Living the Life
Four years ago, weekends started with coffee and breakfast at the West End markets or a walk along the river to Southbank. Three days a week I cycled over Highgate Hill to work while my partner, Justin, dropped the kiddies at childcare, on my days off I met friends in The Froggy Park or attended Toddler Storytime at the West End Library. On the surface we were the typical young family negotiating a work-life balance. We were busy and tired.
Living with a secret
Friends would ask, “Now you have kids are you going to buy a house in the suburbs”? But why leave West End? We loved our community. One evening I sat on my balcony trying to feed a child in tantrum mode, to keep calm I watched the active commuters cycling home along Riverfront Drive or Brisbane Ferries shuttling workers home up river. At that moment my neighbour walked past looking up and I waved sheepishly, embarrassed by the noise. Five minutes later, the same neighbour walked through my door and joined me on my balcony with wine and bubbles, I could have cried with relief. We shared a drink and laughed ignoring the now quiet toddlers captivated by bubbles. So to answer the question about leaving West End, I answered vaguely, “not just now”, never elaborating. But we were planning to leave our beloved home because we had a secret: an alternative plan for our life.
Love West End, miss West End. But leave we did. Not for the ‘burbs, but for a life unknown. We eventually told our friends that wanted to live on a sailboat. ‘A boat?’ ‘With tiny kids?’ ‘Is it safe?’ ‘WHY?!’
Living in a small space
In June 2016, after selling or giving away almost everything we owned, we quit our good jobs, bundled the remaining items into our car and drove south to visit family and to practice living in a small space. We borrowed my Mum’s caravan and went camping in a Victorian winter. ‘Ahhh, think of the FREE TIME’, I thought. Having forgotten in the euphoria of departure that looking after two toddlers in an unknown, unbounded space is a full time job. Despite spending most of our time running after toddlers, we had fun and learnt how to live together. Three months later, we felt ready to take the next step and move our family to Malaysia where we would try living on Justin’s parents’ boat.
Before the boat would be ready for us to live on, it required some work, so we found a little house on a little Island near a marina. For two months, Justin and his parents worked full time on the boat while I embraced child care. Looking after young kids alone in a foreign country was tough, I couldn’t even work out how to feed us. I had no car, two toddlers and the nearest shop was 500m away. Unfortunately, not eating wasn’t an option so I went shopping.
Off down the road I traipsed with toddlers in the midday heat past the rice paddies and buffalo. The shop: dark skinny aisles piled high with yet-to-be-stacked goods; the air thick with humidity and the smell of onions left too long; two toddlers playing hide and seek; and me, trying to read ingredient lists in Malaysian Bahasa. I remember the first thing I made resembling a meal – chicken stir-fry with sweet soy and noodles – it felt like a pivotal victory in the battle “Family vs Adventure Unknown”. Things got easier and there was a pool at the marina, so most afternoons we would make the 45 minute journey. The pool was our happy place, and we swam and splashed away our afternoons. One afternoon at the pool, a wonderful thing happened. Another boat child arrived. Suddenly, I wasn’t the only crazy mum, I didn’t feel so alone. We bonded while running after toddlers in a swimming pool and we’re still friends to this day. Eventually the boat was ready for us and the next big adjustment loomed – boat life!
Living in a floating home
We moved onto the boat, trading rice paddies and buffalo for waves and fish and pointed the boat north toward Thailand. Justin’s parents planned to jump off in Phuket a week later. We swam in turquoise water, learnt to handle the boat and revelled in our new cruising life. Bliss. On the last day to Phuket we had light wind, so Justin put the engine on. Moments later the 30 year old engine turned its last. Kaput. A week into our adventure afloat it was over. Back on land, I looked for a place to live while Justin and his parents looked for a boat yard to haul out and replace the engine. Again I was alone caring for kids in a new country. Justin and his parents worked hard in the sweltering Thai heat and humidity to dismantle the boat and organise a new engine. Nothing happens quickly and a month into our Thai visa, encompassing Christmas and New Years in Phuket, we were ready to try again.
Living the dream – a trial run
With the boat and shiny new engine back in the water, Justin’s parents departed. Alone now, we headed across the large bay to visit friends living an alternative life and there we spent an idyllic afternoon on a quiet beach drinking beer together. From that beach every possibility lay in front of us. But right in front of us, we could see trip boats ferrying tourists to a dazzling sandy island, and we thought, why not go there? We can go for free! The sandy island was a little exposed being almost covered at high tide, but newbie confidence had our anchor up and the next morning. As we arrived at the tiny little island, I looked windward to see a line of cloud and rain inbound. I assumed, wrongly, that we had time to drop and dig in the anchor. With the anchor barely touching the bottom, boof, the wind started pushing us toward a cliff. Newbie confidence was quickly replaced with newbie panic. Abort abort! Up came the anchor, back to our safe little beach. Lesson one in becoming-a-sailor: know your limits, assess the risks, don’t be afraid to accept a lesser option. Slowly we learnt our lessons while simultaneously learning to find food in every bay and give kids daily exercise. During the evenings we poured over charts and researched places to visit. One particular island group called us further north: wild and remote with superior snorkeling. The Surin Islands were several days sail along the open coast. If we could get there, we would know we could do anything, but we had no pilot guide and little experience, still we decided to try.
Living in Paradise
We started inching our way north, stopping in manic Patong to run the gauntlet of tourists and ladyboys to buy food. We met other cruisers coming south who gave us maps and advice. We didn’t realise it, but as a family sailing with young kids we stood out among the grey nomads: others were looking out for us. Along the way we found white sandy beaches shared only with seagulls. We discovered Thailand without tourists. We connected with other boat families and went to a full moon party in a bar built of flotsam. …And we dropped anchor at the magical Surin Islands! We snorkelled with baby sharks, sat in the luminous aqua water and had fishes nibble at our toes, we climbed rocks and spied clown fish peeking out from anemones. We were happy drunk on life, our success and possibilities. Sadly though, the clock was ticking on our Thai visa. Good things really cannot last forever. Crash bang reality. Now we needed to make a big decision. With the wet season coming, what should we do next? We sat down late one night, looked at each other and asked the question – are we ready to give this up? NO!
We began boat hunting, in the Mediterranean.
Living in Limbo
We hired a house for a month in La Coruna on the north west coast of Spain, where we spent days exploring a new culture and nights researching boats. After two months and another move to visit Justin’s family in Scotland, the right boat turned up in Southern France. She was a fixer upper, but affordable. Justin and his Dad flew down to have a look: she was a keeper, but required a couple of months of work before she could be launched. So, for the third time in a year, Justin was working full time on boat maintenance and I plunged back into full-time childcare. Alone, I moved myself, the kids and ALL our possessions to France, where at the end of a twelve hour day, I hired a car and learnt to drive on the other side of the road. As I crashed into a new bed that night after nearly no sleep for two days, I yearned for simple life of work, childcare and weekends. I felt alone, I speak no French and I had no internet. One night my son stopped breathing. I tried to call an ambulance, but I didn’t know the number, my address, how to say respiratory distress … and didn’t even have phone reception anyway. Fortunately he was OK, but I was shaken to the core. Another important lesson learnt: plan for the unexpected. This wasn’t the ‘adventure’ I signed up for, but the boat was paid for, there was no going home now.
In the year since we left Australia, nearly half was spent on boat work. I look back on it as one of tough times, but also one of discovery, hope and optimism. The savings went down fast, but now we had our own floating home and we were the masters of our destiny! Or so we thought.
Living life dictated by weather.
We launched Dizzie on 13 October 2017, just in time for winter storms in the Mediterranean to make sailing a potentially precarious activity. By October, holiday makers have retreated back to their colder northern homes and full time sailors retreat into a marina. So as soon as we started sailing, we stopped! We chose a marina with other boat-kids, in a little town at the bottom of Sicily. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was exactly what we needed: to be surrounded by sailors more experienced, to be still and connect to a place.
The kids joined the state preschool five mornings a week where no one spoke English, Justin worked flat out on Dizzie and I embraced learning Italian.
Learning a new language was something for me, an accomplishment that I could own. Being a boat Mum, meant that everything I did was for the kids or the boat. I was used to working hard and owning the satisfaction of achievement. Now I was working hard and had nothing to show for it, it was wholly unsatisfying. Turns out this is a very common feeling among boat Mums. My confidence plummeted. All I did was cook and clean (which I wasn’t doing entirely successfully). Learning to speak Italian gave me something of my own as an achievement. I needed it for self-confidence… and to communicate with the preschool teachers. After six months of a delightful winter shared with wonderful families and salty sailors, we were ready – FINALLY – to realise our dream of sailing and living on our own boat. FINALLY, nearly two years after quitting our West End life, we were on the cusp of living our dream.
Living the dream for real
We left, said sad farewells (in broken Italian) to preschool, threw the dock lines and headed out into the open sea. Our first stop was a day trip to Malta and we had champaign sailing, but before we even had the chance to see the historic capital city bad weather chased us back to Sicily. Here we waited for better weather in a big safe harbour beside the captivating city of Siracuse. One month into the five month sailing season it felt like all we did was wait for good sailing weather, or run from bad weather. and it was still too cold to swim. I felt deflated: for more than a decade I’d had a goal and now I had none. If you aim to climb a mountain, you plan, prepare, practice, you do it. You stand on the top, you raise your arms in the cold wind and cheer, you look down at where you’ve come from and realise an amazing achievement. There is resolution, completion, and acknowledgement. Well. we had reached our “summit” and there was nothing there. No-one gave me a high-5 and said, ‘You worked hard! You made it!’ I looked on from my proverbial mountain and all I saw was more path, not up, not down, just onward into the mist. When I realised why I felt so down, I was able to grow past it and start enjoying life for what it was. Life is brief, the world is fascinating, and I have the front row seat to watch my kids grow. I saw the roses in the mist.
I’m happy to say that since arriving in Greece two years ago, we have now found our groove. We travelled from Greece through the Med, across the Atlantic Ocean to South America and the Caribbean. Our lifestyle gives us the opportunities that other travel lacks. We rummage for the best apples with everyone else in the markets, we explore ancient ruins, but delve deeper into the issues of modern culture, we catch buses with the residents and avoid cruise ship days because we can. We boat-school in the morning and become free spirits in the afternoon. We are in tune with planetary rhythms; we eat dinner at sunset, marvel at the fish life on a new moon, feel the temperature drop before the rain comes.
It’s not an easy life, but it’s never boring and we are living it together.
Lynita and family are currently in Martinique and will be heading south in another week or so.
All images by Lynita Howie