Filling in Time

With diapers to wash and bedtime stories to read, novels and boat projects may get neglected, and that’s OK.


The author takes advantage of a sunny day to dry some of the constant laundry. Ben Zartman

One of my fondest memories of cruising—one of several that sustained me during the six long years of living landlocked while between boats—was that of having time, as it were, to burn. When my wife, Danielle, and I cruised in the Caribbean on Capella, a 27-foot Irwin sloop, there weren’t enough activities to fill a whole day, not to mention the day after and the day after that. We were always casting about for things to do. Even with acres of varnished brightwork to keep tidy, I read Bowditch cover to cover, digested Tolstoy’s War and Peace, learned celestial navigation, and still had time to play endless games of cards and Scrabble in between devouring every novel we could lay our hands on in marina book exchanges.

It was different living on land: a full-time job, children being born, doctors to visit, groceries to buy, boats to build. Whenever it became too much, I’d remember all the leisure of cruising, look longingly at all the untouched books gathering dust on their shelves, then, with leisure as my promised land, set to work again, earning money, spending it on fiberglass, and grinding a good bit of that away into itchy dust.

But every night is followed by a dawn, and here we are cruising again at last, five of us now. Antigone, whose arrival cut short our last cruise, is now almost 6, Emily is 3, and Damaris just fetched the 10-month milestone. Still, things aren’t like they were before. For one, Danielle and I haven’t played a single game of Scrabble. For another, I haven’t managed to get through even one book—at least not one of mine. I’ve read Green Eggs and Ham a dozen or so times, The Cat in the Hat more times than I can count, and from the look of things, I’ll be reading them every day as far into the future as I can see. Meanwhile, my volume of really interesting grown-up stuff sits idle for so long that it keeps getting lost under heaps of cut-out construction paper or scratchy drawings that must be explained to be understood. Still, many fathers don’t get the time to read The House at Pooh Corner to their children even once, to say nothing of eight or nine times. No, let the grown-up books rot; I’ll happily read about Piglet and the heffalump until I can recite it from memory, and I’ll love every minute of it.


But it doesn’t stop at reading; that’s only the best part. There follows, of course, all the tidying up. Boats have always seemed to me difficult to keep clean. Too many nooks and crannies, not enough shelf space: It took great discipline to keep Capella tolerably neat before we even had a single child. It’s perhaps needless to say that we haven’t a prayer of keeping Ganymede tidy. We do what we can to keep things from getting out of control, and so far it’s a full-time job and a half. In order that no part gets left out of regular cleaning, we’ve established a chore schedule: Monday is galley day; Tuesday, settee and bunks; Wednesday, the girls’ cabin; and so forth. It matters not if by Wednesday night the girls’ cabin looks like a tornado went through; we know that for a brief shining moment in the afternoon, it was neat as a pin, with the clothes folded, the toys off the sole, and the blankets smooth over the bunks. Likewise the saloon floor, which is Friday’s chore. Even if after supper on Friday night it’s all crumbs, Play-Doh tubs, and colored pencils, we know that they’ve been there less than a week and won’t be there past next Friday.

Exempted from the chore schedule, of course, is laundry. Not because we don’t do it, but because the way Damaris goes through diapers, it must be done every day. It’s usually worked into a trip to the beach, so while the girls are digging in the sand and filling buckets with shells and whatnot for us to clean out of the bilge on the following Friday, we who must be responsible can stand calf-deep in the water rinsing diaper after diaper. If ever the weather or passagemaking keeps us from diapers for a day or two, they must be done in stages, as Ganymede runs out of room for clotheslines.

Then there are lessons. Antigone is learning to read and write and play the keyboard, and Emily is learning to recognize letters, and if Damaris doesn’t need attention while Danielle administers morning lessons to the children, I get to escape to the foredeck with my coffee cup, after I’ve washed the dishes, and cast a longing look into the chain and sail locker, which is also where all my tools and unfinished projects are stored. Cleaning it is supposed to be Saturday’s chore, but I haven’t managed to get to it a single time, and lately all one can see in there is a huge jib that needs to be pulled out and properly flaked. “One of these days,” I tell myself, as I quickly close the lid and head back to rinse the day’s first batch of diapers over the dinghy’s transom.


In spite of all that, there are times when we let everything, even lessons, go hang while we comb the beach for shells or explore one of the rocky volcanic islands here in the Golfo de California. To be sure, we pay for our fun later by having extra diapers to hang or a staggering amount of dishes to furtively wash after the girls are asleep, but who can put a price on family time? They’ll grow out of shelling and treasure hunting and diapers long before Danielle and I grow out of treasuring our time together. So even if this cruise is vastly different from our last, it’s by no means worse; more hectic, yes; more busy, absolutely; more worry—who doesn’t worry about the multifarious evils that can befall children with no more common sense than a clam? But as I watch them grow up and know that in 20 years, give or take, they’ll all be going away on their own, there’s no amount of leisure that I’d trade for the daily chores and diaper washing; there’s nothing I’d rather be reading than A Child’s Garden of Verses. My own book will keep. I only hope I can still find it by then.

Ben and Danielle Zartman and the girls have arrived in Cartagena, Colombia, where they plan to fill the next few months with relaxation and the inevitable boat projects.


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