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Life at sea: Antigonish County family set sail full-time

Brad and Karen Cook, and their two sons, Charlie and Ben, aboard the Hangtime, a 47-foot catamaran. The family spent the summer sailing around the Maritime provinces, living full-time aboard their boat.
Brad and Karen Cook, and their two sons, Charlie and Ben, aboard the Hangtime, a 47-foot catamaran. The family spent the summer sailing around the Maritime provinces, living full-time aboard their boat. - Sam Macdonald

Karen and Brad Cook talk about their new life of seafaring adventure on a 47-foot boat from France

ARISAIG, NS - When the Hangtime landed in Arisaig, it became a local conversation topic in Arisaig – and by admission of its owners, Karen and Brad Cook, the subject of a lot of gawking from locals.

Suffice to say, a 47-foot catamaran stands out among a crowd of fishing boats – the majority of the other crafts at the wharf in Arisaig on a sunny September morning.

“We’re definitely a fish out of water with this catamaran,” Brad said, as a pair of locals stood at the edge of the wharf, admiring the large two-hulled boat as it sat placidly in the waters at the Arisaig wharf.

That being said, it’s all part of the fun for the Cook family, who had, by their own admission, an amazing summer.

“The weather definitely helped the equation here, and having family onboard throughout the summer has been pretty magical,” Brad said.

Some of that magic was the plethora of questions the Cooks were asked about their boat – and the way they live. From the hospitality of Antigonish County to crowds of onlookers who lined up with questions in Murray River, P.E.I., the Cooks have spent the summer meeting many new people, sharing in their enthusiasm.

“It’s a lot of fun. When we pull up to these wharfs, they’re not shy to tell you what they’re thinking and they invite themselves aboard to tell stories,” Brad said.

“We’re happy to have them aboard – it’s always fun,” Karen added, noting that one time, an entire boatload of people approached them near Cribbons Point. When they were prepared to take their pictures and leave, Karen remembers calling them back, and inviting them aboard, saying, “you came all this way. Come onboard and see the boat.”

Local support

Karen and Brad were emphatic about the tremendous amount of generosity they experienced from the people of the Maritimes, through support and hospitality, whichever port they arrived in, be it Murray River or Arisaig.

“Every place has its own uniqueness, so it has been really fun to explore Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island,” says Karen, who is from Antigonish County. “I’m always happy when people ask where we’re from. I’m from William’s Point, and people always think it’s cool we’re from here, instead of from the States or somewhere else.”

Karen noted that she thinks people are a little more open and generous because of that local connection the Cooks have to the area.

That generosity includes offers of food, a place to stay, and even in some cases, people offering to let them borrow their wheeled vehicles to run errands.

The decision the Cooks made to pursue full-time seafaring came after considering a litany of serious questions about the kind of lifestyle they’d live, how they’d run a business and manage to homeschool their two sons, Ben and Charlie.

Karen and Brad had to make sure their living arrangements were compatible with their career – they both own an engineering firm called Structural Components, based in Denver, Colorado, that focuses on cellular tower sand engineering inspection, design and construction services across the United States.

They own investor visas, which allows them to own their company, work and live in the States – something they have been doing since 2001.

“It has been really good. There really haven’t been any major issues. When the kids were young, we travelled for two years by plane and traditional methods, and that was a lot harder than this,” Karen said. “Living like this, it’s like you have your whole house with you, on your back, wherever you go.”

Looking back on their summer sailing the Maritimes, Brad recalled a moment that stood out to him; sailing “within a few hundred feet of Alexander Graham Bell’s house, while in Cape Breton. It was pretty exciting to be right in front of it.”

The beginning of an adventure

The Cooks purchased their boat, a Saona from Larochelle, France-based Fountaine Pajot, last November. It wasn’t long before the boat saw its first voyage – from Europe to the Bahamas.
“I took the boat from France to the Bahamas in December (2017), and it sat in the Bahamas through the winter,” Karen explained. “We took the kids down on March break, and the family cruised for two weeks there, to kind of do a warmup.”

Then, this past June, Brad took the Hangtime to Halifax from the Bahamas, and the adventure began, with the family moving onto the boat, full-time.

What ensued was an adventure that spanned the Maritime provinces, with the Hangtime docking in the many ports available in the area.

The first spots the family visited were along the South Shore – postcard locations like Lunenburg and Chester were on their itinerary. The Cooks eventually made their way up to the Northumberland Strait, just in time for the Antigonish Highland Games in July.

From then on, the family sailed to a series of destinations that included P.E.I., an excursion to the Magdalen Islands that lasted a couple of weeks, and a thorough adventure through the Bras D’Or Lakes in Cape Breton.

“We toured the Magdalens, and then we did Cape Breton, going through the (Canso) Causeway, taking the St. Peter’s Canal, to the Bras D’Or Lakes with my mom, two aunts and uncle – that one ended in Baddeck,” Karen said.

The Lifestyle

One thing that is immediately noticeable about the catamaran the Cooks live aboard is that it doesn’t quite feel like single-hull boats. There is little of the usual listing and rolling underfoot that can be expected to be felt on the deck of most boats.

Seated inside the main living area, which also contains a kitchen and a navigation station, Brad remarked that the best measure of the boat’s stability on water can be seen in Charlie and Ben’s eagerness to play “a good game of Jenga” onboard, explaining that the two hulls their boat has helps it stabilize in water far better than vessels with single hulls.

The catamaran is open and airy, and houses a bathroom and sleeping areas below decks in its two hulls. It’s living in tight quarters, but comfortable ones.

Brad spoke reverently about the rhythm of life at sea – something entirely different than what a family experiences on land.

“You get into a rhythm where everything slows down. You can do a 10-hour passage and it feels like two hours, and it’s like, ‘where did the day go?’ When your attention is at the sea life, you’re more in tune with your surroundings – the waves, the wind, the water,” Brad said.

You notice the currents and tides. You can look at your speed, see that if you have a good wind, but are only doing five knots, there’s something you need to do with the sails and what’s going on around you.”

Sailing is very much a lifestyle, and Karen said she takes it upon herself to live it fully, describing the physical demands of manually changing and setting up sails to accommodate the whims of the weather.

Although the Hangtime is equipped with electric winches to aid in rigging sails, Karen prefers to do it manually – and that means a heck of a workout.

“It can be quite a job to raise the sails. I enjoy doing it, but it has a lot of work to get the main sail up. It’s big, heavy and you have to put a lot of time into it,” Karen said.

“I think sailing is sport, and you do it to stay fit. The winches are still there, if you need to get something done quickly,” she added, noting it takes about 20 minutes to get everything set up.

It is no surprise that the Cooks are as comfortable as they are at sea, with Ben and Charlie climbing around the boat and, in Charlie’s case, into his favorite perch, on top of the boom that juts out from the mast, sitting on a bundle of furled sails.

Aside from the labour of setting up sails, the Cooks are scrupulous in making sure they are properly prepared with food and fuel for their long journeys. Any guests who accompany the family are briefed in safety protocol as well.

Most importantly, Karen noted, they keep abreast of weather conditions, wherever they go.

Scary squall

While their adventures at sea have been a great way to spend the summer, the Cooks both recall one frightful moment while in Cape Breton that stuck with them, and drove home the importance of being prepared. This moment occurred when the Cooks were picking up relatives in Troy for a sail.

“We had the boat at anchor, and Brad took the dinghy to pick them up. The kids were playing on a paddle board, and we packed everything up. We were getting ready to go through the causeway,” Karen said, describing the day.

Then, within a mere 10 minutes, “this wall of weather came through and we had this massive squall on a beautiful August day,” she said.

The squall, which blew in at a whopping 54 knots into the Strait of Canso, was accompanied by hail and even threw their barbecue overboard.

“It was insane, it happened so quickly,” Karen said. “I was at the helm, just smiling, saying ‘it’s fine,’ trying to keep everybody calm. But if we had the sails up, it would have been a disaster.”

Eyes on the horizon

The Cooks are undaunted by the odd, admittedly frightening, burst of poor weather, for they have plans to sail south as the autumn arrives.

Leaving the Maritimes for the winter, naturally, is the next plan for the Cooks, as the days begin to shorten and the nights become chillier, with September nearing its close.

“It’s time to go south – we have to,” Karen said. “We’ll cruise down the eastern seaboard, and try to find that sweet spot for the next few weeks.”

That finding of a sweet spot Karen referred to means finding a spot that is far enough north that they don’t end up sailing into a hurricane zone, and at the same time, far enough south that they can continue living comfortably aboard a boat on the water.

Although Karen anticipates they won’t be seeing quite as much generosity as they have seen in the Maritimes, as they travel south, Brad said they expect to be in the company of more boats like their own, and sailors like themselves, as opposed to being the lone catamaran at a wharf full of fishing boats.

“We feel that as we make our way back to (the District of Columbia), we’ll find our tribe – the kinds of boats heading south for the winter,” he said.

On that note, Brad lamented the lack of other people availing themselves of the beauty of the Maritimes by sea and other waterways.

“One thing that has always surprised me is how few other sailors there are. The Maritimes are an absolute paradise for sailing with the hospitality and anchorages you can go to, the sights you can see, the food, the natural beauty and sea life,” Brad said. “We saw maybe four or five different cruisers the whole time, and most of those were day sailors coming from Charlottetown – there’s huge potential out there.”

On the way south, the Cooks hope to check out destinations such as Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., showing Ben and Charlie the museums and attractions along the way.

“Hopefully, by the time we’re finished, hurricane season will be mostly finished,” Karen said. “Then, we can go further south to Florida – and onward.”

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