You know the feeling when you’re immersed in a book, lost in its adventure, captured by its characters, and sensing so clearly all the colors, sounds, smells and shapes? You can’t put down the book because you’ve become a silent observer of the story, maybe even a participant in the tale, and you’re brimming with anticipation about what’s unfolding. Some sections you race through without realizing you’ve devoured hundreds of pages; with other chapters you savor the richness of description on every page, taking a deep breath after each, consumed by the language and its magic. That’s a small taste of the feeling we had while on our year-long family adventure through the Florida Keys, the Bahamas and on the Great Loop. For the Muddy Waters crew, each day was a page or chapter in a captivating book.
Ever curious and inquisitive, we’re not yet master mariners but we’ve tried to become accomplished listeners and learners. We often said to one another on our trip that everyone has a story to tell. Everyone. This past year on the water, we made more time in our days to listen, observe and appreciate. The people and their stories are out there for everyone to discover; but, we seem to hurry too much through life on land, tugged to distraction by our responsibilities and omni-present devices, real or necessary as they are. Having traveled about 7,000 miles by water for a year at an average of 7.5 knots, we now see the land-life pace as akin to sprinting through an incredible bookstore, whirring past shelves of colorful and inviting novels, old and new.
At our meandering pace, we met people from all walks of life. Rich, poor and in between. Of all races, religions and ethnicities. Those born on this very soil and those pulled here from other countries by the immense opportunity. We met veterans and active servicemen, mechanics, judges, farmers, plumbers, investors, teachers, lock masters, nurses, business owners, artists, river pilots, electricians, park rangers, librarians, fishermen, lawyers, mayors and musicians. Kind, interesting, knowledgeable and generous. E-v-e-r-y-o-n-e has a story. We listened and listened everywhere we went, and we learned so much for it. We met dozens of colorful characters, some worthy of a chapter in a book, if not an entire book unto themselves.
We met a retired Navy electrician from a WWII-era aircraft carrier, and he told us about the engineering of the internal telephone system for this floating city of more than 2,500 officers and seamen and how he frequently had to navigate the byzantine maze of corridors and chases to keep communications inside the ship up and running on the high seas so the captain could issue orders, whether to the flight deck or to the engine room. He answered our questions about his first day aboard, a shake-down cruise in the winter waters of the Caribbean. About the mess food. He recalled the chocolate chip cookies, baked 10,000 at a time. With a sparkle in his now watery blue eyes he told us about proposing to his wife on the eve of embarking for the Pacific. He recounted the date and the very park bench where he took a knee. He told us about his decision to join the ministry a decade ago, somewhere in his 80’s he said, so he could work with kids. We four were honored to hear his story and stories from others we met on docks, in bookstores, walking dogs, in museums, in parks, and on other boats.
Listening to our kids ask questions, soak-up the stories and gather the context of the surrounding events, both personal and political, makes us smile with quiet pride at what they absorbed and how they grew this year. And that was the story every day on our trip whether remote island, small town or metropolis. Keenan and Daria spent hours and hours with fellow Loopers we met on the water at each port or anchorage. Loopers, like the sailors we met in the Bahamas, are a kind and warm crowd and were so willing to engage our kids and ask about living aboard, about friends, hobbies, favorite flavors of ice cream. And about their onboard teachers…
If you know a gifted teacher who inspires children, thank him or her, bring apples, offer your support. Now that we’ve stepped inside the little red school house for eighteen months ourselves as teachers, we have a deeper appreciation for the need for the highest standards for excellence and opportunity in education. (See our February 19, 2011 post for more on our approach to homeschooling.) We might not have top-teacher chops aboard Muddy Waters, but we felt confident we were opening the lock doors to the grandest school house of all – a personal walk through history and through everyday life across America, Canada and the Bahamas.
Since the waterways were America, the Bahamas and Canada’s first – and early on, only – highways, we plied waters traveled by early explorers and yesterday’s tow captains, naval commanders and rum runners. We visited fish camps, settlements, towns, cities and more than one megalopolis. We spent hours on the solemn grounds of battlefields from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 and the Civil War. We toured the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and the U.S. Military Academy in West Point and visited Presidential libraries. We saw places where locals were fighting decades of economic decline and places where business was thriving. We visited national parks, cruised in the open ocean, traversed 115 locks, saw swimming pigs and nesting bald eagles, plunged into waves a dozen feet high, and watched hundreds of serene sunrises and sunsets.
We read thousands of pages together on local history and the environment. We learned about spectacular blue holes in the Bahamas, Henry Flagler’s drive to build a railroad to Key West, the winding beauty of Georgia’s coastline, Fort Sumter on the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, the history of the indigenous tribes of the Outer Banks, George Washington’s role in conceiving of the Dismal Swamp, John Smith’s awe sailing the estuary that is the Chesapeake, approaching Ellis Island by water. We learned the Erie Canal, quickly supplanted by the railroad, was revolutionary in opening travel and trade from the vast Great Lakes region to the eastern seaboard and beyond.
We traveled with fellow Loopers to Ottawa and later explored the stunning waters of Canada’s Georgian Bay. We climbed steep sand mountains at a place called Sleeping Bear Dunes and gazed upward in wonder on an architectural tour of the Chicago River. We read Twain on the Mississippi, experiencing the pulse of the heartland. We visited Shiloh and the site of the Battle Above the Clouds. We cruised the lovely Panhandle and then enjoyed Florida’s west coast and Keys, both so close to our hearts and home.
Keenan and Daria have been avid readers for many moons, but their appetite on our journey grew like a building wave pushed by winds on open water. In addition to their school books and the items we had the kids read about each park, battlefield, museum or area we visited along the way, they read nearly seventy-five books on their own between the two of them. By the end of our journey, we began shedding ballast and donating books en masse. Jennifer and I are certain we visited every family-run bookshop on the Great Loop. We so enjoyed chatting with owners and patrons in those local shops, learning about local literature and often discovering secrets about the water too – favorite fishing holes, can’t miss anchorages, shoaling spots, cheap fuel depots and creeks to kayak.
The kids also deepened their blossoming interests in their own hobbies. Keenan enjoyed photographing our surroundings from our topsides, and we’ve posted some of his favorite shots on our website. He’s now learning more about the art and science of photography in a formal class in school. He also studied up on naval architecture thanks to materials and good guidance from the kind Kadey-Krogen team that expertly designed and built our sturdy and sea-worthy North Sea trawler. Keenan also taught himself to play bass guitar and practiced regularly onboard Muddy Waters, taking a few lessons along the way from musicians we met.
Daria, who’s danced with the Miami City Ballet for four years already, continued to follow-up on her passion for the art, practicing regularly onboard and also dropping-in on classes in studios in New York, Chicago and other cities. She also made and sold jewelry, developing a fine creative eye, manual dexterity, and an entrepreneurial spirit. We also connected with a few local painters and Daria was able to take lessons and learn from these artists in their own studios.
Jennifer ran, biked and swam throughout our journey. She entered a few local running races and trained hard for some multi-day and endurance trail races in which she’ll compete in the coming weeks. She even organized a kids’ triathlon while we were at anchor nestled between dozens of sailors with kids onboard in the southern Exumas. As she always does, Jennifer made the best of our circumstances and surroundings – running on scenic trails, along river banks, on beaches, through cities and using whatever she could find to develop creative strengthening exercises and obstacle courses. We took out our stand-up paddle boards regularly in the Bahamas, along the eastern seaboard of the United States and into Canada’s pristine waters. Jennifer practiced yoga on our upper deck, always drawing the binocular-enhanced gaze of the tow captains. Ahoy! Eyes on the road there cap’n, don’t run aground!
Jennifer also dived deeper into cooking and nutrition, reading more than a dozen books and scores of journal articles on the subject and making the galley the center of our watery home. See Jennifer’s healthy recipe posts as well as her write-ups of places to dine and shop for healthy eats along the Great Loop. (Aye, methinks thar be a recipe book in them pages for other buccaneers and sprogs alike on the Great Loop. Ummm good….and arrr!) With Jennifer at the galley helm, we all learned heaping amounts about food and nutrition, and, best of all, we ate like kings. We shared three meals a day as a family almost every day of the trip. We talked travel, nature, politics, health, history, hopes, fears, friends, family, school. Our meals formed the core of our family experience in many ways since we’d give thanks for the food – mostly local – and for all that we have, and have experienced, as a family aboard Muddy Waters.
As for the captain and hobbies, I was mostly focused on keeping the good ship Muddy Waters afloat, mechanically operational and pointed in the right direction. And cherishing each moment of it – whether navigating, swabbing the decks or doing mechanical maintenance. I was also able to spend time on music – playing guitar and harmonica, writing a handful of songs, listening to and learning even more about the blues. Meaningful to the captain and occasionally entertaining for the crew, music was a constant on the water.
The outdoors was often our family classroom and our place for exercise, and we blended the two most days. Our days were full. Full in the way a good book is full of life and in turn fills you with satisfaction that you’ve experienced something that evokes feeling and emotion, of whatever type. For us, the book was exciting, mysterious, captivating, calming, and educating. Along the way the four of us learned seamanship, self-reliance and an even deeper respect for nature, including for its oceans, reefs, inlets, lakes, rivers and canals. We completed our family journey with an indelible impression in our minds and hearts of Americans’ (and Canadian and Bahamians’) kindness, smarts, integrity, strength and resilience. We knew that before departing of course, and we saw it daily on the water together with the kids, appreciating the depth, sincerity and power of those traits. You learn it best by experiencing it day in and day out.
A year older for our journey on the Great Loop, we feel a decade wiser. We’re richer in knowledge, and most importantly we return chock full of lasting memories of people, places and shared events. Jennifer and I often said to the kids that this was a year in which afterward we could walk through each day and recount our adventures, the places and the people. Our log book and blog will help in that way over the years, and the experience was so extraordinary and the stories each day so much a part of us that we hope to call up the daily images for a lifetime.
Though we planned for a decade, saved our pennies, absorbed as much knowledge as we could from others more experienced and sailed whenever we could in our home waters and in the Bahamas, we recognize our good fortune in being able to make this family adventure a reality at our age and with our kids in tow. We were driven by a thirst for adventure and exploration, a hunger for knowledge and experience, a willingness to be a bit unconventional and leave a career mid-stream, and then we added a sprinkle of hard work and, most importantly, a huge helping of luck. Sailors are superstitious souls and we know most of it really was luck, plain and simple.
We also owe thanks to our families and friends who over the years believed with us (and in us) in the idea of a Samway Adventure – whether sailing in the Caribbean, adventure racing in Central America, mountain climbing in the Andes, whitewater rafting in Maine, or canoeing on the Amazon with our kids – and who supported our dreams about this next journey at sea. We’re grateful for the visits from family and friends in ports across America, Canada and the Bahamas. Sharing the adventure with others made the story richer for us. We wrote a blog titled Thank You on March 12, 2011, and we have so many new friends to add to the list. So many fine sailors who gave us good guidance and warm companionship along the way. Thank you.
Like finishing a good book, we sighed as we sailed through a closing chapter on the Samway Adventure – exhaling and closing our eyes to think about the miles we traveled as a family. We’re nourished by what we learned and all we experienced along the way. We’re even ready to pick up the next book to see what adventure might be in store for the four of us.