Who needs autohelm?

I knew the day would come when sailing with children finally paid off. All those years of lifting kids onto and off pontoons, into and out of the dinghy, onto and off their too-high bed. All that neediness when Carina leaned hard or when we sailed in rough weather. All the near solo sailing when one or other of us (usually me) was engaged in full-time child-minding. Finally, payday has arrived.

Carina has temporarily escaped the clutches of the Guadiana Gloop, that elemental force of the Rio Guadiana that sucks sailors upriver and refuses to let go. With only one week of school holidays remaining, we decided to make our way down river. Our reasons were four-fold. 1. Katie is forever begging us to go sailing; 2. A change is as good as a holiday; 3. We wanted to avoid the noisy weekend music festival in Alcoutím; and 4. Carina is in need of repairs, and one way to find out what’s working and what’s not is to take her out for a run to test her under engine and under sail.

The girls were excited at the prospect of sailing and were both up and eager shortly after our 7.30am departure from the Alcoutím pontoon, where we briefly stopped to fill up the water tank.

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Katie has it all under control

We motored down to Ayamonte, retracing the journey I had so recently made with Roy aboard Sea Warrior. Julian and I helmed for about twenty minutes of the more than three hour passage. The rest of the time, Lily and Katie helmed, taking turns at the wheel. Julian and I had a relaxing passage, keeping an eye that the helmsgirls were not driving us towards a rocky shore, into shallows, or directly into oncoming vessels.

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Lily on the helm

I smiled to see them so relaxed and so keen, and laughed out loud when Katie, so cocksure at the helm, asked, ‘Mum, how come if kids are allowed to drive boats, they’re not allowed to drive cars?’ All I could say in reply was, ‘Keep your eyes on the river, Katie, you’re veering towards the riverbank’.

Between Lily’s expert cups of tea and pancake-making skills, and now two human autohelms, this parenting business is starting to pay off. If only I could get them to tidy up the incessant mess, my work here would be done.

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A blended education

Recently, a few people have asked me, not unreasonably, if, now that we have had a taste of formal education, I have given up on the idea of home education. The answer is absolutely not. While I love that the girls are currently attending the village school in Sanlúcar, my commitment to the philosophy and practice of home education is as strong as ever.

A very particular set of circumstances led to the decision to enrol the girls in school here. We liked life on the Rio Guadiana in general, and we felt that enrolling the girls in the tiny village school would provide them with an immersive education in Spanish language that we could not give them at home. And, we felt that their attendance at school would give all four of us opportunities to participate in village life that we wouldn’t otherwise get if we continued to home educate while living on the river. We were drawn to the size of this school, with only seven or eight children per classroom, and thought that experience would be very different to being in a larger town or city school.

Apart from learning Spanish language and culture, the girls are learning other things at school that they wouldn’t necessarily learn at home – or at least would learn very differently at home.

One of Lily’s favourite school subjects is Religion, although she can’t quite express why. She’s certainly getting a very different perspective on religion at her predominantly Catholic Spanish school than she gets at home from her agnostic-Anglican and atheist-Catholic parents!

In school there is a big emphasis on perfectly neat cursive handwriting – something that I’ve never bothered with – and the girls are now writing beautifully. The great advantage of this for Lily is that she can now write faster, and doesn’t get so frustrated when trying to express herself on paper.

And, I must admit, one of the things I like best about having the girls in school is that I no longer feel the need to do the thing I like least about home education – arts and crafts! Even as a child I hated making things with scissors and PVA glue and toilet roll inserts and poster paint, and drumming up the enthusiasm to do that stuff with the girls has always been a guilt-inducing burden for me. Katie now has a very arty teacher and she comes home almost daily with some new creation. (Finding space to display these masterpieces at home is now the challenge!)

We have decided to spend another year on the Rio Guadiana, so the girls can continue to attend this school. Their Spanish language skills are developing so rapidly we feel that, with another year of immersion in the village, they will be close to fluent for their age. And after that? Who knows.

At home we continue to focus on those areas of education that are important to Julian and I and, in unschooling fashion, we facilitate the girls own educational interests.

At first, Lily found maths at school too easy (although I pointed out she was learning in Spanish), so she has continued to study maths at her own pace and level at home. In addition, she writes almost daily – letters, book reports, her own daily journal – and we try to give her the space and freedom to just get on with that. And while Katie is learning to read and write in Spanish, we continue to work with her at home to develop her reading skills and I’m hoping independent reading is just a few months away (this has been my hope for a long long time!!).

But, much as before, their informal education is led by what interests them and us. Katie has decided she wants to be a palaeontologist when she grows up (independent reading a necessity, Katie!) and our walks through the countryside these days are usually with the purpose of searching for bones. The many bones we find lead us in all learning directions. Through observation, conversation and research we are learning about physiology, how joints work, how to recognise different parts of a skeleton, the structure of bones, the different wild animals that live around here, distinguishing between carnivores and herbivores based on the teeth and jawbones we find. Believe me, it’s fun!!

Lily is recently fascinated by evolution, and asks endless questions about the origins of life, how plants and animals evolved, where the Earth came from, and so on. I told her recently that the answers to these questions were much easier when I asked them as a child. ‘God made the world’ was the answer that had to satisfy me! On our long evening and weekend walks, I try my best to answer her endless questions, and back home aboard Carina, we get the reference books out or search the internet for answers.

At home, we continue to actively learn through cooking and baking (weights, measures, how to cook, nutrition), through boat maintenance and care (learning to row, buoyancy), through shopping (maths, budgeting, practicing Spanish) and through all the other things we do on a daily basis. The girls are generally unaware, of course, that they are learning, but that philosophy and practice of learning by doing informs much of what we do together.

At the end of the next school year we will have another decision to make – to stay or move on. If we do move on I hope we will return to home education. But if we stay here, well, like many families, we will continue to blend education at school and home. The most important thing for me is that the girls retain their enthusiasm and joy for learning.

Departures

When we returned to the Rio Guadiana in mid-November there were three other yachts here with cruising families aboard. Suddenly Lily and Katie found themselves inundated with playmates. One of the families moved on after about a week but the other two decided to stay on the river and, like us, send their children to the school in Sanlúcar.

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Lunch aboard Carina

So, Lily (6) and Katie (5) have become fast friends with Ana (5), Lola (7), Isla (3) and Ana’s older brother Porter (11). When all three boats are on the pontoon, the girls all play together on each other’s boats, on the pontoon and at Sanlúcar’s playgrounds. There have been sleepovers and movie nights, impromptu picnic lunches and an awful lot of giggling and screaming! They swap clothes and toys, and have picked up each other’s mannerisms and intonations.

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Movie afternoon aboard Carina, watching Matilda

But like all cruising families, the time inevitably comes to move on, and this week has been one of goodbyes. On Monday, Lola and Isla departed with their parents aboard Spirit of Mystery, to make their way north to Cornwall in southwest England. And on Wednesday Ana, Porter and their older brother Alexander departed with their parents aboard Pelagic to sail via Morocco and Cape Verde, across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal and eventually north to their home in Oregon on the west coast of the United States.

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Katie, Isla, Lola, Lily, Ana – firm friends

It’s the first time for Lily and Katie to have such close and intense friendships and, given the nature of our lives here on the Rio Guadiana, all the children have had a great amount of freedom to explore and play without having adults watching over them all the time. The past few months have been wonderful for the girls.

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Sleepover

Lily and Katie have other friends in the village – a couple of other ex-pat friends who live permanently in Sanlúcar, as well as their Spanish classmates. Lily in particular has developed good friendships with her classmates. But life over the coming weeks and months will be quite different now that we are the only live aboard family on the river.

We will follow the travels of our friends with interest and, who knows, maybe our paths will cross again some day.

Rugrats

Does anyone know the collective noun for children? A squirm? A squeal? A clatter? A crash? A riot? An exertion? I need a collective noun right now, because there are children everywhere. We motored upriver on Wednesday morning from Laranjeiras to Alcoutim and the place was wriggling with sailing kids.

The girls and I went to the chestnut and wine festival that night and met a family from Oregon: Mike and his wife, with Kenna, Porter and Alexander, aged 6, 10 and 13. A game of hide and seek immediately ensued between my girls and their youngest two, and before we parted company we arranged a date for a walk to the ruined castle on the hill the next morning. The four again had fun hiding and playing tag and ‘What’s the time, Mr. Wolf?’ All too soon we had to return to the river and we bid farewell, as they set sail for Cadiz later in the afternoon.

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Lily and Katie playing with their friends aboard Ros Alither

But in their wake came two more families. Hazel and Dave, who used to live aboard and run the Topsham to Turf Locks ferry near Exeter, now live aboard Ros Alither, their beautiful Killybegs trawler with their children, Katie 8 and Reuben 5. We met them when they came ashore by dinghy and a few hours later they moved from their anchorage onto the pontoon behind Carina. On the pontoon over in Sanlúcar are Paul and Emma, an English couple with two New Zealand-born daughters, Lola 6 and Isla 3, living aboard Spirit of Mystery.

Our six children have been having a riotous time together, at the beach, on the pontoon, at the outdoor gym at the top of the slipway, and on each others’ boats. We parents have been drinking tea and coffee together, sharing our home schooling and sailing experiences, and taking turns looking after each other’s children, freeing each other up for Internet time, laundry, boat maintenance.

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Lily swinging from the rigging of Ros Alither

Lily and Katie, of course, are in their element, having all these children so close in age to play with. Aboard the other boats they have been knitting, playing Lego, making dens, climbing the rigging, and having very serious conversations about their favourite characters in Frozen, Tangled and other movies. We’ve invited Lola and Isla over for a movie and popcorn evening later this week, as they haven’t seen Tangled.

It amazes me how quickly children become the best of friends. As adults, we are more cautious, gradually feeling the waters to get a sense of the new people we meet. I’m always conscious of things such as politics, religion, health, and things like that, and tread gently until I know more about the new people I meet. Not so kids. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and throw themselves headlong into newfound friendships. They don’t worry about offending anyone or about people not liking them. They just want to play and have fun.

Let’s pretend

When was the last time you pretended to be someone you’re not? When was the last time you made up a story about yourself? Made up a fake history? Made up non-existent relatives and friends? When was the last time you pretended you had a baby when you don’t? Or a horse? Or a dragon?

Chances are, if you’re an adult (and not an actor or a professional story-teller) then you haven’t indulged in this type of behaviour in a long time. Or if you have, then perhaps people are whispering behind your back and suggesting you seek professional help. If you’re a child, you’ve probably done it in the past hour.

If I was to record every word Katie says over a 24-hour period, my guess is that ‘pretend’ would be one of her most common words. She’s doing it right now, as I write. ‘Lily, pretend you come in the door’, ‘Lil, pretend she’s your aunt’, ‘Pretend this is my horse’, ‘Pretend my dinosaur is your dinosaur’s sister’, ‘Pretend I’m going on a plane’ and next thing the sitting room’s been transformed into the inside of an airplane with refreshments, safety announcements and arrivals to Egypt, China or Mexico.

All day they play these pretend games. Sometimes the pretending is accompanied by dressing up. Back home on Carina they rifle through the dressing-up bag or the hats, gloves and scarves bag; at Grandma’s house they use whatever is around – towels, tea towels, sheets – anything to transform their appearance. Sometime they use props – bags, cushions, books, chairs – anything that can be imaginatively transformed into something else. They pretend indoors and outdoors, upstairs and downstairs, at home and when they’re out in the world. Left to their own devices, their imaginations run amok with inspiration from the books they read, the movies and TV shows they watch, and their real life experiences.

Through it all they are learning – learning about relationships, learning to cooperate and to work together, learning to create and tell stories. Through such imaginative and free-form unstructured play they are learning about themselves and each other. Reality is inconsequential and nothing is beyond the realms of possibility.

At what point in our lives do we start to rein in our imaginative impulses? Or do we simply divert those impulses elsewhere? Do we succumb to peer pressure or pressure from elders to ‘grow up’, ‘get real’, ‘stop wasting time’? But it’s not time wasted. For children the serious business of pretending is time well spent learning about the world, about how people interact with each other, and about how to treat each other fairly. Whether they are pretending to be dragons or princesses, physics defying space travellers or dessert shop owners, I see them working out and negotiating cooperative working relationships. They want their alter-egos to be treated the way they themselves want to be treated. They act out aspirations, and they act out behaviour they observe around them.

I hope my children continue to be un-self-consciously imaginative for a long time to come. I love to hear their imaginations run wild, taking them (and sometimes me, when I’m included in their games) to unexpected places. Who knows where their imaginations will lead them.

Now, anyone up for a game of ‘Pretend my dinosaur’s flying this plane’?