Wanting a bit of adventure for herself and her six-year-old daughter, this mum took her sailing around Central America – and stayed away for four years.
Stuck on a 16m ketch in the middle of the Panama Canal with my six-year-old daughter and a group of irritable strangers who drank too much, I began to think I’d made a big mistake.
Friends had said I was mad when I told them I was planning to take Emily out of school, pack up our home in Brighton and sail around Central America for 12 months. But I knew I could handle it. I’d been sailing for years and travelling for most of my life. I lived in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery until I was three. My family spent months travelling around America in a Winnebago. Although Emily was young, I wanted to give her the amazing experiences I’d had.
So when an acquaintance asked us to join his boat heading across the Pacific from Panama, I thought why not? We could always come home if it didn’t work out. A few days in, it appeared we might have to do just that. There’d been arguments about everything from food to my parenting, and Emily developed a terror of flying insects after a run-in with a three-inch wasp. I demanded to be let off the boat as soon as possible. But then we bumped into friends I had met travelling 10 years previously, who asked us to join their boat instead. They were on their way to the San Blas islands, off the Caribbean coast of Panama, with their son Louis, who was a little younger than Emily.
As we adjusted to this new life, I remembered why I’d wanted to do this trip. The San Blas islands are beautiful, and tranquil. Most of the 378 islands in the archipelago are uninhabited and there’s little to do but swim, sunbathe and play. As Emily and Louis took turns burying each other in the sand, we adults fished for our supper, covered the catch in teriyaki sauce and left it in the sun to dry.
A huge crab in the San Blas islands A huge crab in the San Blas islands
Sometimes we bought bread from the indigenous Kuna people, and seafood – crabs for $3, lobsters for $4. It was bliss, or would have been if Emily had eaten any of it. But she’d refused anything but rice and vegetables for six weeks and was losing weight.
Again, we got lucky. Roy was a 67-year-old American on his way to Trinidad via Colombia. His boat was full of sweets and snacks. I’m the kind of mum who makes ice-lollies from fruit juice and won’t have crisps in the house but Roy and I beamed as Emily stuffed her face with Pop Tarts.
Despite the age gap, Roy and Emily bonded immediately. He was sailing solo for the first time, after his wife, Beverley, became too ill to accompany him, and he persuaded us to join him on his journey to Colombia.
The first thing we did on arriving in Cartagena was take Emily to a McDonald’s. The Colombian city seemed modern and cosmopolitan after the isolation of the San Blas, full of things to do and children for Emily to play with. We went on tours to see how coffee and sugar are produced – part of my campaign to continue Emily’s education. We’d already read all her school books, and I was teaching her history, geography and literacy on the hoof. Her first swimming lessons took place in the Pacific, among jellyfish and little sharks.
Although there’s a perception that Colombia is dangerous, we didn’t see it. I had thought travelling with a child might be a disadvantage but it was the opposite. As a solo traveller, you tend to hang out mainly with other travellers. Now we found ourselves invited into people’s homes.
Beverley flew into Cartagena to see Roy and, on meeting us, insisted we stick with him to Trinidad. With me doing the cooking, he was eating fewer Pop Tarts, and as a single mum, I was enjoying having help with Emily. We’d formed a little makeshift family.
Emily with mum Annie Emily with mum Annie
Sailing to Trinidad from Cartagena means going east. Most sailors go west because of the prevailing winds and current. Our route has been called one of the worst crossings in the world and I soon saw why. The wind was horrific and everyone was seasick. Emily just lay in my arms. This went on for three days and by the time we arrived in Curaçao – half-way to Trinidad – we were all desperate to get off the boat.
The highlight of our three-month stay here was tiny Klein Curaçao, a few miles off the main island and inhabited only by thousands of hermit crabs. Emily was fascinated by the defunct lighthouse and the eerie shipwrecks on the shore. One afternoon, a pod of dolphins swam up to the boat and within minutes we were both in the water among them. That was something I’d never experienced in all my years of sailing and to share it with my daughter felt very special.
I struggled with Trinidad when we got there: there are frequent muggings and murders, and we were constantly advised not to walk anywhere alone. But again, we met some wonderful people and in the end stayed for a year before Beverley became seriously ill and we sailed with Roy back to Florida. That journey meant the three of us spending 13 days at sea. Emily will never again ask, “Are we nearly there yet?”
We travelled for four years in the end. Sailing with other people is cheap – and addictive. Although the time was broken up with occasional trips to the UK and US, neither of us was quite ready to return home for good. But Emily was due to start secondary school, so at the start of 2012 we returned to Brighton. The little girl I’d taken away had become a confident 10-year-old with new front teeth and lots of stories. She has forgotten the seasickness and the weeks when she saw no other kids, but remembers rescuing baby turtles and celebrating birthdays on palm-fringed islands.
People were right – I was mad. We were lucky not to get into serious trouble. But when Emily asks me yet again when we’re going on our next adventure, I’m glad I took the risk.
As told to Nione Meakin