For years, my friends and family suggested I write about my childhood at sea. But, putting those many memories on paper was an overwhelming thought. Finally I decided the best way to approach the task was to do what I’ve always done, plug my nose and jump into the deep end! This piece takes place just after my 14th birthday at the beginning of our travels in the Caribbean and South America. Please let me know if you would like to see more of this topic on The Active Explorer, or is it just too much of a departure? Enjoy.
Becalmed at sea between Florida and the Virgin Islands, I’m watching a burning bag of paper rubbish drift away slowly bobbing up and down on glassy smooth swells. “Merry Christmas,” I utter in unison with Mon and Dad, and we sing along to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. This is as festive as its going to get this year. With no wind, we have had to motor for days and are now low on fuel; we have to save what’s left to pull into Charlotte Amalie harbor, if we can ever get there.
“Right now we can only tell you what your gift will be after we finally dock,” says mom as she hands me a homemade card. Inside I find out my gift will be a night in a hotel with HOT running water, “Oh that’s amazing!” I squeal. Hot showers are a luxury for this 14 year old, and I can’t wait to get days of salty grit off my skin.
I’ve lived on board boats since I was 4 years old, so this Christmas isn’t so unusual in that sense. At least the boat, wherever it may be, is home; but this is the first Christmas I’ve spent at sea. The early years I can only recall in snippets, like the time we anchored off Ambrym Island, Vanuatu, where powdery volcanic ash blanketed our deck daily. “We are staying in case we’re needed to help people evacuate. If that volcano blows, they can’t get away,” Dad said. Well into the night, we watched the orangey-red glow high on the mountain. I felt proud that we were there to help. The volcano didn’t have a major eruption until 1979, three years after our visit.
Drifting farther away, the burning trash disappears into the valley between swells then lifts back into sight on the crest. As it drifts away, the three of us talk about our years of adventures together, and how lucky we are to have this life, even though we’re hopelessly drifting in the Atlantic praying for wind. Eventually conversation is replaced by the rhythmic slap of the ocean on our steel hull and oddly, I think this is the best Christmas ever.
There’s no tree this year because it never occurred to us we would be at sea over the holiday. In years past, we put up miniature trees, usually no taller than 18 inches. For a few years, we used a black coral tree given to me by divers on a Lahaina dock. The black coral divers were a rough bunch, treated gingerly by the Hawaiian locals, but they acted like big teddy bears when a barefoot 5 year old waltzed up asking too many questions.
Sitting on deck several days after Christmas, a breeze puffs my hair away from my face, and soon the sails take shape as they fill with air for the first time in days.