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April 4, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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Buoys & Girls Together

Living in the western world, we take a lot of things for granted, but not growing up on land. For most of us, having sturdy soil beneath our feet is a given. Not so for Salient writers Elle and Jess Hunt, because they grew up on a boat!

In May 2000, when Jess was seven and Elle was nine, we left our home in Dorset, England, and moved onto our family’s 18-metre yacht, the Willy Bolton—which Dad had dreamt of doing ever since his late teens. The story goes that, just after Mum had met Dad, Dad said that he wanted to sail around the world; Mum said she wanted kids; and Dad replied, “Well, we’ll have to get a bigger boat.”

So, we were more or less born into this adventure, as though it were an arranged marriage. The biggest heartbreak of our departure was not selling our house and most of our possessions, or farewelling our friends and family, but having to give away our pet hamsters. Such is life when you’re a child.

For the best part of four years, we lived a nomadic existence. We travelled down the coasts of France, Spain and Portugal, which were familiar territories from a lifetime of school holidays spent preparing for this adventure. Then, we sailed for three weeks straight as we crossed from the Canary Islands to Barbados in the Caribbean. From there, we island-hopped our way to Panama, and then spent 2001 cruising the South Pacific.

Although Mum, as a teacher, was ostensibly home-schooling us, the trip itself was all the education we needed. We’d do about an hour of maths, science and French ‘study’ each day, and chalked things like “climbing up a tree” and “snorkelling” to being PE.

The boat not having mains power for more than an hour per day, we had no TV, and our cutting-edge 16MB RAM laptops had limited battery power. So, we read everything we could get our hands on, regardless of age-appropriateness. We read John Grisham, Tom Wolfe, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, Dick Francis, Oscar Wilde. We read books for English language learners, and the complete works of the Brothers Grimm.

Apart from the Harry Potter series, which we had shipped, book by book, to marinas all over the world, we didn’t read many children’s books. In fact, we didn’t see a whole lot of other children. Although there were plenty of ‘yachties’ doing the same thing as us, they were mainly middle-aged or young couples: there were very few families, and so we came to prefer the company of adults.

Though we missed out on interaction with our own kind, as well as typical primary and intermediate school shenanigans like Pet Day and productions, we had other experiences. Like swimming with manta rays, turtles, and black- and white-tip reef sharks. In the Galapagos Islands, Jess rode a giant tortoise. Dolphins became as commonplace as pigeons, while in Tonga, a humpback whale almost breached on top of us. We climbed machete-hewn paths up mountains; we drank kava with Fijian chiefs. This was our childhood.

In 2002, we found ourselves in New Zealand. Although we had vaguely intended to return to England, Mum and Dad reached the conclusion that we’d benefit from a more formal education. The fact that the savings they’d put away for our adventure had about dried up was also a motivating factor. Yachting is the most expensive hobby it’s possible to have.

And so, in 2004, after a year-long ‘farewell tour’ of Fiji, New Caledonia and Australia, we settled in Nelson permanently, and we were faced with making the awkward transition to school life in New Zealand. Jess, aged ten, went straight into intermediate, and 12-year-old Elle, into college.

Our last experience of formal education had been in the late 1990s in an English primary school, and so at first it was hard to reconcile ourselves to the nine-to-three school day in New Zealand in ’04. But we got there in the end, and to meet us today, there are few clues that our childhoods were any different to yours. And in all likelihood, they probably weren’t. Childhood is a universal experience, much the same on land or on sea.

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About the Author ()

Elle started out at Salient reviewing music. In 2010, she wrote features and Animal of The Week, which an informal poll revealed to be 40% of Victoria students' favourite part of the magazine. Alongside Uther Dean, she was co-editor for 2011. In 2012, she is chief features writer.

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  1. Ally says:

    I like this article! I want to know more about boat life. Memoirs?

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