‘Being on the ocean is who they are’: how sailing bonds my partner’s family

Going on holiday with your new boyfriend’s family for the first time is always going to be a big deal. For me, it was a baptism of fire, but also a bit of a dream. It was 2012 and Tim invited me to come sailing for two weeks in the Greek Ionian Sea with his parents, Michael and Anna, and sister Lucy.

Boats had not really been part of my childhood growing up in Canada so to me it all seemed incredibly exotic. I imagined sipping cocktails and eating chilled cubes of cantaloupe on plush sun loungers while cruising around tropical islands, dolphins frolicking around us. The reality was rather more humble, but no less exciting.

Michael Fitzsimons, Sarah LaBreque, Tim Fitzsimons

  • Sarah LaBreque looks at family photos with father-in-law Michael and partner Tim

What that trip opened my eyes to, aside from my dislike of pumping toilets and newfound appreciation for the raw power of the ocean, was that for the Fitzsimonses, being on the ocean was not just something they did for fun, it was who they were. It was threaded through three generations on both sides of the family, from the Atlantic convoys of the second world war to murky Merseyside rivers, blustery Welsh coastlines and the warm waters of the Mediterranean. And it was something that particularly bonded Tim and his dad Michael together.

For Michael, it all started in the late 1960s. “Everything was right to put you off sailing for life,” he says, remembering the day he went out for the first time, age 13, with his dad, Desmond, on their new, wee sailboat. It was a spring day and the Mirror dinghy, the hugely popular small craft that opened up sailing for the masses, was beneath their feet.

“We hadn’t a clue what we were doing. We had one lesson from the guy who sold us the boat. We went out on the River Alt, which is a very small, muddy little river just to the north of Liverpool and it was howling a gale. My dad bought the boat and we carried on for more.”

After an adolescence spent messing around on the Mirror, and later with a son and daughter of his own, anything water-related was soon part of the family’s holidays and leisure time. “I used to go on the back of the windsurfer in West Kirby [in the Wirral], with my wetsuit on,” says my partner, Tim, Michael’s son. “My dad was probably the only windsurfer on the lake with a little child hanging on the back for dear life!” Tim has clearly inherited his dad’s love of the open water, and his fascination with the power of nature. “There’s also an element of excitement,” says Tim, “because something invariably goes wrong.”

Looking through a photo album

Pouring glasses of Stella Artois

Father and son share memories

Don’t I know it. It’s not a family holiday unless someone ends up with blood running down their ear (usually Michael) or clinging on to the back of the boat, 30 knot winds and 2-metre-high waves whisking away their recently digested breakfast (usually me). In the early noughties the Fitzsimonses decided to give sailing in fairer climes a go. They chartered a boat in Greece that was part of a flotilla – novice families out for a bit of semi-supervised adventure. By now a dab hand at sailing dinghies, how different could it be to sail a 40ft yacht? It wasn’t until all the sails were up, high winds carrying them swiftly into the sunset, which incidentally was the wrong direction, that wife Anna spoke up. “You need to take some of the sails down, I can’t handle this boat,” she remembers saying as she struggled at the helm.

And the reply was, famously, she says: “we don’t know how”.

“There was also day two when Dad tried to dodge a wave and ended up head-butting the glass cover that stops the spray coming over, and went sort of semi-conscious,” says Tim. Ah, a relaxing Fitzsimons holiday.

Fast forward a couple more years and Anna and Michael now share a yacht called Resolute with about a dozen other families, where I joined them that first time. Each party gets an allotted few weeks a year on the boat, which at the moment is moored near Athens. They would, that is, if lockdown hadn’t come along.

So instead of Greece it was off to north Wales, once the country opened up for visitors, for a slightly cooler summer jaunt. Two days of glorious sun and four days of torrential rain later, and Michael’s questioning whether it’s worth it to keep the latest addition to the family, the pretty Cracker, a 17ft Cornish Crabber in a fetching shade of mint. The trouble is getting it from its resting place inland, down the narrow lanes of Anglesey, to the beach. Inevitably a four-person operation – one to drive the car towing the boat, two to walk slowly beside calling out instructions, and another to race ahead to warn any oncoming horses, beachgoing families or tractors of our descent. Stress-free? Perhaps not. Memorable? Always.

Tim and Michael

During the past few months, when life has become as predictable as a pack of cards tossed up into the wind, we’ve learned that spending time together can ground us in uncertain times. That’s the true value of family time together. This summer in Wales, and even the process of writing this piece, for us, has crystalised the value of appreciating and nurturing our bond.

It’s joyful to see a family united by a common passion, especially one as healthy and life-affirming as sailing. It’s no wonder both Tim and Lucy are lovers of the water, as their grandfather on their mother’s side was also a seaman. As a master mariner in the Merchant Navy, his career took him from the industrial ports of the UK to the convoys of the Atlantic during the second world war.

And although the whole family shares a love of sailing, for Tim and Michael the pull of the water is perhaps stronger, supporting their father-son bond. At the very least, it means I can sunbathe while they fiddle with ropes and anchors.

Tim and I have a daughter now, and Lucy has a son. They’re still really little but they’ve already spent countless hours at the beach, making sand castles and letting the waves wash over their tiny toes. Maybe they will come to love the water, and the whistle of the wind, but maybe they won’t. We’ll see where the tide takes them.

Take the time to savour the special moments with your loved ones with a chalice of Stella Artois

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Please drink Stella Artois responsibly. For the facts, visit drinkaware.co.uk

The Guardian

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