As a cruising parent, I’ll be frank: narratives that sugar-coat what it’s like to set sail with very young children (the children are happy day and night, nobody gets seasick, it’s always blowing 15 knots, the anchor never drags…) are — how do I say this nicely? — lies, all lies. Shakedown Cruise is not one of those stories; it’s probably the most truthful tale of sailing with young children that I’ve ever read.

It’s also one of the most painful stories of sailing with young children that I’ve ever read. Nigel, his wife (Terrie), their toddler daughter (Pippin), and eventually joined by baby Paul, encounter disaster after disaster during their first eighteen months of cruising in the Caribbean during 1987-1988. Many problems can be attributed to the lack of technology back then: unreliable charts and navigation systems found the Calders going aground again and again. Lack of weather reporting meant the family could only surrender to the weather gods — often resulting in miserable upwind passages with the entire family seasick.

At times, I felt so terrible for this family that I wanted to give up reading — what misery! Poor Pippin was seasick on nearly every passage; (Pregnant!) Terrie hardly ever got to go ashore or paint as she loved to do; the family spent most of their first months fighting their way southeast along the islands in their overloaded, poor-performing, 39-foot ketch, Nada. The story is told from Nigel’s point of view, with many quotes from his original log, and a few tidbits from letters Terrie sent to relatives. Chapter after chapter, Nigel’s accounts sound less like a shakedown cruise, and more like a cruise from hell. Yet I must admit that I was delightfully entertained, reading about someone else’s cruising misery from my comfortable salon settee.

Eventually, the family makes it to Venezuela, they fly back to the U.S. where Paul is born, they take a few months to recoup, then head back to the boat to make their way home again. Although the family is faced with fresh challenges, what with a truly mobile 2-year-old and an infant, it becomes clear as they work their way north that they’ve learned a lot despite their miserable start to cruising. They know their boat better, they take more time to explore the magnificent islands they visit, and I finally got the sense that the family found at last what they’ve been seeking all along: a family adventure.

As you’d expect of a Nigel Calder book, this one is peppered with technical sidebars (“Running Aground and Kedging Off,” “Heaving-to”) that hopefully will help future families avoid some of the Calders’ misery. It also made me extremely grateful for the marine technological advances we enjoy today such as GPS, electronic charts, and satellite communications. That said, there’s still no cure for beating upwind and a toddler’s seasickness – some challenges are timeless.

By the end of the book, the family has found their groove: their shakedown cruise has been a success—no sugar-coating needed. The postscript hints that the family took a short break from cruising then continued on. I’m already looking forward to continuing on with them.

Shakedown Cruise, by Nigel Calder (Adlard Coles, May 2018, 225 pages, print $25.00, eBook $22.50)