Coming back to land after our year in the Caribbean has been strange for many reasons. One recurring theme has been the questions people ask. Almost everyone we meet always asks, “how was your year, was it great?” The answer, strangely enough, is difficult to articulate.
One person who has asked that same question is Jenn Simon from Sea to Summit, one of our sponsors. She contacted us to ask for an interview. I thought I would share my thoughts from the questions she asked to try and give an insight into what it’s like sailing with kids.
Jenn: Barrie, you just returned home from a year-long adventure. Tell us about your trip.
Lot’s of people ask us that, and it’s difficult to find a single word that describes it.
It was many things; unforgettable, intense, difficult, scary, peaceful, stressful, eye-opening. None of these can really do it justice. Imagine slipping along gently through the sea at night under a full moon with just the creak of sails and the sound of waves against the hull as company. Imagine being confined in 200 square feet with your family, the pressure of personalities layered on top of the daily routines of being on a boat. Imagine seeing active volcanos, amazing waterfalls, old cannons abandoned in the jungle, deserted tropical beaches with sharks swimming around your boat, sunsets like they have been painted onto the horizon. Imagine Paris-like street cafes, getting fresh baguettes for breakfast, taking a quick rum shot while at the vegetable market, speaking french in the morning and dutch in the afternoon. Imagine being shaken down for $5 by the Chief of Police before he will sign your Despacho to leave. Imagine being given the keys to a complete stranger’s car you just met to go get groceries. Imagine surfing down 15′ waves in a 30 knot wind in a 10 ton boat, feeling barely in control at the wheel, with no room for error. Imagine having no hot water for a year, or TV, or decent refrigeration or electricity. Imagine being 700 miles from shore, in the middle of the Atlantic beyond communication, or help, with just your boat and crew to depend on.
It’s hard to imagine all those things, all at once, and all happening at the same time. It was like normal life, but on steroids. The good, the bad, everything was magnified a thousandfold.
Jenn: That sounds amazing. How did you come up with this idea?
Back in about 2010 we had started sailing around Lake Champlain with our friends, both in small 25′ boats. I was probably more into the sailing aspect than the rest of my family. It was something that I had always wanted to do. In the next few years, we went on a couple of sailing charter holidays in the Virgin Islands. We had a lot of fun, and while not completely into the sailing, everyone enjoyed being among the tropical islands. At the end of our second trip, I think driving back from the airport, my wife and I idly started talking about wouldn’t it be great to not have to come back after a week, to have our own boat and stay out there.
We didn’t really know much about “real sailing”. We didn’t know how to sail in heavy weather, or navigate, or keep a diesel engine running. We spent the next 2-3 years teaching ourselves all the things we needed to know, bought an old 40 year old boat and in August 2014 left the docks of Point Bay Marina in Lake Champlain to head south and not return for 10 months.
Sarah put it perfectly:
“I read an article entitled “Fear Means Go,” in which the author explained her mother’s advice to her, which was that if the thought of doing something scared her, she should do it. The thought of living on a sailboat for a year with my family terrified – okay, horrified – me, so there really was no decision to make.”
Jenn: What were a few of the highlights for you?
That’s hard to answer, there were so many, and lowlights too! If I was to pick a couple.
Night time sailing often produced some amazing experiences. Although the distance between many of the islands was small, it was still enough to usually need 24-36 hours of sailing as a sailboat doesn’t go that fast (we basically did 10,000 miles at a brisk walk). One trip was leaving Îles de la Petite Terre, two small (less than 2 miles long) uninhabited islands located 6 miles SE of Guadeloupe to head north to Antigua. The weather was perfect, 1-2′ waves and an easy 10 knot wind behind us. As we left the small islands in the late afternoon, we had dolphins come and play, almost to say goodbye. At dusk we rounded the east coast of Guadeloupe a bright moon came out. When it is that bright you can see the sea quite well, all the top of the waves are silver and it’s like your boat is cutting through mercury. We left the lights of Guadeloupe slowly behind us and sailed on into the night horizon. In the morning, approaching landfall is always an event. Everyone is often looking hard in the morning light to see the first signs of land. It’s always both a relief and exciting at the same time to make landfall. We spotted the lights of English Harbor and slipped into that historic bay where Nelson was stationed, eager to walk on land and see all the new sights.
The different culture and people we met were always great. Everyone is so friendly and helpful. The cruising community is also very tight knit, everyone looks out for each other. When we were visiting Montserrat we met this great old guy who had a hilarious story. Montserrat is a British Overseas Territory about 10 miles long. In 1995 the volcano in the southern part of the island, became active, destroying the capital city of Plymouth. Between 1995 and 2000, two-thirds of the island’s population was forced to flee. The volcanic was still active when we visited. We had anchored in a bay on the SE side, 1/2 round the corner from Plymouth, where you are not allowed to go. It basically looks like a zombie town, it’s completely deserted. In the afternoon, a small boat pulls in. We were on the beach, cooking some fresh tuna we had caught and the captain comes ashore to chat. He is an old salty type, big white beard, that has sailed all the way from New Zealand in his little boat. He is asking us about the town, he went ashore and there was no-one around, completely deserted. He can’t understand where everyone is. We realize he has gone ashore in Plymouth. It’s off-limits and dangerous, you are not allowed to. As we talk to him, he explains his guidebook told him all about it. We realize his guide book is just over ten years old, it was before the eruption! Here is this guy using a guidebook that isn’t that old, and has gone ashore and wondered when he is going to start seeing the zombies in this deserted city. It must have been too weird to imagine!
Jenn: How about highlights for the kids?
In no particular order, here were some of the things the boys talked about:
- I liked playing in our climbing harnesses. We would attached halyards to them, pull us up 20 ‘ and swing around in the air and push off of the rigging. It was really fun, it felt like we were flying.
- Seeing the Sharks was awesome. They were really cool and I have never seen live sharks in the sea before.
- Visiting brimstone fort on St Kitts was cool, it had a museum, was really big and you could go anywhere you wanted, nothing was off limits.
- We saw monkeys, my dad didn’t believe me when I told him, but they ere wild running all over. You don’t get monkeys in Vermont, I had only seen them on tv.
- One time my dad paid us $35 to sail the boat for 8 hours straight by ourselves. It was pretty fun, but challenging. Steering the boat can get boring though, there wasn’t much wind.
Jenn: Tell us about your boat?
Alchemy is a classic 41′ Tartan, built in 1970. Without going into details, basically to sail offshore, you either have to be able to blow $150,000 on a more modern boat or get a much older (and cheaper) boat that has “good bones”. Without that kind of budget, we went for an older boat. One thing you give up is the modern design of lots of space and creature comforts like hot water and showers. What you do tend to get are boats that are smaller inside but often much stronger built and safer in the open ocean. The Tartan 41 was designed as an offshore race boat in the 70’s by Stephens and Stephens, a pair of famous designers. Our Alchemy had actually won a Marion to Bermuda in its youth! Everywhere we went we also got comments about how beautiful she looked, she looked like she was going fast just standing still. When we participated in our 1,500 mile race/rally from Portsmouth, VA to the BVI, we beat many more modern boats and came second in our class.
It was very small inside for our family of five. We had only one door, to the head. Poor Andrew, our 8 year old, had a “pilot berth” as his home. Basically, his bedroom was 6’x2′.
Jenn: With limited space how did manage for an entire year?
Yes, we were very limited in space. Though strangely, it was somewhat of a relief as well as a challenge. Sarah has a T-shirt that says “live simply”. On it is a picture of a guitar with just one string. That’s what being on a boat is like, you have to discard everything that is not essential. To give you a sense, we probably had about 24 boxes of gear, we actually used bank boxes to pack.
- One each for clothes (think two pairs of pants and two pairs of shoes for a year), five total.
- Three of food
- One each of books and toys for boys, three total
- One of kitchen things, plates and pots
- One of spare lines and ropes
- Two of oils, filters, engine parts, spares
- Three of emergency gear, flares, storm drogues
- One of AV, cameras, tablets and computers
- One of fishing gear
- One of medical gear (we were sad not to be able to use our stapler)
- NINE of spare sails
You can see that almost all of the 24 boxes was sailing related stuff. Sarah and I had one box of personal things, mostly clothes, and the boys had two, for clothes, books and toys. As former backpackers, we really had to use that mindset of stripping down to the essentials, having things that served multiple purposes and finding small alternatives. Things could be heavy, but had to be small. For example, our washing machine was a plunger and a bucket. We used Sea to Summit packtowels which dramatically reduced the space towels take up.
With all this though, we relished the idea and practice of living simpler. It made us realize about 99.9% of the crap we have in our homes we don’t really need. When we returned, we made many trips to Goodwill to try to get rid of our newly discovered excesses.
Jenn: Any suggestions for living on a sail boat?
Well, obviously you need to have the knowledge and skills to keep your family safe. Sarah and I both went to a one-day offshore training course that was very useful. Apart from that, I say the main things are to prepare for living with less, to relish challenges and meet them with gusto, and to immerse yourself in the island cultures.
We were both backpackers and I think that helped immensely. The idea of carrying everything you need is very similar to sailing. We had also camped a lot with the boys so they were used to roughing it. I think some kind of experience like that is great to prepare you for living on a boat. There is nothing like not showering for a couple of weeks to gain insights of what life will be like!
Everything on a boat is a challenge. To get fresh water or fuel you have to take jerry cans ashore in your dinghy and then have to carry them back full. Try not using your car for a week to see what it’s like. To cook under way you have to use a strap to hold yourself in while heeling next to the gimbaled stove that is rocking back and forth. When you go swimming, you have to make sure you are out of the water at dusk, as that’s when the sharks often appear looking for food. And don’t even start me on the niceties of swimming next to the boat when someone is aboard doing a number two. You have to immerse yourself in all these things. They say sailing is about the journey, not the destination. This means that all these kinds of things are part of the adventure as well.
You’ll be visiting a dozen countries across 30 or so islands. Each is different from what you know and are used to. We met many cruisers that would keep themselves isolated. They weigh anchor, sit in their hammocks, swim on the beach and then pull up a week later and leave. We felt they never got to taste what the place where they were was like. We tried hard to do the opposite. We hitchhike inland, talk to locals, even when we couldn’t speak the language. We’d try local foods and drinks. Sarah would buy local vegetables that we didn’t recognize and ask the stall seller how to cook it. I think veteran world travellers have this attitude. They are able to swallow up their fear of the unknown and jump into the local cultures.
Oh, and invest most in your sails and anchors. Really. Big. Anchors.
Jenn: Where there any items you wish you had?
There are probably lots of sailing-related things we wish we had. One can’t help oneself, but cruisers compare boats and gear like people compare houses and cars at home. A nice new spinnaker, bigger engine, high-capacity water maker. You learn to live with less when you are on a small budget.
But as for stuff that wasn’t to do with the boat, not much really. A better sense of humor, definitely. I’d say that’s one of the most important things to bring, and I’ll admit it took me the whole year to embrace that.
Jenn: Did the kids have to skip a year from school? How did this work out?
Yes, *cough* about that. We had this really great plan of this immersive and experiential year of learning. I am a certified teacher, and worked at a innovative teacher training college. Surely the kids would relish the opportunity to be in a living school, learning math by navigating, history by visiting old forts, biology by exploring jungles.
It turned out not so much. The pressures of living on a small boat are intense. Trying to get the boys to to school was one of the biggest things that would cause strife aboard the good ship Alchemy. We would hear with jealousy when we’d visit other boats who had, say, two daughters, 10 and 12. Their proud parents would tell us about the 5 page essay and flotsam art they just made from the island they just visited.
Yet so much of education on a boat isn’t in the math worksheet you are trying to get your 8 year old to do (instead of swimming with the rays next to the boat). It’s the rich experience of living on a boat, with so much less, in all these amazing places. I think Sarah described it perfectly in one of her blog posts:
“Your kid will become more responsible and independent and curious and brave and outgoing and capable and resourceful. You will feel prouder of them than you ever did on land. The good moments will outnumber the not-so-good. When you think you can’t climb up that waterfall, you will hear your oldest son say, “You can do it, Mom!” When your tough middle kid comes back from the beach he will surprise you with a collection of pretty shells. When the sun is setting, your youngest son will sit in your lap and watch for the green flash.”
Jenn: What challenges did you face bringing the kids along?
Every day could be a challenge, it’s such a tremendously small space. A few months after we got back we had a party with friends. As a joke, in our living room I marked out the shape of the boat in tape on the floor. It’s less than two hundred square feet, it’s probably not much large than your bathroom. Along with 10 or so of our friends, we crammed in between the tape on the floor, let’s just say it was cozy.
Going anywhere with three boys can be interesting to see the least, I talked about my fears in a post called Going Feral. I’d go to restaurants and be pleading with our boys to get through the 20 minutes before food arrives. They’d be writhing under the table or seeing who could make the loudest “cheek squeak”. Let’s just say we knew going in that life aboard would sometimes difficult.
As Sarah said in a post:
“Your children will bicker with each other almost incessantly. They will hit, kick, punch, and bite each other. They will swear at each other and call each other names. Sometimes they will call you names, too. They will refuse to do boat school. They will tell you that you are the worst teacher ever. They will say they hate the boat and want to go home.”
That’s the unvarnished reality of the challenges of living on a boat. Everything is magnified. But where else can you see your 11 year old take a night watch and trust him to keep his family safe 100 miles offshore. Or gut a 60 lb Mahi with your 7 year old and discover a perfectly formed 6″ fish inside its stomach. Or watch your 9 year old organize a group of young kids to make a living triangle to climb a tree to get coconuts.
And not getting eaten by sharks. That’s definitely a challenge. Not joking.
Jenn: Any scary moments out at sea?
Quite a few. Supposedly, if you have a strong boat, it can weather a lot more than you can, but that doesn’t make it any less scary. The sea can be a cold and lonely place. One thing turned out to be true though, It’s counter-intuitive, but experienced sailors will tell you, the most dangerous places are close to shore. The open sea is much safer.
We were heading along the south coast of Grand Bahama trying to get to West End before dark. This is the western-most point in the Caribbean, it’s just a 65 mile sail to Florida. Along the way is a big port, Freeport, that has a lot of commercial shipping. There is a big refueling “dock” that extends almost a mile from shore. We were heading into the current and into the wind. This meant we had to tack backwards and forwards, a sailboat can’t sail directly into the wind. Our “real” forward speed was about a knot. At the same time we were having to dodge all these massive tankers. They can do about 25 knots, and can’t really see you. To put in perspective on how fast that is, a tanker might be invisible just over the horizon. It can go from not being see to running you over in about 15 minutes. We had to be dodging these big ships, hardly able to make any forward progress, and we were losing daylight. Then it got even better.
We finally clawed our way into the tiny inlet of West End in the dark. Anchorages in the Bahamas can often be challenging. The current is frequently very strong, 2-3 knots, and the anchorage can be narrow. West End is a prime example. There is little room and the current is fierce. This means that your boat spins around at anchor, the wind and current fighting against each other as the tide turns. Get it wrong and the reef is 100 yards away waiting for your hull.
Then we heard on the radio that 50 knot winds were forecast, and maybe a tornado. Tropical Storm Anna had just skirted north of us. We had heard that tornados had been seen just ten miles east of us at Freeport. We had to set anchor in the dark, unsure of how well it had set, trying to back down hard with the current, but against the wind. With a 10′ depth, we had just 50′ of chain. Any more and we would have been too close to other boats. We couldn’t see the bottom whether there was sand or rock. We did our best and then went to bed. We were pitching on the anchor enough to make you seasick. Trying to sleep didn’t last long, as a major storm passed right through us, vestiges from the tornados. The wind climbed to 30, then 40. Then it started gusting to 50. The current was holding us slightly sideways to the wind, so we had more windage and more strain on the anchor. I had to get out on the bow in the dark, holding on as it thrashed up and down 10′, to try and let more chain out to hold us better.
It held. The boat behind us dragged, we could see a headlamp at the bow as the captain struggled with his anchor. By that time, it seemed clear he was on the reef. After an hour, the wind died down to a “mere” 30 knots and we felt we could go back to sleep. In the morning we awoke and looked to see if we could help the boat that dragged. Unfortunately, by this time, the tide was out and he was heeled over on the reef.
Jenn: Do you have any favorite boat meals?
Everything tastes so much better at sea. It feels like some of the best meals we have had have been underway. Sarah has been an amazing cook. Imagine taking your kitchen, or galley, and tilting it 25 degrees on its side, and strapping yourself to the sink. Oh yes, and it’s only 5’x6′ and only has one counter, and that’s the top of the fridge which is top loading. She was able to cook some great meals in those conditions. Even baking, there is nothing that beats hot soft bread fresh out of the oven when it’s damp and chilly out on deck.
Jenn: What about drinks?
Well, there is the Painkiller (with rum), the Dark and Stormy (has rum in it) and I liked a Ti’ Punch (that uses rum). There does seem to be a bit of a pattern.
Seriously though, we drank a lot of rum. A lot. A better question is probably what types of rum were our favorite. All of the islands have their own rums, the history of the island is steeped in sugar and rum. We liked English Harbor from Antigua, Cruzan from St Croix (cheap!), though our favorite was probably Pusser’s from the BVI. A shout out goes to Havana Club, though it’s from Cuba. Interesting fact, Pussers uses the same recipe of rum that was issued as “tots” in the Royal Navy. My dad still remembers getting his ration, and the it was still issued as recently as 1970, the day I was born!
The boys discovered and grew to love Ting, a fizzy grapefruit drink that you can’t seem to get easily in the US. Simon is very interested in starting a Ting import business.
Jenn: Would you do it again?
For me, in a heartbeat. I suspect that it might be a tricky sell to the rest of the family. Sarah and I have both talked about how a year was not really long enough. It’s an enormous amount of effort to get out there, you are looking at three years of preparation. Then it seemed just after a few months, we had to turn round and make the long trip back (imagine walking to New England from South America). Perhaps in a few years when the boys are out of high school and we have saved up again. Or maybe we’ll get a sponsorship from someone like Sea to Summit to make it become a reality sooner!
Jenn: Any future family adventures in the works?
Not right now, follow us on Facebook and maybe we’ll come up with something!
If you need more insights into the reality of sailing, check out Sailing Mom’s posts: