Martina Tyrrell and her husband packed in their jobs, bought a boat and with some trepidation, sailed off into the sunset with their young family.
ON Good Friday 2011, my husband and I decided to sell our house, quit our jobs, and buy a boat to live on with our two young daughters. Our biggest dilemma was breaking the news to our parents.
I come from the Bog of Allen, a mile outside Edenderry on the Kildare side of the border, about as culturally and psychologically removed from the sea as one could imagine.
I grew up immersed in Gaelic football and cutting and rearing the turf, in the Edenderry Shoe Company and the John of God nuns. My husband grew up in Warwickshire, down the road from the oak tree marking the centre of England.
As a child, he sailed dinghies on the River Avon, but neither of us have parents who would be comfortable with the prospect of their children and grandchildren becoming sea nomads.
We first tested our plans on encouraging and supportive friends. ‘Our parents will understand’, we fooled ourselves. But, of course, they didn’t.
There was worry, panic, consternation. ‘But I thought you’d finally settled down, with the kids and the house’, ‘What do you know about boats?’, ‘You’re going to kill my grandchildren’.
One family member thought my husband would be happy if he retrained as a nurse; another thought watching the movie Revolutionary Road had put the idea in our heads.
Our families thought we had made the decision on a whim; that it was a minor blip on our path to conventionality, and in a couple of months we’d forget about it. But it wasn’t and we didn’t.
Before I met Julian, at Aberdeen University in 2004, I had never sailed. However, I was fascinated by the sea and, in particular, by indigenous local knowledge of the sea. Indeed, that was the topic of the anthropology PhD I was completing at the time.
A year after we met I went sailing for the first time — five days aboard a chartered yacht, from Southampton to Cherbourg with Julian, his dad and uncle. I was hooked from the start — the gentle sway of the boat, the whoosh of the sails, moving through the water without the roar and smell of a diesel engine.
I loved the marine life we encountered, the quirky sailing customs, and the chance to explore new places.
Over the next few years Julian and I did some sailing courses and a couple of times a year went sailing, in the south of England and west of Scotland.
For Christmases and birthdays we bought each other books with titles such as How to sail around the world and World cruising routes.
While outwardly we settled into our careers, in private we dreamed of giving it all up, buying a boat and sailing into the sunset. We imagined saving money, retiring early and enjoying our twilight years at sea.
By 2010 we had a one-year old daughter and another on the way, a recently purchased house in need of renovation and, because Julian’s government salary was frozen when the recession hit, a mortgage we could no longer afford. We had stopped sailing, stopped going out, and stopped enjoying life.
At the same time, despite immersing myself in the little Cambridgeshire village where we now lived, I was dissatisfied with the conventional life into which I had drifted.
By spring 2011 we were at a low ebb. And so it was, on that Good Friday, when the stress and exhaustion of our attempts at conventionality seemed to have gotten the better of us, I said ‘Let’s buy a boat’.
It was as if a great weight had lifted from our shoulders. Within minutes we were planning — all those sailing books open on the dining table, searching for boats on the internet. We began from a point of complete ignorance.
How much does a boat cost?
Can people live aboard in the UK and other less exotic locations?
How would we do our laundry?
Would it be possible to live on a boat and work at the same time?
We had long ago decided to home educate our daughters, so schooling was about the only thing we didn’t need to consider.
Once we had made the decision things moved quickly. We put the house on the market in early June and were offered the asking price 12 days later.
Julian quit his job and we both set about searching for temporary jobs in coastal UK or Irish locations that would get us through the transition from land to sea.
We spent the summer of 2011 dragging the kids (Lily, by now two years old, and Katie, less than one) to car boot sales, where we sold 90% of our belongings, and to boat yards in the south of England, searching for a boat.
At home, we read and researched for every bit of information we could find. We made email contact and met people who lived on boats, who inspired us and gave us the confidence to carry on.
Despite the excitement of pursuing our dream, the summer of 2011 was also stressful. We wondered if we were doing the right thing. Could we afford it? Was it fair on the children? What if we were making a terrible mistake?
While we could, to some extent, share our excitement and enthusiasm with our families, we had to keep our worries hidden. Our parents were already concerned enough, without adding our own misgivings to the mix.
So we put on outwardly optimistic and positive faces, but inside the choices we were making gnawed at us.
It all seems so long ago now. As I write, we are in Aguadulce, on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. You see, we did it! In September 2011, we moved to Devon where I had landed a temporary contract at Exeter University.
A few days after our move we found the perfect boat in Plymouth — a 36-foot Westerly Conway, built in 1979 — and the sale was completed in early November. We named her Carina of Devon.
Throughout that winter and spring, Julian spent every weekend aboard Carina, fixing her up, making her seaworthy and habitable.
Along the way, he taught himself engine repairs, shipboard plumbing, hull and keel maintenance, and a hundred other skills about which he previously knew nothing.
He read books, watched instructional videos on YouTube and talked at length to other, more experienced, boat owners and professionals he met in the boat yard. He returned to our south Devon flat each Sunday night, tired and cold and stinking of motor oil.
For two years we lived aboard Carina in the six warmest months of the year, moving ashore when my work contract was renewed and renewed again.
Each time we lived aboard and cruised, we grew in experience and confidence, and gradually got ourselves and the boat prepared for a longer-term living arrangement.
We first moved on board Carina in Torquay in May 2012, and when my work contract came to an end we sailed along the coast of Devon and Cornwall, to the Isles of Scilly and north to Kinsale.
It was the first time either of us had sailed any yacht without a more experienced crew member; we were unused to Carina’s quirks and idiosyncrasies; and with two small children aboard, it felt more like single-handed sailing, as one of us (usually me) was generally occupied with childcare.
It was a steep learning curve. 2012 was the wettest summer on record, and as we sailed from Kinsale, through West Cork, to Derrynane, and back to Crosshaven over the course of two months, we learned an immense amount about the boat and about ourselves.
Everything was damp all summer long; clothes freshly laundered turned mildewed within a week, beds and sofas were always slightly wet to the touch. We had far too much stuff aboard and, despite getting rid of most of our belongings the previous year, we realised we still had too much and more had to go.
We learned to live together in close quarters, finding our own spaces for privacy and alone time, the adults giving the children space to explore and grow, the children gradually learning to give the adults some space (we’re still working on that one).
Julian and I learned to work together to set the sails and manoeuvre the boat in tight spaces, and together we learned Carina’s capabilities and shortcomings.
Despite the rain, we were enthralled by the beauty of the West Cork and Kerry coastline — encountering basking sharks and dolphins as we sailed across and up Bantry Bay and Kenmare Bay; anchoring close to Crookhaven, Glandore, Castletownsend and other beautiful villages; enjoying memorable (and sunny) days on lonesome beaches on Long Island and Sherkin Island; and hiking and playing in woodlands and forests.
That summer we knew we had caught the sailing bug. If we could love sailing through such wet and windy conditions, we could love it any time.
But neither we nor the boat were quite ready for the full commitment. Back on land for winter, we resumed our old routine of Julian working on Carina at weekends (although, thankfully, not as many weekends as the previous year), attending to small and big repair jobs. In May 2013, we moved aboard again, this time sailing to France to cruise around Brittany.
What a different summer that was. The sun shone unfailingly and we basked all summer long in shorts and t-shirts, the children’s skin turning golden and their hair sun bleached.
Julian and the girls gathered cockles along the seashore at low tide and we ate them with mackerel fished from the back of the boat.
We played on beaches and practiced our French, and by the end of summer I almost regretted having signed another contract at Exeter.
But sign I had, so we returned to Devon for one final winter on land.
I finished work on May 31 last year and, with a heavy heart, said goodbye to my wonderful friends and colleagues in the Department of Geography at Exeter. On June 2, we sailed west from Plymouth to Falmouth.
From there we sailed to Brittany and after less than a week, we decided to cross the Bay of Biscay.
The three-day crossing was calm and pleasant. Day and night we were joined by dolphins, and the huge moon lit up the sky each night.
After six weeks in the Galician Rias of northern Spain, where we played on beaches, visited ancient towns with majestic churches, and ate a vast array of molluscs, we set sail along the Portuguese coast.
We sailed to Porto and Lisbon, and south to the Algarve, spending nine days anchored off the amazing sand barrier island of Ilha da Culatra.
After a month in Portugal we were back in Spain again, this time on the Andalucian coast. In late September we passed through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean, and sailed along the Costa del Sol coast to Aguadulce.
This is our winter base, where we are now regrouping, making repairs to Carina, and planning the next leg of our voyage.
Three years down the line, I smile when I recall the worries that we and our parents had about the crazy nomadic lifestyle we were about to embark on.
We have had some amazing adventures along the way. Common dolphins are our near-constant companions when we sail, and we have learned so much from observing them.
We spend our days outdoors, immersed in the natural world around us, the sea beneath us, the sky overhead. As we travel we learn the history and culture of the places we visit, eat strange and wonderful new foods, learn to speak new languages, and meet amazing people.
We have met many other sailors along the way, and our daughters have made friends with British, Dutch, Swiss and other children living similar nomadic lives.
On shore, on beaches and at playgrounds, the girls befriend local children, and language seems to be no barrier to the games they play.
One of the most rewarding elements of this life is that we live it together as a family. If we had waited until the children had flown the nest then we would have missed out on opportunities to explore the world with them, to learn alongside them, to see the wonder and joy on their faces when they encounter a dolphin at close quarters or see a shooting star streak across the night sky.
Hearing our daughters begin to speak Spanish, seeing them devour calamari, discussing religion and culture with them following a day of exploring a city — these are rewards beyond measure.
Our children are learning about the world around them by living in it and experiencing it every day. Now aged five and four, our girls are our remarkable little home-educated crew — suntanned, healthy and confident.
Having sold most of our material possessions, we have learned that very little is needed to raise a happy and healthy family. We don’t have vast financial resources at our disposal.
Indeed, by conventional standards, we are below the poverty line. But we have chosen a different way to live, one based on frugality and the rejection of consumerism.
This is no holiday, and living permanently on a small boat requires hard work and planning. But the rewards are multiple — deepening relationships, new friendships, sunrises and dolphins, new cultural experiences every day. Living on our little yacht is proving to be invigorating, stimulating and life-affirming.
And as a family, it has allowed us to be open and alive to the incredible world around us. We’re living our dream and it’s good.
As for our parents? They had many sleepless nights at the start. But we insisted they share their concerns with us.
No question was too silly to ask, and we promised to answer to the best of our abilities. We were surprised that many of their concerns were of a domestic nature, about laundry, cooking, and personal hygiene!
They worried too about the socialisation and education of their grandchildren, and about our prospects of finding work in the future.
What eased their minds most, however, was climbing aboard Carina and experiencing our new life. Visiting us on our travels, spending a weekend or a week in our little home gives them ongoing opportunities to see that the choice we have made works.
Seeing how happy their granddaughters are, how content Julian and I are, enjoying our home cooked food, and exploring new places with us has helped to assuage many of their fears.
The Mediterranean is a big place and we have a lot of exploring ahead of us over the coming year. But the world beyond Europe beckons.
I dream of one day sailing Carina across the Atlantic and, when we’ve explored the Caribbean, going through the Panama Canal to the Pacific, to the South Sea Islands and beyond.
We’ll keep dreaming and planning, and we’ll make it happen.
Martina Tyrrell is currently writing a memoir about life aboard her sailing boat. She blogs at http://carinaofdevon.wordpress.com
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