Call For a Tow

A Little Working, A Little Cruising


By Liz Tosoni

Keci Burcu, Southwest Turkey

CanSail whale watching group

It was 1994, and after nine years of cruising and working away from Canada, it was a bit of a culture shock to come back home. Should we "give it a go" and see how we fair at work in Canada again, we wondered, or buy another boat and sail away in another direction? We had a pocketful of money from our time in Japan and could go either way, but it was a time of indecision, even confusion... a major crossroad.

More CanSail adventures

We were boat-less, job-less and home-less, and still mourning the loss of my sister, who’d recently died of cancer. To make some sense of things, we compromised by buying a truck and camper, and went driving, meandering over thousands of miles of North America, visiting and enjoying some of the fantastic parks and amazing landscapes of our own continent.

While visiting old cruising pals Craig and Gigette in San Diego, California, though, we got bitten by the "boat bug" again. I contacted my former employer, Prentice Hall, about job prospects and was fortunate to be given back my old job as a textbook sales representative, although in a different division. Oh boy, that meant commitment, and commitment was a little scary.

Whale watchers spotting a whale -- the thrill of a lifetime

My new manager said, "We’d expect the person to stay for some time." Okay, we can do that. After all, "some time" is rather vague, isn't it? I actually lasted two years at the job before we got "itchy keelitis" again and sailed away..

We bought another boat, which we lived aboard, in Vancouver, and Tom formed a small charter company, "Cansail Adventures." My sales job allowed me enough spare time in the summer months to assist Tom and we ran the company for six consecutive summers, two aboard our newly purchased boat, Feel Free, a Spencer 51, and four summers aboard a Sampson 53. The little business was a perfect marriage of two of our great interests -- sailing and teaching. During the first summer of operation, Feel Free acted as the research vessel for a whale-research program on the northern B.C. coast. The program was headed by two young Ph.D. biologists from the University of British Columbia. They did the marketing and brought groups of ecotourists from all over the world and all walks of life to join and assist them in their research for a week at a time, charging them a moderate fee for the experience. Every day without fail Pacific Gray Whales were seen.

Cansail Adventures 2

We acted as boat operators and sailing instructors, taking the whale enthusiasts to the feeding grounds by day as they excitedly spotted the grand behemoths, recording time and location of the "blows," and identifying them by marks on their flukes. It was an indescribable pleasure to sail with a light breeze on a sunny afternoon in lockstep with a 40-ton, barnacle-encrusted "friendly" alongside. We escorted them along steep-to cliff faces under nests of circling bald eagles and along mussel-lined islands and islets populated by harbor seals, gulls, cormorants, and red-billed oystercatchers.

The following five summers were spent in Vancouver running "Cruise and Learn" day sails. During the intervening winter months, we sailed Feel Free to Mexico and then Hawaii, allowing us to work for four months and sail for eight months of the year. It was cruising on the installment plan.

Whale identification by marks on flukes

There were about 30 language schools in the city at the time, kids coming from all over the world to study English and enjoy some sightseeing in a new land. As part of their extra-curricular activities, they joined our boat to learn new English terminology as well as how to raise sails and steer the boat.

Tom & Liz in Vancouver 1996

They saw the sights of Vancouver from the sea while enjoying a sunset barbeque on the bay. The boat was festooned with labels: mast, boom, winch, cleat, wheel, cockpit, and so on, to encourage the young people to use the new language as they took part. While passing city landmarks, we’d gather them together to share ancient Indian legends associated with the location.

Teaching in Hong Kong was another entirely different work experience. We left Feel Free in dry storage in Gladstone, Australia, having sailed there for the second time, via Hawaii, the Marshall and Kiribati Islands, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia. We flew to Hong Kong and lived on the 23rd floor of a high rise overlooking Hong Kong harbor. In fact, it was the first time for us to live on terra firma in 17 years. Typhoons often appeared there, but the experience was always stress-free, compared to the fire drills we were used to in Samoa, Guam, or Japan -- when typhoons made their presence known..

Cansail Adventures 3

The job was a two-year contract at a government high school under the "NET (Native English Teacher) Scheme." I’d been interviewed and hired while in Australia and the Hong Kong government took care of our moving expenses. Tom didn't yet have a job when we left Oz but we were pretty confident he could get one once we were there. My school turned out to be one with average-to-below-average students and it was a real worry when my department head casually mentioned "they are poor in all subjects, especially English" just before classes began.

Reconciling Hong Kong’s strict, exam focused, teacher-centered approach to teaching, with the open, oral, activity-oriented, student-centered style that I’d developed over the years, turned out to be the greatest challenge of all, especially when dealing with the younger pupils. As always, it worked out, a way was found, and it was gratifying to read a 6th Form (12th grade) student’s charming journal entry:

Hong Kong View

"Last week, I have taken an interview with Liz. Though the interview is part of our schoolwork, that was run under a very relaxing atmosphere. From the interview, I not only practiced the use of English, and interviewing technique, but I also knew more about her background and her objective of being an English teacher in Hong Kong. In fact, I am impressed by her experience, because I used to think that taking a world tour with a boat is just a story in the Hollywood movie. But she brought this story to her life, and was shared with her husband. I am so envy with her fantastic memory. Besides, I am also impressed by her objective of teaching us English. She told us that she wishes to bring a new way of teaching to us, she wants to promote self-learning, and she intends to train our courage and confidence in learning English. This is actually something missing in today’s Hong Kong English teaching syllabus."

English Dept in Hong Kong

Tom was the "NET" at an elementary school. He had the advantage of a local co-teacher in every class so discipline was never a concern. He became a specialist in fun games and activities, songs, and "Big Book" readings, the young tikes absorbing the language like sponges.

Life in an apartment in Hong Kong, though, is the antithesis of life on a sailboat. The noise, pollution, crowds, and smells became rather hard to take after the initial thrill of arrival in this exciting city. Escaping to the hills on the many nearby islands every weekend kept our sanity. The SARS outbreak didn’t help matters either. Imagine wearing a surgical mask while trying to teach conversational English to a class of students, all wearing masks as well! It sounds comical now, but that period was actually frightening. Every evening, we were glued to the TV to find out how many more deaths had occurred that day. We couldn’t have been happier to return to our simple life aboard Feel Free.

The next season we enjoyed fast, boisterous sailing over the top of Australia, then a relaxed passage across the Timor Sea to the Indonesian archipelago of komodo dragons and orangutans. Then, it was on to Singapore and the Straits of Malacca, Malaysia, and, finally, Thailand in time for the Indian Ocean tsunami. (We’ll tell you more about that in a future BoatUS log.)

Tom and Liz in Mexico 1999

Probably the most fun we had while teaching English was in Xiamen China where we were in charge of organizing and running a Summer English Camp for 10-18 year olds. These jobs, we got entirely through the Internet. Feel Free was left behind in Phuket, Thailand for that gig.

In China, the idea of sailing a boat around the world was a concept totally inconceivable to our students. We tried to give them a glimpse of what it was like through pictures and words. Their concerns were the usual: "It is too dangerous!" "You may die in a storm!" "Are you afraid of pirates?" "What food can you eat?" "Your family will miss you!" "What about sharks?"

You've probably noted by now that teaching has been our main source of income throughout our cruising career. (I must add, though, that a healthy stock market also helped the cause for awhile.) We've discovered over the years that teaching and sailing go hand in hand. Not only has teaching allowed us to "support our habit" financially, it has also added immense enrichment to the experience of ever-so-slowly making our way under sail around this great wide globe. If you are inclined to the teaching profession and want to go cruising, you might think about getting a TESL certificate. Look at some of the "teaching English abroad" websites for starters, and you’ll be amazed at all the jobs that are available around the world for English teachers. We've found that employers usually view the unusual lifestyle as a positive influence on people. They also think "old fogies" like we are (58 and 56), rightly or wrongly, might have a bit of wisdom to share.

This past season found Feel Free and her crew sailing across the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden, through the Red Sea, on to the Mediterranean and Turkey, and we haven't worked for a while. We’re in the European Union now, and it’s illegal for us to work here, so it'll be interesting to see what's next. We'll keep you posted. See you in two weeks, here on

Liz with HK students

Feel Free in Brisbane