Three Years on a Boat: An A to Z

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:: SPRING 2021 TRAVEL WRITING PRIZE WINNER ::

Treasure hunts, wrack lines, lassitude, ambrosia sponges, tenacious bouffants, emaciated horses, marlinespikes, liberated dinghies & Wakataitea.


A: Adventure

W       hen my children were eight and ten, we moved from our house in Seattle to a boat in Brazil. We lived on the boat for three years and sailed from South America to the Bahamas.

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B: Brazil

In the taxi from Recife International Airport to the boat, I look at my children as they look at Brazil. The heat blurs the line between the road and everything else. Piles of trash form topographic features. An emaciated horse is tied to a stake in the median strip of BR-101 and stares blankly at the passing cars. The tether is shorter than the horse is tall and I ask myself if we’re doing the right thing.

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C: Crab claw

W       akataitea is a forty-six-foot Polynesian-style catamaran designed by Englishman James Wharram and built in New Zealand by her previous owners, who sailed her all over the world. In keeping with traditional Polynesian style, the hulls are lashed together with rope, the deck is open and her huge crab-claw sail swings out wide on a downwind run. We see Wakataitea for the first time tied to the end of the dock in the town of Cabedelo near João Pessoa along Brazil’s bulging easternmost edge. We see her for the first time the day she becomes our home.

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D: Dinghy

W       akataitea came with a twelve-foot painted-plywood dinghy that we can row, scull, sail or power with its two-horsepower Yamaha outboard. The dinghy ferries us back and forth from the boat to shore. It carries the four of us, a couple of friends, our eighty-pound dog, one hundred gallons of water, sheets of plywood, a twenty-pound gas bottle and several weeks’ worth of provisions. It carries four children on an island treasure hunt, the eldest at the oars.

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E: The Exumas

Atop the island of Warderick Wells in the Exuma archipelago of the Bahamas sits a kind of sailor’s shrine—a tribute to the cruising lifestyle. Painted signs, hand-carved driftwood plaques and items of flotsam and jetsam with words etched or burned into them lie haphazardly in a pile, like a wrack line on a windward beach. As I wander about reading the names—Imagine, Equanimity, Gone with the Wind, Take Me There, Turning Points, Tenace (“Tenacity”), Soulstice, Storymaker, Peace, Silence, Reach, Zen, Free Spirit, Free at Last, Flee, L’orizzonte (“Horizon”), Wanderlust, Liberté—I realize that this collection is more than a sailors’ guest book. It’s a testimony of who came here and what they were hoping to find. Boat names are a mishmash of bumper sticker, vanity license plate, alter ego, New Year’s resolution, singles ad and epitaph.

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F: Captain Fantastic

In our family, Captain Fantastic is a cult movie. We watched it during a transformational time, a time when Viggo Mortensen’s Ben Cash style of homeschooling deeply resonated. We never pushed our kids through a rigorous wilderness boot camp yelling, “There’s no cavalry. No one will magically appear and save you!” and we weren’t trying to “Stick it to the man!” But we had exchanged our conventional life for a physical life and one outdoors where our children’s work on board contributed to the family’s well being.

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G: Grenada

The people of Grenada call themselves not by their given names, but by their nicknames: Shorty, Darky, Shitty, Crabby, Black Man, Fat Man, Shade Man and Cock. Grenada is a place where people seem happy with who they are and what they’ve got.

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H: Home

W       herever we are—from Brazil to the Bahamas—sooner or later it feels like home.

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I: Irma

By the time we dropped anchor in the calm of Grenada’s Hog Island, Hurricane Irma had made landfall in Barbuda. Meteorologists clocked Irma as a Cat 5, with peak winds of 180 mph, and declared it the strongest Atlantic hurricane on record. The storm cone looked as if God had lined up a bowling ball for an island strike—Barbuda, Saint Martin, Saint Barthélemy, Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Turks and Caicos, the Bahamas, Cuba—then lobbed it.

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J: Julio

He is a sailor, he is a Spaniard, he is 68 years old and he has lived alone for decades on Alma, his thirty-one-foot Golden Hind sailboat. His chest is bare and it is the same color of Alma’s worn tanbark sails. His feet are bare, and the way he offers his stories and his soul is bare. He lives off the bare essentials. His boat is stripped bare to only what a boat needs to be seaworthy and a home. He has barely any money, but counts himself rich in other ways. Not his mother tongue, his English is bare bones, yet somehow he only and always captures the essence of what needs to be said. He creates beautiful things with his bare hands—bread, art, tools, maps, music. His eyes are getting bad and he can barely see the channel markers. Yet he sees many other things that the rest of us miss.

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K: Knots

M    y son Enzo wraps the flat, waxed twine around and around the thick three-strand rope. He cinches each turn to make it snug. “I don’t know if I’m comfortable being responsible for the knot that ties the boat to the anchor with a storm coming,” he says as he sets the rope down and looks up at me. I acknowledge the responsibility and add, “But Daddy’s not here, and you know knots better than me.” He hesitates for a moment. Then he picks up the marlinespike and begins urging one of the strands through the links in the anchor chain. He is eleven.

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L: Leukemia

I flick through the reef-coral identification guide, looking for the Caribbean reef sponge that will cure my friend Tracy’s leukemia. The descriptions read like gourmet desserts: the red-orange, pink-red or peach encrusting sponge, the citron sponge, the orange icing sponge and the ambrosia sponge. But the superhero cancer-fighting sponge is not featured in the book. So from the scientific literature I learn that Cryptotheca crypta is dark green and usually covered with algae and sand and that the unassuming camouflaged mounds sit on sandy or rubble bottoms in the Caribbean Sea. Cryptotheca crypta contains compounds that prevent invading cells from replicating within or on the sponge, and these compounds are the source of the anticancer drug cytarabine. I go out in search of this sponge to pay it homage and gratitude. Something where I am is helping Tracy where she is, and that helps me feel closer to my friend in Seattle.

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M: Maria Montessori

M    aria Montessori would have approved of boat life. It’s a practical life, an autonomous life, and one that calls for kids using real knives.

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N: Necklace

An Argentinian friend and sailor, Diego, bought a twenty-eight-foot James Wharram catamaran for $1,500 and a handmade necklace. I thought it was a good deal until I saw one of Diego’s necklaces.

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O: Outcomes

If you leave a hatch open during an Eastern Caribbean downpour, your bunk will be soggy. If you tie on the dinghy with a lousy knot, it will drift 1,100 nautical miles to Panama. If you forget to flip the switch while rinsing dishes, you’ll drain the starboard freshwater tank. If you don’t pull the kayak far enough up the beach, it’ll slip away with the incoming tide. These are ordinary outcomes in our not-so-ordinary life.

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P: Puke

The first sign of seasickness is a loss of initiative. A lassitude sets in and gets in the way of performing tasks or performing tasks well. With time, lassitude becomes drowsiness, the kind that smothered me when my children were babies and I contemplated napping at red lights. My head becomes heavy and lolls around on my long, wavering neck like a watermelon on a toothpick. I need to get flat. I close my eyes, take deep breaths, and tell myself that maybe I won’t puke this time; for a while, this works. But now I am sweating and my exhalations dominate my inhalations. I know it’s coming, and I reach for the bucket. Why did I think it would be different this time? I promise myself that I will never—ever—set foot on a boat again.

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Q: Queen Mary

M    y dad was born in Naples and lived most of his early life by the sea under the watch of Vesuvius. After his military service, he left Italy in search of a job and better prospects. He traveled around Europe and settled in England. In 1963 he was one of two hundred waiters working on board the Queen Mary luxury ocean liner. Built in the 1930s, she was the fastest and the largest passenger liner of her time. The Queen Mary ran a weekly service between Southampton and New York—crossing in fewer than five days. One weekend in Southampton, my dad invited my mum to visit the grand cruise liner. Teresa Patricia walked across the skinny gangplank. Her frizzy hair, ironed and sprayed into a bouffant, held its form even in the brisk British sea breeze. Her long legs were barely covered by her acrylic maroon mini-skirt. She stepped gingerly over the threshold onto the deck of the majestic vessel. With her arm looped through my dad’s, she glanced down the thousand-foot-long corridor and heaved. The Queen Mary was in dry dock and Teresa Patricia was seasick.

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R: Responsibility

Like many parents, we used to stage opportunities for our kids to learn responsibility. Lock their bikes. Feed the neighbor’s cat. Run an errand to the corner store. But once we started living on a boat, opportunities for responsibility rolled in as often as the surf. And the children didn’t just learn responsibility. They took it.

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S: Serendipity

Our friend Diego finds boats like other people find stray dogs. Serena, a 1975 thirty-seven-foot Swedish cruising sailboat, had been abandoned off the coast of Spain by a Finnish couple caught in and rescued from a storm with sixty-foot seas. The boat drifted past the Azores and then 2,500 nautical miles more to the Caribbean to arrive all by herself in Grenada six months later. When Diego first saw her tied up at the coast guard dock in Prickly Bay, she had no mast and no sails but was otherwise unscathed. The blue-and-white-striped Scandinavian curtains hung undisturbed over the oval portholes, and there were crackers in the cupboards. Serena is now Diego and his wife Monica’s home.

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T: Tortola

I watch from the aft deck as my ten-year-old daughter, Francesca, paddles the stand-up paddleboard to shore in the predawn dark. The board glides between her long, confident strokes. She steers alongside the wooden dock, steps off with ease and wraps the line around a cleat, securing it with a locking turn. She waits alone in the dark, with the paddle upright at her side like a staff of courage.

When she sees the figure of her twenty-six-year-old Guatemalan friend, Mün, walking along the beach, Francesca heads toward her, and together they disappear into the brush behind the beach and hike barefoot to Beef Island Peak. Beef Island is a small outpost of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. At sunrise—side by side on a flat-topped rock high above our boat in the bay, and with a view of Peter Island, Norman Island, Guana Island and the Atlantic Ocean—Francesca and Mün perform a sun salutation.

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U: Unexpected

Pelicans rest on the gunwales of the colorful wooden fishing boats bobbing at anchor off the beach in Charlotteville, Tobago. I like reading the names of the boats as we pass by: Vision of Love. Touch of Glory. I Got Dreams. Black Mouth. Black Fox 2. Joyous Vibes. Prosperity. Stallion. Joe. Pumkin. Sun God. Step Up. Expect d’Unexpected.

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V: Valiant

In Le Cul-de-Sac du Marin in Martinique, close to the mangroves, a weathered steel ketch lolls at anchor. Vertical rust lines stain the hull from the chain plates to the water line. From the bow to amidships, white letters spell out the French proverb and wordy boat handle: Au coeur vaillant rien d’impossible (“to the valiant heart nothing is impossible”).

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W: Wakataitea

The silhouette of the volcanic island of Montserrat hangs like a black prop against the night sky. Off the starboard beam, I can just make out the faint glow of our companion boat Serena’s running lights. A voice on channel 68—Wakataitea, Wakataitea, Wakataitea—breaks the silence and perforates the darkness with a familiar mantra. Our friends are calling to check that all is well.

The name Wakataitea means “white canoe” in Maori and is inspired by their legendary double-hulled oceangoing canoes. The name suits our boat and the manner in which we want to travel through the world: simply, unobtrusively and along with (rather than in domination over) the wind and the sea. As I watch the two slender hulls dance through the water, I hear the drumbeats and feel the connection to an ancient seagoing people. And I wonder who I will be when I am no longer one of the Wakataiteas.

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X: X Seizing

Ropes that are bound together or to other objects, more or less permanently, are said to be seized” (page 540, The Ashley Book of Knots by Clifford W. Ashley). An X seizing binds two ropes that are at right angles to each other using the same number of turns on each diagonal to form a balanced and secure crisscross. Our experiences on Wakataitea bind our family together, more or less permanently, in a balanced and secure crisscross.

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Y: One Year

W       hen we set out, one year seemed like ages. Then one year became three and three didn’t seem enough.

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Z: Zulu Time

Zulu time is the time at 0º longitude—the zero meridian, Greenwich Mean Time (without adjusting for Daylight Saving). 1600Z is 9 a.m. in Seattle, 5 p.m. in Rome, midnight in Tokyo and 1 a.m. in Sydney. As Zulu time calibrates the world’s time, Wakataitea calibrates my life’s time.


Catherine DeNardo spent three years sailing from Brazil to the Bahamas with her husband, two children and family dog. Catherine is a freelance writer, editor and biologist based in Seattle, Washington.

Lead image: Catherine DeNardo

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