Friday, November 28, 2014

On Being a Cruising Kid...

I never really considered myself a "cruising kid", but I also never remember life without sailing in it. My parents always had a sailboat, the first was a Pearson 30 poetically named "Tenacious" - she took me on my maiden sail when I was only a couple weeks old and was same boat I put into gear and tried to drive out of Monroe harbor at the tender age of two. The second was a well-reputed 35 foot Pretorian, "Lancashire Lass" (after my mother), with a pretty blue stripe and a little more room for our growing family (my younger brother and sister had arrived by now). The next was a sleek Frers 41 (also a "Lancashire Lass"), which was bigger still and would be the boat responsible for my love of racing.  My dad has since built two custom aluminum boats of the same name - but the bulk of our cruising vacations were spent on the Pretorian and Frers. Every summer since I can remember (up until the apex of my angst-ridden teen years), our family of five would spend a few weeks cruising along the shores of Lake Michigan like...well, cruisers.

This was very strange among my friends. None of their families ever sailed and they certainly didn't own sailboats, so my disappearing over the summer on one was something I usually had to explain. Because many of my friends did know the concept of "lake house", I would liken our boat to my family's version of a "lake home", only ours moved from port to port and was kind of like camping. We slept in "bunks", we cooked in a "galley" and went to the bathroom in a "head". Sometimes it was stormy. Sometimes we threw up over the side. And sometimes we'd be stuck in a town longer than expected due to weather. One thing we could count on? It always took a really, really long time to get wherever it was we were going. Patience was a lesson that was always reiterated on the boat.

I never knew the term "cruisers" back then and I certainly didn't know that anyone ever lived on their boats. That wonderful nugget of information didn't come until after I read "Maiden Voyage" at thirteen or fourteen years old. Nope, where I grew up kids like me lived in houses with their parents, attended school, participated in various extracurricular activities, and eventually ended up going to college. If people were living outside the parameters of mainstream society (like...on boats), they weren't doing it in our suburban neighborhood.

When Scott and I left Chicago on our first boat Rasmus in 2010, we were inducted into another world - one where people did live on their boats and traveled the world in them. These were modern day gypsy caravans that floated. Some of these wonderful people even had kids on their boats. They were free, fit and fun. They were articulate, creative, intelligent and well-mannered in a way I hadn't seen in most land children. They were "boat schooled" and travelled the world with their families. These were cruising kids. Never did I consider that in my youth I had been one of them.

But I was, in a way. It wasn't full time and it wasn't to any foreign or exotic port, but our humble bouts of family cruising on beautiful Lake Michigan left an indelible mark on my character and had a huge impact on who, and where, I am today.

I don't remember the trips in enough detail to piece together a whole vacation. I know that we buddy boated with my aunt, uncle and cousins some times. I remember tons of fun. I remember being outside. I remember riding on the bow, holding on for dear life and excitedly feeling my stomach drop out from under me as we pitched over waves. I remember how cold Lake Michigan could be, even in August, when we ran and jumped in off the docks. Mostly my memories are just vignettes: a rainy day playing Old Maid on the boat, a rough passage where we all got sick, a family dinner in an out-dated lake side restaurant, and an impromptu dress up party on the dock(when I cleverly turned a bunch of garbage bags into a respectable hula costume). I remember water-balloon dinghy fights, fishing off the dock at sunset, pan-fried perch drenched in butter and building sand castles on the beach. I remember halyard swinging, dinghy excursions and exploring the rocks of countless break walls with my brother and sister looking for fool's gold. I remember my dad would always play classical music at bedtime because I couldn't fall asleep without it. Pachelbel's Canon in D will forever bring me right back to my bunk, back to the boat, listening to the gentle splash of waves against the hull.

Mostly I remember feelings: happy and free.

Despite this, I am pretty certain I was never excited about these boat vacations back then. I'm sure I whined that I would miss my friends, lamented that I would miss out on all the "cool" stuff summer had in store, and of course we all bemoaned having to live on a boat and sail every other day or so. Sailing was so very boring, so very slow. My parents obviously ignored our whining knowing full well that kids in particular are the most adaptable beings on the planet and in a few days time we'd  get in our groove, find our fun and forget all about whatever it was we were whining about. As we got older they started to allow us to bring along a friend on these vacations. It was when we could share this "strange" lifestyle with our peers that we started to see the "cool" in it. They would always be amazed by boat life (something which was so normal and natural to us) and, in turn, we'd find a healthy level of pride in our unconventional vacations. For a time, anyway.

We'd pack up the boat and usually my dad would single-hand the one 12-hour overnight across the lake from Chicago to the Michigan shore while we all slept down below. Once there we would leisurely skip from town to town along the coast. He knew not to push us. He was patient. He would learn to make us love sailing in short, digestible chunks. The love affair would take over a decade to mature in my brother and sister and I, the appreciation of what our parents were giving us during those summers didn't come until we were all grown up.  The sailing part was a means to an end for us kids, because what we loved about these trips was not sailing but coming into a new port. Each little beach town offered something exciting: New parks! New restaurants! New dunes! New ice cream and fudge shops! New books! My brother, sister and I are all voracious readers and we credit our deep love of reading to these cruising stints. We lived a very "unplugged" life on the boat. No television, no video games and of course this was well before cell phones were ubiquitous and in the palm of every hand. We didn't check in on Facebook, we didn't post pictures on Instagram, nor did we "tweet". When we underway, if we weren't building forts on the bow or playing games down below, or being dragged along in the dinghy (something that made us squeal with delight) we were reading. We'd find our comfy spots and tuck into our books. On "long" passages of five hours or more, we could knock off a book a day. Thankfully our parents never said "no" to replenishing our library at the next port. The excitement of new books on the boat was palpable.

My memories of the harbor towns along the Michigan shore - from Mackinaw Island to St. Joseph -are vivid. Cobblestone streets, bright red lighthouses, colorful storefronts, sandy beaches for miles... It wasn't until I sailed into these ports on my own boat twenty years later that I realized just how much I remembered. "Oh my gosh!" I would exclaim to Scott, "That is the park where my sister buried her rain coat, never to be found again!" or "That is the restaurant we used to go to every time we came here and play "killer" (a family game whereby the 'killer' winked people around the table 'dead')!" or "I remember fishing off that pier with my little Snoopy pole!" The memories all came flooding back with such fondness, it was like coming home. The familiarity of these places, untarnished after two decades, surprised me. Looking back, our cruising vacations made me fundamentally suited for a life afloat.

My dad always says that the greatest gift you can give to your kids is your time - and not just 'quality' time, but 'quantity' time...because beautiful moments where bonds are strengthened, difficult moments where security is developed, teachable moments where integrity is built and challenging moments where character evolves are not scheduled. They are there, in every second of every single day. They might be fleeting and they might be subtle, but they are always there. These cruising vacations gave our family the priceless gift of quality quantity time. Cruising kids get this kind of time from their parents in spades, it's a huge bonus of the lifestyle, for sure.

There was no way of knowing back then just how much impact those short but intense bouts of cruising would have on my life, but every day I am reminded. Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. It's rare we truly appreciate something for what it's worth when we are in the moment, particularly when we are children. Yet so much of who I am can be traced back to the boat, back to those cruising vacations and that time spent with my family: my love of reading, my appreciation for classical music, my intrinsic knowledge of the parts of a boat and sailing, my deep respect and admiration for the water and all things 'nature', the close bond with my family and - most of all - my unflinching desire to give the same experiences to our children.

So while I might not have been a full-time "cruising kid" - I was indeed one of them. And, as Frost so eloquently says, that has made all the difference.

7 comments:

Emily said...

I love this post! It brought back so many memories of my own experience cruising the San Juan Islands and up into BC every summer. Especially the reading part. Growing up a boat kid was great!

Prentiss said...

I really enjoyed reading this post. It was a reminder of why we give so much time as parents. It is fun to see it play out as our children grow up. I'm not so sure my children have such fond memories of our old sailboat.

Doug T. said...

WOW. This could be me...Substitute Chesapeake Bay instead of Lake Michigan, change the names of the towns... This was my childhood also. I hope to eventually realize my dream of cruising away too!

Tugba nur söz said...
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Mark Roope said...

I grew up yearning to go sailing around the world on a boat which was strange as then I had never been on one.
Eventually we did go and took our two boys with us. At the time we did not know if we would be making their lives better or worse but they wanted to go.
Now they are older they do say how much they enjoyed it and would do the same again. One wants to do it with his family.
Your post was good to read in that it showed that boat kids, even part time ones grow up to be normal and yet there is something special about them. They learn new skills and become very sociable. Reading about how being a child on a boat now that you are an adult with children of your own is someting I have rarley read before and I really enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Wow how did you get Isla in some of those older pictures. :0) Looks just like you Britt.

Scott Adams said...

Great read and beautiful tribute to your parents and upbringing. Thanks for letting us share the ride.

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