July 20, 2012 at 8:25 AM ET
Picture a sailing vacation: swimming in tropical waters, lazy days exploring palm-tree-lined islands, eating mangoes and watching sunsets.
Sounds nice, right?
What if it were not for a week or two, but a year or two … or five? On a boat where your sailing companions are less than 40 feet away, always? Where 80-mile-an-hour winds can make you reconsider your plan? Where at times you must stay awake for 32 hours on a long stretch of open ocean? Where your boat engine breaks down, and a fellow sailor happens to have the needed part and is happy to help you install it? Where the biggest question of the day is do you snorkel, tidy the boat or explore a beautiful island?
Now try doing it with kids.
A handful of brave — and lucky — families live this way. They home-school their kids, believing the world’s ports and people are the ideal classroom. They spend days, sometimes weeks, at sea without contact with anyone else. They rely on a tight-knit, global community of fellow sailors. They wake up in a different marina daily or weekly, snug in their cozy floating homes, wondering what the day will bring.
Two families — the Doolittles of the Bay Area and the Maddoxes of Anacortes, Wash. — harbored long-held dreams of epic sailing trips with their families. Not independently wealthy, they waited for the opportunity when money and timing lined up.
For the Doolittles, it was realizing the boys were at an ideal age: “Not so young that they wouldn’t remember and appreciate it, and yet not so old they could do anything about it.” For the Maddoxes, it was when Glenn was laid off, with a hefty Christmas bonus.
They went for it. And didn’t look back, despite storms that battered their boats, money worries and (at least initially) disapproval from extended family questioning the safety of taking young kids out to sea.
Ben and Molly Doolittle, along with boys Mickey, now 10, and J.P., 8, sold their house last September, bought a used 38-foot Catalina, and two weeks later, sailed out of San Francisco Bay. They are midway through a two-year adventure through Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. Currently, they’re back in the Bay Area, taking a short break from the hot, humid El Salvador summer, and earning a little more money from their medical insurance business, which they run remotely on the boat.
Next month, they plan to resume the trip, sailing from El Salvador to Costa Rica by Thanksgiving, Panama by Christmas, then onto the San Blas Islands, the Caribbean side of Panama, Belize by Easter, then Key West and home by fall 2013 for Mickey to start sixth grade.
While he’s enjoying the break, Mickey said he’s excited to return to the boat where it’s “quiet and you wake up to dolphin pods and sea turtles and whales.” It can get lonely, he said, but he and J.P. scope out the “kid boats” at each harbor in search of friends. In addition to being home-schooled by mom Molly, who used to be a fourth-grade teacher, the boys jot down trip notes and observations in their own blog. Molly Doolittle also keeps one for the family.
Molly Doolittle said her favorite part of sailing is being part of such a tight community of sailors who rely on one another.
“If someone needs help, there’s no hesitation – you just jump in,” she said. “It’s like a throw-back to when people really helped each other out.”
Ben Doolittle, who sailed solo for two years before he met Molly, said he always intended to do a big sailing trip with his family, a pact they made before marriage.
"I’m a dad with two kids and a wife, and Molly is mostly at home with the boys," he said. "So my option is living in the U.S. and working all day and having a house, or taking advantage of this opportunity to sail with my family."
"You wake up when your body says to, you make coffee and you say, 'What do I want to do today? Is it boat tasks? See local culture or volcanoes and rainforests? Snorkel?'"
Ben Doolittle said for him, the sailing is secondary to the travel.
“In my mind there is no better way to see the world,” he said. “You have your home, your books and your computer, but every morning you open your door in a new place.”
A year-and-a-half ago, Glenn and Pam Maddox completed an epic, five-year sailing adventure with their two young girls, who were just 2 and 4 when they set out. In five years, they covered roughly 40,000 nautical miles in their new Catalina 440. Only the adoption of another child, a medically fragile boy named Bryan Tian, from China where they sailed to and volunteered, could alter their dream to sail completely around the world.
In the spring of 2006, Glenn and Pam, along with daughters Linzi, now 10, and MeiLing, 8, sailed from Tampa, Fla., to Nova Scotia, then down the U.S. coast to Savannah, Ga., then to the Turks and Caicos Islands. From there, they spent almost a year in the Caribbean going as far south as Guayana, then turned around and sailed to Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and through the Panama Canal.
From Panama, they sailed to the Galapagos Islands and Easter Island and back to Chile where their scariest disaster awaited: a six-day storm with winds gusting to 80 mph that battered their boat against the rocks. It took nine months — and much of their savings – to fix it. Once deemed sail-worthy, the boat headed to Easter Island and the South Pacific, hitting Pitcairn Island, the Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and on to China where they volunteered for three months at the same orphanage the girls came from.
That’s where they met their newest arrival, Bryan Tian. The Chinese government would not allow the Maddoxes to adopt him, however, until they had an income and a residence. That ended the around-the-world dream, but started a new chapter in their lives. They headed for home, sailing from Hong Kong to Taiwan, Japan and the Aleutian Islands, the Bering Sea and then down the coast of southeast Alaska, ending in Anacortes in the fall of 2010. Pam got a job, they moved into an apartment and waited for Bryan Tian to arrive, which happened about three months ago.
Glenn Maddox said the original intent of the trip was to be close to and really get to know their adopted daughters.
“But Linzi and Mei-Mei took us on a trip,” he said. “We got to see the world through their eyes and it was amazing to see how well-received they were in all these remote places — like rock stars. The girls made this trip unbelievably unique. We got to live in their wake.”
Now a stay-at-home dad, Glenn doesn’t know what the future holds. Bryan has at least one more surgery, and the girls have mostly adjusted to school. They recently sold their beloved boat, “ending an era,” he said, “But Linzi needed braces and Bryan has had $25,000 in surgeries. This is an important time not to be sailing because he has needed so much medical help. But it was pretty sad to say our trip is absolutely done.”
More common than families on long sea journeys are empty-nesters and retirees. Virginia and Robert Gleser of Modesto, Calif., spend half of each year sailing to and around Mexico, often hosting their eight kids and six grandkids for visits on their boat named Harmony. Virginia wrote a new book focused on maintaining healthy relationships amid the occasional stresses of bad weather and boat breakdowns, and the ever-present tight quarters.
Next month, she starts a book tour of "Harmony on the High Seas, When Your Mate Becomes Your Matey," starting with the Oregon Women’s Sailing Association in Portland, Ore., on Aug. 8.
Virginia says keys to happiness and success together on the water are appreciation, gratitude, forgiveness and celebration. And one more biggie: “Communication is the No. 1 relationship tool whether on land or sea. But in a boat’s small space, if you fail to communicate what you need and what you are feeling, emotions and tensions can build to uncomfortable levels,” she said.
After the book tour, the Glesers plan to head back down to Mexico for six months on Harmony, enjoying warm waters, the camaraderie of other sailors and their grandchildrens’ visits.
“We will remain in Mexico at least for now, but maybe when the grandchildren grow a little older they can come with us farther afield, maybe to the South Pacific or the Caribbean,” Virginia said. “Who knows? Our plans are made in sand at low tide.”
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