#72 – The Ties that Bind

Debbie Leisure and her grandchildren on annual family vacation.
That vacation is one of two trips she never misses each year.

Docklines aren’t the only things that hold a cruising boat to shore; emotional ties can snag like poorly-tied knots, resisting release and holding us back.

Ellen Sanpere with her Dad

Ellen Sanpere with her Dad when she left her boat in St. Croix to live with him in Chicago for his final 5 months.

Whether to our kids (Launched at last from the nest… but are they really ready?!?!) or to our aging parents (Can they manage without our being near?), such bonds and the degree to which we can loosen them are something most of us must eventually address.

Where today people hardly think twice about moving from one coast to another, throw an ocean into the mix, leaving becomes complicated.

Different people make different choices, and situations and resources vary, of course, but from many a cockpit conversation over the years, I’ve deduced three exit strategies cruisers typically take:

  • Door #1) They say “See ya” and sail away, hardly looking over their shoulder as they go;
  • Door #2) They sail away, but devote time energy and dollars to staying connected, arranging visits, maintaining some sort of oversight, and being prepared to get home quickly if needed; or
  • Door #3) they don’t sail away.

Since I first left Florida twenty-something years ago — indeed because I left, I haven’t talked to many folks stuck behind Door #3. Generally, speaking, once you’ve left your home port, you’re on your way.

But an early encounter in my cruising career made a lasting impression, a couple met in my very first marina while preparing for my first passage. They lived aboard a handsome cruising boat, and I’d been steered to the husband, an accomplished marine carpenter, for some joinery work I needed done in my salon. They invited me for dinner, and while I admired an interior where everything was perfectly fitted for passage-making, the husband told me how they were stuck there indefinitely because his wife just “couldn’t leave her family.”

I loved my family, but I never wanted to feel that way.

Since then I’ve talked to many people at boat shows that see themselves waiting to go. There’s always something that has to happen before they can: retirement, the start of pensions and social security, or for kids to be established in careers or new families. Others are waiting until grandkids are in school, when they’re no longer needed to baby-sit, or, alternatively, waiting until their parents move to assisted-living, or, more finally, to their own waiting room in the sky.

In the final analysis, all these waiting people, until they actually go, are also trapped behind Door #3.

I’m not preaching irresponsibility. We descend from a responsible society. It’s expected that we will care for our kids until they’re able to care for themselves and our aging parents when they no longer are, and this is good.

When we’ve met cruising couples of middle age who’ve truly walked through Door #1, the ones who don’t maintain contact or fly home, have never seen grandchildren or have left the care of parents entirely to others, then we’ve felt a little squirmy, asking ourselves privately if these are people we really want to be friends with!

Defining what care is truly needed, and when, is hard. Do you not go, for example, because parents will worry about you at sea or because you yourselves will worry that your kids are not making the choices you think they should?

To help decide, ask yourself if it is not possible that we in the current middle generation are taking too much responsibility for either our parents or our children, all of whom are in fact adults themselves? This is very hard to admit to, and not something Don or I have done well.

Door #2, as usual, is compromise.

Kathy Parsons with her family.
When the time does come that we are needed, cruisers discover we have unusual freedom to put cruising on hold and to return “home” to help

My contributing Admirals (and most all our cruising friends) — by virtue of their all being experienced sailors (and of non-squirmy character) — have found ways to balance their wanderlust with their sense of responsibility to family. Here are some of their insights.

One trick is to identify the best time window between obligations to children and aging parents, when kids first move out and parents are still healthy. This may mean leaving earlier, before official retirement or pensions start and so making do with a smaller boat or tighter budget and working along the way.

You are, however, younger and more physically able, and your parents’ years of real need (not to mention the arrival of grandchildren) are likely to be further off. Several of my Admirals, and indeed we ourselves, did this, departing in our 50s and thus getting many good years in before we needed to be on call.

Even then, leaving is easier, if your parents and children have been encouraged to live fulfilling lives of their own, without being all entwined in or dependent on yours. The example you set when choosing to live your own life actually sets a good example to them and fosters everyone’s sense of independence.

At the same time, it’s wise to ensure that those you leave behind have good support systems established, people that can stand in for you to advise and help out and on whom you can rely for objective communiqués on changing situations. Family members, preferably living close by, are ideal, but school counselors, pastors, or professional caretakers such as those found in assisted-living facilities, senior services or even hospice can be recruited.


Debbie Leisure: A special trip home for one of my best friend’s wedding. We had not seen each other in over ten years, but it was worth the trip,to be there.

Next, do whatever it takes to stay in touch. Equip your boat with HF radio, satellite and/or cellular email systems, and make Skype voice calls to landlines or video calls to the computer-equipped. These new technologies permit you to reassure parents face-to-face and baby-talk with grandchildren possibly more often than you would if you lived only a state or two away.

Finally, schedule visits during haul-outs or hurricane seasons, for weddings or births or major holidays, or whenever you can get the most family bang for your buck!

I decided I had to live my own life not my parents’ when I left the Netherlands when I was 25,” says Truus of Key of D. “They encouraged this attitude. I’ve made sure I’ve always had the money to get home in case of a crisis and to visit once a year for a week or two which was, in truth, about as long as they enjoyed having me around before my presence began keeping them from their normal and comfortable routines.”

There are some sacrifices. You give up the continuity of weekly Sunday suppers at which you track all the highs and lows of the years, or those nightly phone conversations during which you spend an hour talking about very little. You might miss some anniversaries and birthdays, perhaps even a birth or a funeral.

If I wasn’t cruising,” says Debbie of Illusions, “I would probably be working and tied down to a schedule with two weeks’ vacation a year. I would miss a lot of those things anyway. As it is, I can spend a full month each hurricane season with my mother, and we both enjoy the time.”

And finally when the time does come that we are needed, cruisers discover we have unusual freedom to put cruising on hold and to return “home” to help, whether the help is needed with new babies or new knees, terminal illness or the reality of bereavement.


Gwen with Don’s mom

I write this while overlooking cornfields in a small town in Indiana where my husband Don and I are temporarily relocated to help with his mother’s failing strength and his father’s fear of what comes next.

Last week we did a slide-show for town seniors called “At Home on A Boat.” The reception couldn’t have been more enthusiastic, and it reminded us what a gift it’s been that we were able to go live that life.

As much as it’s been a gift to be able to come back.

Contributing Admirals: Kathy Parsons, Ellen Sanpere, Sheri Schneider, Truus Sharp, Debbie Leisure, Beverly Feiges, Bette Lee Walker.

This article was first published in the Cruising Outpost magazine.

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