Crafton family enjoys rare closeness after seven years together at sea

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2010; A01

After living the past seven years in this cabin the size of a hotel bathroom, the Crafton family seems in no hurry to clear out now. On a muggy, sun-drenched morning, all five of them -- knees just touching, lives completely entwined-- sit cheerfully in the sailboat that has been their home since they pulled away from this Severna Park dock in 2003.

Kalena, 18, who went through puberty and adolescence in this room, has her eyes fixed on a laptop slideshow of their travels that's playing on the galley table. For her, college awaits on land. Her mother, Kathleen, fingers a Melanesian carving she picked up in a trade during one of the family's countless island anchorages; the relaunch of her nursing career can wait until next week. Jena, 22, and Ben, 15, settle in for yet another telling of the family's greatest adventures (such as the three-day trek into the mountains of Papua New Guinea, or the village festival no white people had seen before).

Tom, the dad, is most ensconced of all in the confines of the 43-foot ketch. If it were up to him, the Nueva Vida would still be out there and America 2010 could wait.

"I went to a Wal-Mart the first week we were back, and I had to come home and take a nap," says Tom, rolling his ice-gray eyes and leaning against the teak bulkhead. "It's way too soon for that. Some of our cruising friends warned us about reentry. Baby steps, baby steps."

After seven years at sea, the Crafton Five are coming ashore, but slowly. They are in no hurry to shed the awe they feel about what they have accomplished: an 83-month, 30,000-mile circumnavigation of both the globe and the roughest years of their kids' childhoods.

"We just seemed to get along better the longer we were out there," marvels Tom, who turned 50 in May as they crept through the doldrums of the equatorial Atlantic. "The day we moved onto the boat, the sibling rivalry stopped. I don't think they ever complained, not once."

His wife bobs her head slightly in the wake created by a small boat puttering by on Cattail Creek, just off the Magothy River. She concedes that she was the driving force behind the decision to finally point the bow homeward, but she, too, would set out all over again -- if the kids were younger.

"I would never trade the time we had to raise our kids out there, seeing the world through their eyes, being together 24/7," she says. "But now it's time for them to come back and learn more about their own country. They need to start their own lives."

"And plus, we're flat broke," she adds with a laugh.

Focusing on family

It took everything the Craftons had to keep afloat for most of the trip, but that was largely the point. After achieving two-career success in Anchorage (Kathy as an ICU nurse, Tom as a family psychologist), the couple found that big-house status and plenty of everything left them feeling not much of anything, save frustration and want. With both Jena and Ben having significant developmental and speech delays, what the parents really craved was less stuff and more time together.

"We looked at each other and said, 'What the hell are we doing?' " Tom says.

It took six months to liquidate everything. By 2001, they had sold two houses in Alaska and their share of a family property in Severna Park, where Tom grew up. With the proceeds, they bought the sturdiest ocean crosser they could find, a Taiwanese-built Hans Christian with twin yellow masts, and set forth.

It was an adjustment, of course. There were head bumps in the tiny sleeping berths and five hurricanes during the year and a half they spent prepping in Florida. But almost at once, an instinctive choreography emerged, allowing five people to colonize a space not much larger than a minivan.

The close quarters stayed remarkably clear of clutter. They even got rid of the small refrigerator, not wanting to run the smelly engine just to keep beer cool. At sea, they lived on fish and canned goods. Ashore, they delighted in taking jitney buses to the market each day, living a local's life.

They wandered the Americas for a couple of years, finally crossing the Panama Canal in 2006. This was pure blue-water cruising, sailing for miles and for months between Pacific Islands. Vanuatu, where the people owned the least and smiled the most, was one of their favorites. They stayed three months.

"They are the happiest people in the world," Tom says. "It reinforced everything we believed about putting time with the family over this blind pursuit of material things."

There was a break, 18 months in a New Zealand harbor. They would have settled there permanently but for bureaucratic hassles and the cost of living. To buy a house would have meant selling the boat, and that wasn't an option. "She's like a member of our family now," Kathy says.

And so they sailed, ever westward. Even now, they make a point of gathering to watch the sunset together, and of getting up early to see it rise.

In many places, they traded for fresh food from the canoes that surrounded them when they dropped the hook in an island harbor. Bunches of bananas and mountains of fish could be had for an empty plastic bottle, coveted for storage in places where everything is biodegradable.

But it wasn't all mangoes and papayas. Their Pacific diet also included betel nuts, kava (a ceremonial hallucinogen), fish intestines and, at separate events, dog and bat. Last spring, during the final 43-day crossing from Ascension Island to Charleston, S.C., they lived almost entirely on canned tuna. "Ascension is the worst place to provision," says Tom. "It's like a desert with volcanoes."

They spent hours in that first grocery store in Charleston. "Oh my God, Pop-Tarts!" Kalena, who goes by Kali, remembers exclaiming.

Together still

They were done. Although Tom still yearns for those days when cyclone season was the only item on his calendar, even he cops to the emotional fatigue of facing potential hazards month after month, connected to their former lives only by sporadic e-mail via high-frequency radio.

After seven years without using a credit card, they went into debt the day they reached the United States, paying marina fees upon their arrival. A few weeks after getting back to Tom's parents' house in Severna Park, they are still debriefing each other on a remarkable chapter in their family history.

Least favorite ocean: the turbulent Indian ("the washing machine," they call it). Worst moment on land: when the jeep they were riding in plunged over a ridge on a steep New Guinean mountain. Rudest encounter: a few days after reaching Maryland, when a cranky boat owner warned Jena and Ben to keep their rowboat away.

"I can't remember a mean word anywhere else on our trip," Tom says. "We're relearning how things are around here."

And maybe doing some teaching, too. Tom thinks the experience that buoyed his own family so profoundly could be a model for anyone looking for a kinder, family-focused way to navigate the world. He's working on a book and hopes to find some public-speaking gigs.

For now, they plan to stay in their floating cocoon. Tom will home-school Ben; Kathy will begin a nursing job in Baltimore in August. Jena has already joined a choir at a church down the road. Kali, who evolved from an 11-year-old passenger to an ace sailor, multilingual adventurer and published essayist (Cruising World, August 2010), is climbing onto the launching pad. She's applying to college, working part time, and beginning to meet friends and venture away from her two-mast shelter.

"It's nice to be able to make some long-term plans, yeah, rather than changing countries every month," she says. Faintly freckled with a friendly grin, she could have stepped from a Norman Rockwell painting, except for the henna chain snaking up her ankle. "It's nice to get some space."

After spending most every night of the past seven years sharing a V-shaped mattress in the bow compartment with her sister, last week Kali spent her first night ashore in her grandparents' air-conditioned guest room. It was very still, very roomy and very lonely.

"I missed the boat," she says. "I missed being with everyone."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company