They met on a western Michigan highway. He passed her; she passed him. They got off at the same exit. The freeway flirtation led to their first date.
“We still have the piece of paper with my phone number written down,” says Danielle Parrent. “Our first date was a jet ski ride!”
Fifteen years and three children later, Danielle and husband Craig are still on the go. Members of the 2010–/2011 class of Great Loopers, the Parrent's are traveling the waterways of the Eastern United States aboard their 48-foot Chris-Craft Catalina, Negotiator. The crew includes their daughters, Morgan, 9, and Ryann, 7, and son Jaxon, 4.
Traveling is nothing new to this family. They’ve done a lot of it, from the upwardly mobile Fast Track to Easy Street, followed by an RV route tracing more than 20,000 miles of U.S. shoreline.
The Parrents, from the Grand Rapids, Michigan, area, left their marina in Grand Haven on Aug. 26, 2010, embarking on the 6,000-mile circumnavigational adventure known as America’s Great Loop. The Parrents have no timetable for completing the Loop. “In a year…or 10 years,” says Craig. “We’ll head east in the spring—and then maybe south again for the winter.”
Powered by twin Crusader 454s, Negotiator travels at an average of 8 knots. “It’s not a race,” Craig says.
Negotiator is the vessel’s original name; apt, considering her first owner was a lawyer. The Parrents chose not to change the name because they say it expressed the “personality of the boat.” As the nautical miles have been logged, the name has acquired a personal meaning for the family. “In many ways, we are negotiating for a new lifestyle,” says Danielle.
Some may call it kooky to give up a 5,000-square-foot home, new cars every couple of years, and all the other “stuff” that makes for a cushy lifestyle. “We had all the toys—jet skis, boats…everything in our hands. But we weren’t going to let the material things be more important,” Craig says.
The Parrents don’t flinch when asked how they are managing to do what typically is a post-retirement recreation. Danielle says they have become accustomed to questions about how they can afford to live aboard as full-time cruisers. The answer is simple: “Working hard for the past 15 years,” says Craig. Skilled in high-end carpentry, woodworking, renovation, and construction, he specialized in building and flipping houses, working for prestigious clients.
“The business hit it at the right time and the right place,” he says. “We moved many times.”
“That’s one of the reasons the kids have adapted so well,” says Danielle. “They were used to moving—well over a dozen times. We made each move fun, like ‘What color would you like your bedroom to be in this house?’ We had some luck, and we put in a lot of effort.” The downside was the long hours the couple had to put in. Danielle felt bad about having to hire a nanny because she didn’t have enough time to take care of the kids and help with the business. Craig says he would return after a 14-hour day and regret that he was missing family life. “You feel like you’re only coming home for the granite countertops and the new cars. The kids were already in bed.”
‘I DON’T WANT TO GO HOME’
Craig’s skills are clearly evident in all the special custom touches aboard Negotiator, including extra seating at the helm that allows everyone to keep tabs on the action. In the master suite, Craig’s shelving modifications give mom, dad, and all three kids a generous individual clothing cubby. The tub in the master bath is, Danielle says, a godsend when it comes to cleaning up the troops.
The charming children’s stateroom, situated in the bow, features a cozy, sturdily crafted “blue anchor” V-berth that’s spacious enough for mom or dad to stretch out in during bedtime stories.
While pet hermit crabs Zack and Emily probably consider cruising with the Parrents a luxury (fresh eggshells on demand!), this down-to-earth mom and dad count their blessings and their pennies every day, maintaining a budget and a schedule. They enjoy anchoring out and making use of complimentary docking. In November they stayed at the free town docks in Fort Walton Beach and White City on Florida’s panhandle, exploring pristine barrier islands and small towns by dinghy, provisioning at local grocery stores, and playing in the parks. “We usually eat on the boat,” says Danielle. After-dinner activities may include playing Wii or watching movies via the satellite TV dish that was already aboard when they bought the boat.
The Parrent family wasn’t new to boating when they embarked on the Loop. Lake Michigan is close to home base. During those busy birthing and building years, boating was a welcome break whenever they could fit it in.
“One day we were sitting on our 33-foot aft-cabin Carver in Grand Haven, and I said, ‘I don’t want to go home’ and Craig said, ‘Let’s not,’” Danielle recalls. “The initial idea was to change our lifestyle, live on our boat, and travel—to change the ‘normal’ life that we had.”
And so began an odyssey that took longer than planned. A disastrous three-way boat trade left the Parrents holding the short end of the stick. Still thinking positive, Craig continued to shop voraciously for the right boat, a quest known to many mariners for its tedium, frustration, and obsession—until the right boat appears.
“I finally told Danielle, ‘We are trying too hard.’ The idea was never give up the dream, but we took a break from boat-hunting,” Craig says. Since they were ready to go somewhere, the adventurous family shifted from their 5,000-square-foot home to a 350-square-foot, 36-foot-long motor home for a cruise around the U.S. shoreline.
They continued looking for “the” boat, without trying too hard. Finally, in St. Clair Shores, Michigan, (near Detroit) Craig saw Negotiator. The yacht had been out of the water for a couple of years. “It had potential,” says Craig. He was surprised when the owner took “our ridiculous offer” without countering. It seemed as if it was meant to be, because the boat ran well from the get-go and was equipped from stem to stern with all sorts of cruising-friendly features and personalized touches.
“What you see is what we got,” says Danielle. “Our biggest expense was all-new canvas.” Craig also points out that the “front-yard fence” netting that encloses the deck is a new feature and is not commonly seen on vessels of this design, but it’s necessary for safety with children aboard.
HUNTING FOR TREASURE
Those traveling with children are distinctly in the minority among the snowbirds and Loopers headed south for the winter. And the couple is extremely off-sync with happy hour. “We have dinner, family game time, put the kids to bed at 9, and go out on the dock and ask, ‘Where is everybody?” Danielle says, laughing. “Everyone is in bed already! But then, they all get up with the sun.”
When the sun comes up on Negotiator, it’s breakfast and school time. “We like them to work in the core disciplines every morning, and most of that is done by lunch,” explains Danielle. “After lunch we get out for some kind of exercise.”
In the region of Michigan where the Parrents come from, home-schooling is well established; there’s even a home-schooling store, among other options.
“We had a lot of choices,” notes Danielle. “We worked with our local school district’s teachers to compile a unique curriculum.”
Some of their top tips for home-schooling? Have the patience to learn with your child, be open-minded, and remember that a big part of the process is “teaching your children how to learn.”
“They learn how to open up a dictionary to look up a word, how to do research and be self-starting in problem-solving,” says Craig. Science and art projects (the most recent crafts use shells culled from Florida’s St. Joseph Bay) and journaling at night while dinner is readied give the children many opportunities for expression and exploration. They are creative, imaginative, and hands-on. “People tell me, ‘They play so well together,’ and they do, but it’s not like they have a choice,” says Danielle, chuckling. “But they are way more outgoing now than they were. When they see another kid in the park, they’ll just go right up and ask if they want to play. I think our timing age-wise was good: old enough to swim, but not teenagers.”
The grandmas and grandpas doing the Loop certainly appreciate having youngsters around. At the AGLCA Fall Rendezvous at Joe Wheeler State Park in Alabama, organizers insisted on staging an early Halloween, with boat-to-boat trick-or-treating for those with children aboard.
“Jaxon said, ‘Mommy, my bag’s heavy.’ He was dragging it!” says Danielle, smiling. “We certainly never expected anyone to do that for the kids,” adds Craig, “and we had to come up with some costumes really quick—they were three little pirates!”
Craig’s favorite memory of the Loop thus far took place at the AGLCA Fall Rendezvous when mom, dad, and kids embarked on a “treasure hunt,” picking up found objects and helping to clean up the environment. The kids proudly show off the 160 fishing lures they collected that day, all keepers and keepsakes. “It was such an adventure,” says Craig.
Danielle says her favorite memories all center around “those family fun times where you just laugh, there’s bonding and teamwork. And never did we think we’d meet so many fun people!”
It takes Craig and Danielle a few minutes to think of anything in the “least favorite” category. Danielle chooses the Lake Michigan crossing, from St. Joseph, Michigan, over to the Chicago area. The forecast called for calm, settled conditions. It didn’t turn out that way. “There were the ones and twos [footers] that we expected, but a lot of eights!” she recalls. The seasickness and the general shake-up were definitely not fun for anyone.
Craig experienced his uh-oh moment shortly after, when Negotiator was tied up in the Cal-Sag canal at Pier 11 in a Chicago industrial sector bordered by housing projects. A security guard told Craig that he’d recently fired warning bullets at people who’d been trying to steal from boats, and he cautioned Craig to watch his boat and his family. By no means should they venture across the bridge, he added, where sirens and shots could be heard. Craig didn’t sleep well that night.
But the industrial area sometimes known as the “12 miles of hell” soon gave way to the friendly lock-and-dam system of the heartland rivers.
Through AGLCA, the Parrents were able to connect with another family and get advice on family-friendly places to visit. Around Christmastime, when the kids needed to be a non-moving target for Santa, the family settled in at Treasure Island Yacht Club in the St. Pete area. As is the case with many Florida marinas prior to high season, the monthly rates are reasonable. Amenities such as a pool, the lure of other youngsters, and nearby accommodations for visiting relatives prompted the Parrents to tarry there for the holidays. Then, from Florida’s west coast, Negotiator headed to the Keys.
Open to the possibility of building a life on the water, the Parrents are keeping their eyes open for new opportunities and experiences.
“We know we’ll have to go back to work, but with a different approach,” says Danielle.
“Woodworking on boats could be next,” says Craig.
To follow the Parrents’ continuing adventures, check out Danielle’s blog at http://parrentfive.blogspot.com
Freelance writer Cyndi Perkins cruises the waters of the eastern U.S. aboard her 32-foot sailboat, Chip Ahoy. She and her husband, Scott, have completed two Great Loops. You can read Cyndi’s chronicle of her travels at www.facebook.com/cyndiredshoes?.