All at sea

15th June 2007 at 01:00
Ever dreamt of throwing in the towel and sailing round the Mediterranean? Teacher Phillida Eves did it and took her family (right) with her. She tells us how volcanic eruptions and exploring the pyramids are the stuff of her everyday life

I've been in this teaching job longer than any other. The pay's non-existent, the conditions challenging, but the hours are flexible, we go on some mind blowing excursions and the kids are great. Is that an appealing job description? Don't bother to apply, I'm not going anywhere - except Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel - as part of my job.

When I read four years ago: "What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" in my friend's copy of Mary Oliver's collected poems, it was a turning point for me. I wanted more than my weekly visit to Tesco.

I had three gorgeous kids, taught in the local primary and special school in Galway, Ireland, but I knew I wanted more time to have adventures. My husband, Tedd Hamilton, an Australian marine diesel engineer, felt the same.

Before having our children, Tedd and I had worked on sail training ships in Australia and the Caribbean. He was the ship's engineer and I was a watch leader, teaching sailing skills to trainees. So buying a boat to live and work around the Mediterranean made sense.

We remortgaged the house and bought Kari, a 48ft long yacht, in the south of Spain. We have four small rooms and lots of deck space. Or we did until we filled it with a sailing dinghy, a kayak and a couple of dolls' houses.

We have a fridge and a cooker, but no washing machine. The clothes go in a paddling pool on deck. Kids, clothes, suds.

Our sons, Ush and Cian, were nine and six, and daughter, Soracha, not even three when we set sail on our first trip to Barcelona. Poppy, our springer spaniel, got a haircut and a passport and came too. We soon found it suited us to move around in the summers and spend the winters tied up in a marina, so that Tedd could do contract work on super yachts, and I could do lots of schoolwork with the kids.

We found marinas in interesting places with strong potential for meeting other yachties and local people with kids. When we stop for the winter, we establish a concentrated school routine immediately. It's hard to do formal school work when we are on the move. We often travel in short hops of three days and two nights at a time.

The motion of the boat can make you very lethargic, and if it's too rocky I get seasick. I can function, but only want to do the minimum. We enrolled with SIDE (School for Isolated and Distance Education) from Western Australia and have found it fantastic. The school posts us boxes of workbooks with back-up DVDs, books and tapes. The children have to complete a set of work every two weeks and post it back. We get detailed reports and encouragement.

Sometimes the postal systems can be difficult. This winter we had our school work posted to Israel, but bad weather made it impossible to sail there. Tedd went overland from Egypt to collect it, and the Egyptian customs were very interested when they opened Ush's science kit to find lots of little packets of white powder. After lots of frantic miming, and a tasting session, they let them through, with a solemn warning: "Never again!" We have spent two winters in Barcelona, a winter between Istanbul and Southern Turkey and this winter we were in El Gouna on the Red Sea, Egypt.

Our neighbours this winter were retired teachers Liz Vernon and Nick Thomas from London. Ush visited their boat with his English and science books and they worked through lessons together. Another yachtie gave model boat building workshops, with ice-cream afterwards. School starts at 9am, and depending on how motivated the kids are and how many other kids are around waiting to play, we finish between 1pm and 3pm.

Most days go well, but if we have a terrible day, I've learned to just down books and get off the boat, go for a swim, or visit town. Everything is intensified in a small space, so the answer is to leave the boat, or take to bed with a very good book. The beauty of life on a boat is that you bring your home with you, wherever you go. The disadvantage for the kids is that school comes too. They are remarkably willing and co-operative.

Of course there are lots of groans and procrastinations, but that's mandatory for any school kid. Cian and Soracha do their schoolwork at the table in the saloon - the classroom also serves as a kitchen, dining room, navigation centre and guest bedroom. It is always gently moving and sometimes when we are sailing it lurches so violently that all the books fly around the room. On a bad day a rogue wave plops through the hatch above our heads and soaks everything. Ush likes to work at a table in the cockpit. He has just started secondary school, has a demanding timetable and is very organised. It's hard to be organised on a boat. It's too small and everything has to be stored in inaccessible spaces.

The kids learn heaps about working together and supporting each other.

Simply getting from place to place on Kari requires great team work. While Tedd and I take a break, the boys do watches - a four-hour stint of being in charge of the boat - watching out for other ships and yachts, keeping an eye on weather changes, and navigating and plotting our position on the sea charts (maps). The opportunities for learning in real life are endless.

We visited the volcanic island of Stromboli, and during the day we climbed the path up the volcano as far as we were allowed to go. At 2am, as we sailed away, we woke the kids so they could see the red burning lava shooting into the sky and tumbling down the mountain into the sea.

Last December, sailing down the Suez Canal, we had a lesson in Egyptian-Israeli relations. We inadvertently offered the Egyptian pilot an Israeli muesli bar. He was horrified when he saw the wrapper. We apologised like mad and brought out lots of Turkish food. He examined the wrappers carefully and said: "Ah, Turkish. Very good." All the way down the canal we saw rusted old tanks and barbed wire left over from the 1973 Egyptian-Israeli war.

The kids have played gladiators for two months in Rome and explored the Valley of the Kings and the pyramids in Egypt. They have ridden camels in the Sinai desert with the Bedouin people and slept with them under the stars. Soon we will visit Syria and Lebanon. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with the responsibility of my teaching role, but friends back home warn me not to romanticise school. No system is perfect, and everyone has concerns about their own child's education. I'm no different. I miss the support of my colleagues, but not the classroom

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