I was reminded recently of a time in our lives I don’t think about very often. We were once yuppies in Atlanta–we had a house with a white picket fence, 2.5 kids, and a weekend car.
I still get teary when I think of that first home we made, the place where we became a family. It was a safe, wonderful life, but we felt unfulfilled. We ditched the American Dream for a Big Adventure, and I’m so glad we did it, though leaving that home was incredibly hard.
The following is an excerpt from Tom Neale’s Book, All in the Same Boat. It was something we framed and hung in our house–daily inspiration when we were just crazy young dreamers.
People often ask us why we gave up a comfortable home ashore, and successful careers…to move aboard and cruise. They also wonder why we did it with two babies. And then they wonder why we are still doing it, more than 17 years later, with around 5,000 miles per year passing under the keel.
The answer doesn’t lend itself to cocktail party quips.We do it because it’s fun. We do it because it’s beautiful. We do it because we love nature and the sea and the winds and the sky. We do it because it allows us to raise a family the way a family should be raised—and to know our children. We do it because it gives us more control over the way our family lives and survives, over the education and nurturing of our children, over the air we breathe. It gives us more control over our lives…
I frequently talk to people about our life on Chez Nous. They say,”Oh, I wish I could do that.”
“But you can,” I say.
“Oh, no, we don’t have the money.”
“But you probably do. It doesn’t take much money; it takes something else. It takes wanting to do it bad enough and making sacrifices; and you have to do things yourself, not pay someone else. You can do it, but you have to work hard and give up things you don’t need anyway.” Their eyes glaze, they smile wanly, and they change the subject.
But you can do it.
You can take control of your existence. You can start doing things for yourself instead of for a “system.” You can be a family instead of a splintered group. You can raise your children to understand responsibility, to know self-discipline, and to appreciate real values. And you can know the children you raise. You can breathe clean air. You can see the stars through clear skies. You can fill your days with adventure, and you can walk on white sands and share beautiful sunsets. You and your family can go cruising. But you’ve got to work at it.
I talked about this life we left behind, what it’s like to live aboard and cruise with children, and how we faced our fears to follow our dreams in a podcast, Living Louder with Chauncy Renay. Follow the link and have a listen! https://www.buzzsprout.com/1287464/9200894
This is the longest we have ever lived in one location since we moved onto our boat. We returned from the Caribbean in July 2019, picking up a mooring in the Florida Keys with hopes of reconnecting with old friends and helping our kids figure out the next steps toward independence. And here we are, still in the Keys, doing exactly that, two years having whizzed past at record speed. For those who have been following our journey over the years, you know that we often take breathers between sailing trips to work or fix the boat. And just because we’re in one place does not mean that we’re not making progress.
Travel has certainly taken a back seat, though we took a month-long Thanksgiving cruise last year, buddy-boating with Jay’s Parents on Lovely Cruise. We also spent more than two-months driving across the country on a road trip this year, plus lots of small trips to visit family, something we do not take for granted after being gone for several years. Assuming humanity figures out how to deal with the novel Coronavirus (or that it runs its course), we plan to set sail again with Sam and Rachel after Eli, Aaron, and Sarah are off on their own adventures, but for now, most of our journeys are metaphysical.
Since we’ve been back, Jay has rebooted his career, working long hours on multiple projects. He somehow balances consulting, building a side business, maintaining and upgrading Take Two, and being a husband and father. It is no easy task! Take Two got a new galley last year, and a major water-tank renovation project is underway while we’re on the dock this summer. Jay is also installing an electric winch to make raising and lowering the dinghy easier.
I finished a book manuscript in 2020 that is in the process of being published now, with a release date of October 31, 2021. I have dreamed of publishing a book since the first grade, so when I received the first paperback copy last week, I was over the moon! Not only that, but I also recently won an International Impact Book Award (“Family” category), something I never expected to happen with my first published work. Hopefully our story will find an audience and inspire others to live life to the fullest!
Eli, now a young man of 20, got a job, bought a truck, and moved off the boat in January 2021. He is now working full time, living in a house with a cousin and a co-worker, and finishing his AA degree. He is still interested in a career in aviation and is in the process of finding the best way forward. Navigating the transition to adulthood in the middle of a pandemic is tricky and requires an amount of courage and flexibility. As much as we had hoped to spare our kids the angst and heart-ache of young adulthood and shorten the time spent “finding oneself,” I am beginning to think this is a vital part of growing up. As is letting go…I miss my kid every day.
Aaron, nearly 19, has a job at an auto parts store, which is convenient, since he’s also fixing an old Ford truck. He took the summer session off from college classes in order to replace the transmission and do other major projects—a real-world, hands-on education! He graduates in December and is almost finished with his AA at the college of the Florida Keys. He’s hoping to head in a more technical direction, and with a shortage of skilled labor, he’ll never want for work.
Sarah, now 17, just purchased her first vehicle, a 1997 Jeep Wrangler, which she bought with her own earnings from work at the Art Studio and a book-keeping job. She took a break from college classes last spring so she could go on the road trip, but she’s back at school and working toward a double graduation next year, getting her high school diploma and AA degree simultaneously.
Sam, 14, started high school at home this year, and works odd jobs fixing/cleaning boats, including our own. He’s now over six feet tall, and still growing. Of all the kids, he probably misses our traveling lifestyle the most. He loved the road trip we took last spring, the main benefit being the improvement in his relationship with Sarah. The two of them hung out together on the slopes when we went skiing in Utah. Sam broke his arm on the last day—snowboarding at night on a well-lit terrain park! (He healed quickly and was very proud of his injury.)
Rachel, 10, is now in fifth grade. She made new friends last year with two other boat-kids, and that has been wonderful during COVID, when our community has experienced so much disruption. She loves music and has an amazing imagination. She took part in the kids’ summer program at the Marathon Community Theater, playing her first role on stage as a sassy cat.
Several times I have started (but never finished) an exhaustive blog post about our road trip in March and April, but in the words of Inigo Montoya, “There is too much. Let me sum up.” When we decided to take the trip, Eli had already moved out, and Aaron had just started a new job, so with one gone and the other keeping the boat afloat, the rest of us rented an SUV and drove eight thousand miles. We were on the road for more than two months—long enough to see some amazing sights and figure out the new family chemistry.
We stopped to visit the crew of S/V Abby Singer in Jacksonville and get hiking boots at REI, then took a week to drive west, staying in Airbnb houses in out-of-the-way places. I reconnected with my best friend from elementary school in Little Rock, AK—someone I have known for forty years now! After a long drive across Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico, we spent an afternoon at Petrified Forest National Park on our way to the Grand Canyon, where we broke in our new boots hiking the Bright Angel Trail. We enjoyed several days with old friends from S/V Jalapeño near and on Lake Powell, which was gorgeous and empty of tourists in March. We then hiked our way through the five National Parks of Utah—relishing indescribably beautiful scenery and gorgeous weather.
Taking advantage of the last of the season’s snowfall, we spent a week in Salt Lake City, getting a great deal for spring passes at Brighton to do some skiing/snowboarding/cross country skate-skiing. In early April, we stopped at Dinosaur National Monument before crossing the Rockies and heading to Estes Park. Donning micro-spikes, we hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park in the snow and ice, an unforgettable experience.
Chasing spring, we crossed the Great Plains, drove through St. Louis (saw, but didn’t stop, at the Arch), and spent an afternoon at Mammoth Cave National Park. Our last few days were passed enjoying spring days in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, where the red bud and dogwood trees were in full bloom. We reconnected with the crew of S/VSeptember Winds, and Pam, who grew up near the park, was able to guide us through some of her favorite places. It was with full hearts that we returned to Florida, and though I enjoyed our road travels, I realized that I prefer boat life, where you can change locations without packing and unpacking!
After our return from the epic road trip, we decided it was time to re-visit the pet question. Sugar and Spice had been gone for more than five years, and we really missed having boat cats. Stella and Raya, two kittens adopted from the Humane Society of Naples, came home to the boat in July and have adjusted nicely. So, now we have boat kitties again, and they bring us a lot of joy.
As for the future…who knows? Should we stay or should we go? We have always held onto plans lightly because tomorrow was never guaranteed. If nothing else, living on a boat has taught us that we must be flexible when things don’t go the way we expect, something for which we are very grateful. We are counting blessings in a year that’s been hard all over the world: our family and our parents are healthy, we are able to continue work and school from our boat, and we have a supportive community of friends, nearly all of whom have had a bout with COVID and recovered. We are praying for our leaders, whose decisions will have far-reaching consequences, and we are trusting that God knows what’s best, so we’ll follow His lead as we always have—whether our journeys are ones of the body or the spirit.
*For more photos, check out our Flickr photostream by clicking on any photo in the blog post. Also, find us on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest.
My memoir, Leaving the Safe Harbor: the Risks and Rewards of Raising a Family on a Boat will be released at the end of October by Ingenium Books (in paperback and e-book wherever books are sold), but you can pre-order the digital copy from Amazon now! It is not merely a re-write of this blog, but rather a narrative that weaves together life lessons, nautical idioms, and our adventures as we go from teenage dreamers to suburbanites to barefoot sailors raising five kids on our 48′ catamaran, Take Two. Find the book here.
From the back cover:
Seafaring stories inspire us to do great things, help us laugh at our mistakes, and create a sense of wonder about the wild world we live in. We need these stories to shake us out of our complacency and give us the courage to chase new horizons.
Two high-school sweethearts from middle-class America go off to college, get married, follow all the rules, play it safe, and pursue the American dream. And promptly find themselves boxed in. Looking for adventure, they turn the shared dreams of their youth into reality. They leave the safety of suburbia to buy and live aboard a sailboat, s/v Take Two—while raising five children.
The sailboat becomes a classroom for the whole family. From the first overnight sail with small children to island-hopping in the Caribbean with teenagers, the ocean teaches life lessons and develops character traits like teamwork, discipline, hope, flexibility, and perseverance.
Returning to the United States after voyaging, their children on the cusp of adulthood, the couple discovers they’re not the same people who left the house with the white picket fence.
Sometimes the world is on fire and there is nothing you can do about it. It is the most frustrating feeling in the world.
The news has been dramatic recently: the president of Haiti was assassinated, the Cuban people have taken to the streets in counterrevolutionary protests, churches are burning in Canada, Venezuelans are fleeing their country in record numbers (I read that 17,000 have arrived in the United States via Mexico in the last eight months alone), and armed mobs were looting and burning their way across South Africa. But it’s not just “news” to me—I am weighed down by the personal impact it has on people close to me.
I have a Cuban friend who escaped Communist Cuba when he was a teenager. He has been waiting a lifetime for an end to that failed form of government on his island homeland. He is wondering, “Will the voice of the people be heard this time, or will their hopes be dashed as they have been before?” Support for the protestors made it all the way to our small town—with Cuban expats demonstrating and flying Cuban flags. “Patria y Vida” is everywhere. My friend in Venezuela informs me that the situation is getting worse there, too. His family is rationing food and trying to figure out how to escape because staying is becoming harder and harder. He is a doctor whose hospital can no longer pay him to work, nor can it afford supplies and medicine. Another close friend and fellow sailor returned to South Africa to sell her house and renew her passport (which expired during COVID lockdowns while she was stuck in another country). Nearby villages have been destroyed in the violence of recent days and neither the police nor military were much help to the citizens. She and her neighbors defended their own community and scrounged supplies until delivery trucks could move and stores could open again. I am checking in with her regularly, both to provide moral support and to reassure myself that she is still okay. Amidst all this trouble, what can I do?
I can pray. I can do it at the first sign of trouble—not waiting until it’s a last resort—asking for peace or wisdom or healing as I, or my friend, or family member navigate an uncertain circumstance. It is a simple act that can have a big impact. Paul admonishes believers not to “be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6). To keep my worries at bay, this is what I do: I start here, with the Serenity prayer, adding details about the frustrating situation about which I can do nothing, asking forgiveness for personal failures, and expressing a desire to change or to help where I can:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference. –Richard Niebuhr (1892-1971)
I do believe that praying makes a difference—this energy we send to and receive from an unseen (though not unperceived) God and share with others. I believe that love is real and tangible, that there is a source of this unconditional Love in the universe, that it transcends time and space, and combats evil. But even for those who don’t believe in a God who listens, prayer can, at the very least, make them feel more peaceful, and help them discern what is within and outside of their control. Even Ayn Rand, the famous author and avowed atheist, liked the serenity prayer for the way it helps a person make sense of the frustrating dilemma of existence. You can read her thought-provoking essay here: https://courses.aynrand.org/works/the-metaphysical-versus-the-man-made/.
When I can send tangible help, I do. But when money or supplies or volunteering or petitions or letters to congressmen or votes cannot fix a situation, I can certainly appeal to God, who knows what’s best and can see an outcome that I cannot. More importantly, it can help me accept, extract meaning from, and find hope despite the absurdity of life. On the other side of a difficult situation, I have often been able to see a purpose in suffering or hardship. This allows me to be grateful in tough times, even when the outcome looks unpleasant. From South Africa, I have heard similar words. Ferdi Barnard wrote an open letter to the Zuma supporters and criminal looters, to the unhelpful government, police, and military, thanking them for the circumstances that led to people of all races and backgrounds banding together to protect their own communities.
This brings me to a last point about prayer: when done in concert, prayer can bring people together in compassion and unite them for a common cause. I have prayed with a friend during a contentious election—knowing that we voted differently—but able to agree that we want a peaceful outcome, that we want whoever is in office to make wise decisions, and that we want what’s best for our country. Prayer not only gives us a way to deal with our uncertainty and frustration, but it helps us focus on the positive and create unity. Whatever your religious background or philosophy on the meaning of life, prayer can be a powerful way to deal with overwhelming circumstances. Perhaps if we spent more time praying and less time arguing, we would create the peace for which we are praying.
We have an announcement! We brought home two kittens from the Naples Humane Society. It’s been more than 5 years since Sugar and Spice passed away, leaving us catless. I had said that I didn’t want pets until after we took our long road trip. But since we returned from our 8,000-mile jaunt out west in March/April, there’s been a lot of serious talk of kittens. When we went to Naples for the Fourth of July, we decided to stop in at the Humane Society before heading home. Turns out, it’s kitten season!
These two females, named Stella (the black one with a “star” on her chest) and Raya (“stripe” in Spanish for the gray tabby), are about 2 months old. They are already well-adjusted and have found lots of interesting things to do on Take Two. We have yet to take them sailing, and I’m sure that will be another adjustment, but for now (at the dock for the summer), we are soaking up the kitten cuteness and everyone seems happy.
I’ve been playing music with a friend in the harbor. We’ve been working on a medley of Bobby McFerrin’s song Don’t Worry, Be Happy and Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, the chorus of which says, “Don’t worry about a thing, ‘cause every little thing gonna’ be alright.” These words have permeated my mind, and they are timely. My musically gifted friend has plenty of reasons to worry. With a rare cancer diagnosis and an expiration date handed down by doctors, there’s no guarantee that the treatment he’s seeking will save him. Even now, he’s waiting for the VA to decide if it will even cover the treatment protocol and work with the oncologist who specializes in his type of cancer. But he’s refusing to worry anyway. He told me, “When you relax, things just have a way of working themselves out.”
Worry is a cancer of the soul. It emaciates your spirit—causing a loss of peace and joy not unlike cancer’s cachexia, the inexplicable wasting away of the body. Worry makes a terrible companion, keeping you up at night, preventing you from eating (or making the food you do eat indigestible), blinding you from the good in your life and keeping your eyes focused on all the possible bad outcomes. Worry says, “What if…?” The more imaginative the person, the more elaborate the worst-case scenarios he invents. Worry says, “We can mitigate this by…” The more goal-oriented the person, the more control she attempts to exert. Worry says, “Be careful…” The more risk-averse the person, the less adventurous his life becomes.
Sometimes our worries are completely unfounded—so much of what we fear does not come to pass. But sometimes we worry because circumstances are worrisome. In this case, it takes a herculean act to refuse to worry. Many of us have real worries. I have friends in places where the next meal is not guaranteed, let alone the next paycheck. The whole world is consumed with worry about an invisible virus, and about the cascading effects of trying to mitigate its spread. One generation worries about the world it will hand to the next—about the environment, about violence, about education, about jobs, about relationships, about government. There is no part of our lives untouched by these concerns, because no part of life is guaranteed. We know that life is fragile and that suffering is real.
But worry takes this uncertainty and amplifies it, creating deafening fears. One Bob warns, “in your life, expect some trouble, but when you worry, you make it double,” and the other offers an antidote, “smile with the risin’ sun” and listen to the message of the three little birds: “don’t worry ’bout a thing.” Perhaps they are echoing the wise words of another teacher: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as recorded by Matthew, chapter 6, verses 26-27). Our worries have no power, on the one hand, to change the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and a lot of power, on the other, to make a bad situation feel worse.
I should know. I am a worrier by nature, a nervous nail-biter with an internal monolog that sounds like a broken record (“The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”). The heightened uncertainty of this past year’s events has forced me to deal with this repetitive voice, and to tell it to shut up. It is an act of the will, and of the spirit. I have no way of knowing what comes next. I don’t even know if I will live to see this day’s sunset. There are dark clouds on the horizon, and it may indeed rain on me. What if the sky is falling? When I can’t change the circumstances, all I can change is my response. I don’t know what comforts you when you worry, but for me the answer has been prayer and gratitude. Keeping my eyes focused on the good, choosing to believe that all things eventually work out the way they’re supposed to, and asking God to take care of all the things I can’t control is what gives me peace of mind. Whatever comes next, I will be praying—and singing—my way through it.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, chapter 4, verses 6-7)
We celebrated our 13thTake Two Anniversary in April, which simply amazes me. For more than half of our married life, we have lived in this floating home. Two of our children spent their whole lives aboard, and others are beginning their own adventures as adults. So much has changed in the last dozen years or so, but one constant remains: our “Lonwood” vinyl teak-and-holly flooring by Lonseal.
It has survived the raising of five children, who tracked saltwater and sand across it, spilled beverages of all colors on it, “decorated” it with paint and glitter-glue, raced Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars across it, and generally abused it and took it for granted.
And yet, with an occasional deep-clean with a scrub brush and Eco-Orange solution, it looks as good as new.
It is beautiful, non-skid, easy to install, and, needless to say, durable. I looked it up recently, not because it needs replacing, but just out of curiosity, and it is expensive! To replace the flooring in our main salon would be close to $5000. Similar products like Plasteak and Aquatread also run between $6 and $8 per square foot. But if you amortize that over 13+ years, the cost is definitely worth it. If you are looking to replace the flooring on your kid-friendly boat and you have the money to spend, I highly recommend these products. They are practically indestructible. Unlike so many other projects on our circular list, replacing flooring has never been at the top!
How do you keep an energetic nine-year-old happy on a boat? The answer may surprise you: nine yards of purple fabric!
In November, we purchased some aerial silks for Rachel. She had been asking for some time, but we were not sure where we could hang the hardware. After brainstorming and researching, we decided to move the cockpit table indoors and try hanging them from the aluminum frame that supports our hard-top. Needless to say, Rachel was delighted.
They have been a source of fun and exercise and I am completely impressed with her core strength and flexibility. She also uses them like a hammock, swing, or chair–though they move quite a lot when underway.
We mounted the Aerial Silks using dyneema soft shackles, the 8-hook that came with the silks, and a locking carabiner.
She would love to take a class, but for now, she’s using YouTube videos to help her learn new poses. The ones we purchased can be found here. Jay says that “getting children’s energy out” is a myth, but giving them active things to do really helps!
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…
I spent more than 18 years preparing my son and myself for this crossing, but it still feels surprising. After our thanksgiving cruise, Eli packed a bag, hopped in his truck and drove to Naples to work for my brother during his break between college semesters.
I thought he would be back after that, at least for a few months, but he’s decided to stay. He’s in a great place—he has a place to live, a job, classes he can take online, people to hang out with, and a support system of extended family. He was ready to go and we were ready for him to go. So why am I crying?
I feel the way I felt after giving birth: relieved, happy to meet the emerging person, and a little sad that the time of close companionship is at an end. All of childhood is a slow cutting of that umbilical cord.
I miss seeing Eli every day. I miss his sarcastic comments. I miss him during evening tidy-up, because he always took the initiative. I miss talking to him late at night. I miss his thoughtful comments during dinner conversations. I even miss the things that annoy me; I feel their absence. I knew it was my job to work myself out of a job. But the human heart is too small to house so many emotions—pride, joy, trepidation, sadness, longing, expectation, hope—all at once. They keep leaking out my eyes.