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The Gordon family from Two Harbors stand at the bowsprit of their 40-foot steel cutter, Amicus II, on a brisk May afternoon at the Knife River Marina. From left are Cedar, 9; Mark; Lamar, 7; and Katya. (Clint Austin / austin@duluthnews.com)

Two Harbors family sees the world on sailboat adventures

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KNIFE RIVER -- Lamar Gordon has it figured out. At age 7, she can articulate the benefits of the sailing lifestyle that her parents, Mark and Katya Gordon of Two Harbors, have chosen.

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"I like being so close to my family," said the Gordons' youngest daughter. "I like it being so comfortable. I like my bunk better than my bed at home. ... I like when we head out and there's a really good wind and we're really cooking along and we get to go somewhere and see new places."

Lamar's assessment probably describes the Gordons' cruising life as well as possible. They have consciously chosen a nontraditional lifestyle that allows them to be together with daughters Cedar, 9, and Lamar and spend as much time as possible on the water.

And they've been on the water a lot. They have circumnavigated Lake Superior and made a year-long cruise from Lake Superior to the Bahamas. This fall, they will embark on a nine-month working cruise to the Virgin Islands.

To finance their longer trips, they offer two-hour to two-week charter cruises on Lake Superior through their business, Amicus Adventure Sailing. And on this fall's trip to the Virgin Islands, they will take 18- to 24-year-old young adults on various legs of the journey, paying customers who will learn sailing while they see some of the world.

All of this fits into the lifestyle and philosophy that Mark, 52, and Katya, 43, have deliberately chosen to live.

"Our priorities are being together, living lightly on the Earth and being useful to people," Katya said, sitting aboard Amicus II, their 40-foot steel cutter, this past week. The boat is docked at the Knife River Marina.

Katya's book, "Big Waves, Small Boat, Two Kids," was just released this past week. The book documents the family's 1,200-mile circumnavigation of Lake Superior and their 5,000-mile trip to the Caribbean.

Those who know the Gordons admire their spirit and their desire to share the sailing experience.

"The thing that impresses me most about them is their genuine warmth, their curiosity about people and their curiosity about life," said Greg Wright, executive director of the North House Folk School in Grand Marais. "It's about being out there and doing it: 'The world is a rich place. Let's go.' And second, their willingness to take people along on the journey. Katya and Mark open their lives up to people."

Ted Gephart of Bayfield, who also sails and who knows the Gordons, says they have charted a different course than most couples.

"They have done a very un-American thing, which is to put money at the bottom of the list and the desire to have a family and raise that family at the top," Gephart said. "What they did with those kids is phenomenal."

Sailing with purpose

When Mark and Katya made their cruise around Lake Superior in 2005, the girls were ages 3 and almost 1. The water was cold, and the Gordons were inexperienced sailors.

"In a lot of ways, that was harder than our Bahamas trip," Mark said. "You never saw any people. When you don't see anybody for so long, you start to wonder, 'Am I crazy?'"

But they were committed. They had made a seven-year plan: Start a family, and after five years, take off on a long trip. But they decided after Cedar was 3, they might as well start traveling. Before the Bahamas trip, they sold their home in Chisholm, resigned from their jobs, gave away many of their possessions and took off.

After reaching the Bahamas, they pondered their future. Both Mark and Katya had worked extensively with youths in the outdoors before they were married. Mark worked with young offenders as director of wilderness programs at Thistledew Camp near Togo, Minn., and later with Soltreks, a wilderness therapy program based near Two Harbors. Katya worked at Camp Widjiwagan near Ely and with delinquent young women in a restorative justice program in Minneapolis, among other outdoor positions.

The Gordons realized they couldn't continue to cruise simply for pleasure.

"That's one of the main reasons we came back," Katya said. "We felt like we were on perpetual vacation. Our whole lives had been in service. ... Life is too short to spend it in any way that's not valuable."

Erin Pratt, a mental health counselor from Minneapolis, met the Gordons three years ago and later lived with them for three months. She has seen their commitment to reaching others through adventure.

"Their No. 1 priority is the lifestyle they're living," Pratt said. "But that's completely connected to their mission in what they give in terms of groundedness and love and healing to other people. What's most important to them is that they're able to share this with people, and it's not based on money."

Living the dream

People who meet the Gordons on their cruises, who see the family traveling and exploring together, often have the same reaction.

"You're living a dream," they say.

On the Bahamas trip, they didn't have a mortgage, didn't have a car, had no demands beyond the boat and the wind and the water. But that doesn't mean that sailboat cruising is without stress. Motors leak oil. Storms spring up without warning. Docking 34 feet of boat in a tight harbor with a strong side wind can be unnerving.

"Our lifestyle is a bit alternative," Mark says, "but it's not an easy life, either. It's a different kind of stress. It's not the constant stress of a high-pressure job. But like when you set an anchor at night ... this happened just last week (in the Apostle Islands). The wind changed at night. We didn't have to move, but we didn't sleep much that night. That happens all the time."

The Gordons have run aground more than once. They have had problems finding safe anchorages at times. Seasickness was not uncommon. They have raced for safe harbors in squalls.

"There were survival situations," Katya said. "People are throwing up. ... You were inches from death. And you look at shore and people are having a barbecue."

Being in those situations with children can be unnerving, but the Gordons have worked it out with the girls.

"They know when to get out of the way," Katya said. "All hell can be breaking loose, and the kids are unconcerned. They just do their thing and trust that it's all going to be fine."

Along the way, Mark and Katya have found new depth to their relationship.

"Turns out, what we were capable of giving one another was really far greater than I had guessed," Katya wrote in her book. "One day I found myself watching (Mark) struggle with the ropes while the wind whipped his hair and aged his face -- and I saw that I loved him more than I was capable of loving him before this all began."

Making the break

So how does a family come to live this way? To sell a home and a car, to take off for a summer or a year? To declare a set of priorities much different than those of most Americans? For the Gordons, it began when they decided that Katya would not give birth to Cedar in a hospital but at home, with a midwife.

"Home birth got us on the path," Katya said.

Once they started down an alternative path, which now includes home-schooling the girls, it became easier to make more nontraditional choices.

"Once you do that the first time, you never have to do it the first time again," Mark said.

Wright, at the North House Folk School, has watched the Gordons' lifestyle evolve.

"In a world where we're all convinced or told we're supposed to punch the clock, they're incredible at making deliberate choices that reflect their values," he said.

It has helped that Mark had saved some money during his years of more conventional employment and Katya has a financial inheritance. But the Bahamas trip was done without touching the inheritance.

They maintain that other families could live this way, too, and they meet many of those families while cruising. It's a matter of making choices.

"You have your priorities drive your lifestyle, rather than having your lifestyle drive your priorities," Mark said.

Once you have two car payments, Katya said, breaking away becomes a lot harder. Living more simply, giving up more material possessions, opens up possibilities.

"A lot of people want to do this," Katya said. "I say, 'Go ahead. Do this.' You can have anything you want. But you can't have everything you want."

"We've known some great things, and we've known some hard things," Mark said. "The cost-benefit is definitely on the great things."

Read the book

For more information on sailing with the Gordons or to buy Katya Gordon's book "Big Waves, Small Boat, Two Kids," go to their website at amicusadventuresailing.com.

Katya Gordon has two book signings scheduled in coming weeks:

Tuesday, 6 p.m., Silver Bay Public Library

July 23, 6:30 p.m., Two Harbors Public Library

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