A family of five traded the suburbs for a sailboat. “I was surprised that Santa could travel to all the boats,” one of the kids said at Christmas.
A year spent sailing up the Intracoastal Waterway from Florida to Delaware prompted Bobby and Betsy (Justason) Lahue ’97 to set a goal: Someday they would live at sea again, as a married couple with children. After 17 years of dreaming and planning, that’s exactly what they’re doing now. The Lahue family—including sons Henry (13), Myles (11) and J. Oliver (“Jolly,” 9)—have traded their home in suburban New Jersey for a Malo 45 sailboat they call Alkemi.
They set sail from Baltimore in September and have traveled down the U.S. coast, through Biscayne Bay to the Bahamas, across the Turks and Caicos, around Puerto Rico, to the British Virgin Islands and points farther southeast. Alkemi (named for Paulo Coelho’s novel The Alchemist, which helped to inspire their adventure) has proven itself up to the challenge. The waters off North Carolina grew rough as Hurricane Matthew approached in October, leading them to detour up the Cape Fear River. “We got seasick, but the boat handled itself fine,” Lahue says. “That’s where we said, ‘She’s a member of our family.’ We might not feel well, but we feel very safe in this vessel.”
Safe, perhaps, but can a family of five feel comfortable on a sailboat? Basically. While “it’s definitely not a penthouse,” Lahue says, “it has everything we need,” including a generator, two bathrooms, a small washing machine, refrigerator/freezer compartments, a system for turning seawater into freshwater, even air conditioning. They have a boat library filled with books from an American literature course she took with Professor Allen Guttmann at Amherst. They get weather reports through satellite phones linked to an app on their iPad, and they can use Wi-Fi when approaching or touring inhabited islands.
Still, they’ve had to learn various ways of conserving electricity and potable water, minimizing trash and properly changing and disposing of the boat’s diesel fuel. Lahue shares these techniques, along with family photos and essays about their travels, on her blog Finding Alkemi. In a January entry, her sons wrote about celebrating Christmas at sea. According to Henry, “On a boat, you feel much more thankful for the little, homemade gifts from the heart.” Myles liked making “ornaments from paper, sand dollars and other materials.” “I was surprised that Santa could travel to all the boats,” Jolly said. “I thought he could only travel to houses on land.”
Lahue is guiding the three boys through a rigorous homeschooling curriculum, and on Alkemi, “we really are living a lot of the concepts they’re learning about,” she says. By day, they watch clouds and the anemometer to predict the weather; at night, they observe the phases of the moon and navigate by the stars. Touring sites in the southern United States and the Caribbean has taught them a lot about the histories and cultures of these places.
Now that they’ve almost completed their year of nautical family life, Lahue thinks she’ll likely return to her career in public health. They might resettle in Massachusetts—where they lived before New Jersey—but other than that, the possibilities seem limitless. “I think it’s just opened our minds,” she says of the international journey. “It’s a little bit scary, but also really exciting to feel like we could do anything.”
Katherine Duke ’05 is the magazine’s assistant editor.