Academic rigour and readiness: is it possible to homeschool kids on a boat to prepare for University?


We met another cruising family last year. The short story is that he wanted to continue sailing. She did not.

We were invited onto their boat for ‘sundowners’, which in cruiser-speak means BYOB at sunset.

We nestled into their soft cockpit cushions, and within minutes I realized that homeschooling was a hot button in their relationship. It was one of the main reasons for their decision to sell their catamaran and return to life in the US on shore.

She was a former teacher. He was a dreamer.

She had strong doubts that she could teach her two children high school science and prepare them for university. Meanwhile, her husband felt that real-world experiences provided character-building moments that could not be carved out with mainstream schooling.

My husband was intrigued. “Well, do you have a centrifuge?” she asked. We do not. But, we do have an oscilloscope, an Arduino, and a Raspberry Pi.

The conversation continued in the vein of homeschooling, bouncing along like a tennis match, becoming increasingly more competitive and pointy.

Finally, our hostess turned to her husband and said, ““Okay, I see you’re trying to be cool here.” And, like a cat on high alert, she seemed to grow in size. Her shoulders rolled back as she outstretched her arms on the cockpit cushions. “Look, we have talked about this many times,” she continued, putting on her best ‘all-is-calm’ face. But, her bright eyes flashed and betrayed her. As their eyes met, her husband stared hard at the sunset and took a cautious and slow sip of his beer, possibly from the wrong side of the can.

It was getting dark. Our kids reached an elevated volume. A musical instrument may have been involved. It was time for the Escher family to go.

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Representation of sample goodbye from our dinghy. In this photo, Martin and Rani, depart from Martinique back to their home in Germany. (Escher family stock photo.)

The other cruising family sailed from Trinidad the next day.

But, the seed of doubt had been planted. This was six months ago.

Over the past five years, our lifestyle afloat has provided amazing opportunities. However, that chance encounter with a cruising teacher led us to believe that our children’s education required greater thought and commitment.

We want our kids to have high school credentials, volunteer experiences, essay writing skills, good communication and social skills, and critical thinking skills. These goals cannot be left to chance, or a piecemeal best effort. If our kids decide to go to university we must prepare them for acceptance into a program.

We enrolled our eldest two children in the American School of Correspondence. Currently, our children are 14, 12 and 9-year-old twins. The American School is for middle and high school students only so it is not suitable for our younger children.

In the past few months, we have come to realize that we need greater discipline. We have a job. We are not on holiday. Our job is to homeschool and we happen to live on a boat. Unless we have visitors, we rarely go to the beach. We prefer to swim off the back of our boat.

We must wake up, eat breakfast and start schooling for the day. We don’t have a set start time. We don’t have a set end time. But, believe me, schooling four children takes all day, six days a week. We spend about 35-40 hours a week doing school.

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Paul (age 12) studying geology.

One afternoon, bobbing along in his dinghy beside our boat at anchor, another cruising parent gently scoffed at our approach. “C’mon I didn’t put those kind of hours in when I went to University,” he said as he headed with his children to shore. Granted, his children are younger than our older children. That might make all the difference. But, in some situations it does not.

We know of a cruising family who is encouraging their children to consider the trades. Their school day likely looks a bit different than our own. The dad in that family tells me that the trades offer real-world, in-demand skills, that do not require large loans to repay. I cannot argue with that. Homeschooling takes many forms, and who know what path our kids will choose to follow.

I admire parents who do real-world projects with their children, like building a sailing dinghy or growing food aboard. But, we are trudging along on a course of our own. In a sunny spot with warm smiles, it is a job not to be swayed by peer pressure.

Some anchorages are very popular with families, and playdate opportunities abound. Different goals and family situations make me feel like a unicorn at times.

Why is our family choosing to go heavy on the academics when we are in the land of sea and sunshine?

Fortunately, we are not the only ones. We have met two families personally whose ‘boat kids’ either went to or are pursuing University.

We met a cruising family in Martinique whose children were also being prepared for University. In this family, the mother told us that their son understood that putting in the effort now would provide greater opportunities for him in the future. That family has been sailing for many years and is close to completing a circumnavigation. Having sailed around the world, including a stint with armed guards through “Pirate Alley” to the Suez Canal, those kids already have a breadth of experiences beyond reading school books. Rigorous academics seem to have done them no harm.

For Betty and Paul, the American School of Correspondence provides direction and confidence. Our older children have goals, and exams. They receive feedback from us and their teachers. They are putting in the effort and they are getting excellent results.

We are in Martinique and will be in this area for some time. Betty (age 14) got braces put on in Le Marin last summer. Her teeth look fantastic. To continue with her orthodontist we will be in Martinique and the Caribbean for some time.

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Betty (age 14) at work with American History.
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Photo of Betty’s notes

Like all cruisers, and most people on the planet, the COVID virus has put us into a holding pattern. Borders are closed. When Betty is done with her braces, we hope that COVID will be sorted out, borders will be open and we will continue to travel by sea.

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Karen’s depiction of the coronavirus, March 2010. Karen is 9 years old.

We’ve said all along that we will continue on the water as long as we can manage homeschooling. So far, so good. Our thoughts are on our books and continue to stretch beyond the horizon.

5 comments

  1. We’ve been so impressed with your life story, my husband Admiral Peter Cairns and i would read your posts together. Sadly, he entered a nursing home with Alzheimer’s a year ago. It’s so important to live your best life every day, which I think you’re doing so well. Life is short, don’t feel guilty for having fun. I just always thought we’d have more time.
    Big hugs, Carolyn Cairns

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  2. I love Carolyn’s quote: “Life is short, don’t feel guilty for having fun!”. I’ve worked with somebody who took his high school equivalency exams later in life. In 8-12 weeks. Imagine, focus on the academia, and get rid of the hormones & drama.

    High school won’t teach, curiosity, creativity, innovation, lateral thinking, investing, budgeting, … more. It will teach (and I hope your kids are spared) herd mentality (how important it is to be like everybody else), irrevelent, out-dated literature, and some sort of math you will never need to know again in your life.

    Here’s to you and your family living your best life, right now.

    xoxo

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  3. I’m pleased to get this update. It’s not clear to me if you already made the crossing to New Zealand and have returned. It’s a good long while ago now, you were going to hire on an experienced sailor to accompany you.
    Well bravo to you doing home schooling! Canadian parents are getting a taste of that now. The breadth of it is intimidating. Best of luck to you all

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  4. Its always a pleasure to sail from land while reading and visualizing the daily events of the Aphrodite. There maybe something in this Rick, a reality cable/ TV show meet the Eschers. Onboard at sea, different island locations in the backdrop of the Eschers teaching the mates the boat schooling way. Kids across the globe can join in while learning about other people and places. Hmmmmm what do you think. You guys stay safe.

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