Crafton Family of 5 Now Back on Land in Maryland After Sailing Around World for 7 Years

The Craftons lived as a real-life Swiss Family Robinson, sailing the world.

August 3, 2010, 3:51 PM

Aug. 3, 2010— -- The five members of the Crafton family still are getting their land legs back after spending seven years at sea.

"It seems like we were gone a lifetime sometimes, and other times, it seems like we were gone [for] a snapshot," Tom Crafton said. "Part of it, I really didn't want to end."

Tom Crafton and his wife, Kathy, were living in Alaska in 2003 when they decided that the life they'd created for their three children with two houses, cars, motorcycles and promising careers, wasn't enough.

"As we looked in the future, I didn't want to see my teenagers on the telephone in their room with their own TV," Kathy said. "I wanted to really know who they were ... to know them and they to know us, not the babysitter or the nanny."

Tom Crafton left his job as a child psychologist. Kathy Crafton stopped her work as a nurse. They sold their possessions and bought a boat, calling it Nueva Vida, a new life.

The Craftons and their three children -- Jena, Kalena and Ben -- pulled away from a dock in Severna Park, Md., in 2003, setting sail on a journey that would take them around the world. Their youngest child, Ben, was just seven years old when they first set sail.

The real life Swiss Family Robinson traveled 30,000 miles, going around the world and then some. They did it all in a space not much larger than a minivan.

"It brought us closer together as a family," Kathy Crafton said. "We don't fight. We don't raise our voice. You know, there's just no tolerance for it, so everybody learned to have their own space."

Tom and Kathy Crafton said that the kids never complained, that sibling rivalry stopped the day the masts went up.

Each of the children had rotating duties regarding sailing the boat.

"You have to actually work," said eldest daughter Jena, now 21. "You have to pull the line and make sure the sail is OK."

The World Was Their Classroom

Jena and Ben, who is now 15, have severe speech and developmental delays. The Crafton parents let the world become the kids' classroom, home schooling them throughout the journey. They found they were succeeding in giving their kids, Jena and Ben especially, the education that traditional schooling couldn't.

The family swept by the Mayan Ruins in Mexico in 2005. They traced Darwin's footprints in the Galapagos in 2006, visiting the same marine dragons and giant tortoise that Darwin did.

They survived the roughest seas in Panama in 2006 and the roughest years in a child's life: adolescence.

"There's a lot of good and bad things about it," 18-year-old Kalena said. "You do miss out on the social life of friends your age."

But the kids marked milestones in unique ways. Jena celebrated her 17th birthday at a pig roast in Guatemala. Kalena met her current boyfriend in the Solomon Islands.

The parents made memories they'll never forget too. In the island of Vanuatu, Kathy Crafton walked the same beaches as her dad did in World War II.

Tom Crafton created a philosophy for their travels and the different cultures of people they met.

"We tried not to leave footprints as we traveled," he said. "I think they had more to teach us than we could teach them."

The Craftons bartered for food. In a world where everything was biodegradable, a single plastic bottle could get them bunches of bananas and a sack full of fish. At times, they survived on canned food. One time, they ate canned tuna for 43 days.

The family spent the greatest amount of time in New Zealand, falling in love with the country's massive sand mountains and the people. They called it home for a year and a half from November 2006 until May 2008.

It was in New Zealand that they decided to begin heading back towards the West.

"We made a conscious decision to be with our parents, who are getting older, and have them know our children," Kathy Crafton said.

The family admitted that it was hard to miss holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Tom Crafton lamented that he wasn't there when his brother's only daughter died.

The family realized that, now that their children were approaching adulthood, it was time for them to return to the United States and create their own lives.

Their trip back was just as adventurous as the outbound trip.

The family visited a sing-sing festival in Papua New Guinea, where 30 tribes in a remote village sing and dance for three days. They were the first white people ever to see the ancient ritual.

As the family inched closer to home, they heard an odd noise: planes overhead. It'd been nearly a year since the family had heard the noise of planes.

Craftons Return to the U.S.

The family docked where they began their journey -- in Severna Park, Md.

They've begun the process of adjusting but can't let go of their beloved Nueva Vida. They're still living in the same tiny boat where they grew closer over treacherous seas and in foreign lands.

"It like a cocoon to us. It's so comforting now," Tom Crafton said. "She's kind of like part of our family now."

The biggest lesson from all of their travels is that the people who owned the least smiled the most.

"We wouldn't change a moment of it," Kathy Crafton said. "We often laugh that our only regret is not doing it earlier. That's our only regret."

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