A Westchester family leaves it all behind for a 7-year sailing trip around the world
By Martin L. Jacobs
Two years and 15,000 nautical miles into an incredible seven-year ’round-the-world sailing voyage, a Westchester family finds themselves and their 42-foot sailboat Kandu grounded in Malaysia for Christmas.
Eric Rigney, Leslie Dennis-Rigney and their sons Bryce (16) and Trent (14) have found patience and the strength of their family among the many lessons learned on this amazing adventure that began in February 2015.
“On the hard” is sailor jargon for dry-docked. Eric explains that the holiday waylay is due to failing engine seals and a damaged propeller shaft, which forced them to a small port in Pangkor Palau to undertake repairs. They’re also tuning up electronic equipment and meteorological gear that’s been thrashed by 34 months of nasty storms, salt and hard use.
The work takes on heightened significance because the Rigneys are on the brink of what may be the most crucial leg of their voyage: passage through the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.
“We’re going to go by Yemen,” Eric points out, “which is one of the banned countries. And Somalia, which is also one of the banned countries. All of these places are in civil war. I can’t have an engine failure at that point.”
For the Rigneys, it’s a telling question.
“We wanted the boys to have this experience and not be afraid of the world,” explains Leslie, who emphasizes the journey’s personal growth aspects. “We wanted them to grow up being more open-minded.”
Eric finishes the thought with the explorer’s perspective: “We don’t know what’s on our planet until we go see it.”
Rarely are such poetic sentiments executed with such commitment. An equal to this homeschool abroad experience is hard to imagine, but the inspiration for this voyage predates the Rigney children. It even predates the Rigney marriage.
“In a way, it was a prenuptial agreement,” explains Leslie, who married Eric 28 years ago. “Not long after we met, we sailed the Hawaiian Islands for a couple of months. Then sailed back to California. Twenty-five days together on his uncle’s boat. On that trip Eric said, ‘I want to do something like this again. And I want to know’ — this was a kind of interview — ‘if you’d like it, because if it isn’t something you would like to do….’ Well, it was definitely something that I wanted to do. I wanted to travel around the world.”
After that portentous trip, Eric and Leslie finished advanced degrees and achieved noteworthy careers. Eric worked his way up to a senior VP position at Sony Pictures in Culver City, and Leslie completed her PhD in music and then signed on with the Los Angeles Opera. But even as the years passed and they became absorbed in the here-and-now and raising their boys, their dream voyage never faded from mind. In fact, it was part of almost every decision they made.
“We didn’t buy expensive cars, a big house or expensive wines. We just saved,” Leslie says.
And then the day came.
In early 2014, Eric and Leslie left their jobs and their Westchester home to live aboard Kandu in the Ventura Harbor. It would be a year-long process of preparing the boat and themselves for the journey, and their Yoda-like mentor was Eric’s uncle, Bill Kohut, who had not only taught young Eric how to fix all things mechanical, but educated and inspired him in deeper ways to seek a life of joy without materialism.
“Bill’s influence is in every part of Kandu,” Eric says.
A compulsive planner, Eric tried to anticipate every need while they prepped the boat: solar power, satellite communications, a spare parts cache, and a vast library of repair manuals and medical texts. He even asked two family friends, MDs, to teach them how to suture wounds and do other emergency medicine.
Fast forward to December 2017, and it’s their third Christmas at sea. They’ve already sailed and explored Mexico, Easter Island, Darwin, Sydney, New Zealand, Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, The Marquesas, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia — sometimes for extended stays, as when they toured New Zealand’s north island by car.
I ask 14-year-old Trent how the holidays feel to him now. The original Christmas story, after all, is a story about travelers.
“We usually would spend Thanksgiving with our grandparents,” he says, “but they’re not able to see us every Thanksgiving. Last Christmas we saved a boat.”
It was a fishing boat in trouble, and the Kandu crew helped them through it.
But there have been long stretches at sea — as long as 26 contiguous days.
Eric explains the shared responsibilities in the open ocean: “We have a watch schedule that gets us through the night. There’s always someone monitoring our routing to make sure that we are on the intended track, that the sails are okay, the boat speed’s good, that battery levels are good. Whoever’s on watch is monitoring the systems. And then making sure no boat’s going to hit us. Not all the boats have [transponder] identification, so you have to look for the lights constantly. Also, you’re looking for weather — if rainstorms are coming. Leslie and I take the same watch over and over again, and the boys switch who takes the first and the last watch, because the last watch gets to sleep the longest.”
I ask 16-year-old Bryce what it’s like to have so much family time.
“You would think, oh my God, how can you stay in such close proximity with everybody,” he says, “and on the ocean not able to do anything? The answer is simple: You’re focusing on sailing and sleeping and entertaining yourself, and cleaning up after yourself. There’s always cleaning to do, homework to do. You’re always tired. There’s always something to do. And when you’re not doing it, you’re super tired and sleeping.”
Eric finds a rare reward in the idle time, of which there is plenty.
“This circumstance provides something that I think people don’t know that they miss: time to contemplate,” he says. “In our lives back home there’s so little time for contemplation.”
Instead of picking out suits for a high school winter dance, the Rigneys’ teenage sons are passing wrenches and repairing the Kandu’s plumbing.
What is it like, I wonder, to be transitioning into adulthood on an extended ocean voyage?
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” Bryce says, “I hadn’t done any travelling. I had been to two other states. But I was kind of that kid who’s just ready for anything, just hit me with it. I think it was when we arrived at Tortuga Bay, Mexico. My dad had us do a report on the wildlife there. And I was out surfing, and that’s when I get my ideas. And it just came to me, wow, this is what we’re going to be doing for five more years. I didn’t realize that I was going to be saying goodbye to all my friends, and saying goodbye to comfort, and hot showers, and internet for five more years — which is basically what we’ve been doing. But this is awesome. I like travelling and eating different foods and meeting new people. Living a different life all the time.”
I ask Eric if the boys suffered much homesickness.
“Yeah,” he says. “They’re teenagers. One of them broke down about a week ago. He talked about it today. It’s tough right now because the family doesn’t want to live on the boat when it’s in pieces.”
Eric later mentions it helps that they are renting an apartment while the boat is being repaired, which brings with it deeply appreciated fringe benefits like air conditioning, hot showers and not having to make their own drinking water.
What both boys appear to miss more than anything is Raiatea, an island in French Polynesia. It seems to have been a threshold of some sort.
Trent says that he felt more like a sailor after their time there, and Bryce speaks of feeling deeply connected to the place.
“Raiatea,” Bryce says. “I really began to love. And I just cherish it in my heart, and all the friends that I made there.”
Trent adds: “We’ve been to a lot of places so far, and just about every place my dad had a friend. It made me feel like I want to make lots of friends so that when I go to say, Dubai, I can stay at their houses.”
With the New Year the voyage will continue, the Rigneys crossing the Indian Ocean via Sri Lanka and the Indian port of Cochin into the Red Sea, continuing along Sudan and Egypt through the Suez Canal.
They need to average 120 nautical miles per day.
“The sailing is a means to an end. It’s the people you meet. People are kind, open, sharing their culture,” Eric says. “We went to 13 places in Indonesia and we made a lot of friends. A lot of lifetime friends. To go up a river on a riverboat to eat bird’s nest soup. And discover how you can have a family gathering with just banana leaves on the grass. The food is just poured on the banana leaves, and you eat with your hands.”
The Rigneys suffer some regret sailing past places they would like to visit but can’t. As it is, the unexpected repair work is probably going to rule out stops in Thailand.
“The weather is your master. The seasons,” Eric explains. “The best time to enter the Mediterranean is the first week of April, from the east side of the Med. That gives us five weeks to go up the Red Sea. To take our time to get up to the Mediterranean. Then we have to be out of there by, say, mid-September. We want to spit out of the Strait of Gibraltar to be on the east coast of the Atlantic, then we have to wait another month-and-a-half to two months to make the crossing over to the Caribbean.
“We figure we have another year and a half of funds, then we’re broke and we have to go back to work. So, we kind of spent our retirement, to some degree, now, up front with the kids. In other words, we’re not leaving them an inheritance. We’re spending their inheritance seeing the world together.”
Track the Rigneys’ journey online at rigneyskandu.com.
Follow Martin L. Jacobs on Twitter (@MLJacobs_Venice) or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.