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.
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 homeschooled all my life, and I’ve never had reason to complain. Before our return to the United States from our four-year jaunt to the Caribbean, I’d never even set foot in an actual school building. However, when we did return, I was finishing high school and looking to start college. There is a local college nearby, College of the Florida Keys (CFK), so my younger brother and sister and I, along with a few friends, started attending as dual enrollment students. Dual enrollment is a pretty good deal: as long as you can pass the PERT tests to show that you are ready for college-level work, Florida allows you to take classes for free. So essentially, we were finishing our high school requirements by going to college and pursuing AA degrees in general education, instead of merely seeking a high school diploma.
It looked good on paper, at least, an economic use of time and effort. It was also my first experience in an actual classroom, and it was a pleasant change. During my first semester, the two classes I took were on the small side, with maybe 30 people. Most of the students were around my age, some were dual enrollment students from the local public high school, and a few were older. We would sit at tables facing the professor and the whiteboard, notebooks out and phones away, and take notes while he talked. I found I liked the classroom setting. You could ask questions and receive a knowledgeable answer, unlike simply learning from a textbook. You could engage the professor in debate and listen to intellectual arguments. You could achieve recognition for your work.
It was also intensely uncomfortable for the first few weeks, because I’m an introvert and I don’t like large groups of people. I got the hang of it though, and life settled into a rhythm. The two classes I took held sessions early every other weekday, so it was a bit of a runaround to get to the college from our boat in the mooring field every morning. The workload was heavy, and the material challenging, but I found that I was actually enjoying school. I was getting As. However, it could have been a lot easier. I had no real idea what I was stepping into with the whole college thing. So even though it wasn’t significantly more difficult than homeschool (at first, that is), it threw me off because it was different, and it took me a while to figure everything out.
Well, I’m finishing my last year of classes, and I would say I’ve done pretty well. Recently, my English Composition II professor gave the class the assignment of creating a college handbook, something to give to new students so that they aren’t completely lost. Below you will find the link to mine (you can read it in a browser or download the PDF). It contains anything I could think of that I would have wanted to know going in. Hopefully other homeschooled high school students will find it useful.
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.
I’m taking nothing for granted this year. Things that would have seemed forgone conclusions in years past—hanging out with family on holidays, for example—have become special events for which we weigh risk and reward. For so many, it has been a hard year. Just like “love” and “friendship” are what we do despite differences and division, “gratitude” is what we do despite hardship. In the middle of all the losses, we look for small gains. And it gives us hope.
Despite so much bad news, we have been extremely fortunate this year. Jay has had plenty of work, we have food and shelter, we have our health, our family is intact, the older kids have been able to continue high school and college from home and take steps toward independence, and Sam and Rachel have continued with their studies and have been able to meet with a few friends despite the ongoing pandemic. I have been able to meet in person (at the beach) with my Wednesday morning Bible study—a group of true sisters for whose prayers and support I am especially thankful this year. And since returning to Florida, we have been able to spend precious time with our extended family. I have never been so aware of what—and who—is really important in my life.
I am under no illusions. Though some days I feel like the luckiest woman alive, I know how fragile life is and how quickly things can change. The ocean has certainly taught me that—one minute, you’re on the crest of a wave, scoping out the distant horizon, and the next you are plunged into the trough, surrounded by hills of foaming green water. Counting blessings is an important practice which can help us stay positive in the midst of negative circumstances—remembering and acknowledging good things can keep us afloat until we can see the horizon again.
As I approach another turn around the sun, here is my “thankful list”:
• We live in Florida, where we can be outside all year. The weather the last few weeks has been especially beautiful. Also, we survived another hurricane season in one piece!
• We have been homeschooling, working from home, and living self-sufficiently for a long time, so this year did not represent a major life shift as it did for so many. We chose to live in close quarters, and we acknowledge the privilege of that choice.
• I am thankful for the captain and crew of Take Two—for their hard work, their companionship, and the happy memories we have made together.
• We were able to go sailing in November—and experience probably the nicest overnight passage in our 12 years aboard Take Two on our way to Charlotte Harbor, where we met with Jay’s dad and stepmom, Al and Mary, and had a buddy-boating Thanksgiving. We loved our month of being neighbors with S/V Lovely Cruise.
• I was able to host my family in my home! It is a rare treat to share my floating life with my parents, in-laws, siblings, and nieces and nephews. I am so grateful for all of them.
• I got to spend time with several old friends this year—my mentor and home-school hero Mary Hines and her husband Jim (who planned our wedding and officiated, respectively, 23 years ago), my best friend from college, Heather, my friend Tarin who lived around the corner in our Clearwater neighborhood, my friend and fellow boat-mom from our first marina, Vicki (S/V Oddysea) and her niece Keren, and our friends from S/V Abby Singer, S/V Rothim, and S/V Cerca Trova.
• I even made some new friends, despite it being a year where people look at strangers like “purveyors of death” instead of “friends they haven’t met yet!” I am very thankful for the friends and neighbors aboard S/V Sputnik, S/V Must Love Dogs, S/V September Winds, S/V Tulsi, M/V Concrete Idea, S/V Watercolors, S/V Mysoun, and S/V Sweet Mary.
• We live in a quiet and relatively safe corner of the world, and we are surrounded by a wonderful tribe of homeschooling families. I am extremely grateful for this community. I can’t imagine a better place to weather these strange circumstances.
• I am so grateful for our friends in Venezuela, Providencia, and Guatemala, whose lives have been spared despite truly harrowing circumstances. We are praying for you every day.
• I am thankful for every sunrise, every sunset, every day I wake up on planet earth. I am thankful to God for the gift of life itself. May I never take it for granted and let no day go wasted.
We have prepared for and experienced several tropical storms in the twelve years we have owned Take Two, but never have we had to enact our hurricane plan, which involves “spiderwebbing” ourselves up inside a mangrove creek. That is, not until this week, when Tropical Storm Eta passed over the Florida Keys. Eta was the 29th tropical cyclone this year and passed this way after raking over Central America and flooding parts of Panama and Guatemala that we visited (2017-2019). News coming from friends in hard-hit areas is heart-wrenching and puts our encounter with the storm in perspective. We are feeling very thankful that we received the less-intense part of the storm, and also that we were able to find a quiet, secure place to practice our better-safe-than-sorry plan.
We have weathered a few named storms on the boat; some of those stories are documented here on the blog. We have been fortunate not to have sustained any storm damage yet, both by luck and preparation, though we have lost plenty of sleep. We prepped for our first tropical storm, Fay, in 2008, mere months after we had purchased the boat.
We were anchored during Tropical Storm Debbie in 2012, which lingered over the Tampa Bay area for five days and tested our recently-purchased Manson 80-pound anchor as well as our patience. Later that year, Superstorm Sandy passed by Ft. Pierce while we were tied to a dock there.
We experienced the beginning of Hurricane Matthew in 2016 while we were at a marina in Grenada, a storm for which we considered anchoring in a nearby mangrove bay, though we ultimately decided against it. Dealing with seasonal weather patterns is simply part of living on a boat—every year we make a plan for where we’ll be from June to November, and what we’ll do if a storm threatens.
Our best strategy for storm prep is avoidance. We prefer to be outside the “hurricane box” drawn by insurance companies, in places like the Chesapeake, Grenada, Panama, and Guatemala. When we can’t avoid the hurricane zone, which is sometimes the case since Florida is our home base, we watch the forecasts carefully and try to find a “safe” place to be in August and September especially. With every storm that presents reasonable threat, we make a plan that shifts with each change in direction and intensity. If we can’t avoid a storm, we take measures to protect the boat and her crew during the bad weather. For anything more than a Tropical Storm (winds more than 74 mph), we would put the boat in a place where we can reduce the risk of damage and then evacuate for our safety and comfort.
We were in Panama during the last storm that devastated the Florida Keys, Irma in 2017. The memory is still fresh here, and locals take hurricane warnings very seriously. Those who stayed on their boats or in their houses for that storm tell harrowing stories. The mooring balls in Boot Key Harbor, a place we have now spent three hurricane seasons, are screw-type hurricane-grade moorings, but the biggest threat is the “pinball effect” when a boat in the nearby anchorage drags anchor or if a boat breaks loose from a mooring and damages others as it drifts. While we can take proper precautions for our own boat, we can’t be sure of the security of other vessels. This is what prompted us to spend August and September on a seawall up a protected canal, and why we tied up in the mangroves for Eta.
One of the good things about our life afloat is the ability to move, and the self-sufficiency our boat provides. Sometimes we can get out of the way of bad weather, and sometimes we can secure our boat in a safe place despite it. We can’t eliminate risk, but we can mitigate it. Because we make our own power, we don’t have to worry about electrical outages. Because we float, we don’t have to worry about flooding. In fact, the rain provides free water as it runs from our hard top straight into our tanks.
We are feeling grateful a lot these days, for blessings large and small. At a time when there is so much bad news, we don’t take health, happiness, or protection from harm for granted. Seems like for every sigh of relief, there is also a sigh of sympathy: our thoughts and prayers are with those who have suffered so much this year.
Sometimes it feels like our years traveling in the Caribbean were just a dream. The present, with its mundane tasks, disrupted community, bad news, and “stuckness,” seems very real, while the life of adventure, beauty, and travel, far away. Therein lies the danger of nostalgia: to feel discontented in the present by glorifying the past. But I know that there were hardships, boredom, and loneliness there, too. That’s just life, the good with the bad. I woke up to a fourth day of rain, so no doubt my mood is affected by the wet, gray days.
I feel like Puddleglum in C.S. Lewis’s book, The Silver Chair, a prisoner of the Queen of Underland:
“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things-trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”
I know there is More. Bigger. Brighter. I’ve seen it, I’ve been there, and I’ve communed with other travelers in the Sunlit Lands. As I work on a second revision of my memoir (which feels as if it shall never be complete), I am reliving the memories, and whether I dreamed them up or not, I will allow myself to spend some time looking at pictures and longing for the beauty of the world. The rain will no doubt pass, and sunny days come again. I stored these memories for just such a dreary moment.
I love/hate being at a dock. Does anyone else feel this way? There are pros and cons to every mode of living on a boat: anchoring, mooring, docking, or hauling out and taking a trip.
It’s hurricane season and we’re in the Florida Keys. We’ve been on a mooring for a year, which is a long time for our boat to be in one place. We tied up to a seawall last weekend ahead of Laura to get out of the mooring field, where we felt vulnerable to storms (and the pinball effect of other boats dragging). We’re in a place where boats survived Irma, so we’re feeling secure for September.
We’ve got A/C, so I’m sleeping better, new neighbors who are friendly, and we’re taking evening walks. We’ll use the next few weeks to do a galley refit–appliances, sink, and counter-tops. Our older kids are able to come and go without arranging multiple dinghy trips ashore.
But…I miss the breeze, the sunsets, and the freedom and privacy of being our own island. Plus, mooring is less expensive! We knew there would be a period of time when our kids got close to independence when we would need to stay put for a while to help them get on their feet, but we certainly didn’t plan for a pandemic that would limit even opportunities to escape occasionally to the Bahamas. Being tied to a dock accentuates that loss of freedom.
So, we’ll appreciate the benefits of being tied to land for a few weeks, and when hurricane season is over, we’ll be happy to head back out!