At the Distance Pennant Awards ceremony held at the Nordhavn Rendezvous in California this spring, 19 different Nordhavn owners’ names were called to come up and retrieve their pennant. When at last the Lawler Family was announced, the 35,000-nm pennant was accepted on their behalf since they were busy moving up the coast to CT, getting re-acclimated to life on land again. The Lawlers had recently completed a six-year circumnavigation of the globe on their Nordhavn 46 Emily Grace, an amazing trip that not only had an effect on them, but one that also allowed them to leave their mark.
Growing up on the Chesapeake Bay and in Connecticut, Tom and Kim Lawler often found themselves tooling around on smallish powerboats. With no children in the picture, the working couple set out to stockpile enough money to someday retire and go long range cruising. You know what they say about the best laid plans…They suddenly and surprisingly became blessed with a baby in 2000. Still it didn’t deter their dreams of seeing the world by boat; it just meant now giving their daughter the education of a lifetime. Tom and Kim researched traveling on boats with children and discovered that the sweet spot for cruising with kids is between the ages of 5 and 13. They set their sights on the Nordhavn 46 and in 2006 purchased Emily Grace and began formulating a plan for a slightly earlier than anticipated retirement. It ensured daughter Emily would be 7 years old when they embarked on their world cruise.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Tom had second thoughts about leaving his high paying job and heading into the unknown on a boat with his wife and young daughter in tow. The first was in 2008, at the onset of the global recession. “We watched our savings vaporize (on paper) and it was tough leaving it all invested,” said Tom. “We cruised with others who finally buckled late in the year. They sold at the very bottom, and their dream was over. We held on and have since recovered.”
The only other time Tom questioned his worldwide boating escapade was while they were in the middle of it, crossing the Indian Ocean. The whole crossing was rough and loaded with equipment failures. Just before making landfall in Madagascar, they experienced two solid days of sustained 35+ knot winds directly on their port beam and enormous seas. While Tom admits he never feared losing the boat, he did question why he had chosen to do this. “[My] answer came soon after we entered the lee of Madagascar as that country has become one of our favorites. The people were poor but welcoming. And the wildlife was priceless.”
Though the countries they visited were mainly ones they passed on their westward track (minus the Red Sea and Med due to pirate activity), the Pacific Islands and Great Barrier Reef in Australia were high on their bucket list especially because of their love of SCUBA diving. While experiencing different countries’ cultures and lands are huge draws to this type of world cruising, Tom Lawler says it was the bonding with the locals that made the most impact on them. He relayed a very touching account of his and some other boaters’ encounter with inhabitants of Tonga:
“In Niuatoputapu, Tonga, following a tsunami, most of the village homes were swept away. The Red Cross had dropped two dozen kit homes on enormous pallets on the shore, and then disappeared. The villagers had no idea how to build the homes and were still living under trees. Several other fellow cruisers and I met with the island elders to make a plan. There were six or seven cruising boats and we all got out our hammers and came ashore. We got a bunch of the villagers together too so they would learn, and we all built a house together. We built it in one day.
“What was cool was this man that we built it for was about 75 years old. We started very early in the morning, and at noon he comes riding up on this rusty old bicycle. He had a basket and he had made us all lunch. It was so sweet to watch him. And by sunset, it was his home, and we gave it to him and he just had tears running down his face. And then, once the villagers knew how to do it, they had another 20 kit homes and they could do it themselves.”
Tom says that as a cruising family, it is important to give back when they can. They don’t want to be construed as the type of tourists who visit exotic places, take pictures and leave trash on the beach, he explained. “The personal interactions with the locals is what makes each country special and is just as priceless to me as the help we give them. At the end of the day, we hope many of the locals will remember us as friends and have fond memories of us just as we do of them.”
The same attitude was even adopted by young, Emily, although seemingly without her realizing it. Although she undoubtedly received the experience and education of a lifetime, it was her interaction with the locals that made lasting results.
Homeschooled at sea from the age of 7, it didn’t take long for Emily to become accustomed to a way of life on the boat because she had only a few memories from her life in a house. Reading and LEGOs became favorite ways to pass time initially. Then she learned to do origami and spent hours folding paper into different shapes. She became a whiz at creating paper cranes and it became her calling card every time the family reached the harbor of some far-off land. “We would come into a village and there would be a couple of (native])kids and they would be shy and hide behind a tree,” recounts Tom. “Eventually, they’d come out and… Emily would just start folding without saying anything. The kids started watching. Then once she [completed one] and handed it to [the first child], that’s all it took. Kids would come out of the bushes and they would be all around her. In some cases she would even stop and teach them how to do it.
“You should have seen the smiles on their faces. There would be 30 kids wanting a little crane and [Emily] would make one for each of them. And they would gasp. Later, the kids (or their parents) would paddle out to our boat and bring gifts of fruit or special shells they had found.”
Tom was surprised to hear that his was the first Nordhavn family with minor-aged children to circumnavigate, saying that many families could be missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime – if fears and concerns over children’s adjusting to and enjoying global cruising were preventing them from making the trek. Families get to bond over adventures and experiences that you simply cannot have cruising harbor to harbor on the East Coast of the U.S. Obviously, there are a lot of things about timing, health, and finances that have to fall into place, and once a circumnavigation is completed, the good outweighs any bad.
Tom credits the circumnavigation with Emily’s listing her favorite hobbies as free diving, snorkeling and shelling. “When we started the trip, Emily did not like putting her head under water,” he said. “During the trip, she swam with dolphins in the Caribbean, sea lions in the Galapagos, sharks in Samoa, humpback whales in Tonga, and got her full SCUBA certification in Fiji. “
Tom believes Emily has also learned core values and what’s really important in life from seeing children in the poorest of countries. “It was important for us to experience other cultures and have Emily see that most of the other people in the world live more simply than we do in the U.S. We knew several kids who had an entire (spare) bedroom filled with the latest toys, and I question [now] whether they were really happier than the kid in Madagascar who was dragging an empty plastic bottle through the dirt and squealing with joy…or the kids in Tonga who were racing toy sailboats made of coconut husks with palm leaf sails…They were competitive, very proud and had faces bursting with joy.”
The Lawlers are now back to living a life on land, splitting their time between Connecticut and a cottage in Western Massachusetts where they are looking forward to spending time. It’s been an amazing era for the family on Emily Grace but Tom suspects it’s getting to be time to prepare her for sale and move on to other things. “We plan to live more than 100 miles from the sea. Nordhavns are meant to be at sea and not sit at a dock.”
Still, the six-year trip will remain fresh in their heads for a long time to come. It doesn’t mean there won’t be parts they aren’t eager to soon forget (“Walking for miles carrying food in canvas bags will not be missed”), but as a whole, it’s hard not to continually reflect on such a life-altering trip. “I think that Emily has not yet come to the realization of just how special this opportunity has been for her,” then adds. “For Kime and me, I think we were surprised by how small the world really is. We all have a better understanding of georgraphy, animals, and the people of the countries we visited. The ability to spend four weeks in Chagos, for instance, was special because the only way to get there is by cruising boat.”
Since the completion of the circumnavigation, Tom says other cruisers have treated the family like “rock stars”. Especially in the Bahamas, they were peppered with questions about the best equipment to take, what the best size boat is, and the like. “My answers were simple: equip the boat the best you can. And go. The to-do list will never be complete. I kept a rolling list that never dropped below one page but somehow we find ourselves back home safely.”