Family adventure: How we home-schooled our kids while sailing across the Pacific

Cruising with their children allowed Ralf and Dina Schlaepfer to fulfil their pacific dreams, although set lessons were overtaken by the school of adventure

Sailing the paradise of the Pacific Ocean with my own boat had been my dream since forever. The first big question was when would be the right time for the adventure? Should I take time off work or retire early?

Since our daughter was born in 2009 and our son in 2011, early retirement was clearly the better option, when the kids were old enough to enjoy and remember the trip, but not so old they missed important school years. The age of the kids from 7 to 11 seemed perfect, so we set the date for 2018.

Having chartered yachts around the world, with one exception all monohulls, the second question was what boat to buy? My wife, Dina, was clear about the space she wanted for a trip over one year. Accordingly, we were looking at 70ft to 80ft boats but soon realised that this size would mean having professional crew on board. Discussing with friends who’d done similar trips led us to consider multihulls.

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The Swiss family Schlaepfer aboard their Fountaine-Pajot Saba 50 catamaran RAID. All photos: Ralf Schlaepfer / World ARC crews

A catamaran would provide the same living space, while being more compact and shorter than a monohull. I also wanted to have back-ups for the key systems, and a catamaran comes with two engines, two propellers, two rudders. In addition, with two hulls and short, light keels, catamarans are practically unsinkable and can enter much shallower anchorages.

After a year of evaluations we decided on a Saba 50 from Fountaine Pajot, which would provide for us the right balance between weight, space and performance for long bluewater crossings.

Our reason for choosing the Saba 50 over the wide range of other catamarans was its weight – other brands can be 10-30% heavier. We felt the four-cabin version would give us space for sailing with the family, but leave the possibility to have friends with kids on board.

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Some other brands give more options, especially in colours and interior materials but, for us, at that stage still 100% engaged with a demanding business life, this was not what we wanted to spend time on.

All the same, we’d have liked some options from Fountaine Pajot in the field of ‘make sailing easier’ for a small crew. We added a number of cleats and blocks, for setting reefs or adjusting the topping lift from the helm station rather than from the mast.

Regarding security, the initial emergency tiller only allowed you to steer standing down in the engine compartment with the locker open, and it required quite some work to make it suitable for bluewater needs. Another change was the original 25kg anchor, which we replaced with a 45kg Ultra and double the length of chain.

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The Schlaepfer family concluded a 50ft catamaran offers similar living space to a 70ft monohull

To provide redundancy for all key equipment for long crossings, we added a second autopilot and an additional hydraulic pump to the second rudder. Then, a camera on the masthead enabling us to see the blind spots on the other side of the helm while manoeuvring in ports, SSB radio, satellite communication and a worldwide TV receiver completed our electronics.

These were all in addition to the full package of extras available from the yard and rounded up what we saw as essentials for our planned trip. One option we don’t advise is the additional bumpers fixed to the transoms. Ours let water into the engine compartments even after being repaired once. In the end we removed them.

We ordered the boat with the bowsprit option for a gennaker, which proved to be a fantastic sail. We also had additional fittings made for a Wingaker, a Parasailor-type spinnaker with a vent, which is an absolute necessity for the Atlantic and Pacific crossings with their long downwind passages.

For the looks, we added much more teak on deck and rigid metal gates rather than difficult-to-close wires at the transom. As we planned to go diving on our own rather than looking for local dive instructors – and in many nice spots there are none – we also added a dive compressor to our gear, which we never regretted.

Other families in smaller monohulls happily made such a trip too, but the fact that RAID became somewhat the party boat of the World ARC fleet showed us that space and many other amenities like an icemaker for the adults or large TV for kids’ movie nights were an asset.

Sailing classroom

RAID was delivered in June 2018 and we spent the first part of our trip in the Med – an extensive sea trial which allowed us to get to know the boat better and to add to the equipment of the boat in a familiar environment. En route to the Canary Islands, we ‘ran into’ Hurricane Leslie, the strongest storm ever to hit Portugal. After zigzagging its way across the Atlantic, it finally hit Figueira da Foz with 95-knot winds while we waited in Cadiz.

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Transom steps offer easy access to and from the water

Leaving on the tail of the storm might not have been the best decision – we paid with heavy swell and rather unstable 30-knot headwinds. We joined the ARC+, which crosses from Gran Canaria to St Lucia via the Cape Verdes, and found the passage surprisingly easy with steady tradewinds. They gave us a crossing in 13 days, placing us third in the ARC+ multihull division.

For the kids, we planned to have home schooling on non-sailing days and took textbooks in all their subjects (maths, geometry and German) to follow the syllabus. We’d discussed the trip with their teachers before we left and they’d been very positive about the experience ahead. We planned to share the teaching between both of us, being very strict with a daily routine of 2-3 hours except on special days with excursions or sailing in heavier weather.

But in reality we found this hard to execute faced with the beauty of the places we visited. It’s important to understand the wealth of learning kids do without formal schooling. This is not only living through different cultures during the trip, but also interacting with all the other sailing families.

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The trampoline is the ideal place for dolphin spotting

As a side benefit, both of our kids are now fluent in English after only half a year. English is the predominant language all families choose for interaction with other sailors. The key skills our next generation needs are social competence, creativity, understanding of other cultures and of our planet, plus independent thinking.

All of these are learned on a year’s sailing trip by meeting other sailing kids, local children, visiting different countries and cultures (some really still very archaic) or spending 24 hours camping on a desert island with kids from another boat.

For two months we also had a marine biologist on board, who taught the children about the sea and its creatures. Little wonder the attention span in these classes was longer than in German lessons! Learning kitesurfing or diving was also a good alternative to school sports.

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Snorkelling, fishing, kitesurfing and crossing the equator are all experiences well beyond lessons in a school classroom

In hindsight, the most important things the kids learned was not from schoolbooks but from the trip itself. We succeeded with the schooling, in that they were able to come back from our one-year trip and join the same class as their peers without falling behind. And they have re-adapted to school life without any problems.

In mid-January we said goodbye to the Caribbean Islands to sail for Panama with the World ARC. The highlights were the San Blas or Guna Islands, as the local Indians call them. This mostly uninhabited string of islands is truly fantastic and would be worth a much longer stay. In Panama we had a memorable visit to the Embera Indians in their village. It was wonderful to see how our kids immediately started to play with their children.

Into the exciting pacific

Traversing the Panama Canal was an unforgettable dance in a very small space, together with some of the largest ships on the planet. Then it was as if a new book had opened to us. The Pacific was way more exciting and interesting. People are much closer to nature, very friendly and enjoy visitors, as opposed to just seeing them as a source of income.

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Galapagos with its incredible wildlife – wow! Only the amount of tourism and space humans have already taken was unexpected. It was a stark contrast to places we visited thereafter. Most memorable were the Marquesas archipelago, with its high mountains, or the islands of the Tuamotus, stretching over 1,000 miles, with 78 paradise atolls where, on most, you would never see a soul.

The Tuamotus definitely warranted a longer visit with their beautiful dive sites, swimming with hundreds of sharks as we did in Fakarava, and unbelievable kiting spots.

Everyone has heard of Tahiti, Moorea or Bora Bora, but have you ever heard about Suwarrow, Niue or the Ha’apai island group in Tonga? Here a yacht is the only real way to get around and explore the unbelievable beauty of unspoiled nature, be it on land or in the sea with an abundance of colourful corals and fish, even whales.

You must respect Pacific islanders’ way of life, so in Fiji, for example, you should pay a visit to the chief of the village including offering him a gift (we gave Cava). Once this is done, you are very much treated as one of their own with the right to swim, fish, go ashore, visit their homes or go to school (which our children did for a week). Coconuts are the property of the local landowner and you should not pick up even a fallen one – this would be seen as stealing.

Dangerous approaches

Charts are not very accurate and the approaches to islands can be dangerous, especially the ones surrounded by reefs, like the Tuamotus. Be sure you enter with the sun at your back around midday and be aware of the tide, as currents can be much faster than your yacht’s engine(s).

The scariest moment for us was a six-hour thunderstorm between the Tuamotus and French Polynesia with winds well over 60 knots, which broke our Raymarine wind indicator. That said, RAID always felt safe, and we kept the sails up with maximum reefs.

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Visiting Huahine among the Society Islands

In all, we spent seven months in the Pacific, flying back to Europe from Fiji, where we left the boat. We had intended to go back to Fiji this May, as we felt we wanted to spend more time there, but the coronavirus pandemic has stalled that. Eventually we’ll carry on to Vanuatu, Tanna and Australia. We want to ship the boat back to the Med after that, so she can be our holiday home in Turkey and the Greek islands.

Spare parts

For spare parts, first to my mind is a spares for a watermaker capable of producing a reasonable amount of water. Having no water reduces the quality of life on board drastically. Our Aquabase produced up to 180lt per hour, but failed three times. Obviously, this always happens in the worst spots, in our case in the San Blas Islands and the Tuamotus. The low-pressure pump broke twice, and the high pressure pump once.

Another vital spare part is Volvo’s black box attached to the engine (MDI). Our D2-75 suddenly produced all kinds of rpm without being prompted and it could not be stopped from the helm station. Nobody knew what this could be, and only a search on the internet blogs showed that it’s a well-known issue.

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Luckily Volvo sent a replacement, but I don’t understand why they are not recalling all these MDIs. Getting a replacement is probably fairly fast in Europe, but it took us weeks in Colombia!

Bring additional rope and enough cloth to repair sails – as a bare minimum a replacement for the main halyard. A problem for us was the main halyard with a Karver Hook that had too much friction, so we needed an additional line at the head of our sail to be able to haul it down. In addition, one of the plastic masthead sheaves chafed through.

Consequently, we had to climb the mast to cut the sail down. Since then we’ve had to replace the main halyard twice where it chafes against the topping lift. Some additional strong protection over the top 50cm of the halyard has helped reduce the problem.

RAID specifications

Builder: Fountaine-Pajot
Model: Saba 50
LOA: 14.98m 49ft 1in
Beam: 7.99m 26ft 3in
Draught: 1.25m 4ft 1in
Displacement (dry): 15.5 tonnes
Design: Berret-Racoupeau

pacific-sailing-homeschooling-World-ARC2019-Ralf-Schlaepfer-bw-headshot-600px-squareAbout the author

Ralf Schlaepfer is a serial entrepreneur who launched his first company at the age of 16. He built up and sold his own consulting firm, and is now CEO of plastic recycling company Tubis Group. He is also mayor of his hometown of Schluein, in the east of Switzerland. He married Dina in 2007 and they have two children, Alexander and Ivy. Ralf got his skipper’s licence 30 years ago and has chartered yachts many times on holiday since.

First published in the September 2020 issue of Yachting World.

Content extracted from https://www.yachtingworld.com/practical-cruising/family-cruising/home-school-kids-sailing-pacific-127702