Jaja and Dave Martin have come ashore. After years of sailing – from the South Pacific to the Arctic Circle – they’ve dropped anchor at Round Pond and enrolled their three kids in school.
The Martins have largely eluded conventional on-shore life, and escaped many but not all of its stresses. No nine-to-five job. No boss unless you count Mother Nature and her fickle weather. In their seagoing days freedom seemed limitless but it wasn’t. Dave and Jaja acknowledge limits; they still depend on diesel fuel and other comforts of our culture, from books to beer. Still, they made their own way, with courage and resilience and a readiness to take on the unexpected and to laugh at near misses. DRIVER, their 33-foot sloop, was “their cocoon, their life support system,” as Dave put it. Life revolved around their steel boat, and now that home is hauled at Round Pond and wrapped for winter. The kids already say they miss it. Teiga, 7, named for Antigua where she was conceived, Holly, 11, and Chris, 13, consider the boat their home.
Was it dangerous, having little kids on a small boat in the middle of the Atlantic? Less dangerous than driving a car at 50 mph toward another car going 50 mph, Dave would argue. The kids became good swimmers. The boat is their best-known environment; it’s where they are most comfortable. Holly took her first stroke in 12,000 feet of water. “We proved you can raise kids without a washer-dryer, without a high chair, without running water. Think how much money we saved,” Jaja said. The family has been frugal; instead of spending money they have had generous time together, from reading aloud in the cabin to exploring far-off ports on foot.
Last summer, as the Martins made their up the coast of Maine, they met a sailor from Round Pond while anchored at Mount Desert, and they asked him if he would recommend a place to settle down awhile. He suggested his home port. When the family sailed into the harbor, there was their new friend, surprised they had taken his advice.
The Martins wrote articles about their travels that they sold to sailing magazines, and that income was supplemented by an advance on a book they eventually wrote about their odyssey. “People are fascinated by our lifestyle,” said Dave. “They usually ask us point blank what we do for money. My answer is, it’s all about priorities. It’s what we choose to avoid spending money on that counts. We don’t own a house, we don’t have health insurance, boat insurance, cable, a cell phone. Until recently, we did not have a car. It’s funny, if you turn the question around and ask the guy on the dock what he does for money – after he has asked me – he considered this an impertinent question.”
Generally, the family could find privacy by simply sailing onward, finding a quiet cove for an anchorage. The Martins are very open about their lives, happy telling stories of the happy times on DRIVER. But the parents realized their kids are older and they need some privacy of their own. That was a big reason to move ashore. It’s why after trying some on-board home schooling, Jaja and Dave tied up in port and put the kids in school. It gave them “shore-side normalcy – a chance to be kids, to run and scream and jump around without the parents hovering over them,” Dave said.
Now living in a rented waterfront house, the Martins have bought some land in nearby Bremen to build the first house of their own. Jaja took a job at the Bristol school, Dave rides his bicycle to Padebco Boats of Round Pond, where he does finish carpentry. He believes owning one car is one too many, but the family has a station wagon, a concession to car culture.
It isn’t like the Martins were hermits or Luddites. They made friends wherever they went. Some winters, DRIVER remained dockside while their kids attended foreign schools, another winter the family flew to Colorado and lived there 10 months before returning to Norway to sail DRIVER home. They also spent a winter living in a tiny Norwegian house, 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Dave has a flair for telling both the serious and humorous side of things in his family’s saga at sea. It’s a story involving sailing, more or less, for 15 years and counting. A severe storm – there were several – could be a terrifying dance with the very real possibility of dying at sea. They rode out the storms, the emotional tides, and learned to live in a small space and give each other enough of it. The kids often entertained themselves, an important ability when Dave and Jaja had to focus on sailing the boat. Dave acknowledged there were times he was bored, tired of seasickness, tired of DRIVER’s predictable routines. Other times were simply terrifying, such as Driver springing a leak in mid-ocean, during a 23-day sail from Bermuda to Iceland. Dave used epoxy and ingenuity to fashion a temporary repair, which held until he could weld a patch on the steel hull. There were magical times, such as cruising to ancient villages on remote islands, and the almost indescribable beauty of a calm sunset after surviving a gale and seas that washed over the deck.
Dave likes to say the birth of their first child, Chris, showed that “all systems worked except birth control.” Holly was next, and Teiga was actually born on board Driver. One of the slides showed the family – when the kids were very young – wearing nothing but suntan cream. When you are in a warm place by yourselves, you can be free from certain constraints, but the Martins also found that very cold places were warmed by the people they met who took them in, who cared what happened to them and were sad to see them sail away.
Jaja said that volunteering at the kids’ schools in the countries where they stayed was a sure way to join the community. “The schools are what really got us into the culture. That’s how we made all our friends. In Iceland, we chose to put them in regular school. We figured out what Icelanders eat, and how you fix the strange smelling stuff, and we learned their Christmas traditions. I was there, with my hands in the dough, making cookies with the other women in the school, and that’s when you really find out what’s going on.”
Jaja and Dave said that when they sailed the Caribbean, it offered carefree tropical beaches, but the locals, descended from slaves, tend to stay apart and aloof. Colder climates, where local people regarded themselves as equals, offered a warmer reception, the chance to be included in the social circle. Still, it took patience and persuasion to convince local bureaucrats to grant the Martins an official visa to spend the winter in Akureyri at the head of an Icelandic fjord.
In Norway, officials denied them a visa to spend the winter, a situation the Martins concede was somewhat of their own making. “We arrived with a visitor’s visa, which was good for two months. In the old days you could make an extension on your visa. Not any more because of the refugee thing. People come and just never leave. If you want to re-apply, you have to go back home. Well, we were on our boat at 68 degrees north, and it was December. We weren’t going back home. We told the newspapers that the government wouldn’t extend our visas and that we were going to sail back to the States in December. They flipped out. The newspapers loved it. It was this great human interest story,” said Dave. With the press on the Martins’ side, Norwegian officials capitulated.
DRIVER, and Dave and Jaja’s courage and curiosity, have taken the family a long way beyond Dave’s boyhood in Seattle, or Jaja’s New Jersey childhood. Both learned to sail. Dave skipped college, then built his own sailboat at 22. Jaja learned to hang glide and pilot small planes. She plays cello, he plays guitar. They read a lot. They laugh a lot, too.
The couple met in February, 1988, in the Virgin Islands, after Dave sailed there on the boat he built and met Jaja, a sailing instructor. They were married the next year in Barbados. At first, they sailed their 25-foot sloop DIRECTION around the world, using only celestial navigation. Now they use GPS, but Dave says something is lost in trading math skills for the no-brainer pushbutton method of navigating.
Even their misadventures could make a good story. Cheap Caribbean rum, for example. “We tried three different brands. The 75 cents a liter bottles we ended up just using for stove alcohol. We had heard in the Pacific that alcohol was really expensive, so we thought we’d get 12 bottles. We put it in four, plastic gallon jugs in the bottom of the boat – with all this other stuff, laundry soap, dish soap, beans. We got half way across the Pacific and we thought we would toast… a drink at sea. So Dave got a glass and it tasted terrible. Like lemon soap. It turns out that these permeable plastic jugs had absorbed the soapy scent. It was disgusting. We tried it with orange juice, with everything. We ended up dumping it out.”
A sense of humor carried them through many trials at sea.
A couple of years of the Martins’ life at sea is ably recorded in Into the Light, a 320-page book they wrote together that lets you experience, intimately, their joys, hardships, frustration and irrepressible desire to sail on and see what happens next. They sailed DRIVER within 600 miles of the North Pole – gazed at turquoise ice and fearless polar bears, and then “Jaja winched up the jib, I threw the tiller hard over, and we started a new adventure.”
To follow the Martins’ adventures via Internet, visit www.setsail.com/light.