I was once told that a parent can only be as happy as their most unhappy child. In the same breath, the person who shared that cheery bit of wisdom also asked me why on Earth I'd willingly go sailing around the world with a teenager — because obviously teenagers are going to be miserable, and the burden of miserable children is best shared with teachers, classmates, and supportive extended-family.
In other words, teens should not be stuffed into small boats and sailed around the world with only their parents to complain to, right? Actually, I would beg to differ. We did it, and we'd do it again.
The years between the ages of 6-12 are often considered the sweet-spot for extended travel with kids. Earlier than that, and they're not independent enough to enjoy the journey. Later, and they're, well, teenagers. But travel plans don't always work out on schedule, and we found ourselves setting off from Australia for the second half of our around-the-world voyage a few months shy of our daughter Maia's 13th birthday.
Saying goodbye to her Aussie friends was tough — though they'd all just transitioned from adorable kids to teenagers embroiled in constant dramatic turmoil. But within a few weeks of setting off, our daughter settled into a pleasant routine of homeschool, exploring, journaling, and art. We thought we had this traveling-with-a-teenager thing nailed.
Then the loneliness hit. All three of us missed our friends, Maia especially, and we started to wonder if maybe we'd made the wrong choice. Luckily, it turned out we weren't the only people crazy enough to travel with older kids. By the time we reached Malaysia, we'd connected with a half-dozen other "teen boats" all headed toward South Africa. Despite my preconceptions of rebellious, unhappy teens, when our crowd of kids came together to explore the world with us, we had a blast.
It turns out that many of the things that make the teen years tough at home may make them great on the road. Instead of a liability, we had a fully functioning travel companion who could help with daily tasks, from provisioning to route planning. During an emergency rudder repair at sea, we discovered, despite that teenage penchant for seemingly being unable to complete a simple task without reminders, Maia was not only able to locate and use the right tools, she was also a calm problem solver while hanging over the back of our boat helping to manhandle the heavy rudder.
She also had space to discover who she was without traditional peer pressure, which meant she was willing to try just about anything — and I mean anything. In Chagos, the kids decided to stage their own version of Teen vs. Wild based on the Man vs. Wild TV show. Setting off with machetes and a camera, they hacked their way across an island and lived off tiny crabs (their only successful catch) and slept under palm fronds.
Another day, Maia set off to go snorkeling and came back early, telling the story of the turtles she'd seen, and the black tip sharks she'd encountered, as well. When I asked if she had gotten out of the water to escape the sharks, she explained the black tips had been quite mellow, and not at all "sharky." She'd left the water not because of the predators, but because the kids were planning a movie night, and she wanted to bake a cake. She was fearless.
For us, the toughest part of sailing with a teen was wondering if we were putting our kid in any kind of actual danger. This really set in after we'd been in Curacao for a month and Maia contracted Zika.
Zika was still a relative unknown when Maia got sick. While we knew lots of adults who had it and recovered quickly, Maia's illness was taking a different path. First she had the characteristic rash, but then the pain and fatigue set in. When she struggled to walk without pain and exhaustion, I began to really worry. It was Maia who convinced me we didn't need to get more medical care — she recognized that each day she was feeling stronger. Within a few weeks, she was back to normal, and able to take longed-for windsurfing lessons on Spanish waters.
Sailing was my husband's and my dream, but we realized early on it wasn't Maia's. What we discovered was by giving her space to take risks — like setting off on a sunrise hike up Sri Lanka's Sri Pada without us — she was finding a way to build her own dreams.
Maia will be the first to argue that her years of travel weren't necessarily a better way to grow up (just different), but she can also tell you that the doom and gloom warnings that come with raising teens on the road aren't true either. We had challenges, but she grew incredibly. Our journey helped her decide that her future lies in human rights or environmentalism. It solidified her feelings that trying to fit in isn't that important, but thinking independently is. Seeing so much and meeting so many diverse people taught her to see beauty everywhere and to laugh often.
Now, with the benefit of a little bit of hindsight, I can tell you I'm grateful we went against convention and stuck with it, even when it was hard. We got to show our daughter the world — and she took the experience and ran with it. Yes, there were times when our teen was miserable, or when I worried for her safety, but it was the moments when she was alive with joy, and I was there to witness it, that I'll always savor.