do the same.)

By Howe’s account, this commune was financially and socially successful. Children sufficient to keep the group going were born, but no unplanned children. There were no unduly disruptive outbreaks of financial, sexual, social, or emotional jealousy. Everything was just fine.

Until they quit. The whole thing just sort of petered out.*


Passage-making is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my life. Being out of sight of land for days on end, out in the blue on blue brings me a kind of peace of mind I only ever get in small snatches when I’m shore-side. At sea this transcendent, timeless calm is available in abundance.

But there is also an arduous aspect to passage-making.

Safety demands that a full-time watch be kept, which is as simple as someone scanning the horizon every 10-15 minutes and making sure a freighter isn’t on a collision course, but it has to be done, every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day.

With a shorthanded crew, that means a certain degree of sleep depravation, especially for the captain, who is “on call” to whomever is on watch. As the days turn into weeks, there’s a sort of dullness that comes on from lack of sleep. It’s not dissimilar from being the parent of a newborn. You can still function just fine, but the idea of eight hours uninterrupted sleep becomes quite tantalizing!

The original plan was not to build a 40′ catamaran. No, the original plan was to build a 63′ catamaran.

But after looking at the finances, the available build-space, and especially looking at the time-table we decided to build the 40 footer. (My wife, “David, just this once can we take the less stressful option?”)

The 40 footer is going to be an excellent boat to run our charter business. The 40 footer is going to be a pretty good boat for family cruising. But the 40 footer is not the right boat for Living the Dream, which you will understand when I tell you what the dream is.

What I realized about our 19th century Ohio Oneida sex-freaks is that if you can actually find the sort of people who have the skills, intellect, personal discipline, and inclination to take on a project like that and make it work, a very high percentage of them are going to be the kind of people who get bored with things that just go along swimmingly. It’s not the living in an ideal free-love community that turns them on, it’s the creating an ideal free-love community that turns their cranks.

I realized this because growing up in Souther Oregon the hills were lousy with defunct hippy communes from the 60s and 70s. Yes, some of them failed because of sexual jealousy, financial ineptitude and all the other things you’d expect would happen when people try to Live Differently. But many of them “failed” because the people who made them work (for a while) moved on to other things. They moved up to Eugene to open a microbrewery, or to Hawaii to grow organic coffee, or whatever.

No less important than my time as a commentor on TheAmericanScene.com in my development as a writer has been my friendship with Loraine Callow.

She discovered my films (well back then, my film) back in 2003, and since then has been a tireless advocate for my work, sounding-board and copy-editor for my writing, and dear friend.

But because she lives in Australia we’ve only had the chance to meet in person once, two summers ago when she and her family came for a visit, which was quite wonderful. Our children played together, we picked raspberries from the garden and clams from the lake, installed our new kitchen, and generally had a wonderful time.

Because of this Loraine and I spend a lot of time day-dreaming about the possibles of pooling our families’ resources. We look at sea-side compounds in Northwest Australia, apple farms in Nova Scotia, lofts in New York and dozens of other dream-scenarios that our shared resources could fuel.

The 63 footer has two double berth cabins, giant storage lockers, plus room for a galley/dinette in each hull.

On deck there are four separate “deck houses” each with a room for a single bunk, a writing desk, and plenty of storage. In addition to the four deckhouses, there’s about 600 square feet of open deck-space, not counting the netting fore and aft. In the center of the deck, there’s a fire pit surrounded by benches.

Two families solves answers a number of questions; from diversity of experience and perspective in the schooling, to economies of scale in provisioning and food prep, to boat construction and maintenance, to watch-keeping.

Mindful that the endeavorer will not have the cohesive force of either blood or faith to sustain it, the project will be circumscribed.

The boat must be built, which will take approximately eight months; and then circumnavigated, which will take approximately 36 months. This circumscription will provide unity, direction, and most importantly, a finish line. When spirits are low (as they inevitably will sometimes be) you can tell yourself, “It not forever. It’s just till we get back to Madagascar.” (Hence the sundown clause.)

Sadly, Loraine’s family is not available for the adventure, and the clock is ticking. Every 12 months my children get another year older, and soon they will be living their own lives. I suppose we could wait a few years and find another like-minded couple, but idea of cruising as one half of two empty-nest couples is horrifying as cruising as one of two families is tantalizing.

A Hippie Commune with a Sun-Down Clause

My wife and younger daughter keeping watch on our first Gulf Stream crossing.

* I found my moldy old copy of Howe’s What Hath God Wrought and have made a few corrections and have been doing some research. Based on what I’ve read today, Howe’s description of Oneida’s decline is a bit of a gloss. Weakening leadership, rising sexual tensions and pressure from outside the community all contributed to Oneida’s decline. I’m not accusing him of being deceptive, his point is that there was openness to experimentation, and the details of why things reverted to the norm aren’t especially important in that context.



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7 thoughts on “A Hippie Commune with a Sun-Down Clause

  1. There were no unduly disruptive outbreaks of financial, sexual, social, or emotional jealousy. Everything was just fine. Until they quit. The whole thing just sort of petered out.

    Did he say about how long this lasted? The implication is that it was at least a generation or two.

    Whenever I read about such things, it always strikes me that they seems unsustainable. The kids who get born eventually pair up and want to go their own way… and if there aren’t enough missionaries to bring in enough folks to achieve replacement, one will be struck by yet another attempt to make something new and different that worked until it stopped working… and that rarely lasts more than a generation or two.

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  2. I can recommend almost the entire series “Oxford History of the United States” the Howe book is volume 5.  It’s one of the better volumes, but outside of the 1975-2000 volume (too recent to detect historical trends) the rest of the series is worthwhile.  the last volume that i read was an over view of our foreign policy – “US Foreign Relations since 1776” – that would take at least an entire boat journey.

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  3. I read an article somewhere complaining about how Facebook was getting so “political”, as in people weren’t afraid to post extremely partisan things and get into angry political arguments.

    What Facebook is showing us, I think, is that it wasn’t “being anonymous” that made people act like hotheads.  Some people–and more than you might think–are just like that.  What stops them acting that way all the time is that you can’t ragequit real life.

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