Last month, a couple with two young children were rescued from their yacht in the Pacific. Their youngest daughter had become very sick and they had problems with their boat. The rescue services from the west coast of America came to their assistance, airlifting the family to land so that the daughter could receive medical treatment, and sinking the yacht that had become the family’s home. The reception the story received was horrendous. People were suggesting the children should be taken by the social services because of their neglect by their parents who decided to travel with them on a yacht, for example. Their blog on which they were recording their sailing adventure was attacked with hate mail, and people were making the most atrocious assumptions.
Someone did write a response to these criticisms from the perspective of a boat parent. I unfortunately cannot find it now. My sister and I also wrote a response to give another unheard perspective to the debate – the boat kid. We sent it into to various newspapers but of course it wasn’t picked up so I thought I’d at least give it some internet space on here. I think it’s important to question the assumptions of a ‘normal childhood’ that so many people have.
“We feel it is important to share our side of the story – we were boat kids. We were those children, referred to in some of the comments, who “did not have a choice to be stuck with those dumbass parents” or who had parents who should be “banged up for child endangerment”. From our first-hand experience, those statements could not be further from the truth. Rather we class ourselves as some of the luckiest kids in the world.
We were 9 and 10 when we set sail from Wales on a 35ft yacht we’d named Celtic Wave. ‘Celi’ was to become not just known fondly as home, but as something we trusted and relied upon. The plan was to do a circumnavigation in about 2 years; the length of time our parents thought it was suitable for us to be away from school and from our elderly grandparents. They had dreamt of this adventure for a long time and one day decided that they didn’t want to be those people who talked about doing things, but rather those people who did the things they dreamed of. We admire and respect them for that, and thank them for not letting us kids stop them from doing so.
The ocean is one of the most dangerous elements in Mother Nature’s repertoire, and it seems people often don’t realise that no-one knows this better than a sailor. When your home and your family are are mercy to the sea you have to respect, admire, and most importantly make the utmost effort to understand everything about it. Our parents learnt how to sail before we set off. They got the qualifications they needed and got themselves to a level in which they felt confident they could keep us safe and respect Mother Nature’s ways. In addition to their more formal qualifications (day skipper, radio controls etc.) Dad was a hang glider pilot so had plenty of experience with the weather, and Mum crewed on the winning yacht of the Teacher’s Round Britain Race in 1995. They may not have been seasoned sailors but by the time we left, we were in safe hands.
We spent two years sailing from the UK to the Galapagos (yes, including the Atlantic Ocean). We never did make it all the way around. The Caribbean was too lovely and to push on and circumnavigate in two years meant almost constant sailing to the loss of the experiences gained from exploring each new country we passed. We homeschooled… to some extent. The intention was there but kids being kids, we put our feet down most of the time and went to play with our friends – other kids we’d met from Brazil, Spain, Trinidad, Venezuela, both locals and other yachties. We helped our parents navigate and sail, and by the time the trip ended we could easily have sailed the boat ourselves. We read – oh, we read. At the age of 11 we were reading and eating-up our parents’ books. We were meeting people from all over the world who would tell us stories about life in their countries and teach us their languages. We were learning about nature, both the good bits and the bad bits. We became avid conservationists, making sure we picked up every plastic bag that floated past us before a turtle could swallow it and die. We went to old leper colonies in Trinidad, saw some of the last condors (the world’s largest flying birds) in the Andes, helped a mother turtle get back to the sea after laying her eggs in St Lucia where she would have otherwise have been lead astray by the lights of the hotel complexes being built along the shoreline (cue development, corporation, business education). We stayed with local families of island tribes whose kids we’d played with for weeks exploring their world and moving around in dugout canoes. We learnt to cook, fix engines, sew. We swam and dove. We collected fruit. Catching fish for dinner we learnt about life and death, and more generally the precious cycle of life, not to waste, and to appreciate. We learnt about the stars. We learnt about our parents. We learnt about ourselves.
Coming back to the UK was of course a culture shock. We’d missed out on two years of ‘normal’ life. We didn’t know who one boy band was from the other. We didn’t know what clothes were fashionable, how to wear our hair, how to act around the opposite sex (because of course you can’t just be mates with them!). But we quickly learnt and settled back in. We went back to school in the top set of every subject, and stayed there. We are not exceptionally intelligent kids but the education we had gained from living a raw existence out in the world provided us with something much better than academic intelligence. While our classmates were going to school almost every day for two years, we were experiencing and exploring the world, and it did nothing but set us up for life.
We are both now in our late 20s. We both have degrees. One of us works successfully in marketing in London. The other is doing a PhD in sustainable development. We have both travelled, volunteered, and had great experiences we can thank boat life for. And we still sail. We are closer than ever to our parents and continually thankful. Even now being older and able to appreciate the challenges and dangers of taking your family sailing, our parents were never dumbasses or endangered us. They showed us the world, and one day we hope to do the same for our kids”.
Various articles* about the Kaufman couple (if you’re interested, just look at the comments below each one):
Guardian article – “Family of baby girl rescued by US navy warship defend decision to sail”
CNN article – “Family rescued at sea defends decision to sail with children”
Daily Mail article – “Family rescued hundreds of miles off the coast of Mexico after their 1-year-old daughter fell ill urge people not to rush to judgment about the decision to bring babies on dangerous sailing trips”
Los Angeles Times article – “After sea rescue, Kaufmans defend taking children on sailing voyage”
New York Times article – “2 tots, a Sailboat and a Storm Over Parenting”
*some of these were published after we wrote this.