Schoolwork Afloat

Our ketch New Zealand Maid was already down on her marks when we began loading the year’s correspondence schoolwork aboard – two boxes for each of our five sons. With our youngest still at the pre-reading stage, and our eldest two already in their teens, we were taking a plunge into the unknown, and leaving our land-based existence behind.

Looking back on the subsequent years of our semi-nomadic water-based lifestyle, we have no regrets. We had a unique opportunity to connect with our children as a team, in an environment where even a ten-year old needed to be trusted to stand watch and keep us all safe. We had opportunities to sail to remote locations, meet isolated individuals, and face some truly daunting challenges. Our boys mixed easily with other children of different ages, cultures and languages, and communicated as comfortably with adults as they did with their peers.

Being teachers ourselves, we weren’t particularly precious about the necessity of classroom-based education for our kids – children are programmed to learn (it is virtually impossible to prevent them learning) – we had chosen a distance learning option instead. But as we cast off from the constraints of suburbia, we were conscious of mutterings behind our backs. Some acquaintances even spoke their disapproval openly. In their eyes we were doing our children a disservice. How could the boys possibly succeed academically without remaining in a conventional learning environment?

We had cause to think of this a decade later, battling a November Tasman Low on our way back to New Zealand from New Caledonia. Matt and Sam had their important year 11 and 13 exams to sit a week later, and we had recently been dilly-dallying on an uninhabited island in the Loyalties with the kids camped ashore building rafts.






Crunch-time was approaching. Would the critics be proven right? Years later, the proof is in the pudding, with Sam currently working towards his second degree, and Matt with three Antarctic expeditions under his belt, and a successful career-mix of film-making, building and Aviation rescue.

From a practical point of view, there isn’t as much room aboard a modest sized vessel for doing schoolwork. In our case, the saloon table was barely big enough for three of our five. Dan in particular – with his passion for artwork – found lack of space a challenge. However despite this he has become a successful artist/sculptor in adult life.

Schoolwork afloat is a topic of considerable discussion among parents who are agonising over whether to delay their voyaging until the kids have left home. For those, like us, who have chosen to pull our kids out of classrooms, there are decisions to be made about how best to cater for their long-term educational needs. Some choose the home-schooling option to varying degrees of success. We well remember a substantial American vessel which arrived in NZ with two home-schooled boys aboard. Both parents had left successful careers in writing and computer programming behind, and had invested much personal energy into their sons’ educational development, with particular emphasis on mathematics and science-related subjects. Their eldest boy then spent two finishing years in an exclusive NZ college, achieving Dux status.

But we know of other home-schoolers who have struggled, often through a lack of suitable resources and difficulties motivating their kids or structuring their daily routines. Pre-voyage preparations are difficult enough without having to research and locate suitable material for even a single child’s year’s learning. One tendency among home-schooling parents is to view the experiences of life afloat as a stand-alone form of education. While this has considerable validity, it doesn’t address the issue of dealing with any future return to the NZ education system, with its curriculum based achievement goals.

We have sailed in company with various overseas families during our voyaging, and been interested in the various structured options available to these parents. In some cases an arrangement has simply been made with the children’s school to provide a set of textbooks for use during a single year out of the system. Although this sounds a straightforward option, it requires considerable parental understanding of educational expectations, and can lead to difficulties even in areas such as modern maths which is taught very differently from the same subject a generation ago. For secondary aged students this is an even greater issue, with some subjects bearing little resemblance to those of their parents.

Some countries have a distance education option available, which reflects the education system of the country or state of their origin. Many of these are expensive, but they do have the advantage of potentially keeping their students in line with their cohorts.

New Zealand sailing children are the envy of many overseas sailing parents. They have the option of being enrolled –  at no cost – at Te Aho o Te Kura Pounamu (Te Kura) – the NZ Correspondence School. This outstanding facility caters for all NZ children who are unable to attend a physical school. This includes Primary and Secondary students, in either itinerant or overseas gateways. Any Kiwi kid who is sailing or road-tripping with relocations at least twice a term is classified as itinerant. All Kiwi children in non-English-speaking countries (or at sea) are classified as overseas students.

We were thrilled when our son Josh and his wife Sara decided to take the plunge themselves recently and sail around the world with three of our young grandsons. Having been a Te Kura student himself, Josh was quick to persuade Sara to utilise this wonderful NZ distance learning option. We have just caught up with the two dedicated Te Kura teachers who are responsible for these three boys recently, and are able to discuss how their teaching practices have evolved since our sons were learning through Te Kura. Between them they teach up to a dozen sailing kids at any given time, mixed into their ‘classes’ of nearly thirty students each.

In our five sons’ era, the year’s schoolwork was laid out in eighteen sets of workbooks – each set covering all subjects – roughly equating to a fortnight’s work per set. It was up to us as parents to motivate and manage their time to complete these, and return them for marking. Today there is a rather different approach, especially at Primary school level where the buzz phrase is authentic learning.

Also known as inquiry learning, this approach has a flexibility that we wholeheartedly agree with. We were running the fishing ketch Sunniva for a tuna season off the West Coast during the mid-nineties, when one of the boys was faced with a science set on spiders. Barbara was quick to re-write the exercises into an investigation of skipjack and albacore, allowing the same investigative outcome goals to be met. The teacher was delighted.

What immediately impresses us about our grandsons’ two teachers, Rosemary Dear and Chris Findlater, is their commitment to getting their students motivated. Shortly before our grandkids left to go voyaging, we saw the delight on nine year-old dinosaur-mad Nathan’s face when he sneaked a look inside his box of schoolwork to find a T-rex cover on his first booklet. “If we can engage them from the start by tailoring our booklets to their interests,” comments Chris earnestly, “then we’re well on the way to building a relationship with them.” We nod, having once talked with an Australian parent who gave up cruising in despair after a continual battle trying to motivate an uncooperative youngster.

“Kids on boats are already in an amazing learning environment,” continues Rosemary. “The flexible enquiry learning approach involves channelling them to learn about their immediate environment, formulating questions about the local geography, culture or even their oceanic surroundings. From these come genuine learning experiences which translate into maths and writing as they describe their findings.” Her comment brings back a memory of our own, when our eldest son Ben once surprised us by identifying fifty significant navigational stars, and followed it up by plotting a four-point star fix, all totally self-taught. (He later left home at seventeen to study for his Foreign-going Mate’s ticket in the UK, and now teaches navigation and shipboard safety.)

“But don’t get us wrong,” adds Chris. “We still provide a core of curriculum-based material to keep our students up to a level comparable with their peer-group back in NZ.  Their reading, writing and literacy goals are catered for in the booklet work we assess, as well as appropriate numeracy and mathematics goals.” This leads us into a discussion of the difficulties of sending and receiving assessment work from a voyaging vessel. Our youngest son, Matt spent half his school life being correspondence educated, and we have memories of packages missed in transit. Satellite coms were a rare option a decade or two ago, and we remember the thrill once of receiving exam results through a neighbouring yacht’s HF link while anchored at a remote island.

These days, it seems, technology has made the exercise somewhat easier. Internet wifi is available for uploads and downloads in many ports of call, so much the exchanges are regularly possible via the web. “We can still post work to marinas if given sufficient notice,” says Chris, “but we prefer to nominate specific pages of their workbooks and other assessible material to be sent as scans or even as photographed images – it’s amazing what can be sent on mobile phones these days.”

However there may be a flip side to the speed of technological change at Te Kura. The school is committed to transitioning towards on-line learning, rather than updating the older paper-based workbooks.  For families opting for a low-budget, low technology cruising lifestyle, this could be a potentially negative gamechanger. The rationale behind on-line learning is certainly justifiable. There are a host of high quality web-based learning programmes which can be utilised by any web-linked school including Te Kura; Google classroom, Math-buddy, Reading-Plus have all helped revolutionise modern classrooms. Even the early childhood platform Storypark is now being utilised at primary level as a valuable distance education tool. However this assumes a level of internet availability which comes at a cost. The high cost of data transfer via satellite links – or even via wifi in many under-developed locations – will pose a serious challenge for budget conscious voyaging families.

We are somewhat comforted by Chris’ parting words. “We’re still going to have options for those students who can’t access the web adequately and we’re committed to providing them with the best educational outcomes possible in their circumstances.”

This evening, as we write, another Facebook post arrives from Josh and Sara’s 50 ft Rogue. Josh is apologising for the lack of posts recently (“the wifi is pretty dodgy here!”). Our three grandsons have been snorkling in crystal clear Mediterranean waters and exploring a thousand year-old castle. One photo shows them at the saloon table, hunched thoughtfully over their workbooks. What an education they are having!   

By Jon & Barbara Tucker for Boating New Zealand, November 2017

NOTE: Jon Tucker’s ‘Those Kids’ series of books for 9 – 13 year olds draws on the experiences of their five sons whilst cruising in NZ, Australian and Pacific waters. (Details are elsewhere on this website.)