Dancing Down Below

by Barbara Theisen

"Come aboard," greeted my friend Diana, as I climbed up onto the 33-foot sloop Kitara, home to Diana and Paddy Burke since before the births of their two children. Zoe Marie was now 13 and Josh nearly 11 years old. Paddy and Diana had bought the hull and deck for Kitara and finished building her in their backyard in Cape Town, South Africa. Kitara, an ancient Greek word meaning guitar, had taken the family around the world and on six transatlantic crossings.

Paddy and Joshua Burke making music aboard S/V Kitara.

As I stepped down the companionway I was given these simple instructions which gave me some insight into the Burke’s easy way of life on what many would consider a small cruising/live-aboard boat:

“Please be careful of the two pies on the floor. I made them for tonight’s potluck on the beach. I’ve got them cooling down there.” We were all looking forward to the cruisers’ get together on the beach tonight. The kids (from Kitara, our boat, Out of Bounds, and Nimanoa - a catamaran which had recently crossed the Atlantic from England) would be putting on a performance of “Cinderella” with a modem twist, we were told. The kids had been working on the play for over a week and had even constructed a stage on the island. It would be the highlight of the festivities.

Diana continued, “When you walk forward be sure to duck under the light so you don’t cast a shadow on Paddy’s workbench.” Paddy, a world renowned classical guitarist, not only performs in concerts around the world but crafts hand-made guitars on his fold out work bench in Kitara’s main saloon. He was presently engaged in some intricate woodworking. “When my backside gets sore I get up and make guitars and when my feet get sore I sit down and play,” he said with a smile. Not only did Kitara serve as home for the Burkes but as school for the children and a workshop for Paddy.

I had one last instruction - “You’ll have to wait until Josh is on the upswing with his bow to walk forward of the mast.” Josh was an extremely talented violinist who had given his concert debut on the remote island of St. Helena at the tender age of eight. He would be performing with his father in an upcoming concert. Josh’s love for his music kept him busy practicing his violin for several hours a day in the only place that the boat gave him enough room to stand up and manipulate the violin’s bow. He stood in the middle of the main saloon with his music attached to the mast. Anyone needing to walk forward would have to wait until Josh’s bow was on the upswing and hurry through. 

I watched in total fascination as this family of four went about their daily life as smoothly as Fred and Ginger sliding across a dance floor. No one missed a beat as they sidestepped the cooling pies, ducked the light, and passed through the up-swinging bow. My daughter Kate, who was busy collecting props with Zoë Marie for tonight’s performance, seemed to be right in step. Perhaps we had taught her a few dance steps of our own aboard Out of Bounds.

If Kitara seems small it’s only because she is so chock full of love and laughter, music and poetry, adventure and dreams. Some might think that all this dancing around means the Burke’s need a bigger boat. They look perfectly content to me.

How big is big enough when it comes to living aboard and cruising? It depends on where you will be sailing, how many will be aboard, how long you will be gone, and on your own personal needs. What may be perfectly safe for inland trailer sailing may not be suitable for crossing oceans. What may be comfortable for a couple spending the summer on board may not fit the needs of a family living aboard full time. And what might be considered a cozy little boat for one couple might be claustrophobic for another, even though they may have similar cruising plans.
Some cruisers will tell you to get the biggest boat you can afford; others will tell you that it’s never big enough, so you just make do. We decided that the ideal boat for us wasn’t the boat that we dreamed about owning but the boat that would take us where we dreamed about going. It doesn’t make much sense to spend all of your money on a boat if you can’t afford to go sailing. For most people, including us, it means making some compromises.

Most measurements of boat size are static numbers such as length overall (LOA). Worse yet is the silly yardstick of “How many does she sleep.” If you ever ask me how many our boat sleeps, I’ll likely reply that unless one of my daughters is having a sleepover, our boat sleeps the four of us. It’s our home, you know, not a motel.

The size of a boat has less to do with how many she sleeps, or how long she is than how well the occupants master the steps to the “down below waltz.” One, two step over the pies; three, four duck under the light. Twirl, laugh, hug your mate. Throw in some consideration, hope for some privacy, try not to step on too many toes. Then twirl, laugh, and hug some more. And even when you feel more like twirl, snarl, punch your partner remember this: the more laughs and hugs, the longer the dance.

Author’s Note: The waltz can be changed to any dance you desire. My husband believes that, being from Wisconsin, we should be doing the polka. But after several injuries, we’ve settled on the waltz.

Barb Theisen lives aboard “Outward Bound”, with her husband, Tom, and two daughters, Kate and Kenna most of the year.