Five Families Prove that Sailing is a Family Affair

Whether it’s racing with dad, weekending with a baby or circumnavigating with the whole tribe, these five families are proving that sailing brings them together
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Whether it’s racing with dad, weekending with a baby, or circumnavigating with the whole tribe, these five families are proving that sailing brings them together. 

That Daddy-Daughter Bond

Racing Through Childhood 

By Erin Elser

“Come on, girlie! Get your butt over the side of that boat!” my dad yells as we hit a puff. “Quick! Prepare to tack. Get the board up!”

“I know, Dad!” I yell back as I scramble down into the cramped cockpit of our Snipe. We round the mark and sail for the next one, and my dad says, “Erin, see those paddleboaters trying to steal the marks? Scare ‘em away as we sail by!”

“Sure, Dad,” I say, “but let’s pick the right gate this time.”

Growing up, I enjoyed this father-daughter banter every Sunday at Quassapaug Sailing Center (QSC) on Lake Quassapaug in Middlebury, Connecticut, where my dad and I sailed Snipes. I started as ballast at the age of five and eventually graduated to the position of crew. Over the years, we did some serious bonding­—some more pleasant than the rest­—and now, at age 29, I look back and realize how grateful I am for being thrown into sailing at such a young age.

My father taught me all kinds of life lessons on that boat, including the importance of nutrition. Waking up early on the weekend was a challenge for me as a teenager and my dad figured out that bribing me with lunch—plus some caffeine and a few chocolate chip cookies—was key to getting me up and out. Munching on an apple between races also kept me energized.

But staying energized was only half the battle. I was physically strong, but at 4ft 11in, I didn’t have much bulk, so dad taught me to be tough, too. At 15, for example, we raced in the Atlantic Coast Championships in Newport, Rhode Island. The first day of the race was windless and was called off before it even began. The second day, however, brought a big breeze and lots of hiking. My abs were sore by noon. Then, during the final upwind leg of an Olympic course, the jib shackle broke. We flattened the boat and I ventured onto the bow, a spare shackle clenched in my teeth. I nearly had the ringding back in when a huge puff hit and the boat went down on its rail. I dangled from the high side, death-gripping the shackle with one hand and the rub rail with the other. My dad quickly eased the main. I regained my footing and finished the job. When we crossed the finish line ahead of most of the fleet, my dad gave me all the credit.

He was always willing to step back like that and let me feel like the superhero. Still, I knew it was his sailing skills and our strategizing that kept us at the front of the fleet. As I got older and began understanding tactics, we had more fun plotting our course together, attempting to edge out any boat that beat us the last time. If we fell behind, there was lots of yelling onboard, and I learned never to ask why the boats on the opposite side of the course were sailing faster than we were, lest I endure an icy glare of frustration. Still, those heated moments also served as learning experiences. Years later, as a sailing instructor at the QSC, I employed many of my father’s teaching techniques on my own students.

On the racecourse we wore our game faces, but we weren’t afraid to have fun. If I complained too much, dad would gently push me overboard. When the wind died, which it often did on Lake Quassy, we would play Frisbee tag with our fellow Snipe sailors, tossing the Frisbee at one another’s mainsails until someone inevitably fell overboard in a dramatic attempt to complete a catch.

We always finished the season with the Quassapaug Board of Director’s weekend regatta, which culminated in a lobster dinner and dancing on the deck of QSC. I remember feeling a mix of accomplishment and sadness as we de-rigged our Snipe, repaired boat parts and stored it for the winter.

Now that those summers are behind me, I miss racing with my family. Some parents will tell you that talking to, let alone sailing with, teenagers is impossible. It’s not. Sailing with teenagers is motivational and educational and, if nothing else, leaves you both laughing. And what can be better than that?

Erin Elser, 29, has been sailing and racing dinghies in Connecticut for 25 years

Photos courtesy of Erin Elser

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Baby on Board

How to keep “sailing” with a newborn

By Graham Snook

“Always sail to the strengths of your weakest crewmember,” so the saying goes. But what happens when your weakest crewmember is less than two years old?

The arrival of our daughter, Ella, was a life-changer in many ways, especially when it came to sailing. Soon it was goodbye to cold winter weekends beating to windward with my wife, Kirsty, and hello to afternoons sitting in the harbor watching the world go by. My life changed, but it wasn’t for the worse. I simply had a new definition of “normal.”

These days, a “normal” afternoon of sailing—if you can call it that—consists of trying to stop Ella from throwing her toys, herself, or both over the side of our 32-foot boat.

When Ella was still a newborn, sailing was easy, simple in fact! We would just put her in the carry-cot, and she would sleep from port to anchorage. My wife and I sailed whenever we could.

It was when she started sitting up that everything went awry. She no longer slept on passage, and she didn’t like heeling either, much preferring to hang out with her mother down below. Thus, Kirsty saw more of the saloon than the scenery, and before long she disliked heeling too.

Then Ella started walking. I was determined not to surround our boat with netting. Yet, just days after Ella took her first steps, Kirsty and I watched in disbelief as she climbed from the saloon sole to the cockpit coaming and straight over to the guardrails. The netting was installed that afternoon.

In a matter of months, it was apparent that our family wasn’t enjoying sailing and that something had to change. We decided that while we do love sailing, we also love just being on the boat. Whether or not the boat is moving is a moot point—the coachroof portlights are so small, we could be anywhere! It’s enough of a challenge protecting children onboard without the added complication of going anywhere. So why make life tough?

Now, if the weather is fair, we go sailing. If it’s not, we don’t. We gave up the battle between daughter and lifejacket, opting for a safety harness so we can’t lose Ella, and she can’t lose herself.

Everything we do on board now is tailored around our daughter’s needs. If she isn’t enjoying her time, neither are we. Once I accepted that cushions can be laundered, the saloon table doesn’t have to be pristine, and we don’t need to go anywhere to enjoy our boat, life on board became much more enjoyable.

Last season we were playing with Ella in the cockpit in our home marina, having deemed the wind too strong to go sailing. A gentleman on a boat opposite shouted across to us, “I wish I had parents like you when I was her age.” We weren’t doing anything special, just being parents on a boat. Rather than adapt Ella to sailing, we chose to adapt sailing to Ella.

Graham Snook and his family cruise their Sadler 32, Pixie, every chance they get

Photos by Graham Snook

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Life of a Voyager

Raising three kids on a 40-foot raceboat 

By Somira Sao

When we pull into new ports on Anasazi Girl, the thing that most people find puzzling is why we chose to sail with our three small children on a high-performance carbon-fiber race boat. “Don’t you want something with more space and comfort?” they say.

Of course we do! When this all began, my husband, James, and I used to imagine sailing in the tropics with our future children on a shallow draft vessel, wearing no clothes, with just enough room for surfboards and water toys. In the earlier days, we were living a lifestyle of constant travel and work. “Home” took the form best suited to our current project or adventure, shifting from tents to fitted-out cargo vans and trailers. Material luxuries were of little importance, so long as we were together, healthy and doing something that made us feel alive.

When our first child, Tormentina, was born, we were living on land, but were instantly awed by the exponential changes we saw in her every day. They served as a reminder that time was charging forward and that if we wanted to sail, we had no time or funds to sell/buy/fix/find the “perfect boat.”

We did happen to own a boat: my husband’s Finot-Conq Open 40, Anasazi Girl. From December 2005 to June 2008, James had solo circumnavigated on her east-about, from Bermuda to Bermuda. She’d proven herself a safe and seaworthy vessel, and if we wanted to go sailing now, she was the path of least resistance. Besides, from a risk management perspective, she was perfect—a Category 0, IMOCA certified vessel.

So, on June 26, 2011, with our daughter Tormentina (2 yr.) and son Raivo (9 mo.), we set sail from Portland, Maine, on a transatlantic passage. Life aboard Anasazi Girl was different with four of us as opposed to one. Her sparse layout did not allow room for any extraneous possessions, not even a dinghy. Life paralleled our previous nomadic style: simple, minimal, mobile. No need for daily showers, hot water, a washer/dryer or refrigerator.

After 21 days at sea, we made landfall in Cherbourg, France. The natural high we experienced on arrival was unforgettable: an intense, overwhelming feeling of pure happiness that comes from accomplishing something difficult as a unit, together.

The magic of being in the wilderness at sea was over all too soon. Suddenly we were “home,” but in a foreign country. During this transition back to land, James and I began to see the full potential of Anasazi Girl. She was not a particularly comfortable live?aboard, but she was an incredible boat to sail, safe and a real mile?maker. This boat could give us the freedom to go anywhere in the world.

It was then that we decided we would go voyaging, not cruising, which meant we would be making long-distance passages between international ports, not just exploring coastlines. It also meant completely cutting ties: nothing to go back to and everything to go forward to. We had to live simply and humbly within our means, keeping the work flowing. To fund our sailing program, I work as a freelance writer and a professional photographer while James works as a professional yacht captain and a marine consultant. We work like crazy, but in a way that doesn’t compromise what we consider quality of life or the chance to be with our kids full-time.

Onward we went, choosing routes that suited Anasazi Girl. We sailed from Cherbourg to São Vicente, Cape Verde in 2011, then made a 32-day passage to Cape Town, South Africa. After a southern hemisphere summer refit, we departed in April 2012 and sailed 30 days nonstop for Fremantle where we discovered that I was one month pregnant. We wintered in “Freo” until my last trimester, then sailed eight days through the Australian Bight to Melbourne, followed by a 10-day Trans-Tasman crossing to Auckland, New Zealand. We arrived two months before the birth of our daughter, Pearl. After another refit in New Zealand, we left Auckland on February 13, 2014 bound nonstop for Lorient, France. We were dismasted 300 miles west of Cape Horn.

The rare possibility of losing the rig was something we had discussed with both Tormentina and Raivo. When it happened, our children handled it calmly and rationally, something I believe was a testament to their experiences at sea. Over the last three years, our kids have observed all aspects of voyaging, from the light moments of being at sea to the intense details of crossing an ocean.

Tormentina, Raivo and Pearl are strong, adaptable, intelligent and mature. They have street smarts, creativity and a fearlessness in the way they approach problems. They are learning about the world through experiences and being taught by the communities we choose to connect with—inspiring people who talk about ideas and strive to achieve great things.

Somira Sao and her family are currently in Puerto Williams, Isla Navarino, Chile, awaiting repairs to Anasazi Girl: anasaziracing.blogspot.com

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Photos by Somira Sao

It’s About Time

Let me check my schedule: I’m...cruising

By Amy Schaefer

For her fifth birthday, Audrey received a digital watch. It was red and had a stopwatch and a little blue light to help her tell the time in the dark, and she loved it completely.

I failed to anticipate that, for the next three days, Audrey would become a human clock.

She ran up to me as I was fixing a bug screen and bellowed: “Ten twenty-seven! Mom, it is 10:27!”

“Ten twenty-seven,” I said, “got it.” Thus acknowledged, she raced off to find her next victim, while I settled down to 60 seconds of peace, certain she and her booming voice would soon be back.

Bellowing aside, the most disconcerting aspect of Audrey’s mania was that I actually knew the time for the first time in a long time. I hadn’t worn a watch for three years. We have time-keeping devices aboard, obviously, but they are neither prominent nor well used. We tend to be lackadaisical about time-zone changes and Daylight Savings Time, although we always figure it out eventually—even if we do miss the odd ferry or try to hail customs at 0500.

One of the wonderful secrets about cruising is that you leave clock-watching behind. The day morphs from being a mad dash between precisely set appointments to a simple series of actions.

We get up when we wake up. Often I am helped along by a small hand patting my cheek and a friendly voice saying, “Wake up, Mom. I’m hungry.” The four of us have breakfast in the cockpit in our pajamas. As we eat, we look out over the anchorage to see what has changed overnight, and we talk about our plans for the day. Teeth brushed, the girls and I start school, while my husband, Erik, goes off to fix whatever needs fixing.

By the time the sun is high, school is finished and everyone is hungry again. Time for a quick swim, then lunch. Afternoons are for fun: Martha and Audrey might visit a friend on another boat, or we’ll all pile into the dinghy to snorkel the reef. We’ll walk through town, search for a rumored waterfall, or just lie in the hammock with a book.

Hungry again? It must be dinner. The sun sets, and eyes grow heavy. Time for bed.

And all of that managed without a glance at the clock.

“Ten twenty-eight!”

I thanked Audrey for the update and watched her pound down the deck to tell Erik.

The thing we value above all else on Papillon, the thing that keeps us cruising, is time. Living aboard is giving yourself the gift of time: time with your kids, time as a couple, time to experience the world and build memories together. And all of those memories are worth having—from swimming with sea turtles in the Galapagos to watching the stars on passage or listening to a five-year-old love her brand-new watch.

After a couple of days, Audrey stopped her constant updates. She still wears the watch when she thinks of it, but when she grows tired of it she puts it back in the drawer with her other toys.

By the time our cruising days are done, our family will have spent thousands of days together exploring the world. I know my girls will keep bright memories of dolphins and volcanoes, but I hope, too, that they will always remember they can choose to leave their watches in a drawer. Because, after all, a number on a watch is just a number.

Time is what my family spends together.

Amy Schaefer and her husband, Erik, cruise Papillon with their daughters Martha and Audrey. They are currently in Australia and can be followed at sailfeed.com/writers/amy-schaefer

Photos courtesy of Amy Schaefer

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Coming Full Circle

“We were sailing before we were walking”

By Paul Calder

Growing up with my family of four crammed into a homemade sailboat for months on end as we cruised through coral reefs, uninhabited islets and the occasional low-intensity war zone was a deeply unsettling experience. You could say it was not an ordinary childhood, but then what is “ordinary” to a kid? It was our wonderfully underdeveloped sense of normalcy that made living aboard seem ordinary to my older sister and me. After all, we were sailing before we were walking. Up until adolescence, we spent six months a year in the Caribbean on Nada, the 38-foot Ingrid that my parents built from a bare fiberglass hull. Cruising, we were at home. We made friends easily and often, with or without a shared language, found temporary pets in monkeys and hermit crabs, and put in “school hours” snorkeling coral reefs and poring over fish identification books.

It was back on land, where we spent the other six months, that things got weird. Months of limited human contact made us desperately friendly, but also ignorant of social norms. Once, during a brief stint on land in conservative rural Louisiana, we were given real beds for the first time in our lives. Ecstatic, we invited all the neighborhood kids over to jump on them with us. This went well at first, since none of them were allowed to jump on their own beds, let alone make a party of it, but it wasn’t long until we made a serious faux pas. Used to a freer life on the water, we tore off all our clothes and encouraged everyone to jump on the bed in the buff. This made us cool for a fleeting moment, but afterward none of the kids were allowed to speak to us anymore.

We moved on, away from Louisiana, and away from the awkwardness and small traumas of childhood. Like most adolescents, I was fickle. At some point I decided to lay all the blame for my social ills on our weird, totally uncool lifestyle and decided that I hated sailing, along with just about everything else. Then, we came back from a trip to the Caribbean and I gave a show-and-tell to my classmates, showed off some slides and some shells, and pretended I knew more than I actually did. I found I quite liked that feeling. Still, I was reluctant to go back to the boat, where the battery terminals on my Gameboy would inevitably corrode, until some years later when my sister and I discovered that, functionally, the drinking age in the Caribbean is about 14, which made us enthusiastic sailors again.

After middle school, the education system got wise to our game and forbade us from dropping out and re-enrolling every six months. We kept sailing, a few weeks here, a month there, but we no longer cruised, which was fine with my sister and me. I enjoyed high school, went away to college in Washington D.C., spent some time traveling on land, and more or less stopped sailing for nearly 10 years.

However, I kept our sailing experiences close and often recalled the feeling of total freedom and autonomy, the radical joy of exploring islets no person had walked on in years, or swimming through vast undersea landscapes, or the people—yachties, cruisers, ocean-going wingnuts, generous strangers—who opened their homes to us. These became the most unsettling memories, in a literal sense, and I began to feel an urge to pull up roots and travel.

When I moved to New Orleans in 2010 and found myself surrounded by cheap, dilapidated old boats, I started thinking seriously about a boat of my own. A year later, with lots of help and advice from my father, I bought an old Cape Dory 28 that needed a good deal of work. It took nearly three years to fix her up, but then it didn’t take long to put the first 3,000 miles under her keel. It feels great to be on a boat again, totally autonomous. I hope to take her down to the Caribbean and revisit some of the places from my childhood on Nada.

After accepting his love of sailing, Paul Calder refitted a Cape Dory 28, and took her to sea. Follow him at sailfeed.com

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