Sailing Away

One family wanted to slow down and grab life with both hands, so they bought a 42-foot ketch, learnt to sail her and headed off on a journey from Iluka to Cairns and back again.

‘Excuse me,’ said my sister-in-law over the excited babble of the rest of my family on hearing our Grand Plan. ‘Does nobody else think this is a really bad idea?’

She was right. It was a really bad idea; it was lunacy. Seen through the eyes of a sane person, what we were proposing to do – buy a sailboat and sail away for six months with our kids – was financially ruinous, professionally suicidal, and given the age of our crew (13, 10 and 6), morally questionable. Oh, and one other thing: we didn’t know how to sail.

But we did it anyway.

Our eldest daughter, Reminy, was 13, and since she’d started high school, time had seemingly sped up and we’d all felt pulled into a mouse-wheel of extracurricular activities, homework pressures, social commitments and the toxic online culture that teenage girls are increasingly exposed to. We had a growing sense that one day soon we’d wake up and find that she’d grown up and flown the nest, that our precious time with her had slipped through our fingers all too quickly.

My husband Miles and I were at crossroads in our careers, but the frantic pace of our lives meant that we could never find the time to stop and reflect on where we wanted to be next, or how we wanted to get there. We knew we weren’t living deliberately, that we weren’t sucking the marrow out of life. Our lives felt paradoxically dull and tense and I, in particular, felt increasingly fearful. There always seemed to be something new to be afraid of.

I reasoned, bizarrely, that we should do something really scary, to set a new benchmark for terror. So, we re-mortgaged the house, bought a sailboat and named her Pandion. The next six months were brutal.

‘Oh yeah,’ says Reminy to whomever asks. ‘That sucked. That was the hardest time of my life.’

Pandion diving

There was the gruelling task of getting the house ready to rent out, the boat ready to sail, the endless list of boat repairs we’d never anticipated, the money haemorrhaging out of our savings account in a fast and steady stream, the hours spent upside down scrubbing out boat compartments we never knew existed and the struggle to squeeze sailing training into an already overcrowded life. The strain the whole endeavour was putting on our marriage and our family and the nagging fear that this was the worst decision we’d ever made had us all questioning whether this was a trip we even wanted to make anymore.

Two months after our intended departure date had slipped by, we were still sitting on anchor in our home port of Iluka, trying to address a ‘To Do’ list that had grown to 162 items. Deliverance came in the form of an experienced sailing couple from Sydney who anchored next to us on their way to Noumea.

‘You just need to leave,’ they said, gently.

So, we left, at 10pm on the 15th July 2017, motoring out the Clarence Heads by moonlight at the start of our first passage as a family. We had no idea what to expect.

A Day in the Life of Pandion

I wake in the aft cabin with bright tropical sunlight streaming in the port-holes onto my face and climb out of the tiny double bed that has taken me to some of the deepest slumbers I’ve ever had. Miles is already up and away in the tender, fishing with our son. Our littlest daughter, Sylvie, is busy creating a spaceship for her stuffed toys out of sticky tape and paper in her ‘cubby’, up behind the salon. Reminy is sprawled out asleep in the forward V berth. Books are strewn around her, unfashionable books like Jane Eyre, Sophie’s World and Boys in the Boat, books the kids had to start reading when their ‘good’ books ran out.

Pandion lower deck

It’s a school day and we all want to go snorkelling when the tide’s a bit lower, so I prod her awake and go up on deck.

We’re anchored off a tiny cay on Sudbury Reef, south-east of Cairns, and are the only boat around. Miles and Malachy are just visible as a moving dot trolling around a bombie to the south. I strip off and dive over the side of the boat into water so clear I can see every feature on the bottom. At the sound of my splash, Sylvie emerges from below and throws herself in beside me. A little while later, the Hibernating Grizzly Bear (that’s Reminy) joins us, bleary-eyed and half asleep until she hits the water and wakes up properly.

The boys catch a coral trout that we eat for breakfast with the last of the limes. I bullyrag the kids into their schoolwork which is a lot easier to do if you have a big carrot like snorkelling to wave in their faces. We do maths, Sylvie reads aloud to me from Fantastic Mr Fox, Malachy works on his project about Ireland and Reminy gets stuck into her self-selected study of the brain. Today she’s learning about neuroplasticity and she keeps piping up with new and astonishing facts.

With school finished, we suit up for a snorkel and swim over to the bombies closer to the cay. The Great Barrier Reef is in serious stink and we’ve been troubled by the damage we’ve seen all the way up the coast, but this reef is spectacular. We spend ages playing with rainbow-hued Christmas tree worms, visiting anemone fish, peering under coral looking for trout, spying electric blue starfish, giant lolling sea cucumbers, Moorish idols, neon-coloured nudibranchs, bristle stars, turtles and more. We communicate with each other underwater by wild gesticulating and ‘snorkel talk.’

It’s our longest snorkel yet and all of us are getting better at staying down for longer and diving deeper between breaths, even the seven-year-old.

We finish the day running around on the tiny island as the sun goes down behind our beautiful boat.

The Pandion crew come home

‘How was your trip?’ people ask and it’s impossible to answer in a single word. Bits of it were magical, other bits were horrible, uncomfortable, terrifying, hilarious, exhausting, boring, frustrating, amazing, mind-blowing and life-changing.

Pandion books

Worthwhile is the word Miles and I seemed to have settled on. But what does that mean, worthwhile? We took the question to the kids: why was our sailing trip worthwhile? Here’s what they said:

‘You feel free.’ (Malachy)

‘You learn how to control yourself in scary situations and not freak out.’ (Reminy)

‘We saw and heard amazing things, like whales singing.’ (Reminy)

‘We met lots of nice people.’ (Sylvie)

‘You learn about how much waste you produce on a boat, compared to on land.’ (Malachy)

‘You get to break apart from your life and be entirely yourself.’ (Reminy)

‘Sometimes the sailing was really nice and the sunsets were beautiful. We saw so many fish and everything was beautiful.’ (Sylvie)

‘Your family becomes sort of like a team.’ (Reminy)

‘You learn to live in the moment.’ (Malachy)

Now that we’ve earned our stripes sailing up the coast to Cairns and back, we’re preparing to sail to New Caledonia in May this year and then onto Vanuatu. We can’t wait.

Note: Miles and Melissa both completed Competent Crew qualifications before they left, and Miles completed his Day Skipper qualification. Melissa crewed on a racing yacht almost every week in the six months before they left, both got radio licences, completed a navigation course, an engineering course, and a fire and survival at sea course. They both have wilderness first aid qualifications. They also crewed on other people’s yachts whenever they could. While they still don’t consider themselves to be ‘real sailors’, they’ve met a lot of other people out there doing it with far less experience than them.

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