Island School

Cruising kids find new friends while experiencing a new culture in local schools.

father and son on boat
A different type of school bus: Sebastian commuted to school with his dad in the dinghy while the family was anchored in Mayreau’s Saline Bay.Kate Koch-Sundquist

Before we began our family sabbatical aboard our Morgan 45, Little Wing, in the Caribbean, I fretted over how our boys, August, 5, and Sebastian, 6, would adjust to being away from their friends for so long. They'd always loved our summer cruises up the Maine coast or to Cape Cod, but they'd never lived aboard the boat for more than two weeks, and they were nervous to leave behind their schools and friends. Once we were in the Caribbean, my husband, Simon, and I worked to create a sense of community for them, connecting frequently with cruising and local families alike. We didn't realize when we left home just how welcoming these small island communities would be to us and our kids.

We had arrived at the tiny island of Mayreau, part of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, on a sleepy Thursday morning, leaving the Tobago Cays ahead of some squalls. We'd dropped anchor in Saline Bay, beside the custom 44-foot British-flagged Troubadour, on which the boys quickly identified two more cruising kids and made fast friends. By Monday morning, all four kids were trudging up the hill to school, joining the entire island-kid population of 32 as they went.

The children ­jostled shoulder to ­shoulder, excitedly looking around and whispering. There were new students today.

That morning in January, I peeked through the open wooden shutters of a sparsely furnished two-room ­schoolhouse. A line of uniformed students entered, one by one, each having his or her hands inspected for cleanliness by a stern-looking head teacher who stood at the door. The children shuffled in with a bit of commotion, then stood facing a visiting missionary who reviewed their plans for the morning.

kids jumping off a dock
Cruising kids Ayla and Sebastian jump off the docks in Mayreau with new friends they made at school.Kate Koch-Sundquist

First, they would head to the church for Bible study and songs. Then they would return to their schoolhouse for a lunch of pea soup and some recess time, during which they’d be neither monitored nor fenced, instead having free reign to roam the entire island as long as they returned for the afternoon bell.

The children jostled shoulder to shoulder, excitedly looking around and whispering. There were new students today, and they were all anxious to learn who they were. Amongst the crowd of local children dressed neatly in their light blue and navy school uniforms, there stood my boys, looking a mix of bewildered and intimidated, wearing whatever clean clothes we could gather that morning, their blonde hair still matted from sleep.

After three months of living aboard, our kids were always ready for more friends, and, if we’re being honest, we were all ready for a little time apart.

Mayreau Primary School
August poses with new pals from his kindergarten class at Mayreau Primary School.Kate Koch-Sundquist

We were amazed by how easy it was to enroll them. We simply showed up at the headmaster’s office, introduced ourselves and asked if it would be possible for the childern to attend for a few days. The headmaster agreed without hesitation, telling us, “Every child should be able to go to school.” For our part, we brought bags of school supplies to give to the teachers, including things like pencils, workbooks, markers, dice, flashcards and other spare tools from our boat schooling aboard.

By the second day of school, our crew of newcomers were greeted excitedly by crowds of local students who flocked to them as they hiked the hill to school. There were morning hugs and high fives. There was playful jockeying and a rambunctious game of tag in the gravel schoolyard. After school, my boys called to their new friends by name as they chased a ball down the hill, kicking and throwing it back and forth, watching in respectful awe as their friends pointed out their tin-roofed homes and the homes of their relatives. Their new friends were equally interested when our kids pointed out our distant boat anchored below. At the end of our week on Mayreau, we felt like part of the community and left with dozens of new friends.

All agreed the school experience was a highlight of the trip, offering a unique glimpse into island life.

In the months that followed during our cruise of the Eastern Caribbean and the U.S. East Coast, we were surprised to meet other cruising families who had had similar experiences on other islands. One family told us about sending their kids to school on Staniel Cay in the Bahamas. Another sent their daughter to school for several weeks in Soufrière, St. Lucia. Unanimously, all agreed the experience was a highlight of the trip, providing the families with some rare independent time and offering a unique glimpse into island life.

For our boys and their cruising friends, the initial discomfort of being the new and different kids was a small price to pay for the experience of local daily life in another country and the newfound appreciation for another culture. Cruising families looking to experience a slice of local life and make a classroom full of new friends will find that enrolling in local public schools is more than a worthwhile adventure.

Kate Koch-Sundquist is a writer and sailor from Essex, Massachusetts. After years of running boats in the Caribbean, she and her husband, Simon Koch, finally fulfilled their dream of cruising together with their boys, Sebastian and August, to Grenada and back aboard their custom Morgan 45.

What to know

  • Plan ahead: Arrive at the school a day or two in advance, just as it's being dismissed or during lunch. Find the headmaster or headmistress to ask permission for your child to attend for a few days. In Mayreau, we found that the headmaster appreciated us coming to his office to discuss business, rather than chatting in a more casual setting.
  • Come bearing gifts: School supplies are especially appreciated and will help to offset the supplies that your child will inevitably use while there.
  • Anticipate cultural ­differences: Religion, cuisine and discipline in schools outside the United States vary widely. It's a good idea to discuss these possibilities with your kids ahead of time.
  • Make it an exchange: Encourage your child to invite his or her new friends to tour the boat or go for a ride in the dinghy. We found that many of our kids' new classmates were just as fascinated by our lifestyle as we were with theirs.