Hopkins family returns from trip around the world
Published 9:17 am, Thursday, July 1, 2010
Westporter Doug Hopkins grew up sailing on Lake Erie and a decade ago wisely invested in a catamaran. Taking his wife Kyle up and down southern New England, she too caught the sailing bug. This set the wheels in motion for Hopkins to achieve a lifelong dream -- circumnavigating the globe.
Earlier this month, Doug, Kyle and their two daughters, 12-year-old Abigail and 15-year-old Eliza, returned from a six-and-a-half year voyage that began and ended in "Estrela," their West Sail 32-footer. During that span of time, they spent weeks and months in various countries, 27 in all.
"That counts some overseas territories as countries," Doug said.
Abigail has spent half of her life abroad and Eliza, who is one year away from getting behind the wheel of a car, began the trip with her family when she was 8 years old. While the trip was inspired by Doug's dream to sail around the world, Kyle added that it was also about the family.
"We were sharing experiences together," she said, noting that snorkeling in various locales, for instance, served as science classes under water for the children. The girls were home schooled throughout the voyage and upon return, both tested in the 99 percentile on their entrance exams to school on dry land.
Eliza said one trip highlight was getting to hike in Luang Nam Tha, a rain forest in Laos.
"It was beautiful. It was a three-day hike," she said. "We spent each night at a different camp. The guides showed us tiger droppings and other interesting things. They made a lunch made from the rain forest. We ate on a banana leaf and used bamboo chutes as chopsticks."
In addition, a portion of a bamboo trunk was used as the cooking pot for soup.
"The food was incredible," Eliza said.
Eliza, and Abigail as well, won't forget posing for pictures with tigers in Thailand.
"I wasn't scared. They were so calmed by the Buddhist monks," Eliza said. "The tiger's fur was really short and coarse, but it was very soft and thick around the neck."
The family also got to snorkel among sea lions in the Galapagos Islands. It was not a controlled environment like at Sea World, where one can pay to swim with the dolphins. It was in the wild, in ocean water.
Doug said at one point the sea lions felt the Hopkins family was swimming a little too close to their area.
"They would make runs at us, swimming very fast and would turn at the last second," he said. "We got the hint they wanted us to move back to the boat we jumped off."
Doug said the Galapagos Islands was one of his favorite stops. From the sea lions to the iguanas, from the tortoises to the songbirds, he said the wildlife was "unlike what we experienced anywhere."
"They were fearless of humans," he said.
While there were some places where the family only spent a couple of weeks or two to three months, there were five countries where the Hopkins stayed five to eight months -- New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, South Africa and Brazil. Kyle was hard-pressed to name a favorite place because she and the family had incredible experiences in every country, "whether it was the people or wildlife," she said.
However, when pressed further, she admitted Chagos Archipelago was a favorite. Cruiserlog.com notes that the Chagos group is a combination of different coralline structures topping a submarine ridge running southward across the center of the Indian Ocean, formed by volcanoes above the Réunion hotspot.
Doug and Kyle sold their home in Woodstock, N.Y., and their car, to finance much of the cost of the six-and-a-half year voyage.
Doug's mother, Westport resident Betsy Dickinson, handled the bills and finances while the Hopkins family was at sea and country-hopping.
Betsy said she stayed in contact with her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren every day, either via their journal entries, sail mail, which is done by radio, or by e-mail. Ironically, when the family was on land, Betsy wouldn't hear from them as often.
Roy Dickinson, Doug's stepfather, said he and Betsy were never really worried about the family's safety.
"The only real concern was when we got a call from the Coast Guard in Boston saying his alarm had gone off in the far east someplace," he said.
The alarm usually means a boat is sinking or something terrible has happened. Fortunately, the Dickinsons would find out within 24 hours that there wasn't anything to worry about. Rather, the distress gadget had accidentially been dropped in the water.
Abigail and Eliza remained in contact with both sets of grandparents.
"We're so thrilled with the way the children have turned out," Betsy said. "I think we're closer to these grandchildren than others who remained in this country."
Doug said perhaps the hardest part of the trip for the girls was making very close friends then parting and saying goodbye.
"We had many tearful farewells," he said.
Before the trip started, there was no such thing as Facebook, Doug noted. Now there is and it has helped the girls remain in regular contact with the friends they made. For most of the trip, Doug was the only male aboard Estrela, but then the family adopted a street kitten, Choro, while in Brazil.
"He was a great shipmate," said Doug. However, Doug lost his only male companion about five months after the adoption when Choro fell overboard. A picture of Choro, peeking through a porthole, can be seen at www.sailingestrela.com. The line above the photo describes Choro as Estrela's first mate.
As far as sheer beauty, Doug said he loved Rio De Janeiro.
"There were extraordinary rock formations. There were mountains of green-covered rock that rise up in the middle of the city," said Doug. "It was surreal. The housing was clinging to the side of these steep mountains."
The Hopkins family also got to see the 130-foot tall Christ the Redeemer statute, located at the peak of the Corcovado mountain in the Tijuca Forest National Park, which overlooks the city. Doug said there were also white beaches right in the middle of Rio de Janeiro.
In addition to aforementioned countries, the Hopkins family also made stops at, among others, Fiji, Madagascar, Inodesia, Botswna, Namibia, Bermuda and the Bahamas.
"There was a lot of planning that went into this trip," said Kyle. "We had to find the right boat. We had to sell our other boat, sell our house. Doug had to find a replacement for his work, and then once we found Estrela, we had to get her ready to go."
In addition, Doug, a former laywer, and Kyle, a former actress and singer before becoming a mom, took a wilderness first responder course before heading out to sea.
Also, the girls were taken out of public school a year before the family's voyage to get them used to being home-schooled. During the six-and-a-half years away from the U.S., books were sent to the family in each of the five countries they spent an extended period of time in. The sail boat, in essence, became a floating home school.
While it was an unforgettable journey, Doug admitted the girls are looking forward to heading back to a school on land -- a place where they can make friends and not have to say goodbye.
The family is moving to Buffalo, N.Y., as that is where the Hopkins parents have secured jobs as teachers. It's a career change but one they are looking forward to. They will be at the Buffalo Seminary, an all-girls independent high school. Eliza, who is entering tenth grade, will be there as well.
"It became pretty obvious to us that our calling was teaching," said Kyle. "We've seen what education can do around the world and also we've seen where there is a lack of education, what can happen."
This past Monday, the family drove from Buffalo back to Westport to get Estrela, which has been docked at Compo Basin since June 21.
Doug said touring the world in a 32-foot sail boat made the family even more tight-knit than it was.
"Personally, I feel blessed for having gained this closeness to my daughters and my wife," he said.