First we want to welcome all our new subscribers to the Gone Floatabout family! We’re happy to have you on board and hope you’re enjoying the blog! As many of you know, I write more detailed articles about our experiences, maintenance issues, and lessons learned for several magazines. All these publications have great content and I subscribe to (or purchase fairly regularly) about eight sailing periodicals. Blue Water Sailing, with its clean and clear layout and wealth of interesting articles, is one of these, and in their latest issue is my article “The Other Higher Education.” I set off with Seth on our circumnavigation when I was only 20 and a sophomore in college, so crossing oceans really was an alternate education for me. I finished college as well, but I honestly believe it was sailing and maintaining (restoring!) Heretic that was my path to adulthood.
I won’t give away more, in case you’d like to read the original article! Instead, I wanted to write about a theme I see in many of these magazines: voyaging families.
Commercial sail, before the advent of steam or the internal combustion engine, was the province of young men whose lives were usually considered cheap. It was a dangerous and often short life, with no safety equipment and not much access to fresh food. Books written during the Age of Sail give a good picture of this: my favorites are Gipsy of the Horn, Moby Dick, and James Cook’s Journals. (I also love Patrick O’Brian’s historical fiction, of course!)
Although some captains’ and admirals’ wives went to sea with their husbands (Jane Austen’s Persuasion has a great fictionalized admiral’s wife), women only really entered the offshore sailing world after World War II. People like Miles and Beryl Smeeton fled the constraints of post-war Britain for the adventure of the high seas. Sailing still wasn’t terribly safe (it never has been and it never will be): Miles and Beryl were capsized twice off Cape Horn, twice almost losing their boat and their lives. But they were some of the most resourceful and self-reliant people I’ve ever read about, so both times they made it safely to Chile under jury-rigged spars and steering oar (to replace the rudder they’d lost).
Today, many (though definitely not all!) boats and their equipment are safer. Modern boats are not dependent on a thousand fasteners holding the hull together; modern spars are lighter, reducing weight aloft; safety equipment exists; communications and weather forecasts are vastly improved. None of this means the high seas themselves are any less fickle and threatening, a fact that should never be forgotten. Neither does it mean that deep reserves of fortitude are no longer required in situations such as the Smeetons found themselves in. As Nevil Shute put it in his introduction to Once is Enough, “What can one say of a woman working. . . to repair the gaping holes. . . while the ship lurches in enormous seas, who refuses to nail the boards in place but drills a hole for every wood screw and does the job as properly as a professional carpenter could have done it on dry land?” But most sailors don’t wish to round to Cape Horn, and safety gear and weather predictions have allowed more and more people, including families, to sail over the horizon.
On our circumnavigation Seth and I met and got to know several voyaging families, and I’ve read about more in sailing magazines. There’s recently been a lot of controversy over a Californian family rescued by the Navy off the coast of Mexico. Their 3-year-old daughter had taken ill with a high fever and the boat was damaged. I haven’t followed it closely, and I haven’t been able to find enough detail for me to form an opinion about them. Much of the controversy has centered around the general issue of infants/toddlers on boats but, not having to consider that issue personally, I don’t really have an opinion on that either. I’ve seen it work for some and not for others. I don’t think I’d want to do it myself: I have enough work standing watch and caring for the boat, and I’d want the kid to be fully vaccinated and able to feed, dress, and amuse himself. But when I met school age children out sailing—kids over the age of 5 who could fully understand and remember their experiences—I did remark on some wonderful qualities they’d gained from voyaging.
An eight-year-old French boy we met in Panama knew French from his mother, English from his father and from other sailors, Spanish from just a month in Panama, and who knows what other languages he learned after they sailed off ahead of us. In Polynesia, Seth and I met a British family with three young children and a Dutch family with two children. They had sailed in company since the Caribbean and were fast friends, playing together ashore and afloat. In Australia we met an American family and in New Zealand two Norwegian families, one of whom had come around the Horn with their 6-year-old (who spoke Norwegian, English, Spanish, and French). All of the children seemed mature beyond their years. They carried on interesting conversations with the adults around them; they weren’t shy; and they were never irritating or needy. They were athletic and agile from their outdoor life, and they were immensely curious and interested in the world around them. Because they spent so much time outside, mucking about in dirt and sand and water, they had an affinity for, and understanding of, the natural environment. They were comfortable swimming with reef sharks and hiking with huge iguanas, and they knew not to lay a hand on a stonefish. They were also incredibly broad-minded without even knowing it: they made friends easily with Panamanian kids, Polynesians, Fijians, Aboriginals, white Australians, and Ni-Vanuatu children.
The kids I met sailing with their parents were receiving a wonderful education that can’t be had in a classroom. They were also continuing their traditional schooling through correspondence courses and enrolling in local schools (sometimes a ‘beyond-the-classroom’ experience in itself!), but the people they were meeting and the experiences they were having would surely stay with them for life. It reminds me of the author Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and the journey she and her parents and brother took to live with the Bushmen in the Kalahari: that experience shaped her whole life. My own education at sea had just as much to do with responsibility, self-reliance, and hard work as with exposure to the natural environment, wildlife, and the unique cultures of our planet, yet it too was an education that can’t be had in a classroom, and I’m grateful I had the chance to experience it.
Blue Water Sailing has generously allowed me to post PDFs of some of my earlier articles to this site, so if you’re interested, check out the Articles page! The pieces range from voyaging stories such as “Birding on the Chesapeake” and “The Voyaging Galley” to more technical topics such as “Wind vs. Solar: Evaluating alternative energy sources for marine use.” “The Other Higher Education” is in the most recent issue, which can be purchased on newsstands or online. Hope you enjoy! And once again, welcome to all the new subscribers!