The Yue family had sold nearly everything they owned and moved onto an 11-metre sailboat when Hurricane Dorian threatened to blow their life plan off course.
With his wife and daughter safely on shore, Tony Yue stayed on board for a terrifying day and a half last September to make sure the Atlantic Ocean didn’t claim his family’s new home.
“There’s really no way to capture what it feels like when 75, 80-knot winds and beyond hit a small boat in the open water. It was an experience I will never forget,” said Yue about riding out the storm off the coast of Shelburne, N.S.
The Halifax family of three was just days into what they hoped would be an epic two-year sailing adventure to Guatemala and back. But the trip that was more than 30 years in the making was full of unexpected obstacles before coming to an early end this summer.
Yue had dreamt of leaving land behind for years.
“As a young man I took a sailing journey. In fact, I left high school to do it, to the chagrin of my parents, and when I returned I began making machinations to sailing and making it part of a lifestyle,” he said.
The associate professor at Mount Saint Vincent University is a big fan of mountaineering and long-distance cycling. He firmly believes that “adventure is pretty much the point in living.”
So it wasn’t out of character for him and his wife, Patricia, to decide to rent out their north-end Halifax home, sell all their furniture, books and clothes, and move on to a small sailboat.
“There’s a lot of saving of money, time, and then, quite frankly, preparing the boat requires all sorts of repairs,” Yue said. “Invariably you break things, you discover things that you need to make the journey not only interesting but safe.”
Preparing for the trip took five years, so being temporarily delayed by Hurricane Dorian was not about to ruin the family’s plans.
After they did some repairs on Sienna’s Choice — which they named after their 10-year-old daughter— they continued travelling south, arriving last January in the Abaco Islands, an area of the Bahamas devastated by Dorian.
“It was sad because you could see all the damage,” said Sienna. “But it was also cool because people were still very kind.”
The family spent the next several weeks pitching in on storm cleanup and helping the community rebuild, while Sienna learned to snorkel and spotted nurse sharks from her kayak.
“I met lots of kids, a lot more kids on boats than here in Canada. So that was cool to see that other people do the same thing as we do,” she said.
Then, about a month and a half after they arrived in the Bahamas, so did the coronavirus. The island country shut down almost immediately.
“It was quite a shock because, of course, as a sailor you prepare what you think reasonably could be anything happening to you. But one does not prepare for a global pandemic,” Yue said.
The family of three was confined to their small sailboat nearly 24/7.
“At rare points, one member of the family was allowed to dinghy towards shore to go get some provisions and come back,” Yue said. “But for the most part, we were locked down so severely that even taking the dinghy with the outboard for a tour or even swimming wasn’t allowed.”
They spent a lot of time looking at paradise without being able to actually enjoy it, he said.
When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau began calling Canadians home in March, the Yues left the Bahamas, but it would take them three more months of sailing before they arrived back in Nova Scotia.
They made their way up the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, stopping only briefly for supplies in states like Florida that were battling outbreaks of the virus.
On July 21, the Yues finally sailed back into Halifax, and began another round of self-isolation on their boat, which is still moored at the Armdale Yacht Club.
“We not only quarantined on the boat without being able to leave it, but we spent virtually no time on deck either. So we were in an area the size of most people’s master bedroom for 14 plus days,” Yue said.
Sienna says living in such tight quarters takes some getting used to, but it’s not all bad.
“Thankfully, I have my own door in my bedroom so I can just close the door and I don’t even have to see them for a long time if I don’t want to,” she said.
The Yues embarked on their epic sailing adventure in order to experience something that until five months ago was very rare: uninterrupted quality time as a family.
“We’ve learned that sometimes resilience looks more quiet than boisterous. It’s not a lot of talk. It’s being able to sit quietly with each other,” Yue said. “My daughter’s learned that she wants to beat me at a game of chess eventually because there’s been endless family tournaments.”
And even after travelling 11,000 kilometres together on a tiny sailboat, Tony, Patricia and Sienna Yue aren’t sick of each other — or of sailing.
“I don’t think I want to go back to a house now,” Sienna said. “I think I’d rather live on the boat.”
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