A family's epic year at sea

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.

Click next below for more adventures at sea

Lessons at sea

sailing bike wJill Robinson rides a stationary bike on the bow of the boat.Leslie says the best part of the journey was learning about various cultures, especially in Morocco, the country least like her own.
“It was interesting to see other people and the way they lived,” the tween says.

The differences, however, came with a price, and Leslie missed some comforts dearly. Topping the list: libraries in English, Philadelphia cream cheese and good bagels.

As a homeschooling project, Caleb plotted their journey from Morrocco to the Canary Islands, where they spent both Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“That was an adventure, trying to make a traditional Thanksgiving dinner in the Canaries,” Jill says. Unable to cook a whole turkey in their galley, they dined on turkey legs cooked in a pressure cooker. “Christmas we ate in a restaurant,” she says.

Easy ocean crossing

From the Canary Islands, they visited Cape Verde off the coast of Africa, where they picked up Bob's uncle, who flew in from the States to help with the ocean crossing.

The three children, by this time experienced sailors themselves, had no problem with the ocean crossing, even though it took longer than expected (about two weeks) because of the calm weather. The water was so calm, in fact, that at one point the entire family jumped overboard for a memorable swim in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

They sailed leisurely through the Caribbean, where they hopped from island to island and met, and in some cases traveled with, other families sailing with children.

On May 15, 2016, the Robinsons struck land in the United States, specifically in Charleston, S.C. One week later, they landed in Southport for the end of their journey.

“It felt very exciting,” Jill says “But it was kind of surreal to think you’re on U.S. soil again.”

As for the kids: “They were excited to find some of their favorite restaurants again.” They especially missed Noodles & Company and the French fries at Red Robin, she says.

Family bonding

Sailing prime meridian wThe Robinson family with their grandmother at the Prime Meridian.The trip had an amazing effect on the family.

“It brought us closer together,” Jill says. She recalls an afternoon shortly after they landed back in the states, when her children were playing together in a swimming pool. “Several people came up to us and told us how nice it was to see siblings playing so well together,” Jill says. For a mother who used to worry about how much her children fought, the comments were gratifying.

For his part, Bob appreciated getting to know his children on a deeper level.

“I think we get along much better, work as a team much better now,” he says.

The children, Jill says, came to understand there is “a life-and-death reason for listening and following directions immediately” on a boat, and even a few months later they don’t complain much about their chores.

Return to reality

Their longtime dream behind them, the Robinsons are now focused on returning to a normal routine. They sold their house in Columbia, bought another in Severna Park, and are settling back into school and work.

But they can still dream of more adventures. Jill and Bob have talked of taking a cross-country bicycle trip together, and Bob says he’d like to be flown into the Alaska wilds so he can hike out. As a family, their bucket list includes a month in New Zealand, half of it hiking, half of it sailing, he adds.

Jill, noting that the family has lived in Hawaii, is not averse to more travel. Still, she says, there are practical matters to consider: finances and the children’s schooling, to name a couple.

“We did what we set out to do, and I’m very glad we did it,” she says of the trip. “But I don’t think we’re doing any more adventures anytime soon.”

By Pete Pichaske