A family's epic year at sea

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Ever imagine leaving your life behind, buying a boat and sailing away with just your family on board?

The Robinson family of Severna Park did just that last year.

sailing family wThe Robinson family, Bob, Caleb, Jill, Leslie and Oliver, on a stop in the British Virgin Islands. Jill and Bob Robinson and their three children, ages 11-14, left their Columbia home, their jobs and schools and embarked on a 14,000-mile sailing trip aboard their 44-foot catamaran in the spring of 2015. They sailed across the Atlantic Ocean through Europe and parts of Africa, and then back across the ocean by way of the Canary Islands and Caribbean, all in one year.

It was the trip of a lifetime for Jill and Bob, two Naval Academy graduates who had talked of sailing around the world since they were married 17 years ago.

“In the last 10 years, probably any life decisions we made were with this trip in mind,” Jill says. The only question, she adds, “was when we would go and how much time we would have.”

Both Jill and Bob were experienced sailors before they set out across the ocean. Bob, 42, grew up in Ohio, sailing on Lake Erie. Jill, 41, grew up in Gaithersburg, but took up sailing while at the Naval Academy. In fact, the two met while members of the academy’s dinghy racing team. Since then, the former Naval officers have spent a lot of time on the water and their children were sailing before they could walk.

Years of preparation

Planning for the trip began in earnest a couple of years ago when the couple decided the best time would be before their oldest, Caleb, entered high school (which he did this fall). One of their first decisions was to pare down the journey.

“We realized we needed three to five years to sail around the world and to stay in the places as long as we wanted to,” Jill explains. “So we plotted what I call our ‘Great Atlantic Route’ instead.”

Serious preparations took a couple of hectic, taxing years. The couple had to buy and outfit a boat, take a few shakedown cruises, rent out their house in Columbia, plot a route, plan their children’s homeschooling — all while raising three active children and holding down demanding jobs. (Both are engineers at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in North Laurel and took a year's leave for the trip).

“It was a very stressful time,” Jill recalls.

That stress was not surprising, sailing experts say, given the magnitude of the task.

“Crossing any ocean on a small boat with your family is a true challenge,” says Mark Pillsbury, editor of the Rhode Island-based Cruising World magazine. “The weather is always changing, and once off the coast ... any problem can quickly become a big problem.”

Still such a trip “is very doable, given a good crew, adequate safety and navigation equipment and a sound vessel.” And the benefits, Pillsbury says, are innumerable: endless opportunities for hands-on learning, from math (navigation) to science (weather, currents, sea life), as well as hours upon hours to read.

“Really, just the opportunity to spend that much time together as a family is a big motivator,” he says.

Setting sail

Sailing boat wThe Robinson's boat, “Honu Kai” which is “sea turtle” in Hawaiian. In May of 2015, Bob and a cousin boarded the family's boat “Honu Kai” (“sea turtle” in Hawaiian) in Southport, N.C., and headed east across the Atlantic. Jill stayed behind while the three children finished school and to avoid making a potentially dangerous ocean-crossing the children’s first long sail. (Jill joined her husband for one leg of the trip, from Bermuda to the Azores, before flying back home.)

In June, after Bob landed safely in England, Jill and the children — Oliver, Leslie and Caleb, now 11, 12 and 14 — flew over to join him. And the family journey began.

From the start it was an odyssey straight out of a storybook, a leisurely but exciting blur of sights and sounds and endless sailing.

Some days at sea were almost routine: Bob might work on repairing one piece of equipment or another, while Jill rode her stationary bike on deck or baked bread. “I could never feed them enough bread,” she says. The boys might play Pokemon while Leslie read or drew. Alternately, all three kids would work on their schoolwork, a box of assignments provided by Calvert Education that the kids kept up with admirably and which taught them how to teach themselves, Jill says.

Other days were packed with new food and new friends, new experiences and new challenges.

Exploring Europe

Sailing jump wJumping off a platform in Kalmar, Sweeden.From Great Britain, the Robinsons sailed across the English Channel into the North Sea, then into the Baltic. They sailed north to Sweden and Finland, where they stayed with childhood friends of Jill’s. Then it was on to Estonia, where they reconnected with old friends from Columbia, and Jill, an endurance athlete, ran a marathon.

Heading south and west, they marveled at the gorgeous beaches of Poland, fell in love with the bread in Germany and visited World War II sites in Belgium and France. They spent a month in Spain and Portugal, three weeks in Gibraltar, and visited exotic Marrakesh in Morocco.

There were a few trials along the way. Jill and the two youngest children suffered from days-long bouts of seasickness, which she found particularly galling because she’d never been seasick before.

Washing clothes was one major headache, as they had no washing machine and one load cost as much as $50 in some ports. Their refrigerator broke down a couple of times, and, on a hike in Finland, Leslie sent her parents into a panic by getting miles ahead.

But that, the couple says, was about it for travails.

Bob chalks their smooth sailing up to careful planning, choosing tried-and-true routes and a heavy reliance on the advice of fellow cruisers, whose minds he picked whenever he got the chance.

“I listened to a lot of people, took notes about good ports to go to, what businesses to go to, where to go shopping and get things fixed,” he explains.

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