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Petaluma author recalls years spent sailing world

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When Janis Couvreux heard the news of the shelter in place orders, it sounded strangely familiar.

“We know this,” she said. “We lived it. It was our norm for many years.”

The Petaluma author wrote “Sail Cowabunga” about her experience of living for 10 years with her husband and two young sons on a cramped sailboat that makes home confinement seem luxuriously spacious.

“My first thought was to keep up a routine and make do with what we have,” said Couvreux. “It’s funny how I instantly clicked into that frame of mind when the SIP was announced. Having lived on a boat, often isolated from civilization and living off the grid, we had to learn to do it all on our own.”

Feel like hoarding at the grocery store? Couvreax has been there.

“We knew what it was like to have to stock up on two months’ worth of food, as we did for our 30-day Atlantic crossing, to have to make our own bread and to preserve food without refrigeration,” she said. “There was also the challenge of how to cook in such a small boat galley with a limited stock of pots and pans, and a very small oven.”

She sees a lot of parallels between their life on a sailboat and sheltering in place due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“Even the current need to disinfect groceries or packages is similar to what we had to do prior to embarking goods on the boat,” Couvreux said. “We would take most things out of boxes, rinse off bananas, all precautions to avoid cockroaches, instead of coronavirus.”

The shutdown has instilled in many a sense of self-reliance, exactly what is needed for an ocean crossing.

“We had to keep watch, constantly repair things,” she said. “The ocean and wind have no mercy on a house that gets bucked around, and we had to keep up with the constant needs of an infant and 3-year-old.”

Feeling cooped up indoors? Try the confined space of a sailboat.

“On top of that we weren’t able to even leave the house. We couldn’t very well just step off our boat in the middle of the ocean,” she said. “On the boat we only had 40 feet of space, compared now to our house and all the outside we can take advantage of. This current SIP is actually a piece of cake compared to our former life. We have running water, electricity, a washing machine, which is a godsend, a car to go shopping and we can go shopping.”

Certain things are different, Couvreaux said, like the need to wear face masks. But even those are becoming second nature thanks to fire season.

“Wearing a mask, of course, is different and annoying especially now with the warmer weather,” she said. “But then again, we learned how to do that with the fires. We’re becoming old hands at this in Sonoma County.”

Even with all of the hardship, the family loved their life at sea and what it brought them.

“If we were at anchorage on our boat, we would have the scenery to look at, comings and goings of fishing boats, local sea life to look at,” Couvreux said. “The sea and weather would be constantly changing, as would the horizon, thus dictating changes to our sails, direction and tactics to get from point A to point B. There are encounters at sea — whales, sharks, dolphins, sudden tugs on the fishing line, and other boats off the horizon.”

As the pandemic is worldwide, sailing friends they made around the globe are all experiencing similar sheltering orders.

“We have been speaking with friends and family in France, Spain, and the island of Curaçao, and we are all doing the same thing,” she said. “It’s quite unique and for better or worse, a once-in-a-lifetime event.”

One thing that helps with the new challenge they’re faced with is their can-do, self-sufficient spirit and a knowledge of how to maintain and appreciate the familiar, steady pace of their days. The skills honed during a decade at sea are shaping how they approach today.

Couvreux explained that “routine” is the magic word these days and the key to mental stability.

“Just like our life during our 30 days crossing the Atlantic, having a routine is imperative,” she said.

Her mornings are devoted to reading the newspaper, and then walking with her husband and their dog. She does a 2-mile run and a Zoom gym class with Luma Fitness, instead of the usual class at the gym.

They’ve been delving into cooking and house projects. They enjoy Zoom and FaceTime with their grandchildren. She said they’ve been cleaning out closets and the garage and they’re finally preparing their emergency earthquake and fire shed. She noted that there’s so much more on their list.

“Here on our urban farm we are pretty self-sufficient,” she said. “My husband has a prolific garden. We have our own chickens, so we have fresh eggs every day, and a couple of lambs in our freezer from our ewes. A lot of the garden veggies are kept in our freezers as well.”

Like many people these days, Couvreaux is baking more.

“I hadn’t made bread in years, since it is so much easier to pick up yummy baguettes every day at the store,” she said. “But I did give it a go again, and I plugged right back in, just like the old days.

“Our parents never lived through this, and I daresay this will have an earthquake effect, a shock to the system, suddenly changing the norm for the foreseeable future. That said, I think it is the right thing to do, albeit if the powers that be had acted early on, maybe we wouldn’t be in such a dire situation right now.”

She and her husband have purchased a canal boat and baptized it “kawabunga!” They spent last summer exploring European canals and were planning on being there now, but the pandemic has changed their plans. They are now aiming for June, providing France reopens by then.

Their canal boat is berthed south of Bordeaux, near the Canal du Midi.

“We hope to go travel down and reach the Mediterranean by the end of September,” Couvreux said.

Those plans may remain on hold a bit longer, but Couvreux isn’t letting it trouble her.

“Something we learned from our life on ‘Cowabunga,’” she said. “Be open to big changes, because the weather, the gods, etc. always have other plans.”

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