After dark, when the moonlight dances on the wave tops, Tom and Mel Neale can see the constellations as the ancients saw them, brilliant against a sky clear of smog or dust.
He used to be a lawyer, she a schoolteacher, navigating their way through 9-to-5 jobs, career ladders and commutes. That was 17 years ago. Then they headed off to sea on their 47-foot yacht.
Since then, they have been living their dream, drifting lazily aboard Chez Nous between the East Coast and the Bahamas. The yacht is the only home their two daughters, now teenagers, have ever known.
“This may sound corny to you,” said Tom Neale, “but out here we can feel God breathing.”
The Neales simply find life on a sailboat more satisfying than staying ashore. So do others - especially baby boom families - who are taking to the seas in increasing numbers despite the risks and sacrifices.
For some, cruising aboard a sailboat for years can offer a rugged reality more evocative of a trek across the prairie in a Conestoga wagon than an extended stay at Club Med. Life is frequently reduced to the basics: food, water and staying afloat.
There are times when the sky goes black, lightning crackles near the mast, and the sea turns savage. Safe harbor is still miles away, and the howling wind carries the unmistakable roar of the surf lashing a rocky shore.
And there’s no one else to turn to for help.
Nonetheless, this winter about 10,000 live-aboard yachts were bobbing along, many with no particular place to go and in no particular hurry to get there, said Jimmy Cornell, a London-based sailor who writes often about the sea.
Ten years ago, the number was about 6,000 yachts.
Cornell, who calls often at marinas worldwide, said a precise figure is impossible because the cruising population is, by definition, transient.
Perhaps one in four yachts now carries parents and children, said John Riise, managing editor of Latitude 38, a magazine devoted to live-aboard sailing.
Cruising parents typically want a shared adventure and a full dose of family values.
Aboard Chez Nous, that’s not a cliche. Parents and daughters prepare and eat three meals a day together. When the Neales wish for a fish dish, they don masks and snorkels, grab underwater slings and go fishing., School is also a family affair. Melanie, 16, and Carolyn, 14, spend six or seven hours a day below deck with their correspondence courses; Tom teaches history while Mel teaches math and biology.
The rigors of the live-aboard life are real, Melanie said. But there’s plenty of time to play. “We wouldn’t want to (live ashore) even if we could.”
Of course, like any yacht, Chez Nous has to pull into port periodically for repairs, supplies, visits to doctors and grandparents, or to sit out storms.
And time ashore gives parents and daughters a chance to recharge - after long stretches of being trapped aboard a small boat with only each other for company.
Even so, from the day they got married in 1968, Tom and Mel always wanted to go to sea. Both had grown up sailing in Virginia. Typically, it took years - 11 all told - to make the dream a reality.
They didn’t starve. But every spare penny went toward buying a boat. There was no big house on the hill. No dinners at fancy restaurants. Not even movies.
Right off, however, the Neales bought a 27-foot sailboat. They traded up to a 41-footer, then up again to the 47-footer. The $100,000 it cost was a hefty sum, especially in 1979, but that bought a boat big enough for children.
“This is how so many people do it,” Tom said. “Other people think that (cruisers) are wealthy and loafing on inherited money. Most people who do this sacrifice for years to do it.”
Aboard Chez Nous, the watchword is frugality. Meals run toward rice and beans, homemade bread, homegrown sprouts and, if the hunting has been good, fish.
To make money, Tom Neale writes for Cruising World and delivers speeches at cruising seminars. Mel, an accomplished painter, sells her work when in port. Melanie helps out by hawking hand-painted T-shirts.
Money is sometimes scarce, Tom Neale said. But life on a 47-foot sailboat isn’t about money, anyway.
“Think about seeing the starfish on the bottom of the sea in the moonlight,” he said. “Think about that. The sea is that clear. The sand is that white. And you’re seeing it in the moonlight.
“Or you’re on watch at night. You and your kid are all alone on deck, talking about things. You and she are totally alone under the stars. It’s incredible.
“Or working together as a family, to survive in a storm. It’s very scary. And then you come through it together.”
He paused, then added: “People who don’t understand, will say, ‘When are you going to come back to the real world?’ To me, out here, this is the real world.”