“If only I’d known it could be done!”
I’d hear this exclamation from my husband every time he and I ran across a family cruising. We’d pull into an anchorage and there would be kids: kids paddling kayaks, kids fishing in the family dinghy, kids swinging Tarzan-like from halyards or whisker poles to drop screeching with glee into the water, and, my personal favorite, a diminutive Spiderman, in complete costume, 2/3rds the way up the roller-furler!
Later we might socialize with the family – on land excursions ashore, joint fishing or snorkeling outings, or evening gatherings on one boat or the other – and we’d hear about how home schooling shapes their days and, by the way, did we know any other boats in the area with kids aboard? Even as we would marvel at how much more complicated cruising with children sounded to us, we’d invariably find the kids to be engaging, articulate and at ease in the company of their elders or, alternatively, perfectly happy entertaining themselves and not hanging all over their parents.
And every time, Don (a single parent when he first got bit by the sailing bug) would shake his head in amazement and say it again, “If only I’d known it could be done!”
Because Don didn’t know, the best compromise he could manage between his dreams and his perceived obligations was to move from the mid-West to Florida and keep a boat in a marina during the school week, relegating sailing to weekends. It produced a divided life for him and his daughter, one where juggling the needs of an adult’s work and social life with the distractions of a teenager’s high-school years let them drift apart.
What if instead he had packed his daughter aboard and taken off to cruise, say, the Caribbean for a year?
I don’t think there is anyone, even those of us out there living the life, that doesn’t pause at the idea of taking one’s family cruising. We’re not talking a two-week vacation; we’re talking about adopting a whole different lifestyle for months or years at a time. For grownups and kids alike, going cruising involves a huge wrench from the fabric our previous lives – friends and family left behind; amenities like TV, telephones, and Internet abandoned; and conveniences like fast foods and frozen dinners swapped for local markets, the day’s catch, and baking from scratch.
So imagine making such a decision on behalf of your children as well as yourselves? There are only so many toys they can take, their bedroom may now just be a bunk, and they imagine they’ll never see best friends again. It’s an enormous commitment, and for parents it’s one fraught with all sorts of extra ramifications like home schooling, keeping children safe at sea, and the approval/disapproval of relatives left behind.
Yet it turns out that, for most that make the choice, the rewards far exceed the trials.
I don’t just say this based on my own observations. I say it based on the results of our most recent project on WomenandCruising.com: Twelve Questions to Twelve Sailing Families.
Our objectives with the project were to showcase families who have made the big break, to paint a picture of what the lifestyle change is really like, and to collect information that would be helpful to other families currently weighing the idea.
So, we posed a series of questions designed to look at their experience from start to finish. Most of the contributors we approached were currently or very recently cruising, but several looked back on voyages made ten or twenty years ago enabling them to report on how their children subsequently adjusted back to land life.
The result was a tremendous outpouring of effort from all corners of the cruising world.
Answers addressed the obstacles they had to surmount to get going; the “best” age to take children to sea; modifications made to the boat to make it safer and more comfortable for children; how they handle health, education, safety and entertainment issues; to the rewards they as a family are reaping. Generous photographs richly illustrate daily life, accompanying descriptions of typical days both at anchor and at sea.
Because each family is different – different boat, different starting place, different obstacles, different budget – their stories and opinions are also different. But they all come to the same conclusion – that the choice is replete with unmatchable rewards.
Chief among them, by all accounts, is the exceptional time together the lifestyle affords the family unit. Not merely are parents and children having an adventure together, but children are intimately and integrally involved in all the important day-to-day responsibilities from fundamental things like meal preparation and housekeeping duties, to more complex ones like maintenance, navigation and watch-keeping. Such shared objectives – once a major part of family life – seem all but extinct in the modern household!
Additionally, better eating habits, fresh air, natural exercise, fewer germs and less stress lead to better health for all aboard; experiences outside the everyday comfort zone produce curiosity, confidence and more open minds; and education is a joint effort, whether formally in the home-schooling process or more casually in what one parent calls “cruising’s endless teachable moments.”
It turns out that one of the major challenges is just getting started. On the one hand there is finding the right boat for one’s family: balancing seaworthiness and space with budget. Overall, the recommendation is to keep things simple, not just so that you don’t add burdensome maintenance to the parental juggling act, but mostly so that you can GO NOW rather than waiting to afford a fancier or bigger boat.
On the other hand, the nay-saying of family, friends, and society in general can often be the bigger hurdle families have to overcome. “Going cruising means flying against convention of the predictable paths in life,” says Behan Gifford, cruising with her husband and three children aboard sv Totem. “For many people, our desire to live like this instead of doing whatever it is we’re ‘supposed’ to do is just too much to comprehend.”
Perhaps one of the greatest rewards for us in completing this project is hearing the feedback the families themselves have been getting.
Those folks back home, the ones with greater or lesser reservations, suddenly are seeing brought to life on the webpage what the lifestyle is really like, that it is a good and enriching experience, and that the children are having a ball! Not only that, but they are realizing that the choice their loved ones made is not unique, that there are many other families out there doing the same thing.
Of course, the greatest reward for us will be hearing from families that this project helps to motivate, the ones who say, “If they can do it, so can we…especially now that we know IT CAN BE DONE.” Please treat yourself and go to 12 Questions to 12 Sailing Families. Afterwards, share your own experiences by writing into our Blog or befriending us on our WomenandCruising Facebook page.
Photos: Thanks to Pam Wall, KANDARIK.
This article was published in the November 2010 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.
Related articles on this website
- 12 Questions to 12 sailing families
- Kids Aboard Resources
- 6 Tips for home-schooling sailors, by Nadine Slavinski
- Advice: If you want to see your children and grandchildren a lot, just go cruising!, by Coral Beach
- What does it cost to cruise as a family? One family’s first-year expenses, by Meri Faulkner
- A mom looks back on the decision to go cruising as a family, by Behan Gifford