Robert and Ellen Lalonde – A Life at Sea

By Leslie Moore

Robert and Ellen Lalonde – A Life at Sea

Five years ago, Robert and Ellen Lalonde were living in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, with their youngest daughter, Alison, then 12 years old. Their older two children, 19 and 20, were away at school. The couple both had full time jobs, Robert worked as a skilled welder and Ellen, who homeschooled her children during the day, worked at night as a waitress. Their life was typical of many, but it was not making this couple happy.

“We never saw each other,” began Robert. “Ellen worked at night, and I worked during the day. And, when the economy began to slip, we began to question what we were doing working so hard, and for what?”

Ellen had developed health problems and was eventually diagnosed with fibromyalgia. She lived in constant pain and life became very difficult for the couple. They had always loved boats and spending time on the water, so, after talking it over with their family, Robert and Ellen sold their home and belongings to buy a 33 foot sailboat, which they have since sold and replaced with the 38 foot sailboat, Island Girl. Robert, Ellen and Alison stepped onto their boat and set sail for parts unknown, changing their lives forever.

“We only have one life,” said Robert when I asked him why they decided to change their lives so drastically. “Our lives are much simpler now. Yes, we have made sacrifices, but we are so much happier. Before we moved on the boat we would get up, go to work, come home, work around the house, go to sleep, get up and do it all again.” Most of us have, at one time or another, noticed how fast time seems to slip by while we’re busy living our lives. Robert spoke of this and told me that since moving onto the boat, time has slowed down, and each day stretches out to contain whatever they chose to fill the hours. A lot of time is spent working on their boat, but there is plenty of time for drawing, reading and just enjoying the beauty of nature. “In the sailing life, there are no set ideas, no time limits.”

Living on a boat does require sacrifices. The couple invited me aboard Island Girl, and the living space is tiny – very tiny. There is no room for much except the basics. A Bimini top covers a portion of the deck, the helm and a comfortable seating area. I climbed down a short set of stairs to the small, tidy cabin that contains everything needed to survive weeks at sea. While the family travels, all cooking is done on a two burner gas stove or a grill on deck and perishables are kept in a cooler located in the galley area of the cabin. There is a bathroom, but no shower. Robert took a plastic pump sprayer and made a shower they can use on deck. They share their space with tiny Bella, the sea dog and Prince the sea cat, both loving and friendly pets who came running to greet me when I came aboard.

The couple recently bought Alison, who turns 17 in May, her own 25 foot sailboat, where she now lives with her pet rabbit. Alison suffers from an autoimmune disorder that the family was unaware of when first setting sail, but being away from crowds of people has most likely saved her life. “We almost lost her twice,” Robert said. Now Alison is ready to go to college and plans to attend either Horry Georgetown Technical College or Coastal Carolina University. While she attends school, her boat will be her “dorm room.” Living at sea has given Alison the skills she needs to handle her boat, and Alison’s parents are both confident of her abilities. Despite her unusual lifestyle, this teenager is surprisingly normal. “Alison makes friends wherever we dock,” Ellen told me. “She’s bubbly and adorable, so people naturally gravitate to her. We gave her a sweet 16 birthday party while docked at a marina, and friends came from everywhere to celebrate. Alison is very interested in Oceanography,” her mother continued. “For her birthday, she wanted everyone to give her money to donate to a marine wildlife charity. “Her friends talked her into accepting presents,” the couple laughed. “After all, it was her 16th birthday!”

The weather rules the life of a sailor, and Robert is constantly checking his barometer and charts while at sea. “I’ve never been afraid,” Robert began when I asked about storms. “But, there was one time it did get a little scary. I knew bad weather was coming, but I thought we could beat it out to sea. A gale hit our main sail, and there was no way we could make it back in.” This was late in the day, and Robert spent the night working to keep his tiny ship afloat while surrounded by a churning wall of water. “Someone has to be up all the time when we’re sailing,” said Robert, explaining that a speck of light in the distance means that in about 15 minutes you’ll make contact with what could be a large freighter. “Ellen’s health prevents her from taking the helm, so Alison relieved me three times that night. The first two times, I didn’t go to sleep, but by the third I was so exhausted I dropped off, only to be awakened by a wall of water rushing over me.” Alison had veered off course by slightly more than five degrees and Island Girl was nearly capsized.

The family rode out Hurricane Irene on the South River in North Carolina. “We had fun, really,” said Ellen, telling me they joined a group of boats for a hurricane party. “We chose to anchor out in the river, rather than stay in the marina, which was a good decision because many of the boats there were destroyed.” Ellen saw huge trees float by, washing machines, furniture and all manner of debris. After the storm, the weather was beautiful, and some of the group went swimming, but Ellen wisely stayed on board. “I saw logs floating down the river and soon realized that those ‘logs’ had teeth!”

While docked at a marina more creature comforts are available. A cable hook-up for their television, hot showers, electricity for a small microwave and refrigerator, as well as easy access to supplies are a few of the luxuries this maritime family can access during their stay. Robert and Ellen also have a car that they move from marina to marina, and Robert usually finds work to do. “There is always work for someone who wants it – I have done a lot of different things.” Now the couple is docked at Bucksport Marina in Conway where Robert has taken a job as one of two dock masters. This is a long term job, so they may be in the area for several years. While they are here, Ellen and Robert plan to get involved with the community. Ellen has already made plans for a community garden tended by the long term campers and boaters at Bucksport.

When asked about future plans, Robert said they want to eventually sail to Australia. “Life changes on the water – when I’m out there I am free! Sailing is a funny thing; we just throw the calendar away because there is no time limit.” Ellen added, “We will never go back to living on land. If we become unable to sail, we’ll probably get a trawler. This is our paradise.”

About this writer

  • Leslie Moore Leslie Moore is the editor for Strand Media Group. A 25 year resident of Pawleys Island, she is blessed with a life filled with the love of family and friends and satisfying work to do every day.

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4 Responses to “Robert and Ellen Lalonde – A Life at Sea”

  1. Kevin Godwin says:

    Great story and an even better family; passionate, committed, and inquisitive! I look forward to seeing Alison around campus (I teach at Coastal) next fall

    • Robert says:

      Well good to hear from you. We will be around for 2 to 3 years before we set sail to Pacific side of Coast Rica

  2. Cheryl Millsaps Johnson says:

    Thank you so much for writing this! Ellen and I went throught school together, became close friends, we lost touch about 7 years ago, I’ve thought about her often. I am headed to Myrtle Beach in a couple of weeks, I plan to stop by Bucksport and see them. I am so happy that they have found some peace in their lives!

  3. The johnson family says:

    hello, BOB haven’t seen u in a long time will be in conway next week will look u up hope to see u then luv, cheryl steve mikki jace

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