Even in the few fleeting moments before he slipped free of the dock in Osterville and steered his 53-foot sailboat out to the open sea, Ned Crosby harbored nettlesome second thoughts.
How crazy is this? A year on the Atlantic with my wife and our four young daughters? What about school? What about work? Will we be safe? Will we be happy?
“Right up to that last second, we were considering pulling the plug,’’ Crosby said. “The kids were getting older and were reaching the upper limit of being able to go. July was slipping away from us. It got to be August. We said, ‘Let’s bring the boat into the dock and load it up and go.’ ’’
The sun was out. The winds were calm. The ocean stretched out forever, meeting the sky on a bright horizon. They set sail.
That was almost a year ago, the beginning of a remarkable 7,500-mile Atlantic Ocean journey of episodic peril and soaring adventure. It was a year of great discovery, of breaching whales and schools of dolphins, of breathtaking sunrises and of nighttime skies studded by millions of stars, brilliant diamonds on a black-velvet blanket.
But mostly it was a journey of a family living and working together, reading books and standing watch, and making memories unplugged from the distractions of daily life, a relaxing rhythm that none of them really wants to end.
And when it ended on Saturday, as Crosby steered their Bristol ketch named Yankee Lady back into the dock in Osterville, there were lumps in throats and tears in eyes.
“This is the last time that we’re probably going to have this much time together for the rest of our lives,’’ Kelly Crosby told me this week by cellphone from Vineyard Haven, the last stop before setting sail for home. “For the last week, I’ve felt like a crazy person. I’ve been laughing and crying.’’
The genesis of their adventure stretches back nearly a quarter-century, before their marriage, and it can be traced to a boat-building tradition with which the Crosby family has long been synonymous.
Ned Crosby, 48, is part of the family’s eighth generation of boat builders and craftsmen, and is now owner of E.M. Crosby Boatworks in West Barnstable. In the mid-1800s, his ancestor, Horace Crosby, designed and built the first of what would later become known as the Crosby Catboats.
As a 7-year-old, Ned Crosby swept sawdust and wood carvings at the family boatyard in Osterville. He graduated from Barnstable High School in 1987 and later earned a business degree from the University of Vermont. But the coordinates that charted the course of his life back to building boats were never in doubt.
“It’s the only thing I’ve ever really known,’’ he said. “It did come naturally and I enjoyed the fact that our family was known for it: ‘Oh, you’re a Crosby. You must be a sailor and a boat builder.’ I figured, well, I must.’’
And that’s what he was doing in 1993 when he and the woman who would become his wife came upon a family from Ohio, the Trautmans. Crosby was delivering a 40-foot sailboat, taking it from Antigua to South Carolina. The Trautmans were on an adventure in the West Indies, sailing with their young son and two daughters.
“That made an impression,’’ Ned Crosby said. “We said if we ever get married and have kids, we need to do something like this.’’
And that’s why Ned and Kelly Crosby, flanked by their daughters — Hadley, 12, Finley, 11, Tilly, 9, and Scotia, 7 — found themselves waving goodbye to friends and relatives last Aug. 4 at 9 a.m.
“We didn’t know if we were going to return in a week or how we were all going to fit in the boat,’’ Crosby said. “It was just chaotic. My oldest daughter was not happy to be leaving her friends. I don’t know if they could hear her crying and screaming. They might have. I certainly could.’’
But those histrionics faded. The Crosbys were nothing if not prepared. Kelly had completed an EMT course, ready in case of injury or illness. School curriculums were arranged. Financial pressure was relieved when the Crosbys sold some property in Osterville.
And as the Massachusetts coastline faded in the distance, a new routine took hold. There were duties to be performed, but, still, the pace of daily life softened. Phone calls, errands, gymnastic and hockey practices, medical appointments, and routine obligations were, increasingly, a distant memory.
Instead, there was this: Columbus Day weekend on the Chesapeake Bay. A 1,500-mile voyage to Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. When in port, the four girls were human magnets for other little kids who became their fast friends.
There was morning homework to attend to. But sometimes the best classroom was what was taking place right before their eyes over the sparkling blue ocean.
When Kelly Crosby gave her girls writing assignments, three of them chose to write to friends back home. Tilly, the 9-year-old, decided to write to a guy who used to write a Globe column and now edits the whole newspaper.
“Most of the news is bad now,’’ Tilly Crosby wrote to Globe editor Brian McGrory early this week. “And this is such a happy story to tell.’’
And that is how I found my way to the Crosbys, and to Tilly herself, who took the cellphone from her dad to tell me about her adventure of a lifetime.
“At home, we’re always running around and getting in the car and rushing everywhere,’’ Tilly said. “On the boat, we’re together all the time. And we have all the time in the world.’’
Tilly also has this: She will be the hands-down winner of the what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation essay assignment.
She’ll tell about the time gale winds churned the sea, spawning 20-foot waves. Or the 40 dolphins that seemed to perform especially for her family on the way to the Bahamas. Or the time when a squall came through and dragged their anchor toward a rocky coast. Or when the dinghy got loose, retrieved in the nick of time. Or when their boat hit a submerged, unmarked steel-hulled wreck off St. Maarten, stranding them for a time before a seafaring rescue crew freed them.
When I talked with Ned Crosby this week about the coming conclusion of his family’s adventure, he grew quiet and then choked back tears.
“There’s a sense of accomplishment,’’ he said. “There’s a regret that it’s over — that the kids are growing up. We’ve spent 11 months together for breakfast, lunch, and dinner without a single soccer or hockey practice. We’ve all become pretty good readers.’’
What has the sea taught them?
This: Slow down. Walk, don’t drive. Spend your time wisely. Work at being a family, a family that enjoys being together. Oh yes, and unplug.
Now that the Yankee Lady is back home, the Crosbys plan to place a basket by the door of their home in Osterville. And when their kids’ friends arrive for a joyful reunion, they’ll be asked to deposit their cellphones there.
Why? That’s something else they learned at sea. Turns out you can actually talk to each other without them.