For these families, moving into (very) close quarters, setting out for open seas is the ultimate adventure lifestyle.
Stephanie Colotti Ferrie made a proposal to her husband Kevin about five years ago. She was in training for a half marathon and feeling strong and ready for a change. Why not pack up their four young children (and two dogs) and go live on a sailboat?
Kevin Ferrie thought she was joking. “He laughed,” Colotti Ferrie remembers. Not long after, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. It was a hard road to beat it, but she eventually came out on top, cancer free. That’s when the Scarborough couple revisited her idea. Kevin was leaving his job at the Coast Guard. Cancer had brought home the fact that time shouldn’t be wasted. He already knew boats, inside and out, but she trained by crewing on a racing boat every Tuesday night in Falmouth. In 2017 they bought a boat, rented out their house in Scarborough and began the process of moving aboard. These days they are cruising the Caribbean, stopping at one astonishingly blue tropical sea and sandy beach location after another.
“We’re about to hike a volcano this morning,” Colotti Ferrie wrote via Facebook Messenger on a June day. “We” would be her children, three girls and one boy, ages 13 to 8, and their two Labrador retrievers. While friends and family back home were enduring a cold and damp spring, the Ferrie family has been roaming Barbuda and Antigua, fishing, hiking, beachcombing. Their boat is named (fittingly) Serendipity and she’s a 44-foot Jeanneau sailboat.
Sharon Renk-Greenlaw, a longtime sailing teacher who has taken four long cruises to the Caribbean (once going as far as Venezuela) and back with her husband, says the Ferrie family represents a small but stalwart segment of Maine’s sailing population. “Day sailing or cruising the Maine coast for a couple of weeks a summer satisfies most people,” Renk-Greenlaw says. “It takes a certain kind of individual to say, ‘I am going to do this.’”
It looks like a magical life, a story of romantic gypsy existence, but it’s a life of relentlessly managing logistics. Having a good savings account to start is important, but liveaboard sailors frequently take steps like selling their homes or renting them out to cover the mortgage. They pick up work where they can. It helps to have a portable profession, like teaching or consulting. (Renk-Greenlaw is a registered nurse and made a practice of keeping her credentials up to date so she can work in places like Florida in between trips). Then once you’re on the boat, you have to manage groceries, meals, laundry and, if you have children, their educations.
That’s navigating domesticity. In terms of the nautical life, they need an education that goes beyond just setting the sails. A vast amount of knowledge is required, Renk-Greenlaw says. An understanding of wind, tides, currents and weather for one, sailing technology for another. There are plenty of geegaws to make today’s sailors lives easier, but you have to anticipate days on the ocean when none of it is working. When the motorized sails need to be cranked by hand. When the GPS fails you and the stars are your navigational tools. “There is a lot more that is on your plate than when you are just out for a day sail,” Renk-Greenlaw adds. “It really does take a certain kind of individual to say ‘I am going to do this for myself. I am going to stay on a 40 foot boat for months.’”
The person who decides on this life has to be an adventurous soul, she said. “And there has to be an element of being willing to take risks. The people that are successful at it also have an understanding that they have to have a huge respect for Mother Nature.”
The Ferrie family progressively built up to the liveaboard life in 2017 with trips up the Maine coast, going progressively farther Down East. The Serendipity is self-sufficient, with a desalination system for fresh water and solar panels for power. They have, Colotti Ferrie says, all the comforts of home with small concessions, and it all goes with them wherever they go. It was eye-opening for Colotti Ferrie, who had never experienced the Maine coast quite like this. “Seeing it from the ocean side was just amazing,” she says.
But when they left the East Coast last fall on an 11-day course from Virginia to the British Virgin Islands, it was a rude awakening. Sustained winds of 25 to 30 knots. Waves 10 to 15 feet. “I was in the fetal position and just wanted it to end,” Colotti Ferrie said. “Being in the middle of the ocean makes you pretty vulnerable.”
And some of the duties on board make you cranky, she says ”Everything takes longer.” Food planning is different. “You can’t run up to Hannaford,” she says. So is keeping energy consumption under check, although being off the grid is “fantastic.” Washing laundry in a bucket, especially sheets, is “pure hell” but add in a crisis like lice? Even worse.
The bonuses far outweigh the bad, she and others say. “We really like having the ability to go where we want when we want.” Colotti Ferrie says. That is, as soon as school is done for the day. (She homeschools her children from 9 to noon every day). They have to work together as a family, and the children have a lot of responsibilities. Renk-Greenlaw says for the family that lives aboard, it’s not unusual to have a 9-year-old on watch at night.
That leads to increased maturity, Renk-Greenlaw says. Colotti Ferrie agrees. “Living aboard really spurred the kids to get along better together,” she said. There’s literally nowhere else to go. “Everyone has to get along. When they don’t, things get really bad.”
“Living aboard really spurred the kids to get along better together. Everyone has to get along. When they don’t, things get really bad.”
For Susan and Andrew Allen of Southwest Harbor, giving their children that experience was part of the appeal of living aboard. They’d met while working aboard a boat in 2006, where he was the captain and she was the cook and crew. They sailed to many exotic locations, from Croatia to the Cape Verde Islands. “We were always drawn to sailing families and were amazed by the maturity of the kids and intelligence, and thought that was a great way to raise a family,” Andrew Allen says. They had the idea that they’d work for years, then quit and sail away. But after they moved to Southwest Harbor (where he grew up, in the shadow of Hinckley Yachts) they took on the kind of responsibilities, including ownership of seasonal businesses, that meant two months away was the most they could do. Since 2015 they have sailed in Florida or the Caribbean on their 34-foot Catalina, the Chickadee, homeschooling Lilly, 11, and Violet, 8, and doing part of the trip with another family from Bar Harbor. The shift from house life to boat life, with its different rhythms and demands, is always a bit of a shock. But within the first few days of living aboard, all the noise and chaos of land life falls away, as do their children’s regrets about leaving their friends at school.
“They quickly remember how fun it is,” Allen says. Both girls are growing as sailors, he says, and their parents hope they go to college but wouldn’t mind if they ended up working on boats as adults. “The first year they had a few sailing lessons and they said they were excited but were afraid of the boat tipping. Asking, ‘Dad, can you make sure the boat doesn’t tip?’” By the second year they were less worried about heeling and by the third year: “Nothing.”
What about life as a couple? Colotti Ferrie says it is unavoidable that she and Kevin will get on each other’s nerves “from time to time.” And he, she says, “is the natural captain.” For many years, Sharon Renk-Greenlaw of Freeport taught a class, Women Under Sail, designed to give women the confidence they needed to be their own captains. Gender roles, she says, tend to break down in a very traditional order on a sailboat. Some women she’s taught have been sailing for decades, but always in the limited role of a passenger/cook/laundress.
“Many times they would come to me and say, they have a partner, typically male, who they can’t seem to learn with like they want to,” Renk-Greenlaw says. Men and women often have different approaches to learning, she says, and to fear. “When women get scared, we get quiet,” she says. “We cry and then we talk about it. When men get scared, they yell, and that doesn’t work on a boat.” Knowing what to do if you’re solo is key for anyone contemplating the liveaboard life, because if the captain goes overboard the crew have to be able to sail with confidence.
For the Ferries and the Allens, their roles do break down along gender lines. Andrew Allen says he does the bulk of the maintenance while Susan does the cooking and the homeschooling. As a sailor, she’s extremely capable—having participated in an all female-crew race from Charleston, South Carolina to Bermuda—and he says he wouldn’t mind if she took charge more. But they met when he was the captain and she was the crew and he says, “It just kind of stuck.” Still, when they’ve encountered other sailing couples it is clear to him that his wife is not the average sailing wife. “It’s the husband’s dream of sailing away and the wife gets to come along but it’s not her dream,” he says. “With Susan, it’s not the same. She has the same or more of a desire to have this.”
For Allison Sayer and her husband Sean, frequent summer visitors to Maine who live aboard in Maryland with their 4-year-old daughter, it has been a steep learning curve. In 2005, when she was teaching and Sean was in graduate school, a sudden rent increase caused him to suggest they move onto a boat. Allison Sayer started googling. She came across a blog written by a liveaboard sailor who said, “Every day that I come home from work I feel like I’m on vacation.” She told Sean to let her know if he found a boat. That Friday they looked at a 35-foot Hunter. It was her first time on a sailboat ever. She went down into the cabin and looked around and felt, “OK, I can live here.”
At the beginning of their adventure, she says she was more concerned with the comfort of the living space in the cabin. As her sailing skills developed, her expectations shifted towards performance features like self-tailing winches. Her growth as a sailor is a source of pride for both Sayers. And they have a new(ish) boat now that makes it easier to sail up to Maine to visit friends and family. “Our 4-year-old has over 5,000 nautical miles under her belt which is incredible.”
Renk-Greenlaw says she’s been the force behind four liveaboard trips to the Caribbean. “I am the sailor,” she says. “My husband has gone with me because he enjoys it, but mostly, because he loves our relationship.” She has done plenty of “single-handed” sailing over the course of a lifetime of owning sailboats (she’s had five). “It is challenging and it is very empowering,” she says. She’s between boats now, and giving private lessons to people who own their own. But she does miss the liveaboard life. “I miss the adventure of going to new places and meeting new people and being in different cultures and the challenge of having to make do with what you have.” No matter how many tools you pack, it is inevitable that something will break and you’ll have to do without. “I miss it all,” she says. “There is nothing like being out on a sea with like a 15 to 20 knot wind and you are just cruising along and it is so quiet.” Maybe that’s why the Ferrie family is in no rush to get back to Maine. Eventually, Colotti Ferrie says, they will. “In a year or two,” she says.
Sarah Moore is a writer, mother, and sailor. When she’s not writing or working on repairs to her family’s sailboat, she’s exploring the coast with her husband and 4-year-old son. If things go as planned, Sarah and her family will be joining the ranks of liveaboard families next year.