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All in the Same Boat

A family pulls together at sea.

Ken Coffelt

By Christine Myers

Three hours south of Ireland, we are surfing down 20-foot waves. Stephan dozes on the pilot berth while our 12-year-old, James, stands dawn watch in a soaked cockpit. I check the instruments: 40 knots dead behind us and on course to reach Kinsale at slack water. I put the kettle on but decide not to wake the other children for school. There will be time enough for that once we’re there.

Our family lives on a 53-foot ketch, traveling through Mediterranean and Atlantic waters on the floating equivalent of a studio apartment. Nearly three years ago, we traded suburban security for the vagaries of weather, unfamiliar anchorages and uncertain reception among strangers whose languages we didn’t speak. We exchanged phones for e-mail, carpools for dinghy rides, and water parks for bow-riding with dolphins.

When we left our Portola Valley home, Avery was 8, James 10 and Drew 13. Life had been pleasantly hectic: work, school, sports, friends. But cracks had begun to show. The kids resented their father’s frequent travel. James’s dyslexia set him a daunting challenge in a community of high achievers. Afternoons and evenings were devolving into a blur of play dates, homework, sports practices and rehearsals. Family dinners became a rarity.

Would we go on this way until the kids went to college, then wish they hadn’t grown up so fast?

Maybe not. Stephan and I had learned to sail, in the hope that charter holidays would keep them vacationing with us as they grew. Perhaps, we thought, it was time for a longer cruise. Stephan began to read boat reviews; I studied currents, cyclones and routes. We had no idea how we’d manage without pillaging the kids’ college money, but we knew it felt right.

Then divine intervention struck in the form of a severance package that allowed Stephan to pull the ripcord of his parachute. Together, we jumped.

Avery and James were enthusiastic. Drew reluctantly agreed (“but you have to let me come back for high school”), adding darkly that she would not forgive us if things went badly. Our living room walls were soon papered with navigation charts as I devised month-by-month plans for up to five years at sea.

The first year, we cruised from southern France to Italy and Greece, then spent six months in Turkey on a sort of extended suitcase seminar. Euphoric and energetic, we visited Pompeii and Ephesus, made land trips to Giza and Luxor. The children studied diligently through correspondence courses. If a day was not filled with field trips or schoolwork, we felt vaguely unsuccessful. The pressure felt familiar: we had changed venue, not style. But we also noticed some gratifying differences. Stephan and I relished spending so much time with the children, and the kids actually became friends.

During the second year, which took us through Greece, Croatia, Italy, Gibraltar and a winter in Sevilla, they rebelled at the constant field trips. “More old rocks?” they’d groan. Sightseeing began to drop off the agenda; extended stays took priority. We’d stop long enough for the kids to attend local schools and for all of us to make friends.

In our third year, we have explored Ireland, Scotland and Norway, and we’re truly slowing down. We care more about choosing the right wind than making our schedule. (My monthly plans were snipped into paper snowflakes at Christmas.) Shipboard education is getting less structured, too. We play chess with the children or go for walks and listen to their dreams. We watch them discover their own cores and strengths. Their questions reflect the constant learning taking place in this giant schoolroom.

The delights of spontaneity are tempered, of course, by the exhaustion of standing watch during a two-day storm at sea. And each of us has moments when the boat just closes in. Mostly, however, it works. It works because we have learned that everyone must contribute and that if we trust our children with our lives, we must allow them the freedom that comes with responsibility.

The biggest change on the boat came when Drew left for boarding school last fall. We worried about how she’d readjust to shore life. Did we do right by her in choosing our unusual lifestyle? The answer, it seems, is yes. Drew, who thrived at sea, has embarked with great vigor on the next phase of life.

And at the end of the day, wasn’t that the point of our adventure? The children have seen that it’s possible to realize a dream. All we can wish now is that they’ll sail away with confidence when their own voyages beckon.

Christine Myers, ’82, MA ’83, is now in the Canary Islands with Avery, James and her husband, Stephan Regulinski, MS ’78, PhD ’83.

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