Call For a Tow

Working Our Way Around The World


By Liz Tosoni

Keci Burcu, Southwest Turkey

Hoki Mai sails under San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge for the first time

When we left Vancouver in 1985, we’d figured that the funds we’d saved would allow us to be awayfor a year and a half. But after that year and a half, we found ourselves anchored by a small, lush and mountainous island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, firmly hooked on the cruising lifestyle. It felt as though we’d just begun the voyage, and we didn’t want to return, yet. It hadn’t always been fair winds and romantic sunsets. Hell, it wasn’t even always comfortable, easy, or even fun, but it was for us. The independence and freedom, the challenges and vicissitudes, the people, cultures, vistas and wildlife encountered along the way, the ability to see the world from a different angle: this all added up to a way of life that suited both of us. From Mexico, we’d sailed to the exotic Marquesas, Tuamotus, and Society Islands of French Polynesia, including Tahiti, Bora Bora, Raiatea, and Moorea, and then on to that little piece of American Polynesia called Samoa. Why did we steer Hoki Mai there instead of back home as planned? It was definitely risky, not practical, and probably irresponsible. After all, the boat wasn't paid off yet and we were at the bottom of our funds. But that's what we did in those days. When we dropped the hook in Pago Pago Harbor, we were pretty tired after 18 months of being on the go and a rough passage from French Polynesia. We were actually en route to Australia as we'd been told there were "heaps of jobs in Oz." It was just too alluring an idea and besides, heading home would’ve meant beating to weather, a point of sail we’d come to dislike! When we were offered jobs in Pago Pago though, teaching at local schools, we gratefully accepted, elated to realize we could stop awhile and add to the bank account. That single event set the stage for our lives up until the present.

We became enthralled with meeting the local people in the places we visited, such as these folks from Vanuatu.

Tom and I are currently at anchor, surrounded by the pine clad hills of Turkey, it’s now the beginning of the year 2008, and since that day 22 years ago when we set out, we’ve sailed to 31 countries, stopping to work (mainly teaching English) in six of them. Honestly, neither one of us imagined in our wildest dreams we’d still be cruising in the 21st century. We often pinch ourselves: How did we get so lucky to be able to do exactly what we want to do?

Living aboard a boat while teaching and living in various countries gives you a kind of insider-outsider perspective. In Samoa, I taught at an elementary "academy," all subjects, to a class of Korean, Samoan, and American 8th graders. Being a qualified teacher, I’d had previous experience teaching at this level in Canada. Here I learned that regardless of culture, this age group -- transitioning from child to teenager -- seems to display the same characteristics the world over, with overactive hormones and obsession with the opposite sex. They all roll their eyes at adults.

One of our more momentous landfalls – Japan.

Two cyclones passed through the island while we were moored there. The kids always looked forward to cyclones, as it meant a day off school. For us, it meant a full day’s work getting the boat ready to take a beating. Then, the aftermath -- another full day of work putting things back in order.

Tom taught at a local high school and his challenge was to learn how to teach, as he’d never stood before a classroom before. How did he get a teaching job without proper qualifications you ask? Well, it was close to the start of a new school year, late August, and there was a teacher shortage. If you had a university degree, which Tom did, you got a job. Tom has a degree in economics and – voila! -- it landed him a posting as a science teacher. Our salaries were nothing to brag about. I earned a meager $11,600 and Tom received $9,900.

Hoki Mai at anchor in Papua New Guinea behind a local vessel

At the end of that school year though, we were thrilled to sail away with an additional $6,000 in the cruising kitty, and the knowledge that we could work along the way. We also managed to pay the boat off while there as my dear 92-year-old grandmother, Nona, passed away, leaving us the wherewithal to be "free and clear." Hallelujah! We were like kids in a candy shop.

After Samoa, we sailed to Australia via Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, some of the true gems of the South Pacific. Before arriving there though, we experienced our "mother" of all storms, battling 65 knots of wind for 36 hours, hove-to under storm trisail (first and last time) in the Tasman Sea, our most terrifying time ever at sea, resulting in a lost solar panel, collapsed dodger, and a smashed wind vane. Although the words were never uttered, Tom and I were both separately thinking we might not get through this one. But we did. Maybe that's why, thankful to be alive and still have each other, we decided to "tie the knot" and get married. If crossing an ocean and surviving a storm aren’t a good enough test for marriage, then nothing is!

We married during our first cruise -- in Sydney, Australia

It was in Sydney's famous Wayside Chapel on a cold and blustery day that we formally committed to each other. The simple wedding was followed by a celebration aboard Hoki Mai in Ball's Head Bay, with about 25 friends, mainly yachties, complete with champagne and catered food. We stayed five months and did odd jobs in Sydney. Tom managed to get a sales job in a downtown chandlery as well as work on boats, while I taught swimming for a while and also worked in sales for a small company. The honeymoon took us north to Papua New Guinea and Kapingamarangi, two of our all-time favorite destinations, and then to Guam as it was time for another work stint. Most of the money was gone again.

Tom begins his teaching career

Guam is an American territory and we assumed we could once again work as Resident Aliens, the status given to us in Samoa, as non-U.S. citizens without green cards. No such luck. In Guam they had their own rules and even though there was an extreme teacher shortage at the time, we weren’t permitted to work. This was a huge letdown, and although I'm positive by nature, I recall being depressed on the occasion of my 40th birthday. Not only did we need jobs, but Hoki Mai was badly in need of repair with a leaky teak deck that had to be removed and countless other maintenance issues that needed to be addressed.

We tried to decide what to do next. Head for the Philippines, where the boat could be refurbished easily and cheaply, but where job prospects were limited and financially impractical? Or, lay a course for the land of the rising sun, where we knew of two couples on cruising boats who were teaching English and making decent wages? It was a toss of the dice for a low cost/low pay country, or a high cost/high pay country. We decided to set sail for the latter, Japan, and try our luck there. It turned out to be an excellent decision..

Tom navigating by sextant in 1985

Having checked out of Guam, fully provisioned and ready to go however, the weather report showed a worrisome looking tropical depression forming on the horizon. No problem, we thought, we’ll wait another day and see what it does. Well, as it turned out, that tropical depression metastasized into Super Typhoon Andy, the first typhoon of the season and it was aiming straight for Guam before it veered off, within 60 miles of the island. One week later, we had to check out of the country again! Guam’s great Harbor of Refuge was a godsend..

Our situation in Japan was unique because we were fortunate to obtain special permission from the local Fisherman’s Association to live aboard our boat in the harbor, a 40-minute bike ride from Fukuoka, a city of two-million people. They would not accept money for the privilege, but in exchange, Tom and I each taught English to the wives and kids of the fishermen -- two hours each per week. It was a fantastic opportunity to contribute something to the community as well as get to know the folks -- an entrée into Japanese village life.

Tom playing Santa Claus with students

By now, Tom had a TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) Certificate under his belt, having taken a course while in Australia, and we both landed well-paid, full-time jobs in the city, and lived in the fishing village. This was during Japan’s economic boom years and there were jobs for anyone who could speak English, even poorly! The teaching was a bit of a shock though. Students sat before us with expressionless faces and basically didn’t open their mouths, didn’t ask or answer questions, and didn’t appear the least bit interested. We somehow managed to mumble our way through our first lessons. For six months Tom and I tore our hair out trying to figure out ways just to get the kids to say something.

Liz and her good friend Miyoko

Over time, we learned the ropes and actually came to feel privileged to be earning a living doing something we enjoyed so much while still living aboard our boat. We discovered that while speaking English, especially the more advanced-level Japanese students seemed to be far more open about their personal lives and things that are important to them than they are in their own language. Because we were outsiders, they could talk about certain aspects of their culture that were taboo among themselves. They even revealed secret fascinating stories about their family histories.

Young or old, beginner or advanced, they couldn’t get their minds around the fact that Tom and I had sailed to Japan aboard our own boat. They couldn’t understand how it took us four years to reach Japan after leaving Canada. "You mean four weeks? You mean four months?" they’d ask with eyes like pie plates, over and over again. They’d come for a visit bearing gifts of fruit, flowers, or sake, thrilled to be aboard our humble steel ketch, Hoki Mai, saying it was like visiting a foreign country.

One year turned into four and a half years, but we finally departed the country by air, having sold Hoki Mai to a unique Japanese scientist who needed a steel boat to sail to Alaska and the Northwest Passage to do research on the permafrost.

Nine years after our departure, we returned to Canada to spend time with our families, and to decide on the next chapter of our lives. It was also a very sad time as one of my sisters, Marg, was dying of cancer, and we wanted to be there for her. As heartbreaking as her death was that year, it served to reinforce our desire to live life according to our own rules. We are on this planet but once, and it's very brief in the scheme of things. We committed to each other that we would make the most of it.

Hoki Mai in Alaska (photo thanks to Kenji Yoshikawa)