A Year Afloat With The Family Page 3

Living onboard a 50-foot sailboat with six members of your family for a year isn’t always easy—especially in a space the size of your living room. For example, what are you to do when your brother uses up all the hot water—for the rest of the day? Or when, after a bitter spat with your sister, the length of the saloon is the farthest you’re going to get away from each other—for the next two
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It’s a wonderfully nomadic lifestyle, and we weren’t the only ones living it. The cruisers we met ranged from a group of young Danes who’d quit their jobs to sail around the world to a young French family with their infants sailing off to find work in the French colonies, a retired Qubcois couple in a big, gleaming catamaran, and a half-mad Cornishman crossing the Atlantic solo in a 20-foot sloop—all disconnecting from the workaday lifestyle to chase down a dream.

By Christmas we had made it down to Seville, Spain, that southern capital famous for its bullfights, flamenco dances, and beautiful seoritas. From there we began the next major phase of our journey, the southwesterly sweep back across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. We would follow the classic route pioneered by Columbus, using the islands off the coast of Africa as waystations down into the trade-wind belt, that steady band of easterly winds that for centuries served as the engine of transatlantic trade.

Retracing the footsteps of los descubridores, we sailed down through Portuguese Madeira and the Spanish Canary Islands, arriving in the ex-Portuguese colony of Cape Verde. By now we had passed into the tropics.

Leaving the Old World behind, we set out on the longest passage of the trip, the 2,000-plus-mile crossing between Cape Verde and Barbados. It proved to be very different from our northern transit. Instead of rough seas and gray skies, we had sunny days and smooth downwind sailing. The ocean, penetrated by the higher-angle rays of the sun, glowed an electric blue as flying fish skimmed over its surface. With clear skies above us, we turned off our GPS and tried our hands at celestial navigation, aided by a nearly-new moon that allowed the stars to shine brightly to our eyes. Each sunset, the middle distance of the sea would fade away, leaving behind only the immediacy of the cockpit and the infinity of the starry sphere above, as if Medley were sailing through outer space.

As we watched the slow, subtle ballet of the stars and planets unfold over weeks of nightly vigil and predicted those movements using simple mathematical formulas, we seemed to sense more strongly than ever the palpable mystery we were sailing into. This conjunction of inner and outer revelation—of astronomical knowledge and astronomical splendor—can be utterly intoxicating to a sailor standing watch on a starlit night. That the subtlest variations of the night sky can be spun into an accurate understanding of our place on this vast globe seems to me a perfect illustration of the human genius and its ability to “see the world in a grain of sand.”

On our fifteenth day at sea, bearded and unwashed, skin sun-stained to a deep mahogany, hair tousled and salty, I at last saw Barbados. Through the long night watches and drowsy, cloud-gazing days, we had dreamed lustful dreams of palm-fringed beaches and crystalline seas. Now, as Medley drew close to the island, the vivid turquoise of tropical waters erupted beneath us.

For the next five months we worked our way up through the Caribbean chain, stopping at nearly every island between Grenada and Puerto Rico. Our pace slowed even further as we lounged on beaches, snorkeled, and explored rain forests, sustaining ourselves on what fish we could catch and the seafood and local produce we bought in villages. Gradually, as the North Star rose ever higher in the night sky, our thoughts began to turn toward the journey’s end.

For a year we had been utterly self-reliant, a self-contained world of seven people traveling through foreign lands. Though we had crossed oceans, weathered storms, and navigated treacherous coastlines, our greatest challenge had been getting along together inside our tiny capsule. As we charted our course north from Puerto Rico back to Halifax, there was no denying that each of us was eager to get back to the convenience and independence of our former lives. Although we would soon scatter to our respective paths, as modern families do, a year together forges bonds, as well as memories, that must endure.

Matt Aikens is a writer, photographer, and journalist based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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