The Dream

By Tom Neale, 6/2/2005


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Tom popped the first big question over 35 years ago. After 15 years of marriage, I popped the second. By that time we had made the decision to have a family and to live aboard a sailboat and both these goals were accomplished. So, “Will you take us cruising now?” seemed the right question to me.

The cruising dream was not something that just happened one day. Boating goes back a long way in my life, Tom’s too. Cruising is a natural progression from boating as a hobby to boating as a lifestyle. When you boat, you just go out and around in the boat, maybe spend a night or two aboard and then go home. When you cruise, you use the boat to take you places you can’t reach by other means, and you can stay there for a while or move on. You can look out over a different horizon each night if you choose. You live on your own moveable “private island,” surrounded by the moat of the sea. You take with you the things you need and the boat sustains your life at whatever level of comfort you have chosen or could afford to put into it. You take care of the boat and it takes care of you.

Melanie at age 13 months. Her first walk on "The Island." By Mel Neale.
Tom and I knew we wanted to live this way, or at least try it out. We shared the dream, so why not do it at a time when we were both young and healthy, and before our kids became attached to too many shoreside attractions?

I loved boating. My family had the first boat when I was three years old. It was one of those mahogany speedboats: open, varnished and fast, not a Chris, but you know the type. Two years later we got a “cabin” cruiser, the Betty Jo. It had bunks in the bow so we could sleep aboard. My two younger sisters and I wore orange kapok life jackets and played dolls in the cockpit.

We spent a lot of time at our marina, more home to me than home. It was located just before Mile 0 of the ICW. Fifty years ago there was no mass snowbird boat migration as we know it now, but we did see an occasional “stranger” boat tie up at the end of the pier in the spring and fall. We kids sneaked peeks of wonderment from behind pilings.

My parents bought another cabin cruiser, the Carol C. There were seven of us now, five little girls, a handful as they say. Even though Carol C was bigger, it was hard work for my parents to have all of us to sleep aboard. Sadly, they decided to give it up till we were older.

But we all really missed being on the boat. On Sunday afternoons we piled in the station wagon and rode around looking at boats for sale. We needed a bargain. Dad finally found it--a 20 year old Mathews ‘38 38’ (for year and length). He bought it cheap and with faith, as it was very leaky and had a lot of rot.

"Betty Jo," Mel's family's first cabin cruiser, 1951, by John Wittig

Mel at the helm of "Carol C" with parents, John and Margaret Wittig, 1954, Wittig Family Photo.
We worked on it for a year, every weekend, vacation, and day off from school or work. While my friends were doing normal 12-year-old-kid stuff, I “worked on the boat.” Git-Rot got the rot, and MarineTex replaced it. I think there was more MarineTex than wood in that boat when we finished. But it looked beautiful, with varnished mahogany, blue decks, sparkly white hull and new transom. We were all proud. We named it SevenWyts, for all seven of us with the last name “Wittig.”

This boat was for cruising: first for weekends in the lower Chesapeake or for a week to the middle bay, then for two weeks to the upper bay. And finally, we took the real cruise. This was in 1963, aboard our now 25-year-old formerly rotten rebuilt wood boat with huge old gas engines. There were seven people aboard 38 ft. for more than a month, five kids between 8 and 16 years old. We went from the lower Chesapeake to Cape Cod--to Nantucket and back. People up there couldn’t believe it. Neither could our friends back home. But it was the time of my life—a defining moment—when I knew that I could do this for a long time. Two years later we did another month long cruise to Canada, via the Hudson River, Lake Champlain and up the Richlieu River.

When all the kids were gone from home, the first thing my parents did was to sell the house, move aboard the now almost 40-year-old SevenWyts, and head for Florida and the Bahamas. They lived aboard and cruised for eight years, the latter part of it on their TwoWyts. And they told us of families cruising with small children and of home-schooled kids.

Tom’s and my cruising dream was as old as our marriage. We dreamed of living aboard, cruising to far off places, being close to nature, practicing self sufficiency, simplifying our lives, all aboard our own ocean going home and surrounded by the ones we love. In our early years, we just assumed we’d do the “mom and pop” thing like the few other cruisers we met. Or at least we’d wait till our children, should we have any, were older and our financial resources were more secure. That was surely the most sensible thing to do. But when you are at an age when optimism runs high and the signs of your own mortality have not yet manifested, hard decisions are easier.

Mel's family and friends, swimming around the "Sevenwyts," Cuttyhunk, MA, 1963, by John Wittig

: Mel and sisters playing with dolls in the cockpit of the "Betty Jo," 1952. Mel is on the right. Photo by John Wittig
We had enjoyed 12 years of honeymoon, childless marriage. We spent every weekend on whatever boat we had. In the early days there was Tom’s 18 ft sedan cruiser, the last and finest in a long succession of small motorboats he had owned since age nine. Then there was the first Chez Nous, “Our Home,” sweet Tartan 27, loved and cruised for four years, only to be displaced by Chez Nous, Gulfstar 41, centercockpit ketch, roomy enough to live on.

And live on it we did, behind our house, in a small canal in southern Virginia. In the moderate weather months, all but coldest winter and hottest summer, we spent every night on the boat. On weekdays, I came home from work, gathered food from the house, cooked supper in my galley. We dined by cozy lantern light and slept in our bunks. In the morning, we used the house for showers and breakfast before heading out to work, me to teaching, Tom to his trial law practice. We took long vacations in the summer, and cruised all over the bay, only docking to take on supplies. There was a different anchorage every night, a different horizon each day. We thought we could do this forever. This was the life!

The best thing about our modified living aboard was that Tom was able to unwind from some of the stress of his job as a trial lawyer. He didn’t take paper work or books home with him--all of that was done at the office, which necessitated some really long hours. The only thing he brought home was the worry. But the minute he stepped aboard Chez Nous, shoreside problems and concerns melted away. We had to make one important concession though; we ran a long phone line out to the dock so he wouldn’t miss calls.

We had never gotten into the house and fine furniture thing like our peers, or the going out to meals and movies. There were no expensive vacations either, as we took them all on the boat. Our “new” cars were used. We knew that it didn’t take a lot of money to make us happy, as long as we had each other and the boat to live on and time to take off to a distant shore.

We were also at the point that if there were to be kids in our lives, now was the time or it would be too late. We knew we wanted to continue to live aboard and that “real cruising” would be in the future. But the 41 ft boat was not the one we wanted to raise a family aboard. With enough money put away to pay for most of a larger boat, we searched for a good liveaboard and cruising boat for a family. We put a down-payment on the “perfect” family cruiser, Gulfstar 47, third Chez Nous, sight unseen as it was still in the planning stage in the magazine ads, just as our family was still in the planning stage.

Melanie in Dinghy in 1980, 13 months old. By Mel Neale

Melanie and Carolyn in the Bahamas in1988. By Mel Neale
The boat arrived three months before the first baby. Once we had it tied up behind the house, we moved aboard for good. The second baby arrived two years later. We began to spend more time away from the dock at marinas and anchored out, cruising, but still attached to the job. Even though we still owned the house and rented it out, we knew we would never live in it again. We kept it as insurance, in case any part of our liveaboard dream didn’t work.

Meanwhile, Tom’s law practice was growing and the demands on his time escalated to the point that he often only saw the kids if I woke them up when he came home late at night. With reputation and long hours as a trial lawyer came more money, enough to pay off the boat and to set aside some retirement funds and enough savings to live on for a while should we need it.

I had quit my teaching job after the second was born, as motherhood aboard became a full time responsibility for me. We learned from this that we could make it on one income, and that I could survive as a “stay at home mother.” We also observed that the girls seemed happier and healthier than my teaching friends’ children who stayed in day care centers all day. Their minds were thriving from constant attention, stories, reading, problem solving, the “pre” home-school stage in our lives.

All around us friends and families were splitting, relationships falling apart, especially among the other young lawyers. The guys got younger wives, the women got the kids. Some had not lasted the second time around. Even though our lifestyle was so much different, I could understand the pressures as a form of occupational hazard. Being able to control the fate of others seemingly by the strength of your will and personality is quite an ego trip, but a responsibility few outside the law can fathom.

There was always the nagging question in our minds, especially mine, as to whether “the law” was worth the toll: family life, getting to know the children before peers replaced parents as their primary influence, possibly our marriage. Tom was good and he loved the law. He was also tired all the time from the long hours. And he loved Melanie and Carolyn and felt he was missing being part of their lives. I knew he wanted to know them more than for just a half hour a day.

Captain Carolyn, Age 4. By Mel Neale

"Chez Nous" Gulfstar 47. At anchor in Bahamas in 1994. By Mel Neale
We enviously read in the magazines about people living on their boats, cruising in the tropics, happy, healthy, and spending very little money. Some had families with small children; we saw pictures of them frolicking on beaches. And there were the stories my parents told, and I know they didn’t spend much money. It would soon be time for Melanie to start pre-school, then kindergarten, the first step in being plugged into the shore, trapped for the next 20 years.

I did the math.

I had it all figured out:

We could sell the house and our interest in a few pieces of property. Today it’s hard to believe, but at the time banks paid interest rates of around 14% on CD’s. We had some steady income for a few years into the future. It looked pretty rosy, if not for the long term, at least for a while, just to see if we liked it. The first year we would do a careful accounting of all our expenses to see if we could continue to afford it. I would start home-school early, while we were still in the bay, to see how that would work for us. When the money ran out, Tom and I were pretty resourceful. We could figure out something else to do, stop somewhere if needed, take shoreside jobs for a while. He was very strong willed and had excelled in his previous endeavors, the type of person we now call “A”. We would do a trial run, arrange for a legal position he could return to in the summers, or at the end of a year of two, without burning all bridges as they say. He had always wanted to write and I had always wanted to do something with my art and photography. And we knew a lot about boats, having been around them all our lives. There would be a place for us in some job market somewhere when the time came. I did not want to be rich. I wanted a happy husband and family.

So, I popped the question. The answer was conditional, especially as to timing. And then there was the ego thing, the hardest part. Tom would have to divest himself from a thriving legal practice, of which he was the “boss,” the one who won the cases. Some of the cases took years to finish, so there could be no more new ones, which meant less work but also less money for a while before we could take off. This was a big sacrifice I was asking for. But we could cruise. So we set a date in the fall, more than a year away, and started to undo what had taken 15 years to do. Tom did arrange to be able to come back to work for a summer or two and to maintain a titular position, just in case we didn’t like it or something bad happened.

"Chez Nous" Gulfstar 53. Our current and our fourth "Chez Nous." By Mel Neale

Melanie and Carolyn in the Bahamas in 1998 aboard "Chez Nous." By Mel Neale

We started Calvert School kindergarten a year early with Melanie and made up some pre-school lessons for Carolyn. We bought guidebooks and charts and started planning the dream.

Harder than convincing my husband was telling the grandparents. They were upset enough that we lived unconventionally on a boat with their two precious grandbabies, but the idea of removing them from grandparental sight for most of a year was almost unbearable. And not allowing the children to attend “real” schools was difficult to explain, even though Virgina was a pioneer state in the beginning of the home education movement in the early 80’s. My parents, still living aboard, didn’t have much to say, except that they’d see us down there. Both sets thought we’d do it for a year or two and settle back into a comfortable life, at worst tied to some pilings in Virginia.

Cruising has a learning curve. The first year we learned compromise. We thought we’d reach the Caribbean, then turn around and head back to Virginia for Tom’s summer job. We learned that we liked to cruise to nice places and stay for a while, to unwind and enjoy each other and the children and that we were both committed to their home education. We learned that the Bahama Islands are a nice place to be and that they are just far enough away to make the trip there and back to Virginia in the eight months we planned to be underway the first year. And we learned that the children and the grandparents needed time to be together while there was still time. We learned that if we were really careful we could live on the money we had allotted, at least for a few years. We found that there were a lot of nice and some very different cruisers from all walks of life and distant places out there who would help out when there were problems. We had new friends and interests; the children found other children. We learned that this was a life we loved and that we would do it for as long as we were able. We also knew that if we had to stop now, we would be thankful that we had done it, especially at that period in our lives.

When we reached Virginia we also learned that Tom needed to be involved in some type of work during the summers. The work of cruising, maintaining the boat and educating the children in the winters was personally satisfying and took most of his time. Going to the part time summer job was good, but this was not forever. And Tom learned to love the law from a distance. It was time to follow the heart and start to write about boating. As the primary teacher and mother of two young children, I had a few more years of responsibility before I had to find work, but my time came too.

1993. Mel and Tom's 25th wedding anniversary, Bahamas. Getting ready for a wet stormy dinghy ride ashore for dinner. By Carolyn Neale
Our favorite boating and cruising expression is “Peace and quiet.” It’s what we say to each other when the engine finally goes off, either with sails set or the hook down for the night. With these words we express what we love about this lifestyle: being free of land tethers, close to nature and the ones we love, self sufficient and sustaining, aboard our home.

So here we are, having lived aboard for almost twenty-four years, still cruising, but working too. Our children have known and loved their grandparents by being together during summers; they completed their home education aboard; they are now ashore in college and grad school, both at schools on the Florida coast. Melanie lives aboard her own small sailboat, Carolyn works part time at a marina. Tom and I are still married. The girls just returned to Florida after two weeks back home in the Exumas, Bahamas aboard our fourth Chez Nous.

Copyright 2005 Mel Neale