By Loannie Dao
For most of their lives, Matt and Jessica Johnson led typical American lifestyles. Finishing college, starting a career, and buying a house were all in the cards for the two high school sweethearts. Not long after college, the couple found corporate type jobs — Matt in sales management and Jessica in the billing department of an insurance firm. However, they felt something was missing and these predictable routines simply weren’t enough; they knew that a life of climbing the corporate ladder would never be able to satisfy their curiosity for more. It was this need to truly live that ultimately prompted them to leave their jobs and sail the world.
Before taking on the seas, the couple flirted with the idea of spending their lives in Northern Michigan, thinking that cabin life would suffice as a means to decompress from the corporate world. But they knew that purchasing a cabin would mean spending their days inside, on their computers, leading just the sort of sedentary life they were trying to escape from. So the Johnsons followed their desire to break free of their comfort zone, and though they weren’t experienced sailors, they set out to discover life at sea.
What began as a weekend hobby quickly turned into a new way of living. They absorbed everything they could about the sport. Seeing as how they did not have enough long distance or bluewater sailing experience, their initial itinerary was to travel around the Caribbean. This would provide them with a buffer to tuck into harbors along the East Coast until they became increasingly comfortable with long distance leaps (three to four days at a time). “After a trip to Vietnam, we were propelled by a craving to experience cultures that were unique from our own. We made the decision to set sail for two years and depart from our lives on land,” they both explained. And eventually, their desire to see the world by sailboat took over; the more they sailed, the longer their routes became.
Before leaving their jobs, the Johnsons saved as much money as they possibly could to fund their new adventure together. “For three years before we left we set ourselves into super-saving mode where if anything didn’t have to be purchased, it wasn’t,” Jessica said. This change taught them how to live without excess, which is something spending your days on a 34 foot sailboat requires. In addition, the Johnsons sold their home and all of their belongings before fully committing to their lifestyle change. The equity they made still partially funds their trip today. Although sourcing ways to sustain themselves at sea is sometimes challenging, roughly 95 percent of their funding comes from their savings.
While at sea, their days don’t normally rely on a schedule. Breakfast is enjoyed in the cockpit and activities can range from snorkeling, hunting for dinner with a pole spear, or docking at a seaside town to explore the local shops. Evenings at sea are spent with friends, over beer or wine and exchanging stories of different places they have traveled to. As much as sailing the open ocean and experiencing nature is extraordinary, it also comes with pitfalls. The unpredictability of the weather is one of their biggest challenges. Their plans can fall apart if they find themselves stuck in a harbor or they get caught in a heavy storm. Although these situations become more engrained in their lives, they’ve come to terms with the sacrifices associated with their lifestyle. “We have experienced extreme highs and extreme lows, but to live this kind of life we must roll with the punches and be adaptable to change.”
On one occasion, the Johnsons were leaving from Miami on their way to the Azores, an archipelago off the coast of Portugal and 3,000 miles away from where they were when a storm hit. They were traveling north along the coast of Florida in 10 knots of wind from the south when a horrendous thunderstorm unexpectedly hit. “We were instantly struck with 60 knots of wind from the north and were momentarily put on our side,” they told me. The force of the wind was so strong that they had to release their headsail into the wind and tear it before they could get it back on deck. For the next two hours, they attempted to change their course and travel south to sustain the 45 knots of wind at their back. Although all their sails were pulled in and the engine was off, they managed enough force to push through the Gulf Stream at a speed of only two knots.
Although the hectic circumstances of weather can throw them off their course, the Johnsons are currently planning their schedule for the next few years. The first leg of their journey will cross them through to Ireland, the UK, Norway, the Baltics, Brazil, Argentina, Cape Horn, and the channels of Chile. Although the future is unpredictable, they hope to stick to their scheduled itinerary as best they can. The Johnsons have also stripped down a 37-foot aluminum sailboat to its metal framing, installed all new instruments, rigging, plumbing, and electrical work, and designed a new interior that better suits their lifestyle. Every day they come closer to being able to set their new boat into the water and once the restoration is complete, they plan to sail to the Bahamas for a two-month vacation before hurricane season fully sets in.
Switching out the corporate tie for a sail and a pair of sunglasses is a freeing experience, and for a couple that met at the age of 17, the Johnsons have learned that communication is the key to both relationships and life at sea. If there is anything to learn from their experience, it is that they have discovered so much about themselves and their outlook on life. They believe that if one can dream it, one can do it. And while it takes a lot of hard work and persistence, the only person that can stop one from living their dream is themselves.