Spoiled For Choice
Our sailboat Bumfuzzle circumnavigated the globe 17 years ago, culminating what was an unlikely chapter in my life. My wife and I grew up as landlocked Midwesterners without a single boater or traveler in either family. How had we gotten here?
We were living in Chicago, where I worked for myself as a pit trader at the Chicago Board of Trade. I stood shoulder to shoulder with a couple hundred other traders in colorful jackets, and we yelled from 9:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. each day. Mine was considered a high-stress job, but I didn’t feel any of that. I was a twentysomething with no kids and no debt. Sure, I could lose everything I owned on any given day, but when you don’t really own anything, that’s not such a scary proposition. And it turned out I was good at what I did. We were young and successful, and the world was at our feet.
Everyone says money isn’t everything. They say that for a reason. We had money, but when I came home in the afternoons, I found myself online reading the blogs of backpackers who had maybe $10 to their name. They were floating down rivers in Vietnam, hitchhiking across Europe, or riding chicken buses in South America. They had nothing but what they could carry, yet were off having incredible adventures while I padded a bank account. Reading the accounts of their travels, I’d think, What would I write about?
Every Saturday night, we’d belly up at our favorite bar, where we were friends with the bartender. The sort of drinking that goes along with that familiarity would ensue. One night, talk turned to what we were doing with our lives. We hadn’t seen anything. We hadn’t done anything.
“What if we bought a boat and cruised around the Caribbean for a year?” I blurted out.
I’d read a story about someone who had done that, and it sounded like fun. I didn’t know diddly about powerboats, or how far it was to the Caribbean islands, or really anything at all about anything involved, but by the end of the night, we had a plan.
The next morning, we ordered a bunch of books that seemed somewhat relevant, and we daydreamed about the beaches and bars we’d tell our friends about upon our triumphant return a year later.
A week later, I finished reading Alayne Main’s Sailing Promise, a book about a couple who were our exact age, and who had sailed around the world on a small catamaran.
I asked my wife, “Hey, what do you think about sailing around the world for four years instead?”
“Sounds good to me,” she replied. “Selling all our stuff for just one year seems like a lot of work. But four years sounds perfect.”
We had no experience, no boat and no idea what was in store for us, but within a few months we were sailing away. Naïveté is a wonderful thing. The not knowing is what kept us fearless, and it’s a big part of why we were able to chuck it all and sail off without a care in the world. I think the naïveté had a lot to do with our success. We were confident that we were smart enough that we could learn as we went. And that’s what we did for four years: learned.
Circumnavigating might seem like a high point of a life on the water. And it was, sort of. A monumental goal accomplished. But along the way, we set other goals for ourselves, for our life together, for the family that we would eventually have.
When we announced that we were having a baby while in the midst of driving around the world in our ’58 VW bus (the adventure that commenced upon completion of the circumnavigation), we received the obligatory congratulations, but also a chorus of, “Ahhh well, the adventures were fun while they lasted. Having kids will change all of that.” It was time to settle down. Get back on the wheel. Life follows a binary line, and our world travels were but an inexplicable blip on that life path we would now get back on.
But sailing around the world had changed us in ways that couldn’t be explained in a single blog post or magazine article. Our entire worldview had changed. Our outlook on everything. Our memory of our past life was now foggy and distant, like it belonged to someone else. We were content with little, and we longed to continue living outside the box. We were simply cruising.
When our daughter came along, we bought our second boat, a 43-foot pilothouse monohull. We moved aboard in a marina tucked back in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a place where boats mingle with cattails and farm fields. It’s a strange place to find a boat, and one that made setting off for distant shores actually seem ... distant. But within months, our daughter was walking, the sails were up, and we were making our way under the Golden Gate Bridge, by then well on our way to child number two.
Our children were both born in Mexico, and that’s where we headed on our boat. They would spend years in Mexico, cruising the west coast and Baja California Peninsula. Baja is every bit as untouched and unspoiled as ever. It was rare that we’d share an anchorage with anyone else. A casual, relaxed childhood, their early years were spent barefooted, bare-bottomed and sun-bleached. They were doggie paddling by age 1 and swimming on their own at age 2. We collected shells, built sand castles, hiked the scrubby desert hills, and swam until our arms were sore. While our days were spent in the water, our evenings were spent around a taco cart. When we were ready for some culture again, we would head for Mexico’s Pacific Coast and hang out in Mazatlan or Puerto Vallarta.
After a few years of mostly Mexican life, we decided it was time to venture a bit farther. When the kids were 5 and 7, we moved aboard our next Bumfuzzle, this one a Grand Banks 42 Classic. We bought the boat in Florida with loose Caribbean plans.
If ever a boat were deserving of the moniker classic, the Grand Banks is it. Even coming from the world of sailing and not particularly being a boat guy, I knew a Grand Banks when I saw one. From the moment I stepped foot on board, I knew this would be a fantastic family platform.
Our kids have the aft stateroom, a two-bed space with a head, shower, closet and tons of toy stowage. The salon is, like all family rooms, where life is lived. The kitchen table serves as a spot to gather for every meal, an art supply depot, a car racetrack, a board game holder, and a homework station. There is never any need to yell out for someone on the other side of the house—in a boat, the other side of the house is hardly outside whispering range. We are always close. Always. Even when we find ourselves in a hotel or grandparent’s house, we discover that we pile up on top of each other. There may be three couches in the room, but we’re all squeezed onto the loveseat together. In moments like those, we smile with the realization of what our tiny-home-afloat lifestyle has meant.
Twenty months apart in age, the kids have spent almost their entire lives in the same bedroom. Living in close quarters, respecting each other’s space, privacy and belongings, and sharing time whispering to each other after we parents have sent them to bed are all things we cherish. Cruising has slowed life down, and despite its many challenges, has even made life easier.
Our kids can still have fun playing baseball with a driftwood bat and a seashell ball. They laugh hysterically while jumping off the bow, and they quietly explore tide pools. Our kids swim alongside sharks without fear because they can identify them and understand real dangers versus perceived ones. They could be trusted at a young age with driving the dinghy, or wielding a machete, because they’d watched us do these things and learned firsthand.
And as parents, we try to slow down and give as much of ourselves as we can. We take the time to explain how an engine works, how to maintain it, and how to keep it running smoothly so that we can cruise. We sit in the engine compartment and discuss how the watermaker gives us that clean water in the taps. We discuss how our solar panels create the power that runs everything on board.
The opportunity for real life lessons are endless. As a kid, it was easy for me to think that my dad never encountered problems in life, but challenges are an everyday occurrence, and on a boat there is no hiding this fact. There’s a storm on the horizon. There’s a swell in the anchorage. The transmission is squealing. A hose has burst. These problems are in everyone’s face. We solve them because on a boat, we have to. Our kids will learn that problems aren’t something to run away from, but instead to face head-on and overcome.
Simply cruising is a lifestyle that is constantly evolving for us. The Grand Banks affords us a couple of upgrades that make things more comfortable than our previous boats—things like a 35-gallon-per-hour watermaker, air conditioning, stabilizers and powerful twin engines. But no matter what we add to a boat, it’s still a far cry from the ease and comfort of our pre-cruising life. For some that’s a goal, and for others it’s a deal-breaker.
We enjoyed our family sailboat in Mexico, and now we enjoy our trawler in the Caribbean. Each boat we’ve owned is different, but the outcome has been the same. Once the anchor is down and we’re settled in, the boat is really the least important part. Who we are there with and the memories we are making together is what matters.
And there are a lot of memories. The Bahamas somehow maintain a water color that is unmatched anywhere else in our world travels. The Caribbean off Mexico gave us tacos, mangoes and bare feet in the dusty streets. Freshwater cruising up Guatemala’s Rio Dulce was an unexpected treat. Dive lessons in Honduras were a big hit. Making a good friend on Little Cayman was a highlight. Surfing off Jamaica, attending Dominican Republic parades, and enduring coronavirus-induced seclusion on St. John were great. Hurricane season hiding out in Puerto Rico might seem like the wrong place to be, but it’s a fun place to roll the dice with Mother Nature.
So, with a 9- and 10-year-old on board, we continue to aim for the horizon. There are countless bays, towns and countries to explore. An endless supply of life lessons are out there for us to confront, and we truly believe the best place to do that is from the deck of our boat.
We’ve been cruising on the trawler for three years now—5,000 miles or so—just enough to know for certain that we made a great choice. The next year may bring our family to New York or Grenada or Panama. Cruise planning is tough enough during the best of times. With Covid-19, it is even tougher.
But even if we were to go nowhere, we’d be happy just to be floating. Simply cruising.
This story was originally published in the November/December 2020 issue.
Bumfuzzle Blog: Meet the Schulte Family
Some dream about the cruising life. Others live it to the absolute max. The Schulte family from Minnesota falls firmly into the latter category.
Beginning with a catamaran circumnavigation, they have spent the past 17 years experiencing the planet’s great destinations by boat, motorhome, VW camper and Airstream trailer. They’re also compulsive documentarians aboard their current livery, Bumfuzzle, a 42-foot Grand Banks trawler. We can’t stop reading their extensive blog and sharing their adventures vicariously. We reckon you’ll be hooked too. Click here to visit their blog site.