Crafton family enjoys rare closeness after seven years together at sea

The Craftons are in no hurry to shed the awe they feel about what they have accomplished: an 83-month, 30,000-mile journey around the globe and through the roughest years of their kids' childhoods.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2010

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.

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