It is with a heavy heart that I publish this Podcast I recorded several months ago. Just three days before I planned to go live with ToSeeTheSea.com, Bethany, Sarah and David’s daughter lost her life after falling from the mast of the superyacht she crewed. I emailed Sarah to get guidance about publishing this Podcast or not. Sarah replied; “Please go ahead – the podcast is a celebration of our life. Bethany listened to the files that you sent and she thought that it was ‘cool’! I would like this to be available at this time to help people understand the context of our choices in more depth.” We’ve got a special connection in that we both have the same design yacht and headed offshore around about the same time – within a year of each other from opposite sides of the world. We too have children of a similar age. The difference is, we stopped for our children to attend school and they kept cruising. This is their story. The transcription of the interview follows:
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LINDSAY: Hi, I’m Lindsay Turvey and today I’m interviewing Sarah. Sarah and her husband David and two children Bethany and Bryn have been cruising aboard their Gitana 43 “Cape” since 2007. We’ve got a special connection in that we both have the same design yacht and headed off shore around about the same time – within a year of each other. The difference is, we stopped for our kids to attend school and they just kept going – and they haven’t stopped since. Stopping off in different places I guess as a base, but they’re still cruising. Now our children are about the same age and they seem to be heading down similar career paths – my son and their daughter are in the Caribbean. So I’m really, really excited about this interview and looking forward to hearing what you’ve got to say Sarah. Welcome to this interview.
SARAH: Hello there.
LINDSAY: Just to help our listeners get a bit of background, I’d like you to cast your mind way back before you started cruising and talk a little bit about what you were thinking when you were kids and had aspirations and all, had friends and I’m going to ask to share with us about what it was like growing up for you and your earliest boating experiences. So, what was it like when you were young and the feelings you had about the sea?
SARAH: My first memory of being in a boat is when I was about four or five years old – going Mackerel fishing while on holiday with my parents. I was very seasick. I remember being teased about feeding the fish with my breakfast. I grew up a long way from the sea, but the holidays always felt more exciting if they were near the sea. As I grew a bit older during my 20’s I had a few holidays on boats, but I didn’t really start sailing until I met David in my early 30’s. Looking back over my life and ideas that had influenced and inspired me, I remember from a young age being fascinated by the idea of being self sufficient and living on an island. And as I grew up my favourite books were ‘The Secret Island” by Enid Blyton – I’m sure lots of people remember that one, and “The Swiss Family Robinson”. For me, I think living on a boat is a relation of the dreams of self sufficiency. It’s the sea as well as the idea of being your own little self sufficient island and those are very strong memories for me.
LINDSAY: Yeah that’s interesting. Fantastic book as well. I think books had a big influence on us when we were younger. I read a whole lot of Tristan Jones books and that sort of got me going – interested in the sea. In your opinion, where do most beginners go wrong? What’s the number one failing point that people do when they want to go to sea and live that sort of lifestyle?
SARAH: It’s a huge question and the answer is different for different people. I think one big failure point is having unrealistic expectations about what long term cruising is. It is definitely not a long term holiday. It takes a lot of organisation and work to actually create a balanced, enjoyable existence. When you actually step aside from the routine structure and support structures of an ordinary life. Our life on Cape as cruisers is much simpler than it was on land, but it’s not easier. It’s different. We don’t have many of the things that most people take for granted. We don’t have a car, we don’t have a washing machine, a tv or air conditioning. We have limited water and we have limited power. So, things like shopping and laundry take a lot longer than they do when you have everything set up at home. You can have luxury items but we found that more complex systems come with a price and complex problems. So we’ve chosen to keep things simple. A lot of the cruisers we’ve met have tried to just recreate an apartment on a boat and so they end up spending a lot of time and money getting those things sorted out when they go wrong. That was one major failing point is this unrealistic idea of what you can create on a boat. Another failure point that I think we’ve seen is when one partner is more committed to the cruising lifestyle than the other one. We’ve met a lot of couples and it’s usually the man who has the dream to go to sea. Not always, but usually. And the other partner goes along with the dream and over time, cruising becomes a nightmare for them. It can be amazing. It isn’t for everyone. It can be also difficult to take kids along because I think finding the right age is difficult. I think once children get to the age of 11 or 12 and they start to form strong relationships with their friends, it’s very hard to take them away from that. It has to work for everybody on the boat, otherwise everybody’s going to be miserable. It’s no use the one person who’s dream it is thinking it’s all wonderful, if the rest of the family are hating it. Those are the two main things I’d say are potential failure points.
LINDSAY: Well that’s really interesting Sarah and I think you’re totally right with what are saying there. Now a lot of people find change hard, especially if they are well entrenched in the system. Working a job and this sort of addiction thing going on with the income that they’ve got form their job and their commitments. What did you have to do to change your situation, to begin the cruising lifestyle?
SARAH: We had to change absolutely everything about our family life. Like everybody else we had a house and dogs and cars and all the stuff you accumulate. So we had to get rid of a house full of furniture and possessions. Sell the house and 2 cars. It was amazing how much stuff we’d collected. Stuff that we weren’t using and we didn’t need. We had to fit everything into a 43” yacht. We don’t have a home base in the UK anymore, or even stuff in storage. Cape is the only home we have, and I know for some people as I was doing this, as we were going through this process of getting rid of everything, a lot of my friends couldn’t just deal with this idea of homelessness. For them it was quite distressing. The next thing we had to do was to plan and buy materials for homeschooling for the next few years. Certainly as we were going through Europe we weren’t going to be able to get English materials. I had to do quite a lot of preparation there and withdraw the kids from school legally and actually start schooling them ourselves. That is a huge responsibility. All of a sudden, you know, they’ve got to be able to add up, they’ve got to be able to read and they’ve got to be able to do all the stuff that ordinary kids can do. It’s a huge responsibility and we had to plan to make that happen before we left. Certainly the first few years. Re-homing the dogs was pretty difficult. That was the hardest bit and we still miss them, but it just wasn’t going to work to take them with us. It was going to be hard and complicated and they were going to hate being shut up on a boat so they had to go unfortunately. Luckily we managed to home them together and they were fine. That was good. We had to set up systems for banking. Other financial affairs and administering mail from overseas. Other thing – was actually preparing family members and friends for the fact that we were going to be going off and we didn’t know how long we were going to be going for. Friends were very supportive. They understood what we were trying to do, that we were trying to do something different Family weren’t so happy about all this. In the end it came down to we had to make them understand that even though they didn’t approve and they didn’t want us to go, we were going to go anyway. The whole process was exhausting but very liberating. It took I guess the actual nitty gritty – a couple of years to actually make the transition from being house based to being on the boat and nearly ready to go.
LINDSAY: You lived on the boat for a couple of years before you went?
SARAH: No. We lived on the boat for 3 months or something like that before we actually left. We were spending more and more time on the boat. We were transferring things over. It’s a big process as you know. A huge thing to actually get rid of the family home with everything in it and fit it into a little boat. It takes time.
LINDSAY: But it’s quite liberating really isn’t it?
SARAH: It’s very liberating, but very daunting when you’re starting out to try and make it happen. Now for us I think one of the things that allowed us to do this – the trigger – was that I had a problem with my eyes. I had detached retinas when I was in my mid 30’s. They were repaired, but we didn’t know how long my vision was going to last. We wanted to go while I could see and we wanted to go with the children. We were very clear on those things. So when we actually left Bethany was 9 and Bryn was 7. But other people leave it until the children are through school and left home and that’s when they go, but for us we had a trigger that we really felt we needed to do it earlier. I think that helped us get organised and make it happen within a relatively short time scale.
LINDSAY: So that’s a huge build up to the point where you actually make the transition and slip the mooring lines for the first time. Can you remember that feeling when you actually slipped the lines and you were on your way?
SARAH: Yes. Vividly. I was relieved. I was apprehensive and I was absolutely terrified about what we were doing. I just flip-flopped between being just so excited to being sure we were going to sail out the harbour and sink. Not only this – I was going to inflict this on my kids as well. It was very, very mixed emotions. But relief – this build up had actually got us somewhere to the point where we had a seaworthy boat and we were going to go. It was fantastic too. One of the things that I had to deal with before we went, apart from the practical – selling the house and sorting the homeschooling, was that I had no real sailing experience. I used to read all the magazines and look at what were the women who were going as the other half. What was their sailing experience. Have they all got lots of qualifications or were they like me and they were going to learn on the way. For me that was a big thing. You know, David knew what he was doing, but I was the major wage earner and we couldn’t afford for me to take time out to go on a sailing course and we lived quite a long way from the boat, so we couldn’t go sailing every weekend. And the weather was bad. I mean, sailing in the UK isn’t always wonderful so my sailing experience was really quite limited before we left. The longest passage I’d done was 18 hours overnight to islands on holiday. We’d done that a couple of times. Apart from spending weekends on the boat and that, I had not got a huge amount of experience. So that added to my absolute terror as well. We were just going to take it one step at a time. Just look at the next port and go, and see how it went. If we didn’t like it we were just going to come back and settle back into ordinary life. So we just got Cape as seaworthy as we could, got all her safety systems in place, set a date and left. We met a lot of people when we were preparing who were always going to do what we were going to do and they’re still – nearly 10 years on, they’re still back in their home port and they’re going to go next year. You have to set a date and go. The boat will never be totally ready. You just have to go and there are Chandleries and Marinas in other places and you can deal with things. As long as the boat is seaworthy, we just decided we had to go.
LINDSAY: You mentioned earlier that when you went out as a kid you got horribly seasick and lost your breakfast and all the rest of it, and you got teased about it. That would’ve had a bit of a psychological affect on you I suppose later in life too – getting teased about seasickness. My question to you is, what do you know about seasickness?
SARAH: I think it’s a very personal thing. In our family alone David doesn’t really get seasick. Both the kids and I do. I don’t always get seasick. It depends on the motion and I know that it will go after a couple of days. I tend to expect it to happen, so I take seasickness tablets before we leave and I avoid going down below except to sleep. For me, sleeping and staying well hydrated helps. I’m seldom actually sick but the whole thing makes me feel very reluctant to move or talk, but I can keep watch. For me, it’s more like a retardation effect. I don’t function very well moving about the boat or talking, but I can keep a watch no problem. The kids used to be very seasick but they’re getting less seasick. Luckily it never seemed to put them off and they’d be sick, they’d turn around and say “Oh, right, I’m hungry now. Can I have something to eat?” Each person is different, each time you go out is different, each boat is different. It’s one of those things…Luckily the teasing and things when I was younger didn’t put me off and I always used to be car sick too – motion sick in a car. The great thing about being on the boat is, maybe like childbirth – you forget about how horrible you felt, and it’s worth going out and dealing with it. That’s my take on it anyway.
LINDSAY: So don’t let it stop you. Yeah, it’s not nice when it’s happening but the rewards far outweigh the lingering memories of seasickness. Is that correct?
SARAH: I think so yeah. You learn what things to eat. You know, if you eat dried potato chips, they don’t taste too bad when they come back up. But if you eat curry it doesn’t taste too good. It’s little things like that. You learn to manage it. Like, I know if I can sleep I can get over it. Yeah, you learn to manage it.
LINDSAY: Yeah, your body adapts. One of the things I’m curious about, and I’ve seen it quite a bit while we were out is a common reason why people have to give up their boating lifestyle and their dreams, goals, is a lack of funds. You’ve got to have money coming in. Not having enough money to maintain the vessel or do the things that you want – it takes a lot of the fun factor out of boating. How do you generate your income so you can keep carrying on like you do?
SARAH: Right, okay. I said that we had to change every aspect of our family life. Well, the one thing we didn’t have to change was my job. I’m a freelance medical writer and I have been for more than 20 years. All that I need to be able to work is a decent internet connection and as I worked from home before, when we moved onto the boat, I just moved onto the boat to work. I did reduce the hours so I wasn’t working full-time because there’s too many other things going on, and I also wanted to be doing the exploring and all the stuff that goes with cruising. I couldn’t work full-time, but I do work part-time. I have an established client base. Most of whom I’ve never met anyway as I always communicated by telephone. So in reality cruising didn’t affect my work at all. My clients were supportive and I’m still working with most of them. I can earn basically enough money for us to live on. I can’t earn enough for us to do major maintenance. The first 5 years we existed purely on my income. Now Cape needs a bit more work doing to her so that we can do some stuff we never got around to doing before we left, and to upgrade a few systems, so David has actually gone back to his former career working at sea. He’s a merchant Navy Officer and he usually works time-on, time-off. He might do a month on, month off. Or 6 weeks on, 6 weeks off. Which means that he can earn and we can still cruise or we can still be working on the boat – whatever, and we still get time together. For us, as a family that is how we earn our income.
LINDSAY: Having that portable income is incredibly value for your day-to-day expenses, and any extra that you need for the maintenance of the boat – the big projects, is what David gets when he goes back to sea as a Merchant Officer.
SARAH: We still run out of money regularly and we have to throttle back and worry about the end of the month coming, but that’s no different to on land sometimes if you get a big bill in. You do have to plan it. I mean, luckily my career was portable. If you can make your career portable, set up as a freelancer in some way, it is something you can take away. Internet access has got better in the last 10 years definitely, so that’s worked for us anyway.
LINDSAY: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Now, you’ve been living aboard your Gitana 43 yacht “Cape” for almost 10 years now, is that correct?
SARAH: Yes that’s…Well, 10 years next April.
LINDSAY: That’s quite a good long time living on a 43” yacht. Now, something must keep you going to want to carry on with that lifestyle. Can you tell us a bit about some of the highlights from your cruising experiences?
SARAH: I think obviously, you’ve moved quite a long way. I think being able to visit countries is amazing, but I think that the highlight of the places that we’ve visited was the Gambia in West Africa. We went more than 100 miles up the river as well. That has to be one of the highlights of the trip so far. We met people who have absolutely nothing and who were genuinely delighted to meet us and so proud of their country. As so few boats go up the River Gambia every year, we were the first white people some of the children had ever met. In the remote villages, to have a child come up to you and rub your skin to see if the white comes up – I mean it was just awe inspiring. You know, they were just so delighted to meet us and we were humbled by how friendly and welcoming everybody was. They had absolutely nothing, but they were just so pleased to see us. There were no beggars. We didn’t ever have any security issues and I’m a bit embarrassed to think how somebody from another country would come to I suspect many of the Westernised countries, and not be treated with half the respect that we were shown when we went to a country where they have nothing. So that was quite an eye opener. We also saw amazing wildlife there. We saw crocodiles, hippopotamus, warthogs, snakes and thousands of birds. It was just so amazing to see that from the river on our boat and they were just all around us. Even people who go to Gambia wouldn’t see those things. We saw them because we were on the river, which was great. So, I guess meeting people has been an amazing part of this journey we’re on. Meeting other cruisers too and locals in the places where we go. You meet some fascinating people. You meet a lot more people when you’re out cruising than you would in an ordinary life where you meet a set number of people in the same situations. That is great for certain things, but it doesn’t give you a broader horizon and an exposure to lots of different ideas, which has been really good. One of the reasons we went and we took the children was to interact with the world’s population if you life. The food and drink in different countries has been fantastic and we joked that we’re not going cruising – we’re eating and drinking our way around the world. So that has been lovely and there is always something new to try and we always do try and try the local food and learn to cook with local ingredients. That’s a big part of our life, is the cuisine and the learning to cook the stuff ourselves. I think the most amazing thing of all though, has been the time that we’ve been able to spent together as a family. Watching the kids grow up and mature into independent, resourceful individuals has been an honour. I don’t think we’d have been able to do that in the same way and kept such a strong family unit in the face of the pressures of an ordinary family life back in the UK. Of all the things, it’s actually something very close to home that’s been amazing. This idea that we know our children so well.
LINDSAY: That’s really good to hear that. We saw a bit of that for the time that we were cruising and it goes on and on. You know, it doesn’t just stop when you come back ashore. Those bonds are really strong. I totally understand what you’re saying there. A lot of the people that are thinking about doing this, are still trying to get their head around what it’s like being at sea and all the rest of it. What are the daily routines like when you’re traveling by sea from place to place? Is it really hard work or is it relaxing? How do you manage the boat? You obviously don’t stop at night? You just keep on going. What sort of routines do you do there?
SARAH: Some parts of it are great. You’ve got all your stuff with you. You’ve got your kitchen, your bathroom, your bed, your gear, and it’s all in a cosy, self-contained apartment. When you’re actually at sea and it’s a routine, we’ve been luckily that we’ve had the four of us and the watch systems have been so we’ve got plenty of sleep. You deal with the weather. Sometimes it’s comfortable. Sometimes it’s not. There’s nothing quite as scary as setting off every time and there’s nothing as amazing as you know, knowing that you’re going to get there and you’re going to be able to get off and have a cold beer and a decent shower. It’s great. That’s why we like doing it. There are highlights and there are lowlights, but together the package is pretty good. However, we probably don’t sail as much as most people think we do. We sail to get to places. We spend a lot of time not moving as well. We’re either at anchor or on a dock. We have done long passages. Our Atlantic crossing was 26 days. On the whole however, we prefer to stop when we get there and get to know a place for a week, or a month, or even a year. I mean, we’ve come to Trinidad now for 4 years on the trot and we’re treated like local. You know, this is the place for us at the moment which is a home base. Some years we travel more than others and some years we stay still. Sometimes it’s because we can’t afford to move somewhere and go exploring and we tend to stay home and earn a bit more money and then set off again. There’s a lot of factors as to how much we travel. When we were in the Mediterranean we stopped for 6 months over each winter as the weather really wasn’t good enough for safe sailing. Yes, it’s lovely in the summer but it’s very stormy and cold in the winter. In the Caribbean we had to stay below the hurricane belt for 6 months of the year – from June to November. Then we’ve taken the advantage of those periods to tie in with a British school here for the children to do distance learning and to sit some exams. For us that’s worked quite well. Bethany’s now 18 and has already left home, and Bryn is 17 and is going to be gone probably in the next year or so. When it’s just David and me, I guess the way we cruise will be different again. We know other cruisers, including families who’ve just kept going and have done circumnavigations in 5 years or even less. I don’t think we’re ever going to travel that quickly. It can be different for different people and for different phases of a family life as to how much we travel. In terms of boat maintenance, boat repair and maintenance is a big and expensive part of cruising. We meet people with old boats, we meet people with new boats and everybody ends up spending money on their boats. There’s something going wrong all the time, and it’s not always so easy to get things sorted when you’re away from your home port and the home country. You can end up paying a lot of money for boat parts and if you can’t get them, you have to spend a lot of money shipping them in. You learn foreign words and phrases that no normal individual needs to know. You learn to draw pictures and mime in hardware stores and backstreet engineering workshops. You learn that other cultures have different concepts of time. You learn to be patient and you learn to go with the flow and let things happen. You can’t force it. You have to let it unfold a lot of the time. You also can’t do anything about the weather. You just have to grin and bear it and realise that you can’t control it. You have to change your plans. You realise that the weather will dictate when you sail and even if you’ve got a good forecast, it doesn’t mean that that’s what is going to happen. So, you learn to just as a I say, go with the flow and you learn that you’re in a very small boat on a big ocean. Hopefully you don’t get the bad weather and the technical hitches at the same time. That is my biggest fear, is being out in weather and having technical issues with the boat. You go through a lot of issues – technical issues. Having been out 10 years, we’ve spent a lot of time repairing the boat basically.
LINDSAY: It doesn’t matter whether it’s a new boat or an old boat, they all need maintenance. Is that what you’re saying?
SARAH: Yes, basically. New boats get problems just like old boats. Complicated systems go wrong and simple systems. You just have to learn to be flexible and prepared to get on and get it sorted, and realise that it will take time.
LINDSAY: That’s awesome. Thank you very much so far. I’ve got a few more things. I’m really hoping there’ll be a lot of people that listen to this in the future. I was just wondering whether there’s anything more that you can offer them, to help them get started, gain momentum and realise their hopes and dreams of living on the sea. Is there anything that you could say to them to start that journey?
SARAH: I think as with any big project, is planning. We weren’t terribly good at the planning bit. Luckily, my income coming from freelance writing was being something I could take with us. That is what has allowed us to keep going. I’d say, if you can find a way of earning and set it up before you leave, preferably years before you leave – at least a couple of years – but it’s established. That would be a huge bonus to be xxxxxx to go. It might be have, I don’t know, 3 rental homes that always give you regular income, or some kind of freelance work. Whatever it is, that it’s established before you go. Because if it doesn’t work to give you an income before you go, it won’t work giving you an income when you leave. The other thing I’d say is don’t wait until you’ve got the perfect boat, oodles of experience and everything totally sorted. Just due to common sense, go and you’ll figure it out on the way. If you’ve got your income sorted, the other things you will be able to deal with. I guess. I’m hoping. That’s what we felt anyway and it worked for us.
LINDSAY: Hindsight’s a wonderful thing. If you had your time over again, what’s the one big thing that you’d do different?
SARAH: Yeah, we left with quite a bit of debt. It would have been nice not to have left with that, and it took us quite a long time to pay that off because we weren’t really still earning at our full capacity. It wasn’t a big enough reason not to go. We left anyway, and took the debt with us.
LINDSAY: Sarah, I can’t thank you enough for sharing with us some of the more personal aspects of your life and the wisdom and knowledge that you’ve gained by getting out there and actually doing it. You’ve no doubt inspired those adventurous souls out there who want to take the next step and I really enjoyed our chat. Looking forward to working out what more we can do to help people start to live a life on the sea. Thank you very much for your time. If you want to learn more about the adventures of life aboard Sarah and David’s Gitana 43 “Cape”, you can follow their blog.
SARAH: blog.mailasail.com/cape – but if you search for Sarah, David, Cape – I think it comes up anyway. It’s not very up-to-date I’m afraid. We’re very busy and I haven’t been very good at keeping it up. It’s also an old fashioned sort of blog that puts pins in the map, so it’s not a very sophisticated WordPress thingy. It’s a map with pins in it and entries. Some of those are positions. So it’s a bit hard to work through, but you can see us going up the river in Gambia and how the children have gone from these cute little things to these grown ups. So far it’s been great and I hope we keep going. It’s been lovely to chat about it all. I hope it has inspired some people to get out there and get cruising.
LINDSAY: I can’t thank you enough. I’ve really enjoyed listening to your story because it’s sort of a path we could’ve taken, but we chose the other path at the fork in the road. We’ve still got Blue Herron – our Gitana 43. Who knows where we’ll be heading once the kids have left home and once we’ve sorted out a couple of other things. The one thing that we did get wrong was we didn’t have any portable income. Hopefully that’ll all change in the future. That’s something I’ve been working on.
SARAH: I’m sure it will. I’m sure you’re going to get back out there and do some cruising. It’ll be different again for you guys too. It’ll be interesting to see what your experience is when you get out there again. How that differs from with the children.
LINDSAY: Thank you very much Sarah, it’s been awesome chatting with you. Good luck with your future cruising.
SARAH: Thank you. Thanks. It’s been great to chat.
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