Looping With Little Ones
By Gary Kramer
Photos by Danielle and Craig Parrent
Extended cruising with a family may seem an uncommon choice. The challenge of uprooting the kids, the expense, and the need for schooling mean many boaters may put off cruising dreams. But Danielle and Craig Parrent, of Spring Lake, Michigan, made the leap in 2010, taking 12 months to complete the Great Loop on a 1987, 48-foot Chris-Craft Catalina with their three children Morgan, Ryann, and Jaxon, ages 9, 7, and 4. Janice Cromer, executive director of the American Great Loop Cruising Association (AGLCA), thinks Jaxon is the youngest Looper to make the entire trip. Their story is about encouraging children to explore and encounter life beyond the electronic, high-tech world kids love.
In order to afford this adventure, the Parrents lived very frugally, saved enough to carefully live a year without income, sold their house at a profit, and bought a modest, older boat. Craig is a custom-home builder, Danielle helps run the business, and the family has moved frequently for work. So the children are a self-reliant bunch. A couple of years earlier, between Craig's homebuilding projects, they'd completed a 26,000-mile RV trip of America's coastline from Maine to Washington, an adventure that whet their appetite for the Loop. "It was a great trial run," Danielle says. "We got used to small spaces, simple living, homeschooling, and traveling."
While preparing for the Loop, the Parrents focused on safety and education, including a preschool program for Jaxon. One of Danielle's favorite parts of the trip was the dual parenting for all their activities including boat schooling. Craig did most of the piloting and, while on long, calm stretches, helped give quizzes, spelling tests, weekly tests, handled flash cards, or tutored math. The kids were motivated to get their formal schoolwork done by noon so they could move on to arts-and-crafts projects, using materials brought or found along the way. Or, they might put together a play store, set prices, sell products, and make change.
Traveling when the kids were very young helped mold them to the idea, pace, and lifestyle. It helped that they were at an age where playing together was still fun for them. Danielle says, "It might be tougher for families with older children who might miss their lifelong friends, sports, dating, and modern conveniences." She says the children really didn't miss things they'd left behind, except for their extended family. So, grandparents and other relatives met them at different places along heir route. Many Loopers are grandparents themselves, so they frequently assumed that role with the Parrent kids. Part of the children's personal growth came from learning to be comfortable talking to adults they met along the way. Being trusted by some of those folks to dog-sit while the owners left their boats for a while also boosted the kids' confidence.
Besides education, safety was a crucial issue. The kids are all good swimmers, Danielle says, but "there wasn't a day they stepped out of the cabin without life jackets." The boat's bow was their front yard, so it was wrapped with safety netting, increasing Craig and Danielle's peace of mind. They coached the kids not to panic in an emergency, and established strict safety procedures. Clear, written instructions at the helm explained what to do if a parent fell overboard, how to make a VHF call, and how to stop and shut off the engines. On an overnight, 160-mile Gulf of Mexico crossing from Apalachicola to Clearwater, Florida, the kids slept in the main saloon so they would be close at hand if an emergency occurred. An unexpected safety boost came early in the morning, Craig remembers, when Morgan became "absolutely invaluable" with her fresh eyes helping spot crab pots.
"We did everything together, always," says Danielle, including laundry. They used grocery shopping as a rich source of hands-on learning. They used a dinghy and kayaks to explore places only accessible by water, and used tandem bicycles to venture beyond marinas and harbors. Danielle says the children really didn't develop bad attitudes or fight, but they did miss playing with other kids. The solution was to schedule weekend opportunities to interact with other children. Craig says that when the trip started, the kids weren't particularly outgoing. But as a result of the random interactions with other children, they quickly learned how to make friends and easily adapted to the weekly gatherings of home-schoolers in Marathon, Florida, where they spent a month.
The kids remember getting a little antsy on some long, slow cruising days. To counter that, Danielle and Craig worked to stay upbeat, organized, and focused, and learned that a positive attitude was contagious. Activity planning at family meetings helped smooth over differences of opinion about where they should go and what they should do. It also became a group function to help cheer up a family member who was a bit down or unhappy.
"It was the best trip," reflects Danielle. "We didn't have the day-to-day challenges that most people face with work commitments, mortgages, and keeping up a house, so we had time to focus on our family. The more time we spent with the kids, the more patience and understanding we had with them. They thrived."
Epilogue: On The Road Again
Three years have passed now, and Danielle says there are constant, ongoing reminders about their grand cruising adventure. "The kids have a never-ending source for writing assignments. In history class, they frequently bring personal photos to school of the site being studied. Our house is filled with their collections and mementos picked up along the way, each item connected to a place and time we fondly remember."
Looking back, the Parrents wish they'd taken more side trips, which they now realize were a treasured part of the cruising experience. They also wish they'd taken two years for the trip. "Oh, and we could've done it in a smaller boat," says Craig, "which would have saved significantly on fuel and slip rentals." In June, the Parrents take off again for a few years, on a road trip of sorts, headed first to Alaska. Craig has customized a 48-foot car hauler so the front part has a kitchen, bathroom, and separate sleeping spaces for all. The rear part holds bikes, ATVs, and a 13-foot Boston Whaler. The rig is self-contained. The kids will follow the state of Michigan online curriculum so when they do return to school, it should be seamless. For more of the daily details of their voyage, visit http://parrentfive.blogspot.com
— Published: August/September 2014
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