Goodbye, England! The story of a family afloat
Many of us have dreamed of cashing in our chips in England and sailing off into the sunset on a big adventure. The Dearloves did it for real. Steven Russell hears about the time of their lives
THE temperature is well below freezing and ice has cars doing pirouettes on the country lanes of Suffolk. Despite that, Juliet Dearlove gazes over the snowy fields and insists “I’d still far rather be here than on a Caribbean island.” It’s no flip comment, for a 12,000-mile family sailing adventure a few years ago took them to 81 different places – many exotic – so she speaks from a position of knowledge. Many of us would happily trade chilly England for sunnier parts, and permanently too, but Juliet won’t be swayed. “I’m convinced we’re living in the best place in the world. Don’t want to be anywhere else – even on the days when it’s hardly possible to drive up the lane.”
So why did the magic of those warmer climes wane? “It felt like a battle against the sun every day. Quite wearying, really, being in it all the time – especially on a boat, when one of you has to be outside. Everything starts to take on the same colour, because it’s so bright. That turquoise water is fantastic, but you can tire of it,” she laughs. “I think we’re very lucky here.”
She adds: “It’s about quality of life . . . but more than that, which is difficult to identify precisely, it’s about the atmosphere of the place. People who live here have an old-fashioned decency, and seem to always have time for others. The landscape has a big-skied, beautiful starkness about it that just makes you feel free. And, of course, the best pubs in the world!”
The family’s bold escapade – which saw Juliet and husband Charlie quit their jobs, sell their house and take their young daughters out of school so they could share the experience of a lifetime – is captured in two books Juliet has brought out in quick succession: Atlantic Children – The True Story of a Family’s Year Afloat, parts one and two.
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The first volume details how the idea was hatched and how the purchase of 46ft boat Keoma took them past the point of no return. They collected the yacht in Italy, sailed her through the Mediterranean, and then joined a couple of hundred or so vessels in the 2005 Atlantic Rally for Cruisers.
This annual event begins in Las Palmas, in Gran Canaria, each November, with boats usually taking between 14 and 21 days to cover the 2,700 nautical miles to St Lucia.
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It’s no surprise Juliet found plenty of material to sustain a blog en route and then transform it into a fuller account once back on dry land. Experiences ranged from blue skies and encounters with dolphins and sperm whales to storms and rough seas, nights broken by the need to stay awake on watch, and anxiety about pirates off Africa.
The second volume covers the months spent enjoying the Caribbean – exploring amazing places such as Montserrat – before going on to Bermuda, the Azores and back to England in the late summer of 2006.
Entering the Deben, and being welcomed back by well-wishers in boats, was a highlight. “That felt like home: when we saw the green water of the local river,” admits Juliet, who returned with 13,000 photographic images of the trip. “We were ready for it.”
What else did she feel?
“Huge relief – that we hadn’t wrecked the boat and killed ourselves, or come back without the children! It was so lovely to see everyone. We’d been away for 13 months – 17 months without working! – and to see your river again . . . It was such a beautiful day.”
She describes her account as chronicling “the joy, drama and misery of sailing, the great outdoors in all weather conditions, extraordinary ‘off the beaten track’ places, and many wonders of the natural marine world. Most of all, the book is about our family unit, the friends we made, how we coped and how we changed.”
While readers are likely to find the nautical experiences alternately enviable and anxiety-inducing, the beginning of the adventure is equally compelling.
The family was living in Old Harlow, with girls Alice and Pip of primary school age. (They’re now 13 and 11.) Charlie managed his family’s engineering company while Juliet, his wife of nearly 10 years, commuted to the City to work as company secretary to a firm of money brokers.
Idyllic on many levels, but the time was ripe for change.
The story opens with Juliet gazing down on the roofs around St Paul’s Cathedral, having been at work all night, putting the final touches to a deal to sell the company. It had been a long nine months, “Checking and scheduling documents. Searching for the missing links.”
The family enjoyed a half-term holiday in Greece soon after, where they got talking to a couple who had spent a year living on a boat. Their children had then been aged two and five, and they’d crossed the Atlantic during that time.
Charlie was intrigued and soon broached the subject: “What do you think, Juliet, about us doing a similar trip?”
The thought wasn’t dismissed out of hand. After their return home, the couple went to the London International Boat Show and attended a presentation by folk from ARC, the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers.
Later, they went on a weekend first aid course and told the girls of their thoughts. Charlie’s internet searching identified a likely boat and they flew to Italy to check it out.
Work had lost some of its gloss for Juliet, with the job often dull. She resigned, they put the house on the market and agreed to buy Keoma. Spare space in the house rapidly filled with nautical equipment. After a flurry of packing, and end-of-year events at the girls’ school, they began their new life in the summer – flying to Italy to sail the boat through the Mediterranean to Gran Canaria and the start of the Atlantic rally, for which they’d be joined by friends Amanda and Nick.
It sounds as if Juliet was quite receptive to the idea of leaving England and sailing off into the sunset . . .
“It was half and half, really,” she tells ealife. “Part of me thought we were throwing away everything we’d worked for; and what about the children? A mother’s instinct to protect the children is very strong; the thought of them being on a boat in the middle of an ocean was quite terrifying, really – and the thought of ‘how would we cope?’”
Nevertheless, she smiles, there was a feeling of inevitability. Charlie was very keen, and she negotiated some key conditions – such as a degree of comfort on the boat, all the electronic assistance they could lay their hands on, and arranging school places for the girls ready for their return.
In her own mind, too, she’d been ready for a change. “I have this clear memory of the (business sale) completion date – early hours, looking over St Paul’s – and thinking ‘This is a turning point in my life. What’s going to happen next?’ I didn’t have any idea.”
Reading the account, the Mediterranean leg generally seemed quite leisurely, though Juliet admitted to a few wobbles at that point.
“I was quite concerned and depressed about the trip so far,” she wrote. “It had fulfilled our expectations in that we’d visited so many beautiful and interesting places, while spending quality time as a family, but we had had some nasty experiences with the boat and I was not relishing the idea of more of the same. In particular, the thought of an Atlantic crossing was a malevolent presence at the back of my mind.”
With the benefit of five years’ reflection, she says moments of really bad weather in the Med were probably the worst episodes of the whole trip.
During one, the appearance of a waterspout about 100 yards from the boat signalled that conditions were about to get extreme.
As Juliet’s feet touched the cabin floor came the loudest sound she’d ever heard and she waited for the mast to crash down. “It was actually a huge crack of thunder and simultaneous bright white flash,” she wrote. “The boat rolled onto her side like a dog. I was gripping the steps behind me and the children lay on the floor. The windows along the port side were under water. Fortunately they were closed . . .”
She tried to look relaxed. “Pip said, casually, ‘Mummy, I’m not enjoying this.’ I summoned the calmest voice I could, to reply. ‘Not to worry, darling, it will all be over very soon.’ It came out sounding quite strained and unnatural, but they still didn’t seem to notice.
“Another twenty seconds passed. Pip said, ‘What on earth is Daddy playing at, anyway? Can you tell him to stop it?’ I thought about what to say in answer, then the boat swung upright again. As if a switch had been flicked, the hail stopped and we were in sunshine. Majorca lay ahead of us, beneath a clear blue sky. I remembered Pip’s questions and laughed out loud.”
Although there were rough seas at the start of the Atlantic crossing – Keoma slamming about and heeling over on her side – Juliet says that leg of their voyage wasn’t actually that hazardous an undertaking.
“I know it sounds crazy but the crossing from the Canaries to St Lucia is relatively easy sailing. For anyone who’s been on the Channel, even on a ferry, it’s an absolute joy! Generally you have the wind behind you; it’s quite a comfortable ride.”
Many months later, back in Suffolk at Waldringfield, they lived on the boat for a short time during the late summer of 2006, spent a couple of weeks with Charlie’s parents on the Suffolk coast, and then rented a cottage near Framlingham. (Since 2007 they’ve been in their current home, also near Framlingham.) The girls started at their new school.
Keoma, too big for the shallow local rivers and anchorages, was moved down to the south coast and put up for sale.
“We came back with our heads very straight. We were totally relaxed, so we didn’t feel the urge to go straight back to work, although there was a need!” says Juliet. “Complete hippies, really, floating around and feeling de-stressed!”
Did the experience change them fundamentally?
“Made us a lot poorer! We’ve certainly got a much larger mortgage than when we went away!
“I think we probably worry about things less; we’re able to see the bigger picture a little bit more. That came from taking time out to have a good think about things, because life is so busy that you don’t have time to know yourself and think things through properly. The trip gave us that.”
One of the decisions reached during the voyage was that Charlie, an engineer by training, would start his own business upon their return. And he has: the company specialises in the design and installation of renewable energy solutions, such as wind turbines, solar systems and biomass boilers.
Juliet went back to the City in a company secretary role. She works there
two days a week – quite long and hard days, “but I’ve perfected the art of sleeping on the train!”
Keoma might have gone, but sailing is still very much part of life. The girls sail dinghies and the family has a 36ft boat that sails the local rivers and hops to places such as Holland.
Juliet admits they’d like to do another trip. “We might be ‘Pacific Geriatrics’ or something!”
They have regular reunions with sailors they met during 2005 and 2006. Talk inevitably turns to future adventures. At the last get-together, “a Swedish family made a very strong case for a trip to Sweden next summer”.
Following four years of reflection on their Mediterranean and Atlantic exploits, what’s her verdict?
“So glad we did it. There were points I was wavering and could have said ‘I’m not going.’ A) we’d probably have had a divorce! B) we’d have missed out on a lot. It was a great family time. I’d probably worked too hard and not spent enough time with the children, and we all got to know each other.”
n Atlantic Children, parts one and two, are �9.99 each. Web links: www.julietdearlove.co.uk and www.authorhouse.co.uk
Charlie’s family moved around quite a lot when he was young, says his wife, but Waldringfield Sailing Club proved a constant. The family would come to Suffolk to sail. That link remains.
Juliet was born in Bury St Edmunds in 1968 and grew up at Polstead. She qualified as a solicitor in 1993 and worked as an in-house lawyer in the City for 12 years before the family took to the seas.
“We had some lovely times when we met amazing people,” says Juliet. “People on Montserrat were warm and friendly. They’ve been through a terrible time – it’s still erupting now – but they were incredibly welcoming. The same in Grenada. They’d had two hurricanes that had ravaged the island, but we met lovely people there.”
Currents and currency:
Juliet Dearlove says it’s hard to be precise about how much their sailing adventure cost, but it wasn’t cheap. The entry fee for the ARC event was �650, for instance, and a satellite phone �550. A collection of essential gear for the boat – ranging from a life raft and waterproof clothing to distress flares and torches – was costed at more than �4,000.