• close family • small boat • big world •

Re-entry, A Retrospective

October 18, 2018

by Greg
Arlington, Virginia

Sailors use the term "burying the hook" to mean  
returning to land semi-permanently or permanently.
Upon returning, we intended to write a "return to land" post here and continue posting about our transition to land and our reflections on cruising and its end. Surprise - we suddenly found ourselves too busy. The tempo of life changed completely. The soundtrack went from a slow waltz to Flight of the Bumblebee, played double-tempo.  Our time was filled with searching for a house, straightening out school enrollment, moving off of the boat, spending time with friends we'd not seen in years, and rejuvenating cars that had spent three years idle on a Virginia farm (including repairing the effects of generations of mice that had called them home). After that - school and jobs, rowing and MMA for our daughter, several rock bands and a mandolin orchesta for our son, etc, etc. So those intended posts were left in the dusts of time.

However, it seems a fair number of people still discover and read this blog, and of course we still think lovingly of it. (We can't let go). So, this day, exactly five years after our departure, seems like the perfect time to reflect on our return to land.

Let's get one thing straight before we go further. For cruisers of our means, cruising is no picnic. It's not sitting on deck sipping icey margaritas. (Though it is for owners like this one.) It's more like backpacking where your pack is your boat. When you're moving and the seas are rough, the driver gets wet.
Son Cash and adopted crewmember Anna T.
off Guyana coast taking us to Suriname
When you're moving and it storms, the driver gets wet. When you're at anchor and it storms, you often sit awake making sure you don't drag and somebody doesn't drag into you. When you're at anchor (we never docked - we always anchored), all land excursions take place by dinghy, and all supplies come to the boat by dinghy. Real showers are infrequent. Laundry is infrequent. Passages require someone on watch at all times. That includes night time. That includes moonless night time. That includes pitch black stormy night time.

Paula rebuilding the head. I was
VERY nice to her that day

When cruisers of our means say they aren't working, they mean only that nobody is paying them. Maintaining a cruising boat is a full time job and more. It has all varieties of systems: mechanical, electrical, electronics, plumbing, refrigeration, sailing. For example, Daystar, a relatively modest vessel, has 15 pumps aboard (not counting the dinghy-related pumps). If something breaks, you will be the one fixing it. And something is always breaking. If the only toilet on your boat breaks, you will be the one disassembling it to figure out why it doesn't work. If this takes days, break out the bucket. I could go on.

There's an amusing old-time sea tale of a man
who is so done with the sea that he decides
he's going to put an oar over his shoulder
and walk inland until someone asks him
what that thing is that he's carrying.

So some people who try cruising on a small sailboat realize it's just not for them.  They are ecstatic to be back on land. Their for sale sign appears minutes after the docklines are secured. Others cruisers loved their time "out there" but are finished, having gotten too old or having grandkids to see or just needing a break.

We are neither of these types. We loved the life. We could have continued for years. Cruising is not easy, but neither is returning to land life. We've done it once before, but practice makes it no easier. We don't feel sorry for ourselves, but before you say to yourself sarcastically "waa waa, poor things - they had to return to a "normal life", think about it. Picture yourself spending years in a foreign country with different culture and customs. Picture your kids doing a good chunk of their growing up there. Returning to "normal life" in the US is a major life change. (Many others struggle with it as well - see sites such as RockyRe-entry and the ThirdCultureKids group on Facebook.)

So why did we return? We ask ourselves that often, I more than anyone. Two reasons: money, and parental obligation.


Money actually ranked second as the reason we chose to return. We are not independently wealthy. ( We feel wealthy in many ways, but not financially, though we do obviously have a large streak of independence... haha) We planned carefully and saved money so that we could spend our time away cruising. We sold our house to cruise. We left with a budget for two years, but we tightened our belts and stayed out a third year.By the end, our budget was pretty much gone. But if you own the sailboat, cruising can be pretty inexpensive.  We could have found work along the way had we chosen to stay out.

However, there were two events coming our way: college for our kids, and retirement. College would be coming our way quickly. Retirement... uh, not so much. Before we left, we called this voyage pre-retirement : temporary retirement while our kids are young enough to enjoy it. So it was time for us to be un-retired again.

Cruising kids on a hilltop somewhere in southern Grenada

A more important reason we returned was for the benefit of our kids' education. If you've read some of our other posts about cruising and kids and education, this will sound like a contradiction. Cruising provides a magnificent life for kids. It connects them to the natural world, it de-emphasizes electronics, it lets them form healthy friendships, it gives them independence, it teaches them resilience, it gives them responsibilities that truly matter and rules that exist for clear and important reasons.

Greg conducting a game of Diplomacy for cruising kids in
a Grenada bar as a part of Cash's history lessons.
Boat-schooling also reduces the drudgery, inefficiency, and passivity of "normal" school, and in so doing it allows kids to learn at their own (possibly accelerated) pace, to follow their interests, and to learn in context. All this helps them retain their joy of learning. ( But don't draw the impression that it traded off educational rigor; Paula, a teacher by profession, developed and taught the curricula for our two different-aged kids for all three years. The curriculum was challenging, and they were far ahead in most subjects when they returned.  ) 

However, our job as parents is to open as many options as possible for our kids (even if it hurts a little). The lessons they learned "out there" were profound. They saw a world that few get to see in a way that fewer still get to see it. But after three years: diminishing returns. Though there is an infinite amount to learn about other countries and cultures, they had mostly learned the larger lessons they were going to learn from cruising. We felt obligated to put them back into organized schooling so that they could explore opportunities not available on the boat, and so that they will be able generate a wider range of options in their futures.

How have our two years back on land worked out? The one-sentence answer: it was the right choice for us, especially for the kids. (For the alternate path - continuing to cruise with kids, see this blog,  or this one.)


Nicole could not do
this on the boat
For our kids, moving back to traditional school was difficult in multiple ways. Though they found their classes interesting and had some very good teachers, they were accustomed to moving at their own pace. They were frustrated and bored at the slow pace of school and the amount of time wasted in classrooms. In many classes, they were also troubled and annoyed by the number of students in their classes who were lazy or unmotivated.

On the personal and social side of school, they also had frustrations. One was how much time others spent on their phones and computers. Eventually, they stopped hanging out with friends who couldn't pull their faces out of their phones. Neither have any interest in social media. And Cash recently got his cell phone stolen and decided that he does not need to replace it.

Cash never got enough of this while cruising.

Cruising kids are an eclectic and uninhibited group, and they make friends quickly. Our kids immediately noticed how "buttoned up" many of their new peers were. Our son  in particular had some trouble making friends jumping in to high school as a junior. Both kids also observed repeatedly how much their peers take for granted in this easy suburban life.

Despite the difficulties, despite longing for those cruising days, they have come to appreciate the benefits of organized school, and they have thrived. They are enjoying subjects and activities that weren't available in the cruising life: lots and lots of music opportunities for our son; rowing, mixed martial arts, and forensics for our daughter.

Cash attends Univ. of Rochester, the perfect
school for him except perhaps for the weather.
(Most buildings are connected by tunnels.)

Our son, after a somewhat lonely first semester junior year, figured out how to connect. He remarked that in retrospect, he was glad he didn't go directly from cruising to college; he got the chance to practice fitting into a new place first. Both kids made/are making straight As in high school, and our oldest was a national merit finalist. He found a college that values the diversity in his background rather than, say, four years of varsity sports and four summers of robotics camps.


For us adults, re-entry has been an intertwined mix of feelings resulting from leaving cruising behind and also from where we are now in life. For example, we owned our residence and a rental house before we left. We sold both. Like most Americans, having a house - our house - has always been a goal in itself, an important and expected part of life, and a part of having kids. But Cash is in college, Nicole is a junior in high school. We don't really need to own a house. It was a real shock to realize that we are "post-house." Neither of us care a whit whether we ever own another. Not an unpleasant realization, just hard to get used to after years of having home ownership be a fundamental value.

Ugly. No other
word for it.
Another "post" state for me is career. I still like my chosen profession, and I plan to work (haha - must work) for a while longer, but the larger "career" pressures that I felt earlier - "what am I going to accomplish..." have utterly vanished. It is also hard for me to get excited about the "crises" at work. For many of those, I can't help but think "that's not a crisis. A crisis was that dirty night on the way to the Dominican Republic when, with building winds, the mizzen blew out about the same time as the genoa furler jammed. Or that squally night in the Gulf Stream that we wrapped our 3/4" genoa sheet around our propeller."

Another transitional aspect worth noting has been health. I have several incurable diseases (here's one). While we were out cruising, medications were hard to find, so I cut way back on some and skipped others entirely. (Not insulin, obviously). I still felt great. Once we returned, I saw doctors regularly and started taking the meds they prescribed. I cannot say this improved my health; in fact my health has declined. One can call this a testament to the health benefits of cruising: fresh air, lots of sun, and lots of activity. There are more cynical ways to view it as well. And while stresses exist in both lives, those out there are such that they generally can be solved by your own efforts as opposed to problems like traffic on the Washington Beltway or getting blindsided by another driver. And finally on this topic, it's worth noting that despite getting all our water and food from land in some pretty poor countries, there was no sickness among us the entire three years, not even cold or flu.


Off the coast of Martinique on the passage from Suriname to
Guadeloupe. (Go ahead and criticise, you safety scolds!) 
Was it worth it? Absolutely. It was one of the best decisions of our lives to drop everything and go. We have no regrets.

Would we do it again? Absolutely. We adults hope and pray we have the health and finances to repeat it. Both kids would like to repeat it with us parents if possible. Both kids have resolved to do this with their own children.

Those three years are a touchstone of our life as a family. Togetherness, adventure, hardship, hard work, beauty, tranquility, independence, isolation alternating with the companionship of other sailors and locals. We all still flash back to our voyages multiple times each day.

The single best decision of our lives was to forget about financial prudence, forget about retirement, forget about the college fund, forget about houses, and -go- while our kids were young enough to accompany us. And I think that was the best decision of their lives as well.

Unknown said...

Ahoy Daystar!

Thanks for another great post!

The Tangent Crew

x said...

Thanks, Andy! Hope you are all doing great!