Our Family Ran Away To Sea

By Angela Metro
Published: June/July 2012

Cruising with children in an older boat may be a challenge, but it's well worth it.

Normally, I love storms, and this black squall was beautiful to watch. The magnificent clouds seemed to explode over Ft. Lauderdale with wind and rain as if Noah were below demanding another flood. Lady Enna was cruising smoothly along the coast from Miami to Ft. Lauderdale, with my husband Nick at the helm. The children and I took pictures of the distant weather. But our excitement turned to dread as the waters around us started chopping, the wind increased from 30 knots to 40, and that black squall came for us. We were still a few miles from our destination, and outrunning storms is only a fallacy.

Our stern could no longer hold its own. We began to fishtail in the four- and five-foot chop, as the boat tossed about like a bath toy. We all wore life jackets. Visibility was nil. Nick had his hands full just trying to keep us upright in this attack of rain, wind, and waves. I was responsible for the rest of the boat, and our terrified kids (then just 6 and 8). Honestly, I was scared, too, but had to keep a positive demeanor or the kids would've completely lost control, "It's OK kids, Daddy's got it under control."

Continuing north toward our destination was no longer an option. We turned 180 degrees and put our nose into the wind and waves. That turn was one of the worst experiences of my life. Nick called out, "Get ready," and the kids and I held on as he began the turn to port. More wind pushed against the 25 feet of cabin until I thought we were going over. From my seat, all I saw was water. That turn has haunted my dreams ever since. Once Nick got the bow into the wind, things seemed easier to handle, and we stayed that way for the duration of the storm. After it passed, we resumed our journey to Ft. Lauderdale. The entire squall had taken only about 30 minutes. It's amazing how quickly beauty can turn into terror.

Photo of the Metros: Angela, Nick, Nicholas, and Eileen
The Metros: Angela, Nick, Nicholas, and Eileen.

Photo of the Lady Enna
Enna is the first initial of each of our names (most people try to say "Emma").

How Did We Get Here?

Nick, our two children, and I have so far covered 4,500 miles of America's eastern shoreline and the Bahamas aboard our 56-foot Matthews motoryacht. Our journey was inspired by some simple goals: to connect as a family despite the tumult of life pulling us apart; to focus on education and learning as an interactive experience; and to explore our beautiful country and the extraordinary people in it. We're ever on the lookout for family-friendly locations, for parks, and for the best learning opportunities. Luckily, cruising has delivered.

We left St. Petersburg, Florida, on May 21, 2009, between gray skies and rocky seas. Our travels took us around Florida's peninsula, up the American southeast coast and into the Chesapeake Bay for the summer of 2009. We returned to St. Petersburg for a few repairs and modifications over the winter, and headed back out to explore the Florida Keys and Bahamas over the summer of 2010. We're currently home again to replenish our bank account and for more repairs. Ah, the joys of a 30-year-old boat…

Photo of the family fishing from the aft salon
Fishing from the aft salon.

Looking For Bones

I'm not a minimalist at heart. I'd love more power, I need refrigeration, and I crave space. In short, I guess I want a house that also happens to float. When we first began searching for our boat, our criteria were few. First, we're powerboaters. Second, we needed enough staterooms and physical space for our family. Third, I wanted a large galley up, so I could have household-size appliances and be part of the family activity. Finally, my husband wanted classic lines. We were smack dab in the middle of the typical boater's conflict: bigger and older, or smaller and newer. We chose the former. We knew we had to look for "bones" and not a completed, cruising-ready boat.

Photo of Nickalos and Eileen having fun in Key West
Nicholas hams it up for the camera while Eileen gets eaten by a shark in Key West.

When we found Lady Enna, my husband fell in love. The hull of our 56-foot, 30-year-old Matthews was laid up in 1974 and completed in 1979 in Portland, Massachusetts. She'd been through a few owners and was showing serious signs of wear, but she had everything we wanted.

Over the next few years, we worked on a seemingly endless list of labors, inside and out. Sure, I have dreams of a slightly larger boat to add an en suite guest stateroom, a swim-up open cockpit to store water toys and our dinghy, and a dining table for eight. But in reality, when we're underway, our boat size is perfect for the marinas and anchorages we've visited.

Photo of snorkelling in the Bahamas
Snorkelling in the Bahamas.

Not All Sunsets And Happy Hour

For those who dream of sailing away into the distant sunset with the wind in your hair, and your watch at the bottom of the ocean, here's the reality: Boats require constant attention, and those warm and beautiful destinations leave you sweating while working.

As I once heard someone say, "Cruising is working on your boat in exotic locations." Luckily, my superhero husband, along with his network of friends and family, can fix anything mechanical, electrical, or structural. That's the key to our ability to cruise. We can't afford to call a mechanic every time something fails. But even Nick's expertise has been taxed quite a few times, including:

BoatUS Buoy LogoA weld on our aft fuel tank blew apart, leaking 150 gallons of diesel onto the master-stateroom floor. We had good friends aboard who helped us clean it all up and not a drop ended up in our bilge or in the beautiful water.

Photo of kayaking in the Bahamas
Kayaking in the Bahamas.

BoatUS Buoy LogoA leak in the salon ceiling allowed buckets of rain to turn our formerly dry interior into a rain forest. So instead of being able to enjoy the gorgeous passage from Eleuthera to The Abacos, Nick and I were in our flybridge, fiberglassing the leak.

BoatUS Buoy LogoWe had a huge power issue that impacted our new inverter for many months. The first night, nothing worked and we had no power at all. While Nick sweated it out in the engine room, the kids and I ate cereal for dinner, lit candles, and told ghost stories. They remember that night as one of the highlights of our trip — turning adversity into a treasured memory.

My own struggle is with electricity — 110, 220, generator, inverter, 50-amp, breakers — I've learned more about electricity than I ever wanted to. I'm a city girl used to flipping an on/off switch, not load-balancing my electrical use. This is one of the main issues I struggle with even after boating for 12 years. I just want things to turn on.

"Are You Independently Wealthy Or Something?"

Boating can be expensive. As we travel around and get to know people, the ones we've grown close to always ask about how we afford to do this. The few times we've taken Nick's parents on a cruise with us, people always think Nick's dad is the real owner, assuming boating must be only for older, wealthy people.

Photo of the Lady Enna docked at the Atlantis Resort in Nassau Bahamas
Lady Enna docked in Atlantis.

Well, we haven't won the lottery, nor do we have an inheritance. We're just telecommuters. My husband works full time as the virtual manager of a support organization and as a part-time boat broker. We rarely have issues with cell or Internet access during our cruising, so his availability and work have never been negatively impacted. I'm a freelance writer; my work is deadline based, so I can work nights and early mornings and still be available for my kids and family. We've learned that as much as we want our boat projects finished, family comes first, so it's OK that something doesn't get done if it means being with the kids or enjoying an exciting location.

Most cruisers are retired, living on retirement savings. We're working while we cruise. We have a strict budget, which requires us to eat in instead of enjoying restaurants as so many cruisers do. We've learned to find free fun instead of hitting every aquarium or expensive museum that we come across. It's about being together and self-reliance.

Photo of the Metro kids generally give cruising the thumbs up
Despite some dramas, the Metro kids generally give cruising the thumbs up.

Everything Is A Learning Opportunity

As a cruising family, we had to figure out how to take care of our children's education while enjoying this adventure. When I used to hear about homeschooling, images of the patient mom sitting at the kitchen table while earnest, quiet children worked diligently on their schoolwork flashed in my head.

Reality is far different, at least on my boat. Our scholars have serious focus issues, and honestly, who can blame them with all the cool stuff going on outside the boat window? We moved schooling belowdecks, but combating seasickness while working out math problems or reading a story was counterproductive. A family conference offered a compromise; schooling is done belowdecks but not while underway.

Our homeschooling is done as much outside the boat as inside, and Nick and I do our best to incorporate our location into the lessons. Nature and travel present lots of science opportunities, but places like a retail art gallery can offer an art class. A gallery owner in Annapolis took us around and talked us through all the different techniques the artists used to create their work. For math class, we have the kids calculate miles to our next destination or the speeds of engines — "that one has three 350-horse engines, how many total horsepower is that?" We had an economics lesson in Manteo, North Carolina: We went to a furniture store, and "gave" each child $5,000 to furnish a small house. We walked around the store, prioritized what to buy, added up their purchases, and calculated the tax. Voila! Economics, math, and a practical life lesson, all wrapped up on an otherwise average day. Everything is a learning opportunity. Going to the grocery store is learning, every fix to the boat is learning, charting our course is learning. Nick feels he's learned as much as the kids: "It's like going to school all over again when we homeschool."

"Real" Life

We've been back in St. Petersburg for a while now. We're trying to catch up with friends and readjust to life in our house. The travel bug is still in us, though, and we're already planning our next cruise. Apparently we've talked positively enough about our adventures that we now have a waiting list of people who want to join us.

As we reflect on our journey and talk about all the fun adventures we've shared as a family, we see how our perspective on life has changed. Nick and I are thrilled that our kids are growing up knowing that life is what you make it and not a passive acceptance of what you're supposed to do.

We hope our children have learned that they can have a career, enjoy things they like, be responsible and self-sufficient, live within their means, and still be an active and integrated family. They can work hard and have it all.End of story marker

Angela Metro blogs about her family and their travels at www.themetrofamily.blogspot.com.


Nick's Tech Notes

I grew up in a family that couldn't afford to hire people to fix cars or things around the house, so I ended up being a pretty well-rounded jack-of-all-trades. The Internet gives me access to experts who supplement my skills. I can tackle most projects.

Lady Enna is 56 feet; the bigger footprint allowed us to purchase regular (read: cheaper) appliances and furniture, and also translated to better engine-room access and mechanical space. The structure also allowed us to "unchop" all the little rooms and bring it up to today's open concept.

BoatUS Buoy LogoI wish we had an open aft deck. Ours was enclosed by a previous owner. We've partially reopened it, but it still feels like an enclosed room. I don't like our flybridge access; those ladders that boatbuilders insist on work fine for the physically agile but not for most people.

Photo of Nick in the engine room
Nick's second home, the engine room.

BoatUS Buoy LogoWhen you buy an old boat, expect problems that lead to additional and unbudgeted repairs. For example, the builder saved money by using mahogany under the teak cap rail, which rotted over time. Replacing it led us to painting the superstructure to fare in the fiberglass work over the new wood. Once we painted the superstructure, we had to paint the hull.

BoatUS Buoy LogoIt helped that we lived on our boat for years before going cruising. We understood how we wanted to use it, and knew we were "anchor-out people" versus "tied-to-dock people." Dock people tend more toward having others do their mechanical work, whereas anchor-out people more often are do-it-yourselfers. If you're a dock person, a smaller boat with less complicated systems is better, cheaper to dock, and less complicated to maintain. Anchoring is budget-friendly, but cruising is more about the experience than the goal. In places like the Bahamas, anchoring was perfect because of the freedom to just jump off the back of the boat and enjoy a swim or snorkel. Conversely, in Washington, D.C., staying in a marina was better because of the easy access to all the city had to offer. You have to stay flexible.

Anchor-out folks should have systems that don't need to be tethered to the dock. For instance, the boat needs a generator and an inverter as well as a heavy anchor, chain, and windlass for the daily up/down of that heavy anchor.

BoatUS Buoy LogoA stand-up engine room is another huge benefit. As a do-it-yourselfer, you spend so much of your time in the engine room doing both routine maintenance and larger projects that you don't want to dread being contorted in a small space and potentially putting off something that needs to be addressed. We met a couple that had an impeller go out on their generator. Engine-room access was so tight that they put off addressing the issue; instead they stayed in marinas each night, costing them money. If they'd had an engine room with easier access, this would've been a quick fix.

BoatUS Buoy LogoIf you're an anchor-out person, having an easy-start, fast, comfortable dinghy with a simple launching mechanism is important. Our old dinghy had an unreliable outboard.

My wife would never take the kids out without me. We finally bought a new engine, and now the family can use the dinghy without me whenever they want.

BoatUS Buoy LogoWhen choosing a cruising boat, don't underestimate the impact of the engine noise underway. We lucked out with an extremely quiet ride, allowing us total freedom while underway. Our old boat's engines were so loud, the only place we could have peace was in the flybridge. Even there, after a full day out, we were exhausted by the noise, which limited our cruising scope.

BoatUS Buoy LogoIf you want to be do-it-yourselfers, practice and get comfortable with repairs at the dock that will give you the confidence to do those repairs when you're out in the middle of nowhere. Have fun! The cruising life is a great one!

Remarkable Places With
Remarkable Stories

Baltimore, MD's Inner Harbor is a very different experience by boat. It was exciting dinghying from the anchorage to the Inner Harbor and seeing the city from the water. I lived in Baltimore in the Canton area many years ago and loved returning by boat and anchoring directly behind my old apartment building. In the approach channel to Baltimore, be sure and stop at the Star Spangled Banner Bouy. According to the Coast Guard News, June 3, 2008, "the buoy marks the spot where the ship carrying Francis Scott Key, the author of the Star Spangled Banner, was anchored during the bombardment of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812. Each year the buoy is set in the spring marking the location of the event and then removed in the fall."

Annapolis, MD - A picturesque city filled with beauty and history that both my husband and I had on our "definite" list of places to take our children. Since we had both lived in the area, albeit many years ago, we expected our collective memories to be our guide. We were seriously mistaken! Arriving by boat in the incredibly busy harbor, first of all, completely altered our perception of where things were in the city. We were greeted by the impressive expanse of the Naval Academy campus instead of finding it obscured by guards and lists of tours from street side.

One afternoon, on a dinghy ride around the outside of the grounds, we were uninvited guests to a scene at once both staggeringly significant and heart wrenching. The plaintive notes of Taps entwined with the wind, while everything around seemed to respect the message and stopped their busy fussing. The mourners in black were a sharp contrast to the crisp white of the soldiers' dress uniforms. Each shot from the 21 gun salute wrenched tears of gratitude and sadness for the unknown soldier who gave all for our country. A remarkable scene so much more meaningful as a lesson to our children about democracy, honor and our armed forces than reading about it in a classroom. A true learning opportunity.

Norfolk and Portsmouth, VA – Hospital Point is a fabulous place to anchor and enjoy the many offerings of two towns at once. Boating here is exciting and scary. Our little 56 footer was like a pesky ant beside the mammoth military vessels which commonly traverse the channel. Cruisers, more than ever, be aware at all times of your surroundings. Listen to your VHF which regularly transmits the "Securite" of incoming and outgoing ships and stay out of their way. We even heard, "we will use force, including deadly force" when a submarine was departing surrounded by military police; an awesome sight one would only see by boat.

Mt. Vernon, VA - This is another one of those everyone-has-to-go-there historical places. However, boaters on the Potomac River have a unique and emotionally evocative responsibility. Navy ships on the Potomac passing George Washington's tomb at Mount Vernon pay tribute to the memory of our first president in one of the Navy's oldest ceremonies. Ships of the Navy follow a prescribed and inspiring ceremony; private vessels toll their bells as they pass the channel leading to the Mount Vernon wharf. We, too, observed this time honored tradition which made this historically significant place more real to our children.

Anchorage in Little Bay near the town of White Stone, VA - Another instance of the unremarkable, yet remarkable, is an anchorage we stayed in Virginia. There was a private beach which the owner allowed the locals to enjoy as long as it was kept clean. There was a volleyball net, the ability to safely stoke up a campfire, and a million dollar view. Late afternoon, the local boats would pull up to shore and enjoy the sunset chatting with each other. We were privileged to be included in this nightly ritual and lucky to meet the ever-so-friendly locals. We happened to make an offhand comment about running low on milk and the next day two of the nicest people delivered to our anchored boat, two gallons of milk and some fresh tomatoes.

Elizabeth City, NC - What was also so remarkable about our journey is the destinations we encountered which may not appear on any travel itinerary … but should. A prime example is Elizabeth City, NC. A place indicated merely by signs on the highway. We stopped in Elizabeth City, aka "Harbor of Hospitality," because of a tropical storm which threatened our original Outer Banks destination. The approach by boat was ordinary. But the stay was extraordinary.

A couple of old salties helped us with lines as we tied up to the free docks the city offers. Not long after the last line was cleated, the Director of Tourism for the city came to the docks to welcome us and let us know of the events happening that weekend and introduced us to the several people walking by. Soon after her, the Mayor of the town likewise came by to welcome us. Every passerby made a point of saying hello further expanding our welcome. In fact, we felt like rock stars! There is a special symbiotic relationship between the townspeople who lived through the travels of the boaters and the boaters who enjoyed the safe and warm arms of the town.

A more welcoming place you'll not find, I guarantee. Elizabeth City truly lived up to its claim "Harbor of Hospitality"! Although technically not a "Great American Destination," it is indeed towns like these that make up the fabric of our country and should absolutely be the destination for all boaters.