I met Dini aboard her family’s home and sailing vessel “Happy Dancer” to find out more about how this young mother managed to sail, travel, have a career, a family and keep everything afloat, literally.
It was a hot and sunny but breezy September afternoon. We sat up on the deck in shade, our children played quietly below. It was peaceful and the air fresh and salty. Dini cut us up a winner of a Maltese watermelon and I felt I would need convincing not to sell all my belongings and buy a boat after this interview.
Dini is 31, an Australian who has travelled a lot (10 countries in her first 18 years) and whenever by the sea she worked on boats. Dini began teaching Yoga at 25, then met and married Pablo Martinez an accountant whom she ‘trained up’ in sailing skills by buying a share in a boat docked in Sydney harbour with a dream one day of setting sail in their own. They have two sons: Noah 4 and Gael 2.5 years (at time of interview).
Me (M): The first question I must ask Dini, is, why this lifestyle choice, and why now?
Dini: (D): I have always sailed. Since I could walk, my grandfather taught me. I have always been adventurous. My original plan was to buy a really old boat with friends and do it up. For me it was always an idea centring on community. No one else at that time seemed ‘on board’ with this plan so eventually I found myself married with an 18-month old son and another on the way. All our friends were getting mortgages and we just didn’t feel ready for that yet. We wanted to make our own little world and be cut off from some of the things we liked less about western lifestyles.
When I found I was pregnant with Gael we felt the time was right. Before that we were worried our older son Noah might feel lonely if we travelled but now our family felt complete we knew it was time. We sold many of our belongings and gave away the rest. This wasn’t challenging for us, it felt very liberating.
We chose Happy Dancer because of Moody (the brand’s) good reputation as a safe but also comfortable blue water cruiser. It’s built stronger than most boats, that was the important thing. The fact that it was already equipped with solar panels and wind generator was a plus.
M: Has this trip sustained itself financially? Or have you relied on savings? To what extent is this lifestyle dependent on others? (Friends with flats when the weather is rough, etc?)
D: In terms of electricity and water, we are independent. Food we have to buy when we are docked. Of course if there is an emergency (god forbid) we would be dependent on the coast guards for help. The sailing community is a very close-knit one. Even if we don’t know each other we always help each other out. We have never been let down by the solar panels and wind turbine for our power supply. If we notice the battery is getting low then we turn the radio down or don’t charge the laptop for that day.Of course to a certain extent, humans are social animals and we all help each other, but dependency, no.
M: I mean more in terms of having friends’ flats to fall back on if a bad storm arrives, as a lot of travellers really seem dependent on others’ couches or cars?
D: No, not in that way, wherever we go we take our home with us. Financially this trip has sustained itself. I teach Yoga and organise retreats in the countries we travel to. Pablo is an accountant and got a job here in Malta so that he can work from anywhere with an internet connection. I also write for a newspaper magazine (about travelling/ parenting/ Yoga etc) so we are lucky in that we both found jobs we can take with us. We only dipped into our savings once, when we had to do some maintenance on the boat and stay in a hotel for a while.
We are quite “abnormal” in the sailing community, as I am the main sailor and we share the childcare and “breadwinning” duties. In most sailing families we have come across, the father is the sailor, the mother the carer of the children and they live from savings or have an income that allows them to sail. We live on a budget somewhere inbetween the 20-something sailing-on-a-shoestring types, and the luxury yacht retirees.
M: You set sail with Gael 3 months old, as a mother I can’t help thinking about sleep issues and how do you do washing? And what if one of the kids gets sick at sea? What do you do then?
I’ve had students who never managed a winter in Malta on the boat, they all moved into flats, however you and your young family somehow managed it.
D: They have never been sick.
D: No. Neither of them. Maybe it’s because they don’t go to places where there are groups of children and germs thrive? Maybe it’s because they spend a lot of times outdoors? I don’t know. But so far, touch wood, it’s not a challenge we have had. Potty training of course, has been messy, but that is the same for everyone. Sometimes we get into dock and just want to be off the boat. But there’s the safety manoeuvres to sort and then we find someone has pooped in the corner and everything takes a little longer.
M: That’s not so different to me trying to leave the house, however.
D: The older one has always been a good sleeper, the little one has co-slept for a longer time, but is gradually moving to his own bed.
Washing involves using a manual washing machine. It holds small loads and we use natural soap nuts. It is quite a work out turning the crank to wash but I enjoy that about it.
We are always super conscious of the battery and water, checking how much is left after a shower for example.
One tap has sea water one has tank water, usually we wash everything with sea water then rinse it with fresh water. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that, even the kids, when we are in a restaurant they turn the tap on and turn it off right away. I sort of like that that habit is ingrained in us, to be so conscious of our consumption, but on the other hand it’s nice to be at a friend’s house and be able to have a longer shower than usual.
M: What has been the greatest challenge so far?
D: This is one of the most often asked questions. People expect the answer to be storms and big waves. For me it is is not the seas, but my marriage. When you are out at sea alone with your husband, flaws are magnified, things I wouldn’t see so much on land. A lack of attention to detail in a flat, or an ‘oh I’ll fix it tomorrow’ kind-of attitude wouldn’t be a problem, however on a boat it could cost us our lives. In that sense, grudges or sulks can’t last long. It’s quite a lesson in surrendering the ego and being humble, you have to make up quickly and get the job done, take back your own needs and work together as a team. On one hand it brings you closer, depending on each other for survival, but when tensions arise, having no girlfriends to vent with has been the most challenging part of the experience for me.
Friends are the main thing I have missed from life on land. If we were to do this again, I would want to get a bigger boat and share with a family or two, so the kids could have friends to play with, and each person’s weaknesses would be balanced out by the group. We have tried to combat isolation by sailing with other families we have met, changing our sailing plans so that we can meet up etc. Men tend to be more silent creatures, and as I get older I realise how therapeutic and cathartic a good chat with a female friend is for my soul.
M: How do you think you will adjust to life on land?
D: It will be hard, very hard. From friends we have noticed no one ever really settles and adjusts back to life on land. There always seems to be a sense of saving and planning to sail and travel again.
We are very aware of our energy consumption here. Even if we go to a restaurant, the boys are hyper aware of using only the minimal amount of water to wash their hands. We check the battery and the water tank regularly, so long luxurious showers are not something we do. We have limited internet connection, something like Skype really eats away at the data. When the connection is lost, this is the time we play cards or read a book, so I am grateful for those times. If we were in a home with limitless broadband, we may well both be staring into screens with our evenings. However, I am looking forward to not having to think that way on land, always conscious of how much energy we are using, and being able to linger a little longer in the shower. But it has been a benefit to teach the kids this way. Of course, they also understand about different cultures, languages and they have become very close being with each other most of the time. We haven’t had babysitters or daycare, I’ve started to homeschool Noah, this has meant we are a very close-knit family.
D: This is the second most asked question. It’s a challenge. It’s hard to suddenly get your child’s attention as a ‘teacher’, but with our lifestyle it is working well, I don’t know whether at some point, if we are more settled we may put them in a school.
M: What about tethering the kids on deck? Have there been hairy moments?
D: Each kids’ boat has it’s own protocol. Ours is that when above deck and at sea, both children must be tethered at all times. When in dock, no. They have both fallen in twice each (no danger, we were there straight away), but it has made them both more aware of the danger. They are very agile and have great balance, coming from boat life. We took the older one for swimming lessons through the winter, he always hated the hassle of getting there and getting in. A few days in summer at the beach and he picked it up straight away.
M: From news reports it may seem the Mediterranean is full of people smugglers, have you come across any migrants or migrant boats whilst sailing the med?
D: So far, touch wood, nothing. Well, when we were sailing across from Sicily in the middle of the night we were woken with another boat shining its flashlight on us so strongly we were blinded by them. I called out to it on the radio but there was no response. We later assumed they were coastguards checking we weren’t smugglers but odd they didn’t respond. They stayed there for about 2 minutes but it felt like forever. It does say in the sailing handbook that when crossing the med to watch out for unlit boats at night. We have discussed what we would do if we came across a boat of immigrants.
D: There are really very few who would truly enjoy it. People think that sailing is this idyllic and carefree lifestyle, but to a large extent you are restricted by weather and seasons. Of course, the effects of global warming are noticeable, but the big weather changes remain.
We’ve seen some amazing places, some that you can only get to by boat. We’ve had some amazing shared memories, watching dolphins swim along side the boat, sunset cuddles and conversations with the children inspired by the things we have seen.
However, you REALLY need to be happy with the basics. Living with nature sounds very romantic but maybe it means you are tied down to one place for longer than you expected, that you want to go to bed but need to do the safety manoeuvre again, move the boat maybe, there are no big wardrobes or long showers. Something always breaks with so many systems on the boat. You need to do all the checks and be on top of every little thing. We learn so much from it but have also had to learn to switch off and cope, otherwise we’d go crazy with constant anxiety.
For more information about Dini and her family’s adventures, check out their blog here
Read part 3: Patrick Sweeney here
Read part 1: Maria Walton here