I’m raising my daughter on a sailboat

“You’re crazy!” We get that a lot.

Most common questions

What about garbage?

We try to reduce waste as much as possible. For instance, whenever I buy provisions, I get rid of the excess packaging before the groceries even come on board. I also wash and reuse things like Ziploc bags. Some inevitable garbage does build up, though. When we’re cruising, we offload our waste whenever we’re in port.

What if you get sick?

Motion sickness is the worst! We try to avoid sailing in conditions that precipitate it, but sometimes, it’s unavoidable. I have medicine on board to combat the symptoms (for both children and adults), along with a stash of ginger candies and Vernors Ginger Ale. Also, the rule is, whoever is feeling sick takes the helm. The focus on steering the boat and keeping an eye on the horizon keeps the nausea at bay.

How do you do your laundry?

When we’re cruising, enough marinas have laundry facilities that it hasn’t been a problem (though quarters become a hot commodity). And there’s something soothing in the simplicity of washing clothes by hand in the cockpit and spreading them out on the lifelines to dry in the afternoon sun.

How do you cook when the boat is heeled?

This does take some getting used to, but the boat really is designed with this in mind. The stove is gimballed, meaning that no matter what angle the boat is at, the cooking surface is level. Clamps are used to secure pots and pans. In addition, all counters and storage areas have a serious lip, providing a more usable work surface and keeping the contents from flying across the salon.

How do you keep Claire safe?

This is our No. 1 priority. At the dock, Claire is always in a life jacket. When we are underway, we most often have Claire in a harness and connect it to a tether that we can clip anywhere on the boat. This eliminates the possibility of her ever falling overboard; we also sometimes double up and put her in a life jacket as well. In addition, we have netting all the way around Clarity that acts as a fence for additional safety, and if the conditions really deteriorate, we bring her down below.

 

Follow their journey at sailingclarity.wordpress.com.

To be honest, I’ve said it about us any number of times.

My husband, Aaron, and I have a condo in Oak Park with our daughter, Claire, who just turned 4. But for half the year, we live almost full-time on a 36-foot sailboat, Clarity. Her home base has been 31st Street Harbor and during the sailing season, we’ve spent five out of seven days on the water with Lake Michigan as our backyard.

Sailing was always part of our family DNA. Aaron has been an active racer since we met, and on our first date, he took me on a sunset cruise. He proposed on the bow of a boat we chartered in Michigan, and Claire did her first offshore passage from Chicago to South Haven at 6 months old.

The first summer we had the boat, Aaron told me he’d like to try spending half-time aboard, and if I’m being honest, my initial reaction was not elation, but a gut-wrenching `How the heck am I going to do this?! And with a toddler?!’

Sure, we have the aft cabin, the v-berth, the head, the galley, the salon. They are rooms, for lack of a better word, since they’re separated by doors. But the boat is 36-and-a-half feet long from stem to stern and 12 feet across at its widest point. The space is a little bigger than a modestly sized bedroom.

The more seasons we spend on Clarity, though, the more it just feels like home.

We have pillow fights in the aft cabin and hang Claire’s paintings in the main salon. She works on her letters at the navigation station and her Cheerios and beads find their way to every nook and cranny of the boat.

The topsides are a big part of our living quarters. We grill burgers and swim off the sides. Claire climbs in the rigging like a jungle gym and we drag sleeping bags out on the bow and search for shooting stars. Tethers, life jackets and netting around the perimeter of the boat all help keep Claire safe at the dock and on the water, though it ultimately comes down to us keeping a watchful eye.

When we’re at our marina we have a beach, a swimming pool, a playground and the lakefront path all within a five-minute walk. Aaron and I both work remotely from the boat as much as possible, and we sometimes do the morning commute from the boat to Oak Park and drop Claire off at preschool.

The highlight of each season has been a month-long summer cruise, port-hopping to all of the lakeside towns on Lake Michigan. The dock, the lake, the ports we visit, all become a natural extension of the home that travels with us wherever we go.

The first two years, we cruised the Michigan side as far north as Beaver Island, just south of the Upper Peninsula, and last year, we stayed west and sailed up to Door County. When we’re cruising, we follow a routine. On the days that we’re planning a passage, we check the weather, ready the boat, test our systems and go.

Aaron and I work as a team to get the boat off the dock and set the sails, and once we’ve settled into our course, we take turns managing Claire and Clarity. Safety is the No. 1 priority, and Aaron and I have both taken first-aid and marine emergency courses. Aaron also went through extensive safety training during his schooling to obtain his master captain’s license.

Our cruising schedule is completely dependent on weather windows–wind, waves and storms are all factors that determine whether or not we cast lines and when. There have been times that we’ve been socked in a port for more days than planned and times that we’ve rocketed up the coast, soaking up the magic marriage of favorable winds and calm seas.

We are tested in countless ways during these long trips. All day is family time. Weekdays and weekends are blurred. We are together All. The. Time.

I’ll admit: This took some getting used to at first, but we’ve come to cherish this closeness. It’s allowed Aaron and me to work through issues more quickly, be in tune with one another and extend grace in challenging situations, with each other and with Claire.

I had other concerns, too, when we started doing longer cruises. Could we keep Claire entertained during 14-hour passages? Would she miss her friends? On rainy days when we’re stuck down below, how will we avoid going stir crazy? But Claire spent the better part of our longer sails this past summer happy as a clam, making Play-Doh smashcakes in the cockpit and building Lego towers.

During one of the rainier days on the water, she and I cozied up down below. We put on a play with her stuffed animals and made a message in a bottle that Claire sent overboard later that afternoon.

When we’re docked at new ports, Claire’s our social ambassador, introducing herself to everyone she sees. We hike up sand dunes and make sand castles at the beach. We collect rocks and tour lighthouses. And we make friends with the ducks that take up residence on our stand-up paddleboard and the animals that call the harbor home.

With this cruising lifestyle, the day-to-day needs are still there. I have to do the laundry, clean and prepare meals–sometimes when my ingredients are sliding back and forth.

When something breaks, as it often does at the most inopportune times, Aaron assumes the role of boat mechanic and master problem-solver.

It might sound overwhelming, but truthfully, you just figure it out. There’s a sense of freedom–and pride–that comes with solving these problems on your own, and a simplicity in the lifestyle that, for us, was a much-needed alternative to the daily grind.

All of these elements, challenging and gratifying, made us fall in love with life on the water. What better way to teach Claire about nature than to immerse her in it? What better way to show her teamwork than to set an example with our partnership in running the boat?

And what better way to encourage Claire to dream big than to actually live our dreams for our family?

So, with the sailing season finally upon us again, we’ve decided to sell our Oak Park condo and many of our possessions, head east and become full-time cruisers, with our family compass pointed south toward the islands.

As we’ve shared our plans with family and friends, we’ve gotten amazing support, and also a healthy dose of, “So … how are you going to do that?” I’m not sure yet. I can’t wait to find out.

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