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Hit the Road: Family of seven take to the open sea for a life-changing year

There is lots to learn when living aboard a 38-foot-by-21-foot boat for seven-plus months with a half-dozen people — five of them children.

This is what Manhattanite parents Erik and Emily Orton did in 2014 and they lived to tell about it. A few pearls of wisdom the couple garnered during their unconventional journey include:

  • Problems take patience.
  • Spouses align when they support each other.
  • Don’t worry about what hasn’t happened yet.
  • Parents can show their children how to live but the kids must choose their meanings.
  • The lack of space and privacy on a catamaran can be alleviated by wearing earbuds and creating a personal “audio cocoon.”
  • When going ashore, always carry a spoon in case of a close encounter with ice cream.

Living on a sailboat and traveling throughout the British Virgin Islands for months was a dream that evolved over six years as Erik and Emily evaluated the meaning of time, money, job and family. Erik thought about these as he watched boats sail up and down the Hudson River from his New York City work cubicle. It eventually provided the incentive he needed to take sailing lessons. Emily, who has a “deep-water phobia,” agreed to go along.

Erik and Emily Orton and their five children cruised Long Island Sound in 2012 when Erik was learning to sail. In 2014, the family spent seven months living aboard a sailboat while visiting islands throughout the Caribbean.
Courtesy photo

Eventually, the two oldest Orton daughters got into the game, too, with some elementary sailing lessons.

Then, on Feb. 8, 2014, the Orton Party of Seven — Karina, 16; Alison, 14; Sarah Jane, 12; Eli, 8; and Lily, 6, who has Down syndrome — launched their adventure.

They flew to the Caribbean, bought a catamaran sight unseen, loaded it with provisions and — well, you’ll have to read the rest in the newly published “Seven at Sea: Why a New York City Family Cast Off Convention for a Life-Changing Year on a Sailboat” (https://www.sevenatsea.com).

Erik could hardly believe that their plan was actually playing out.  

“I never thought we’d make it this far,” he confessed as the plane landed on Sint Maarten, a Caribbean island country that is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Already used to compact living in their 900-square-foot West Side apartment, the Ortons worked hard to make their trip a reality. It took planning, organizing, paring down, agonizing, packing, storing and talking to families who were veterans at this experiment in living.

It also took creative financing to buy the catamaran they named Fezywig and to live off their savings for many months. Every dollar spent was carefully considered.

Erik, an Emmy Award-winning writer, and Emily, a former English teacher-turned-homeschool-mom, take turns narrating their tale with words from their journals. Their story moves like a sailboat on a beam reach and there is never a dull moment. There are humorous happenings, a few scary ones, some difficult times, low points and choppy relationship waters.

There is honesty, too. The couple shares that, after more than five months of sailboat living, they experience a “marriage squall.”

“We wouldn’t figure out everything in our marriage at once,” Emily writes of the evening she and Erik spent talking on Fezywig’s bow, “(but) we figured out enough to know that we wanted to figure out the rest.”

The Orton children in 2014 (left to right): Sarah Jane, Lily, Karina, Alison and Eli at The Baths National Park on the island of Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands. Courtesy photo

Caring for 6-year-old Lily, who has Down syndrome, presented additional challenges.

Her parents learned to split responsibility for her when they were ashore, and she and Eli, 8, always wore life jackets. Luckily, “Lily was afraid to get off the boat (while we were sailing), so she wasn’t trying to escape,” Emily explained.

There were takeaway lessons for all.

Oldest daughter Karina “said she felt like it made her more herself, and Allison said it made her ‘comfortable in the uncomfortable,’” Emily said.

As for their parents, “Subjecting ourselves to the forces of nature taught us that we have a greater sense of control (than we think),” Erik said.

“A lot of people live by accident on a conveyor-belt life,” Emily added. “There’s nothing wrong with doing something conventional, but we’ve learned to feel very liberated — that we can hand-make our lives. We aren’t trying to fit in anyone’s mold.”

That and “everyone had to be out of the water at dusk because that’s when sharks were likely to appear.”

For more photos and commentary, visit www.facebook.com/elouise.ondash.Share your adventures. Email eondash@coastnewsgroup.com.

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