June 2021 Update : Of course, a book isn’t really done until it is edited and published! I have found a collaborator and hybrid publishing house to bring the manuscript to completion. After (yet another) revision, I am hoping for a book launch in the fall! Below is an edited sneak peek. Note: the new title will be Leaving the Safe Harbor: Risks and Rewards of Raising a Family on a Boat.
I completed a final revision of the book manuscript I have been working on for more than three years, Leaving the Safe Harbor: What We Learned from Life on a Boat. With poetic justice, I finished editing the last page of the last chapter one year exactly from when my first reader/editor made her last encouraging comment. I moved the final pages to a document entitled “Final Draft.” It might not be perfect, but it’s done, and that feels amazing. Total word count: 84,654.
Jay and I had a quiet date night out (everyone else must have been at home watching the Superbowl!) and a glass of Prosecco to celebrate. It’s time to think about the next steps, but for just a moment, I want to enjoy that sense of accomplishment.
The book is not merely a re-write of the blog, though faithful readers might recognize some of the stories. It’s a narrative that documents our journey from suburbanites to salty sailors, organized around sailing idioms and life lessons. Here’s the prospective cover, and a sneak peek (introduction, table of contents, crew list, and prologue) to whet your appetite. I’m planning to publish as soon as possible.
“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” –Mark Twain
Crew List: Who’s Who on Take Two
Prologue: Staying Afloat / The Good and the Bad
1 Rocking the Boat / Big Dreams
2 Uncharted Waters / A Leap of Faith
3 Sink or Swim / Taking Risks
4 Running a Tight Ship / Discipline
5 Learning the Ropes / Making Mistakes
6 Close Quarters / Conflict Resolution
7 Chock-a-Block / Collecting Verbs
8 All Hands On Deck / Teamwork
9 Batten Down the Hatches / Hardship and Hope
10 Getting Ship-Shape / Organized Chaos
11 See Which Way the Wind is Blowing / Decision Making
12 Plumbing the Depths / Gratitude and Awe
13 Ships Passing in the Night / Friendships Afloat
14 Troubled Waters / Patience
15 On the Right Tack / Give and Take
16 Smooth Sailing / Simple Appreciation
17 Course Corrections / Flexibility
18 Safe Harbor / Letting Go
Epilogue: In the Offing / New Dreams
Glossary of Nautical Terms for Landlubbers
About the Author
Crew List: Who’s Who on Take Two
Jay, Captain and Chief Engineer. He’s the problem-solver, the magic genie who funds the dream, and the introverted computer-genius with an adventurous side. He grew up sailing and served as crew on race boats. He has two full-time jobs, working as a consultant and keeping the boat’s systems running smoothly—he’s equally adept at designing a database, plumbing a boat toilet, and wiring an electrical panel. Fun Facts: he has to medicate to prevent seasickness, loves extreme weather, and stands out like a sore thumb in Central America.
Tanya, First Mate and Ship’s Cook. She’s the impulsive idea man, extroverted family ambassador, and neurotic control-freak. She may be afraid of everything but doesn’t let it stop her from living a full and exciting life. She loves planning trips, taking the night watch on passages, and is in charge of setting the anchor or picking up a mooring. She loves meeting new people, serves as French/Spanish interpreter when necessary, and knows how to find things in a new place. Fun Facts: she plays ukulele, reads voraciously, and likes to kayak.
Eli, Second Mate. He’s the first-born son, a frustrated perfectionist, a lover of the great outdoors, and a wordsmith lovingly known as Captain Vocabulary. He’s in charge when Jay and Tanya are off the boat and helps stand watch at night on long passages. He’s the one who goes up the mast when the need arises. Fun Facts: he loves to freedive, plays D&D, and is working on a private pilot’s license.
Aaron, Second Engineer. A Mr. Fixit, he loves tools, can talk to anyone with his charismatic personality, but can sometimes be a bit of a primadonna. He helps with boat projects like installing a water heater or changing the oil in the engines. His motion sickness limits his abilities on passages, but he’s capable of piloting the boat in coastal waters. Fun Facts: he plays electric guitar, rebuilt his first carburetor at age seven, and knows almost everything about WWII tanks.
Sarah, Quartermaster. She’s a creative genius, who likes to draw and can play several musical instruments, and has a ready wit, though you might not know it because she’s also a bit of a hermit. She helps with docking and anchoring, knows where to find anything on the boat, and enjoys sailing in small sailboats. Fun Facts: she’s excellent at using just the right movie quotes to fit a conversation, is fluent in Spanish, and bakes the best cookies.
Sam, Able Seaman. He’s got an indomitable spirit and the ability to charm animals and small children, yet somehow most often shows us his spastic clown persona. While sailing, he stands by to help wherever needed and he likes to take morning watches on passage. He’s the fisherman of the family. Fun Facts: he’s a frustrated percussionist, a drummer without a proper drum set who taps on anything that resonates, and he can solve the Rubik’s Cube in thirty-two seconds, juggle, and touch his tongue to his nose (though not all at the same time).
Rachel, Midshipman. She’s the youngest, born after we moved aboard Take Two, precocious and wise beyond her years, empathetic and imaginative, and possessing a flair for the dramatic that comes with the downside of a quick temper. She sleeps in a single bunk we built for her amidships and loves to sit in the captain’s chair on passages. She is learning to pilot the dinghy and loves to help in the galley. Fun Facts: she adores animals, has a big singing voice for a small person, and can recycle anything for use as a toy.
Take Two, Custom Wooden Sailing Catamaran. Our boat is more than just a vehicle that gets us from point A to point B; she is a part of our family. We love and care for her, and she, in turn, shelters and protects us. She was designed by Dirk Kramer and built at the Waarschip yard in Bouwjaar, Netherlands in 1991, the year Jay and I rode the school bus together in high school. She is forty-eight feet long, twenty-six feet wide, and has a draft four feet. Her typical cruising speed is eight knots, but she’s capable of double-digits in a brisk wind. She was cold-molded, made of cedar and layers of marine plywood and epoxy, with a fiberglass skin below the waterline. Her keels and cross beam are solid mahogany. We are her third owners, having purchased her for less than $200,000 in Ft. Lauderdale in April of 2008. She has crossed an ocean, spent a few years as a charter boat in the Virgin Islands, and circumnavigated a hurricane. She’s been our full-time home since August of 2009.
Staying Afloat / The Good and the Bad
May 2016. I am at the helm, the only crew still standing. The captain is wedged in a corner of the cockpit trying to nap. The others are lying prone, sleeping where they fell, some outside in the cockpit, others on the settees inside, and one, half-naked, on the salon floor. If there were a soundtrack for this day, it would include crashing waves, wind whistling in the rigging, the drone of a diesel engine, crewmen moaning and groaning, and the sound of someone throwing up at the rails. The wind is wild, whipping my hair around and chapping my face. We are pounding into six-to-eight-foot seas, directly upwind, sails furled and both engines running. Occasionally, I get hit in the face with salt spray from the bows burying themselves in a big, green wave.
It is the kind of day people imagine when I tell them I live on a sailboat and they stare at me with an odd mixture of horror and admiration on their features. Perhaps they are thinking of the fisherman in his yellow rain-slicker on the Gorton’s Fish Sticks package. Well, sometimes it is like that, but only for a day or two out of the year. Sometimes, believe it or not, life at sea can be boring. But usually, like this day, it is a combination of highs and lows, the highs often being better than you can imagine, and the lows, worse.
We are on a rhumb line between the east side of Puerto Rico and a small island in the Spanish Virgins, Vieques. The U.S. Government once used Vieques for target practice and, despite its now being a vacation destination with beach resorts, there are still parts of the island that are off-limits due to unexploded ordnance. We are here in the middle of a churning sea because it was the best weather we could see in the forecast for making our way south and east to the Virgin Islands. It is May already, late in the season, and we need to be in Grenada before hurricane season gets cranking. It’s been a rough year for leaving, our intended departure date slipping from January to March because of Jay’s work schedule and the numerous cold fronts and disagreeable conditions preventing our crossing the Gulf Stream.
We passed up a month of cruising in the Out Islands in the Bahamas with our good friends on Ally Cat in order to take advantage of calm weather to head east and the last cold front of the season to push us south into the Caribbean. Though we’re excited by what lies ahead, we are still feeling this disappointment. We had been trying to meet up with Kimberly, Michael, and their daughter, Ally, for months, slowly heading south as they headed north, our paths crossing as they had twice before. As it turned out, we had only three days together in George Town, Exuma. We made the most of it, with a dinner together of fresh-caught Mahi tacos, a provisioning day with two other boat moms, a cruiser’s open-mic music night, and a beach bonfire. The last day, Kimberly bestowed upon me her notes from their year in the Caribbean—notes that I would cherish and use extensively the following year.
One of her recommendations was Bio Bay (Bahia Mosquito), in Vieques, a naturally-occurring phenomenon where bioluminescent plankton exist in impressive concentrations in a closed bay, and cause anything that passes through the water to glow and sparkle. I was enchanted by the idea of anchoring our boat at the entrance to the bay and taking our kayaks in on a dark night to give my kids a magical experience. I became obsessed with this idea—so driven, in fact, that when it was time to leave Puerto Rico, I insisted we make the stop in Vieques instead of going straight to St. Thomas, which might have provided a better wind angle for sailing. And now I am paying for it and exacting a price from my crew as well.
Guilty questions circle my head like seagulls after a potato chip. “Will this be one of those times when we all suffer for nothing? Like those other times when I have an idea and drag everyone along and it turns out to be a costly disappointment? Will we even be able to anchor at the mouth of the bay with the wind and waves from this direction?” I have six hours of bashing to think about this while our little boat icon creeps across the screen of our chart-plotter more slowly than I could ride a bike. I say a small, selfish prayer that it will all be worth it.
I have seen no other boats since we left this morning with our French counterpart—a boat called Dingo D’Iles (“crazy for islands”), a large catamaran with five kids aboard. They are long gone, heading to the British Virgin Islands. This is another disappointment, as we would like to have spent more time with them. We have never met another cruising family with five kids—two of whom were teenagers. We overlapped by only a few days at Palmas Del Mar, just long enough to hang out in the laundry room while catching up on the wash, and to share Rachel’s birthday with their three little girls. But they are on a schedule to get to Martinique by a certain date and we are not. There is always the chance that we may run into them later.
Vieques grows incrementally larger on the horizon as the mountains of Puerto Rico vanish behind us. The only redeeming qualities about this day are that it is not raining and we’ll arrive before dark. I console myself, as I often do, by reminding myself that it could always be worse. By mid-afternoon, we are running along the coast, looking for a place to anchor the boat. The captain looks dubious. The opening to Mosquito Bay looks too narrow and the bay itself too shallow for us to get inside, and the water is too rough to stay outside. I can hear him thinking about his bail-out plan and calculating an arrival time in St. Thomas. I cannot accept defeat so easily. Perhaps, I suggest, we could just do a drive-by and see whether it’s “doable.”
So we creep in around a point, in whose lee lies a perfect little isolated palm-tree-lined beach, and inch toward the entrance to the bay. Suddenly, as if by magic, the wind and waves disappear, and a mangrove-lined channel opens up just beyond a wide, shallow bight. We drop the anchor, fall back to see if we like the placement, pick it up again in classic Take Two style, and re-anchor. It’s perfect. The captain agrees to give it a go, but we will only stay one night, so this is our only chance.
Everyone is moving again, like the waking dead, looking rumpled and groggy. “Where are we?” is the repeated question. And now that we are out of the wind, it’s hot. And at the mouth of Mosquito Bay, Sarah points out, it might be a buggy night. But I remain optimistic. Yes, it might be hot and buggy, but we’re in a safe place and, barring rain, we have a chance to go do something rare and interesting. Jay and I do a pre-dark recon by dinghy to see how far we have to paddle and what the bay looks like. We decide that I’ll kayak with the big kids and he will take the dinghy as a support vessel with our youngest crewmember, Rachel, who just turned five.
We make a quick dinner and drop the kayaks in the water. The sun sinks into the sea and stars begin to wink in the darkening sky. It is a moonless night, ideal for our purpose. We paddle down the long, serpentine entrance in the dark. There are a few sparkles in the water, but nothing we haven’t seen before. A fish darts away from the bow of my kayak and I see a streak of glowing green. Then the creek widens into a bay—something we feel more than see. The farther in we get, the brighter the swirls our paddles make in the water, until the water is unmistakably glowing. Fish dash in every direction leaving fiery trails like comets, the paddles come out dripping diamonds of light, and we leave glowing wakes behind us. The kids are all thinking the same thing and finally someone says it aloud: “Can we jump in?” If it weren’t so dark, Jay and I would exchange a parental glance. We had read that a girl was bitten by a shark in this bay a year ago and we instinctively know that swimming in a warm, shallow bay at night is a bad idea. But we say yes anyway. It’s irresistible—a chance to swim in liquid light. Our friends on a boat called Jalapeño said it was not to be missed—they went so far as to dare our kids to swim here if they ever got the chance.
Our fearless first-born jumps in first. His whole body is luminous. His hair is on fire with glints of green. One by one, we all immerse ourselves in what looks like radioactive liquid—even our timid five-year-old, who leaps in fully-clothed. Our hands and arms come out of the water scintillating like sequined opera gloves. The experience is thrilling, incomparable to anything we’ve seen or done. A kayak tour group emerges from a clump of mangroves and we have surely disturbed their quiet evening expedition with our riot of sound and light. We hop back in the kayaks after a while and play paddle-tag, using the glistening trails to chase each other through the dark. This is what that awful day at sea was for; it has made all the discomfort worthwhile, and I am quite literally glowing with happiness. As we paddle out of the bay, the glow fades, the streaks turning to mere sparkles again, and we head back for a freshwater rinse and bed.
Tomorrow, we’ll weigh anchor and head back out to sea. The waves will still be there, but hopefully we’ll have a better wind angle for sailing to St. Thomas. We’ll be sailing past Culebrita, with its famous “Jacuzzis,” a series of natural rocky pools on an island wildlife refuge. Our good friends on Abby Singer are anchored there, but time and weather do not allow for another stop, so we’ll have to catch up with them further “down island.” So goes the life afloat.
Sometimes we measure success on the boat by the absence of failure–nothing broke! Nothing leaked! No one got seasick today! Sometimes sailing looks merely like “not sinking.” There are glorious, wonderful, sparkling days, but they stand out in memory like an oasis in a desert of rough passages. “Staying afloat” acknowledges the hope-amidst-hardship of the sailing life. If it’s so hard, one might ask, why do we do it? Because despite the unpredictable and sometimes unpleasant nature of boating, the beauty, joy, and freedom we experience in nature, the sense of accomplishment we feel when we overcome a challenge, and the memories we make as a family while traveling make it all worthwhile.
Disappointment is a normal part of life on Planet Ocean. Our life and path are often dictated by things outside our control, like the weather, Jay’s work, or things that break unexpectedly. We may yearn to go somewhere but be unable to get there because it’s the wrong time of year, or the wind is blowing the wrong direction or speed. While we love to go off the beaten path, we can’t stay very long and keep the paychecks coming. This is partly why we have not crossed an ocean yet and why we waited so long to make the jump to the Caribbean. We needed the technology to catch up with our dream so that Jay could work from the boat wherever it was anchored. The tradeoff is that we get to live this way, instead of saving up for ten years so we can take a trip.
Then there are the things we can control. Every time we say “yes” to one thing, we have to say “no” to a thousand others, some of which may have been better than the one we chose. Often, we pray through a decision, and choose a counterintuitive path whose purpose is only revealed later. But there is no loss without some gain, and when we miss a time with old friends, for example, we have an opportunity to make new ones.
Our lost month in the Bahamas with Ally Cat was later spent in the Virgin Islands cruising with Abby Singer. Similarly, the weeks we might have spent with them in Culebra were used to earn income and tour Puerto Rico by car. A rough day at sea yielded a memorable night in a phosphorescent bay. Choosing to continue feeling disappointment about lost joys keeps us from experiencing new ones. We just need to stay afloat during the hard times so that we are ready when good times come again. This is one of the chief lessons we have learned from life on a boat, though not the first.
If you made it this far and want more, you’ll have to buy the book! Stay tuned…