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A Real Education?

October 6, 2014

by Paula
At anchor, Luperon, Dominican Republic

“Your kids are getting a real education.”  We have heard this sentiment repeatedly since embarking on our cruising time away from land. Most people are quite enthusiastic about our decision to sail for a couple years and home-school our kids along the way. Often, people indicate that these experiences will somehow be more “real” than what they would learn in a traditional school setting. And many people who say this are teachers. Just what do they mean by real?

Math in the cockpit
As a former high school math teacher, I am in charge of our kids' academic studies. Traditional book-learning has not been put aside, nor have many of the types of assignments that would be completed back in a regular school. There are still math problems, history projects, reading, and writing assignments. One difference, however, in our academic studies, is the lack of bureaucracy that comes with being in any school system. Timing can be condensed to just what is needed, and we can be extremely flexible within our day or week. Assignments can be fluid, adjusting to interest, skill-level, and circumstance.

Cash drops anchor at Acklins
Island in the Bahamas
Nicole on the way to Warderick
Wells Cay in the Bahamas
The single greatest difference in their education is that which has been gained outside of academic studies. Life aboard a boat brings opportunities for our kids to participate in ways that require more responsibility or bring more independence than would be the case otherwise. Back in Virginia, we didn’t let our 12- and 14-year-old kids take the car and drive into town. Here, they regularly drive the dinghy in to the local town to play pool or hang out with other cruising kids. Likewise with the big boat. Both take turns on the helm (especially Cash), driving this 14-ton sailboat through choppy seas or narrow channels or fog. We all work together to anchor or dock or raise sail or navigate.

A recent incident brought out just how meaningful this education can be. The harbor here in Luperon
The crowded anchorage in Luperon, Dominican Republic
is crowded, with many people leaving their boats on mooring balls for the hurricane season.  Finding a spot to anchor amidst the moorings is possible, but not ideal. For an anchor to hold, it must be set with sufficient length of line to the boat. This is described as scope - the ratio of chain length to the depth. We try to let out at least 5:1 scope. The more scope, the better since it keeps pull on the anchor horizontal, which helps it dig in. In this harbor, however, the tight spots mean we could have just 2.5:1 scope. Any more and we would have swung into other boats. This makes it much less certain that the anchor will hold.

Two days ago, Greg, Nicole, and I headed in for a trip to town. Cash stayed back on the boat to get some schoolwork done. Just as we walked from the dinghy dock to the street, Cash called on the VHF: the boat was dragging. He had been below and saw out the portal that there was another boat very close beside us that "shouldn't" be there. Daystar was dragging and could have hit other boats or run aground. The situation called for immediate action, and there was no one but Cash to deal with it.

We need to lift the
floorboards to open the
raw-water intake.
He kept his cool. He immediately switched on the starting battery and lifted the engine cover to turn on the engine raw-water intake (necessary steps before starting the engine) while simultaneously calling us on the VHF. He sounded much more calm than I would have. To make things tougher on him (haha) we had removed the wheel for a project, so he had to figure out how to put the wheel back on before starting the engine. Within minutes he was under motor, steering Daystar away from the other boat and then idling in forward to keep her in place.

The wheel had been
removed temporarily.
We dinghied back as quickly as we could, but it took some time against the strong wind and waves to get back, especially since we were using our small backup outboard.  In the meantime, Papo, a local who owns the moorings and had from a distance seen Daystar moving in an odd way and guessed what was happening. In his much faster skiff, he headed to Daystar and joined Cash on board. With Cash at the helm, he hauled our anchor. Cash repositioned the boat in a safe spot, and then handed Papo the helm so that he could go forward and drop anchor again. Once secure, they waited for us to arrive.

Pretty good stuff – I am so proud of him. I know there are lots of kids, everywhere, who could rise to this type of challenge. But there just aren’t that many opportunities in the land life for a 14-year old to be exposed to them and learn from them. This was the real thing – something that really mattered – and he was able to take charge and do the right thing with calm and confidence and ease. Book-learning will always have an important place in our lives. But we’re also glad to be out here doing some “real” learning too.