The moment recreational vessels were allowed to sail post-lockdown in Singaporean waters, we loaded our daughter, her husband, and our two grandkids aboard our 43-foot ketch Ganesh and went for a well-deserved four-day cruise.
“Dunk’n chair, dunk’n chair,” 6-year-old Tessa and 9-year-old Sokù chanted as I picked them up from the beach at Changi and brought them out in the dinghy.
We used the same timeless technique to keep our grandkids interested in sailing as we do ourselves: We make a conscious effort to keep it fun. For instance, from an early age, we’ve dunked ’em. We just strap them into our bosun’s chair that we hang on the spinnaker pole, hoist ’em up, and let the halyard fly—splash!
This has provided our family with endless hours of fun. And to the kids, it is pure carefree joy. Grandpa is a totally crazy guy, always willing to go with the flow, always in the moment. What they don’t realize, of course, is that I’m also a captain, and I’m constantly balancing their safety with their fun because I’m an adult as well. And they are neither, because they don’t need to be. It is my job to provide a carefree space to be an unabashed child, which is something only a responsible adult can do.
Kids and boats fascinate me. I have a 100-year-old picture of my father as a child holding a sailing model of a lofty sloop. I have hundreds of pictures of myself growing up aboard our family’s schooner, Elizabeth, plus thousands of pics of raising our daughter, Roma Orion, aboard the ketch Carlotta and the Sparkman & Stephens sloop Wild Card. And now we have an entire hard drive of iPhone and GoPro videos of cruising with Sokù Orion and Tessa Maria.
Why is sailing such a good mix for adult and child alike? Because there’s work involved. Not make-work, but real work; work that needs to be done as a family to stop the sail from luffing, the sandbar from being struck, the underwater rock from being met.
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“Mind the rudder or meet the rock,” is our family motto, and even 6-year-olds can instinctively grasp such a concept. “Boats don’t like boo-boos either,” I explained to Tessa.
Yesterday we tacked through a thousand anchored freighters in the lee of Singapore (literally, not figuratively), with me calling the tacks, their 39-year-old mother, Roma Orion, grinding the sheet winch, and Sokù Orion tailing, while her younger sister, Tessa Maria, ate spicy noodles, something she is extremely good at, regardless of angle of heel.
What’s so cool about it?
First off, these freighters weren’t theoretical. They weren’t on YouTube; they were the real deal: belching smoke, maneuvering to anchor, clank-clank-clanking their chain rodes to steam majestically out into the South China Sea. They utterly fascinate, these 440,000-ton, 1,200-foot-long steel toys. Their sheer scale stagger young and old alike. Does tacking within feet of a super-container-ship carrying some 12,000 40-foot containers inspire? It certainly does. Especially when I explained to Tessa that all the different-colored containers contained different-colored M&M’s candy. (Sokù howled with delight to her younger sister that I was fibbing, which, of course, I was. But I was also teaching about the economy of scale as well as container ships.)
“Pipes,” Tessa yelled. Even she knows pipes on deck indicate a tanker.
“Cranes, buckets and sliding hatches,” countered Sokù, who now can spot a bulk carrier a mile away.
Grandma Carolyn—my wife, lover, and first mate for 50 years and four circumnavigations—came up on deck, wiping her hands with a dishrag. She asked the cockpit at large, “What’s that slab-sided boat with the ramp aft?”
“Car carrier,” we shouted out in unison.
“Why the baby boats alongside?” Tessa asked.
“Grandpa just said they’re bunkering: bringing out all the fuels, food and junk they need to head back out to sea,” Sokù explained.
“And why does Singapore have thousands of freighters that pour billions of dollars into its economy while nearby Malaysia and Indonesia have only a couple?” I asked.
The kids looked puzzled until Roma said: “Because anchoring is free in Singapore. They earn the billions of dollars in services, not government fees.”
I smiled because these two sentences sum up the miracle of S’pore fairly well.
But back to our getaway. Did we travel far? Nah, only four hours, to a cozy anchorage between Lazarus and St. John’s islands. The skyscrapers of downtown shimmered on the northern horizon. Did we stay a long time? Nope, only four glorious days because Roma had to return to her job at Singapore Management University.
While the focus of our family sails is primarily on the family part of the equation, one of our most fruitful family focuses is on others. So, it was only natural that Stanley and Jeannine, who are native Singaporeans, took a ferry out to the islands to join us. Stanley has sailed with us all over the world, and Jeannine is just discovering how crazy Stanley’s crazy friends really are.
Then two Princeton graduates joined us for a couple of days: my niece, Marelle, a former Goodlander liveaboard child, as was Roma, and her partner, Maura, who’d just been hired by a prestigious legal firm in London after completing her second master’s degree here in S’pore.
“Are they married?” Sokù asked, picking up on the vibe.
“Kinda,” I said.
“They’re fun,” Tessa said perceptively, then added brightly, “can I have another cookie?”
I smiled. Kids instinctively realize how silly it is to make natural things complicated.
“What kind of boat did Marelle grow up aboard?” Sokù asked.
“A 32-foot fiberglass sloop named Ocean Daughter, in San Francisco Bay,” I told her. “It’s cold there. Seals played around her marina. How cool is that?” (Each of my siblings has owned numerous liveaboard vessels; sister Carole owned two, brother Morgan two as well, and sister Gale only one. The family joke: Our vessels could fill a small harbor.)
And did we have fun? Oh, yeah. The kids showed the two landlubbers, Maura and Jeannine, the finer points of Jabsco head operation, how not to waste fresh water, and to make sure they never left anything electrical running when they left a cabin.
“Decide what you want before you open the refrigerator, not after,” Sokù scolded.
One of the best ways to assist a child in learning is by asking them to teach a receptive adult.
“No, not figure eights first,” Tessa said. “First a circle around the cleat, then the figure eights; right, grandpa?”
“Right you are, sailor!” I replied.
Was any of this intensive learning as a family planned? No, of course not. We are sailors and we go to sea for the fun, but learning is always a built-in byproduct if you do the fun part right. I didn’t need to tell the kids that girls could do complex mechanical tasks because grandma was on the foredeck catting up the anchor, their mother was sweating up the mainsail, and their Auntie Marelle was hand-over-handing the dinghy up onto the davits.
Why point out the obvious?
Navigation was, of course, a family affair as well: finding the buoys, reading the water, relating the symbols on our AIS and our radar as a severe squall blacked out visibly amid the freighters.
Was some of it fake, you know, just for the kids? Well, kinda yes and kinda no. I suppose I didn’t have to have all those bearings they took with our Fujinon binoculars (confirming our lines of position by sighting over the compass), but it never hurts to confirm our nav plotter while coastal cruising.
But enough about the work. Besides the dunking, we swam off the boat, off the beach, out of the dinghy, and the kids dived (while screaming) from each and every. Why do kids scream while frolicking in the water? I have no idea. But they do, the world over. And it is music to my ears.
My father was a sailor. I’m a sailor. My daughter is a sailor—even better, she’s blessed us with two fine sailors. And for one glorious long weekend, everything was as it should be: There was no COVID-19, no looming dictatorship, no fortune lost, no sad demise of every societal nicety I’ve ever enjoyed. There was just us, just those happy young smiles doing happy things in a happy place called family.
Even fate conspired to make things right. Helicopters towed giant Singapore flags overhead; unmarked submarines popped to the surface almost under Ganesh’s bow.
Carolyn—Grandma for the duration of their visit—had the toughest job. She turned her tiny galley into a food factory, whipping up healthy dinners, nutritious lunches and tasty snacks throughout the four days. (OK, there were a few bottles of champagne too.)
Carolyn’s an Italian American, and love, family and food are all one and the same to her. There’s nothing that makes her happier than having kids aboard, especially if they’re hungry.
Did the boat get messed up? Was food dropped, were drinks spilled, and was sunblock smeared? Did our dinghy painter get chafed and our outboard prop nicked? Was the anchor-chain mud everywhere, on everybody? You betcha! And it will probably take Grandma and me a couple of weeks to make Ganesh shipshape again. So be it. It was more than worth the trouble. Families always are.
And especially at the end, when I dropped them all off on the dock of the Changi Sailing Club and heard Tessa screaming happily as she ran toward shore: “Ganeshi! Ganeshi is the best boat in the whole wide world!”
The Goodlanders continue to weather the pandemic anchored in Singapore.