Lessons in flexibility, nurtured by cruising

Three kids and their mama as the eldest moves in at college

Last week we crossed into our eleventh year of cruising aboard Totem. Except we aren’t aboard Totem right now, and this summer has taken a different trajectory than planned. (Pictured today in Portland, Oregon; moving-in day for Niall at Lewis & Clark college.)

Shifting plans isn’t unusual for our family, for our voyaging life. We’re accustomed to having our plans swing, making big changes with little notice. Like last October’s diagnosis of Totem’s wet hull in Grenada, which changed our routing plans for the coming year. Or this summer’s revelation of my mother’s escalating dementia, which rewrote the plans for how we’d spend these few months back in the USA.

What makes change a constant?

Weather is the primary everyday factor influencing plans, making any schedule impossible to keep. You don’t leave port when the calendar says so, you leave when the weather indicates. Calendars are helpful as guidelines only! I cringe when I hear “we’re going to leave on (fill in a specific date).”

PredictWind screenshot showing ocean current data
Bermuda to Connecticut was an extended waiting game: PredictWind shows the Gulf Stream current meanders

Company alters plans, too. Any kid boat knows that intentions to depart may be thrown to the wind if a new arrival in the anchorage turns out have kids that hit it off with yours. It’s not just kids; other boats we wanted more time with have prompted Jamie and me to shift plans to meet them.

Plans should be swayed by the experiences in a new place: another reason why schedules are the enemy. When you find yourself in that perfect anchorage, for whatever reason—the reef to snorkel, the trails to hike, the connections made ashore: why rush off because your timeline says the next destination is due? Of course, this works both ways: when visiting swarms of bees made Puerto Ballandra unpleasant this spring, we left on minimal notice despite stated intentions to remain in place for a few days!

Sailboat at anchor in front of rugged desert hills off Baja
Voyager at anchor in Ballandra
A bee drinking dew from a sailboat deck
That first one seems so innocent, drinking dew from the nonskid on deck… then 1,000 friends show up

New cultures and landscapes prompt us to adapt, too. In step with new norms, we change our interactions with people and places. It’s a whopping 48 countries/territories that we have experienced since sailing away from Eagle Harbor in August of 2008; each arrival prompts familiar questions. Will the markets be weekly or daily? At the crack of dawn or heat of afternoon? Is bargaining expected or unwelcome? How do people greet each other (and what’s the response)?  Is it safe to walk anywhere, or must care be taken?

This steady series of everyday decisions and regular transitions hones adaptability into a skill.  The common sense to seek what you need to know. The courage to base plans on human priorities instead of inhuman timelines.

This adaptability is one of the valuable skills we hope our son, Niall, took with him today as he moved into his college dormitory. It’s an exciting new chapter for our academic eldest, one sure to be full of new features to adjust to. One of the easiest, at least, will be personal space! He turned around in the capacious dorm room, and commented that the closet had more space than his cabin on Totem. (It does, too.) But he faces myriad adjustments in the weeks and months ahead.

The huge closet and comical shoe rack
There’s even a three tiered shoe rack in the closet! So we had to put in Niall’s shoes, for a photo op.

Two girls sitting on the edge of a bed in a college dorm room
Normal dorm room = palatial to a boat kid. Apparently we need Pinterest help for decor however.

Reaching for another tissue this afternoon, it hit home that adaptation is not just his, but ours: finding new rhythms as a family of four aboard. Expanding to fill the gaps he’ll leave around the dinner table, the chores list, the watch schedule, the ironic commentary. We’ll miss him, but embrace what’s ahead. As he has opportunities to grow, so do we: for Mairen and Siobhan, owning roles aboard Totem that he generally assumed with anchoring, reefing, watchkeeping.

Many cruising friends have moved back to land. Swallowed the anchor, as they say. And usually, they report that returning to “normal” sucks…and then they adapt.

We expect an October return to Totem in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico. Back to an unscheduled, flexible life for most of the Totem crew. Niall has the double whammy of adjusting both to land life and schedule far more rigorous than the 3rd grade he sailed away from 10 years ago. It’s OK. He’ll adapt!

Niall on campus at Lewis & Clark