November 2020

Wanderlust Family

Carolyn Kelley and her family split their time between Santa Cruz and Nayarit, Mexico. They live aboard their 50ft sailboat in the Santa Cruz Harbor and are members of the local yacht club. Carolyn is a wedding and portrait photographer and runs a studio in Live Oak. You can see her work at

by carolyn kelley

To this day, I’m amazed that we didn’t give up. In January of 2018, we sold our house and moved with our three daughters onto a big ol’ 70s cruising boat with the goal of renovating her and sailing to Mexico.

Naturally, almost everything on our bargain boat was broken before we moved aboard, and, through our own incompetence, we quickly managed to finish off the few things that weren’t. Within a month, just as we were in the trenches of potty training our youngest, the toilet pump “pooped” out. Soon after, all of the lights began to flicker and, one by one, succumb to a slow corrosion-induced death. The engine stalled in the middle of the harbor, the sail tracks began to slowly and ominously detach from the mast, and the girls enjoyed their nightly game of running around with bowls to catch the water that leaked from every bolt, window, and hatch.

It was, to put it kindly, not the paradise that my husband and I had dreamed of. For two years, we just kept going. We plumbed and potty trained, hammered and homeschooled, drilled and disciplined, until our family routines and the daily projects on the boat became indistinguishable. In fact, I admit that I hardly remember the first two years at all. I had dreams of blogging and taking happy photos out on the big blue. Instead, I was covered in sweat and eating a can of olives in the engine room.


And then, something happened. It’s like we reached a tipping point of hilariously poorly done projects and unexpectedly entered the realm of having enough experience to start doing them right. Instead of fixing things with chewing gum, we began to meticulously plan and execute. Instead of screaming with panic every time we attempted to dock, my husband and I began to communicate with *gasp* calm words. And instead of fearing the way the boat leans when it sails, we began to actually yearn for more wind. With our newfound confidence came the overwhelming joy of involving the girls more and more, which is when the magic really began to happen.

As a family, we ventured out of the harbor and set our new anchor near the Santa Cruz wharf. We could toss the boards off the boat to paddle over to Cowells, or take a dinghy ride to have dinner on the wharf – which involved precariously docking the little boat, wading through the harbor seals, and climbing the old wooden ladder to the restaurants, always crossing our fingers that a brave seal wouldn’t clamber into the dinghy while we were away (it only happened once).

The encounters with wildlife were each time more exciting and terrifying. Once, as I was making breakfast with my daughter, we looked up just as three dolphins dove under the keel. We raced to the other side just in time to see them surface and continue on. We exchanged a look and ran to save the burning eggs. After that, weeks later, as we made the daily commute from the boat to the harbor, we saw a whale off in the distance curving to the surface every few seconds. Whale sightings were becoming a common occurrence, but we still stopped every single time. This one distracted us just long enough that we didn’t notice a second one cresting about forty feet from our little boat. The wake stunned me and I accidentally shut off the engine. I grabbed the belts of the girls’ life jackets and yanked them toward me in case of a capsize. The whale continued to surface around us over and over for several minutes. With tears streaming down my cheeks, I droned on about the beauty while the girls attempted to squirm out of my grasp. They were, unsurprisingly, more concerned with my reaction than the actual whale.

As I look back, I realize that my mountains of parental guilt are as unfounded on the boat as they were in a house. As we do our daily chores, they learn about electricity, engines, the physics of sailing, resource management, and most importantly, they learn about hard work and patience. Surrounded by wildlife, they pass the hours feeding anemones and chasing harbor seals off the docks. Their neighbors are circumnavigators, fishermen, and charter captains from all over the world. At 4, 5, and 7, they can now explore the harbor on their own SUPs and our oldest has sailed around Point Conception twice. I think back to when I worried about whether we made the right choice and all I can do is chuckle.

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