By Jodi Bryant
Two and a half years ago, Emily Davidson and her boys were like ships in the night at their family home in the UK with husband and dad Tom due to his commuting work life.
So, the family of four decided to jump aboard the same vessel; they upped sticks to live together in a floating home while sailing the world and have wound up at the Town Basin in Whangarei.
"Tom worked long hours as a programme director in London," explains Emily, 44. "That, combined with three hours of commuting by train every day, meant he hardly saw me or the boys during the week. He usually left the house before 7am, returning between 8 and 9pm."
While Sam and William's school was only a five-minute walk away, Emily, who worked part-time teaching history online, was kept busy with after-school rounds of football, swimming, cub scouts, drama and play dates. Weekends involved family activities, however, "At the weekends, it felt like we spent most of the time trying to re-acquaint ourselves with each other after our week apart".
The couple say that, despite many wonderful things in their life, it was off-kilter so the keen sailing family, decided to re-home their belongings, rent out their Winchester home and set sail on their 50ft yacht Bonaire.
Emily learned to sail at the age of nine, becoming a dinghy instructor and teaching during school and university holidays. In 2000/2001, she sailed around the world in the BT Global Challenge yacht, during which she got the racing bug and began racing upon her return. This was how she met Tom, now 48, who had grown up sailing.
"When Tom and I met and realised we were soul mates, I told him my pipe dream to sail across another ocean again and that I thought one of our best opportunities to do that would be with young children if we were lucky enough to have them."
After selling or giving away most of their belongings – with Sam, now 9, and William, now 7, keeping their own proceeds to spend on boat toys – the couple rented out their house, which funds their lifestyle.
"We now own very little furniture and a lot less stuff and that is a wonderful thing."
With their longest sailing stint together as a family, a 12-hour passage, they set sail in July 2016, working with a three-year circumnavigation idea.
The boys were seven and five when they left life as they knew it.
"They were pretty unsure what lay ahead. They left behind a life they loved and didn't question it. It was such a huge change for all four of us. They missed their friends quite a bit to start with and it wasn't until we started meeting other kid boats, they started to get what it was all about. They do write postcards home sporadically and WhatsApp is starting to prove a good tool when we are in WiFi land."
So far, they have sailed from the UK, visiting Spain, Portugal, Madeira, the Canaries, Eastern Caribbean, Bonaire, from where their boat's name originates, Colombia, Panama, French Polynesia, specifically the Marquesas, the Tuamotus and the Society Islands, Palmerston in the Cook Islands, Tonga and New Zealand.
Overcoming seasickness is something they pro-actively manage with most of the family feeling a bit 'green' each time they set out for the first few days.
Their longest passage – a 31-day stint at sea during the Pacific crossing, meant round-the-clock shift work keeping watch between Emily and Tom.
"Nearly everything was just blue," remembers Sam of that long spell at sea.
"We hardly ever saw another boat during that time so the ocean felt quite big," adds Emily. "But the boys got really good at their times tables!"
'Boat schooling' takes up most of the morning and, along with the household chores – albeit on a smaller scale – and boat maintenance, the days fly by.
As far as entertainment goes, on passage, it's all about books, lego, board and card games and stories, with swimming and snorkeling their exercise.
Onshore, morning boat schooling seems to be the pattern for most families, with the kids having play time in the afternoon. Then the day is spent gathering food, carrying out chores, exploring and socialising with the other boating families if they are around.
The boys often have to rely on each other for entertainment and their mum and dad say, while this can work like a dream, being constantly in each other's space, like most siblings, there is a healthy dose of squabbling.
"Spending pretty much all our waking hours together as a family is fantastic on so many levels but sometimes we could all appreciate a bit of separation," says Emily, who likens their lifestyle to caravanning, only saltier.
Of course, some things don't go to plan and this included an engine fault, emergency satellite phone failure and toilet failure.
"I broke out the tool kit pretty quickly," says Tom of the latter, chuckling as Emily cringes at the memory. "I could see the stress on Emily's face.
"You've got to be able to fix stuff when nobody is around and that might be on the water or land. And we all help each other – I once helped fix a Frenchman's engine in the middle of nowhere."
"And he gave him a six-pack of beer for that," says William.
Says Emily: "I found the passage from Tonga to New Zealand particularly trying because our satellite phone had stopped working. This is only our back-up emergency form of communication. We don't use it day-to-day but, if we need it, we really need it. Even worse, our engine had developed a bad fault. This meant we sailed pretty much the trickiest passage we've done in our 2.5 years without an engine for back up. In truth, we had a great, fast sail but the fear of taking a beating from some newly-formed low off the coast of New Zealand stayed with me till we were safely tied up to the dock!"
So, is it a relief to finally reach land after a long stint at sea?
"Arriving in New Zealand, I felt a huge sense of relief and achievement but usually it's more of exhilaration and an achievement," replies Emily. "To make that first landfall in a new country is hugely exciting. There's nothing more amazing then arriving somewhere knowing you've sailed there yourselves.
"And approaching New Zealand, the first thing we spotted was the long white cloud! To see that, how the early Polynesian voyages might've seen it, was amazing. We said: 'Ok kids, this is a moment'."
Highs, such as this, have been aplenty. Drift-snorkeling through lagoon passes, snorkeling with sharks, manta rays and countless colourful reef fish, giant clams, beautiful coral formations - all in picture postcard idyllic settings, top their list, as do sunsets, moonrises and cloudless nights.
The family arrived in Whangarei in October and have purchased a car to explore inland over the summer. They have already partaken in the Twin Coast cycle trail, as well as climbing Mt Parihaka several times and walking the loop.
"We thought it would be lovely to have access to Whangarei's amenities and to be able to do some Christmas shopping. On arriving, we also discovered a warm, cruiser-friendly marina that makes it feel like a welcoming place to be. Before we'd even moved Bonaire down to the marina, we'd been invited to the annual cruisers' Christmas day potluck."
Both sets of parents are visiting from the UK and, in January, the family head to Opua, where the boys will be attending term one at Opua Primary.
"It will give us all a break from boat school and a chance to see if their progress is in-line with their peers. In addition, it will be great to give them the experience of school again. They also did several weeks of school in French while in the Marquesas. This was a big experience for them. It had many advantages, not least they were reminded how long the average school day is and how short the average boat school day can be!"
While the boys are in school, Emily and Tom will carry out some much-needed boat maintenance on their 50ft triple cabin aluminum monohull and aim to spring clean the interior, eliminating around a quarter of the contents they've accrued on their travels.
Then, in May, they will head off back to the Pacific Islands. The rest is unknown. The family have mixed views about returning to their old life.
"We love what we do and would not change it for anything. We know we can't do it forever so we are relishing while we can. That said, it isn't a holiday. Boats always need fixing, school needs to happen most days plus we are living in a smaller space with less of the conveniences of modern life. We love the highs and let the lows wash over us and pass."