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Around the World in 1,080 Days The Nutt family cast off on a three-year globe-circling adventure that will change their lives and, they're sure, bring them closer together

April 03, 2000
April 03, 2000

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April 3, 2000

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Around the World in 1,080 Days The Nutt family cast off on a three-year globe-circling adventure that will change their lives and, they're sure, bring them closer together

Think of it as if it were meditation or prayer," says Judy, seeing
that I'm struggling to understand the purpose of the trip. "Your
ordinary life may be good, but once in a while you need to step
out of it."

This is an article from the April 3, 2000 issue

She and her husband, David, are aware of the jeopardy in which
their family name puts them, but the Nutts are going to take
their three-year voyage anyway. David is a boatbuilder, a former
competitive kayaker and (fortunately) an expert sailor, Judy, an
accomplished skier and (also fortunately) an emergency room
physician. They and their four children, Charlotte, 4, Jasper, 9,
Sarah, 11, and David, 13, will sail around the world in a 60-foot
ketch named Danza, for a slow Puerto Rican dance, with only
themselves as crew. The world they will leave is mid-coast Maine,
known for blue bays, white gulls, gray shingles, and traps, both
lobster and tourist. The world ahead will consist of a great deal
of water: 200 days at sea, 900 in various ports.

From Boothbay Harbor, Maine, they plan to sail to the British
Virgin Islands, then to the San Blas Islands of Panama and
through the Panama Canal. Next they will go up the west coast of
Costa Rica and down the Pacific to the Galapagos Islands of
Ecuador. Then comes a 3,600-mile westerly journey to the
Marquesas and southwest to the Society Islands, including Tahiti,
before heading down to New Zealand.

So much for Year One. The next two years will entail sailing to
the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, Indonesia and Thailand, where
the Nutts will pause to wait out the typhoon season, then on to
Singapore, through the Strait of Malacca, across the Indian Ocean
and up the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. On the final leg the
family will cross the Atlantic by going up to Iceland, Greenland
and Labrador before bringing Danza back to Boothbay Harbor.

At the moment the boat rests in David's boatyard, undergoing a
complete makeover. Her steel hull has been painted and glows a
ghostly white under fluorescent lights. David, Judy and I climb a
tall ladder to her deck--an eruption of wires, paint dust and
nails. I expected the boat to look bigger. It's not that it's
only 60 feet long; a 40-foot boat can sail across an ocean. It's
just difficult to imagine six people living in the narrow space
in which we are standing. A lot of families have trouble taking a
ride in a car without contemplating divorce or murder.

What looks cramped to me, however, looks like a whole world to
the Nutts. "I'm overwhelmed by this boat," says David.

Judy says, "I feel that I'm on the Titan--...oops. I mean, a
very big boat."

Judy has an alert face and a can-do voice. She has kept her
maiden name, Sandick, preferring not to be called Dr. Nutt.
David, who looks like a weathered David Cassidy, is orderly, calm
and intense. They have planned this adventure carefully. The boat
is being refitted with a new electrical system, new plumbing, new
engine, rigging and sails. The main 70-foot aluminum mast, which
lies outside on the grass like a large section of pipe, is being
completely refurbished. A new steering system is being installed.
"At sea," says David, "losing one's steering is worse than losing
one's mast." The teak deck is being recaulked. The paint, hull
and spars are being replaced. Three hatches are being added to
the original six, as is new deck hardware. The layout of the
forward cabins is being changed to give the children bunks,
bookshelves and tables. The galley is being rebuilt, as are the
two heads. A washing machine and water maker are being added. All
this is being done by David and four of his employees in the
boatyard.

"They have an incentive to work well and quickly," David says.
"They're getting rid of me for three years."

Judy and David have all the necessary charts. They have taken
note of weather and other hazards. They have practiced
man-overboard drills and abandon-ship drills. A six-month
excursion in the Caribbean last year served as a sort of wet run
for this one. But three or more years on a boat is a complex and
dangerous undertaking. I ask David if there is a set procedure
when a sudden storm comes up.

"It depends on one's religious background," he says, smiling.
"You can read every book about what to do and theorize forever.
But until you're actually in one of those situations, you never
know. Here's what I'd plan to do: Get the sails off at once. Try
various positions for the boat, using a small storm jib. The boat
will continue to go without the big sails. In an extreme
circumstance we'd get the kids into life jackets down below and
ready a life raft. You do not want to get in a raft too soon,
though, because it's much worse there than on the boat. You take
to the raft only when the boat starts to sink. There's a saying:
You should step off the top of your mast into your life raft.
And, of course, I would radio for help.

"The boat is equipped with an EPIRB system--the letters standing
for Emergency Position Indicating Radiobeacon. It transmits a
signal to a satellite, which sends it to a series of ground
stations and then on to a place near Washington, D.C. The boat is
identified by number and approximate position. Aircraft are
called, and the other boats nearby." He adds, "All in all, I'd
sooner avoid the whole thing."

What the family most looks forward to is visiting a place such as
the Galapagos--"not only to see what's there," David says, "but
also to feel how it was an inspiration to Darwin. We'd also like
to find island communities off the beaten path. There are
thousands of islands in Indonesia and the Philippines. I'd love
to go upriver in Borneo, for instance, and take the boat way
inland." In New Zealand they plan to seek out the remote and
rugged areas of South Island, where they can trek from hut to hut
in the mountains. "But the plan will change and develop as we go
along," David says. "The more we define the trip, the further we
will get from what it's going to be like."

What, though, is the deeper goal of this voyage? As a form of
self-examination and testing, it seems the response to an
impulse, felt by lots of people these days, to get away from a
too-convenient and comfortable modern life and see what one is
made of. Ordinarily this is done vicariously, by reading books
like The Perfect Storm, Into Thin Air and The Excursion, or it is
undertaken with so many safeguards and comforts as to nullify its
value. David and Judy do not speak of the trip as a great
romance. "This is not a vacation," says Judy. "It's life."

"But what's so important about doing this," I ask, "that you will
leave family, friends, neighbors, a good business, a valuable
practice, everything you love?"

"All of that will be here when we get back," says Judy. "Now we
all have a moment when we can do it. People spend a great deal of
money on Outward Bound. We're doing the same thing as a family.
It's about paring down to certain essentials, to the
nitty-gritty. Everything will require teamwork and trust. If
there's a problem, we will have to work it out together."

"Is it about risk?" I ask.

"Not about life-and-death risk," she says. "That would be
unconscionable--to risk the children. It's about perceived risk.
We know that the boat has been through bad weather and survived.
David knows what he's doing. The risk occurs when you don't do
the right thing. If you're not attuned to the power of the
natural world, you're in trouble. You need to be aware of the
world around you and adjust to it. It's not going to adjust to
you."

They know that by the time they return, they will be different
people. Charlotte will be a young girl, not a baby; Jasper will
be a novice teenager; the two older children, Sarah and David,
will be teenagers in full who will have been away from the normal
influences of friends, village and school. There will have been
silence, the flapping of sails and a great deal of ocean. Putting
it mildly, Judy says, "We're going to come back a very close
family."

I ask, "Are you and David also trying to get away from
something?"

"Away from the rat race," she says. "But not away from the
world."

"The rat race in Maine?"

She smiles. "I think that we'll come back as much better people."

The trip was David's idea. He was reared near the sea and seeks
the sort of powerless serenity it gives him. "At sea your sense
of pace changes, along with your appreciation of the uses of
time," he says. He shows me a quotation that he has photocopied
from Dava Sobel's book Longitude: "Time is to clock as mind is to
brain. The clock or watch somehow contains the time. And yet time
refuses to be bottled up like a genie stuffed in a lamp."

Judy was hesitant at first, in part because of the practical
difficulties of the adventure. "There's no dialing 911 out there;
you handle your own emergencies," says the doctor. "At the other
end of the scale, the sea becomes monotonous. We will have to
create our own stimulation, invent our own environment."

She gladly acknowledges that David will be the captain. "It's not
that way at home," she says pointedly, looking at her husband,
who agrees. "But the one who knows how to do something ought to
have the authority." She recalls that Tropical Storm Mitch came
up while they were in the Caribbean. "I was terrified, but not
David. I realized, Nothing is going to rattle this guy." David
says, "It doesn't do any good to get flustered at sea. My
particular mood will not change the equation."

The children are not equally enthusiastic about the trip.
Charlotte is ecstatic to be Charlotte anywhere. Jasper waffles
because, while he likes the idea, he is especially fond of a
teacher he'll be leaving. Sarah out-and-out does not want to go,
because she'll miss her friends, gymnastics and horseback riding.
Young David can't wait. Physically and attitudinally his father's
son, he wrote in a journal after last year's voyage, "Time seems
to change on a boat; it just drifts by like the sea around you.
If you're not doing much it drifts past, and if you're busy, it
still drifts past (only a little faster). Time might not be the
only thing that changes. Sight does. Once I would have sworn that
I saw tons of whales and a few dolphins. I tried to show them to
people, but they said they were waves."

He shows me this journal entry in the family home, a gray-shingle
place in the seaside village of Edgecomb, sufficiently large but
hardly fancy, with more window space than walls, looking out on
deep pine woods and down to a river. The kids, who are blond and
have the dreamy look of summer, flop around their parents and me
on a couple of soft couches. Young David and Sarah discuss the
coming journey with mature seriousness, Jasper, half shyly, half
exuberantly. Charlotte contributes the chaotic, look-at-me
tyranny of any four-year-old.

On board Danza they will continue their education by
participating in a home-study program created by the Calvert
School in Baltimore. The accredited program provides study guides
for kindergarten through the eighth grade on a range of subjects,
with an emphasis on reading. The three older children are
voracious readers already. Much of their learning will derive
from everyone's wit and imagination, aided by a good, seaworthy
library. Of all his preparatory problems, says David, the most
difficult was selecting books. They can take aboard no more than
200 because of the weight.

I ask how they plan to stave off boredom, particularly on the leg
to the Marquesas, when they will be at sea for 3 1/2 weeks. Their
typical day, says David, will begin with the children's
schooling, in which David and Judy will take turns as teachers,
depending on who is more rested. (The two of them will split the
watch of the night.) After the formal part of the children's
education, Judy and David will read aloud to them. "We don't do
enough of that when we're ashore," he says. Some of the reading
they hope to do will consist of pertinent stories such as
Captains Courageous, Mutiny on the Bounty and The Swiss Family
Robinson.

The children will spend the afternoon playing board games and
card games. Jasper loves chess. And the family will do a lot of
reading. Mealtime is especially important to them--no less than an
hour for lunch and two for dinner. David says that conversation
over meals has always been a part of their lives. Physical
exercise is limited by space, of course, but David says that
walking and staying upright with the normal roll of a boat are
plenty of exercise.

Then there are the normal tasks of navigation and dealing with
weather faxes, which print out as maps and require constant
study. And unanticipated repairs. David says, "It's amazing how
much time just living consumes." He adds, much to my relief, that
not every day is an idyll. "I know from our earlier trip that we
will get tired of one another, and angry, and seasick. But there
are bad days ashore, too. The next day is usually fine."

I wonder if they will miss assisting other people, especially
Judy, whose professional work consists of it. She says, "I'm
worried about that. I hope we find ports where I can be of help
in a hospital, and we all can do community work." That could
prove difficult. They learned from the six-month trip that their
social contact will consist largely of ships that pass in the
night, brief and transitory friendships with other families on
their own excursions. Ports are visited but not lived in.

"Last year the kids saw people with no shoes, nothing," says
Judy. "It made them aware of their privileges and that they have
a lot to give back. You see"--she looks to determine if I am
finally getting it--"the point of all this, the whole trip, is to
make one aware generally that life is intense and urgent and that
it has a purpose."

"What is it like at night on a boat?" I ask.

"You're out alone," says Judy. "You are the only living things
you see. The stars are so close you could touch them. Once in a
while you see a shooting star. The boat cuts through the water.
You stand there. You have time to think, and to be. The things
that will occur to you come to mind only when they're ready. The
great moments of your life come up when they feel like it. All
you have to do is stay awake."

On Friday, March 24, David is at the boatyard making
last-minute arrangements, and Judy is at home seeing to the
packing. "It's been a long, tortuous preparation," she says.
"There's a saying in medicine, among residents: The longer you
stay, the longer you stay." Sarah has come to be much more
enthusiastic about the voyage; she has used the waiting months
to get quite good in gymnastics. Jasper tells me, "It's scary
and exciting--a little of everything." His friends have given
him their photographs to take along. Young David is all
anticipation. "I want to become a better sailor," he says. "I
want to learn celestial navigation. I want to see the world!"

On Saturday a large crowd of friends and onlookers has gathered
at Robinson's Wharf, a commercial dock where the only craft in
the water at this time of year are lobster boats. The wharf is on
Southport Island, near Boothbay Harbor. David and Judy have
already said goodbye to their families. David's mother, who is in
her 80s and is showing early signs of Alzheimer's, told him, "By
the time you get back, I may not know who you are." Like the
children, David and Judy are feeling a mixture of exhilaration
and the sadness of saying goodbyes, of leaving their community.
David says, "I've asked myself the same questions over and over:
Does this really make sense? Are we doing the right thing for the
children? And the answers always come up yes."

At 12:45 p.m. they start Danza's motors, and the ties are
released. The day is sunny and feels like spring. Freed, the boat
proceeds a quarter of a mile out the gut, a slice of water
between the mainland and the island. Then up go the sails, and
they are out of the harbor.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL EPPRIDGE SHIPSHAPE Last week the Nutts--from left, David, Judy, Charlotte, Sarah, Jasper and David--were finally ready to sail away from the U.S. and, with only the six of them as the crew, guide their 60-foot ketch to and around dozens of other countries.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL EPPRIDGE MAKEOVER David (in mask) and his boatyard crew scraped, painted and thoroughly refurbished Danza for its epic journey.COLOR MAP: MAP BY INGO FAST DIGITAL MAGELLAN David will use faxes, E-mail and computer-age navigational aids to keep Danza on its first-year course to New Zealand (red line on map), which is fairly well set, and on its more provisional route home (orange line).COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL EPPRIDGE [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL EPPRIDGE HOME, SCHOOL, PLAYGROUND Danza's living quarters will double as a library, classroom and game room for the Nutt kids.
"I'm overwhelmed by this boat," says David. Judy adds, "I feel
that I'm on the Titan--...oops, I mean, a very big boat."
"If you're not attuned to the power of the natural world, you're
in trouble," Judy says. "It's not going to adjust to you."
There will be silence, the flapping of sails and a great deal of
ocean. Judy says, "We will have to create our own stimulation."