In 2014, my wife, Alisa, and I found ourselves in the Tuamotu Archipelago for the third time. After a tough passage from New Zealand, we parked our 45-foot cutter, Galactic, in our favorite uninhabited atoll and got down to some serious tropical living with our sons, Elias and Eric. Each day featured a perfect mix of snorkeling, beach walking and coconut harvesting, all amid the soul-easing colors of an atoll — sea in a dozen flavors of turquoise, deep-green palms, beaches the color of the sun.
We had five months of wandering around the quieter corners of French Polynesia to keep us content before we would tackle the passage to Chile and our long-standing dream of sailing to Patagonia. It had been seven years since we’d sailed away from our home in Alaska. But while we were overjoyed to be in the Tuamotus, and filled with the happy anticipation of reaching Patagonia, Alisa and I also had some bigger questions to address. Most immediately, we wondered: How long were we going to be doing this? We were happy on Galactic. But we also didn’t think that being full-time sailors was everything we wanted to accomplish in our lives, and Elias, who would soon be turning 8, was getting ever closer to the point where he would benefit from a stable group of peers and the opportunity to establish himself in the world beyond the family boat. How long would we keep going?
So one night after the boys had gone to bed, Alisa and I sat in the cockpit with a bottle of wine and Jimmy Cornell’s World Cruising Routes and considered our endgame. We came up with a plan: Two years of sailing would see us to Patagonia and then up the west coast of South America, and thence to the Galápagos, Hawaii, and home to Alaska in the summer of 2016.
Cut to 2015. The language, culture and landscape of Chile were just starting to become familiar to us. After a month spent in Valdivia, our landfall after the passage from Polynesia, we spent a month cruising the waters of Isla Grande de Chiloé, where oxen dragged loads of kelp on the beaches and aquaculture floats filled every bay. Alisa and I took stock of how much fun we were having living on the boat, and how much the boys seemed to enjoy it, and reconsidered our plan. Two more years, we decided, would allow us to go to the Falklands and then north up the Atlantic, and would get us back to Alaska by the summer of 2017.
A look of comprehension crossed Alisa’s face. “Don’t you remember?” she asked. “When we left Alaska, we were only planning on a two-year sail to Australia.”
And so we realized, as our eighth anniversary as full-time sailors approached, that we had spent all of that time on different two-year plans. That recurring two-year time frame is more than an accident. All voyaging sailors play the game their own way, and for us, having a goal is important. Our personalities don’t lend themselves to sailing aimlessly. So when we first left home, it was with a very firm objective in mind: We would sail to Australia, and then get to know that country where I had been born but never lived. Conveniently, that would take about two years, and saving the money needed for two years aboard was a reasonable pre-departure target.
After we arrived in Australia and realized how much we loved the sailing life, we started to think about other plans. I discovered that I could earn enough to pay our way by working as a marine biologist on the boat, so we were in the lucky position of being able to go for as long as we wanted, rather than being forced to stop and get jobs. Leafing through the possibilities of season and ocean basin spelled out in World Cruising Routes, we sketched out itineraries that would carry us through years and years of adventure.
But these longer plans, five-year chunks of our life spoken for on the back of an envelope in a late-night “what if” session, didn’t survive the cold-eyed scrutiny of the following morning. They were nice expressions of a future that we hoped for, but we had already seen too many examples of how life’s changes could frustrate a sailor’s dreams. Life is fluid — it is a supremely unplanned series of events, and any plan can only strive for the sweet spot between being a constructive guide and wishful thinking.
For us, those five-year itineraries have felt too much like the latter. So we’ve kept our goals concrete, and no more than two years out. When we sold our first traveling boat in Tasmania and bought Galactic in California, our aim was to spend a year preparing the vessel and sailing her back to Tasmania, and then spend another year in Australia for Alisa to qualify for citizenship. Then we embarked on our most ambitious two-year plan: visiting the New Zealand subantarctic as a way of testing the waters for sailing in higher latitudes, and then sailing on to the grand challenges of Patagonia, with side trips to Tonga and French Polynesia to sweeten the deal.
These goals have felt like enough to ask of fate and the fickle ocean. Our firm intention is still to sail back to Alaska someday. We’ll take on all the sailing between here and there two years at a time.
Mike Litzow is the author of South from Alaska: Sailing to Australia with a Baby for Crew. Get in touch with Mike at his blog, thelifegalactic.blogspot.com. At press time, Mike and family were exploring the canals of Patagonia on Galactic.