We were anchored last year in the lee of Pulau Karas Besar, in Indonesia, where we’d spent two glorious days messing around with boats and each other. Indonesia is a very romantic, very mysterious place. Our three-month cruising CAIT (sort of a boat visa or ship’s passport) was about to expire, and really, my wife, Carolyn, and I had no plan or reason to be there; it was just random chance we’d chosen this spot to drop the hook.
Carolyn was clearing away the breakfast dishes from the cockpit table and I was finishing up my morning coffee as a sad-eyed fisherman approached. His open boat had no engine, so he rowed against the stiff wind. Being approached by a fisherman in Indonesian waters is not unusual, and I wasn’t the least bit concerned. He had his young son with him. I flashed him a wide grin. Normally the local fishermen are happy and smiley, but not this guy. He was painfully thin, and he seemed to have the weight of the world on his shoulders.
I sat up and focused. My Bahasa Indonesian is poor, his English nonexistent. Did he want to sell us fish? Was he begging for school supplies? (Many locals can’t afford pencils or paper.) Or did he just want a drink of cool water along with a brief gam?
He was on our starboard side. His gnarled hands were huge and suggested hard physical labor. He was talking to me intently, with rising volume and sincerity, but I had no idea what he was saying. The kid, who looked to be about 2, was standing beside him, ankle-deep in sloshing water. The smell of rotting fish was almost overpowering. He hoisted his skinny son onto our rail cap, where the boy clung on solemnly outside our lifelines.
Carolyn, always the smarter one, started making inarticulate warning sounds in the back of her throat. The fisherman was now leaning toward me, his eyes wide, his breathing heavy, his cheeks wet. He asked a question. An important question, I think. A question that was freaking him out and making him sad and terrified.
What the hell was going on?
“No,” Carolyn said softly. “Oh God, no!”
Now Carolyn was acting strange, too. The fisherman ignored her. His damp eyes bored into mine. He was nodding his head yes, yes, please yes. I lifted both my hands, palms up, in the universal gesture of puzzlement. He reached out. We shook hands. Then his shoulders slumped and he collapsed onto the thwart of his boat. Sobbing, he shoved away, unshipped his oars, and started to row.
“Fatty!” Carolyn yelled. “Do something!”
My brain was moving slow. Why had he left his son behind?
Then it dawned on me with a jolt: He was giving me the boy.
I jumped to my feet. “No!” I shouted, feeling my gut wrench. The little boy stood rigid. He stared straight ahead and didn’t blink. My heart went out to him. Frantically, I waved his father back alongside, then lowered the youngster from our rail back down into the leaky, fish-smeared wooden craft. You have no choice, I told myself. You’re too old. Plus, you cannot clear in with two passengers and out with three. There’d be no papers. It wouldn’t be a legal adoption. We could be accused of theft, kidnapping or even worse.
The father and son hugged. The fisherman stroked the boy’s dark hair and whispered to him as they drifted astern. I felt awful. I felt like puking. When had I turned so heartless? So selfish? So cold?
“Cranking up,” I whispered to Carolyn as our Perkins M92B roared to life.
“Anchor’s coming up,” Carolyn replied as she dashed forward.
Carolyn and I have since discussed this emotionally draining, oh-so-sad incident many times, carefully attempting to parse the fisherman’s intent and the difference between abandoning a child and attempting to give one a better life. I am, at my core, a family man, just as my father was. The high point in life for Carolyn and me wasn’t sailing around the world; it was raising our daughter, Roma Orion, aboard. We think she turned out well. In any event, she has an MBA from Brandeis, a six-figure job and a wonderful husband. Best of all, she shares our granddaughter, Sokù Orion, with us. We’re truly blessed.
We raised our daughter to be effective, to accomplish her goals and, above all else, to be tenacious. However, I didn’t specifically raise her to be a sailor or writer. I wanted a daughter, not a clone. And I knew that if we encouraged her to think for herself, someday she’d think differently from us. And she does. And I love her all the more for it, which is just another way of saying I really have no idea why my daughter wanted to adopt her second child. But once I realized five years ago how vitally important it was to her, I shoved aside my personal misgivings and fully supported her as best I could. Legally adopting a child takes many years, dozens of reams of paper, and a couple of greenbacks as well.
So, ironically, there Carolyn and I were, sailing toward bustling Singapore to act as a waterborne support team to a growing family, when we ran into the fisherman. Odd timing, no?
Adoption, we would learn, is a curious process. At one point we were all peering down at a bureaucratic preference form that asked about things like race and gender. It really makes you think, makes you search deep inside. Roma checked off the box “under 3 years of age,” and that was that. Obviously, totally healthy babies are at a premium. When Roma went to pick up 20-month-old Tessa Maria, she also brought home a huge metal contraption. Tessa couldn’t walk or talk, though she was at an age when many kids can’t stop doing either. She required a brace, and braces are heavy. They sink. PFDs can’t cope. Such a disability isn’t, how do I put it, boat-friendly.
Tessa’s 4-and-a-half-year-old sister, Sokù, was already quite a sailor. She’d lived aboard for brief periods and sailed with us in Turkey, the Balearic Islands and the Caribbean. She once even transited the dreaded Anegada Passage on our way to St. Maarten to buy our present home, Ganesh, our Wauquiez Amphitrite 43. Alas, Tessa Maria might be a totally different story.
Frankly, the whole adoption thing struck me as the biggest crapshoot imaginable. Why roll those dice?
Then came the day Roma pulled up in a dinghy on the port side of Ganesh and handed tiny Tessa to me over the lifelines.
Tessa smiled — and my whole world instantly relit. I just knew, it was plain as day: Everything was going to be fine. All my worries about bonding and babies and braces and boats disappeared in the puff of that joyous smile. We’d work it out. We are family.
That was nine months ago. Almost every weekend now, Roma’s crew invades Ganesh for a three-day, two-night sleepover. Sometimes we just hang on the hook at Changi, other times we head for Lazarus Island or wherever. Sokù caught a crab last weekend. Talk about proud! Tessa isn’t ready to capsize in the Laser like her sister does, but she loves what we call the “dunking chair” almost as much. (We put her in the bosun’s chair hanging from the end of the spinnaker pole and dip her in the water.)
Singapore has good doctors. We tossed away that silly brace long ago. Tessa now runs like the wind and loves the water. She swims daily and looks forward to the time that she can swim entirely around the boat. That will be the day that I’ll have to jump overboard with all my clothes on: I watched with delight as my father did the same from the transom of our schooner Elizabeth in the ’50s, when I first circumnavigated the boat, and I did the same a few years ago for Sokù.
Roma is a third-generation liveaboard, so who knows if Sokù or Tessa might follow the sea? All I know is that they dearly love Ganesh, and cherish exploring in the dinghy, cruising, and being pint-size sea gypsies.
Cruising with kids is, of course, a delicate balance. You want children to enjoy sailing and yet you want them to be safe. If there are too many rules and too much scolding, they don’t enjoy the boat. If there are none of either, they might end up in trouble.
We know three liveaboard kids who have drowned, and each, we believe, was a direct result of their parents’ negligence. We never want to live through that, especially with the two most precious things in our watery universe.
Yes, the responsibility of having a child aboard is a weighty one, but so is the joy. Just as Roma reignited Caribbean cruising for us by allowing us to see anew through fresh eyes, so too have Sokù and Tessa reinvigorated Southeast Asia.
“Grandpa!” Tessa screamed this morning at dawn. “Tugboat! Tugboat, Grandpa!”
It was indeed a tugboat, and a strong one at that. It was a tugboat that could pull really hard on its towrope. But all that line strain was insignificant compared to the tug I felt on my heartstrings for Tessa and Sokù, and for their mother as well.
We’ve all bonded — in part, by the grace of Mother Ocean. Life is capricious and seldom makes sense. Why did I reject one 2-year-old boy to starboard while embracing an equally unknown 20-month-old girl to port? Was it solely because of silly pieces of paper?
I only know what my heart says: Don’t worry — be happy.
At dusk we were anchored off a long tropical beach. I took Tessa and Sokù in my arms in the cockpit and said, “See the beach? See all those grains of sand? Well, if you multiplied those grains of sand by all the stars in the sky, the resulting number would be tiny compared to how much I love you both.” “That’s sweet, Dad,” said Roma, who’d been told that very same thing in dozens of countries over dozens of years, from Bequia to Bora Bora to Brisbane.
“That’s silly-willy,” said Sokù.
“Grandpa, fishy!” giggled Tessa.
Carolyn looked over at me. She smiled and tilted her lovely head. “Can I get you anything?” she asked.
“You already have,” I said.
Cap’n Fatty and Carolyn are currently outfitting Ganesh for an Indian Ocean crossing later in the year.