Perhaps one of the best aspects of cruising for kids is the unstructured time it offers.

October 1, 2014
Twice in a Lifetime, Eric, fishing
Eric displaying his haul. Mike Litzow


I’ll explain.

We don’t navel-gaze too much about whether we adults are doing the right thing by buggering off on a sailboat for years or decades.  We’ve largely given up on the idea of the “right” thing to do, after all.  A well-led life, to my generation, means having an adequately funded retirement.


Ahh – but the kids.  When it comes to the kids, there is a little room for introspection.  Is this right for the kids?

A lot of the ideas about the enriching aspects of life as little voyagers – all that stuff about meeting people from different cultures, being exposed to different places and ideas.  That’s true to an extent.  But our kids spend a lot more time cooped up with parents who are grumpy and a little over-tasked than they do being enriched by travel experiences.

So, is that “good” for them?  Or should they be off with their cousins from the contiguous United States who are apparently being enriched day after day, week after week, year after year?  You know – all that stuff about learning to play the violin/piano/guitar or playing hockey/softball/lacrosse or going to Thespian Camp/Auteur Camp/Exotic Financial Instruments Camp?


Or how about friends.  Should our kids have them?  Is this an important part of life?  Will there be a friend quiz at some point that our kids will bomb?

Actually, we on Galactic don’t navel-gaze too far in this direction, as the answers that we come up with tend to be negative.

Into the introspective breach strides Jared Diamond, that colossus of Easily Digested Big Ideas for our time.


(I was so happy to finally meet an academic geographer a few years back – shout out to you Ben – and to ask his opinion on Diamond.  I knew it would be negative.  Just like the evolutionary biologists of my acquaintance and Stephen Jay Gould.  The popularizers are popular with everyone but their own tribe.  But I for one unabashedly love Guns, Germs and Steel.)

I’m thinking of Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday, his book about the lessons that traditional societies might offer us – specifically, about his chapter on childhood.

Our kids have been playing this fishing game lately.  If “game” is all-encompassing enough of a word.


Basically they carefully draw various fish from our field guide to reef fish – peacock grouper!  bluefin trevally!  Almaco jack!  They cut them out.  And they catch them.

They catch them with nets (old bits of hammock).  They catch them with rod and reel (generally drinking-straw based).  They catch them with spear guns (ditto).  They test them with their ciguatera testers.

Odd things happen – piranhas get in their net and Wolfie the stuffed timber wolf is called in to deal with them.  There are exhortations.  There are boat journeys.  There is an orgy of fish clubbing and fish bleeding and fish gutting.  The boys have their chant for hauling the nets, just like the chants that sailors and fishermen have always used when working under muscle power – heave-and-haul-and-heave-and-haul-and.  There is a whole side game that seems to involve fish smuggling.  It goes on for much of the day (not without a steady backbeat of sibling conflict) and continues into the night.  Elias has been complaining that Eric’s exuberant invitations to post-bedtime story “night fishing” are too tempting to forego and have been depriving him of sleep.

We have one ream of paper on board, which is serving for my various science and writing needs, as well as for Alisa’s production of school materials.  When the boys get a twice-printed-upon sheet of paper for their use they are ecstatic.  It is treasure.  Every horizontal space in the yacht collects drifts of realistically depicted paper fish.

And – we have never had anything to do with it.  No adult has ever suggested the game, encouraged the game, or helped with the game.  I limit my involvement to occasionally yelling at them when there are too many fish and hooks and nets lying around the very limited sole in the saloon.

Without a copy of The World Until Yesterday at hand, I cannot refresh myself on Diamond’s argument about children’s play in Western and traditional societies.  But my memory is that he sees the “educational” toys of the West as creativity-stifling lessons in following directions, while he sees the elaborate toys that kids from traditional societies make from scrap materials, without any adult involvement, as opportunities to play at being human in the world.

So, it’s not much, but that’s what our kids seem to have going for them lately.  I would crow about how all of this opportunity for an old-fashioned childhood that is time-rich and free of adult-directed play might give our kids some “advantage” relative to their cohort back in the U.S.  Except that I can see the fad, just over the horizon, as land-bound parents attempt to give their kids the only advantage that we seem to be giving ours – Unstructured Time Camp!

Meet the crew of Galactic: Mike and Alisa Litzow and their sons Elias and Eric. “When we left Alaska to sail to Australia with our toddler for crew, we thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. But then we had our second child, and bought our second boat, and sailed across the Pacific a second time. We’ve been living aboard for seven years now. Sometimes we wonder how long we’ll keep at it, but all we know for sure is that the end doesn’t seem to be in sight just yet.” Follow their story at


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