Lessons from living on a sailboat for a year

Many people understandably would like to forget the past year. For our family, however, the pandemic provided an opportunity that my husband and I never want to forget.

I’m glad that coronavirus cases seem to be on a downward trend, that businesses are opening up, people are getting vaccinated, and friends and family can see each other again. I am saddened by how many lives were lost because of coronavirus, and how many people lost work because of stay-at-home orders.

Our family has been incredibly lucky to not experience such losses. Instead, we were able to do something we never thought would be possible: spend 12 months exploring Puget Sound on our sailboat with our kids.

In an ordinary year, our kids would only be on the boat during the summer and longer school breaks. That’s because my kids are from my first marriage, their father lives in Portland, and Oregon is the custodial state. For two years, my husband and I have been part-time liveaboards, splitting our time during the school year between Portland (when the kids were with us), and our sailboat in Seattle (when the kids were with their dad).

That’s exactly what we planned to do after finishing our epic Summer 2020 cruise. Coronavirus changed those plans when Oregon schools moved to online learning for most of the year. The kids weren’t thriving with distance learning, so their father and I decided to homeschool for the 2020-21 school year instead.

And well, the kids didn’t need to be in Portland all the time to homeschool.

That’s how we went from part-time to full-time liveaboards this year.

Thrilled to be living aboard!

Since June 2020, my husband and I have been living full-time on Polaris and instead, the kids have been going back and forth between Seattle and Portland about every two weeks.

It has been hard sometimes, for all of us. Most divorced parents will tell you that transitions between households are difficult for a lot of kids. Add in going between two cities, and it gets a little harder. I also put a lot of miles on our car shuttling kiddos between Seattle and Portland while Amtrak was off-limits.

But it was worth it because of all we got to see and do together.

I’ve been reflecting on the past 12 months a lot lately, especially now that things are getting back to “normal.” Our life will, too.

The kids will return to Portland full-time in the fall to attend in-person school. C and I are looking for a home in Oregon. Starting in September, he and I will resume splitting our time between Portland and Seattle, between living on land and living on water.

We’ll go back to being part-time liveaboards. The kids will still have school breaks and summers to continue exploring Puget Sound on Polaris with us. Our sailing adventures aren’t stopping, but they will be less frequent.

As wonderful as it is to have the world opening up again, our family has grown a lot over the past year. So, I don’t want to go back to the way things were, at least not completely.

I want to live more simply

This is what we have left waiting for us in our storage unit in Portland.

Seeing how much “stuff” we had accumulated while living in our last house was eye-opening. When you have plenty of room to store things, it is easy to buy an item you’ll only use once or twice, or hold on to two of the same thing because, you know, it’s good to have extras.

Living on 39-foot sailboat requires us to be thoughtful about the items we bring on board. The only redundancies we have are parts for the boat’s various mechanisms and lots and lots of line. I’ve whittled my wardrobe mainly down to active wear and a few more socially appropriate items that I call “land wear”. The kids have one to two stuffed animals, tops, and most of our books are loaded onto Kindles to save space.

For the most part, I love living with less. Our boat can go from messy to picked up pretty quickly. The kids don’t whine about tidying up their berths because it takes so much less time. We can focus more on doing and being instead of cleaning.

There are things I have missed about land life, like all the specialty kitchen items that we don’t have room for: a box grater, a food processor, cocktail glasses that are only used for cocktails and wine glasses only used for wine. I can’t roast a turkey in the galley oven. The pandemic made it easy to go without special occasion clothes, but as things open up, that will change. Thankfully, I think I still have a few dresses in our storage unit in Portland.

I’ve made a commitment to be just as intentional about what we move into our next part-time land-based home. I know now I really don’t need 10 pairs of jeans. And I’m going to try to resist the urge to buy every new book I want to read and just be patient enough to wait until it’s available at the library.

Now let’s see if we can convince our son to limit his Lego collection, even if he has more space. (Fat chance. )

Living in close quarters has pluses (and minuses)

We have three cabins on our boat, which affords each of us more privacy than most sailboating families get. Still, when you have 4 people sharing 39 feet of living space, it’s easy to overhear conversations and hard to find space.

Moving around the boat sometimes requires everyone to shuffle and there never is enough room on the table for everyone to tackle work and school at the same time.

Over the past year we have stepped on each other’s toes from time to time, literally and figuratively. I’m sure most anyone who followed a stay-at-home order can relate to this.

The upside is I never had to run all over the house to find the kid who forgot to take out the trash. And we’ve each sharpened our conflict resolution skills, learned to be generous with forgiveness and became more mindful of our impact on others.

I am looking forward to a little more privacy, though. It will be nice to watch an R-rated movie without worrying that my 10-year-old is overhearing it.

Bottomline, though, our family feels closer

I truly enjoyed having my kids around a lot more. I have been a full-time working mom for most their life and I have no regrets about that. But having the opportunity to spend more time with them this past year was truly a joy. I loved watching my kids discover something new or master a skill.

There was more time to be present. We could let conversations unfold more naturally. That sure beats drilling the kids with questions they don’t want to answer during the 15-minute ride to martial arts class or sail team.

Homeschooling was really fun. It was most enjoyable when I learned alongside the kids. Over the past year, I have deepened my understanding of math concepts I thought I already knew well (and became better acquainted with many I didn’t). Helping my daughter with her French vocabulary reignited my interest in the language, and if it hadn’t been for my son I wouldn’t know half of the facts I now know about octopuses.

We weren’t able to hit up museums and other exhibits as much as I would have liked (again, coronavirus), but we did a tremendous amount of exploring outside. We hiked in several state parks around the Sound, including Sucia Island and Fort Flagler state parks. We kayaked together and even did some (very cold!) snorkeling. Along the way, we all deepened our understanding of the amazing amount of life that lives in and around the Salish Sea.

I think the experiences this past year have made a mark on the kids, too. All that time outside has turned our son into a real bird watcher. I see a membership to the National Audubon Society in his future. My daughter got into cloud watching, an interest I share. Both kids learned a lot about living, sailing and caring for a boat. They can read a chart, know to look for navigation markers and made progress in their sailing skills.

Mainly, though, we just got more time together. Living on a boat leads to less time on screens and more opportunity for conversation and laughter.

My husband and I joke that we even get along better now that we have spent almost every waking minute around each other for months.

That’s why I don’t want things to go back to normal. At least not exactly …
Enjoying the otters in Port Townsend, Wa.

I recall how busy our lives were before. Monday through Friday our mornings were a mad rush to get out the door, usually accompanied with some yelling and prodding to get to school on time. Then work in an office all day just to hop in a car, grab kids from school and shuttle them to one activity or another. Evenings were a quick dinner, then clean up, then homework. Then bed. By the time the weekend came, the house had fallen apart, so it was laundry and picking up and grocery shopping and then maybe, just maybe, try to have a little fun together?

Having things to do is nice, but I don’t want it to get in the way of quality time with my family anymore. We’re working on a plan to make our lives easier and less hectic once school picks back up in the fall. It’s not fully formed but it looks a little like better organization, living closer to schools, more time outside, working from home as much as we can and using the Instapot more. I dunno. We’ll have to figure it out because I will be going between Seattle and Portland every two weeks for at least 9 months of the year.

At least Amtrak is up and running again.

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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Summer 2020: First stop, Port Blakely Harbor

On late afternoon of Tuesday, June 23, with a lingering list of boat projects, crap still piled up on the settee looking for a permanent home, we shoved out of our home marina in Elliot Bay and pointed for Bainbridge Island’s Port Blakely Harbor.

Seattle was warm and blustery, a rarity on a Seattle summer day. After I took us out of our slip and motored us out of the marina, C and our 12-year-old daughter, A, raised the mainsail. With the wind coming out of the north, we enjoyed a lovely beam- to broad-reach sail with A at the helm for most of the time.

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Our Summer 2020 cruising plan

In June, we got rid of 85% of our stuff and moved out of our house in Southwest Portland to move full-time onto our boat for the summer. We will spend three months sailing the Salish Sea with our kids. Our tentative plan is to explore:

I left my full-time job in April and am transitioning to freelance writing and editing in the fall. My husband will continue his current job, which he can do remote almost 100% of the time.

A view of the Coal Harbour Marina in downtown Vancouver, B.C.
A view of the Coal Harbour Marina in downtown Vancouver, B.C.

Downsizing for the future

My kids are from my first marriage, and they spend 50% of their time with their dad (big thanks to him for agreeing to let us take the kids for the summer!) He is based in Portland, so we aren’t leaving Portland completely. But once we return from our trip in the fall, we plan to split our time between Portland and Seattle. We’ll be in Portland when the kids are with us and in the Puget Sound area on our boat when they are with their dad.

I’m going to miss that kitchen. Thankfully, the cook is coming with me!

Part-time cruising the Salish Sea

Since getting our first boat four years ago, and our current boat, Polaris, just in the past year, we’ve only been able to take it out for a week at a time. Still, we’ve seen so much: Orcas, gray whales, sea lions, otters.

We’re so excited to dedicate the summer to exploring this beautiful and rich body of water. I thought that cruising was something I wouldn’t be able to do until I was much older, certainly without kids in the house anymore, and probably closer to retirement.

This is the beginning of something new. Something, for now, that is only part-time. But something big, indeed.

Thank you so much for following our journey!