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Changing Course

Story by Phyllis Speidell
Photos by John H. Sheally II

Living aboard a yacht, cruising as your whim suggests, may seem a farfetched dream — but the Kaplan family made that dream a reality this year.

A spontaneous pandemic decision? Not really when you add two working parents, four school-age children, a dog and a cat to the adventure. This bucket-list item required planning, organization and a bit of luck for the family to leave a 6,400-square-foot home in Midlothian to live aboard a 1986 70-foot Hatteras Long Range Cruiser and travel the East Coast and the Caribbean.

Kristen and Robert “Rob/Kap” Kaplan both grew up with boats, with Rob becoming an avid fisherman. They were working in Washington, D.C., when they met and married but moved to the suburbs to raise their family. Rob also curtailed his favorite long-distance fishing trips in favor of fatherhood and a 33-foot fishing boat. Later, they upscaled to a 45-foot boat that they docked at the Smithfield Station Marina, ready for a one- or two-week family cruise whenever they could.

“Smithfield always felt like home,” Kristen said.

The family cruises grew into a full July on the water and then into plans for a three-month cruise. That plan changed and grew, however, with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kristen, who works full time in corporate philanthropy, and Rob, a lawyer and managing partner at Kaplan Voekler Cunningham & Frank, PLC, began working remotely. They found a curriculum that matched with the Chesterfield schools and began homeschooling the children. They sold their boat and made an offer on the 70-footer. While awaiting an answer from the boat broker, they put their house on the market and began downsizing, selling their furniture and non-essentials online.

The two older daughters, Caroline, 11, and Daisy, 8, helped sort through closets, deciding what to keep. Caroline had to have her favorite blanket; Cora, 4, her ukulele; and Will, 13, his Xbox. Daisy hesitantly agreed to leave her two guinea pigs “vacationing” with a landbound friend.

In March, with the house and both cars sold and their offer on the boat accepted, the family packed the U-Haul and drove to south Florida to pick up their new home.

“We only made one stop, in Savannah, because not many places welcome a family with a large U-Haul, four kids, a dog and a cat,” Kristen said.

They were already in their Florida Airbnb when the boat deal almost fell through.

“But it did come through and we moved right from the U-Haul onto the boat,” she said.

They broke tradition and renamed the boat “Changing Course.”

“It seemed appropriate for two Type A people who chose this lifestyle where plans can change five times in two hours,” Kristen explained.

“Changing Course” is a fully oceanic cruising vessel equipped with redundant systems and Garmin radar that provides multiple weather and wave condition reports as well as ample warning to find safe shelter in inclement weather.

Rob and Kristen completed a 12-day course with a professional training captain. A few instructors offered to certify them in a day or two, but as Kristen said, “We have four children on the boat. I want to know what I am doing.”

The couple are now working toward their 100-ton captain’s license.

Once certified, they launched their family cruise up the East Coast, stopping in Wilmington, North Carolina, for a month before cruising back to Smithfield. They don’t plan to dock long in any one place and when they cruise, they plan to anchor, not dock.

“We want to see places you wouldn’t ordinarily see,” Rob said.

A boat that big requires a team effort, and the young Kaplan crew was ready. Will and Caroline are the eyes on deck when the boat docks and deal with often much older dockmasters.

Five months into the adventure, their future itinerary includes cruising south along the East Coast, arriving in Florida for the Christmas holidays, then on to the Bahamas before returning to South Florida.

The Kaplans said that many people envision life aboard as cocktails on the afterdeck, not realizing the flexibility required when the weather turns, an engine fails or the gas tanks are empty.

They’ve learned to plan two or three days ahead and then develop plans B, C, and D to cope with the unexpected — such as the time all the gas gauges failed, and they ran out of gas thinking they were at half capacity.

Still, “You have to love boating,” Kristen said — and there are the starry nights, the peace and quiet, the adventure of new places, the family closeness. But what is the reality of daily life aboard?

The three girls love living aboard, but miss their friends and land activities. Daisy still misses her guinea pigs. Will doesn’t like living aboard, misses his friends and his travel soccer team, but has become a budding chef, with sushi his specialty.

The Kaplans hope to hire a nanny to help with the homeschooling.

Jaeger, the lab mix, and Meister, the black cat, who was potty trained, have adjusted to life aboard.

Jaeger, however, still misses grass and remains dubious about the AstroTurf mat brought along for him.

The family grocery shops on foot or on the four bikes and a scooter they brought along, so they try to buy in bulk when possible.

Rob and Kristen coordinate their business travel and when a trip comes up for either one, find a marina near an airport.

“You have to balance the costs and the sacrifices,” Rob said. “This is truly a unique time that could not have happened before the pandemic, as our careers would not allow that. I’m almost 51, and soon Will enters high school, so we thought if we don’t take this trip with the family now, we never will.”