My Excellent Boating Adventure

Most children don't have the "trip of a lifetime" under their belts before their ninth birthday; but after two years cruising on Zora, the family's trusty Mariner 39, Olivia Collins had notched up one-quarter of her young life on the high seas. Here, she tells us about her family's big adventure.

While I was four and five, my mother got breast cancer I was so scared. But she survived, and it left my family with an important message, live while you can, and make the best of it, because you never know what will happen next. So our family made a huge decision – to save every penny we could, get a boat, and go cruising for a while. My parents found Zora in an old boatyard lying in a field, feral cats had been using her as a litter box, stuff was falling off. For two years while Dad sanded, I came and watched movies on a small TV. While Mom varnished, I drew. I was completely bored.


Cruising playmates.

During the second year, we rented out our house, and moved on halloween night to my grandmother's house in Maine. Every morning, I took the ferry to school, sometimes alone – and once with actress Liv Tyler! – then back again in the evenings. Sometimes for days on end my dad worked all day at his job, then worked really hard all night on Zora in the boatyard. Eventually she was finished and launched.


Olivia and her mom riding horses.

The first night of our two-year trip aboard Zora brought us an unexpected visitor – a baby beluga whale we nicknamed Poco. We were motoring back to Zora in our little dinghy when… BUMP! "What on earth was that?" said my mom. We looked over the side and a friendly little white face peered up at us. Poco! He was like a dog, playing with our dinghy, letting us pet his rubbery skin. When we left to sail south the next day, the friendly little whale squirted my mom in the face!

For my eighth birthday I got a great present – a kitten I named Daisy. We spent hours and hours laughing at "Kittovision" – the new 24-hour-a-day cat-entertainment show. She was my best friend on the boat trip and gave me somebody to play with as we motored down the ICW. "ICW" stands for intracoastal waterway, a string of locks, bridges, and man-made rivers. It was there we started home schooling. Although it only took one or two hours in the morning, I had just about the worst math and English books ever. What was kind of neat, however, was that my mom designed my classes, so I got to study things that had to do with the trip, such as Mayan civilization and sea creatures. Part of my science class was studying my vast shell collection.


Fellow cruising kids.

I had two encounters with wild horses on the ICW. The first was on an island near Beaufort with some cruising buddies. We were looking for the shaggy ponies that live on the island when suddenly we heard whinnying and hooves. We flattened ourselves behind some bushes as the whole herd came thundering past. We were a bunch of kids, no adults, in the middle of some wild island, and had almost gotten trampled by ponies! It was so cool.

My second encounter was just as odd: on Cumberland island, Georgia, the cruising kids (again) were coming back from a beach when we saw a herd of wild horses grazing right in front of our noses! We couldn't resist: we mingled in with the uncaring horses and picked out "our" horse. I chose a white filly I named snowflake, while my friend chose a mare who was obviously her mother. When it was time to go and we were walking back to our dinghies, my friend whispered, "Turn around!" I did. Snowflake was following me, while her mother still grazed! The filly followed me to the edge of the field (it took all my will not to stroke her), whinnied, then ambled back to her mom. It was magical.

My mom designed my classes, so I got to study things that had to do with the trip, such as Mayan civilization and sea creatures.

At last Florida was behind us and we were in the Caribbean! Our first stop was the Bahamas. On one of the islands I went to a local school for five days. Everyone was wearing uniforms! I made friends with the island children while I attended school. The school didn't even have windows, just shutters, because it never gets very cold.


Christmas aboard Zora.

We then sailed through the Turks and Caicos, Puerto Rico, and other small islands, heading south until we reached Grenada, where we went on a little bus tour. Our first stop was a big waterfall. It was so beautiful, and we jumped off a smaller one. Then we stopped at a nutmeg factory. In Grenada nutmeg is very famous, but the island had just suffered a big hurricane at the time of our visit, and 95 percent of the nutmeg trees were knocked down. Grenada must have had a lot of nutmeg trees, though, because when we visited the factory, the many giant bins were overflowing! Each of the kids got a couple of nutmegs, and long afterwards we still have some. My parents grated the spice into their sundowners.


Olivia and her dad.

Next, we visited a chocolate factory, where the chocolate was made straight from the cocoa beans in an old machine. There were varying textures and grades of chocolate, from extra-light to super-dark. We got to try a few pieces and they were all excellent. Finally we visited a very old rum factory that used an antique rum press, and we got to see the ancient machinery work. At the end, the parents got a very small cup of rum and a very large glass of water. Apparently they really needed that water afterwards! My mom bought a tiny bottle of the rum.


Ship's kitty Daisy.

We still have it – nobody's been brave enough to drink it yet. From Grenada, we continued on to Trinidad and went on a "turtle tour." we saw baby leatherback sea turtles hatching, and mama leatherback laying her eggs. We even got to hold the baby turtles! It was a great experience that went on until midnight. After Trinidad, we sailed to Venezuela and from there we tried to go to Panama. However, halfway through the passage, our engine died! The situation got worse as hurricane Wilma was forming to the north. We had to get out of there! There was no way we could make it to Panama, so we veered towards Colombia instead. We got into an anchorage whose entrance was guarded by two tall rocks by hitching our dinghy to Zora's side and using it as a tugboat! Colombia was very fun. Soon we were in the San Blas Islands of Panama. This string of perfect islands would have to be one of my favorite places. Kuna Indians who made beautiful cloth pictures called molas inhabited the islands. They paddled long burnt-log canoes called ulus and made jewelry from claws and teeth. After the San Blas, we went to see Tikal, the great ruined Mayan civilization in Guatemala. There were huge temples of limestone rising up out of the vast jungle. Tikal was used in "Star Wars" as the rebel base. There were parrots and monkeys, toucans and coatimundis. That was a truly amazing experience! After Tikal, it was time for us to go home. The funny thing is, I remember I always thought I wanted to go home while on the trip, but now that I'm back in Portland, I dream of going back cruising again.

Olivia, now a teenager, and her parents live in Maine. They hope to embark on another longer-range world cruise aboard Zora.





The funny thing is, I remember I always thought I wanted to go home on the trip, but now that I'm back in Portland, I dream of going back cruising again.

Tips for boating families:
Read "How We Hooked the Kids, A Survival Guide for Parents," plus a list of the best boating books for children.