Letter to Latitude

We wrote a letter to Latitude about Cruising and Unschooling. It was published in the October issue and is also included below:


In response to Christine Currie’s letter in the August issue, Latitude wrote, “No cruiser has ever told us that home schooling was easy.” Well, we’ve homeschooled our daughter, Sequoia, for the last five years, including two seasons of cruising in Mexico, and it was certainly easier than dealing with the public school system in San Francisco!

Unfortunately, parents may think that ‘homeschooling’ involves re-creating the school environment at home, or on the boat, with the drudgery of textbooks and worksheets that have little relevance to the real world. It surprises me that many cruisers, who tend to think ‘outside of the box’ when it comes to their lifestyle, don’t question whether our ‘one size fits all’ education system is right for every kid. We always felt sorry for cruising parents who spent hours a day butting heads with their kids over school work.

We adopted the ‘unschooling’ approach. Rather than following a traditional school curriculum, we looked for learning experiences in our day-to-day lives. Cruising in Mexico offered so many opportunities! When shopping, Sequoia calculated prices in pesos versus dollars. When we bought diesel, she converted liters to gallons. Baking was a great way to work with fractions, as we halved or doubled recipes.

In terms of science, we had identification books for fish, birds, and marine mammals, so Sequoia was our resident naturalist. After snorkeling, she’d identify all the fish she’d seen. When sailing, she’d scoop up jellyfish in a net. When dolphins rode our bow wave, she’d be on the bowsprit, cheering them on. And though she never wrote a report or took a test on cetaceans, I have no doubt that seeing these creatures in the wild has made a lasting impression on her and her life.

And though the cruising life can be full of activity, there is a lot of down time. Reading was a big part of everyday living for the whole crew. With the availability of great service, we also had lots of time for games. Multiplication War is a variation of the old card game that taught Sequoia her times tables. Bananagrams, a speedier version of Scrabble, is a family favorite. Scrambled States is a great way to learn U.S. geography. And trivia games like Brain Quest were a perfect diversion when we were underway.

Sequoia also spent time knitting and making jewelry. She bought a recorder at a swap meet in La Paz, found two books about how to play it by asking on the morning net, and taught herself to read music. This is not to mention all the knots she learned to tie, how to drive the dinghy, and all the cool sailing stuff she would have never learned in school! The only task we gave her was to keep a travel journal. Because there were so many exciting things to write about, she was generally happy to comply.

One of the great things about cruising is that everyone is trying something new. Whether it’s how to surf-land your dinghy or fix a finicky outboard, the learning process is a part of daily life. When your kids see you take on new challenges, struggle, fail, and (hopefully!) ultimately succeed, they’ll be better prepared to do the same.

In terms of Christine Currie’s particular situation, I can’t say whether homeschooling is the right choice for her family, but I agree with Latitude’s opinion that “most active young boys would get a better and more useful education cruising on a boat than they would caged up in almost any classroom in America, at least until high school age”.

It seems to us that most kids are happy cruising until they are about 12, at which point living on a boat with your parents loses some of its appeal. Indeed, our daughter decided she wants to go back to school and will be entering eighth grade this fall. Compared to the dread with which I faced middle school, her enthusiasm is remarkable!

I’ve always tried to approach giving parenting advice the same way that one should go about giving anchoring advice. In other words, keep it to yourself! What works for some families may not work for others. But I can say that for our family, cruising and unschooling went together perfectly. We encourage other families to cast off the dock lines and figure out what works for them!

Susan Detwiler & Todd Huss
Sugata, Hans Christian 38
Emery Cove Marina

Latitude 38’s Response

Susan and Todd — So much of the education system in the United States seems ineffective and/or dated. About five years ago, we watched a KTVU 2 news segment in horror as the head of math for the Oakland Schools repeatedly declined to attempt to solve a grammar school-level math problem, such as what’s 3 times 30. She begged off, saying it had been a while since she’d gone over such material. Had she seen it, Mrs. White, who did such a great job teaching us geometry at Skyline High in Oakland in the mid ’60s, would have been furious.

Our son and daughter were lucky enough to be able to attend excellent public schools until middle school in Southern Marin, where most of the administrators, teachers and parents really cared. What a rarity! Even so, it wasn’t a good fit for our son — and a lot of other boys — who seemed to be too kinetic to thrive in such a restrictive environment. We’re sure our son would have gotten a better education if we’d taken him around the world on our boat, where he could have learned by doing and observing.

Education methods haven’t seemed to progress much in the last 100 years, but some brilliant folks finally seem to be doing something about it — and at a pittance. Better yet, they are doing it in ways that are ideal for kids who are going cruising.

Consider 33-year-old Sal Khan, who was born and raised in New Orleans by a Calcutta-born mother and a Bangladesh-born father. Using basic and inexpensive equipment — we’re talking a $200 Camtasia recorder, free Smooth Draw 3 software, and an $80 Wacom Bamboo Tablet on a PC — Khan has personally made more than 1,600 educational videos on everything from basic arithmetic through the most sophisticated biology, chemistry, organic chemistry and physics, to a four-part series on the French Revolution. These courses — which are taught in 10-minute segments — are available to everyone in the world with internet access . . . for free! Khan says that since he already has a beautiful wife, a hilarious son, two Hondas and a decent house, his goal in life is to create the world’s first free, world-class virtual school, where anyone can learn anything. He’s gotten enthusiastic reviews from the likes of Bill Gates.

Could it be that the old education model of tens of thousands of well-intentioned, but perhaps not always the most talented or inspired, teachers facing an overwhelming number of distracted students in prison-like settings might be in for a change? What if all students could receive instruction from the most gifted 1% of the teachers in the country, and for a fraction of what education is costing today? And get education in areas they are really interested in?

If you’re about to go cruising with a child, we recommend that you check out the Khan Academy, or something similar. If you check the list of free classes, we’re pretty sure you’ll see some you’d like to take yourself. And would that set a great example for your child?

By the way, we consider our iPad to be one of the finest educational tools ever. As long as you have internet access on your boat — which is getting more common and better all the time — you can find the answers to almost anything from science to history, and learn to appreciate things like music and art, while lying in your bunk. Over the years we wasted a lot of time reading junk novels while cruising, but now we’ve got a whole-grain diet of stuff to read at our beck and call. And very often for free.

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