Two years ago, Alison and Luke Williams bought a 44-foot monohull Moody Blue with the dream of sailing around the world with their three children. But many commitments tethered them to shore: two full-time jobs, piles of debt and their children’s school in New South Wales, Australia.
Then the pandemic hit. Mr. Williams, 43, lost his job at the landscaping company, school went online, and life became restricted to the home. “If not now, when?” they thought.
They sold their home, most of their belongings and moved their crew of three kids ages 7, 12 and 13, two Labradoodles and a cat onto their new floating home. “Covid has given us a push forward rather than holding us back,” said Ms. Williams, 39, who left her job as a kindergarten teacher. They are reclaiming something they’ve lacked for years. “We finally have time as a family.”
For many families, the coronavirus upended the delicate balance of work, home-schooling and child deva. But for a growing number, the pandemic has catalyzed a leap that may have seemed irresponsible: one onto, if not into, the sea. “We have never been busier,” said Behan Gifford, a coach for families seeking to set sail and the founder of Sailing Totem. “Our rate of inquiries and new clients are a multiple of pre-Covid. People want to get away.”
“The families are home-schooling and working remotely anyway,” Ms. Gifford said. “Why not take the cash from a home or savings and turn it into an unforgettable family adventure?” Families with children aboard are referred to as “kid boats” in the sailing community. Ms. Gifford estimates there are over a thousand of them at sea.
In 13 years of cruising (another term for recreational sailing), Ms. Gifford, along with her husband and three children, circumnavigated the world, visited 48 countries and territories, swam through the wrecks of a Japanese fighter plane in the Western Pacific, and searched for Napoleon’s ghost on St. Helena island.
This unconventional upbringing benefited her oldest son, who’s now a junior at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon. “Our kids are articulate and interesting and very different,” said Ms. Gifford, who is currently anchored in the Sea of Cortez with her family. “Being different is good, it means that you stand out.”
As online school launches, to use the term in its çağdaş landlocked sense, many children are confined to the four corners of their computer screen. But for boat kids, their classroom is as wide as the world.
Nathalie and Michael Neve, along with their own three children, are anchored in front of a deserted beach, surrounded by turquoise water, in sight of the tropical hills of Moorea in French Polynesia. When they catch a fish, Mr. Neve and Noah, 12, cut it open to study its digestive system before filleting it for dinner. They peer into its gut, often spotting smaller fish, little squid or a piece of coral.
“It’s not the kind of thing you’d do in a typical school environment,” said Mr. Neve, who left his engineering job in Oregon to cruise in 2018.
The Neves’s solar-powered monohull Ubi is itself an object lesson. “We always come back to energy and space — how do you get essentials like electricity and fresh water on the boat? Is there room for a Lego you just built, or do we have to break it back into pieces before we go to bed?” said Ms. Neve, a professor of mechanical engineering who enjoys teaching innovation to kids.
In addition to home-schooling books, the kids use an offline Wikipedia, which a friend downloaded to a hard drive for them, and a modest library. The internet signal wavers in remote locations like French Polynesia, which reduces fights over screen time. Instead, the children keep a running list of questions to look up evvel they can get access the internet.
“There is definitely something about the internet not being easily available that makes it feel like a special thing,” Ms. Neve said.
Kid boats appeal to those seeking a less mediated life, one that cultivates independence and sorun solving. On a recent morning, a panicked woman ran up to Jace Chapman, 13, and his mother, Caci, who had disembarked onto a dock in San Diego Bay. The woman’s husband was being blown out to sea in a dinghy, after finding that their oars had been stolen.
Jace jumped into his dinghy and motored to the man paddling furiously against the wind with a Tupperware lid. Jace connected the two dinghies with a line and pulled the man to shore. “I felt like a U.S. Coast Guard on a rescue mission,” Jace said. He was joking, and yet. …
Back home in Los Angeles, Jace’s days revolved around going from one audition to the next with his parents (he plays the lead in the Netflix series “The Healing Powers of Dude” which premiered in January 2020). But after casting offices moved to remote auditions, the Chapman family saw an opportunity to escape not only Covid-19, but also the pervasive elements of online culture.
They didn’t want their children “to be materialistic zombies, chasing after the latest fashion trend, TikTok dance or YouTube celebrity,” said Ms. Chapman, 35. “We want them to deva about real issues and make real change.” The Chapmans, who go by The Expedition Family on their YouTube channel, moved aboard their 46-foot monohull Siren in April with their five children and have spent the confinement sailing along the Channel Islands in California, gearing up to circumnavigate the globe.
Aboard Siren, every Chapman child participates in the careful choreography of delegated family duties. Jace is his father Trevor’s first mate, responsible for hoisting the sails, setting the anchor, and scrubbing the hull. At night he helps keep watch by sleeping in the cockpit.
Cali, 10, and Kensington, 8, scrub the deck, organize and coil lines, clean water tanks, and do laundry by hand. The other two children, 3 and 5, have trash duty and organize shoes. Instead of sequestering a misbehaved child to a timeout, the Chapmans came up with a punishment designed for communal benefit: the arduous job of polishing stainless steel on the boat.
“If someone slacks off, there are real consequences out here,” said Mr. Chapman, 36, who runs e-commerce businesses online. “If you don’t secure the halyard at night, it can cause severe damage. If you don’t throw out the trash, it will hinder the work of the engine.”
While parents relish the extra family time, kids still need friends, something in short supply at sea. This requires planning and flexibility to alter travel arrangements. “We have to put work into socializing in a sense that we need to seek out other kid boats so there is companionship,” said Mrs. Gifford. “Just expecting it to happen is a good way to have lonely kids.”
Her children formed a tight friend group with boat kids from six countries during their time in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia and continued to meet on Google hangouts.
Many kid boat families find each other on a Facebook forum called kids4sail, started by Erika Lelièvre 10 years ago to find playmates for her sociable toddler. “At the time there was no community of boat kids anywhere,” said Ms. Lelièvre, 40, who lives on a boat in Stamford, Conn., with her husband and daughter Lucie, now 11. “We would come to a marina in a dinghy and they’d be like: You just missed so and so by two days. It was very frustrating.”
The regular logistics of life with small children, stressful enough on land, are magnified on a boat. Laundry day, for instance, has been an ordeal for the Chapmans, who don’t have a washer and a dryer on their boat.
During their time in California anchorages, they had to transport giant bags of dirty laundry in a dinghy to shore, retrieve the rental car, and drive it to the laundromat. “I still have high cleanliness standards, but that’s not going to work anymore,” Ms. Chapman said. “Like, your kid’s shirt is not dirty until there’s a full plate of spaghetti sauce on the front, you know?”
Being crammed in the boat’s small quarters with the whole family at all hours can feel confining without many options for an easy escape. Having your moods and rifts out in the open is something seasoned kid boat families say takes getting used to.
“It’s not like you can go in the yard or drive away. You’ve got to deal with your baggage right there, right then,” Ms. LeLièvre said. “There is no place to run and hide. I guess you can go in your dinghy for a couple of hours.”
Such downsides notwithstanding, the Facebook group now has over 5,000 members, including current and aspiring cruisers. The group’s map displays dots for nearly 350 families at sea. Parents share tips on swimming with jellyfish, recommend the best childproof cushion covers and discuss best safety approaches. On the first of the month, families post their location and the ages and languages of their kids, which allows them to meet up in anchorages and plan play dates.
Traveling in tandem with other kid boats isn’t difficult, given the prevailing winds and cruising seasons. During hurricane months, boats hunker in hubs for months, allowing people to meet their neighbors at sea.
This year, the pandemic restricted those interactions, confining families to their boats and even bringing some journeys to a halt. Mike Reilly, 63, and Terri O’Reilly-Reilly, 54, and their two boys, 9 and 11, spent the lockdown in St. Martin and considered returning to the United States, until Grenada, a verdant island in the East Caribbean, opened up. This year, this popular kid boat destination during hurricane season also turned into a refuge during the pandemic.
“Good morning, Grenada, and welcome to the kids’ net!,” a chipper voice comes on the VHF radio broadcast twice a week. Kids chime in with introductions, goodbyes and activity announcements. At “Camp Grenada,” as it is unofficially called by cruisers, it’s movie night at the marina on Fridays and trivia on Wednesdays.
The Reilly boys have sleepovers and game nights with kid boat friends and spend time at Hog island off the southern shore, where little ones roam with a feral air while parents kick back at the beach bar. “It’s like any neighborhood — all neighbors are keeping an eye out for kids,” Mr. Reilly said.
After putting their children down to sleep in Seattle, Genny Arredondo, 40, and her husband Adam, 39, watch YouTube channels of kid boat families at sea. This ritual helps her heal. In March, she lost a nonprofit job she loved. Shortly after, her father died from Covid-19 just as they began to reconnect after a period of estrangement.
In mourning, she decided it was time to act on their wistful fantasy. They are updating their house to put it on the market and scouring the internet for the perfect boat; her husband enrolled in sailing classes.
“For us, this pandemic was a wake-up call that tomorrow is not guaranteed,” Ms. Arredondo said. “If you have dreams or ambitions or aspirations, they’re meant to be lived.”