We Goodlanders love boats and kids in equal measure. My two sisters and their husbands had little ones underfoot when each family built a boat to go live on. And my Left Coast brother, Morgoo the Magnificent (best brother ever!), raised oceangoing daughter Marelle upon, natch, Ocean Daughter in San Francisco Bay before eventually teaching her to sail aboard his 35-foot Swedish-built sloop, Maxi. Morgan always thinks slightly out-of-the-box. After naming one his boats after his daughter, he named his next daughter Carlotta, after one of my family’s most beloved vessels.
The four of us siblings were raised aboard the 52-foot, 1924 wooden schooner Elizabeth, and to this day, we sail together whenever possible. And my wife, Carolyn, and I raised our daughter, Roma Orion, aboard our home-built Endurance 35 ketch, the aforementioned Carlotta, and the Sparkman & Stephens-designed Hughes 38 Wild Card. Carolyn and I now sail weekly around Singapore with Roma Orion and her two daughters, Soku Orion and Tessa Maria, aboard our beamy 43-foot French Wauquiez Amphitrite ketch, Ganesh.
While none of us pretend to be particularly moral or even nice, we have all managed to stay out of jail, rehab and the poor house—no mean feat in the circles of waterfront reprobates we often hang with.
The bottom line is this: In my 62 years of living aboard and offshore sailing, I’ve either been a kid or had a kid aboard the vast majority of the time.
Here’s the first key to children and boats: Always remember that kids don’t give a poop what adults are interested in, nor should they! Kids have their own fluid reality, and if their marine environment reinforces that fluidity, they’ll instinctively love it. If it doesn’t, or worse yet, if some adult is attempting to teach them something, they will not.
Here’s key No. 2: As with everything, arranging for kids to love boats and cherish their marine environment takes sustained, focused work.
For example, as we sail the world, we collect art at the $5 and $10 level. Since a lot of small islands have little but driftwood tossed upon their penniless shores, we have ended up as connoisseurs of carved tikis. Our favorite is Freaky Tiki. He’s big enough to wear a hat, and also big enough to intimidate a small child. So, when 2-year-old Soku Orion came to sail offshore with us for three weeks (in the Med? Caribbean? South Pacific? Who can remember?), she was a tad taken aback by Freaky, who was, admittedly, larger and more imposing. To remedy this, Carolyn tossed a modesty skirt on him and some friendly love beads, while I flipped a cool-looking hat on his mahogany head.
Freaky suddenly looked a bit less freaky, and Soku began to play with him. All was well until she inadvertently knocked off his hat, and I rushed to put it back on. “Freaky Tiki is a wonderfully warm and friendly Polynesian fellow but he gets really, really angry if a wave or anything knocks off his hat,” I told her.
“Why?” she asked, and I proceeded to explain about his difficult childhood in the Marquesas. I told her that his father, a fisherman, was lost at sea; about his poor mother being forced to move to Tahiti to work as a maid; his running with a bad crowd on the mean streets of Papeete; and his eventual redemption in Cook’s Bay, Moorea, where he joined our crew and became a Goodlander forever.
As a 2-year-old, Soku didn’t realize that I was giving her a history lesson on the Society Islands and a literary lesson on three-act story structure. She knew only that an adult was catering to her, which is all a kid needs to know at that age to feel warm and fuzzy.
Everywhere we sail, we shop at resale shops (as our cruising budget demands), and I make a point of buying heaps of costume jewelry. When we would play dress-up in the aft cabin, Soku would occasionally glance up and shout, “Grandpa!” Glancing up, the minute I noticed Freaky Tiki was sans hat, I’d scream. Carolyn would rush into the cabin, also screaming. Roma Orion as well would drop whatever she was doing, totally losing all motherly composure. The whole freakin’ crew would be there freakin’ out at Freaky Tiki, until Soku would manage to find his hat and make our watery world right again.
That was an incredible gift of power to give Soku, and, of course, it intoxicated her. And we adults got creative. Carolyn would pretend to knock herself out in the walk-through to Tiki’s cabin, I’d spill my coffee all over my T-shirt, and Roma would arrive with grape jelly all over her face.
Gradually, after I told Soku all I could tell her about ocean currents in the Pacific and how island migrations are often revealed by the evolution of local musical instruments, I had to branch out into other, stranger stories—for example, Charlie the Cowboy, who ate motorcycle parts. Why did he eat motorcycle parts? I have no idea, except that Soku and I had a sort of mind meld, and I realized that a cowboy munching on Harley pistons would appeal to her.
One fun game that lasted almost an entire passage was called Playing Guard. While sailing, Soku and I would make sure that Freaky had his hat on, and then protect him by closing the door to the aft cabin walk-through. Soku would stand (sit, actually) guard in the semidarkness. I’d be navigating topsides and occasionally ask her through an open porthole in the side of the cockpit, “Is Freaky Tiki OK?” She’d carefully crack the door, glance in, and tell me, “He’s fine, Grandpa.”
After an hour or so, I’d grab a little stick I kept in the cockpit, poke it through the hatch, and knock off Freaky Tiki’s hat.
“How ’bout now?” I’d ask. She would check again and dutifully report a hatless Tiki, then all the adults aboard would totally freak out screaming and bumping into each other Keystone Kops-style in a mad dash to help Soku get Freaky’s hat back on!
Crazy? Sure. But has any other kid ever loved being aboard a boat more than Soku Orion? I doubt it.
Even better, around the age of 4, Soku came to me and asked matter-of-factly, “Freaky Tiki isn’t alive, is he?”
I assured her he wasn’t. I said that he was just part of a make-believe game we played aboard. She didn’t bat an eye, and, for our part, we didn’t stop freakin’ out as, with maturity, she gradually lost interest in the game. Then when her sister Tessa Maria came aboard at approximately the same age, Soku made a special effort to teach Tessa about Freaky Tiki’s care and feeding, and, of course, about the importance of his hat.
Here’s the truth of it from an adult perspective: Our most cherished memories of cruising offshore revolve around raising our daughter and granddaughters aboard. Silliness isn’t something we frown upon; it is something we aspire to daily. The miracle isn’t how much we’ve helped them mature, but rather how much they’ve taught us about staying young.
Wild Card, the 38-footer that Soku’s mother grew up aboard, was basically a narrow, one-cabin vessel with a tiny V-berth. My wife and I are avid readers, and Roma would often be bored. “We feed you and we clothe you, but we don’t entertain you,” Carolyn would tell her. (Thank God we didn’t have screens back then—and had a reasonable chance of raising a reasonable adult.)
I’d be reading on the port settee, and Roma would come over for a snuggle and ask, “What are you doing?”
“I’m wrestling a lion,” I’d say.
“No, you’re not, Cap’n Daddy-O!” she’d laugh.
“Yes, I am,” I’d say and show her the cover of my Wilbur Smith novel. Then I’d tell her a long story about Africa, not because I wanted to or because it was a good time, but because it was the best time for her. You feed a kid when they’re hungry if you want them to gain nourishment.
There is no better place to teach a child about responsibility than a boat. At about age 7, Roma wanted a cat. I refused. But Carolyn guided Roma through the process of making a pitch, and eventually I succumbed to her logic and myriad promises. But before we brought a kitten home from the local animal shelter on St. John in the US Virgin Islands, Roma had to earn and save the money for the kitty-litter box and cat food by doing her boat chores. And, of course, she and her mother had to laboriously make a macramé ladder for the transom.
Roma picked out the cat herself. It was a black one she dubbed Joker, in a nod to Wild Card. Even before we allowed the cat below, we gave it a tour of the cockpit litter box. And then we had Roma gently lower the worried cat in her open palm into the harbor water, right next to the rope ladder she and Carolyn had made. Tiny Joker immediately freaked out and climbed out of the water. Roma gradually moved the cat farther and farther away from the ladder each day, until whenever the cat ended up in the water (from, for instance, trying to catch a passing seagull), it would calmly swim to the transom and climb up—not happy, perhaps, but totally safe.
The cat learned.
And I learned.
On ocean passages, Carolyn and I would be clipped onto a tether in the cockpit. Roma also had a harness, but most of the time that she sat in the cockpit, she was clipped in with a sort of marine seatbelt device I’d created for her. It was super easy to get in and out of, and totally safe while she was snapped into it.
The important point is that Precious Cargo, one of our many affectionate names for Roma, was always clipped on while on deck. Joker, however, was a wild animal. One evening, while steering in boisterous trade winds, I heard Roma wake up a confused Carolyn. “Mom, Mom!” she said frantically. “Joker spit out his tongue in my hand!”
Carolyn said groggily: “Don’t be silly, Roma. Joker didn’t spit out his tongue.”
“Yes, he did,” Roma said as she handed it to Carolyn, who immediately let out a blood-curling scream in the darkness.
I dashed below and flipped on the light. Both girls were sitting up in bed wide-eyed, with a large flying fish wiggling in Carolyn’s hand.
Joker the Hunter, of course, had proudly brought his catch down belowdecks to give to Roma, his Lord and Master.
Once, when Joker dashed out of the companionway to fish in a full gale, Roma put a foot outside into the cockpit in a desperate effort to grab him. I grabbed her, set her down, and said simply, “If you ever go on deck without a harness or expose yourself to danger in any way because of that cat, I will get rid of Joker.”
We stared at each other.
She knew I meant it.
For years afterward, we observed her internal struggle as she watched Joker leaping around the wave-swept foredeck after flopping fish. I believe this was the beginning of Roma’s iron discipline that allowed her to graduate with honors with a double major from Brandeis and now work successfully at Singapore Management University.
And, I might add, she (and her daughters) all love the Dunkin’ Chair, which is a castoff bosun’s chair suspended from an aluminum pole over the water. Though you didn’t ask, I built her a single-sheet-of-plywood dory for her 4th birthday, and she quickly learned to captain it herself. And, naturally, we took her swimming with sharks as a toddler, which is probably why she is a PADI-certified rescue diver to this day.
Take it from me: The only thing that improves cruising is cruising with kids. And Freaky Tiki, of course!
Thanks to the pandemic, Carolyn and Fatty are enjoying an extended visit with their daughter, Roma Orion, and her two children in Singapore.