Life at Sea: The Real Deal with Sara Barnard

July 11, 2018
Life at Sea: The Real Deal with Sara Barnard

Have you ever dreamed of sailing across countries but haven’t dared to do so in fear of missing out on ‘real life’? While this may have been an initial concern of Sara Barnard’s, by finishing her PhD and raising her son, she has faced it and really taken life at sea to a whole new level. Sara and her family have sailed around the United States, Mexico, El Salvador and more.

We had the opportunity to hear from Sara about what it is like to travel the world on a boat while starting a family, and all the ups and downs this entails. Between watching dolphins and seeing a meteor shower, Sara shared many special moments with us and also gave us a window into understanding some of the challenges life at sea presents.

Tell us about your personal journey from tutor to PhD candidate to ocean traveler.

I was living in Madrid, finishing an MA in Spanish literature and teaching English in a language school. One weekend my new roommate had her American friend Doug visiting. A year later, after a lot of time on Skype and a few visits, I was moving to Vancouver to live with him and do my PhD in Hispanic Studies at the University of British Columbia – and planning how to get his sailboat back from New Zealand where he’d left it before settling in Canada.

The next few years we were dreaming of sailing while struggling through rainy winters and the slow, complicated process of graduate studies. Finally, with the boat in Vancouver, we moved aboard last summer while I was finishing my thesis. The overlap between these two worlds was probably the most challenging time we faced – trying to prepare for the cruising life and refit a sailboat while in the final stages of a PhD isn’t necessarily something I’d recommend! But we got there. I defended my thesis while living at anchor in and around False Creek.

What is it like to be a sailing traveler with your husband and son?

It’s mostly a total privilege – we get to spend a lot of time together in amazing places sharing incredible experiences. On the other hand, we get to spend a lot of time together in a fairly confined space, often with limited power, water and internet connection, and regularly in situations where you can’t just head out for a coffee when you want a little bit of time to yourself, or get a babysitter if you want to have a date night. Not everyone’s idea of living the dream!

We’ve covered a lot of miles in the last year – that’s a lot of new places to find our way around, a lot of grocery shopping in unfamiliar towns, a lot of cleaning and laundry, a lot of boat fixing, a lot of planning and organizing – so although our Instagram pictures can make it look like it’s all fun and excitement, of course that’s not the whole story.

Sailing with a kid means we miss out on some things in our efforts to create a child-friendly traveling life, but it’s also been the catalyst for some brilliant experiences and meetings. And there’s nothing like watching your kid watching dolphins or a stunning sunset or a meteor shower for the first time. It adds a whole extra level of ‘wow’!

Where have you sailed to, and which place did you love the most?

My very first sailing trip on our boat Illusion, before we had Toby, was from Raivavae in the Austral Islands to Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas via Tahiti. Most people try out a few day sails before taking off in a boat with a broken engine and no auto pilot with miles of open ocean to cross – it was certainly an exhilarating way to learn to sail!

We started our boat life with Toby by spending some time aboard Illusion at Kewalo Basin Harbor in Hawaii, then a summer exploring the gorgeous waters of the Salish Sea. Since leaving Vancouver, we’ve sailed down the west coast of the United States, down the Baja Peninsula and into the Sea of Cortez, then down the mainland coast of Mexico to El Salvador, where we’ve been based in a marina for the last couple of months.

I love it all, each place has something special! The sun setting behind the beautiful bridge in Newport, Oregon, watching jellyfish and visiting the Dalí Museum in Monterrey Bay, exploring the mangroves by dinghy accompanied by herons and ibis in Bahía Santa María on the Baja Peninsula, buying dinner from the shrimp boat in Bahía Agua Verde or snorkeling by Isla Danzante in the Sea of Cortez, the mindblowing sight of nesting frigatebirds and blue-footed boobies on Isla Isabel, spotting river crocodiles in San Blas, finding cool art in Loreto and gorgeous murals in Zihuatanejo, eating pupusas on a little island or visiting Mayan ruins and volcanoes in El Salvador.

Could you describe some of the practical aspects of life out at sea?

When we’re on a passage it’s all about sustenance, safety, and sleep. Are we drinking enough water? What can we eat that won’t make us feel seasick? Are all the electronics working well? What’s the weather doing? Are we on a collision course with anything? Can one of us get a nap so we don’t get over-tired?

If possible I’ll prepare some food in advance and make sure we have plenty of snacks available. If it’s anything more than a day sail we do a ‘float plan’, which we give to our emergency contacts just so somebody knows where we are and when we expect to arrive.

Underway, we tend to spend a lot of time in the cockpit enjoying the sea and the sky and whatever marine life is around us: we’ve had some spectacular moments with dolphins, whales, jellyfish, turtles, sharks, and jumping mobula rays. If it’s calm, Toby will play happily below deck, or take a bath in a bucket, or do some kind of craft activity.

How has your experience of motherhood changed as you and your son travel across oceans?

I’ve had to be braver. I tend to worry and always have a head full of what-ifs, but I don’t want my son to go through the world like that! I worried before leaving our Vancouver base that we were going to be depriving him of all the great family activities and facilities we enjoyed there. I miss being part of a local community and the mutual support that provides. Now we have to make a little more effort and we joke that we’re doing a worldwide playground and library tour, because they’re always the first things we look for when we arrive somewhere new.

In many ways it’s probably the same joys, tantrums, and plodding on that parenting always involves. I’ve had to learn that I am a better mother when I get time to do things that are important to me – playing my violin, writing, going for a walk alone to take photographs – so eking out individual time as we travel is something we are trying to get better at. Mainly I’ve been humbled and inspired by the connections with mothers and fathers along the way, and it’s been a beautiful thing to share our experiences of parenting and find the common ground.

Have you met other traveling families or traveling sailors that you’ve connected with? Have you had other social interactions during breaks away from the sea?

We love arriving in a new anchorage and seeing a boat we know. There are quite a few families out cruising or living aboard and we’ve enjoyed getting to know them in person or online through the Kids4Sail group. Traveling south we made friends with other boats heading the same way and would meet up in different places to share meals, hikes, snorkeling, beach time, grocery trips, help each other with boat maintenance, or just sit and chat with cups of tea in the cockpit.

As parents we’ve felt very supported by many of the sailors we’ve met along the way, and some have even taken Toby out so we can all get a little break from each other. It’s amazing to share the journey and hard to have to say goodbye when it’s time to sail in different directions. Staying in El Salvador for a bit longer has given us the chance to feel part of a lovely community of sailors and locals, thanks to the Annual Salvador Rally.

I’ve also really enjoyed creating and participating in the Women Who Sail Who Write Facebook group, as I was missing having a writing community around me, and we’re spending some of this summer in England so Toby can hang out with his cousins and spend time with his grandparents.

What challenges have you faced while setting sail and how did you face them?

Boats are a lot of work – there’s always something that needs attention and normally you can’t just call somebody to come and fix it.

But probably the thing I most struggle with is trying to work out how to travel ethically and responsibly. How do we respect the places we’re visiting? How do we behave appropriately and what should we avoid? Are we contributing to any problematic aspects of tourism? How can we give, not just take? Speaking Spanish and trying to seek out advice and follow recommendations from locals is one way we deal with this, supporting local businesses and artists is another, and trying to educate myself about the places we’re visiting is important to me too. I’m still learning and thinking about the impact we and other sailors have on the places we visit and how it can, hopefully, be beneficial to local communities.

Check out more of Sara’s adventures on her website!

About Sharon Zelnick

Sharon Zelnick is Pink Pangea’s Outreach Coordinator. Sharon holds an MA in comparative literature (summa cum laude) from Leiden University and a BA in liberal arts (magna cum laude) from Tel Aviv University. Originally from the US, Sharon has lived in the Netherlands and Israel and has traveled extensively through Europe, the Middle East, and Central America.

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