The Long Way

Kate and her boyfriend are traveling from her home in Rhode Island to Western Australia in a 43 foot sailboat.  Along the way, she is documenting her travels as a part-local, part-tourist.  Why?  Because she believes “travel is a fluctuation between becoming part and standing apart.”

Learn more in the interview below.

Photos (C) 2015 Kate MacBain



Meet Sailor & Foodie Kate:

How did your trip come to be?

Photo (C) 2015 Kate MacBain
Photo (C) 2015 Kate MacBain

It’s a bit of a long story… Matt bought Tamata (our boat) a month before we met. Though we didn’t know each other yet, we were both in the midst of big change. I was a year into a masters program and pretty miserable with it. I’d discovered the hard way that the program I chose to study wasn’t right for me so I’d recently made the simultaneously daunting and relieving decision not to continue with grad school and had moved from Seattle back to my hometown in Rhode Island to figure out what was next. Matt had been working on private yachts for years, saving to buy his own boat and sail the world on his own agenda. His plan was to take several years off work and make his way back to Western Australia (where he’s from), spending over a year sailing halfway around the world chasing waves, catching fish, and diving.

We met when he brought the sailboat he was running to Rhode Island for the summer and was hiring a chef for a 10-day stint. My sister was supposed to take the job, but I reluctantly filled in for her at the last minute when she had second thoughts about her cooking skills. She had no reason to worry, but I’m so glad she bailed! It was only a couple weeks after Matt and I met that we took our first sail on Tamata together and Matt told me about his plan. Needless to say, I was on board. Over the next two years we put a ton of hard work into getting the boat ready and saving up money, and slowly our dreams began to materialize. I guess the short answer is the timing was somehow just right for us.

A boat is similar to an RV or a camper van in that you have to pack up all your belongings into a small space.  The big difference – you’re on water, not pavement.  What kinds of challenges does this add to your trip?  

The most obvious challenge is that we can’t just pull off at the next exit if we run out of fresh veggies. Once we’re at sea, and often while we’re exploring some of the more remote islands we sail to, what we’ve stocked on the boat is what we’ve got. That extends beyond food, too. On a boat, you’re your own mechanic, nurse, and seamstress, or at least amateur versions of each until you get to port.

I’m discovering how hard it is to set aside time to dedicate to writing without anything like a regular daily schedule to keep me on task. I miss not being able to just go out for a run. Making coffee without spilling never gets easier.

On the flip side to above, what are some of the rewards of water travel?

Getting to places we otherwise wouldn’t be able to visit is huge. We’ll sail to many islands few people get to travel to, including Isla del Coco, 600 miles off the Costa Rican coast, and Pitcairn Island, one of the most remote islands in the South Pacific. It’s funny – the more time we spend away from people, the less antisocial I’ve become. We’ve met so many interesting people with wonderful stories along the way. I’m a bit of an introvert, but getting to land and meeting all kinds of people has been one of the most rewarding parts of the trip.

Photo (C) 2015 Kate MacBain
Photo (C) 2015 Kate MacBain

I know it sounds cliché, but I get this feeling of immediate connection to the natural world when I’m at sea. Matt and I trade off keeping watch and sleeping at regular intervals while we’re at sea, so we actually end up spending a lot of time by ourselves. Being out on the ocean at night, all alone, powered only by wind and moving with the rhythm of the sea is pretty special. Nothing compares.

Two months into your journey, what have you learned about your boyfriend that you might not have without this endeavor?

We’ve lived and worked together on boats since day one, so getting along in closet-sized spaces was more natural than living in a house together. When we were working professionally on bigger boats (me cooking, Matt as captain/engineer) we rarely collaborated or even saw each during work hours. Matt got us from one place to another and I made food appear three times a day. What I’ve learned about him now that we’re sharing more responsibility and less space is how positive he is and how the majority of the boat’s systems work thanks to his problem-solving abilities. Matt always finds a way to make it work. Part of this is just life on a boat – you have to make it work – but now that I’m more involved in troubleshooting, I’ve realized how effective and elegant Matt’s solutions are (especially compared to my proposals, which usually rely heavily on paperclips and calling my dad). I certainly never knew the inner workings of marine toilets could be elegant… Also, I’ve learned that he really is always hungry and he’s not kidding when he claims that whatever he’s just finished was the best meal he’s ever had.

Just kidding... (kind of)
Just kidding… (kind of)

If your and your boyfriend’s “boat roles” were a Venn Diagram, how would they overlap?  How would they differ?

On deck things are pretty evenly split: sail-handling, steering, keeping watch, and navigating are all equally shared between us. Inside the boat, Matt handles engineering, electronics, and plumbing, and I’ve taken charge of cooking, provisioning, organization, and general tidiness. It’s such a 1950s breakdown – he works with tools, I cook and clean – but in this situation I’m OK with it. We’re both very independent and work well alone, so it’s good to have separate roles and areas. Anyway, I love messing around in the kitchen and he loves playing with socket wrenches.

Take a photo of your five must-take items for sailboat travel.

Photo (C) 2015 Kate MacBain
Photo (C) 2015 Kate MacBain

I should display our medical kit, dozens of tubes of sunscreen, and life raft. But let’s consider this safety’s day off…

1. Pen & pad

2. Sunnies

3. Filet knife: Sushi, fish tacos, poke, ceviche… It all starts here.

4. Paper charts: We rely almost entirely on electronic charts while underway, but for planning purposes we prefer paper charts that show greater expanses (like the entire Pacific Ocean). Plus I never tire of looking at them, especially when there’s nothing else to do and I’ve read every other written document on the boat.

5. Tito’s salsa: Tito’s is made in RI. It’s the best and such a reminder of home. You know when you spend a summer day at the beach or out on the water and come home in late afternoon, take a cold outdoor shower, and sit around with your siblings, cousins, parents, friends, dogs and whoever else shows up, eating chips and salsa and drinking Pacificos in fading light? That’s what Tito’s tastes like to me.

What have your favorite ports been thus far?

Oddly enough, my favorite places have been the very Northern and very Southern ends of the trip so far: one of the places I love most back home, Cuttyhunk, Massachusetts, and the peninsula of Kusapin, here in Panama. Though they’re thousands of miles apart, there’s something comfortingly similar in the atmospheres of these small villages surrounded by natural beauty. Both are only accessible by boat. And in both places you share the beach with cows!

Photo (C) 2015 Kate MacBain
Photo (C) 2015 Kate MacBain

How is time spent in between ports?  What’s the pace of your travel like?

The boat moves at an average of 6 knots, which means we move along at roughly 7mph. So in short, the pace of travel is slow. If we’re in a hurry to get someplace we’ll go the most direct route without stopping. It took us ten days to travel 1300+ miles nonstop from Florida to Panama. If we have no agenda (and we’re not offshore), we’ll usually anchor each night and take our time getting to wherever our destination is, sometimes only going a few miles in a day. Often we find some fantastic anchorage with no one around and that ends up becoming our destination. It’s a lot like camping.

The final goal is Australia – will you stay there for a while?  Will you sail back to the United States?

That’s a question that resurfaces every now and then with us, but instead of an answer or a plan we just have a bunch of vague ideas. We’ll probably live somewhere on the east coast of Australia for a little while. We’d love to sail back to the US and complete a circumnavigation but we won’t be able to do it without winning the lottery or going back to work first.

Where are you now [January 31, 2015] and where will you be in one month?

We are currently in the Bocas del Toro archipelago of Panama. In one month we will have crossed through the canal and will likely be somewhere on the Pacific coast of Central America, preparing for the big sail across the Pacific.