10 Questions With Sailor and Mother Somira Sao

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Somira Sao’s children will probably never have to read Moby Dick or Kon-Tiki — they’re growing up in an adventure. Her two oldest kids, four-year-old Tormentina and two-year-old Raivo Max, have sailed 19,000 ocean miles, bike toured Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, the Atacama Desert, and Iceland, and horse-packed through Chilean rainforests with Somira and her husband, James Burwick. Her youngest, Pearl, crossed the Southern Ocean, the Australian Bight, the Bass Strait, and the Tasman Sea in utero and was born in Auckland, New Zealand, in December 2012, then moved onto the boat before she was a day old.

That’s an adventurous life.

1. When you meet people and then tell them what you do and where you live and take your family, what do you say?

The answer depends on what we’re doing and where we are at the moment. Right now as I type this, I would say, “We’re sailors, living on a small boat in the Viaduct in Auckland.”

The physical location and shape of our home changes with each country and each project. It could be a van, a tent, or a shack, but the one constant is each other. Family is home and the top priority in our lives.

Our current project is making long ocean passages on the boat we’re living on. The passages we make are determined by the type of vessel we have.

Forget about the sailing. What we’re really doing is trying to live a wild and outrageous life with our kids. Our children’s experiential education includes a balance of art, music, sports, nature, technology, and culture.

In each country, we like to get deeper than the average tourist. We like to hang out with people who do really cool shit, people who push the limits in their lives, and we like for our kids to be around them. That can range anywhere from alpine climbers who are making first ascents to sailing industry designers on the cutting edge of technology to artists who are creating pieces that make us overwhelmed with emotions.

We don’t have much to give our kids monetarily, but we are trying to give them a rich life and expose them to people who believe in and do make the impossible happen.

2. What creature comforts do you just not have room for, as a family of five on a sailboat?

The type of sailing we are doing is really intense. The boat we’re sailing on is a very unique vessel. We are not living/sailing on a regular cruising boat so the compromise in comforts extends far beyond that of a regular live-aboard boat.

The vessel is a high-tech, carbon race boat with the most basic accommodation you could imagine. A good camping analogy for our scene is that we’re bivying on the side of a big wall versus sleeping in the deluxe family RV. The amount of “stuff” we have parallels this – we carry the bare minimum, only the essentials. Our success at sea depends on this.

We have two berths slightly wider than a Therm-A-Rest Z-lite, 25mm swimming pool cover foam as padding, and sleeping bags for bedding. There’s not enough height to sit up in the berths. It’s important to keep the space clean and accessible. Underneath the honeycomb berth platform is the plumbing of the water ballast system and intakes for the desalinator. Between the two berths is the diesel that spins the alternator that charges the boat’s batteries. One berth has a hatch at the end leading to the aft watertight compartment with an escape hatch. The kids sleep on the water ballast tanks and with us in the quarter berths. They are still moving toward sleeping alone.

There are no floors down below – we walk directly on the hull, so no flat place to walk. We have no shelves, no cabinets, no shower, no refrigeration, and a compact Jabsco toilet that we hand-pump.

Our cooking scene is a gimbaled one-burner alcohol stove with adjustable arms. We have one stainless steel pitcher and one classic alpine cookset from MSR. There is no ventilation, so most of our meals are raw fruits + veg, and things that cook quickly with boiled water (aka, instant soups, noodles, rice, pasta). In the galley, there is one sharp knife, four stainless steel spoons, a can opener, and four GSI Fairshare mugs. That’s it. We have no plates, no bowls, no glass and no other cutlery. Not so great for entertaining guests or making a complicated meal, but it keeps things simple and safe underway.

There is no flat table or seat on the boat. We have a navigation pod that takes up most of the cabin space and is designed to be flat only when the boat is heeled over at 10 degree angles (port or starboard). This space serves as our dining table, arts & craft area, home office, workshop bench, etc. Imagine five people sitting on a seat designed for one person.

We carry only alpine climbing clothing aboard – one of everything (one pair of socks, one pair of long underwear, one parka). There is no cotton, no big variety of clothing, and no extras of anything. Our gear for five goes into two Patagonia 120L Black Hole Duffels – one for the adults, and one for the kids.

The kids have a few books, one toy each, one tablet each, and a few art supplies.

Our space is so tight, we have to be very selective and almost Zen in what we carry. If our kids are given anything in port, we say no. If it somehow makes it aboard, it gets purged when we leave. The less everyday stuff we have to deal with, the more time we have to focus our energy on the critical things.

James, Raivo, and Tormentina

James, Raivo, and Tormentina

3. How do you fund round-the-world sailing and feed a family of five?

I’m a professional photographer and freelance writer. James works in the marine industry as a professional yacht captain, project manager and consultant. As long as we have high speed internet, we can work remotely. When we work, we work like crazy. Sometimes we find ourselves running on fumes to keep the program floating. But somehow it all works out and the kids have never gone to day care.

We don’t have a title sponsor for our sailing program but many outdoor and marine industry players support what we are doing and have helped us along the way. We’re incredibly grateful for this because we wouldn’t have made it this far without that support. It would be fantastic to have a program fully funded, but James and I both agree that it works better this way, as we don’t let the “human factor” or other outside pressures affect our decisions when it comes to risk management at sea with our family.

Luckily we have three kids under five, so they don’t eat that much right now.

What else makes it possible? We don’t have big expenses like a mortage, car payments, utilities, or boat payments. We are not saving for our kids’ college education. We’re investing now. Our hope is that the foundation they get being with us will provide them with excellent communications and problem-solving skills, the drive, and the confidence needed to succeed in any situation later.

sleeping4. What’s the scariest moment you’ve had, as a family, in the past couple years?

October 2011: We were tied up at the Base de sous-marine in Lorient, France. Our daughter Tormentina (three years old at the time) fell in the water for the first time. She was getting off the boat onto the dock with a bucket in her hand. We didn’t hear a splash, just the sound of the bucket hit the dock, so we didn’t even know where to look first. I located her and for a split second, I watched as she struggled to surface. There was some current that day too, so she started getting sucked under the boat.

James immediately dove underwater. I quickly made sure Raivo (our one-year-old) was safe before I made a move. Then I was on the transom. James grabbed for and missed her the first time. Then he pushed her up to the surface the second try. I grabbed her body out of the water. The Banque Popoulaire V team was on the dock next to us and I passed her to one of the guys and jumped on the dock, sure we’d have to do CPR. She instantly stood up and didn’t even cough up any water—she just screamed, “Mom, mom! I’m soaked! My clothes are soaked!” She was crying. I held her tighter than I have ever held anyone in my life. The BP V guys (some of them had kids of their own) were really cool and didn’t give us any shit for not having a PFD on our kids.

We were lucky. The image of her struggling under the water still makes me sick to my stomach.

Since then our focus in port has been swimming. Every day the kids make big progress. Both Raivo and Tormentina have fallen in off the dock a total of three times each. We know it will happen again. It always happens on the dock, never at sea. Fortunately we have always been right there when it happens, but the subsequent times since that first was much less stressful and frightening because of their improvements with swimming and comfort with being under the surface.

Underway, falling off the boat is completely out of the question. We would never be able to get the boat turned around fast enough. If the kids go up on deck on a long passage, the rule is: wear a full body harness, always stay clipped in. On shorter day-sails, we have Baltic PFDs so they can be loose but safe. Not always so easy for them to follow the rules, especially for my oldest — and she is often so stubborn that she’s the only one down below on a nice day.

5. Fill in the blanks: Most people think I’m ________ but I’m ________.

Most people think I’m “a courageous mother” but I’m “just a mother who loves her kids and wants to give them a good life.”

bear comma rocks comma tormentina6. Many adventurous women face criticism for doing things that the rest of society perceives as too risky. Is it any different for you, taking your family with you on the adventures?

The family is the adventure. Captain Cook did adventure sailing. We are voyagers tracing existing lines across oceans, not really exploring anything new. Still, there are people who worry. What is hard to explain to them is that we are dealing with a “high-risk, low-frequency” danger. We do what people believe is a risky thing, but we practice an over-the-top risk management program across the board in all aspects of life with our kids. In sailing, the boat is category zero — one level beyond what is normally required for off-shore sailors. The boat has water-tight crash compartments, EPIRBS, a life raft, survival suits, laser flares, an escape hatch, high-reflective vinyl stickers on the mast, high-visibility paint on the decks, SARSAT transponders, SAT phone, Sea-Me radar amplifier & reflector, you name it. Down below, we are super cautious and vigilent with the kids to avoid injuries. We have a comprehensive first-aid kit, and fortunately have never had to use it.

7. How was it being pregnant at sea?

The first pregnant passage was in the nasty section the Indian Ocean. James calls it the “scene of death and transfiguration.” It was a Southern Ocean leg — 30 days non-stop from South Africa to Western Australia. I had been seasick before, but it usually went away after the first three days. I didn’t know I was pregnant at the time, so I was miserable, tired, and confused about the relentless nausea and vomiting. The last two passages being seven and eight months pregnant was just plain uncomfortable, but even on the land I would have felt that same discomfort. What was more frustrating than the physical awkwardness was that I couldn’t go up on deck to make photos or even to help with sail changes. My harness system no longer fit so I couldn’t clip safely into the boat.

8. Most of us won’t pack up our family and sail around the world — what have you learned in your adventures that you’d share with folks living more “normal” lives?

It’s supposed to be fun, not frustrating. No matter what the activity is with the kids, if we make any progress at all, we’re happy. Even though we’ve crossed oceans together, I still have a tough time going grocery shopping with three kids. Don’t create unrealistic expectations. Kids are hard work no matter what you’re doing. So celebrate all the victories, no matter how small.

9. Your two oldest children have sailed 19,000 ocean miles, bike toured Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, the Atacama Desert, and Iceland, and horse-packed through Chilean rainforests. Are you writing a book?

Yes! Can anyone hook me up with a publisher?

10. What’s the one piece of gear you can’t live without on the boat?

We have no unnecessary equipment on the vessel. Every piece of gear is a must-have.

Bonus: How do you define adventure?

Adventure to me is going into my own unfamiliar and unexplored places — for example, being the parent of a teenager — scary stuff.


For more of the family’s travels, visit their blog, Anasazi Racing.


Photos by James Burwick (top), Somira Sao (3).


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{ 4 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Murph

    OK, I gotta ask: Why do they have the type of boat that they have? It just seems odd that they’re cruising in an all-out racing hull. No floor, just walking on the hull?
    Just curious.

  • Tait

    Last question: What did it take logistically to get started? Savings? Experience? Know-how? How much time did they put into preparations?

  • Meghan J. Ward

    What an incredible and inspirational woman. A true example for us ‘adventurous parents’, who want to create the most exciting life possible for our children.

    So doubt a publisher will be calling her soon. ;)

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