On evening dog walks, Chelsie and Matt Vawter's two sons, Linden, 10, and Liam, 8, like to duck behind trees and pretend they're wild children living in the woods.
It's an easy game to play growing up in Harrison Bay State Park, where Matt works as the park ranger and Chelsie homeschools the boys — though many of their lessons occur outside of their waterfront home, among the 1,200 acres of surrounding forest and beyond.
The Vawters are always planning an adventure — their most recent: to sail the length of the Tennessee River.
Since 2019, the family has been section-sailing the 600-plus mile river in their 18-foot Hobie Mirage tandem kayak, equipped with an easy-to-operate mainsail. To date, they've sailed a total of 137 miles or 21% of the river.
Because they bring the boys, Chelsie and Matt are more conservative when it comes to mileage and weather conditions, so progress can be slow. "But," Chelsie says, "we asked if they wanted to try to do it with us, and they said 'yes.'"
Of course they did; they're wild children, after all.
Here, in their own words, the Vawters share their story.
Chelsie Vawter: I always have some goal – it's just the way I'm wired. When we got married in 2011, I said it was my goal to visit every state park in Tennessee. [Matt and I] had it done by 2020. I'm also trying to do a marathon-distance run in every state. I've done 36 so far. Matt doesn't like running — and I actually don't like sailing. I sailed in Washington State when I was a teen. It was so cold. But Matt said, "Let's try it here." There's less wind, but at least it's warm.
Matt Vawter: Sailing on a river is a lot different than sailing on an ocean. An ocean has a steadier breeze — there's nothing to stop it or slow it down. On a river, you have to zigzag. The wind is slowed down by every bend. Our sail is our gas pedal – but most of the propulsion of our boat is the pedals.
Chelsie: [Our current boat] was our compromise. I like that we can bring the kids and it has pedals. The pedals make it more physical, and we don't have to rely on the sails.
Matt: What got me interested in [sailing the Tennessee River] was moving out to Harrison Bay, all this water at my doorstep. I had been looking into the Everglades Challenge, a 300-mile [sailboat, kayak and canoe] race in Florida. Then I kayaked from Booker T. Washington [State Park] to Harrison Bay, about eight miles. I thought we could do a longer trip right here.
Chelsie: We do between 7-20 miles per trip, and we've done up to three days on the water, camping at campgrounds along the way. We bring forms of entertainment for the kids — fishing poles and audio books to listen to on waterproof Bluetooth speakers. Some days we bring school work. We made a landform bingo sheet with things like bay, canyon and plateau on them. We put them into sheet protectors and brought electrical tape to mark them off as we saw them. We taught about hydroelectricity when we passed Raccoon Mountain, and we'll play games like if you spell a word right, you get to jump in the water, which is their favorite thing to do.
Matt: Our first run on the Kentucky Lake, in October 2019, had us questioning whether or not we were sane. It was raining. It was about 63 degrees F, but the water temperature was really cold. We had on wetsuits and thought, "This will do."
Chelsie: The boat is wet. Water splashes through the trampoline [mesh material] where the kids sit. Our last trip was too cold, too. It was 75 degrees F, but the water was cold. We did 14.97 miles that day. It was great until the very end when it started getting so windy we had to pull the sail in. It was catching too much wind and could have snapped the mast. The water was whitecapping.
Matt: We named our boat "Osprey" because it has wings and gets sprayed a lot. You have to do a lot more prepping for cold water. We wear wetsuits and pack a hypothermia kit with a firestarter, a lighter, tea lights, a headlamp and an emergency blanket in it. The current depends on how many gates are open at the [dams], so we always look at the TVA website to make our float plan. We check the weather and look for boat ramps we could stop in emergencies. We bring a Garmin InReach.
Chelsie: We've looked into sailing across the Atlantic.
Matt: It can be done in a month, but probably not with kids.
Chelsie: It'd definitely be easier without them, but we like each other, and we like spending time together as a family.
Linden and Liam Vawter's favorite sailboat memories
> Watching osprey catch fish (and once watching a bald eagle swoop in and steal it from the osprey)
> Floating under bridges and getting trucks to honk their horns
> Swimming alongside the boat on warm days