Celebrating holidays on a sailboat

It’s been six months since we moved out of our house in Portland and onto our boat.

I rarely miss living in a house. Not even when washing the dishes by hand, not even when lugging our laundry to a laundromat and not even when trying to cram my jacket in a hanging locker filled with spare line and two toolboxes.

Now is the time—the holidays—I miss living in a house. Christmas has always been a big deal in my family, and I carried on that tradition when I had kids. We always had cookies (so many), gifts (too much) and gobs of decor.

This is the first year we are spending Christmas on our sailboat. Living in such a small space that rocks and rolls with the waves means we need to forgo some of those longtime traditions and create some new ones.

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How we rode out a storm on anchor

Wouldn’t it be great if anchoring always was serene as it looks in the pictures?

Alas, anyone sailboat cruising for awhile eventually will find themselves anchored in a storm. Wicked weather is part of the cruising life; some storms are predicted well in advance, allowing sailors to change their voyaging plans or seek shelter in a well-protected marina. Other times, storms are a surprise.

That’s what happened to us recently. We first got word that weather was coming from a sweet couple paddling by our boat after we had dropped our anchor in Liberty Bay outside of Poulsbo, Wa.

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Making kids part of the sail crew

We’ve been sailing as a family for three years, but until this last year, my son showed very little interest in being anything more than a passenger.

During passages (in our case, a day or two of sailing in Puget Sound to get from one gunkhole to the next), we had to demand he leave the cabin and come topside. We gave him “jobs,” like searching the water for sea life, or rules, like any eating had to happen in the cockpit while we were underway. He complied, but usually would cry boredom at some point and beg to go back into the cabin with a book.

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What learning looks like on our sailboat

Like many families in the U.S., our school year looks a lot different than it has in years past.

Gone are the days of getting up at 6:30 a.m. and rushing to eat, get dressed and in the car in time for school.

Instead, the kids get up when they get up. After breakfast, they usually head outside for some vitamin D and fresh air.

Once back inside, they don’t head to desks or any sort of designated learning space. Instead, we compare their schedules with my husband’s calls for work and figure out who needs to use the one table we have first. Some days, the kids don’t even crack the computer and we spend most of our time outside.

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We’ve got the stuck-on-a-boat blues

I have to admit, we’ve had it better than most since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

While most people were cooped up in their houses under shelter-in-place orders, we were stuck on a sailboat. Which is a shelter that by design moves.

Our summer looked like this: Cruising to remote islands, hiking in beautiful state parks, snorkeling in chilly, but crystal clear waters, kayaking in protected coves, beachcombing for critters … you get the drift.

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Divorced and sailboat cruising with kids

Cruise the web for cruising families. You’ll see some differences: large families of four kids or more, sailing on a large catamaran; small families with a single kid, voyaging the world on a boat not much bigger than a daysailer.

They cruise in Fiji, Australia, Mexico, the Med, northern Europe and along both coasts of the United States.

In most cases, cruising families are made up of two married or committed parents and the children they have had together. And it makes sense. Balancing a weather-dependent cruising schedule with parenting plans, custody arrangements and divorce decrees requiring travel notifications is a formidable challenge indeed.

Our family has to manage all of those factors. My kids are from my first marriage. My husband is their step-father. Our boat is in Puget Sound and my kids’ dad, J, is in Portland. We have a 50-50 parenting plan.

And we are making it work so far. Here’s how:

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How family emergencies prepared me for cruising

As I write this, I am sitting on the back porch of my childhood home in Hutchinson, Kansas. I am supposed to be on Polaris with my husband and kids, cruising South Puget Sound.

But I got a text from my mom a little more than a month ago that she had been feeling short of breath and unable to even take a quick walk around the neighborhood. She was going to the doctor to see what was causing it.

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Sucia Island: A land of fossils and rocky dreams

The flood brought us to Sucia Island, pushing our speed over ground to 9 kts for most of our trip north.

Our goal was to grab a mooring buoy in Fox Cove. It’s a smaller and slightly more exposed anchorage near Sucia Island, but the forecast for the next few days was sunny and very light wind.

At high tide, Little Sucia—the tiny rocky island just a few hundred feet away from Sucia—works with its sister island to create a south entrance to Fox Cove. It’s a deceptive welcome that hides the abundance of rocks lurking just under the surface. We opted to round Little Sucia instead and entered from the west side of the cove.

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Finding culture and crowds at Roche Harbor

About a week before we got to Roche Harbor, I found an announcement on San Juan’s paper of record that the resort was curtailing its Fourth of July festivities this year.

There would be no games or parades. No bar entertainment, and attendance was being limited in a variety of ways to reduce the crowd size for the normally packed July 4th weekend. The tone of the announcement was full of regret and apology, blaming the party-pooping on COVID, of course.

Honestly, the idea of smaller crowds at Roche Harbor for the 4th was just fine with me.

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James Island stays quiet when the San Juans are busy

We didn’t plan to stop by the very first Washington state marine park we saw after crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca. But when you come across an empty mooring in the San Juan Islands less than a week before the Fourth of July, you don’t hesitate to slow the boat down and pick up a mooring ball.

That’s how we ended up making James Island our first stop in the San Juan’s this summer. At first, we were lured by the lack of crowds here, but now I’d say James Island is worth a stop, no matter how many boats are in the moorage park.

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