After Six-month Adventure, Harwich's Swains Are Back On Dry Land

By: Tim Wood

Members of the Swain family snorkel with sea turtles. COURTESY PHOTO

HARWICH – After more than six months sailing the high seas, the Swain family is safely back in their home on the shores of Long Pond, returning to the routines of work, school and the daily life of landlubbers.

While the family – dad Steve, mom Sarah, and kids Lucy, Jessie and Stanley – are happy to see their relatives, friends and two rescue dogs Mayday and Turtle, there's a bit of a wistful longing for the open ocean and warm Caribbean sun they left behind.

“It's a different world,” Steve said Monday, sitting in the warmth of his living room as a cool rain misted outside. “I don't think any of us are sure which we liked best.”

Jessie knows. “I really loved the turtles,” she said, referring to the many sea turtles they saw as well as their participation in a turtle tagging project. “Definitely, definitely the turtles.”

The “Sailing Swains,” as they dubbed themselves in the blog the girls kept, set out from Wellfleet in September in their 47-foot ketch The Flying Fish, traveling south to the Intercoastal Waterway, down to Florida and then across to the Bahamas, where they spent much of the winter. Everyone except Steve returned home on March 24; Steve spent 10 days sailing the boat back to Florida with his assistant Jimmy Prine and Sarah's father, hauling and cleaning the vessel and storing it until the fall, when the family plans to return to the Bahamas.

“We won't be doing what we did this winter,” said Steve, an artist who owns the Frying Pan Gallery in Wellfleet, but will take a couple of extended vacations to revisit some of their favorite spots from their sailing adventure.

Traveling 1,800 miles together in a small space may seem like a challenge, to say the least, to many people, but the Swains seemed to have managed quite well.

“The first week it felt kind of weird,” said Lucy, a student at the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School. “After that it felt kind of normal.”

“I think it's weird now to live in a big house,” added Jessie, a fifth grader at Monomoy Regional Middle School. A lot of people told them to expect to fight a lot in the cramped quarters, but Lucy said “we fought less on the boat” than they did at home.

“There's nothing really to fight over,” Jessie said. A dispute over foot space in their berth was really the only conflict, Steve said, and that was taken care of by installing a board between the bunks, advice he'd been given by another sailor before the trip but hadn't thought would be necessary.

The quarters also got a little warm whenever they cooked with the small galley stove, but that also helped take the chill off when cold fronts moved in, which happened more frequently than expected, said Steve.

“It wasn't as tropical as people think,” he said. “So baking bread on chilly days kept us warm.”

The girls said they miss being outside all the time, but did not miss having to conserve water. Fresh water is a commodity in the Caribbean for which they had to pay. “It's as dear as gasoline,” Steve said.

The lack of the conveniences of home was also something they won't miss. They used an app called Active Captain designed for cruisers that rates amenities in ports – the best laundromats, for instance. They found one that not only provided free WiFi but food cooked by the owners.

“I'm not going to miss marina showers,” Lucy added.

Lucy kept up with her school work over the internet, while Jessie – who had spent just a week at the middle school when the family left on their voyage – was “100 percent home schooled,” Steve said. One of the many folks they met along the way and “buddy boated” helped the girls “helped fill in the blanks with their math,” he added.

One of the most eye-opening aspects of the voyage was the project they took on sampling ocean waters for plastics as part of the California nonprofit 5 Gyres using a “manta trawl.” The amount of plastic they found in the water increased as they headed south.

“Down in Bermuda we got so much, it was awful,” Lucy said. They also did surveys of plastic debris on beaches, picking a one-meter-square quadrant and sampling down to two inches. On Long Island, one of the Bahama islands and the farthest point south the family traveled, there's a 55-mile beach that's absolutely beautiful, Steve said, but on closer inspection the wrack line is strewn with debris, most of it plastic. They took a time-lapse video that shows debris being gathered into a pile that rapidly builds to several feet in height (it's viewable on their Facebook page).

“It's sad,” Steve said. “All the beaches are going to look like that if people continue to use the amount of plastic they do.”

This summer, Sarah – a musician who was working at the nonprofit she founded, the Cape Wellness Collaborative, and couldn't be there for the interview – and Lucy will be doing a talk at the Community Leadership Institute at the Center for Coastal Studies on their experience. And the May 12 Cape Cod Women's Music Festival, which Sarah founded, will be plastic-free. The girls also plan to work with Sustainable Practices, a local nonprofit that is advocating to make Cape Cod a plastic water bottle-free zone, and CARE for the Cape and Islands, a student-led group that hopes to eliminate the use of plastic straws.

“There's no one single answer” to the plastic pollution dilemma, Steve pointed out. “But I everybody changes their mindset, the way they think about it, that's what's needed.”

“Recycling is good,” added Jessie, “but not everything gets recycled.” Lucy said she's hoping to get her charter school to lead the way by banning plastic water bottles.

During the end of their trip, the family spent time on Man-O-War Cay in the Abaco region of the Bahamas, where they stayed at a friend's property which had a small cottage – not unlike a dune shack, Steve said – which the boat could pull right up to. They lived partially on the boat and partially in the cottage, “like a transition,” he said. “It eased our way back to dry land.” The Cay is mostly undeveloped, and the kids set up hammocks in the trees and explored.

“It was very Swiss Family Robinson,” Steve remarked.

Other highlights included visiting the Kennedy Space Center and the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida, where the kids participated in science education programs that were “just awesome,” said Jessie.

“There are so many people there who love the ocean,” added Lucy.

Add the Sailing Swains to that list.

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