Family life on the ocean waves
Newlyweds Dario and Sabine Schwoerer set aside four years to sail the world and climb the highest mountain on every continent. Things did not work out quite as they had planned.
The Swiss couple are still sailing 15 years later, with five children in tow and one on the way.
“It took us much longer because we didn’t plan well in the beginning,” said Mr Schwoerer, a climatologist.
“We didn’t take into account hurricane season and things like that. We thought we’d just sail through storms. Now we know that we have to sail with the rhythm of nature.”
Adventure after adventure has consumed them since they left Geneva on their 50ft sloop Pachamama in 2002.
An errant container destroyed their rudder on their way to Antarctica soon after their first climb, France’s Mont Blanc; they were stranded for more than a year in Patagonia.
While playing soccer with kids in San Diego, Mr Schwoerer injured his Achilles tendon, grounding them for five months.
The 48-year-old and his 41-year-old wife run Top to Top, a climate change awareness foundation which pays for their voyage. The couple document and disseminate climate change information and speak at schools in each country they visit in an effort to encourage pupils to get involved in community service that will improve their environment.
They have talked with several students since they arrived in Bermuda on Monday. Their plan is to stay for ten days before heading to Greenland to climb Gunnbjørn Fjeld.
After that, they plan to tackle Mount Vinson in the Antarctic and settle on land in 2020.
It will take some adjustment for their first-born, Salina, and her siblings Andri, 10, Noe, 7, Alegra, 5 and Mia 1.
The 12-year-old was born while her parents were stranded in Chile after a disastrous accident on the way to Mt Vinson.
“We were in the South Pacific when we ran into a floating container,” said Mr Schwoerer. “It destroyed our rudder. We couldn’t steer the boat any more so we had to drag lines.”
They were forced to rely on sails and a handheld GPS device. Waves battered the boat so badly that the woodwork, and then the aluminium hull started to crack.
“My wife was pregnant,” he said. “We were terrified. We were in survival mode. We had the liferaft always at hand, but we managed to adjust the sails to sail towards land.
“When we saw land after three weeks we were the happiest people on Earth.”
A midwife in Patagonia helped deliver Salina. “I cut the cord with my Swiss Army knife,” said Mr Schwoerer.
They were stranded there for a year-and-a-half while repairs were made to their boat. They resisted pleas from family to return to Switzerland and managed to knock off their second mountain, Aconcagua in the Andes.
“We’d promised ourselves we’d try at least 20 times before giving up,” said Mr Schwoerer. “We went into schools in the slums to talk with the children. We saw 15,000 to 20,000 children in Chile alone. When the Swiss ambassador saw us struggling with money — our programme is funded by donations — he made contact with Victorinox.”
The makers of Swiss Army knives helped them get new sails and became their first major sponsor.
Eventually, Pachamama became a floating lab for sustainable living. Last summer, she became the first sailboat to travel from the Pacific to the Atlantic across the Northwest Passage. It gave the family a first-hand look at global warming.
“At times, the temperature dropped to 14F and it snowed,” said Mr Schwoerer. “We had no heat, and sometimes the fridge was the warmest place on the boat.
“We had to wear all our clothing. We saw very dramatic ice loss. In some Inuit communities, the teen suicide rate is 25 per cent. The reason why is that they lose their existence. They are like the polar bears we have seen.
“Once we saw a polar bear 75 nautical miles offshore, just looking for ice, just dying. They need ice to hunt, the same as the Inuit. Without sea ice, they cannot survive.”
They try to live a “green” life, but it is not always easy. Diapers were a real test.
“We started out using cloth diapers,” said Mr Schwoerer. “But it was very difficult. We were washing them with salt water and they were not sanitary.
“And we struggled to dry them.”
Disposable diapers did not work either.
“We needed boxes and boxes of them,” he said. “We’re often on the ocean for months at a time. The boxes took up a lot of space.”
In the end, they settled on diapers able to break down in a compost bin. They reuse a plastic outer lining and compost the inside.
The Schwoerers spent the next few years after Patagonia growing their family and ticking off more mountain tops — Denali in North America, Mt Kosciuszko in Australia, Mount Everest in Asia and Kilimanjaro in Africa.
Depending on the mountain, the children climb with them or stay at base camp with their mother.
“Don’t ask me what it’s like to live on a boat,” Salina said. “I have nothing to compare it to. I’ve never known anything different.”
Shortly after her first birthday, storms in the Pacific Ocean kept the Schwoerers at sea for 58 days. When they eventually landed, Salina got “really excited”, her father said.
“We’d been at sea for so long that she’d forgotten what the birds and flowers looked like. She was afraid to get in the dinghy with us, and then when we got to land she was just so amazed to see the birds and smell the flowers. She was there for an hour just looking. She’d forgotten what it was like to be on land.”
The children take classes online. For exercise, they run around the boat deck and climb the masts. As for entertainment, they read and play the cello and violin.
“Sometimes it’s a little difficult for them to get privacy,” said Mr Schwoerer. “They might climb the mast or sit at the front of the boat for that.”
He and his wife insist the children wear safety lines on the high seas and do their part to help.
“Everyone has a chore,” said Mr Schwoerer. “Salina helps with the cooking. She has also started doing night watches.
“Alegra turns on the navigation lights. She knows that if she doesn’t do that, we might hit something.”
His greatest wish is that their project continues long after they have completed their task in 2020.
“Our vision is that volunteers take over the project,” he said. “We hope that the boat goes many times more around the world to inspire and bring hope.”