Erik Orton jokes that he was once the poster child for failure—literally. In 2006, his face graced the cover of Crain’s New York Business magazine after an off-Broadway musical he produced closed after just five weeks. But that setback worked as a catalyst, leading Erik and Emily Orton and their five children—Karina, Alison, Sarah Jane (SJ), Eli, and Lily—on a decade-long journey and to a 38-foot-long catamaran dubbed Fezywig.
“We were in a low spot as a family, [financially] and professionally,” Erik says of the years following the closure of his off-Broadway play. In order to make ends meet, Erik took a “soul-sucking” temporary night job in the Manhattan financial district. Each night as he sat by the Hudson River eating dinner, Erik would watch the sailboats skimming along the surface of the water into the sunset.
“It looked so peaceful and lovely—I wanted to do that,” Erik recalls. “But it felt like there was some kind of invisible barrier.” Sailing was a hobby reserved for the rich or those with nautical genes that spanned generations. A middle-class Latter-day Saint family of seven couldn’t just up and start sailing, could they?
But those tranquil moments on the Hudson compelled Erik to walk in the doors of a sailing school and ask about lessons. Though Emily and Erik would have to scrimp and save, lessons were within their budget, and so the Ortons began sailing.
Erik and Emily sailing the Hudson River.
“Enough Universe for Me”
“I’m not sure why Erik fell in love with sailing,” Emily writes in her and Erik’s new book, Seven at Sea. “His first sail wasn’t pleasant. He and his buddies sweltered on a blazing, windless day up the Hudson River. Erik threw up five times between his friend’s boat, his friend’s car, and our apartment.”
The Orton family’s first solo sail together wasn’t much more pleasant.
After becoming ASA 101 certified, Erik and Emily celebrated by taking their family sailing in New Jersey. After a stifling, serpentine drive up the coast for two hours, everyone in the family was sick before they even stepped on the boat. Once aboard, the youngest Ortons, Eli and Lily, spent most of the trip screaming or sobbing, the boat hit a channel post, the wind stripped away Alison’s hat, and the family fumbled with the sails in between mild bouts of seasickness.
Though the ordeal hadn’t been pretty, the Ortons had fulfilled their goal of sailing as a family.
It took a few more pleasurable sails and day trips with friends before the Ortons realized their love of sailing together. One day, while standing in their living room, Erik turned to Emily and said something that would change the trajectory of their lives: “I think the seven of us on a boat would be enough universe to keep me engaged for the rest of my life.”
“What Could Go Right?”
But it would take years of conversations, planning, and praying before the Ortons could turn that fleeting comment into reality by living together for 10 months on a sailboat.
Despite Erik’s frustration with his job, Emily says, “Outside of work we were actually really happy and we were really comfortable.” The idea of quitting everything felt drastic and unnerving—particularly for Emily, who was afraid of deep water.
“For me, it was personally intimidating at first at a basic visceral level because I was scared of deep water, but setting that aside, there are just so many things to consider,” Emily says. From how to keep her family safe on remote islands to the practicalities of finances and school, the worries were endless.
But one question ultimately shifted the family’s mindset. Instead of focusing on potential dangers and disasters, the Ortons began to ask themselves, “What could go right?”
“I had this idea about how we could strengthen our relationships by going through challenging experiences together,” Emily says. “We didn’t think we were going to escape to some happier life; we thought it would be challenging, and that’s why we wanted to do it. And we told the kids, ‘This is not going to make us happier because we take our happy with us wherever we go. . . . But I think if we disrupt ourselves and put ourselves in this new situation that we’ll create unique memories that bind us together as a family.’”
During family councils, the Ortons decided to “set their sights over the horizon” and to sail together for a year before Karina left for college. It was 2010 at that point, which gave the Ortons four years to save, plan, prepare, and learn how to navigate a large sailboat in the open ocean.
“What’s on the Other Side of Fear?”
In July 2011, Emily and Erik flew to the British Virgin Islands for a week-long sailing course to become certified charter captains. That first night in the Caribbean, everyone on the sailboat dove into the water, which swirled with bioluminescent plankton. Everyone except Emily. “There was no way I was getting into 30 feet of water in the dark,” she says.
First thing the next morning, Emily found herself alone on the boat again as everyone went snorkeling in the bathtub-warm ocean. “I felt kind of embarrassed. I knew that my fear was not logical at all,” Emily says.
After snapping on her snorkeling gear and mustering her courage, Emily eased herself into the crystalline water. “I could see 30 feet down the anchor chain to the anchor,” Emily says. “I felt very exposed. I knew that big sea creatures could fit in that space.”
Emily began humming “I Am a Child of God” and other Primary songs through her snorkel to calm herself as she swam for the island. “As I approached the edge of the island where all the fish and the coral were, I was so enchanted.” Emily recalls. “I completely forgot about how scared I was, and my focus entirely shifted to this amazement and wonder of what was on the other side of the water’s surface.”
She continues, “It begs the question, ‘What are some of my other favorite things that are hiding on the other side of that fear?’” That moment became a metaphor for Emily, helping her and Erik overcome the fears and frustrations that awaited.
“We Moved Forward with Faith”
Erik officially naming the boat Fezywig. Image by Ty LaMont Mecham.
“A good idea can be worth years of struggle.” The Ortons know this quote by President James E. Faust by heart and from experience. Setting foot on Fezywig required four years and a leap of faith. Erik’s company would not give him time off for a year-long sabbatical, so he quit his job, hoping he could find another one when they returned home.
“Along the way we would pray about major steps, like making an offer on a boat,” Emily says. “We didn’t know how certain things were going to work out, but we moved forward in faith one step at a time because we felt good about the vision that we had for our family.”
“My family, we never take impulsive risks,” Alison says. “We take lots of risks, but there’s always the long conversations and family councils that come before that, and no risk is taken without counseling with the Lord first.” Alison specifically remembers the priesthood blessing her dad received before the family flew to the Caribbean, and the promise it contained that this trip was a part of Heavenly Father’s plan for their family.
The Ortons would need that reassurance when they bought a catamaran sight unseen and flew to St. Martin at the beginning of February 2014.
“Whose Dumb Idea Was This?”
After four days of flight delays, the Ortons arrived in the Caribbean exhausted and hungry. An elderly missionary couple surprised the family at the airport, welcoming them to St. Martin and providing helpful tips about the island. That greeting stood out as a moment of compassion and warmth in what would become a week of chaos.
“The first night we were on the boat was really emotional,” Karina recalls. “We got there and it was dark. The Caribbean is beautiful, but we couldn’t see anything. . . . The only shops that were open were expensive. We took an expensive cab to get [to our boat] and we couldn’t get the [stove] to work so we just ate peanut butter sandwiches and cried because we missed our friends.”
“Once we arrived was when we realized we were in way over our heads,” Erik says. The Ortons stepped onto Fezywig to discover it was missing a mainsail they had been promised, among many other essentials. That first week Erik and Emily drove from markets to ship chandleries trying to get their boat in order, but it was disorienting figuring out where to begin. “The first time we walked into [a chandlery], our eyes just kind of glazed over,” Emily recalls.
At the end of that first week, near Valentine’s Day, the Ortons decided to take a three-mile jaunt to Tintamarre, a tiny island that is part of a nature preserve.
The harbor they were departing from was flanked with jagged rocks that left a twisting, narrow, and treacherous exit. “We puttered out and got out of the harbor, and immediately the boat began rocking and rolling and stuff began flying everywhere,” Erik remembers. “The kids were up on deck helping to raise the sails, and I just thought, ‘Oh my goodness, we are going to lose one of our kids overboard here in the middle of the afternoon!’ We weren’t even in a storm. It was just a nice sunny day to sail and they were holding on for dear life.”
Overwhelmingly ill with seasickness, the Ortons jumped ship at Tintamarre and snorkeled to the island to chase lizards on the beach, but they only had an hour to regroup before making the crossing back to the harbor. “I was puking over the side as we were coming up on the entrance to the harbor,” Erik says. “The boat was driving lopsided because one of the engines wasn’t working, so we smacked into the dock with the front of the boat and it put this big scuff on the boat. . . . We were just completely floored by how hard this easy, little afternoon sail was.”
Karina on the bow of Fezywig. Image by Ty LaMont Mecham.
That Valentine’s outing marked the beginning of two and a half months of engine problems, delays, and setbacks. But the Ortons sailed through those months with the help of friends, mentors, family, and humor.
After another disastrous crossing to Tintamarre, the family lay around inside the boat trying to recover from seasickness and exhaustion. “Whose dumb idea was this?” Erik asked. Everyone turned to Erik, stunned for a moment. Then the laughter began. “It was your idea, Dad!”
Attending “Boat Church”
The tide began to turn for the Ortons when they met Discovery and Day Dreamer, fellow sailboat families who became lifetime friends.
Though one of the youngest among the crew, Eli was the one to make the introduction after hearing the kids from Day Dreamer and Discovery speaking on the VHF radio. “Discovery, Discovery, this is Fezywig,” he radioed. It was a simple introduction, but it worked like a charm. “We have been great friends with them for years now,” Eli says.
With new friends and mentors, the Ortons learned how to adjust from a New York City pace to a more leisurely, unpredictable Caribbean pace even as they became more sailboat savvy. In addition, Lily helped the Ortons make friends wherever they went. Born with Down syndrome, Lily has a vivid, uninhibited personality that helps her make friends with anyone she meets. The Ortons were quickly discovering they were not alone in their journey, especially when there were Church members nearby.
Getting to church every week was an adventure in and of itself. After the seven Ortons crammed into a dinghy made for five, they would travel for 30 minutes to the harbor. Because of the spray from the boat ride, Alison says, “We all started wearing swimsuits on the dinghy ride over, and then we would change at a nearby bar, walk a half mile to church, and then be there three hours.” It was a full-day event, which SJ says strengthened her faith because “it really makes you question if it’s worth it.”
“Within the ward we became involved very quickly giving talks, musical numbers, and helping with lessons,” Karina explains. “[But] we weren’t always able to go to church, so sometimes we would have ‘boat church.’ . . . We would find a place to sit on shore or on the front deck or just sit in the main cabin. It wasn’t super formal, but we would sing songs and pray.” Before leaving for the Caribbean, Erik had received permission from his bishop to bless and administer the sacrament to his family whenever the Ortons could not attend a branch or ward. Wearing their “boat best,” the family would partake of the sacrament and share gospel discussions together.
The Ortons wearing their Sunday best for “boat church.”
Along with faith, family, and friends, the Ortons found a secret that transformed their journey from a series of mishaps into a memorable adventure.
“My family has always tried to have an abundance mentality when, probably from the world’s point of view, we don’t have an abundance,” Alison says. “But just that sense of gratitude—and also the idea that the purpose of this life is for us to have joy and to learn and to grow—for me that’s really strengthened my faith. I also feel like it’s knowing that there is enough for everyone. God’s love is enough and more for everyone.”
“These Are the Moments You Need to Remember”
While crossing from St. Martin to the British Virgin Islands, Fezywig began sailing under a cascade of stars. But around three in the morning, a storm began assaulting the boat.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Erik says. “The seas got really big and scary. . . . The wind was getting ready to tear the sails off.” Erik did the only thing he could think of. He turned Fezywig around and pointed the bow straight into the wind, taking the pressure off the sails. Alison was up on watch with Erik, and he recalls, “We both just prayed. She prayed for us and I kept driving. . . . We are a praying family. We know God doesn’t always calm the storm, but He can calm us in the storm.”
When the sky finally lightened under a peaceful sunrise, Erik went below deck, seasick and ready to sleep. He awoke to the sound of laughter, and, returning to the deck, he discovered a pod of dolphins playing off the bow of the boat.
To Emily, those dolphins felt like a message from heaven. “It felt like a good omen, like a message that everything is going to be okay. Those dolphins swam with us for an hour. We had all gone as far as we could go, emotionally [and physically] . . . and these dolphins just made it feel like [God was saying], ‘I see you. It’s going to be okay.’”
Eli swimming in the clear waters of Anguilla.
The Ortons experienced other moments of grace on their 2,000-mile, 10-month trip from St. Martin to New York. “Whatever our feelings about it, we were all there. We sat through those storms, slept in those cabins, ate that food, were in those waters, met those people, hiked those mountains,” Karina says.
From hiking dormant volcanoes to snorkeling isolated beaches and visiting grandparents in Virginia to sailing past the Statue of Liberty, the Ortons shared experiences that bound them together with an unspoken understanding.
Whether through “boat church” or weathering literal storms together, SJ notes how enduring challenges and experiences that can’t be described brought her family closer together: “When people . . . ask for examples in seminary of, ‘Have you ever felt the Spirit?’ or ‘Have you ever been afraid or felt temptation?’ oftentimes I can think of examples in the time that we spent on the boat because we went through so many hard things.”
Along with the challenging moments came many irreplaceable ones. Alison says, “I remember one time we pulled into an anchorage and we had to spend 20 to 30 minutes dodging lobster pots. . . . We finally set anchor, and we decided to go swimming. The sun was setting and this whole flock of birds was flying over, and I remember my mom telling me, ‘These are the moments you need to remember.’”
“It Will Emerge”
The Ortons discovered in their time on Fezywig that they could grow closer to God through creation—taking a dream or seeming impossibility and bringing it into being.
Image from Ty LaMont Mecham
“It’s part of this progression of growing from grace to grace that we can create things in our mind and bring them into existence, just like God, and yet we still need the help of others,” Erik says. “We need redemption, we need mercy, we need spiritual gifts, we need help, we need the blessings of others and their wisdom and their goodness. We don’t do this alone. . . . We can make beautiful things happen in our own lives and in our own families and in the lives of other people, and we don’t always have to have it all worked out and lined up from the beginning.”
Emily adds, “Along with the idea that we might not know what our path will look like is that we need to be comfortable with the idea that our path might not look like anybody else’s. . . . I think about the story of Moses.” As Moses approached the water’s edge at the Red Sea, with no escape or path ahead, did it ever enter his mind that seas could part? “It had never been done before,” Emily notes. “At least, we don’t have any books of scripture that reference that kind of miracle. Yet sometimes Heavenly Father is able to answer our needs in ways that we couldn’t imagine.”
Erik adds, “He has a much better imagination than we do.”
By trusting in God’s imagination, the Ortons have found comfort in their often-quoted adage, “It will emerge.”
“I think that we learned overall, in many ways, individually and as a family, to trust that as we move forward, questions will be answered [and] opportunities will arise,” Karina says. “Not in an I’m-going-to-sit-back-and-wait-for-everything-to-happen-to-me kind of way but in an I’m-going-to-move-purposefully-forward-without- all-the-information-and-trust [kind of way. Trust] that there is some kind of answer or harbor there, not being able to see it but still moving forward; that’s faith.”
Erik adds, “I think the hymn ‘Lead, Kindly Light’ says it best where it says, ‘One step enough for me.’ . . . I think, in our lives, there are lots of things—and it doesn’t have to be sailing, it doesn’t have to be islands—but there are going to be things that are over the horizon that we can’t see that we are drawn to, things that are righteous desires or spiritual gifts or talents, and we can move toward them in faith, with hope and trust.”