By Kati Hughes
THE DREAM BEGINS.
Samantha and Sallyanne, my daughters, were only six and seven at the time, and like myself, had never set foot on a sailing boat before, that was, until we all gingerly boarded a 35’ foot Coronado ketch in Piraeus, Greece. With my husband, Roger, we were on an extended vacation from England, having driven to Greece in a small camper van. Here we decided to charter a sailboat for a week to visit the Islands. “You won’t have to actually do anything,” we were told,“because a crew of two came with the boat. That was why we chose that boat, because none of us had the slightest idea how to sail.
We all had an absolutely marvelous time, day-sailing between islands, then mooring for the night at some pretty little villages, and dining late in waterfront estiatorio’s. The water was so amazingly clear and blue and both girls could swim, although by the time we left they were like fishes. Roger was in his element as well, soaking up everything the two American crew could tell him—although where that came from, I don't know. We lived near Nottingham, which is not renowned for its nautical heritage.
It was during the long drive home that Roger first mentioned what was obviously on his mind. “You know all those boats we tied up next to, and how many of them were Brit’s, living on them?” He seemed to be choosing his words more carefully than usual, and not actually looking at me, which I assumed was because he was driving. “What would you think about us doing that for a while?”
Our small business was doing well, and we employed four salesmen. We had a nice house in the country. The kids went to a private school, driven there by Roger in his V12 Jaguar E-type, or myself in my mini countryman, and we had a beautiful snow-white Samoyed called Dougal. So why would we put all that in jeopardy, to uproot and swan-off on a tiny boat to goodness knows where? I also had considerable concerns about the children’s safety on a boat, and what about their education? I put it all down to a middle age crisis, which must have come early, because Roger wasn't yet middle aged. But then, there was always the “Greek experience.”
Whatever caused it, we went and actually did it.
It took two years to find a buyer for our business, then sell our house, along with all our furniture and cars. We had to do it that way, to be able to amass enough money to buy a decent boat, with enough left over to live on. Everyone, including both our parents, thought we were crazy, to give up what we had worked so hard to achieve, but then, they knew less about sailing than we did. Teachers at the girls school were much more supportive, and suggested ways I could continue their education, with correspondence courses and books.
Roger went on a sailing course in the North Sea, and I learned celestial navigation at a local community college—satellite navigation had not yet been invented. Roger bought me a sextant for my birthday. Oh! What wife doesn't want a sextant for her birthday, but I still cherish it?
We found a two-year-old, well equipped Endurance 40 ketch on the River Seven near Bristol. It had three cabins, a saloon and a separate galley. This meant the girls could at least have their own rooms. The boat didn't even have a name, so we called her “Tranquility Base,” because we were sure, if the Americans could get to Mar Tranquilitas on the moon, we ought to be able to get to ours to the Mediterranean.
We lugged a van-load of belongings to the boat, including four bicycles. It certainly seemed like everything except the kitchen sink, but then, I wanted to make this dramatic life-change as little disruption as possible, especially for our girls. I remember they had three teddy-bears each! Yes, we were very naive in those days, about what was needed, or what could even be stowed on a forty-footer. Finally, with the help of a professional skipper we sailed round Lands End to Falmouth, where “TB” was one of the largest boats on the moorings. We stayed there for a summer and the girls went to Flushing village school. We arranged for the Flushing/Falmouth ferry to pick them up and drop them back at the boat every school day. Passengers on the ferry sometimes gave us quit stern looks.
It was the year of the Queens silver Jubilee, and she came into Falmouth on the Royal Yacht Britannia. So, along with other boats in the harbour we dressed-ship for the occasion. Some of the girl’s friends also came to visit, which made their transition a little easier. Quite what they said to their own parents when they got home, I can only imagine.
We all learned how to sail in Falmouth harbour and the surrounding coast, and how to live together in very close proximity, which was not always congenial. We joined the local yacht club, the prestigious Royal Cornwall YC. and received a warrant to fly the blue ensign, a very distinctive flag, having the heraldic feathers of the Prince of Wales, the club commodore, embroidered on it.
Finally, on a cold November morning, and with considerable trepidation, we pointed Tranquility Base’s bow southward, leaving old England by the lee and southward, to Biscay. It was our first ocean passage, and the first time we had all actually been at sea at night on our own. We had 500 miles in front of us, across one of the most unpredictable Atlantic sea areas.
It took a few days before we settled down to a routine. I kept a reasonable school regime with the girls, using the books we had bought on recommendations of their teachers. They went to bed normally, as Roger and I kept night watches, four hours on, four off, sleeping on the saloon couch. They woke in the morning, usually asking, “Are we there yet?”
In the middle of Biscay 200 miles from the nearest land,, the boat was rolling down a big following sea, when we heard loud whooshing noises. Suddenly, a large pod of porpoises leapt out of the steep waves, either side of us and some amazingly close. They were very much bigger than the dolphins we had become used to seeing elsewhere. Some had calves and it was not just our own calves who were totally enchanted. As they leapt out of the waves some looked at us and seemed to smile, saying. “Welcome to our world.”
On many subsequent night passages, I looked up at a bright full moon, in a dark sky amid a million stars of The Milky Way, as only a night at sea can produce, and I was sure I saw the moon wink down at me.
For a long time, the sailing curve remained almost vertical for Roger and I, but we tried hard to make it as smooth and every-day normal for our daughters. We once ran out of diesel at sea and had a long slow worrying sail back to land. But the girls just thought it was much nicer, not having the noisy engine on, and listening to the water as it swooshed past their beds.
Eventually we arrived in Gibraltar, the British enclave at the tip of Spain, where we intended to make our base, but with no other specific plan in mind.
I enrolled the girls in a superb convent school, perched half way up The Rock, with breathtaking views overlooking the Straits of Gibraltar, with Europe to the north and mysterious Africa to the south. I was a little concerned the nuns might try to proselytize our daughters young minds, but Sister Ann, the Irish headmistress set my mind squarely at ease, “Don't you worry now Mrs. Hughes, we don’t go shovin’ it down der troughts!” There were indeed many other children of different nationalities and religions at the school, and some lived on boats in the marina. Our girls quickly made just as many friends as they had in England, and it didn't take long before they were both jabbering away in Spanish.
We bought a used sailing dingy and the girls soon learned to row it, but actually sailing it on their own took a bit longer.
Both our parents came to visit us, or rather, their grandkids and were amazed how they had suddenly “blossomed.” It was an awakening experience for Roger's father in particular, when he took his grandchildren shopping in the main street, (for ice-cream, what else), and hear them talking to swarthy Spanish and Moroccan merchants in Spanish. He confessed to being amazed; praise indeed from an old coal miner, who was never easily impressed.
Once, when only nine, Samantha eagerly informed us she now had “A job—for money.” We were in Estepona, the nearest port in Spain to Gibraltar. She had been to a shop in the port and noticed that none of their signs were in English. “Because we not know England,” had been the reason. Not only did she rewrite all their signs in English, whenever we went back to Estepona, Samantha acted as interpreter for the many British tourists who came in the shop. The kindly family owners wanted to keep her full-time, as sales increased markedly when she was there, and they loved their little “Niņa Inglesa.” I have often wondered if this was the dawning of Samantha's business acumen, as she now owns a large printing company, with turnover in the millions.
One day, as I sat on the boat, a couple engaged me in conversation, lamenting that they would just love to do what we were doing, but couldn't, “Because we have two school age children.” Just at that moment both girls popped up through the companionway in their school uniforms, hopped across the gang-plank and disappeared down the pontoon to the school bus. All I could do was smile, as the couple walked away.
Every Spring we set off easterly, to explore all of the eastern Spanish coast and The Balearic Islands, then further afield to the South of France and beyond. Many other “boating families” did the same and we would meet frequently, when the children could play on other boats. This gave them, and us, a periodic break from each other. It was the nautical version of a “play-date.”
I still tried to maintain school time every week-day. We would sit in the galley and open their books where they left off, then work through the next lesson, whether it was English, math’s, writing or reading. The teachers in the Gibraltar school also supplemented this with continuity studies when we went away, so the girls would not be behind when we returned. They also kept diaries of our travels, which they were required to read to the class, when back in “real school.”
It was indeed the “vagrant gypsy life” John Masefield talks about in “Sea Fever.” But we tried very hard not to become vagrants, keeping TB well maintained and the teak decks and varnish pristine. We involved the kids in this as much as possible, and Roger taught them other skills, like varnishing, painting and woodwork. Much better than “boring lessons.” (
Whenever we were nearest to some historic place in the countries we visited, we took the girls to them. The magnificent Alhambra Palace in Grenada. We sailed up the desolate river Guadalquivir to Seville, where they dressed up and took part in a real Spanish fiesta, and saw the famous “Carman” statue outside the bullring. In Tangiers, Morocco, they witnessed children their age, begging in the streets. We visited Sintra palace in Portugal, and the magnificent Cathedral in Barcelona. They even went inside the famous Casino in Monaco. It was the finest European history lesson any children could possibly have.
We once found ourselves in the middle of a school of whales, who had come to take a look at us, some as big as TB. We were all captivated, but I was concerned they would bump the hull, like I had read they might. Suddenly one ‘blew” and showered us with warm rain, but the smell was awful, and caused one of the girls to remark that it had “very bad breath.” I left it to Roger to explain that these animals were not fish, but had lungs and breathed air like us. “How do they manage to hold their breaths so long?” was one question—where is Wikipedia when you need it? They disappeared as quickly and as quietly as they had come, yet it was sobering to all of us to realize there were bigger fish in the sea than us.
Initially we earned money day-chartering whenever we stayed anywhere for more than a few weeks, and found a niche market of people, usually tourists, who had never sailed before. It was remarkable to see our daughters take charge of children, sometimes much older than themselves, and explain how the boat worked, even how to operate the marine toilet, and what they should and should not do, when on board.
Tranquility Base was accepted as a charter boat, by Top Yacht, an English yacht charter company, who sent clients to us from time to time. Because we had our children on board we took family skippered charters, like what had started our own romance with the sea. We once had a family arrive and the father had only one arm. He wanted to buy a yacht, but was not sure if he could handle one. He was otherwise a strong athletic man, so after a weeks trial we both agreed that he probably could manage a sailboat, provided he had electric winches and roller furling sails, along with any other equipment which makes handling a boat easier.
We flew back to England a few times, where we all met old friends. Unfortunately, we seemed to have little in common though, and we were always pleased to get back home, to our little ship.
As all parents learn, 6 and 7-year-olds soon become 12 and 13. Although I was confident they lacked nothing in the form of general education, Roger and I felt they needed a more stable environment, in preparation for high school, university and adulthood.
ON THE BEACH.
It took a while for us to come to the inevitable decision, but we finally sold Tranquility Base, for exactly the same as we had paid for her, eight years earlier. We returned to England, and have never seen or heard about our dear little floating home since. From time to time even the girls wonder where she now is. How many children who move house ever think that way?
I had worries about how they might adapt to a formal structured schooling on land, but after being interviewed by a foreboding head-mistres of a posh private girl’s school in Lincolnshire, both girls were accepted with scholarships. Later I asked the head why she had accepted the girls so readily? “They have such a rounded, worldly experience for children their age, I think they will become an asset to our school.” Vindication indeed.
When other pupils asked them which school they went to before, they would say “boating school.”
“Don’t you mean boarding school”
“No, we mean boating school.”
The transition back to normality was not easy for Roger, who had to start a new business from scratch, in the warehouse and storage equipment trade, like we had before. We were living in a different area now, so he had to go out and find all new customers.
We re-visited Gibraltar on holiday once by air, but none of the girls boating friends were still there, and strolling down the pontoon in Sheppard’s Marina was not the same. There was another boat in berth number twelve, but not as nice as Tranquility Base
Our daughters continued to grow as teenagers do, and after a few years, through Roger’s business connections we emigrated, (again), this time to America. To some extent this was a more difficult transition to a new life than venturing on the boat. Sallyanne and Samantha were now 15 & 16, with friends of their own in England, and definitely with minds of their own. Initially we met fierce resistance, and it took a few flights across the Atlantic and back to persuade them they could have much more fun in the perpetual Florida sunshine and beaches, than the dreary English weather.
We all finally settled in Orlando, Florida, which was nothing like the sprawling metropolis it is now. The girls went to an excellent high school, and then on to university, where they both achieved good degrees. Sallyanne went on to an MBA, at The University of Virginia. Both now have successful businesses and children of their own. Surprisingly we rarely talk about our life on “TB.” except when our grandchildren ask, “What was it like living on a sailboat,” then gleefully listen to stories, sometimes slightly embellished and which they have heard before, of what their mothers got up to when they were their age, living on a boat.
THEN AND NOW.
All that was a very long time ago, but we still do wonder if one day they may come to us and say, “Mom and Dad, we’ve bought a boat…” What on earth could we honestly say to that? Could we recommend anyone to sell-up and sail the seven seas with small children, especially our grandchildren?
Todays cruising world is very different to “then.” With advancement in communications, principally GPS and satellite telephones it is a lot safer. Although you still can’t get roadside assistance, half way across Biscay.
Privacy was one of the problems all parents with kids complained about—for the children and themselves. Tranquility Base was 12’ 6” beam, but a modern Beneteau of the same length is 14’ foot. Some catamarans are floating palaces, nearly twice the beam of TB, with conveniences akin to houses, and unfortunately costing about as much. In such a monster there is the possibility of not actually seeing your kids all day until meal times.
Communications also greatly simplify home schooling, and a laptop can contain enough lessons for a lifetime, never mind a childhood. My own has 1,000 classical books in it. The Internet also enables face-to-face chats with teachers and friends, even between boats on passage, greatly mitigating the peer separation our girls sometimes felt. Everything is so much easier for live-aboard cruising with children, not just because of computers and the Internet, but I-phones and digital TVs. On the boating front, water-makers, radar, AIS, Eperbs, solar panels, freezers, washing machines and roller furling sails, make sailing more pleasurable—absolutely none of which we had on Tranquility Base.
As grandparents ourselves now, could we handle the same worries to which we subjected our own parents, as we sailed off into the blue yonder? When will we see them again? Will they be able to handle the boat in bad weather? How will they make a living? What if there is an accident at sea, far from land?
Personally, we are hardly in any position to dissuade anybody anyway. After a hiatus of more years than I care to remember, Roger and I are preparing a 50’ foot brigantine schooner for our own return to sea. This time including many of the above-mentioned goodies. Still, some people might say, at their age, they really aught to know better…