A Dream on Hold?

A family sets off on a 52-footer, then takes stock and makes a choice.

The Fowler Family

The U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis, Maryland, is an event you attend to learn the countless ways sailors launch their cruising dreams. So to hear one family at this year’s show tell me they were probably going to put their adventure on hold—a couple of months after they’d begun it—not only gave me pause, it tugged at my heartstrings.

I want to be bold and tell Mary Beth Fowler and her family, which includes her husband, Paul, and two girls, Thia, in 8th grade, and Janele, in 6th, not to give up on Fortuitous, their 52-ft Nauticat motorsailer, or their Grand Plan.

But sitting at an outdoors table at the Market House, just outside the boat show grounds, I had to put myself in their shoes. I let Mary Beth talk, and I listened hard.

Our reunion came as a result of a pact we’d made to keep in touch after we met each other at a conference put on by the National Women’s Sailing Association in June 2013.

A few weeks before the boat show, the largest in-water sailboat show in the U.S., Mary Beth sent me an email and said they were afloat in Annapolis.

Good, I thought. They’re under way.

Not exactly, I learned. “We’re going to get off the boat,” she told me as the crowds beat a path into the show.

I felt the air going out of my lungs.

“The boat’s 30 years old, and we’ve done nothing but repairs,” she continued. “It’s stressful and not what we’d thought it would be.”

She detailed a long list that includes replacing fuel tanks, the mast step, running and standing rigging, extensive repairs to deck leaks, engine woes, rudderstock reconstruction, and an inadequate power source to charge their onboard needs. The clock was speedily ticking on their goal to spend a year afloat in a warm place while they devoted quality time to their children, home schooling them and experiencing more of daily life with them.

Their odyssey began about five years ago in Albany, New York, where they owned a home. Once they decided they wanted this cruising dream, they set off on a plan to pull it off. Never mind that it was 2008 and the economy was about to tank. “We decided to go sailing!” Mary Beth reminisced, her intense blue eyes beaming.

They put the house up for sale. They ran their lone car into the ground, and sold what was left for scrap. When the house sold, they moved into an apartment. “We’ve lived small,” Mary Beth said.

The actual transition to life aboard came in fits and starts, but by September 2013, the Fowlers and Fortuitous had pointed the bow south. They saw Manhattan from the water, anchored off Atlantic City, experienced Cape May. Through it all, they learned to raise and lower the boat's hefty sails, to anchor, and to motor when the wind died. Adventures included sleepless nights, bone-chilling days, dwindling provisions. Thia, their 13-year-old daughter, had eagerly sought out a key lime pie for her birthday. She got what the galley could give: a piping-hot loaf of bread from the last of the flour on board, amplified with crushed graham cracker crumbs, cinnamon, and melting butter. Not half bad — but not what she wanted.

"We're learning a lot," Mary Beth told me and other editors from Cruising World and Sailing World who'd stopped by to join our chat. "Maybe a year was too short a time to do it all."

My colleague Dave Reed of Sailing World asked a few questions, including if they'd had a survey done before they bought Fortuitous. Yes, but not an in-water one. Mary Beth laughed.

“Anyone got a boat they don’t need that works?” she teased.

We could have grilled her and Thia for hours, but we had a boat show to get back to. We bid farewells again and when I got back home to Newport, I scoped out the Fowlers' website.

On it, I saw what you’d find on any liveaboard crew’s digital family album. Shots of days at the beach, on-deck silhouettes, raised sails, a comfortable-looking redecorated saloon, sturdy pilothouse, water-toy moments, bright smiles, good energy — all of it, familiar and intensely personal.

And then I read this, by Mary Beth: "we have decided to put Fortuitous up for sale, and move onto land, finishing our year the best we can, hopefully someplace warmer, educating and exploring as a family. Why? Fortuitous was not the right boat after all. In short, we spent all our time and money fixing up the boat.

“The purpose of this trip has always been to change the way we live, and focus more of our energy on our family, and less on working, and keeping up what we have. Keep that in mind.

“We are still figuring out what to do with ourselves from this point, it is freaky with so many options before us, hard to decide on just one! Well, we will figure it out.”

After prying into the Fowlers’ online life a bit more, I came to at least one conclusion. Maybe for this growing family, it wasn’t so much about the boat, but the experience and the quality time they’re spending together. And in that sense, the story of the Fowlers, like untold others who’ve changed lanes in life, remains for me a story of living roundly, a saga that, at its core, still qualifies as the quintessential cruising tale.