It was a misty, windless morning on the day we motored into St. Petersburg, Florida, from Isla Mujeres, Mexico.
“We’re back,” said my mom as we stared up at the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
Four years earlier, my parents had been loading up duffel bags and vainly trying to get my two sister and me excited about the “great adventure” we were about to embark upon: leaving our land lives behind to go cruising on Nyapa, our Hans Christian 38.
When we’d found and bought Nyapa, she was on the hard in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, a place I’d never even heard of. Faster than I could shout “Wait!” we were boarding a plane to Mexico to begin our Latin American voyage.
We spent the following four years cruising in Mexico and Central America. We bargained over fruit in Mexican markets, built houses for the homeless in El Salvador, traveled by chicken bus in Guatemala, explored rain forests in Cost Rica and were chased off a beach by rogue hogs in Panama. As kids, our lives revolved around coral reefs and boogie boarding, and we excelled at avoiding our daily two hours of homeschooling. We learned to sail, kayak, drive a dingy, stand watches and climb the mast. We befriended other kids and created our own language and flag communications. In short, we lived the vivid and exciting life of boat kids. Now a land-bound high-school student, I accept our homecoming with resignation. Crossing into Florida that day marked the beginning of a new life for me: the life of a beached boat kid.
For many cruising families, the time comes when well-meaning parents decide to return to their home countries, reasoning that their children need to integrate with society, make friends and be educated by professional teachers. But for many kids, going home isn’t easy. While sailing in faraway, exotic locales, kids adapt to the cruising culture. Returning to land-based society, American or otherwise, is difficult. For my sisters and me, returning to the United States and “real” school was like being tossed into a maze without a map. We were confused, and we hit a lot of dead ends.
There’s a lot that’s different about life ashore. People take everything more seriously. On land, every little detail or minute lost is a transgression. A fellow beached boat kid summed it up a well: “Here, you worry about whether or not you’ll get in trouble if you ‘forget’ that one last problem on your math homework that’s the hardest of them all,” he said. “There, you worry abut the fact that your boat crashed into the rocks last night and it might spring a leak and sink.”
The cruising lifestyle is much more laid back than life ashore. When you’re cruising, only critical situations merit distress. One day, I was listening to the SSB when a man came on asking if anyone knew how to get rid of a snake. A python had entered his boat while he was docked in Cartagena, Colombia, and it was living in his engine compartment! I’ve seen kids more stressed out about late homework than that sailor was about a dangerous snake aboard.
Life on board is less structured than it is on land—at least it was for my family. My sisters and I rarely got up before 8 a.m. We’ eat breakfast, go swimming, and then grudgingly plow through two hours of homeschooling before we abandoned Nyapa for the beach or the local reef. In contrast, going to school in upstate New York requires rising at 6 a.m., following a detailed schedule, then returning home at 8:30 p.m. to face another four hours of homework. Hardly laid back or easygoing, but try telling that to my teachers!
Shoreside slang also took some getting used to. On my first day of public school, I remember vainly trying to interpret such conversations as “Like, did you see the Gilmore Girls last night? Or “Oh my god, this boy I met at a concert this summer won’t leave me alone. Such a stalker!” And “Hey, dude, heard you got caught smoking pot.”
Wait a minute! Where was the friendly, “Roger-dodger, I’ll be standing by on Channel 16” that I was accustomed to?
Although my family and I laugh about the differences between cruising and life ashore, we acknowledge that these differences have made our life challenging, especially for my sisters and me. When you’ve spent your childhood sailing in the tropics, you don’t have much in common with teenagers who’ve spent their lives in brick buildings with the same people they’ve been with since preschool.
Then, of course, there’s the cultural gap. Instead of sleepovers and birthday parties, cruising sailors have weekly beach parties during which everyone talks madly about the best fishing spots. Instead of football, cruisers favorite sports are surfing and boogie boarding. Instead of wearing the latest high-healed shoes, when you’re cruising, you make your own fashion statements. My sister Ali made hers with a bold, blue striped bodysuit that was the talk of the anchorage. Needless to say, Paris Hilton, the Spice Girls and Leonardo DiCaprio were as unfamiliar to us as aliens.
It’s taken me four years ashore to gain an understanding of the “correct” behavior so I can act “normally” around my teenage peers. I’ve changed my physical appearance to fit in with my fellow teens, and yes, I admit it, I’ endured bit of an identity crisis.
The lifestyle of a boat kid is special. It’s a chance to live in a way that’s fast disappearing in today’s society. Without television, refrigeration—at least on Nyapa!—and the general fast pace of the world, it’s a chance to grow up with real-life adventure and to experience other cultures instead of spending childhood years in school or playing video games. But re-entering the places we’ve left behind comes with a price: It can be terrifying, self altering, and lonely. We kids we’ve traveled to many different countries can never truly return to our home countries without feeling nostalgic for the places we’ve been. Sometimes we felt separated from others. Being a cruising kid is amazing and I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything, but the transition back home is a bumpy one.
No matter what my age, I’ll always consider myself to be a boat kid; it’s like having a special nationality that doesn’t fade with time. I’ve adjusted to life on land, but those four years on the ocean captured my heart, and that’s where I belong now. Soon, I hope I’ll be back there, standing on the bowsprit and watching as the bow plows through blue water to another as-yet-unknown anchorage. As singer Jimmy Buffet put it, “Leave my cares behind./Take my own sweet time./ Ocean’s on my mind.”