Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Along For The Ride (or Shanghaied?)

What is the best anchor? (Bruce)

Cat or monohull? (monohull)

Run or heave to? (will let you know)

Every cruising sailor comes to appreciate the notion that there are just as many dissimilar opinions on any boat-related topic as there are sailors to express them. Yet, despite all of this diversity, there is a bastion of sacrosanct truths that unite cruising sailors:

Reef when you first think of it. (Yes!)

Tear up the list; go cruising now. (Yes!)

Parents who take their children cruising are giving them a gift. (Yes!)

There are other tenets, but I am eager to address the last one: I knew this one was true when I was a single man in my 20's, without kids and without any regard for ever taking kids cruising or sailing. I knew it was true because I had both heard it and read it over and over. I knew it was true because it stands to reason: the richness of the cruising lifestyle is sure to enhance the well being of cruising kids in ways not possible for their dirt-dwelling brethren. Therefore, any kid on the deck of a boat traveling the world is better off. Duh.

I’m a 41-year-old parent of two very lucky girls who are a scant 12 months away from becoming cruising kids.

* * * *

This evening, I boarded a city bus for my commute home from downtown Washington, D.C. to uptown Washington, D.C. I often ride along with people who parent differently than my wife and I. I sometimes witness stressed out young mothers curse, hit, and threaten their two-year-olds. It always leaves me more eager to see my own girls.

This evening I saw a young couple with a very young boy, about two-years-old. The man called out the window dramatically to someone who wasn’t there, theatrical in tone, from an adult perspective. Repeatedly he called, “You want this little boy?” Ducking inside he told the boy he would get off at the next stop, to be handed off to a stranger. The boy was crying. The boy was terrified at the prospect of being abandoned. The boy promised desperately, between sobs, “not to act out.” The woman laughed and laughed at the man’s success at fooling—-and terrifying—-the boy. It was the most troubling episode of this kind I’ve witnessed in several years commuting by mass transit. My heart sank for the prospects for this young person, his identity shaped by a real, drummed-in fear of separation and abandonment, humiliated and betrayed by the only people he knew to love.

* * * *

This evening the June 2010 issue of Cruising World magazine was in the mailbox when I got home. Like every month, I went straight to the back of the magazine for Wendy Mitman Clarke’s Off Watch column.

Tonight I read for the first time an account by a writer—-a cruising parent of two!-—who wonders publicly and credibly whether the benefits of the cruising lifestyle she is experiencing as an adult, are benefiting her kids.


Her sentiment was disquieting. The things she wrote do not validate my worldview.

Though she has a platform and she has the credibility, Wendy Mitman Clarke's essay does not contain a single assertion related to the topic. Rather, she wonders aloud whether fullfillment of her and her husband's dream is in her kids' best interests. Her introspective approach makes the essay more troubling. Assertions, or statements of "fact," are easy to dismiss: "My kids are different!" But Ms. Clarke puts everything on the table, opening the debate with lots of questions. Questions echo in the back of your mind until you answer them truthfully.

Following the bus ride home tonight, I know that I affirmed, subconsciously, my own parenting by comparing it with what I saw. I hope my children feel safe and secure, free to develop, unhindered by any seeded reservations about their place in the world, without any anxiety related to our feelings for them. Nothing is more important to my wife and me than not hindering our girls, not stunting them with fears or senses of inadequacy, not inhibiting their abilities to know and project themselves. I hope that we never stunt their abilities to make and develop social connections.

Until I read Ms. Clarke's essay, it didn't occur to me that I took it for granted that my kids were the lucky beneficiaries of the cruising life plan we have in store for them.

Both Windy and I have acknowledged the stresses that will accompany the transition. It won't be pleasant for a 5-year-old to discard 90% of her life's possessions. It will be emotionally disruptive for a 7-year-old to permanently leave the home she was born in. But heck, millions of families move, making these transitions, every year. They turn out fine. More importantly, we will fare even better because the dislocation we are imposing is for a greater good--we are inducting two new lives into the cruising family fraternity. Our kids are lucky--and someday they will know it, right?

But we aren't simply moving, replacing for our kids what they know, with a copy of what they know. We are truly transitioning our kids from what they know to what they will have to come to know. We indoctrinated them in the non-cruising life. We ensured they are products of a landlubbing culture. We are not just moving, we are changing everything.

And the life they will have to come to know is sprinkled with drawbacks different from, but perhaps as significant, as those of the lives we are leaving. In her essay, Ms. Clarke addresses a significant one as follows: "A darker side of this life may also be a deep understanding of loss at too tender an age and a fear of commitment that comes with never knowing what will happen next and of always saying goodbye without knowing if and when you might meet again."

We know that we can answer for ourselves whether the benefits of the new lifestyle offset these drawbacks. Until tonight, I assumed we could answer that same question for our girls, and we can't.

Acknowledging this--for the first time, thanks to Ms. Clarke's article--Windy and I are still confident we are doing right by our girls. Aside from the oft stated benefits of the cruising lifestyle, cruising is a way of life that affords us the freedom to not work (or at least to work a lot less). Accordingly, we will spend more time with our girls than we could otherwise afford to do.* Without this lifestyle avenue, we would be unable to give the girls as much of ourselves. There are hundreds of other considerations--including the dark sides Ms. Clarke presents, including the myriad diverse experiences we will selfishly delight in exposing our girls to--but for Windy and me, everything else follows the four of us being together.

Ultimately, the questions Ms. Clarke's essay prompts remain unanswered. Our best guess, however thoughtfully considered, is just that. Like all urban parents, suburban parents, small-town parents, and the small population of water-based parents, we will move forward, loving and parenting in the way that makes sense to us.

I will post a link to Wendy Mitman Clarke's outstanding essay when it is available.

- MR

* Surprising to many who are not familiar with cruising, sailing the world's oceans on a private yacht can be accomplished (and enjoyed!) with an income below the US poverty level for a family of four. We are going to prove it.

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