Kids Across the Sea

Two cruising families who banded together for an Atlantic crossing in tandem-with young kids aboard-have advice for other parents: Do it now!

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After meeting each other during Blue Water Rally landfalls, Nicky and Beth became friends at sea.Nadine Slavinski

The 35-foot Super Sovereign ketch Sea Bright was boarded by a pirate in the middle of the Atlantic, yet nobody was alarmed. That's because the pirate was an engaging redhead named Beth who was celebrating her fifth birthday at 18 degrees five minutes north, 44 degrees 44 minutes west. One of the gifts she'd ripped open on the big day was a pirate costume, and she got right down to business.

Not far away, my husband, Markus Schweitzer, and I were sailing with our son, Nicky, on Namani, our Dufour 35 sloop. Nicky was only 4 years old, and he wasn't captivated by the idea of pirates. Instead, he'd spent much of his Atlantic crossing so far scanning the horizon for container ships and speculating about the size of their engines. That seems to be a boy thing.

Sea Bright, with Jo and Dave Naylor and their daughter, Beth, aboard, had sailed from Falmouth, England, in June; the crew had thoughts of resettling in New Zealand. We'd set off in July on a year's cruising sabbatical from our jobs in Germany. Both families had done a few months of independent cruising before the Big One: crossing the Atlantic. We met Jo, Dave, and Beth when, for our Atlantic crossing, we joined the Blue Water Rally (www.yachtrallies.co.uk) on the leg from Gibraltar to Antigua. It was in Gibraltar, then at our subsequent stop at Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands, that Nicky and Beth became fast friends, and so did their parents.

As we compared notes, we found that we had many things in common. All the adults had been excited when we first set off, but we'd also been anxious. Safety was a major consideration, as were worries about keeping an only child entertained far away from playmates. We soon discovered that we needn't have worried: Nicky and Beth each felt snug in their compact floating homes while enjoying 24-hour contact with both parents. No day care, no commutes, no babysitters. Our new lives on the sea, whether on passage or during short hops, proved to be a bigger adjustment for the parents than for the offspring.

The Blue Water Rally had attracted us with its reassurance of a safety net in the form of nearby yachts and frequent radio checks. The radio contact we enjoyed during the Atlantic crossing gave everyone a sense of companionship-even when our companions weren't in sight! The kids especially enjoyed the radio contact, and they rapidly improved their radio-calling skills. But such questions such as "What did you eat for breakfast? Over." and the monosyllabic answers still required coaching. One of the parents, with an eye on depleting battery levels, would eventually end these philosophical exchanges with promises to make radio contact again the next day.

Our Atlantic crossing, with inconsistent winds, ugly squalls, and several calms, wasn't entirely the milk run that we'd expected. Yet neither child showed any signs of loneliness or boredom, even as the passage stretched past the third week. Nicky colored pictures of container ships, studied his dolphin field guide, and built endless Lego creations. Beth spent much of her time on deck, but she was also occupied by her schooling. This was undertaken in an ad hoc way, depending on the weather and how busy things were on Sea Bright. Little surprises from the discount shop back in Lanzarote also helped liven up the days for both kids: stickers, markers, glitter glue, and so on. (Attention, parents! Proper glue can be a messy mistake!) It's surprising how the days are filled when you have nowhere to go but the confines of a small boat. With fishing, baking, coloring, and other activities, children and parents alike would go to bed feeling tired; the difference was that the children slept soundly through the night and were raring to go early in the morning, while parents began their days feeling slightly jaded after a night of watches and squalls.

Beth, like Nicky, seemed oblivious to conditions outside the cozy cabin, even when the weather turned ugly. Dave confessed that he'd experienced moments of doubt while looking down at his peacefully sleeping daughter during several night squalls: Winds of 40 knots howling through the rigging had triggered moments of clarity, feelings of responsibility, and thoughts about whether this was the right environment into which to bring a child. Ultimately, Beth's constant cheerfulness and uncomplaining acceptance of every situation always reassured him that the trip was a positive experience for her.

We'd all made weeklong passages before the Atlantic crossing with just each couple aboard with their child. Each couple found the experience manageable, but we agreed that it was tiring to keep up with sailing and a child. Therefore, for the Atlantic voyage, both yachts opted to have a third adult on board. We were each lucky to have experienced friends who were eager to join the adventure-and patient enough to tolerate our children in close quarters for nearly a month. Having three adult crewmembers made all the difference when taking on squall after squall or solving mechanical problems. It also saved the day when Namani's self-steering completely broke, forcing us to hand steer the last 1,000 miles to Antigua.

Both boats ran well downwind under twin headsails, but each suffered from incessant rolling. Unperturbed, Beth kept busy with unending games of Snakes and Ladders. Meanwhile, Nicky used the rolling motion to propel his toy cars as they raced across the cabin sole, back and forth, back and forth. For Beth, the biggest day came early in the third week of the crossing, complete with birthday cake and presents that would provide amusement for the next week at sea, including the pirate costume.

In the early hours of Day 26, we spotted Antigua. Nicky quickly sorted through his flags for Antigua's colorful sunburst and the yellow Q. Meanwhile, Beth and her parents rustled up a flag from the fabric in their craft bag. Having left Lanzarote two hours apart, Sea Bright and Namani arrived in Antigua within four hours of each other! The children rushed straight to playing in Namani's cabin. We adults exchanged congratulations and stories of our crossings and enjoyed a cold drink. The Atlantic was behind us, and ahead was our reward: blissfully short hops between the multicultural Caribbean islands. Our friendship kept Sea Bright and Namani together for months of relaxed cruising until the tearful day came when Sea Bright turned west for Panama and the Pacific Ocean, while Namani headed north toward Maine.

Beth and Nicky may have been too young to remember, in later life, their Atlantic crossings, but they enjoyed a priceless experience that is certain to leave a permanent mark: an intense family time, a feeling for the grandeur of Earth, and a "we can do it, come what may" attitude. Our experience demonstrates that families with young children shouldn't put their sailing dreams on hold until the "someday" that may never come. The adventure of a lifetime-for a lifetime-beckons!

Nadine Slavinski is back on land and working as a teacher, hoping to cast off on a Pacific crossing in 2011. Keep up with her and the entire crew of Namani at the boat website (www.namaniatsea.net).