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Around the world in seven years

For the family that sails together, the sea is their school and a route to adventure. Now, it's time to get those land legs back.

Published May 22, 2005

[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
Daniel Hunter, 16, left, and Nicole Hunter, 18, second from right, study as Matthew Hunter and Renee Daniels-Hunter join them on the family's 47-foot Outlandish sailboat at the Clearwater Marina on Wednesday. Except for a year at a boarding school in Spain, the children, 9 and 11 when the cruise started, have studied by correspondence on the boat.
More photos from the trip

CLEARWATER - The Hunter family returned to town Monday, docking the sailboat Outlandish at the Clearwater Municipal Marina after a seven-year around-the-world voyage.

And they have tales to tell, from living at sea without a washing machine to swimming with whales and escaping from pirates.

Yes, real pirates.

"It was sort of like a universal dream that we adopted," said Matt Hunter, 52. "We've never been a conventional family."

There's an understatement.

Matt and Renee Daniels-Hunter were professional skydivers when they met at a jump in Zephyrhills. When they married in 1985, their adventure was just beginning.

They bought a home in East Lake Woodlands, which soon became home to daughter Nicole. Two years later, Daniel was born. The couple often chartered boats, and the family went sailing for weeks at a time.

They used to talk about going on a worldwide cruise if they ever won the lottery. They didn't win the lottery, but Matt, an optometrist, sold his part of an optometry business of more than 20 years. They bought a 47-foot sailboat in 1998 and outfitted it for world travel. Then they rented out their house and left from Annapolis, Md., in September 1998, planning on a yearlong trip.

One year, however, led to the next. Matt and Renee, 54, celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary in March in the Caribbean. The children, 11 and 9 when the cruise started, are now 18 and 16. Except for a year at a boarding school in Spain, Nicole and Daniel have studied by correspondence on the boat.

Matt traces their itinerary through credit card bills.

"In school, geography was always one of my worst subjects," Matt said. "Now, I've almost got a world map in my head."

They traveled south to Florida, the Bahamas and the Caribbean and passed through the Panama Canal in March 2000. In the Pacific, they reached the Galapagos, Tahiti, Samoa and New Zealand. In June 2001, they sailed north to Fiji and other islands, then west to Australia, New Guinea, Indonesia, Borneo, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Continuing west in February 2003, they sailed the Indian Ocean to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, then the Arabian Sea to Oman. Then northwest to Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt, Cyprus, Turkey and Greece.

While the children attended a boarding school in Spain for the 2003-04 school year, their parents sailed to Croatia and Italy and left the boat to explore Europe. Renee marveled at art by Michelangelo and other great masters in churches and cathedrals.

With the kids back on board, the family sailed to France, Spain and Gibraltar, then south to the Canary Islands off Morocco. In December 2004, they sailed west and reached the Caribbean, staying for five months.

The final leg returned them to Florida, where they docked at the Clearwater Municipal Marina, their home until they can return to their house in East Lake Woodlands.

At the boat Thursday morning, Daniel scraped dishes off. For breakfast, they had delicacies they sometimes missed - cornflakes, fresh fruit and yogurt.

"We tried to buy strawberries in the Bahamas," Renee said, "and they were a dollar a strawberry."

She missed the abundance of food here. Sometimes, all she could find for meals was sugar, rice, maybe a few potatoes or onions. But the washer and dryer were the things she missed most. In Tahiti, she said it cost about $30 to wash and dry one load. She often washed sheets, towels and clothes by hand, once for a month straight.

The most harrowing experience Renee recalled was in spring 2003. They were passing between Yemen and Somalia in the Gulf of Aden, approaching the Red Sea. Pirates had boarded and stripped a boat the day before, so the Outlandish set out in a diamond-shaped formation of four boats. An Australian power boat, about 76 feet long, was the lead boat.

Three small power boats, with about six men in each, approached the lead boat from the rear and bumped into the stern. Then the pirates started trying to board. The captain, a stocky American Vietnam veteran, charged up with bright red flares in his mouth and his hands. Language was no barrier as he pantomimed the motion of using the lighter in his hand to light fuses and toss the flares into their boats.

"I'm sure that they thought it was dynamite," Renee said.

The men retreated, but they followed closely, looking for another chance at the four boats until dark.

Keeping his family safe made it tough for Matt to sleep through the night for the first couple of years. He was conservative throughout the trip, choosing to sail only in good weather.

"It all sounds pretty romantic to take off sailing," he said. "But you're really at the mercy of the elements and the equipment. If something bad were to happen, it would really come back to haunt me."

The highlight of the trip for Matt was swimming with a humpback whale and her calf in the Kingdom of Tonga in the south Pacific Ocean. When Matt swam near the calf, the mother, about the size of the Outlandish, immediately swam between them, a living wall of whale. Matt swam as fast as he could, while the mother propelled herself with a slow pump of her tail. For 30 or 40 seconds, they were eye to eye.

"She's looking at me and we're making a connection," Matt remembers. "It gives me goose bumps to think about it."

Daniel, 16, who has a pet green iguana named Pea Brain, shares his father's interest in wildlife.

He loved trekking through the jungles of Borneo, where they met up with orangutans in a preserve at feeding time. An orangutan was up on a building near him and Daniel tried to reach up to touch him. He couldn't reach, but the animal dropped his hand repeatedly for high-fives.

But Daniel also loved New Zealand, the beauty, the friendly people and the amazing activities like bungee-jumping and "zorbing."

"They strap all your limbs to the inside of a (clear) plastic ball," he said. "Then they roll you down the hill."

Nicole, 18, had just finished fifth grade at Forest Lakes Elementary School when they left.

At first, she was unhappy about leaving, but soon she made friends on other boats.

Two of those traveled alongside the family for extended periods. One held Nicole's best friend, and they traveled together for five years.

She says she is less adventurous than Daniel, but she did go off the highest bungee jump in New Zealand.

And though she has been happy reading books onboard, lately she's been doing more active things like playing volleyball and wake boarding.

Then there's poi, which consists of twirling balls of fire from chains.

"You practice first," she said.

Nicole and Daniel also became certified divers.

"And we did a weeklong diving trip on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia," Nicole said. "Which I absolutely loved. It was just beautiful."

Now that they are back, the kids have to wrap up their correspondence classwork. In the fall Daniel will start the 11th grade in one of Pinellas County's high schools and Nicole will start college, probably St. Petersburg College. She will have to adjust to working at someone else's schedule and pace.

"It will be easier in some ways," Nicole said, "because I'll have a teacher to explain things when I don't understand."

Once they get into their house, they will get the boat ready to sell. Nicole said they need wheels now that they are back on land, a car for her and one for Renee. Matt kept his pearl-finish 1990 Nissan 300ZX in storage.

When the kids are both in college, their parents plan to get another boat and go cruising again. And Daniel may not be far behind.

"At the moment, it's really exciting to be back," he said. "With all the new stuff, I'll be entertained for a while.

"But who knows when sea fever might kick in?"

[Last modified May 22, 2005, 10:07:35]

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