Sailing Home Again

Leaving land life behind to go cruising can seem like a big step, but coming home afterwards can be just as challenging.

We’ve completed two extended “seabatticals,” and the emotional process of transitioning back was very different each time. The physical process, on the other hand, was similar: in each case, we came back to the same town in the same part of the world (Bavaria) and in my case, to the same job.

With those experiences in mind, I’ll look at how each of us transitioned back and what factors helped ease that process.

First trip: In the Caribbean

Our first trip (2007-2008) was a year-long cruise which took us from the Mediterranean, across the Atlantic, around the eastern Caribbean, and up to US East Coast to Maine.

Our son went from being 3 to 4 years old during that time, and my husband and I both had a leave of absence from work so we could return to the same jobs. We had given up our rented home and sold the car, so when we came home, we had those things to sort out.

For me, coming home from the first trip proved to be a surprisingly difficult transition and it took months to get out of the slump.

Our second trip (2011-2014) was a three-year trip that took us from Maine to Australia on the same boat.

Second trip: Back in our apartment in Bavaria

Our son completed grades 2, 3, and 4 during that trip, an upon our return, he went back to the same school he left after grade 1. I had a leave of absence from work while my husband resigned from his position.

We were able to sublet our rental apartment and loan out our car, so when we came home, we had both waiting for us.

For me, the transition back from that trip was very smooth due to factors beyond those conveniences.

We also lucked in to a very long, easy-going transition time: after we sold the boat in Australia, we enjoyed land travel for six weeks before going to Maine for another six weeks. In Maine, we were land-bound but right on the edge of the ocean, and we weren’t working yet.

We returned to our home in Germany with two weeks before “real life” started up in earnest with the start of a new school year.

In Maine. New challenges and new forms of fun are one good way
to fight post-cruising blues

Each trip, therefore, was followed by a very different experience.

Although our first trip was shorter, it took me a much longer time to transition back afterwards.

Why?

The biggest factor, I believe, is that we finished the first trip wishing for more sailing time. Although we accomplished everything we intended from the outset, it still felt too short. We had just tasted the sailing life and it was time to go home.

During that trip, we also met several sailing families who continued in to the Pacific and seeing them carry on while we headed home had me regretting that I hadn’t dared to dream an even bigger dream.

The transition back, at least for me, was hard, because my heart and soul were still out cruising. Compounding that was the fact that the apartment we did find wasn’t available for nearly two months, so we had a long period of temporary housing to deal with as well.

To my surprise, coming back from the three-year trip was much easier. I thought it would be harder, but that didn’t prove to be the case.

The two main reasons for this were that

  1. We had planned for a two-year trip and were able to extend it into three full years, so it already felt we’d won a lottery,
  2. Though I could have continued cruising forever, we had a greater sense of completion than after the first trip.
    Much as we would have loved another three years in the Pacific, we felt like we had seen and done more than we ever wished for.
    In addition, most of the dear friends we made along the way wrapped up their sailing adventures at around the same time, so there wasn’t so much of that feeling of watching the rest of the kids enjoying the playground while we were stuck indoors.

Germany: Meeting our fellow sailors who have also returned home
has helped the transition back.

Finally, we were also able to come home to the very same apartment – a home we love in a town we love in a gorgeous part of the world. Part of the latter was true the first time around, in that we also came home to the same town, though dealing with temporary housing was a significant issue for me.

My main frustrations on coming home the second time were small things, like the shock of coming home from a beautifully simple, off-the-grid life to a world that is even more absorbed in electronic devices and multimedia entertainment.

After the second trip, I slipped easily back into the same job, though it took a while to adjust to the idea that I would be doing it for years and not just as a short stint. Six months down the line, I’ve digested that fact at last!

And what about my husband and my son?

With our son, it’s hard to judge because he had a smooth transition each time.

He was only four years old after the first trip and would have just been starting in a new school anyway. His kindergarten teacher did comment that he seemed a little overwhelmed by being surrounded by twenty other children all the time. (He had been in day care previously with the same number of children, but during our year at sea he got accustomed to having no more than two or three playmates at a time.)

After the second trip, he re-entered the same school. We were very lucky that a number of the students he knew from grade 1 were in his new grade 5 class – including his closest school buddy, with whom he’d been in email contact throughout the cruise.

The boat kids of Suwarrow, Cook Islands

So for our son, the transition was quite easy, too. He had enjoyed the company of several other kids while cruising (as well as attending a few local schools and a summer camp in New Zealand), so the group social situation of school wasn’t as much of a shock to him.

The main observations his teacher made was that he was so used to home schooling alone that he had a hard time working in pairs – in the sense that he’d do his half and let his partner do the other half without realizing that it ought to be a collaborative process.

I was surprised, because while sailing, he collaborated beautifully with kids of different ages, backgrounds, and even languages. However, those were all informal situations and it seems that it took some time to transfer the skill to a school setting.

• My husband reports that transitioning back home after the second trip was slightly more difficult than after the first, though not by a great deal. He had no trouble finding a new job after the second trip, and although it was at a different company, he was familiar with the setting since he had consulted for that company while in his previous employer.

How broadly applicable are our experiences?

It’s hard to say. The sailors we know who’ve done the same kinds of sailing trip have a range of experiences to report. Some came back to their previous homes and immediately thrived, while others floundered. Others settled in entire different places (even different countries) and again, some are full of cheery news while others sing the blues. The question is, is there a single secret to success?

One sailor I spoke with observed that there are so many books that help you go cruising, but none that help with the transition back. It may well be that the variables range over such a wide spectrum that it’s hard to establish a pattern.

I’m no expert, but I will mention two things that helped ease both transitions back for us (aside from the obvious: having jobs to pay the bills and alleviate that stress).

  1. One was maintaining contact with sailing friends – both those still out there and those who like us are back to more humdrum lives. They’re the ones who understand us best and with whom we laugh the deepest laughs, smile the widest smiles.

    Two families who last met in the Cook Islands reunite on a weekend hike

  2. The second factor was having a new goal that I could be passionate about working toward to replace the “loss” of the sailing lifestyle.

For me, that goal was writing Lesson Plans Ahoy after I returned from the first trip, as well as writing magazine articles for the sailing press. These gave me a chance to relive parts of my trip while producing something valuable for others, which is rewarding.

My goal now that we’re back from the second trip is to not only write more non-fiction (like Pacific Crossing Notes and Cruising the Caribbean with Kids), but to branch into fiction writing as well. This includes my two sea adventure novels (The Silver Spider and Rum for Neptune) as well as other projects in the works.

In many ways, these fiction-writing goals give me the new horizons I crave, and that’s another reason that this second transition was a smoother one. If I had come home with the feeling that the grand adventure was over and had nothing to look forward to, I would be telling a very different story right now.

We count our blessings every day – those that allowed us to go sailing in the first place, and those that give us new aspirations now that we’re back. We’re thankful for our health, luck, and the family members who let us go, then welcomed us back, not to mention friends and employers who generously did the same.

Are we done with sailing?

Not by a long shot! But we’re content to pay our dues and pursue other goals until we earn a third chance to live the sailing life we so enjoy. Someday!


Save

Girl Overboard

 

miller-overboard-koch--1

I stood on the bowsprit as we sailed Biscayne Bay.

The wind swept the swelter of the sun from my skin.

A bucket of Noon rain had dumped and now steamed up from the decks of the Annie Lee, taking my troubles—real and imagined—with it.

Annie!” Dad hollered from the cockpit. “Check our depth.”

I startled and scrambled for the world’s longest mop handle and jabbed it into the water until it struck bottom.
Six feet!” I read from the notches Dad had carved in the pole.
Six and a half… six and a half!” We drew four feet, so I knew we were okay for the moment. I rammed the pole through the seaweed into the muddy bottom again.
Six—”

miller-overboard-koch--2

The pole stuck fast in the mud.

In a split-second reflex, I clung to the stick and the Annie Lee sailed out from under my feet.

The pole sunk deeper in the mud as I wrapped my arms and legs around it—suspended over the bay like a girl shish kabob. “Daaaad!” I clung to the pole while my brain registered I wasn’t reading this in Nancy Drew, but living it.

My brother jumped up and down on the aft deck screeching, “Daddy, Daddy! Annie lost the boat!”

I caught a fleeting glimpse of R.J.’s sun-toasted face gone pale as my toes touched bay.

This water is freezing.” I yelled at the Annie Lee’s transom. “There’s mud down here! I hate seaweed! God only knows what’s slithering around in here!”

Cold fingers of water and fear climbed my ribs as I inched down the pole. Dad would rescue me, but the barracuda and hammerhead I’d met this summer still lived between my ears.

In up to my neck and treading water with one hand, I kicked slimy kelp.

Treading water, debating swimming for the ANNIE LEE

The chill crawled up my scalp as my hair slurped sea, morphing into soggy noodles.

Water lapped into my mouth and I tried to spit out the salty taste and my fear, but they hung around.

I peered at the shoreline. I could swim that far if I had to.

Clouds bunched their way across the horizon, white bumper cars converging and parting.

In the distance, Dad dropped sail. The anchor would be next. I knew Dad wouldn’t about-face the Annie Lee in shallow water to fetch me.

Should I swim for the boat and drag the stupid pole along?

While I debated, Dad landed on cat feet in the dinghy, shoved the oars into the oarlocks. He glanced over his shoulder to get a bead on my location.

Dad’s shoulders and arms flexed and relaxed under his T-shirt as he stroked.

Dad always loomed larger than life, but today as I watched him, he approached super-hero status.

At last he coasted up beside me. He grabbed my forearms and hauled me into the boat with a grunt. I couldn’t read his tight-lipped expression.

I inhaled the scent of Dad’s sweat and safety as I landed in a soggy lump in the bottom of the dinghy.

Dad braced his legs and yanked the pole from the bay in one heave.

The pole clattered where he dropped it—one end extended over the bow, the other oozing mud into the water behind the dinghy.

As I launched into a litany of every little detail Dad needed to know about my lapse overboard, I thought about how good it felt to be rescued.

miller-overboard--6I usually felt left to fend for myself.

Normal was bumping my knees against the ring where Mom and Dad went rounds in a marital bout. When they shed their mouth guards and gloves, and stepped off the mat into Mom and Dad, they were black and blue and beat.

I walked alone two stints of kindergarten—Miami and LA. My barracuda and shark were a graffiti-scrawled tunnel and a freeway bridge where cars whizzed by my elbow, blowing exhaust in my hair.

At seven, I rode two Miami buses to ballet, poised on my knees with my hand at half-mast beneath the pull cord.

I fixed my own breakfast every day. And once or twice I forgot and fainted in school.

My third grade picture—put down for posterity in the family album—is a shot of the Pippi Longstocking braids I did myself.

Mom pasted a smile on life, as if a Groucho Marx nose and mustache could make happy.

But when I really needed them—like today—my parents came through.

They whisked me to the hospital when I downed a bottle of baby aspirin as a kid.

Mom carted me to the orthodontist to un-buck my teeth, the orthopedist to fix my inward-turning feet—with ballet, saddle shoes, and nighttime boots nailed east and west on a plywood board.

Dad taught me how to pinch a penny, skin a fish, and feel things deep down in my gullet.

Back on the Annie Lee, before my suit completely dried, Dad spotted the cove he’d been looking for. We’d tie up along the seawall and head inland.

But we dropped sail too late and came in hot against the concrete.

A crunch sounded as the Annie Lee sideswiped the rough wall, skinning off a two-foot section of fiberglass, resin, and paint.

I gritted my teeth. We should be called the Four Stooges instead of the Fettermans.

But Dad went grimly about tying the Annie Lee to nearby pines, positioning the bumpers to insure there’d be no more blunders today.

We tumbled out onto land and traipsed after Dad.

My mood had swung south with Dad’s. I swatted a mosquito from my sweaty neck and braced myself for an afternoon digging clams with my fingernails or wading through mangrove swamp hunting antique bottles.

Dad stopped and my nose bashed into his shoulder blade.

A rope swung in the breeze from the high reaches of a banyan tree. Sun dappled the smooth green water below.

My mouth dropped open.

A tree-gnarled Nirvana.

I glanced at R.J. and saw my grin written on his face.

Dad climbed down the bank and scouted the rope’s span for rocks and logs. Satisfied, he caught the rope with a dead branch and pushed it into my waiting hands.

I swung out into air and let go. Cucumber crisp water closed around me, encasing me in a delicious coolness I’d thought frigid when I fell overboard.

Dropping like an ice cube into the delicious, cool cove
An hour later, I perched on a sprawling tree root at water’s edge, breathing hard. Rivulets ran down my arms. I wrung the moisture from my hair and watched my family swing and drop like ice cubes into the cove.

R.J. did a cannon ball, Dad a jackknife, and Mom, a graceless plop.

I laughed at R.J.’s next let-go. His arms and legs flailed in mid-air before landing in the water.

I savored this sweetest day of childhood—not realizing it would shine through the stormy seas ahead.

I savored this sweet day of childhood.