From Desert to Ocean: A Voyage for Madmen

Different people tackle the idea of sailing off into the sunset in different ways. Most spend years learning to sail, making careful plans, and saving their pennies before even thinking about heading offshore. But what if you live in the middle of the desert, have never been sailing before, yet still dream of the sea? You could move to the ocean and spend a few years getting used to boats. Or you could follow Rebekah and John Warner’s lead and just throw yourself in head first. As the saying goes, “Why put off tomorrow what you can do today?”

Head first doesn’t even begin to describe how John and Rebekah left the rat race to live on a sailboat with seven-year-old daughter, Zoey. They were en route to having everything they had ever wanted back on land. After saving up and working hard, the young couple bought a comfortable farmhouse in Idaho. They had good jobs. They had a lovely daughter. And Rebekah had a sweet flock of chickens to tend to every day in their backyard. “We were living our dream,” she said. “And it sucked.”

They both worked hard, yet they were still living hand to mouth. Zoey spent most of her time in the care of family members. Vacations consisted of a few days away before they came back to clean up the mess left at work from their absence. ”We wanted to be a family, not strangers in passing,” said Rebekah.

Fed up with living to work, Rebekah decided they should go somewhere cheaper. “Let’s move to Belize,” was the greeting she gave John one day when he returned home from work. His answer? “Sure, why not!” In an attempt to first get out of debt, John found a better paying job in the oil fields of Texas. They packed up their lives and left the white picket fences behind for unknown adventures ahead. Three years later their accounts were back in the positives. They started planning a road trip, which would ultimately leave them in a country where they could live cheaply. The future was becoming more exciting every day.

Then something happened that would send their lives spiraling in a completely new direction. John saw a random Facebook post about a sailing boat that seemed too good to be true. At such a low price, everybody insisted it had to be a wreck. And it was a long way from home, in Honduras.

Monique.W. Cruising without a plan article4
Roatan, Honduras

A few years earlier, the pair had discussed the idea of sailing when they retired. But neither of them had ever set foot on a boat away from the dock. They had lived in deserts their whole lives. The idea of going sailing was just plain crazy. But this boat was calling them and an endless supply of pictures insisted it was no wreck. Unable to justify expensive flights, two days later they had a babysitter booked for Zoey along with cheap tickets on a cruise ship that would stop in at the island of Roatan. The cruise was filled with happy holiday-goers, and everybody kept asking the pair which excursions they were going on. The only answer Rebekah and John could give was, “maybe we’re buying a boat.” Rebekah is adamant it was the most expensive excursion ever.

They didn’t know much about boats, but they had looked into the history of this particular gem. It was cheap and it floated. Almost two hours after seeing it for the first time they had signed the papers. Five weeks later, John had quit his job and home-schooling books were on the way. A few weeks after that they packed up and left, first on a shortened version of the road trip they had planned and finally back to Roatan. They had no solid plan. But their lives had changed forever.

Monique.W. Cruising without a plan article6
John Warner

Both Rebekah and John spent those few months soaking up as much information about sailing as possible. They read books. They read blogs. They tried to learn everything, but they were in the middle of the desert with no ocean in sight. There was no way to get any hands-on experience from home. Honduras was just as foreign to this desert-dwelling family as any coastline closer to home, so what difference did it make learning to sail in a different country? After all, they already had the boat!

The first few sails were scary. Sailing is scary for most people at first, but the stakes are a lot higher when your knowledge is all theory and you can very easily destroy your life savings, your home, or even the lives of your family members with a few wrong moves. So they were extra careful as they literally learned the ropes. Rebekah said she definitely went through a “what were we thinking” phase. But while she was a little worried about their lack of experience, she was confident in John’s ability to fix things. When they returned from their shakedown sail to a neighbouring island, the engine died as they were trying to anchor. The problem was just a loose hose clamp, but the engine room flooded and the motor cut out. Nobody panicked and they got the hook down fast without missing a beat. They were becoming sailors.

Their first real sail was an offshore passage. As scary as that seems, it only took them 58 hours to reach Isla Mujeres in Mexico, so they weren’t actually at sea for very long. But according to Rebekah, that first passage was rough on everybody. While they had good weather, the sea was far from flat and she was uneasy seeing the wall of water fall off the low side of the boat.

“Going to sleep I kept the image of one of those red and white fishing bobbers I used as a kid in my head,” she said. “I told myself, ‘we’re the bobber; we’ll be fine.”

While they knew the general principles of sailing, putting them into practice was hard. “We stayed conservative on our sails, not knowing what it should feel like having never really sailed. That meant a lot of rocking in the waves,” she remembered. “Water leaked in. Everybody was either heavily medicated or queasy from seasickness. At one point we contemplated having it delivered the rest of the way to Houston and then probably selling it,” she said.

“I remember the phrase ‘it’s a terrible roller coaster that never ends’ going through my head.”

Monique.W. Cruising without a plan article3
The Warner’s aboard S/V Dayz Off

But it did end. On the third day they let the jib out all the way and the boat settled into a more stable rhythm. They laughed at themselves and their defeatist attitude as they arrived in their first country via sail. They could do this.

Rebekah said she was definitely scared of this new adventure, but that wasn’t a bad thing. “Just because it’s a path less travelled and just because it’s scary doesn’t mean you should run from it.”

Even though they have made a massive change, adjusting to life on the boat hasn’t been very hard. They all have their own qualms—John misses his tools back home and Zoey wishes there were more kids to play with. But living onboard has brought them all closer as a family, and the experiences they will share in the years to come will be remembered forever. They’re no longer strangers passing in the night.

Should everybody just sail off without knowing much about boats? Probably not. But lack of experience and lack of knowledge are not things that should hold you back from following your dreams. Anybody can learn a new skill, and it doesn’t make any difference whether you learn from the comfort of your own home, or in a foreign country filled with exciting opportunities and new adventures. “I think the smart person knows what they don’t know,” says Rebekah. ““Confidence comes from practice, so we will get there eventually.”

Where to next? This young family plans on mostly coastal cruising as they learn more about sailing. They’ll island-hop towards Belize, Guatemala, or maybe even back to Roatan. “It seems we should quit planning,” Rebekah says with a laugh. “It’s not really our forte.”

You can read about the Warner’s road trip on Rebekah’s blog:


Written by Monique Williamson

Related posts

Leave a Reply