When the pandemic hit the world, it was difficult to imagine there would be people actually stranded in the middle of nowhere without any options. While many superyachts were headed towards island escapes like the Maldives and the South Pacific, almost 100 families were on board their sailing vessels in the midst of circumnavigating the globe.
Several destinations have relaxed entries but with strict protocols, like Fiji that just announced a Blue Lane Initiative for yachts, with 72 vessels, including six superyachts, having recently arrived into Port Denarau Marina. Many more yachts are currently stuck in limbo throughout the South Pacific as cyclone season approaches in November, most barred from returning to New Zealand because of COVID-19 restrictions. The usual safe havens are now closed and only considering boats for humanitarian reasons, but cyclone refuge does not apply.
I reached out to several of the sailing families, many with small children, to see how their experience has been sailing the world and how they are adapting to the pandemic, homeschooling, and the possibility of being stranded in a foreign country. Most of these families are documenting their adventures via YouTube, where you can follow along.
THE EXPEDITION FAMILY (Chapman Family)
Aboard the 47 foot S/V SIREN sloop is the Chapman family; Trevor (36), Caci (35), Jace (13), Cali Sephora (10), Kensington Dior (8), Crew (5) and Chanel (3).
“We spent two months in the Channel Islands of Southern California as a result of COVID related sea-travel restrictions. The very week that restrictions lifted in Mexico, we sailed south into the Sea of Cortez (during hurricane season — we worked with a professional racing weather company to help us dodge the hurricane systems on the way down).
We will sail further south along Central America in the winter, visiting the blue holes and the jungles on the way down to the Galapagos. From there, we sail west into the South Pacific. We will island hop as our ancient Polynesian argonauts did. The atolls and islands harbor life that is unique only to those places. Nuclear testing, warming climates, rising waters, and plastic oceans are bleaching the coral and killing the life. We want our kids to experience the beauty before it disappears and bring awareness to these last remote areas. We believe that when awareness occurs, change can happen. We hope to do our small part to save the planet. As they say, its not our trash but it is our home.
As we approach the MOST remote land masses on earth — the Pitcairn Islands — we will anchor our sailboat on its shores then visit earth’s most remote island, which is ironically the most plastic dense landmass on earth. This island therefore is both an ominous warning and ray of hope. From there we continue to the Philippines, then Indonesia, and towards the highest trafficked sea route on earth — the Malacca straits.
Our sailing expedition will continue around Africa and then north into the Mediterranean — where western seafaring started. As we spend a season in the Med, we will visit some of the most important ancient locations responsible for Western civilization on earth. As the storm season approaches, we head north and round the Atlantic as our Scandinavian predecessors did.
Rounding back around and down to the Caribbean for beautiful blue and finally through the Panama Canal, back to the Sea of Cortez and up to California, we will have completed a ten year journey where we filmed, explored, documented, lived, and shared the last places of wild on planet earth.”
“It really messed up our route. We wanted to sail to the Sea of Cortez in April, when it was safe to go weather wise. If we were to sail there, we would be quarantined to our boat, unable to even go to shore in some ports. In other ports, we would be under military watch to ensure we didn’t even enter the water, and would have to hire locals to go grocery shopping and then bring the groceries to the boat because we could not leave it. Due to this, we had to stay in Southern California and missed the window to go to Mexico. When the beaches of La Paz opened up, although it was hurricane season, we immediately sailed down.
To make it safely during the hurricane season, we had to employ a sailboat racing company, Commanders Weather, to watch the weather and create a weather window for us to safely sail down. We had to hide out in Turtle Bay, halfway down the Pacific Coast of Baja Hurricane for five days as Genevieve swirled below us. Once she blew out, we quickly sailed to Cabo then up into the Sea of Cortez as fast as we could to not be affected by Hurricane Julio. The hurricanes really limited what we could see because we had to sail as fast as we could to safety.
COVID-19 has inhibited the places we can sail, with many countries in the Pacific still closed to sailors. When we sail to some places, we will be forced to do a two week quarantine and then have a health inspection, having the COVID swabs in our noses before we can freely explore.”
“We employ both the Lumos and Argo Prep curriculums for math and english and then Caci has created her own curriculum for science, history, and art. She teaches the children the history of the places we are anchored or where we are sailing to. We study the ocean and the effects of climate change on the ocean life, etc. We want schooling to be about the things they are experiencing. While we are in La Paz we are learning about whale sharks, blue whales, sea lions, and other life that is found here in La Paz. We are studying the important artists from Mexico and their influence to both Mexico and the world.
It is definitely harder than sending them off to school each morning, but we are loving having control over what they learn and tailoring their schooling to things that are important to their lives right now. When they were in public school, it seemed we spent a lot of our time helping them unlearn the things they learned at school— the types of things that reduced their self confidence or caused them to think that their shoes or how many TikTok followers was the most important things in life.”
SAILING SV DELOS (Trautman Family)
Aboard the 53 foot S/V Delos sailboat is the Trautman Family; Brian (44), Karin, Sierra (12 months), and a rotating crew.
After 11 years at sea, the Delos crew have sailed 75,000 nautical miles and visited 45 countries. They have almost completed their circumnavigation, and the only thing left is reaching the west coast of USA where it all begun 11 years ago. They have sailed with over 50 other crew members, however now they have the most precious crew member of all, their one year old daughter Sierra.
Until last month, Sierra had never seen another child. She had spent the majority of her short life anchored off an uninhabited island in the Bahamas.
“Due to the virus, we have had very little contact with other ‘kid boats’ as they are commonly known out here. That meant that we were solely responsible for the entertainment and socialization of our daughter. Luckily, at only one year old, she loves nothing more than being with her parents each and every day.
Now that we are back in the US, we have met other children aboard and Sierra has had her first play date. However we spend most of our time socially distancing, hiking the beautiful trails of Maine. As sailors, socially distancing is not foreign to us, I guess you can say we’ve been doing it for the last ten years.”
“As our daughter is still young, we are just concentrating on showing her the wonders of nature, and we’re following her lead. I’m sure that’s the approach we will continue to take for some time.”
SAILING TOTEM (Gifford Family)
Aboard the 47′ sloop TOTEM is the Gifford Family; Jamie (54), Behan (50), son Niall (21, now ashore attending college), daughters Mairen (18) and Siobhan (16).
“We departed Puget Sound in the summer of 2008 with our children aged 4, 6 and 9 aboard. At the time, we intended to take a 2 to 5 year sabbatical. 13 years later, we’re still voyaging! Initially we went south to Mexico, and were there over a year in Mexico before sailing to the South Pacific. Two years in, our money was running out because we hadn’t been able to sell our house in the real estate crash; I interviewed via Skype from Tahiti and found a job in Australia. We sailed the other 2/3 of the way across the Pacific to “Oz” and I worked there for about a year and a half; we departed Australia in 2012 and continued a slow, westward circumnavigation.
Our route carried us first up to Papua New Guinea, a place that captured our hearts; we sailed through Southeast Asia for a couple of years; took a northern route across the Indian Ocean until reaching Africa, then went down around South Africa instead of tempting pirates on the Red Sea route; we came up the Atlantic from South Africa to New England in the first six months of 2016. After US east coast and Caribbean cruising, in 2018 we transited the Panama Canal and headed north, crossing our outbound track to mark a closed-loop circumnavigation in April 2018. A few months later, our son left for college.
Circumnavigation was never a goal until it was clear that we needed to get it done before he departed, because otherwise we might not have accomplished it as a family; this was acceptable to no one. Since then we’ve been sailing the Pacific side of Mexico, and had intended to depart for the South Pacific again this April before COVID changed plans.
Working in Australia was a major inflection point. Our kids realized that “normal school” paled in comparison to their lives as boat kids. This is huge: otherwise, they’d likely have determined as teens that they must be missing out and wanted to return for high school. That, and finances, were the major bounds on our maximum estimate at a five year voyaging life.
Jamie and I realized we weren’t comfortable being part of mainstream priorities any longer, and my old dream job – which I stepped into in Sydney – wasn’t fun any more. With thin savings, we determined we needed to find ways to support ourselves financially while remaining nomadic voyagers; we aren’t living on any deep savings or inheritance.
We’ve grown several trickle streams of income and while we are “low income” by US standards (not to mention, my biz school classmates and former management consulting colleagues, or Jamie’s fellow entrepreneurs in Seattle) – we feel wealthy beyond measure for the time we have been able to spend as a family, exploring the world. I will never again choose money over living well, or confuse one for the other.”
“We are coping quite well: it turns out that the way we’ve been living does an excellent job of preparing us for living in dramatically different world circumstances.
In the beginning of March, when the COVID scale was unclear, we provisioned the boat with six months of food staples. We would have done this for sailing to the South Pacific (as we intended in April), or for protecting ourselves should COVID interrupt supply chains / distribution. By mid-March, it was clear that we should not go to the South Pacific; even before French Polynesia’s border closed, there was too much unknown to do it safely (for us, for the islanders we’d meet, for the uncertain future).
With the ability to be quite self-sufficient aboard, in April we sailed from our winter base near Puerto Vallarta up into the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California). This was important for safety during the looming hurricane season, but also offered remote and uninhabited islands where we could isolate ourselves.
We have remained in the Sea of Cortez as COVID played out, prioritizing staying in range of communities for communication and supplies. There aren’t a lot of cell towers in Baja! And the town of 18,000 is among the larger communities in the peninsula; we were able to get weekly deliveries from a farmer, and make contacts on shore to help us with other shoreside-supply-needs at times when those were not possible (only locals allowed) or not desirable (we are very wary of covid risk in Mexico).
We’ve kept company with a group of four other “bubble” boats – other families making similar choices. The socializing with them has been good for mental health! This way of life is the ultimate pandemic prep. It’s made coping much easier for us.”
Looking ahead it seems unlikely that the South Pacific is an option for 2021. Although some destinations are open (French Polynesia and Fiji), there are no safe harbors for hurricane season. To set off to the west (and south) is one challenge; to return to North America against all prevailing conditions is another, and one we are not interested in undertaking. So… it seems likely we will remain in Mexico until there is some mix of health intelligence/management (vaccine?!) that makes it possible for these vulnerable island nations to re-open to one degree or another for arrivals by boat.”
“We’ve done this since 2008, so it’s no big deal, except that it’s always a big deal in the sense that doing it well it is a strong factor for the future self-determination (and thus happiness) of our children… the goal of every parent. Homeschooling is going pretty well; our daughters have had less of our time lately, as our work coaching people on how to go cruising has truly exploded (a silver lining to COVID; our escape pod looks good to many). But self-direction is a fundamental skill that our life has set them up to realize.
We don’t follow a single source for curriculum. That is, we pull material from different sources vs having an overseeing program or correspondence school. Looking up at the whiteboard in our main cabin, it lists current subjects: math, economics, dystopian literature (so many things to talk about lately!), a social studies course in social justice (again, playing from current events), Spanish language, and SAT vocabulary work.
While this looks fairly conventional, our goal is to have this largely directed by the interests of our kids: what do they want to learn? What piques their intellectual curiosity? Then, how can we help supply materials and support learning? At the end of the day, their transcript they need for college applications looks both similar (broken out by year and subject) to that of their mainstream peers, while being a very very different kind of learning (if you asked them what grade they are in, they’d probably think about what answer you wanted to hear before replying; in everyday learning, we dont’ find that particularly relevant).”
SAILING ZATARA (Whitaker Family)
Aboard the 59 foot Privilege 585 catamaran named ZATARA is; Keith Whitaker (50), Renee (46), Anna (19), Jack (17), Finn (14), Kate (13).
“In summer of 2016, we sold our home in our quiet suburban Texas neighborhood, said goodbye to friends and family, liquidated most of our assets, and bought a sailboat to circumnavigate the globe. The kids were really excited about that in the beginning and then 90 days later we were thinking what did we do?
Without any prior sailing knowledge, we sailed all the way to Australia the first season on a monohull, and by the time we got to the Panama Canal we decided we wanted a catamaran. We bought this boat in Greece and sailed back across the Atlantic and now cross the Pacific. If COVID hadn’t hit we were planning on going from New Zealand to Tonga, then to New Caledonia, the Solomons, Papua New Guinea and then Australia for cyclone season.
We are currently in Fiji where they opened their borders up and started a program called the Blue Lanes Initiative for yachts as long as you are willing to go through their 14 day quarantine which includes the sea travel time to get there. But the problem with us staying here is we don’t have insurance here in Fiji during cyclone season in November.
New Zealand and Australia have closed their borders so we are enjoying Fiji until we can. COVID in Fiji is like it doesn’t even exist. Nobody has masks on and there are not mandatory rules. They have been treating us really well in Fiji and of course their economy is so depressed now because of tourism and they are excited to have the business. Eventually we will make it back around to the Bahamas over the next three years.
“In February, we had just gotten finished with the Miami International Boat Show, and we drove to Texas. We just heard that China had some virus that we’re all glad it’s just in China, you know? And so we flew from Texas to L.A. and then to New Zealand. And as soon as we got to New Zealand, the whole world had shut down. The virus was back in the States and we had just gotten our boat into the water. Within a couple of days of being in New Zealand, we were on lockdown.
Since COVID hit, we have not been able to explore the South Pacific this year like we’d planned. We have to take it one month at a time as countries slowly open their borders to cruisers and tourists. However, since we have been living in such a confined space with limited resources for so long, the pandemic has not really affected us personally; except to prevent us from traveling where we want. Our regular lives of homeschooling, remote island exploration, and quiet moments on the boat have enabled us to basically avoid the pandemic adjustments and chaos that exists in most parts of the world right now.
As far as where we are going next, I’m going to put out feelers to Micronesia, the Royal Marshall Islands, the Solomon Islands, all of those places are out of cyclone season for the South Pacific.”
“I love homeschooling! We have mostly offline curriculum, in addition to books and other references on the boat,” says Renee. “School takes us about an hour or two per day; the rest of the day is filled with boat work, chores, swimming or snorkeling, wakeboarding or kiteboarding, quiet walks on the beach, family movies and meals together, and often enjoying time with other boat families. I have two more school-aged kids (Finn and Kate), so they’re stuck with us for several more years. But Jack has “graduated,” and unlike Anna, he does not want to go to college, so he is staying on the boat until a different opportunity presents itself to him. Anna has just started her freshmen year of college in Texas and is really enjoying the stability and social opportunities that land life gives her.
Boat life is not for everyone, but it’s enabled us to provide our kids with an alternative lifestyle and a different worldview than they would get by living in the city and going to school. After they’re done with home school / High School, they are free to take whatever path they choose. As long as they can afford it!”
SAIL FOR GOOD (Meretniemi Family)
Aboard the Swan 57 sloop S/V PANACEA is the Helsinki, Finland family of Tuomo Meretniemi (49), Riikka (47) and children Aarre (12), Kerttu (9), Martta (7).
“We have been sailing for over four years now as we started our voyage in Mediterranean in June 2016. After crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 2017 we spent 10 months in Caribbean, Colombia and Panama. Crossing the Pacific ocean took two years since we decided to stay an extra year in French Polynesia. Best decision ever! The most memorable place we visited was Penrhyn (Tongareva) atoll in Cook Islands. It´s really in the middle of nowhere and the people are far beyond friendly.”
“We were so lucky to be in New Zealand when COVID-19 hit the world. We feel very safe here, but of course our sailing plans have changed due to the border closures. As it is not possible to continue free cruising as we know it, we have decided to pause our adventure for a while and fly back home. Panacea will be waiting for our return whenever that time will arrive.”
“Schooling three children on a boat can be chaotic at times. All in all we are very happy with our decision to boatschool our children while we travel. Academically they are well ahead of their peers and they have learned so much extra about cultures, people, history, nature and geography. Now there will be quite a culture shock as they will be attending normal school in Finland.”