When the Veldman family of Fort Wayne set off on a 10 month sailing adventure to the Caribbean, they knew it would be a life-changing experience. They understood the perils of sailing the open seas in a 37-foot catamaran sailboat. They studied, practiced and prepared.
But despite all their preparation, Paul and Laura and Elle, 19, Claire, 15, and Adam, 13, were put to the test last week on what was supposed to be a four to five day sail from Roatan, an island off Honduras, to Key West, Fla.
On the fourth day of the voyage the Veldmans heard an ominous weather report on their long-range radio. A storm was coming, bringing high winds and rough seas. As conditions deteriorated, they couldn't make any forward progress at all, and in fact, the boat was drifting toward Cuba. Here's how Elle describes riding out the storm on a blog post:
“We fought the wind and waves for hours and when I say we fought them I mean WE FOUGHT THEM! The seas were the most confused seas we have ever been in. They (waves) were hitting us on the nose and they were about 6 meter crashing waves. When we were in the trough of the wave there was no way we could see the horizon, only a wall of water surrounding us on all sides. At one point the waves were crashing over the bow so strong I was scared we would flip end over end, but Dad reassured me that with the physics of it and wave height it was not possible — still a scary feeling (I would lie in bed and be suspended in the air then dropped back on to the bed when the wave passed).”
Eventually the storm passed and the Veldmans made it safely to Key West, after eight days at sea — about twice as long as the trip was expected to take.
They're doing what?
Let's face it, many parents and their teenaged offspring would probably shudder at the thought of being cooped up for a year on a boat with each other. The Veldmans aren't the average family.
When the decision was made to sail the Caribbean for a year, it meant huge changes for the family, beginning with selling their 2,200-square-foot house in Fort Wayne and preparing to live on a boat with about 300 square feet for a year.
Planning the trip was stressful and emotions were raw at times. The children were apprehensive about selling their home and leaving their family and friends.
But the opportunity of an adventure of a lifetime eventually won out over apprehension and sadness over leaving the familiar behind for uncharted territories.
Paul, a firefighter, and Laura, a business professional, put their careers aside for this trip. In addition to selling their house, they sold Paul's business and some possessions to purchase their boat, which they've dubbed Laeto Loco. It means two things: “In Latin it means 'Happy Place,'” Paul says on the website. “Combine the Latin with Spanish and it means 'Crazy Happy.'”
Paul and Laura saw the trip as an opportunity for the family to bond and share a sense of purpose. Other benefits included experiencing the cultures of the islands, home schooling the two younger children, reducing the carbon footprint by using wind power, eating local foods, promoting goodwill and presenting a positive image of Americans.
But the crux of the trip is family togetherness, the very thing so many families would avoid. This is what the family says on its blog: “Being together has always been good for our family. To take on a trip like this, as a family, will cement the bonds between us. Many difficulties, struggles and obstacles will be faced and overcome.”
The adventure begins
The family had some sailing experience in the form of lessons, charters and a couple of boat deliveries, but knew they had a lot to learn.
On Sept. 11 the Veldmans moved onto their newly purchased boat in Bocas Del Toro, Panama.
They spent two months in the marina there fixing things on the boat. They spent November sailing around the Bocas area getting their “sea legs.” Christmas was spent anchored in the Chagres River in Panama, “with crocodiles and monkeys as our only neighbors,” Paul said.
“We took it slow in the beginning, but eventually we had to set our sails and leave the land behind,” Paul said. “When we're out there we have to be completely self-sufficient. Anything that happens is on us, both the good and the bad. There's no AAA for ocean side assistance. Where we've been so far, there's very little in the way of hardware or groceries, let alone boat supplies. The actual sailing the boat has been less of a learning curve than just maintaining the boat and all its systems — diesel engines, electricity, wind generator, auto pilot, etc.”
January was spent in the San Blas Islands of Panama. Paul said it's also known as the Kuna Yala Nation. The local tribes are hunter-gatherers who still live in thatched-roof huts with dirt floors. “It was beautiful and eye-opening,” he said.
In February the family sailed north 59 hours to the Colombian Island of Providencia, off the coast of Nicaragua. Then they sailed to Roatan before setting off on the nail-biting trip to the Keys, where they are now.
The trip has been an eye-opener for the family as they learn about different cultures. It's also been an extraordinary bonding experience for the family. “I thought moving from our Fort Wayne home to a 300- square-foot boat could cause a lot of tension,” Paul said in an email. “It has been much less of a hurdle than I thought it would be.”
The trip has been filled with new experiences — mostly good — and a few frightening ones, such as the storm that left them drifting toward Cuba.
Another frightening experience occurred in February off the coast of Honduras when another boat was bearing down on them and they thought they were being stalked by pirates (See sidebar for daughter Elle's account of this experience in Features.)
Paradise and bliss
One look at the Veldmans' website, www.veldmansailing.com, speaks volumes about the trip, which has been mostly a positive experience. Blue skies, blue ocean, swimming, freshly caught fish, tropical islands and smiling faces tell the story. Here's what the kids have to say when asked what they've liked about the trip:
Elle: “I've really enjoyed meeting people from all over the world. I love hearing their stories of how they ended up on a boat, where they're from, and trying to place all the accents. I've gained so much confidence in myself and my abilities to handle the boat — we're each now capable of handling the boat alone.”
Claire: “All the experiences that we would never get without this. We've transited the Panama Canal. We've taken walks in the jungle to see tons of wild animals — monkeys, anteaters, sloths, lemurs. We've visited an iguana farm where I had to pick my path through them wisely so I wouldn't accidentally step on one. We've had a personal tour of a Kuna village and experienced a teenaged girl's coming-of-age three-day ceremony. It's been amazing and I know there's so much more to come.”
Adam: “I love seeing all the different cultures of the places we've visited. I also love being part of the cruising community. The people are all so friendly and welcoming. I enjoy living on a boat and learning about how the systems work — electricity, plumbing, diesel engines and so much more. All this, and we're only half-way through.”
Paul most appreciates having all these experiences with his family. Laura also considers it a blessing. “I can't believe I get to spend all this time with my children and husband,” she said. “We have so much time to talk with each other, which we didn't do nearly as much of when we were home with all our busy separate lives. I love being on watch through the night with one of my kids sitting by my side, reading to me or talking about where we've been and what's to come.”
A bad day
Feb. 12 was not a good day for the Veldmans. It was their third day at sea, heading from Providencia, just off the coast of Nicaragua, to Guanaja, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras. Very early in the morning a 90-foot tugboat altered its course to remain on a collision course with the Veldmans' boat in an area infamous for its piracy, Laura said (the incident is detailed in the sidebar in the Features section). It was scary and unsettling.
“We were all pretty shook up for the rest of the day, but certainly thought we were through the worst of it,” Laura said. But later that day as the Veldmans approached where they were going to anchor for the night their boat crashed into a coral reef.
“For what felt like an eternity to us, but in reality was only about a minute, the waves picked us up and crashed us down onto the rocks again and again,” Laura said. “Miraculously, God led Paul to turn the boat hard to starboard (right), which was the only way out of there.”
The boat only suffered some superficial fiberglass damage that has been repaired.
“The last thing we did as a family this day was to come together to say a prayer of thanks; things could have been so much worse, but instead we were going to sleep soundly for the night tucked into our beds on a boat that was still in one piece in a place people dream of visiting for a vacation,” Laura said.
After their stay in the Keys the Veldmans will sail to the Bahamas and spend the rest of the trip there. Then they will sail the boat back to Florida, where it will be for sale with a broker. Actually, the boat already is for sale, with an availability date of late June.
And then, “most of us will go back to life as it was before the trip,” Laura said. Claire will return to Bishop Luers High School and Adam will go back to St. John the Baptist. Paul and Laura will look for a new home and return to work.
Elle, who graduated from Bishop Luers in 2012, will see life change the most. She wants to work on a boat crew. Initially she wanted to work on a super yacht (an expensive, privately owned yacht that has a professional crew), but after the ordeal of being stranded at sea in a storm on a sailboat, incredibly, she's thinking of working on a sailing yacht “for the adventure side of things,” she said on the blog. “When I told Mom and Dad this they just laughed and said I was crazy.”