Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Boat life – Outside on our boat


My family and I live on our sailboat. It is a 50’ Shannon Sailing Ketch. It will be 12 years this March since we moved on board. How and why? I met my husband to be in New York City. We had met when he wrote some software for a company I was working for in Boston. I thought immediately “Yeah right he is so not my type!” but when you move to a new city particularly the Big Apple, you call everyone you have in your contacts list. By the time, he sweet talked me into working at his company, dating him and moving in with him, I was thinking “ok so he is my type – who knew?” I felt it imperative to be honest about how I saw my future and told him that I really wanted to get married and have kids. He said well that’s fine if we sail around the world. I laughed and totally agreed. Really …like we would ever do that – hah or so I thought.  He told me later that he thought he could talk me out of kids. Fortunately, we both fell in love with each other’s dreams. We spent our honeymoon sailing around the Windward Islands in the Caribbean and despite a terrible tendency to get seasick, I loved it.

On coral spotting duty in French Polynesia

We sold our house in the spring of 2001 and moved on board our amazing sailboat with our 3 year son. We got rid of everything and kept only the essentials and store some boxes with our family. My husband quit his job to prepare the boat and I worked up until the week before we left Seattle. We sailed out of the sound and waited at the edge for a weather window to go south. And off we went and spent 6 years sailing around the Pacific….

The Captain and his Son
I am working on a book about our adventures – mostly for other folks who might want to go sailing particularly with kids. I was scared silly about all the wrong things before I left. Homeschooling was a huge worry but I found a program with over a hundred years of experience and they sent me a huge package with everything I needed and daily instructions on what to do. It was great! I had a cabinet full of arts & crafts supplies and boxes of pictures books. Jonah became a committed reader although we did have a small TV and VCR. We eventually switched to DVD’s because tape grows mold in the tropics and DVD’s take less space. I had a ton of kid educational software and he would spend hours on the laptop with Reader Rabbit and other programs like that till he progressed to PC games (mostly RTS games) when he was older.

The biggest challenge was standing watch when we were sailing somewhere. Obviously someone always has to be on watch and when you are only two people – it can be a grind. During the day, we had a sort of relaxed schedule but at night we went to a 4 or 3 hour shift depending on conditions.  I seemed to end up with the graveyard shift a lot and I loved that transition from pitch black to a rosy dawn. Night shifts are hard particularly if the only sound is the wind, the waves and the distant snoring of my husband. We bought an egg timer finally and would just set it to 15 min so at least when the inevitable head drooping would occur – we would be woken up. On longer passages, I would eventually find a rhythm to the days but on short passages it was hard. The first night was always cruel – sort of like the first mile of running. I just wanted to go to sleep. When the weather was frisky, it was easier because I would actually be doing things like adjusting sails or course but in calm weather with a steady breeze – there is nothing much to do. Obviously we have an auto pilot but occasionally I would turn it off just to have something to do.

Under way in frisky seas

I love watching the phosphorescence trail that our boat would leave. The best was standing watch on still nights with no moon and the entire sky would be reflected in the ocean and it was like sailing in the sky. The rising moon is amazing at sea. There you are in the dark and suddenly you look forward and you see a blaze of light on the horizon. My eyes would be acclimated to the dark and I couldn’t make out the shape. I was always convinced it was a cargo ship. Once I woke my husband up because I couldn’t find the damn ship on the radar. I was teased for a long time. In the Coral Sea, I was both amazed and terrified as squalls surrounded us and the skies lit with cloud lightning and thunder. My husband went to sleep and told me to wake him if they got close.

My son catching a ride to shore in Nukuoro

A long passage was exhausting because when the boat moves you are tensing and balancing. And the boat is always is moving. Our boat is pretty big and heavy so it has a fairly gentle motion even in the worst weather.  I have a memory of my son at 5 standing on the high side of the boat down in the boat and sliding across the floor to the low side in his socks giggling like mad and then trying to scramble back to do it again.

Leaving BudiBudi and heading out on passage


Thank-you Lego for keeping him busy!
My seasickness vulnerability improved a great deal but I occasionally would be hit and my husband would just put me to bed and tell me to sleep and he would pull solo duty. I had good medicine and I could usually be back on watch in a 3 or 4 hours. My son would get seasick in storms and rough weather – I would give him a big bowl and he was very good about it. I had anti-emetic suppositories if the seasickness got severe. My husband could not safely single hand in every situation and I could get myself on deck in full weather gear with harness with that medicine in around 15 minutes. I got the anti-emetics meds after one passage where we got to port with my son showing early signs of severe dehydration. Let me tell – rough seas, the slight smell of vomit and trying to hold down a sick kid - yuck. But 15 minutes later, he would be ok and chatting like nothing. It’s weird though when he got sick, I rarely did because I had to take care of him. I would make my husband empty the bowl.

We had scuba tanks and a compressor on board and did a lot of dives on our trip. Sometimes with other folks we met or on our own. I generally like someone on the surface for emergencies but if you dive conservatively and safely, it’s pretty good. I could write a book about the diving and snorkeling. I lacked an underwater camera but wow- did I see AMAZING things. We would leave Jonah with sailing friends.  We would always take him snorkeling. When he was 4 and 5 I would put him in a swimming ring and tie a rope to it and he had a little mask and I would tow him. By the time he was 6, he was a little sea monkey and could free dive to 25 feet no problem.   He was very observant of proper underwater behavior – no touching the coral or the fish. I think the time my husband caught a Surgeon fish in his hands was a good lesson. Oh yes that surgeon cut his hands up pretty good.  He had never really thought thru why they are called Surgeon Fish. I let my son get close and wave at the Christmas tree worms because it is fun to see them all retract. I carried a stick that I called my shark stick – just a broom handle with a pokey dull screw at the end that I felt helped enforce personal space. I never really needed it and my husband ended up calling it my giant clam poker because I would wave it at Giant Clams and they would slam shut. Harmless fun.  

Off on a dive!
I would say my life was pretty active but when you are in the tropics you really don’t move that fast between 10 am and 3pm – so I was often not active because it was too hot or I was in the water.  The temp was usually in the high 90’s but the sun is just fiercely strong. Occasionally we would have to go do something during the mid day and we would hum “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” All the locals were inside or in the shade naturally. The only reason to wear clothes was to keep the sun off you and to keep your butt dry.  All I can say is that adults can get diaper rash – avoid this all costs. My son spent his childhood in shorts and maybe a swim shirt. He developed a fascination with socks because he didn’t get to wear them that much. I would buy him tiny speedo racing trunks because they dried fast - who knew I was preparing him to be a competitive swimmer!

At Anchor in the Lousiades
I developed a fairly conservative wardrobe – long skirts and dresses. Legs are sort of tabu in many places – certainly shorts or pants on women are considered an exotic site. I actually found a long skirt or dress cooler then shorts and protected me from the sun. I always had a paeru or wrap if I swam wear local people were hanging out. In some areas, we visited woman swam but in their skirts! Even in outer areas in Papua New Guinea – women would wear long grass skirts and no top although they would go change into a t-shirt when the western people showed up. 

Buying baskets in the Marshall Islands
The other major workout would be provisioning the boat – hauling food supplies in the heat – wow a total body workout. I actually developed tennis elbow in Mexico provisioning the boat. We walked a lot - we didn’t carry bicycles and you might be somewhere that has taxis or buses but you might not. I found I eat a lot less in the heat. Certainly we had to be aware if we were far from resupply and we would eat moderate amounts.

Now – we have swallowed the anchor – which means we are at a marina and not going anywhere but working and saving our pennies to be able to leave again before we are too old! We do get to sail to Catalina for weekends and we call it our weekend house even though it’s really our weekend anchorage. During the school year, we are stuck just like all other parents are in the grind of school activities and sports. But thankfully at night, tucked in our berths with the boat gently rocking, everything feels the same and during the day, when I do yoga on the dock, a dolphin might surface near me or a ray will skim the surface and I am glad I am still connected to the ocean. 

Beach time!

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