Raising our family on a Sailboat

“Has Maya ever fallen overboard”  That’s the first question most people ask when I tell them that our home is a sailboat. “Wow, how amazing” they invariably say, staring at me with raised eyebrows that really say “we are never signing up for a play date at your place!” Admittedly, ours is a very unconventional lifestyle, not only because our home floats but also because as travel journos (I write, Dave shoots), we are raising our little homeschooled vegetarian on the move.

Sometimes we live out of backpacks and bungalows, other times our home-base is our caravan or a tent, but the place we really call home is boat number four – a Hitchhiker sailing catamaran called Storyteller with just enough room for three.

Quite understandably, most parents don’t know which box to put us in, although our gypsy tales occasionally excite wistful looks from Dads with big dreams to sail away, and Mums who still remember that month they spent backpacking in Laos when they survived on $15 and a six pack of beer a day.

When a child comes along, it takes remarkable will to maintain an alternative lifestyle with all its apparent inconveniences, especially when everyone around you assumes that you will eventually settle into a routine with a single address, a playgroup membership and a whole bunch of white goods.

“But for us, boat life and the freedom it allows us to set sail and explore, and then lock up the catamaran and go four-wheel-driving or backpacking overseas, certainly provides the antidote to potential boredom and ultimate insanity”

While living aboard is not always easy – we live in each other’s pockets and without the usual conveniences of home life (no dishwasher, washing machine, freezer, oven, or air-conditioning, and our coldwater shower is al fresco) – it’s a totally awesome living solution for three itchy-footed travellers like us!

Sure there’s water to fetch and handwashing to be done, but when the winds are favourable we can sail off on a whim, and there are no rates, no rent and no power bills thanks to a rooftop full of solar panels and a faithful wind generator.

The downside is that those sailing trips can be equal parts idyllic (think snorkelling off the boat at remote Lizard Island) and tedious. Sailing days might be rough, the wind might dissipate altogether, or we might have to make headway into rigorous swell, all of which might mean long or uncomfortable days of passage.

We might anchor in calm, translucent waters where we jump right off the boat and kick ashore, only to find that the winds change and the swell thumps us side-on, leaving us sleepless all night long.

There are tropical cyclones to endure, squalls to dodge and reefs to avoid (sometimes!), but when so much is changing around us, things are never dull on the water.

So how does this live-aboard lifestyle benefit our now-four-year-old girl?

For starters, she’s an excellent swimmer, a real water-baby who loves to snorkel and has a passionate knowledge of marine life that doesn’t come only from books and TV. From the time she could crawl,

Maya has had a lot to learn about avoiding the unique pitfalls of our peculiar life, starting with not falling overboard, avoiding estuarine crocodiles and other things that bite and sting, to knowing what to do when sailing gets rough and Mum and Dad are busy on deck. She takes it all in her stride and without fear, and has developed a high level of patience that puts many adult travellers to shame.

Our minimalist lifestyle means she gets by with a little of everything, but invariably appreciates her possessions all the more. We have most of the usual toys aboard (a bike, scooter, surfboard and a crazy excess of books, dolls, cars and stickers), but stints spent backpacking and camping mean paring down those possessions to a favourite few, and finding our entertainment in the world around us on hikes, biking and boating trips in new destinations.

Having travelled as a trio since Maya was four-weeks-old, our daily routine has never included stints at daycare, resulting in a particularly firm bond. I suspect the constant company of two parents, the close confines of boat life and the lack of regular involvement from faraway family has left us with a child quite keen to stick close in the big wide world.

We could not (and would not) expect her to suddenly adjust to the separation of kindy now that she is four years old, even if the occasional day to ourselves might entice. On the flipside, her confidence in the outdoors is truly remarkable and I’ve never seen a child more at home in the wild.

Having to share our very small living space (which transforms from a playroom to a study to a dining space depending on the time of day), has made us all far more flexible about laying claim to personal space, and although I sometimes crave a little Mummy-room away from the fray, you can’t beat the cosiness of boat life!

While we spend only part of each year living aboard, our boating lifestyle and the friendships fostered on the sea and in our home port of Cairns, help us to keep our bearings when we venture off into the unknown. At four years of age, Maya has yet to declare any yearning for things or people left behind when we travel, and while she is still very much a work-in-progress, I do believe that having a little of many worlds has so far been a great thing for her.

This unconventional life of ours invariably demands enormous patience and the ability to talk a Barbie through some long, slow journeys, but it’s an awesome way to live and explore the world and I firmly believe that our marvellous, curious little adventurer is all the better for it.

Catherine & Dave

Journalist, author and adventurer, Catherine Lawson travels full-time with Photographer/Camerman Dave Bristow and their daughter Maya. Captivated by wild places and passionate about their preservation, these storytellers advocate a simple life and document their outdoor adventures to inspire all travellers, but especially families, into the world’s best wild places.

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