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BOOK REVIEW – Coming About: A Family Passage at Sea

Author: Susan Tyler Hitchcock
Publisher: The Ballantine Publishing Group, New York, 1998

Rating: ***

Sailing through a stormy marriage that nearly hits the shoals, Susan Tyler Hitchcock chronicles the evolution of a fragmented family into a loving, happy team over the course of a year living aboard a 34-foot sloop. Stripped of all but the basic equipment needed to survive on a cramped boat, Susan, her husband and two young children (ages six and eight) learned anew how to work, love and play together. They left behind their TV and other luxuries – and used their wits and a VHF to cruise the Caribbean from Florida to Carriacou and back.

I’ve been immersed in the sailing world myself, and have cruised parts of the Caribbean several times, so I could easily relate to this family’s battles with the capricious elements, the frustrations with the equipment and the life-and-death demands that forced the family into becoming a cohesive unit. In particular, this book brought to mind a two-week bare-boat charter to the Virgin Islands that I once took with four of my crack racing crew, fortunately on a 44-footer.

Even a boat of that size is close quarters with five bodies on it, so claims to space, rules for tidiness and definitions of roles and responsibilities take on new dimensions. Like Susan and her family, we had some close calls in many surprise squalls, shallow harbors, and dangerous reefs. But we, too, ended up a stronger team with closer relationships, more respect for each other and a sense of fun and camaraderie that racing had not brought us.

For Susan, the sailing experience was even more difficult because she was a novice, while her husband was a veteran. (This inevitably causes friction, and I can sympathize with both of them.) But her personal sense of satisfaction at becoming an important team member, and learning to conquer strange new challenges, strengthened her relationships with her entire family, and gave her new confidence in her own abilities.

Susan also makes a good point: this trip was not a holiday, and they transcended the usual tourist experience. When they got off the boat and went into island towns for supplies, laundry, customs, whatever, they did not dress to the nines, shop for jewelry or eat in fancy restaurants. They became part of the island culture; their children played with island children; the family ate with the natives and slept under the stars (sometimes in the rain.) From that perspective, the story provides good insight into things we never see or do as tourists visiting the Caribbean.

The trip accomplished its purpose. When Susan, her husband and children returned to their land-locked lives, they "knew how it felt to work together. Each had a task, and together the work was good...and we know the feeling of being a family."

For more information, visit indigo.ca/cgi-bin/bookrec.cgi?bn=034540663X