Bluewater Families: Cruising with Kids

The prospect of sailing 4,500 miles across the South Pacific on a 48-foot sailboat with two small children and a wife prone to seasickness is enough to make most sane skippers back away in terror. Lucky for me, my not-so-sane husband saw it as the chance of a lifetime. So in May of 2008, we cast off from Honolulu aboard our Swan 48, Sundance, with our two children, Sofia Maria, 5, and Rufo, 4, and threw ourselves to the wind.

Before leaving, we tried to acclimatize the kids with a few outings on the calm waters between Diamond Head and Pearl Harbor. These typically resulted in Rufo sleeping in the cockpit while Sofia Maria puked over the stern. They didn’t even enjoy dinghy rides around Ala Wai Marina. We were in poor shape for a long sailing trip.

Once in the Pacific, the challenges continued. In late September, for example, we left Samoa for a “quick” 26-hour passage to Tonga. The trip was supposed to be short, but heavy weather prevented us from sailing upwind toward the small volcanic island. We arrived a day late in the middle of the night with a ripped foresail, seasick children and a jibsheet around the propeller. It would have been madness to attempt to negotiate the reef-lined passage under those conditions, so we tacked back and forth under mainsail alone until daylight. At dawn, we hailed some fellow cruisers on the VHF, and in no time had four dinghies tied to our boat, ferrying us through the reef and into a safe anchorage.

Fortunately, despite uncomfortable experiences like this, the kids adapted naturally to life aboard and incorporated their many new experiences into a fantasy world of their own. At anchor, the boat was a giant playground: bunks and leecloths served as castles and forts; halyards were their swing set; sailbags were mountains to explore. They learned how to jump from the boat deck into the inviting clear water below where they swam about like seals.

In November, as most other boats headed for safe haven in New Zealand, we moved from Tonga to Savusavu, Fiji, a well-protected “cylone-hole.” There we docked stern-to at the Copra Shed Marina so the kids could come and go with ease. We also reserved a heavy cyclone mooring in case we needed to get Sundance off the dock and into the safer inland harbor. In early January, we lived on that mooring for 11 days, staying below as torrential rains and 40-50 knot winds battered Fiji, causing the worst flooding there in 30 years. Talk about family bonding.

When the local Fijian schools re-opened, Sofia and Rufo went to the Indian-run Khamendra School. There they learned the rudiments of reading and writing in English, Fijian and Hindi. Every day they lined up with their classmates to brush their teeth outside on the lawn, then marched through the school grounds in an orderly fashion bedecked in blue and white uniforms. At Khamendra school they were introduced to “discipline” as it existed a generation ago in the United States. Uniforms had to be clean and pressed, girls’ hair was to be braided with white ribbons, and fingernails were checked for cleanliness. Local children helped maintain the school, after rising at 0500 to help with their chores at home. In the end, I suppose it wasn’t so bad to be a cruising kid on a sailboat just passing through.

Sofia and Rufo spent weekends with other local children, chasing frogs, racing hermit crabs and watching small tropical fish swim along the shore. Around town, our kids were often the center of attention: adults smiled at them, and children touched their “golden” hair and giggled. After four months, we had become accepted palangi, which means “strangers,” but is literally translated as “cloud breakers” for the first Western sailors who came over the horizon, breaking through the clouds centuries earlier.

Sailing with our children slowed us down, but what we lost in socializing with other cruising couples, we more than gained in the intense relationships we established with local communities. Our children opened doors for us that are normally closed to visitors. They went to local schools, we attended the local church, and as a result we were generally more welcomed by locals.

We hope our kids will remember some of what they lived through during those two years. For me, my anxieties at the beginning of the trip grew less with each passing day. Minus a few days of discomfort, 600 days aboard a sailboat in the South Pacific with two kids turned out to be just about perfect. I will always remember the smiles on local faces, the reassuring presence of fellow sailors and the warm, calm nights aboard Sundance watching every sunset as if it was our first.

Click here to read "Bluewater Families: Growing Up Cruising."

Photos by Patricia Zumstein

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