A Boy Named 'Hola'

We soon discovered that once we were living and sailing full time on the boat, as opposed to our previous schizophrenic life of splitting daily routines between land-based occupations and weekend sailing outings, that our new life absolutely agreed with us. No, it wasn’t always pure bliss. In fact, it was a lot of work, but we were happy doing it.

We reveled in the fact that we didn’t have to rise to a morning alarm clock. Our routine was dictated by the kids, the wind, the weather, our night watches on a passage, equipment repairs, and the very long list of our ongoing and future ambitious projects to better the boat. Unexpected good and bad things would happen: We’d meet some very interesting people, visit an unplanned enchanting spot, have a mechanical breakdown, drag dangerously on our anchor in the middle of the night... Each of these could, and often did, translate into a change of plans. Someone would tell us about a place that was really worth a side trip, adding a day or a month to an itinerary, or a mechanical breakdown that would either force us to stay in one place longer than planned, or find us heading to an unplanned destination in quest of that particular replacement part or that person who could fabricate it for us.

Michel and I were together all day long, every day, and despite being in a very confined space (42 ft. long and 10 ft. wide) for two adults—let alone for a 3-year-old and a five-month-old—it worked. There is something to be said, however, for our being “young and in love” at the time, so the confined space didn’t really seem to be a problem. We relished having each other around. Yet it was important what with night watches, private reading time, and slipping in naps when we could in between parenting duties, we did manage to weave in some needed “alone” personal time.

Indeed, many such families or couples didn’t last against these odds. They weren’t able to make the good times overshadow the bad. We witnessed several abandoned boats, and others for sale, littering various ports-of-call along the way—dashed dreams and adventures, all stories of their own.

We had applied ourselves in the study of such situations and possible outcomes of a seafaring life well before we left. We had ample time and opportunities to learn about how others coped in such full-time, close-quarters living situations. During our two years of experimental onboard living prior to our departure, we had met other families and couples as either they passed through our home port of Le Verdon, or during our brief weekend and vacation jaunts up and down the French Atlantic coast. We visited their boats, saw how they did things, talked and exchanged ideas over cocktails and dinners. We read many books of families’ experiences, their tips, their “do's and don’ts.” And then of course, some of the advice had to be taken with a grain of salt, or adequately adapted to our lifestyle, and our own natures and characters.

Thrilled to finally embark upon our new life and adventure, we arrived in La Coruña, Spain after four days at sea from leaving our dock in France and crossing the Bay of Biscay. We were exhausted. This shakedown crossing had been both calm and agitated, resulting in some urgent repairs right away upon our arrival. But mostly, it was a more emotionally wrenching experience than we had anticipated, and it took the four days to digest it and begin to look forward to what may lay ahead. We had crossed this Bay of Biscay several times in the past, and spent nights at sea on our coastal trips, but this time it was more permanent. We wouldn’t be going back to our dock, friends, or family anymore. We uprooted our comfort zone. Would we find a way somehow to recreate that along the way?

La Coruña proved to be a good transition point. Like on a freeway cloverleaf intersection, many sailboats were coming and going. Many were like us, leaving for the first time after years of preparation. Many had even built their own boats. Some were returning home after years of sailing around the world. We found out that we were part of the “Class of ’82”—that year’s contribution to the annual migration of new adventurers heading south for the first time at the end of the European summer, following the weather and eventually the trade winds to those more exotic points south. There was a whole subculture of adepts and enthusiasts of the sea out there, and now we were part of the wave. We were to come across many of these boats and families of the “Class of ’82” later in our travels, in different countries and different oceans. Our identity was also transformed here. Our last name, “Couvreux” literally faded away. People would now know us and recognize us from here on as the the “famille Cowabunga” or the “Cowabunga Family.” Everyone became one with the name of their boats and consequently identified as such—the most visible and immediate ID usually emblazoned in an obvious spot on the hull. It wasn’t odd for us to become very close friends with some families over the years that followed, and not even know their real last names.

As for Sean and Brendan, they each took this change in their own stride, although Brendan, at this infant stage, seemed oblivious to any change since the boat was his only home up to that point anyway. However, he did seem to take some new interest in the dancing flames of the kerosene lamps when we were at anchor. Sean was a bit more sensitive and edgy to the movement at times than he had been a year ago, or even several months earlier. When things would start out a bit rough upon first setting sail for a new passage, he would snuggle comfortably in his bed for a while, instinctively letting his body incorporate the new rhythm and settling in to the change. Then before too long, he was ready to tend to his newfound passions of fishing and tweaking ropes.

I found it interesting that neither Sean nor Brendan ever got seasick prior to learning how to walk. Once they were walking though, they both had rare, occasional bouts of seasickness. I could only attribute this to the fact that prior to walking, their sense of equilibrium must not have been well established, and thus seasickness didn’t affect them until their bodies had a real sense of gravity, up and down, and standing. And when they did experience being seasick, it never lasted more than a few hours, and on very intermittent occasions. I for some reason in the 10 years we spent on the boat, have never experienced seasickness, and still not to this day.

Once underway, and Sean was back into the swing of things, he was always busy. He would incessantly tie knots, lower and raise flags, tweak the line for his toy tugboat that trailed us in the water, survey his fishing line, observe our anchoring maneuvers, obsess over the dolphins, and build churches and lighthouses with his Lego. (Lego turned out to be the lifesaver of toys: After having started out with the most toys possible for the limited space in their cabin, we eventually whittled the toy choices down to only Lego—eliminating all other bulky items, especially those prone to rust. Lego proved ideal because not only could they be used to build huge things, they could then be quickly broken apart and easily stowed away when it was time to set sail. Later on, Michel was even able to configure storage space in the boys’ cabin to accommodate the different shapes and sizes of Lego inventory).

Our next port-of-call after La Coruña, was the Ria de Corcubion, in the Galicia area of Spain, where numerous “rias” or inlets, are somewhat like fiords. In Corcubion, we were able to tie up to a dock, instead of being at anchor. The days were warm and sunny and I could place Brendan on the deck in his little reclining “bouncy” chair. He really enjoyed the sites, and hustle and bustle of the harbor. Since we were centrally located in the port, we were somewhat of an attraction with a baby and small boy on board, especially during the traditional evening Spanish “paseo” hour when families would leisurely walk around and relax after their day of work. Sean would implore passersby to pull his mousetrap-type combination of multi-knotted ropes on the winches, all somehow synched to hoist a laundry line of flags.

Up to this point, Sean and Brendan had been enveloped in a total bilingual cocoon of French and English in our family life. I only spoke English to them, and Michel, along with everyone else in their lives thus far, only spoke French. Being in Spain introduced a new wrinkle with the Spanish language. We tried to explain to Sean that these people spoke something different from Mama and Papa, and that to say “hello” in Spanish, it was “hola.” For the few days we were in Corcubion, there was a little boy, about 10 years old, who would come by daily during the evening paseo, and enjoy the company of Sean. It was our first experience watching how Sean could make friends with children in another country. We simply welcomed the little boy with the salute: “hola.”By the next evening, Sean was anxious to see his friend again. “When is ‘Hola’ coming?” he asked.