Turning sailing dreams into reality

Welcome, newcomers to Sailing Totem! For our family’s backstory to a decade of sailing around the world, see Who and Why.  For hopeful cruisers, articles addressing the most common questions found in Start Here. Can we help you? Learn about our lifestyle coaching or get in touch.

This week our family has the incredible opportunity to share our story to a wide audience thanks an interview with Megyn Kelly on TODAY. Hopefully the morning interlude offered these newcomers inspiration and a few minutes to contemplate a different way of life.

We can’t know what will happen until the actual interview. While I expect we may be called to address some of the common questions about cruising, like storms (haven’t been in one) and pirates (knowable regions, don’t go there) and educating our children (our oldest starts college next month), hopefully we’ve been able to communicate that this is an accessible dream. I’ll call success if we crack the door for others choose a more adventurous life, whether that’s afloat like ours or along different path. [Update: I think we did! Watch below!]

People make radical changes in their lives for all kinds of reasons. We looked forward to more time together as a family, a chance to raise children as citizens of the world, to appreciate the privilege of being born with choices and options in our lives, to know the diverse natural wonders of our planet first hand so they might play a role in protecting it. What we didn’t anticipate is how deeply fulfilling it would be.

Important reasons why it’s fulfilling connected recently in an unlikely source. Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe is about PTSD and the challenges military vets face after coming home, but in talking about the benefits of a cohesive society alleviating the incidence of PTSD his book nails assets of the cruising life:

…human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others. These values are considered “intrinsic” to human happiness and far outweigh “extrinsic” values such as beauty, money and status.

Competence comes with time (we know many cruisers who started with very little actual sailing experience. As in, no prior experience at all). Living your values, your dreams, begets feeling authentic with life choices. Our family is tight, as is our community: Kevin Bacon has nothing on degrees of separation among cruisers.

Choosing cruising meant departing from a life measured in extrinsic values in favor of those intrinsic values, a switch  that brought unanticipated contentment. We’d like to help others find that peace, which is why we’re here: why this blog is written, why we’re interviewing with Megyn Kelly, why we put our private selves out there.

I suspect many of the broader audience watching TODAY this morning assumes such big changes are out of their reach. In fact, it’s much more achievable than most imagine; the hardest part is making the switch. Not saying someday, or it’s OK for someone else, or I don’t have the time / funds / freedom; not that, but setting a date, making a plan, and following through.

We long held the dream, but only morphed it into a plan after many years. With a departure date and a commitment, we papered the biggest uninterrupted wall in our home with what Jamie called The Giant Map of Dreams. It had a whiteboard-like surface allowed us to use the 14 foot long map as a creative space. Where could we go? Jamie and I marked dream destinations with dry erase markers, noting the bays we hoped to visit. Our younger children added continents and countries from their imaginations. We did not begin to conceive of the stories these places would tell, of the people we would meet. That swimming with sharks would come to feel almost natural. That babies in faraway places would be named for our children. That wild islands would stop us speechless with their grandeur, or bleached reefs shake us with their fragility. That a little girl in a dugout canoe would ask to trade three underripe, undersized tomatoes for basic writing tools. That everywhere, we’d be reminded that our world is full of beautiful people with their own stories to share. That too often, we’d learn about social injustice and experience environmental devastation first hand.

Now the map of our chartplotter traces a line for the route we’ve sailed Totem around the world. The Giant Map did its job of feeding  dreams of sailing to exotic places. We realize now the impossibility of visiting everywhere we hoped, at least on the first lap. But we’ve grown appreciation for finding the magic in ordinary places – it’s always there, somewhere! – while reaching some of our dreamed-of anchorages as well.

Think it might be for you? Pick up a few books. Watch some videos. Set a date. Let us know if we can help.

Happy boat kids, happy boat

0 kids in the berrysCruising is great for families! Cruising grows healthy kids! Cruising kids are exceptionally well socialized! Cruising can provide kids a broad world view! These are true, but oversimplifications. For all the great benefits to be derived from this lifestyle, it won’t work for a family if the kids aren’t happy, and you can’t take happy kids for granted. Starting young, it’s less complicated; older kids who have to separate more meaningfully from routines and friends in particular are more challenging.

We started in a magic window of ages when our kids (newly turned 4, 6 and 9) mostly wanted to hang out with mom and dad. Friends were important, but our nuclear family was most important. Every child is unique and every family will experience this differently, but I believe it to be generally true and a circumstance that’s fostered and maintained close relationships in our family.

2 tight family relationships

As kids grow older, it’s progressively important that they have other kids to hang out with. Nomadic kids have a lower bar for friends to enter that playgroup circle: they quickly unlearned the false importance of age, gender, interests, or other artificial boundary lines.

3 niall off on dinghy adventure

Niall’s happy to go off with parents and a young boy as buddies for a dinghy adventure

DSC03717

Niall plays airplane with Mathilda while sisterhood happens with boat kids in a range of ages

DSC03576

It’s not uncool to play with a three year old.

That next best friend isn’t an anchorage away.  Occasionally, yes, but it takes planning more than serendipity or you’ll have lonely kid(s). This costs a big element of control for your route planning: not easy, especially for families planning a shorter sabbatical cruise with a vision for where they want to go.

DSC_7918

Four kid boats, middle of the Indian Ocean…not by serendipity, but by planning.

If an important driver for plans needs to be finding and connecting and hanging out with the other boat families…HOW do you do this?
pinterest happy boat kids

Every region has a hub and a season where boats gather: get yourself there, and you’ll connect with families. Those families may become your buddy boats, or the boats that connect you with your kids’ next best cruising kid friend. Marathon / Boot Key Harbor, Florida, collect cruising families as boats stage to head to the Bahamas for the winter; as the season picks up, it’s George Town, Bahamas where you’ll find them. Prickly Bay, Grenada, gets the biggest kid boat call during hurricane season and St Martin / Sint Maarten seems to be a crossroads in general.

Every other boat has a blog/Instagram/YT channel/Facebook page. Dial into the kid boat community online, and use that as a way to find, track, and connect with other families. This is one of the reasons SailingTotem has an active family blogroll page to browse.

Another good resource is the Kids4Sail group: there’s an admin post around the first of the month with regional check-ins to help families find each other.

The anchorage mapping tool we use for Totem, Farkwar, has a “fleet” for kid boats. At one URL (and a bit of clicking/dragging) I can see which boats in the fleet are near us—and follow boats in our region that we hope to catch up with (like the three teens on Allegro!).

Farkwar screenshot

Each of those waypoints is a boat with kids: several with teens, even!

Don’t just follow families, reach out! As a parent of teens on board I LOVE IT when another family with teens reaches out to see if we can connect when they see we may be in the same region. We help each other out with introductions to each other, since plenty of families aren’t as active in social media.

West coast cruisers have it much easier: cruising boats flow in a linear path along the coastline. In the South Pacific, they migrate along a seasonal route, the so-called Coconut Milk Run, westward with a dip down to New Zealand or Australia during the southern hemisphere cyclone season. Boats arriving in French Polynesia from Mexico will have known each other for months already; new friends enter with the Caribbean fleet sailing down from Panama.

_DSC5943

Shoes, still overrated.

The myriad of routing options from boats departing the US east coast for the Caribbean complicates things; it’s less likely to happen organically, especially for tween/teens. I’m told the Mediterranean is similar, where again there are a wealth of options for routing instead of a linear progression followed by most cruisers. And some regions, well, they’re simply off the beaten path: South America. The Indian Ocean. We loved our year in remote Papua New Guinea and eastern Indonesia, but it was many moons without another family boat and were REALLY READY for socializing by the time we reached more trafficked cruising grounds. Being around other kid boats is a choice that requires engagement.

On Totem we’re lucky to have a built in tribe. Our kids are tight, and their reliance on each other has surely strengthened this bond.

1 they have each other

After a presentation in Miami last month, Niall responded to a question from the audience about the social side cruising as a teen. He has perspective on the pros and cons, but summarized it by saying “my sisters are my best friends.” I might have teared up a little, but it’s true.

_DSC5785

Wonderful as it is that they are so tight, they also need OTHER kids. Staying in touch with cruising friends through email and texting is important: they routinely use Google Hangouts to chat with friends across several continents, maintaining long term relationships. They’re important, but not a replacement for in-person interactions.

With teens aboard, the happiness calculus gets more complicated. FOMO goes to a whole new level for kids that rely on phone/internet to feel connected. There’s a whole chapter in Voyaging With Kids dedicated to the unique needs and perspective of teens.

The teen bonfire, carefully spaced away from their parents

The teen bonfire, carefully spaced away from their parents: Maldives 

Personal space is key (Siobhan and Mairen have already worked out who gets Niall’s cabin when he leaves for college). For families looking at moving aboard, it’s not just the physical space but how they personalize it to make it theirs. As teens build and connect with their growing identities as young adults, we support them as parents by giving them a voice in planning. Family planning is a round table where everyone’s goals and desires are taken into account. Their desires matter, whether it’s plans for the day or the season.

_DSC5961

Niall’s desire to complete the circumnavigation before college changed our plans significantly, and that’s just fine. On the beach in Eleuthera this week

We’ve had a long stretch with few boat kids in their age range (getting within a three year spread would be great). There have been intersections that provided critical injections of camaraderie, but we’re all feeling it. Leaving Florida so late in the season put us out of sync with the migratory fleet. It’s pulling us to shift our summer plans, and look at hustling south to Grenada sooner rather than later. It’s partly the promise of the a gathered fleet during hurricane season, but mostly because another kid boat—friends we’ve crossed an ocean with—are sailing there soon. Hurricane season worries factors in, too; we have no insurance coverage during named storms, and Grenada is relatively safe from historical storm tracks. Parts of our plans more fixed than flexible (Niall is keen to cross our circumnavigation track in Pacific Mexico before college next year), but this is a shift we can make.

It throws our calendar up in the air again, but that’s a kind of status quo for us lately. This much we know: as great as our kids are at flying together as a solo tribe, we’re looking forward to connecting them with kids closer to their age again soon.

Siobhan watches sunset in Thailand

Siobhan watches sunset in Thailand

Mairen on the windward side of Eleuthera this week

Mairen on the windward side of Eleuthera this week

_DSC5983