A Different Tack: Home-Schooling on a Boat

Mar/Apr 2003

The decision to sail Danza around the world wasn�t all that hard for us. We were often asked, however, why would we leave a wonderful community and circle of friends? Why would we leave a boatbuilding business that was not only a lot of fun but successful as well? Why would Judy leave her position as an emergency room doctor and her career as a physician? It really was very easy; there simply was not enough time, time that would not wait, to stay home. And a circumnavigation implied that we would come back.

A family of six, we are composed of Judy Sandick, an emergency room physician, David Nutt, a boatbuilder for the past 30 years, and our four children, David, 16, Sarah, 14, Jasper, 12, and Charlotte, 7. We noticed the speed with which time was passing and how little time we had with our children. We discovered that time can never be saved for later. In our society, we farm out most of the child raising to the schools, the sports programs, the TV. We greet them good morning and kiss them good night and try to get to know them on the weekend as we shuttle them off to a friend�s house. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with this, but we wanted more, and this is where we found the courage to leave the fast lane behind.

We left Maine on March 25 2000. It was cold, gray and overcast, but casting off the lines was warmed by several hundred friends who came to bid us farewell. That moment may have been the hardest of the last 2 1/2 years of sailing. There was a brief question of, “Is this the right thing to be doing with our life, with our family?” But since then, we have never had to ask that question again.

Our route took us to the Virgin Islands via Bermuda, on which we had an easy passage, all the while shivering from the March cold and the thoughts of what a North Atlantic winter passage could have been. Having previously sailed the Caribbean, we stayed only long enough to prepare for the next leg to Panama. Holding a course that kept us well north of the coast of Columbia we made landfall in the San Blas Islands east of the Panama Canal. Our trip through the Panama Canal will always be an outstanding memory, as we could almost feel the misery of the laborers as we live our comfortable lives with the distant offspring of the engineering and medical breakthroughs of the time.

From the Canal, we made the normal run across the Pacific via the Galapagos, the Marquesas, Tuomotus, Tahiti, Moorea, Raiatea, Bora Bora, Nuie, Tonga and south to New Zealand for the December to April cyclone season. In May of 2001 we headed north again, spent four months in Fiji and then sailed on to Vanuatu and then New Caledonia before making the passage to Australia to once again hide during the cyclone season. In July of 2002, not having had enough of the South Pacific, we sailed back to revisit New Caledonia, Vanuatu, and to sail to the Solomon Islands and the Louisiades, an archipelago to the east-southeast of Papua New Guinea. Having one of the best sails of the last 20,000 miles, we returned to Australia to hide from yet another cyclone season.

We find each day full to overflowing with all that makes up life at sea with four kids. School is always the big deal. We still get asked if we home-school. “Well, it�d be a long bus ride,” I answer, putting on a touch of a Maine accent.

David is in 10th grade and is using the University of Nebraska correspondence course. It works well. Each course is well defined and easy to follow. The material is as good as at any other school, but the downside is the lack of interaction with other students. There is no opportunity for discussions, for raising the questions that spur more questions, some answered and some to be pondered. It makes school dry. And don�t think it is easy for Judy or me. Try teaching Algebra to your child. Even if you are a teacher, the student is still your kid. But David does well with it. His grades are excellent, and the written reports from his advisors are terrific.

As happens so often with the boat kids, Sarah has grown faster than the curriculum provided by the Calvert School of Baltimore, Md., which offers courses only through the 8th grade. She is taking half of her courses at a ninth-grade level with the University of Nebraska and she, too, receives excellent marks and written reports from her advisors. Jasper and Sarah — for the balance of her courses — both use the Calvert School curriculum, but we correct and grade the work ourselves.

Charlotte is an educational dilemma unto her own. She would be in 2nd grade at home, but we have had to create our own curriculum for her. She does math at a fourth-grade level, science at a third-grade level, reads anything she wants and writes as one would expect from a seven-year-old. We wonder how she will ever fit in when we return to Maine in 2005.

We do school almost everyday we are aboard at anchor, as our time is broken up by shore activities and passages at sea. It is supposed to be a morning venture. I might do history amidships with Jasper under the awning. As history is my passion, we often digress into a slightly related topic which often goes further afield. But I hope a certain amount of this digression would occur in the classroom, and any child learns more when his own questions are pursued. Science often follows a similar pattern. The study of Earth Science gains credibility as we stand on the rim of the erupting volcano on the island of Tanna in southern Vanuatu or watch a low-pressure system develop on the weatherfax.

Judy and I learn a few things with the kids. Speaking for me, even 9th-grade chemistry is a bit of an eye opener. I learned it 37 years ago, I can pretend that a lot has changed since then in the understanding of chemistry, but it is really all new to me. I really enjoy listening to Judy teach David biology, as she knows it from her heart. I wish I could take the course with them. I do math that I know already, but somehow I know more at the end of the lesson. I hope Sarah and Jasper know more as well.

School is serious. I liken it to the tools in my toolbox. I generally only use a few tools; however, I need those specialty ones once in awhile, and on occasion I even have to get others from deep in the foc�s�le. And Judy does not have to draw on 25 years of schooling to stitch a machete wound together on a remote South Pacific island. But she is all the better as a physician for the depth of her education.

We believe that the children will get enough of an academic base to put them in a good place when added together with all the other experiences gained in remote island cultures, from spending five years at sea, and a lifestyle that demands a lot of self-reliance.

It is clear to us that our chosen lifestyle is not for everyone in America. It is probably not for many. But it is good for us and will forever be a major factor in defining our lives as individuals and as a family.  

By Ocean Navigator