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New Bay Books Interview: Cartoonist Jim Toomey, Author of 'Family Afloat'


If you’re a sailor or just a dreamer, you’ve imagined leaving it all behind, anchoring in crystalline waters, perhaps snorkeling off remote Greek islands. You might visit Croatian waters and dock near the yachts of Russian oligarchs, ride camels along a Moroccan beach and maybe spend the winter along the French Riviera.

Just take the kids out of school, wave adios to the neighbors and plunge into the uncertainties of an open-ocean, life-altering adventure.

That’s what cartoonist Jim Toomey — author of widely-syndicated Sherman’s Lagoon — decided to do. He and his family spent 22 months in exotic waters, visiting 32 countries and crossing the Atlantic along the way.

In Family Afloat, his newly published memoir, Toomey, of Annapolis, offers a sampling of gems awaiting those with the courage (and wherewithal) to make such a journey — and a primer on what it takes to make the leap .A few years ago, when the prospect of heady adventuring intoxicated the family, Toomey was in his early 50s, his wife, Valerie in her 40s, and children, Madeleine and William, 12 and 9. Never mind that Toomey had zero open-ocean experience. Or that he harbored fears of huge waves.

Jim says that it was Madeleine, who works for the French yacht maker, Jeanneau, who instigated the trip, the planning, the expense and the cutting of ties that goes into such an odyssey. Its highly likely that Jim didn’t need much persuasion considering that he spends his days thinking up stories that take place in a lagoon alongside the South Pacific island of Kapupu. (It really exists.)


Beneath the surface in Toomey's strip, Sherman, a goofy and laconic great white shark, (albeit a fish that made it to Times Square, right) routinely needs rescue by his bossy wife Megan. To the aggressive pearl-clad Megan, humans are beach apes. When she declares in one strip she’s hungry for Italian, sharks depart to search for Italian swimmers.

Oh, and can't forget Fillmore, the bookish, lonely turtle.

In his travel memoir, Toomey chronicles not just the journey but also the many decisions that go into such a trip. You rent out the house, but what about the dog?

Are home-schooling and boat-schooling curricula the same?

How, anchored somewhere, do I continue a cartoon strip syndicated to over 150 newspapers in 20 countries and six languages?

And, of course, where are we going? The Mediterranean beckoned the Toomeys, then the Caribbean.

As far as weighty decisions, choosing the vessel ranks just behind the decision to go. The Toomeys settled swiftly on a Lagoon 450 catamaran, which they named Sacre Bleu.

What do you pack when leaving for months, or years? An early chapter describes an expensive shopping trip at the United States Boat Show in Annapolis, during which this conversation occurred.

“Looking for a drogue?” a salesperson asked.

“I’ve never used one before,” I responded vaguely, trying not to reveal that I didn’t know drogue was a word.

“It’s like a parachute that slows your boat down in big waves."

“Sounds like something we’ll need. You know, I’m taking my family on a blue-water cruise in a few months.”

”Have you done much open-ocean, heavy-weather sailing?”

“No.”

“Have you done much heavy-weather sailing?”

“No.’

“Have you done much sailing?”

“Some.”

Fast-forward to life aboard Sacre Bleu, enduring Mediterranean winds so fierce they have names, discovering palaces, ruins and magical islands while fending off dogged customs agents. Follow the journey with marvelous, hand-drawn maps and drawings befitting an accomplished artist. You can also check out a wealth of photos from the trip here. We asked Jim Toomey a few questions about the journey and the book.



New Bay Books: Was there a final, do-we-really-do-this-or-not question you asked yourself before deciding to uproot your life and your family for a sailing adventure people dream about?


Jin Toomey Looking back on that time, I recall that we made the commitment In baby steps. The voyage first started as a semi-serious discussion between Valerie and me, then it became a serious discussion, then we took out a calendar and considered what a year’s disruption would do to our careers and social lives. Once we blocked out that year on the calendar — still a full year away at the time — we began the process of keeping those twelve months clear of commitments, contracts, business opportunities and other obligations. Once we started that process, declining one opportunity after another, we began to realize that this process of breaking free for a year wasn’t so difficult after all, and we quickly adopted the mindset of “we’re really doing this.” NBB Were there painful adjustments in trading a four-bedroom home for a 500 square-foot catamaran?


JT There is no privacy on a boat. Even in the smallest of homes, we all have a nook where we can hide and read a book or meditate or whatever ritual we need to reestablish our sense of space. During the cruise, I once tried sitting in our dinghy as it was being towed behind the boat to get a moment alone. It turned out to be too wet and noisy. Speaking of wet and noise, they are constant. In a saltwater environment, everything is a little damp – the bed sheets, the towel you use after a shower, the clothes you put on after your shower. And noise is a constant distraction. There are good noises and bad noises. A good noise might be a bilge pump that is operating correctly. A bad noise might be an anchor alarm that’s warning us the anchor is dragging, or a new squeal from the drive belt on the engine. Then there are the external noises. A ship’s horn sounds too close, a vegetable vendor on a skiff knocks on your hull. Disruptions are ceaseless.



NBB You had a bit of sailing experience but nothing on the open ocean in heavy weather, if I recall. Did you ever get

over that visceral fear of giant waves that you described early on?



JT Big seas still scare me. In the book, during the transatlantic, I talk about the power of the sea. A little wave can lift a multi-ton vessel. A storm surge can destroy a city. Sailing the ocean, I feel like a bug — woefully under-powered for the threats I may encounter. The term “safe harbor” takes on a literal sense when you are cruising. So many times we would be just one breakwater away from violent waves thundering ashore. Even though the boat was safe, the sound would keep me awake at night

NBB Throughout your two-year odyssey, you continued to draw Sherman’s Lagoon. Did it take extra discipline to keep the strip going from faraway waters? When you look back on your work over those two years, is it reflected in the life of Sherman and Megan beneath the sea?


JT For me, the creative process is all about having a block of quiet time to explore blind alleys. I wander down so many of them in the course of writing a comic strip, and every now and then I find a gem. That process requires time alone and no other obligations or distractions. I already spoke about the lack of privacy on a boat. There is also almost always something that needs the captain’s attention, whether at anchor or under way. I got most of my work done when I sent Valerie and the kids ashore to explore. That meant that I could get work done during the cruise, but I missed a few experiences.


NBB You wrote in the book: "When you forget to worry, it’s time to start worrying." That sounds like sage advice. Can you tell us a bit more about what you meant?


JT That line comes in the book just after we have made it into the safe harbor of Porto, Portugal during a building storm. When operating a boat under stressful conditions, you are simultaneously dealing with the challenges of the moment while also making/changing/adjusting the plan that eliminates or minimizes the challenges going forward. Sometimes you can get too caught up in the moment and you forget to plan ahead. During our entry into Porto, I had to deal with breaking waves that might have turned our boat into a 16-ton surfboard. Not a good thing with rock seawalls all around. I was so caught up in the moment I forgot about the ebbing tide and the sandbars at the mouth of the harbor that I had to negotiate. I forgot to worry.



NBB I recall the time on the Spanish coast when a fisherman motored up and flopped some mackerel on your deck as a gift. Were there many times on this trip when you were struck by the generosity and goodness of people?


JT Almost daily. There is a bond among sailors and especially cruisers. We will all be in a bad situation sooner or later and we will need help. It’s sailing karma. You make deposits to the goodwill account because some day you will need to make a withdrawal. Anchored in a cove in Greece, I tried to change the oil in the dinghy outboard. Like many of my do-it-yourself projects, it escalated into a disaster. A sailor in a neighboring boat took a couple of hours out of his morning to help me through the process, lending me his tools and sharing his advice. We were anchored in another cove with one other boat. Soon the owners of the other boat showed up in a dinghy with a homemade pie and a bottle of wine. The kids could always find other boats with other kids, and they were always welcomed. And we frequently hosted children from other boats. Life on a sailboat is challenging, and it requires a certain personality to tolerate those challenges in everyday life. That commonality creates kinship.

NBB Did you catch any of your own fish?


JT Not as often as we thought we would. We bought a heavy duty “tuna stick,” and we trolled with it frequently, but we rarely caught a fish. Almost none in the Med, and a few in the Caribbean. Clearly, we were doing something wrong. I almost felt sorry for the occasional fish we would catch. “How could you be so stupid?” Once, during the transatlantic, something hit the tuna stick and the line peeled out and the reel screamed. It was like we hit a brick wall. We were in the middle of the Atlantic, so it wasn’t a rock. I cut the line because whatever it was, I didn’t want to meet it. In the BVIs we caught a painted mackerel that gave us all fish poisoning. Sometimes it was the fish that was saying “How could you be so stupid?”

NBB The Roman lyric poet Horace wrote: The man who hastes across the sea changes his scenery, not his soul. Did this remarkable journey change you or your family, do you think?


JT In the Afterword of Family Afloat I discuss in detail all the ways the cruise changed us individually and as a family. To cite just one aspect, when COVID hit, and we were required to stay at home, it was an easy adjustment. We all knew how to find our own space in a crowded house. The kids, having home schooled for two years, took to virtual schooling easily. The restrictions of the epidemic were not as difficult for us as a family. We also became very conscious of waste and sustainability because everything on a boat is scarce: water, fuel, battery charge, copier paper, whatever. It has to be conserved. When I wash dishes, I don’t keep the water running. Life changes have taken root, large and small.

NBB Is there a moment from this trip that comes back to you most often?


JT The storm off Rome. I play that night over and over in my head. We were lucky because a million things could have gone wrong, and a cascade of problems could have ensued. We were out there in the middle of the night, in a storm, alone. We had to deal with the elements ourselves. That night was a watershed moment for us as a family. We came out of it much more confident in our sailing skills.

NBB Will we see Sherman reading Family Afloat?


JT Ha! What great marketing idea! I may have to bring the Toomey family to Sherman’s Lagoon. Problem is, hardly any humans leave without somebody getting eaten by a shark.



Family Afloat

by Jim Toomey

Mariner Studios

322 pages

$16.95

Available here.

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