Learning Lessons in the Sun

Three New England families learn about home-schooling and cruising with kids on an adventure to the Caribbean.

Family Matters
On an overnight sail from Dominica to Mustique aboard Rebecca, the Gonsalves and Smith kids commune with the dolphins.Courtesy of the Gonsalves Family

Islands in the Sun

Though they’d launched their plans together, once underway, the three families met up at just the beginning and midpoints of their trips, choosing to either follow their own desires or meet up with other extended family members at different locations.

The Virgin Islands served as the jumping-off point for all three families, and they spent a week letting off steam on the beaches and planning their respective itineraries. They all met up again for the New Year. The Gonsalveses joined the Smiths aboard Rebecca, after which the families again dispersed. As the Smiths explored the Grenadines, the Zanis ran the length of the Lesser Antilles, ending in Grenada.

“The sail back from Grenada to the BVI was one of the best parts of the entire trip,” says Mike Zani. “It was just a bombing broad reach the whole way.” An ongoing consulting career for Conley Zani forced her to take off for periodic business trips, leaving Mike with the home-schooling mantle as the family headed southeast along the Leeward Islands. A former nanny joined Fabuloso for visits when Conley was away, as did Mike’s father. Dominica was at the center of the Gonsalveses’ winter plans. With more than a week spent in Antigua, they split from their friends and worked westward, eventually exploring the Spanish Virgin Islands before making it to the Bahamas. The family set out to follow their own path with few interruptions, wishing to focus on schoolwork and establish a routine. “We really wanted to enjoy ourselves,” says Jeff. “Six months is short. When we caught a fish, the children would draw it out on paper. We did some intentional situation-specific education, like looking up and documenting the animals we found, but six months was a little short to dial that in.”

Meridian made longer passages than the rest, with several overnight jumps, including the trip between the BVI and Culebra, in the Spanish Virgins. “We tried our best to keep a rhythm,” says Mege. “We didn’t have visitors. We didn’t fly off. It was just the four of us.” Both Mege and Jeff agreed that the longer ­passages were disruptive to their rhythm at times. “If we had spent six months just in the Bahamas, we could have focused more on ­social time with other families, which would have been more fun for the children,” Mege says.

Though the trip was not meant to be a vacation, Jeff says it was an opportunity to, at least temporarily, change the way they live. “One of the main points of the exercise was to slow the life pace down,” he says. “But there were constantly things to do. It’s hard to slow down.”

family matters
Aboard Rebecca, Selah Smith keeps a weather eye on a brewing storm cloud.Courtesy of the Smith Family

One-Room Schoolhouses

A sa Gonsalves finished all his third-grade workbooks in the first three months. His older sister, however, had the greater workload of a fifth-grader. “Orly was anxious to keep up with her schoolwork,” says Mege. “When we had Wi-Fi, she’d send in her assignments. She also spent time identifying shells and fish, and anything else around her.”

The children’s school, Friends Academy, worked closely with the Gonsalveses before they cast off. Though assignments were prepared in advance and the children stuck to their regimens, the school’s headmaster reassured the parents that the children, no matter what they accomplished in their planned curriculum, would experience “an ­incredible education in life.” Still, working with four teachers on Orly’s fifth-grade curriculum had its challenges.

“Some of her teachers were really enthusiastic and organized, and some were not,” says Jeff. “Asa only had one teacher, and she was super helpful, which made it easy for him to follow the program.”

For everyone involved, the school component of the sabbatical was compulsory but still daunting from the start. Conley Zani ran into concerns at their Portsmouth, Rhode Island, public elementary school. “Schools send messages that can feed your fear,” she says about the conversations she had with her children’s teachers before they left. “They warned us that our kids might not graduate with their class. There was a lot of pushback for us.” But the Zanis brought their boys into the fold by using everyday tasks to teach them. Provisioning, for instance, was a lesson in sorting and categorizing. Even bleeding the fuel line in the ­engine became a teachable moment. Conley says this seat-of-the-pants approach was empowering for both her and her husband.

All the parents conceded that, at the outset, they were blind to the gifts they would receive by the end of their journeys. The leap of faith they collectively took was tested when storms blew through an anchorage or a barracuda swam up behind a snorkeling child. But children are adaptable. The leap paid dividends.

“I’m most proud that [now] our children don’t have a fear of the great wide world,” says Kenan. She recalls a blustery day sailing in the Grenadines, when 7-year-old Teal was sliding down Rebecca’s teak bridgedeck. “Careful, Teal,” she said. “Don’t forget to hold on.”

“Mama, I know!” the girl called back, stating the obvious.

“My fear was in the clarity of that moment,” Kenan says. “I laid down and closed my eyes and got through it. If I hadn’t unpacked that anxiousness, I would have been furious and resentful.”

The decision to wait until Asa was reading paid off for the Gonsalveses. “We had time and couldn’t get enough books,” says Mege. She adds that they all began to feel a great sense of freedom. “We were not in the U.S., with safety tape everywhere,” she says. “When the kids got back to school, there were so many restrictions.”

If anything, Mike Zani believes the trip was a good investment in family relationships. “It’s the old axiom ‘You get out of life what you put into it,’” he says. “You put so much time and energy into home schooling, and it’s hard. Kids would never cry at school. On the boat, they would cry three times over one assignment. But it was so rewarding to understand how they think and learn.”

Zani, who never spent a night off Fabuloso for seven months, fully embraced the liveaboard experience. But the Smiths and the Gonsalveses say they only partially settled into the full-time lifestyle afloat.

“I didn’t truly relax until February,” says Jeff Gonsalves. “But once I did, it was a level of relaxation I haven’t had since before we had kids.” Mege finished the trip feeling that they could do it again, maybe during a gap year in the children’s university years.

family matters
Tan and fit after a winter of sailing and swimming in the Caribbean, Asa and Orly Gonsalves take in the surroundings on Culebra, in the Spanish Virgin Islands.Courtesy of the Gonsalves Family

Closing the Chapter

In many ways, the Zanis, Smiths and Gonsalveses represent many weekend cruisers, who hop aboard their modest sloops on a Friday night with the kids, a block of ice, and a desire to get away from shore and the hustle and bustle of daily living. That’s often enough to whet the appetite, to stoke the fire. All three of these families started that way. And they’re still doing that now: The Smiths still carve out weeks to snuggle up on Rebecca, and the Gonsalveses are transiting Cape Cod and Buzzards Bay via motorboat. The Zanis are even taking the next step and have purchased a new 66-foot cruising catamaran. But there’s a lot of inspiration to be gained from their liveaboard adventures.

“There are a thousand reasons, a laundry list of why not to do this,” says Conley Zani. “But we’re glad we did it.” She says they had the same barriers as anyone would when embarking on a liveaboard experience: their professions, their kids’ educations and everyone’s healthcare. “It’s about creating space for this opportunity in your own life. We weren’t in this crazy-special spot. You create your own luck.”

Time will tell the impact six months aboard with their parents will have on the six children from this group. First signs, say the parents, are all thumbs-up. But Conley Zani says she was also surprised by the impact the trip had on her husband.

“All his motivation — he got after it every day,” Conley says. “He was captain, Super Dad, master of navigation. Even bleeding ­engine injectors was energizing for him.”

The culmination of Mike Zani and his wife’s confidence came near the end of their tour. Newly found friends had been having engine troubles. When two attempts at engine repairs failed, the couple split up, Mike helping to sail the stricken monohull to the next port, some 35 miles away, while Conley skippered Fabuloso for the first time without her husband.

The Zanis hit the go button on their Caribbean adventure on Labor Day of 2013. By the end of October, Mike had closed the deal on Fabuloso. Now that it’s all over, Mike admits he is more philosophical about the decision than he was during that mad dash at the beginning.

“At our fifth reunion for grad school, everyone was talking about their jobs,” recalls Zani. “At the 10th, everyone was talking about their families. I asked the organizer what people talk about at the 25th reunion. ‘About the work-life balance,’ he said. And that people had regretted not making decisions based on that balance. This was an investment in work-life balance.”

Jeff Gonsalves isn’t sure if there is a residual positive effect from their six months of sailing on Meridian. “When we were on the trip, it was great for all of us,” he says. “I’m not sure we’ve captured something and held on to that. It’s more like we all wish we were back there.”

Family Matters
At season's end, the Chuck Paine-designed 46-footer Meridian power-­reaches back to home waters in Buzzards Bay.Courtesy of the Family

Chris Museler has covered sailing as a journalist for 20 years. He regularly contributes to The New York Times, and his work, both in print and online, appears in a broad range of publications and media outlets. He lives in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, where he nurses a dwindling racing career and a growing family cruising schedule.