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Petaluma family’s 10 years on a boat chronicled in memoir

Janis Couvreux and her husband Michel didn’t want to raise their kids in a characterless house in the suburbs. Instead, they settled on a 42-foot sailboat and the world’s ports of call as their home.

The couple and their two sons spent 10 years aboard the Cowabunga, criss-crossing the Atlantic, dealing with storms, medical emergencies and intruders, all while developing a close family bond.

Couvreux, a Petaluma resident, has written a memoir about the experience, “Sail Cowabunga!” which is set to be released on Dec. 3.

During a study abroad stint in France, Couvreux met her husband, who shared her passion for travel. The pair fancied the romantic notion of being seafaring vagabonds, and they took a sailing course to refresh their skills.

“It was an epiphany,” said Couvreux, 63. “It was like, wow, this is really cool. You have your house and can take it with you. It’s like having an RV, but you can cross oceans.”

Couvreux was pregnant with their first son, Sean, when they purchased the Cowabunga and began refurbishing the vessel in the port of Le Verdon. They moved on board when Sean was 1 and took trips up and down the coast of France.

“We wanted to hone our skills,” she said. “We had to figure out things like preparing bottles and changing diapers on a boat. We had to work out the kinks.”

Michel, who had an architecture practice, sold his firm and they were able to pay off the boat and put $20,000 in the bank, which they figured would last a couple of years. Their second son, Brendan, was born in 1982, and in August of that year they set sail with no long-term plans.

They first went south to Spain, then sailed to North Africa, eventually making it to Senegal. Along the way, they met other nautical families who would give them advice about where to go next.

“It was very organic,” she said. “We were literally living one month to the next.”

They crossed the Atlantic and made it to Brazil, where they dropped anchor for seven months and Sean started preschool. One night as the family slept on the boat moored in the harbor in Fortaleza, Brazil, Couvreux was awoken by a noise on deck. She went above to discover an intruder with a knife stealing some of their equipment.

“I just froze and freaked out,” she said. “I tried to scream, but nothing came out. He jumped in a boat and went off.”

Michel chased the man in a dinghy and even fired several warning shots with the .22 rifle they kept to ward off pirates. The man escaped, but they recovered some of their things.

Other stops on their adventure included French Guiana, Florida and Cuba, a place Couvreux said was very welcoming to the Franco-American family.

Their boat was caught in a storm off the coast of Uruguay. Michel’s heart problems caused a scare when he collapsed and needed resuscitation, eventually flying back to France for surgery.

The family sailed through the Panama Canal just months before the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, and made their way up the Pacific Coast to Bodega Bay, where Couvreux’s parents had retired. After 10 years of boat life, the family got a house in Occidental and enrolled the kids in Harmony School.

Eventually, they moved to Petaluma so Michel could be closer to work as an architect in Solano County and the kids could be closer to their French school in San Francisco. As for the Cowabunga, they donated it to a charity. Parting with the craft was difficult, Couvreux said, because it meant losing a major link to the carefree life of adventure they had known for a decade.

“That was really hard,” she said. “It wasn’t just a boat. It was a way of life. That’s who we were. We were the Family Cowabunga.”

An avid backpacker, Couvreux has continued to lead an adventurous life. The same is true of her two sons — Sean, 38, is a professional sailor and Brendan, 35, a firefighter, is an avid rock climber who competed on “American Ninja Warrior.” Each have two children of their own.

Couvreux said she wrote “Sail Cowabunga!” in part to give her grandchildren a written account of the stories they will no doubt hear over the years. The book is also for anyone who enjoys reading a good epic yarn.

“When someone asks to hear the story, now I can finally say ‘read the book,’” she said.

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)