The Podaski family aboard their dinghy at Bora Bora.
Solo parenting is never easy but doing so aboard a vessel in a foreign country? Jodi Bryant visits “Lions’ Den”, moored at the Town Basin, where a young American family are spending Christmas and embracing Whangārei life enroute to circumnavigating the world.
When Margeaux Podaski, her husband and young family set sail from the US in 2020, she thought their intention of circumnavigating the world a little ambitious. So she was pleasantly surprised, not to mention relieved, when they landed safely at Ōpua in October this year just two days ahead of Cyclone Lola after a nail-biting six-day sea passage.
Now comfortably ensconced at Whangārei’s Town Basin aboard Lions’ Den, the retired schoolteacher and her children Gretchen, 9, and Edgar, 7, are enjoying an extended stay near land and looking forward to a Kiwi Christmas, albeit without their dad who is now far away at sea en route to Colombia.
“I thought maybe we’d make it to the Caribbean but we just kept going a little bit further and now our goal is to definitely circumnavigate and make it back!” says the bubbly 40-year-old.
Margeaux and her husband Jarrett, 43, purchased their 40ft motor yacht in February 2020, right before Covid hit. With Jarrett a sea captain of a bulk cargo ship, his work takes him away for multiple months at a time.
“My husband was out at sea and I was teaching from home and with the kids by myself throughout the lockdown. He was away for seven months on that trip, unable to get back, and when he returned, he said, ‘Let’s make a life change. Why don’t we try cruising? How about you quit your job and let’s really follow our dream of cruising around the world’.
“So September 2020 we really got the boat ready and never did I imagine it would actually happen and, here we are, we’ve made it all the way to New Zealand!” Margeaux explains.
They were already well-familiar with their boat after previously owning a ‘little sister’ 30ft version of the same Toshiba design and a 27ft vessel prior.
“We already knew that boat so well so felt really comfortable,” says Margeaux, explaining that, as well as ten years of coastal sailing their New England territory together, she grew up attending sailing camps in Connecticut, so also had a background in sailing.
As you would imagine, the voyage has not been without its challenges: “It’s not all glamourous and is a lot of hard work. It’s a different lifestyle to what our friends and family are doing back home but, as we’ve jumped into this, there are so many cruising families out there and I think the catalyst was Covid. Everyone decided to do something different.”
The intensity of the weather has been a definite challenge to sail in their full-keeled, heavy displacement, double-ended, cutter-rigged craft, particularly the latest passage. However, she is built to handle such conditions well.
“Our boat is very heavy so it takes a lot of wind to push her. Coming here to New Zealand was the most intense passage as the weather is known to be pretty rough and can get pretty stormy in this part of the world. And just trying to get here before Lola was very stressful with having kids on board. It gets very tetchy in tight quarters and we definitely have our moments where we all just need our space,” says Margeaux, adding that Jarrett’s (approximate) four-month on/four-month off work schedule has been their relationship from the beginning which has always worked for them.
After racing to reach New Zealand before the cyclone hit, the Podaskis arrived at the Town Basin the first week of November where Jarrett got them set up, before flying to Texas from where he was setting off for his next four-month work stint shipping wheat and grain to Colombia, which funds their lifestyle.
And their Christmas destination was no coincidence.
“I did a lot of research and made a list of all the marinas in New Zealand,” Margeaux explains. “I narrowed things down first for live-a-boards, then looked at where there were strong cruising communities and found NZ Cruisers on Facebook and asked where the best kid-friendly place was and everybody said here, like it was unanimous almost.
“There’s a lot of accessibility within walking distance and the Loop – there’s probably four or five difference parks along the way, which is great, and I think all the opportunities for the kids to get involved in here are fantastic.
“My kids go to Parkour at the gym here – there’s so many different classes they can take, like the Quarry Arts Centre has classes and especially during the holiday season, there’s just so many holiday events going on and we’ve tried to make the most of it while we’re here.”
They even caught the free bus up to the recent Whangārei A&P Show where they were entertained with sheep shearing and petting animals, among other Kiwi traditions.
A particular highlight of their adventure has been meeting like-minded families.
“Meeting and making friends from all over the world and then seeing some of these faces again from different places is truly incredible.”
We’ve met so many families and kids with amazing stories who have chosen a different way of living to what I guess you’d consider the norm and I have to say, here in Whangārei, the cruising community is just so amazing. People have been coming here every summer for 20-30 years so it’s been a pleasure getting to know the ‘locals’. A lot of them said, ‘Yeah, we thought we’d keep going but we just love it so much we decided to stay’.”
Margeaux cites other highlights as seeing every new place and “just being welcomed so graciously in every new place that we’ve been to – it just really shows the kindness that’s around the world. And, of course, my husband’s favourite part is the sailing itself. Just being out there with nothing but yourselves and your boat and being with nature and having to converse and problem-solve”.
Problem-solving includes making their freshwater last and making do after their first week of refrigeration, which is engine-driven, runs out.
“It really makes you appreciate the luxuries in life when you have it, such as fresh fruit and veges. We’ve managed to pack every nook and cranny but we have everything we need. The 29-day passage from the Galapagos to the Marquesas was challenging in the sense that we had not a lot of wind on that passage so it made it difficult just to sail and make it go fast but that time we had was priceless. We had no phones and tv so we just had to enjoy what we had.”
And the kids have few complaints.
Gretchen says: “It’s really fun because you get to ride the waves and dad’s teaching me how to sail the boat so I really like it but sometimes when you can’t just run around, you get a little cranky but it’s mostly really fun, it’s like an adventure. I enjoy doing lots of active things so I have my parkour class today and I really enjoy snorkeling and swimming so maybe one day we’ll go to the pools (across the road). I miss my friends and family but we get to Face Time them.”
When asked if she thinks Santa will find them at their new location, she replies: “We’ve actually had another Christmas on Lions’ Den and Santa found us in this little anchorage so hopefully he’ll find us this time too.”
Says Edgar: “I basically like everything, but not when I used to get sea sick but now it’s, like, only when it’s super-duper rough.”
Have you made new friends along the way?
“I’ve made about 300. They’re from the US, Netherlands, Bora Bora, French Polynesia, Tahiti…”
How about any Kiwis (friends)?
“Oh, we haven’t seen a Kiwi (bird) yet.
“We got a Christmas tree that we decorated on the boat and put it on the bow because we’re doing the boat contest. I recon we have a good chance of winning but there’s only one problem… well, it’s a pretty bad problem… the prize is champagne!”
The family are also looking forward to donning reindeer and Mrs Claus outfits and taking part in tomorrow’s Great Whangārei Santa Run around the Hātea Loop.
They plan to stay until mid-April, this being the longest they have resided in one place on their adventure, before Jarrett returns and they set sail once more. She recons they are about halfway through their journey and anticipates it might be another three years before they return to their currently rented home in the US, factoring in Jarrett’s long stints away. There, she’d like the kids to attend high school, make friends and play sports.
Meanwhile, Margeaux says, though they’ve purchased a car to get around, she plans to stick to Northland during their time here.
“Just because it’s nice for the kids to be in one place as we travel so much. It’s good to be settled in one area and have some normality for a bit.”
So far, they have visited Ocean Beach and returned to the Bay of Islands for hiking but they are enjoying what’s on their doorstep.
“The kids have scooters so they love, love, love doing scooters around the loop and stopping in at the skate park. They’ve seen a lot of local kids here doing these tricks at the skate park.”
Although she was a middle school reading and writing teacher until they left the States and has been home-schooling her own children, they are looking forward to attending term one at Whangārei Primary School next year.
Meantime, the family have already made friends in Whangārei and are loving reuniting with other cruisers they’ve met along the way.
“Cruisers we’ve met from other countries are now starting to come in and now, here we are in Whangārei and the kids see each other and get so excited!”