Phyllis Speidell story
Photos of John H. Sheally II
Living aboard a yacht, sailing as your whim suggests, may seem like a far-fetched dream, but the Kaplan family have made that dream come true this year.
A spontaneous pandemic decision? Not really when you add two working parents, four school-aged children, a dog and a cat to the adventure. This item on the to-do list took some planning, organization, and a bit of luck for the family to move from a 6,400 square foot home in Midlothian to live aboard a Hatteras Long Range Cruiser. 1986 and travel the east coast and the Caribbean.
Kristen and Robert “Rob / Kap” Kaplan both grew up with boats, with Rob becoming an avid fisherman. They were working in Washington, DC, when they met and married, but moved to the suburbs to raise their family. Rob also cut back on his favorite long-distance fishing trips in favor of fatherhood and a 33-foot fishing boat. They later switched to a 45-foot boat which they docked at Smithfield Station Marina, ready for a one or two week family cruise whenever they could.
“Smithfield has always felt right at home,” said Kristen.
Family cruises turned into a full July on the water, then plans for a three-month cruise. However, that plan changed and developed with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kristen, who works full time in corporate philanthropy, and Rob, lawyer and managing partner at Kaplan Voekler Cunningham & Frank, PLC, started working remotely. They found a curriculum that matched that of the Chesterfield Schools and began homeschooling the children. They sold their boat and made an offer on the 70 footer. While waiting for a response from the boat broker, they put their house on the market and started downsizing, selling their furniture and non-essentials online.
The two oldest daughters, Caroline, 11, and Daisy, 8, helped sort the cupboards, deciding what to keep. Caroline must have had her favorite blanket; Cora, 4 years old, her ukulele; and Will, 13, his Xbox. Daisy reluctantly agreed to leave her two guinea pigs “on vacation” with an earthly friend.
In March, with the house and two cars sold and their offer on the boat accepted, the family packed the U-Haul and traveled to South Florida to collect their new home.
“We only made one stop, in Savannah, because not many places have a family with a large U-Haul, four kids, a dog and a cat,” said Kristen.
They were already at their Airbnb in Florida when the boat business nearly collapsed.
“But it happened and we went straight from the U-Haul to the boat,” she said.
They broke the tradition and renamed the boat “Changing Course”.
“It seemed appropriate for two Type A people who have chosen this lifestyle where plans can change five times in two hours,” explained Kristen.
“Changing Course” is a fully oceanic cruise ship equipped with redundant systems and Garmin radar that provides multiple weather and wave reports, as well as numerous warnings for finding safe shelter in inclement weather.
Rob and Kristen took a 12 day course with a professional training captain. A few instructors have offered to certify them in a day or two, but as Kristen said, “We have four kids on the boat. I want to know what I’m doing.
The couple are now working on obtaining their 100-ton captain’s license.
Once certified, they launched their family cruise on the East Coast, stopping in Wilmington, NC for a month before returning to Smithfield. They don’t plan to moor in one place for long and when sailing they plan to anchor, not dock.
“We want to see places that you wouldn’t normally see,” Rob said.
Such a large boat takes teamwork and Kaplan’s young crew were ready. Will and Caroline are the eyes on the deck as the boat docks and often deal with much older dockworkers.
Five months into the adventure, their future itinerary includes a cruise south along the east coast, arriving in Florida for the Christmas vacation, then the Bahamas before returning to South Florida.
The Kaplans said many people view life on board like cocktails on the aft deck, not realizing the flexibility required when the weather turns, an engine fails, or gas tanks are empty.
They learned to plan two or three days in advance and then make plans B, C, and D to deal with the unexpected, such as when all gas gauges failed and when they ran out of gas. thinking they were at half capacity.
Still, “You have to love boating,” Kristen said – and there are the starry nights, the peace and quiet, the adventure of new places, the family closeness. But what is the reality of everyday life on board?
The three girls love to live on board, but their friends and their land activities are bored. Daisy still misses her guinea pigs. Will doesn’t like living on board, his friends and his traveling soccer team are bored, but he’s become an aspiring chef with sushi being his specialty.
The Kaplans hope to hire a nanny to help with home schooling.
Jaeger, the lab mixer, and Meister, the potty-trained black cat, have adapted to life on board.
Jaeger, however, still lacks grass and remains skeptical of the AstroTurf mat brought for him.
Family grocery stores do their shopping on foot or on the four bikes and a scooter they brought, so they try to buy in bulk when possible.
Rob and Kristen coordinate their business trips, and when a trip presents itself for either, find a marina near an airport.
“You have to balance the costs and the sacrifices,” Rob said. “This is truly a unique time that could not have happened before the pandemic, because our careers would not allow it. I’m almost 51 and Will will be entering high school soon, so we figured if we don’t take this trip with the family now, we never will.