Chicago Tribune: Daily Press

This post is a copy of what was posted in the Chicago Tribune: Daily Press on January 25, 2009 and is no longer availible on their site.

Tightening the ties

Small quarters and sailing give the Bachs a chance to bond

By MARK ST. JOHN ERICKSON | 757-247-4783 January 25, 2009


Inside the Bach home in downtown Hampton, it’s just another late Wednesday afternoon — with mom Lauren taking a break and most of the kids busy in their rooms.

You can hear the electronic dum-deedle-dee of 16-year-old Alexis and her favorite computer toy from far down the hallway. The cheerful sound intertwines with the mournful lyrics and wafting chords provided by 18-year-old Sara, who’s singing and playing an indie pop song on her guitar in the small lair next door.

Out in the main living space, big sister Tracy, 22, has covered the furniture and most of the floor with her latest art project — and she’s racing to meet a deadline. Brother Preston, 20, is nowhere to be seen, then strolls through the door with a what’s-up grin, humming to the silent accompaniment of the music player strapped to his upper arm.

It could be a scene from any place in the surrounding neighborhood — except for the delicious aroma of the home-made chocolate raspberry birthday cake that Lauren and the kids have left on the kitchen counter.

Then there’s the indisputable movement of the wooden floor — plus the creaking complaints of the mooring lines — as their 75-foot-long seagoing home rolls up and down in the swells kicked up by an unusually strong southwest wind.

After many months and more than 2,500 miles of sailing, however, no one pays much heed to modest pitch and sway of the boat, which is wintering in Hampton before continuing on a three-year, round-the-world journey. The Bachs and their kids have seen much worse since rebuilding the vintage Italian ketch on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten. And they expect they’ll have to deal with many more challenges from the weather — plus their close living quarters — as they attempt to circle the globe together.

“After their first sail, they were all ready to get off — and some of them still get a little seasick,” Craig Bach says, sizing up the way his children have embraced the family’s adventure.

“But with each new place we pulled into, it just kept getting better and better. And now they’re all in it for the long haul.”

The young Bachs have grown considerably, they say, since their father — a pioneering green building contractor based in Austin, Texas, — convinced his wife and kids to join him in a lifelong dream some three years ago.

The avid surfer and environmentalist had always imagined what it would be like to sail around the world. But not until 2005 did his wife — a real estate broker — agree that she and their four children were ready to stand beside him.

“My husband asked me if I wanted to do this with him — and I thought — we’ve always wanted to raise our kids to be independent, self-sufficient, global-minded citizens,” Lauren says.

“We were doing pretty well on the first part of that goal. But we needed to do something more about the global part. And this was it.”

Selling off their businesses as well as the family’s sustainable-agriculture farm, the couple started their endeavor in two stages, with Craig leaving first to begin replanking, splining and epoxying the wooden hull of a classic ketch he’d found in the Caribbean.

Lauren and the kids followed later to lend a hand in an increasingly expensive, demanding and time-consuming overhaul that cost some $500,000 and stretched out over two years.

But it didn’t take that long for the reality of their sweat and labor to erase virtually every one of the family’s romantic illusions.

“The whole idea sounded so cool, and then — when I got down there — it really looked like a lot of work,” Alexis says. ” ‘Who’s going to do it?’ I thought — and we figured out pretty soon that it was going to be us.”

Moving aboard the gutted boat, the family put in 10 hours a day, 7 days a week for months and months, slowly reviving the decks and interior as they resurrected the nearly 50-year-old vessel from its long, deteriorating stupor. While Craig made major changes to the masts and sail plan, the girls focused on the woodwork and varnish, with Tracy learning how to use a table saw and Sara becoming an expert at applying a 12-coat marine finish.

Inside the big forward cabin that Sara and Alexis planned to share, the two younger sisters decided to add to their workload by building a dividing bulkhead. That reduced the size of their common living space but gave each girl a semi-private berth of her own.

“We knew that if we we’re going to keep the family together we’d need a separate space for everyone,” Craig says. “Strong walls make strong sisters.”

Working alongside each other helped strengthen the family’s bonds, too, especially between the two oldest sisters.

Both young women confess that they couldn’t have cared less for the other before taking up their tools together in St. Maarten.

Yet not long afterward, they’d grown so close that they willingly shared a bed while Tracy was putting her cabin in order.

“We didn’t talk to each other. We didn’t know one another,” says Tracy, who maintains the family’s Web site. “But now we finish each other’s sentences.”

Those new family ties became even stronger after the Bachs began testing themselves under sail in November 2007.

Though their learning curve proved steeper than imagined, Craig says, they’ve become increasingly adept at handling the ketch in open water, where they’ve successfully if not always happily weathered squalls of 40 to 60 knots. They’ve also learned to watch out for each other on land, pairing and tripling up for safety as well as companionship whenever they step ashore to explore a new port.

Other changes have taken place, too, as the family of six has adapted to living together in such tight, often inescapable quarters.

In most cases, the kids have learned to give and take instead of digging in their heels whenever a dispute arises, and small annoyances once considered intolerable have disappeared from their radar screens.

“When Alexis has a flaming teen-age moment, you still have to get out of the way. That’s just how it is,” Preston says. “But because we’re so close here, we’ve had to get over our usual issue ‘ka-bibbling.’ You just make everybody else miserable if you don’t.”

Equally dispensable is the lust for stuff that governed so much of the life they left back in Austin. Pared down to a few square feet of living space, each of the Bachs has had to radically re-adjust their ideas about what they absolutely have to have — and what they can do without.

The impulse to simplify became even stronger after the family visited a struggling orphanage school in a remote part of Haiti, where the need for such basic items as shoes, uniforms, books and teachers’ salaries convinced them to adopt the charitable venture as a fund-raising mission.

Tracy’s art supplies and electronic equipment — plus a few pairs of high heels — quickly moved to the front of the pack, for example, when she began sifting through her belongings for the things that really mattered. Alexis’ once-prized collection of stuffed animals went through the same scrutiny — and now most of her former favorites are up for adoption.

Even without the influence of their visit to Haiti, however, the unalterable lack of space aboard the cramped boat has changed their attitudes for good.

Sara would probably jettison anything to make room for her guitar — despite that fact that she can barely turn around with it in her narrow cabin. The same holds true for the skateboards and guitars that fill Preston’s tiny, well-like living space in the bow.

“Everything’s stuffed in little cubbies and holes,” he says. “So I have to go through it all every six months of so and throw half of it out.”

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