Rodger Ling took his wife and daughter on a 19-month sailboat trip covering 10,000 miles by river and sea.
“It was the most financially irresponsible and personally rewarding thing I have ever done in my life,” he said recently.
Ling, who works in technology support services at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and his wife, Annie, sold one of their two homes to help fund the trip from early November 2005 to May 2007. Beginning at the Sale Creek Marina in their 35-foot S2, the family traveled down the Tennessee River to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and then down the Tombigbee River to Mobile, Ala.
They passed through 17 locks in that first 700 miles and then followed the Florida coast in the Gulf of Mexico. After stopping at St. Petersburg to take daughter Laura to Walt Disney World, they went on to the Bahamas and Exuma islands, to the Dominican Republic and then north along the Atlantic Coast to Maine and back.
“We were really not experts,” Ling said. “Before that, the longest time we had spent on board was five days.”
Their “Seaductress” was one of the last sailboats made in the 1980s by the Michigan-based Tiara company. It later switched to powerboat production.
Growing up in Waveland, Miss., Ling first sailed a Sunfish — “basically a surfboard with a sail” — along the edge of the Gulf. A horse his family owned ate the sail, however.
“I think what it was,” he said, “the sail had salt on it and the horse was attracted to the salt.”
Traveling the intracoastal waterway from Florida to Maine required extra planning and vigilance.
“Almost all of it is protected (by barrier islands),” Ling said, “but the only problem is they haven’t had much funding for the last couple of decades to provide for dredging. In some places, it was really shallow and we had to wait for a rising tide.”
Yet the challenges were accompanied by rewards.
“There are lots of things you can do that will change your life forever,” Ling wrote in his log book about the trip. “The trick is finding one that will change it for the better.
“The romance of sailing away is undeniable, perhaps akin to being reborn. We would shed our possessions and escape to a simple, more fulfilling life. Now the reality: In this Web log, we find pretty quickly that we can change our location, but we can’t escape ourselves.”
He initially entitled the journal “The Long Weekend” — “because that’s how I viewed this cruise, as a weekend that would never end,” Ling said — but later dubbed it “Learning to Cruise.”
“Because it was clear that our journey had been and would continue to be a learning experience from start to finish,” he wrote.
The Lings found many more other families sailing the coastal areas than on the Tenn-Tom portion.
“On the Tenn-Tom, we were almost to Demopolis (Ala.) before we began to see others with sailboats,” he said. “During November through March, it’s really lonely.”
The family arrived in the Bahamas on Feb. 2, three months after their departure from home.
“On open water, it’s a game of patience,” Ling explained. “You may have to wait a week, or two weeks.
“Traveling in winter, you have cold fronts all the time. You spend a lot of time waiting. In spring and summer, you want to be out of there before the hurricane season arrives.”
The trip required about 600 gallons of diesel fuel for 1,200 hours on their 28-horsepower Volvo engine used as auxiliary power.
From a safety standpoint, the extended journey was relatively undramatic.
“The most unsafe place we felt was Florida,” Ling said. “You have to keep things locked there, but down in the islands you don’t lock your boat. The worst thing that happened was in the Dominican Republic where we had a lifejacket stolen.”
Back home, a lot of things previously taken for granted were sources of wonder. That included the greater living space and shower water availability.
“It’s taken a long time to adapt. I’m just getting used to it,” Ling said.
Living aboard a sailboat, he noted, “You’re aware of the cost of everything. Now you take a shower and you’re using all of this water. It just amazes me how you can take a shower and it just goes down the drain.”
Unlike his family’s 19-month adventure.