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Heading South as a Nine-Year-Old

Photo by Gail Schell
Photo by Gail Schell

When I was nine, and my sister seven, my parents took us out of school for eight months and took us sailing heading south. The boat was called Sojourner, a 36-foot Allied Princess Ketch, the destination, Georgetown, in the Exumas. What started as a dream my parents fulfilled, has morphed into a career for me, nearly twenty years later.

We left Annapolis right after the Sailboat Show in October. I remember my dad taking the dinghy over to the show and buying a big first-aid kit, our last piece of gear before we cast off. Mom was busy teaching Kate and I school – we had a half-days worth every morning, usually me first and Kate later after she’d woken up. The administration at our elementary school was particularly supportive of the trip – being from eastern Pennsylvania, it’s not exactly a common endeavor – and they gave my mom and dad all the books and materials they’d need to get us through 4th and 2nd grade.

I was only nine then, but I recall that entire trip surprisingly well (in fact, I attribute those lasting memories, some of the first of my life I can really remember in detail, as the impetus for my entire life to follow. Since then I’ve continued traveling, met my wife in New Zealand and we live aboard our own boat, Arcturus. In fact, I’m writing this from the nav station on
Kinship, the boat I’m about to sail trans-Atlantic. We’re anchored in St Georges, Bermuda – next stop, Faial, in the Azores).

The first couple weeks were cold, wet and monotonous as we motored down the northern part of the ICW. Dad took the helm for most of the day while mom gave the school lessons down below. Our two cats, Salty and Ketchy, moseyed around the saloon and ventured up on deck when they felt brave enough (Salty, my cat, liked to ride on the top of the overturned dinghy, which rested on the foredeck. En route to Bimini from Miami, our only real offshore sail, she rode there under a full moon almost the entire crossing).

In Beaufort, NC we visited the maritime museum and hiked the beaches looking for wild horses. I found a part of a vertebra that we took back to the museum, who identified it as probably coming from a dolphin. As a kid, that’s a cool thing to hear. I still have it in a closet at the house I grew up in. On Thanksgiving, somewhere in the Carolinas, we spent the holiday anchored out in lousy weather and playing with the video camera my grandfather gave us. There’s a fun scene where we keep panning to the depth sounder as the wind in our little protected cove kept on blowing the water right out with the tide. We got to within inches of going aground – our neighbor was less fortunate, and spent a day on his side, his keel in the mud, waiting for the tide to come back in. Mom stayed down below mostly, cooking up a proper Thanksgiving meal, with the works. Well, proper save for the Cornish game hens we substituted for the turkey. But nobody complained.

In the Bahamas, school suddenly got shorter, and our education in the real world began in earnest. Mom and Dad took us everywhere the adults went – I played pool in the bar at Staniel Cay against some local hustlers, and won a quarter when one of them sank the eight ball. Yes, I was gambling as a nine-year-old. We watched the Superbowl at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club, and snorkeled Thunderball Cave, made famous by the Bond movie of the same name. We made friends on that trip too – part of the motivation for the trip was all the families my parents met on their first trip to the Bahamas in 1980, before kids. They always promised themselves that one day they’d return, kids in tow, and show them the world.

Perhaps my fondest memory of that trip isn’t a specific memory at all. It’s just recalling the days when the family was whole, out on the water with not a care in the world. Kate and I learned, without a doubt, more than we ever would have in the confines of the classroom. I never had to repeat 4th grade, nor she 2nd, and we turned out just fine. Mom would be proud of us.

Andy Schell is the editor of All At Sea Southeast. His mom, Gail Schell, passed away on April 30, after a 2½-year journey with brain cancer. She remains his inspiration in life to do what he loves and follow his heart. Follow Andy online at fathersonsailing.com.

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