Lohmann: For a family from Virginia, a year of living on a boat and cruising the East Coast | State and Area News
It’s been a year since Rob and Kristen Kaplan sold their Midlothian home and most of their belongings, packed up their four children and dog, bought a boat and headed for the water.
They saw the drastic lifestyle change as a chance to reset their family life and priorities — and to have a really good time, of course — and that’s how it turned out.
When I asked how a year of cruising along the East Coast had been, Kristen said one measure was the 365 sunsets (more or less, depending on the weather) they had enjoyed.
Without the outside distractions that seem to accompany their usual daily lives, sunsets have become a highlight of everyday life.
“At some point we’ll have to bring the kids back to earth life and a more traditional environment,” Kristen said, but for now the family is savoring “that special time when the kids notice the sunsets and they are grateful for the smallest things.”
Like strong internet signals, long showers and fresh apples – all of which are sometimes a little hard to find when you’re offshore.
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I caught up with the Kaplans via video call the other day from the flybridge of their boat while they were docked at a marina in West Palm. They’ve dropped anchor at various locations along the east coast over the past year, as well as in the Florida Keys, Gulf of Mexico and Bahamas.
In South Carolina, they anchored along the Intracoastal Waterway, essentially in a cove surrounded by a seagrass island with alligators, dolphins and herons moving all around them while Rob and Kristen were sipping their morning coffee.
“Just surreal before making Zoom calls,” she said with a laugh.
They usually stayed fairly close to shore, but occasionally ventured out into the open sea. The first time they spent the night there, they went about 65 miles out to sea. No internet, no cell service, no ships nearby. It was “a bit terrifying,” Rob said, as he had never piloted a boat at night in open water.
“But it was good,” he said. “It was beautiful.”
During the night shift with the boat on autopilot, Kristen lay back on the bow and listened to the rushing water and watched the stars above her, twinkling in stunning clarity without any light pollution. .
“I grabbed the two oldest kids around 11 p.m. and pulled them outside…and we just stargazed together,” she said. “I will always remember this moment.”
Rob and Kristen have loved owning a boat for years, but their trips were usually limited to long weekends in the Chesapeake Bay or the North Carolina Straits. They dreamed of turning their hobby into a full-time lifestyle, perhaps in retirement, they thought.
But the pandemic opened their eyes to opportunities: they were working remotely for their jobs (Rob is a lawyer, Kristen is a senior executive at CarMax), the children, aged 5 to 14, were in virtual school and their Usual activities – football, swimming, music lessons – went on hiatus as much of the world shut down. So instead of everyone going in different directions and having family dinner maybe one night a week, they were suddenly together all the time.
“It was kind of a wake-up call,” Kristen said, making them think, “Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
As they pondered how they could recalibrate their lives, they rethought the moment of their dream of living on a boat: why not now?
A year into the pandemic, they have uprooted their lives and plunged, so to speak, by trading their 7,000 square foot home for a 70 foot trawler, a 35 year old boat that sails not much faster than sailboat – perfect, they said, to slow down and enjoy the journey.
They hid their unsold possessions in a 10×10 unit of storage space and in late March 2021, they drove to Florida in a U-Haul – with kayaks, paddle boards and everything they would need for their new life – to take possession of the boat. They named their new home Changing Course.
Although the Kaplans were boaters, living full time on such a large vessel was a steep learning curve (“Like drinking from a fire hose, learning to steer the boat, take care of the boat and ‘maintain’, says Kristen) and a little intimidating. She noted that the boat had a “complete, walk-in engine room”.
“Definitely sleepless nights wondering, ‘What did we bite? “, She said.
In addition to becoming familiar with the boat itself and becoming adept at ocean navigation as well as determining tides, winds and weather in general, they were to become amateur mechanics. When something went wrong in their spare time, they would just take the boat back to the marina and “call people to fix it,” Rob said.
Now, Kristen said with a laugh, “were the people.”
“If something is wrong and we’re anchored, we need to be able to fix it enough that if it’s not fixed, it’s at least operational enough to get us where we need to get it fixed.” , said Rob.
Unlike when they used to take weekend excursions on the water, they no longer have a home on land to return to, so it’s the boat, and, as said Kristen, “things have really serious consequences.” Everyone has tasks that are essential to the comfort and safety of the family. Eight-year-old Daisy takes care of the water tank.
“If she forgets to check and we run out of water…there are serious implications of not having water,” Kristen said with a laugh. “The children really had to learn to surpass themselves.”
In addition to their homeschooling, they learn to read maps, communicate with other ships and, as 11-year-old Caroline mentioned when she joined the call, clean decks, which is on the program for this afternoon. Despite this, she enjoyed life on the boat and all that goes with it, like swimming with the sharks (she and her mother were in a cage) and learning to drive the boat’s 13-foot dinghy.
“I don’t want to jump ship,” Caroline said, though she can’t wait to get closer to her friends again.
Their employers have been extremely supportive, Kristen said, and Rob added that in some ways working remotely from a boat was less distracting and, therefore, more efficient. And they are not completely detached from their old life. Rob and Kristen have returned to Richmond several times for work (and have a dedicated satellite on the boat for seamless access to clients and colleagues). The kids have all traveled to their old neighborhoods from time to time and were even back last Halloween as the boat was near Virginia before heading south for the winter.
Their eldest, Will, who turned 14 on Sunday, came back solo for an appointment with his orthodontist and ended up staying when he contracted COVID, forcing him to stay with friends for a while, which didn’t really bother him as he was the least enthusiastic about the water life.
The other children have understood this well, and even Jäger, the black laboratory of the family, is thoroughly. He loves to swim, although he doesn’t like jumping off the boat, as he once inadvertently did while chasing pelicans.
“He’s not chasing them anymore,” Kristen said.
Predictably, occasional frustrations arise with everyone in relatively close quarters, but Rob and Kristen work hard to get the kids off the boat every day to play in the water or, if they are moored, to enter the city and visit a museum or another destination in order to leave a little space for everyone. For much of the trip, the Kaplans hosted a series of family friends, who helped with such activities and home schooling.
“We were very lucky on this trip,” Rob said. “We have had very few real trials and tribulations.”
While Rob and Kristen don’t mind living on a boat full time, they realistically know to wait until the kids are grown. They expect to head north in the coming weeks and return to a more traditional land life, at least for now. But they hope to return with valuable lessons learned on the water.
“It was by far the best and hardest thing our family has ever done,” Kristen said. “I hope our children walk away knowing that they are capable of more than they ever thought possible and that they will understand the beauty that comes from stretching.”