17 year old Ella (granddaughter of Graeme Disney) was just 10 when her family set off for a sailing trip around the world in their 45 foot yacht. They visited exotic and third world countries over a number of years living on the boat the whole time. Read all about it through the eyes of the delightful Ella…
I was born in Hampton and lived at this house until grade 5 when we flew to the Seychelles, which is just above Madagascar, to trial the boat. It was the first time I had gone overseas so I was pretty excited. It was all new so it was like “let’s go” and I didn’t really think about it. I have a younger sister Millie and with mum and dad we were planning to travel for two years but we ended up going for five years and seven months.
There were a lot of problems with the boat but we only had 3 months to get the boat up to scratch because the visas for the Seychelles were only for that long. I had my 11th birthday there – it was just after the Somali pirates had taken a family next to that area but we had to leave so we chose really bad weather to go to Madagascar so that the pirate boats wouldn’t be out.
It wasn’t a concern for me because mum and dad didn’t say anything. We had a hiding plan if they did come on board. I know for me it wasn’t a big worry. I think it took two weeks, I don’t really remember, but it was a longish trip and it was really bad weather. Mum, Millie and I were freaked out a little bit and I remember I had a bucket. But then we got to Madagascar which was really cool.
It’s a bit different than the movie in some parts but it was like the movie when we went inland. It was definitely a highlight, one of the best places we visited. You could tell that it was once really great but the buildings were broken and falling down. We went to a school which was really secluded and the school was just a roof and a little room. They had about three desks and a chalk board and there was about 50 in the class and they’d never seen white kids before so they were touching my sister and I. Then we bought out some biscuits and they were like whoah. I remember we went to the supermarket back in the city and we bought some mince meat, some milk and some biscuits for a lady that always sat on the corner with her three daughters and we gave her money and the food and she never came back to the corner.
We then went to Mozambique which is just above South Africa stopping at an atoll on the way called Basta India. Mozambique was worse than Madagascar for poverty because they’d just come out of a civil war. Also our engine broke there. We got towed in by someone and we kept hitting sandbanks and that’s when my mum, my sister and I first flew back to Australia for a couple of months while dad fixed the boat. We went back to school at Sandy Primary for a month.
We then flew back into Durban and that’s where we stayed for two years. My sister and I went to school there. We lived on the boat, we completely repaired it, got a new engine from Japan, did all the rewiring and everything. We had friends that were on other boats and we made heaps of friends that we’re really close to who we still keep in touch with. Very few foreigners go to school in Durban. Most people would go to Cape Town but we stayed in Durban because it had a huge marina in the city.
I did year 6 and year 7 – year 7 is still primary school. I was a prefect; they look after the little kids, they stand by the gates to check that you’ve got your name badge, your uniform is right, they do most of the jobs. It was a very strict school; your shirt had to be tucked in, you had to have your name badge on, you had to have your hair tied back, your shoes polished and your skirt a certain length.
It was very sad to say goodbye; it was worse than saying goodbye here. We went down the coast to Cape Town where we stayed for two weeks. It was a really bad trip leaving Durban, we had to turn around and anchor off a beach because the weather was so bad. You head into the wind so the waves come over the front of the boat and you can’t put your sails up.
After a brief stop in Namibia, which was amazing, like something I’d never ever experienced, we then sailed for 10 days to St Helena which is an island halfway between Africa and Brazil. This was especially spectacular because it was like starting again. We’d left Africa and it was the first long trip. It was good weather but it was ten days with no Wi-Fi, no friends and we were very isolated. There were other boats there but no kids. St Helena had steep cliffs and a town that was built in the middle on the only flat bit of land. We climbed Jacobs Ladder which was 699 steps. You can’t anchor because it’s too deep so you need to use two buoys. So many people had come off the buoys and crashed into the rocks.
We then went to Rio de Janeiro because mum really wanted to go there. It took about 18 days and we had to sail against the wind and a really bad storm to get to Rio. We stayed there for seven or eight months. We tried to go to school but we didn’t have bodyguards so we weren’t allowed in. I found the distance education hard. We had to be self-motivated. We didn’t really do it for a good half of the year but when we had a deadline we just did it. I liked it there but it was very third world in some places. We went to the statue and on one side was the water and the other side the shanty towns. We didn’t go into them though. We went to Coco Cabana for mum’s birthday but we lived on the boat all that time. When Nan and Pa came and they brought us chocolate because Brazil didn’t have chocolate and we hadn’t had things like Freddo Frogs for ages!
We went south to the Islands with Nana and Pa and went surfing. We saw the Pope when we were in Rio de Janero. It was on Coco Cabana beach so it was a long road parallel to the beach and all of Rio de Janero was there and it was really special.
Day to day we did school work, mainly because reports were coming up. I was in year 8 by then. That’s why we also stayed in Rio for a while because they have Wi-Fi which we could get from the boat which was a huge bonus because you usually couldn’t pick it up unless we went to the marina. While we smashed out our school work, mum and dad basically went exploring. We bought some bikes and they rode around a lot while we were sitting in the boat doing school work. We could concentrate a lot easier without them there.
We then went up the Brazil coast very fast, it was a very bad coast to go up weather wise and we got hammered very badly. Because you’re close to the coast you have to look out for ships, fishing boats and container ships all night. We were travelling with some friends that we’d met in Rio who were from South Africa.
We then went to French Guiana, which is part of the Amazon River. We had to wait outside the river mouth for a while to get with the tide otherwise you touch the bottom. It was the first French place we’d been to so they had French bread and it was very chilled there. Then we went to Trinidad which is the southern island of the Caribbean. My sister and I ended up flying back to Australia because we hadn’t been home in two or three years and our grandparents and family wanted to see us. We stayed here for five or six weeks over Christmas – mum and dad stayed on the boat so my sister and I flew back by ourselves. It was cool, we saw snow in New York because we went from Trinidad, New York, Hong Kong, Melbourne. It was nice to see everyone but when they went back to school I remember saying “yeah, I want to go back to the boat”.
When we came back to Trinidad there were kids our age and we hit it off with them. We stayed in Trinidad for another six months. You could pretty much do what you wanted like take an unregistered motorbike into town and that’s why we liked it. There is a big sailing community down there, barbeques every Friday night, three marinas, lots of English speaking people and because it was the first time we’d been in an English speaking country since South Africa it was nice to speak English, even though it was Islander English. There was also a lot of Americans too because it’s close to America.
But then we had the deadline of April coming up to meet our cousins so we headed off and instead of travelling up the Caribbean coast islands we went straight to St Martin and then Florida. It was very nice sailing because we were protected from the waves by the islands. We got there in 10 days and picked up our cousins in Florida and they stayed on the boat which sleeps 8 comfortably. Then we went to Cuba. Cuba was definitely a highlight. It was the first Communist country we’d visited. It was seriously broken. All of the houses were run down and the building were unkempt.
Our cousins stayed for 3 weeks. I remember when we checked in, immigration and customs came to the boat and you have to bribe them to let you in, so you had to pay more money and give them more things to let you check in. And when you check out they keep your passports so you have to pay them to give them back. It’s very corrupt. There were two currencies, one for the locals and one for the tourists and there were certain shops that only accepted certain currencies. Tourists stayed in hotels that were really new and there were stadiums in the middle of nowhere that haven’t been used for years and were falling apart. I remember going to an abandoned hotel with my aunty; it had an empty pool, it had empty rooms. It was a very sad place. We were in the very touristy bit so I didn’t feel unsafe. We usually liked to explore places ourselves but we did the tourist part, we went to the restaurants in the middle of the city, we went in the marina. There were lots of street vendors but they’re not allowed to sell so they put these tarps over them when the police come down the street so they can’t get caught for selling.
We then went to Mexico to drop our cousins off. Mexico was definitely better than the Caribbean for me. The water was insane. We went scuba diving; they put statues on the bottom of the sea 20 metres deep and it was amazing. I couldn’t believe my eyes; it was paradise really. We were anchored outside a hotel and lived the tourist life while my cousins were there. We went into the infinity pool, had some western food – a burger, there was lemonade, people were speaking English. It was very hot and when we went on a ferry over to the city we saw our first Costco! Our cousins left after about four days and we stayed there for about a month.
At this stage we were debating whether to go back up to America because for a 14 and 12 year old you want interaction with kids your own age, so we were debating about whether to go to New York for the hurricane season or head down to Guatemala or Columbia. We looked at schools in New York and Florida but it was expensive and to keep your boat there it was a lot of money so we decided to go down to Guatemala which is just under Mexico to stay there 30 miles up a river – there’s about 6 marinas and a little town called Fronteiras.
First we went via Belize which is just as amazing as Mexico. The drop of the ocean went from 8 metres to 220 metres. They have a barrier reef but to get inside you have to wait for the tides as it’s very shallow. We were very nervous going through the channel of the reef because there’s so many rocks and often your charts aren’t reliable. We didn’t stay there for very long but again it was paradise. Unfortunately, the coral was all bleached.
Then we went to Guatemala which is where we stayed for around seven months because we had to wait for the hurricane season to completely finish before we went out to the Gulf. It was really cool, it was definitely one of my favourite places in the world. We were in a French marina run by French people. We did a lot of life changing things here. It was very, very poor but they weren’t unhappy because they didn’t know what else there was. It wasn’t like Cuba where they sit on the side of the road and begged – they were happy. My sister and I taught English at a local school. You could take a bus into the city that took 6 hours and the city was split up into squares but you only went to certain squares because it was too dangerous. Lots of shootings; it was also a big drug area.
There was just dense forest all around you. We had barbeques every second night with everyone in the marina, it was a very big community, it was like family. I was doing school work most days and our friends were doing it too. It was hard to do school work in that environment. We tried to get into a routine; we’d try and do it five days a week but we didn’t. It came crashing down on me at the end of the deadlines. This was the first half of year 10 so it was getting harder. I did music and psychology as my electives. That was the most routine we’d had in ages.
We met a French family that had kids our age and we became very, very close to them so much so that I flew back to France with them for six weeks. I learnt a little bit of Spanish and French. I used to speak French fluently but it’s fading.
We then went to an island off Honduras and then we went to San Blas which is off Panama which was another amazing place; islands in the middle of nowhere that were beautiful. After that I went with my French family to Panama to fly out and they left their boat there while my parents went to Colombia. I went to France for six weeks and lived in Bordeaux with them. They were going to fly back with us and meet back up in Cartagena but the mum got sick and I flew back by myself and I stayed the night in Panama City by myself and then I had to get a bus to San Blas. The bus was two hours late and I didn’t have connection so I couldn’t tell mum and dad and they were freaking out at the other end.
You go from one ocean to the next over a mountain.
Then we went through the Panama Canal to get from one side to the other. That was incredible. You’re travelling up over a mountain and down again. So you go into one block, you travel in groups of three with a ship in front of you and a ship behind you and you go in and the water rises and rises and rises and then another gate opens and you go in and then that gate shuts and the water rises and then you spend the night in a lake up the top and go down again the next day. It takes about two days and a lot of preparation. You go from one ocean to the next over a mountain.
And then we were in the Pacific for the first time since Australia. We stayed in Panama to get the boat ready to stock up because it was a 30 day trip from the Galapagos to the Marquises which is in the middle of the Pacific. It took us ten days to get to the Galapagos and it was a horrible trip. There was a cyclone so it was trying to suck us up and we had huge seas and it was horrible. The only time I would say that I was scared was the Seychelles for the weather.
We had to stock up for 40 days worth of food because in the Galapagos there’s no shops. Or if there is, it’s really, really expensive. I spent my birthday in the middle of the ocean so it was around May last year, so we were almost home and that was very exciting.
We were a bit late in the season because I went to France but we travelled with some boats. We could download weather through the radio and get emails but that’s it, we don’t have wifi or anything.
Even though we’d had friends, Millie and I were really keen to get to a school. Well me more because school was getting harder. And I was really missing having friends my own age and having someone to talk to. It’s kind of weird because you don’t really see each other on the boat because we’ve got watches so you don’t smash into anything. Someone’s always watching. My mum and sister did the late nights – they did from whenever dad and I went to bed to 12. Dad did 12 midnight to 5am and I did 5am to whenever someone woke up which was usually mum and Millie and they did the afternoon til dad and I woke up. You want to sleep but you don’t actually sleep that deeply at sea because you’re always moving and because we had the trade winds we were on an angle a lot and we couldn’t do basic things like shower because we only had enough water for a certain amount of days. We had a water maker but you couldn’t make it while you were on an angle plus it used diesel and we didn’t have enough diesel to get us all the way across so we had to sail. And to make the electricity, we had to save it as well.
I spent my 16th birthday in the middle. After 33 days of sailing we landed in an island called Hiva Oa and it was completely different to anything. It was hilly and rocky. We thought it was wow. I can’t even begin to explain the shock that we had; it was a different type of landscape and environment and again it was French. Because it’s so mountainous they had to dig out land and they dug in a little harbour where the supply boats come because everything is delivered by ship. It was funny to step foot on land after being out at sea for so long.
We visited the Tua Motos which is another archipelago which just goes on forever. To get inside the reef, it’s an Atoll basically, you’ve got to time it right. There’s two entrances, you go in one and out the other but you’ve got to wait for the tide otherwise the current coming out of the atoll and the wind coming in creates two metre waves and you can’t get in. I remember we were sailing with some friends and the entrance was off the time that we thought it was, so we were just doing circle work up and down, up and down the island waiting for it to get lower. But we missed it so it got worse. We ended up deciding that we were going to go through it but it was like a washing machine, the boat went in front of us was getting thrown around.
There were these little coconut crabs that would only come out at night so we went with some locals and slept on the island and then we went walking on the edge of the reef. There was a shark and we had to run from it. The water drops from a few metres to 100s of metres. It just goes from reef to nothing. We thought we’d seen paradise until we came here. We went swimming with the manta rays off the boat. I was so close to touching one but it swum away and I had gloves on ready to touch it. I was accustomed to the water; I wasn’t scared of the water. The beach was volcano ash because they’re sunken volcanoes, they’re submerged so on the land it was volcano rock.
On my birthday we caught a fish bigger than me in the middle of the ocean. You can only take so much food in the fridge and freezer. We preserved our own food. Mum would make bolognaise sauce, put it in a jar and then you pressure cook the jar and it makes it air tight. We’ve had stuff for three years and we’re still eating it.
We visited another island closer to Tahiti called Fakarava which was my favourite place, my mum’s too. The coral wasn’t bleached and it was amazing. My sister and I got our diving licence and went swimming with the sharks. Everywhere there was reef sharks and they kind of stopped us from swimming a little bit because we fed them around our boat and they kept coming. Left over dinners go over the boat, all of your dishwashing water goes down the sink into the water and the reef sharks like that. They’re harmless but they’re big.
In Tahiti my grandparents came with my cousin and he stayed with us from Tahiti to Fiji where his family came and visited us and that’s where the boat is.
We left from Bora Bora to Fiji, which takes 3 weeks, because we had a deadline for the cyclone season and we did have some horrible weather. It’s the first time the boat went over – our rail was in the water. It was fun because we were so far past being scared of it now. We had an autopilot called Brian and he beeped every time he lost control so we were hand steering through that bit.
I only have vague memories of living in Australia and growing up near family would be a really big thing.
Millie and our cousins went to school for a day in Fiji but it’s all wiped out now from the cyclone that happened in Fiji. Fiji was kind of exciting because there were a lot of Australians there and it was like “we’re almost home”. We hadn’t been back since Trinidad and Dad hadn’t been back since South Africa. We stayed in Fiji for a while, it was really nice and it was the first time I went free diving; I could hold my breath and click my ears to get the air out and I went really deep.
I had a Skype interview with St Leonard’s and they suggested we come back for transition and if I didn’t like IB I could go into VCE. So we flew back to Australia on November 30th last year. I really wanted to go home. It was sad saying goodbye but it was also exciting. People were shocked that we wanted to go home but I’d grown up on the boat. I only have vague memories of living in Australia and growing up near family would be a really big thing.
I’m doing year 11 and I’ve gotten into a routine. We’ve got so much stuff in the shed still that we don’t need because we’ve lived without it. It’s definitely different living here. People are just living differently to how we were which is cool but you’ve got to adjust. I was looking forward to the freedom, being able to walk down the street by myself. Go to a shopping centre by myself that has nice shops and is safe.
I want to study in France. That’s why I chose IB as well because it gives me options to study overseas but I haven’t really thought about what I’m going to do. I’m just focusing on getting through the next few years. It’s what I came back for to do so I’ve just got to get over it and do it. The highlight coming back was getting a dog because you can’t take dogs on the boat and they’re not allowed on land at some places.
People’s lives are different and it’s really hard explaining it to people and I try to downplay it a lot because I don’t want to be that person that’s like “oh yeah I was travelling, you were stuck here”. I don’t publicise it a lot at school; they know but I don’t tell them anything. It’s definitely made me look at the world in a different way.
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