Baby on Board: Sailing, Sewing & Raising a Family

Jon and Leah Kruger have been enjoying the liveaboard lifestyle since 2011. They both grew up in sailing families — Jon sailed on traditional wooden sailboats in Maine, and Leah spent seven years of her childhood aboard her parents’ Frasier 41 named “Synchronicity.” She spent four of those years circumnavigating and sailed the South Pacific, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, Caribbean and the West Coast of the United States.

Jon and Leah met in 2009. They spent their early dating years borrowing Synchronicity from Leah’s parents and sailing in the Pacific Northwest. They both knew they wanted to live on a boat, and so they eventually scraped together enough money to buy a 1981 Nor’West 33 dubbed “Brio” in 2011. Ever since, they’ve been living aboard and sailing the open waters, including transiting the Panama Canal in 2014, wintering for three seasons in Portland, Maine, and cruising up and down the East Coast.

jon and leah kruger
Jon and Leah during the early years of their sailing adventure.

In April 2018, the couple welcomed their first child, Zephyr, to their crew. Now, this adventurous sailing family lives year-round on their sailboat with their 1-year-old son in tow. In addition to her captain duties, Leah is also in charge of all sewing projects and sail repair onboard using her Ultrafeed® Sewing Machine. With the addition of their smallest crew member, some of her recent DIYs have included safety and baby-proofing projects, including weather cloths and an enclosed v-berth sleeping area for little Zephyr.

She shared her one-of-a-kind story with us…

Q. What made you want to become liveaboards? How long do you plan on being full-time cruisers?

I think we both independently knew we wanted to live on boats, even before we’d met each other. So when we realized that this was a shared dream, it really cemented our relationship and our future paths. We had the advantage of living with our parents and keeping our initial living costs super low, so we were 100% focused on funneling all of our energy and savings into finding a boat and outfitting her for cruising.

When people ask if we’ll live on Brio forever, I always say definitely not – we want a bigger boat at some point! Not to say we’ll never want to live on land – forever is a really long time, after all – but we have no immediate intention to become land-based.

I work remotely and Jon runs his own business, so living on a sailboat has enabled us to be climatic nomads, heading south in the winter and north in the summer, and enjoying the most of the East Coast that we can! Having a baby has really reinforced how much we value our time together and the freedom to dictate our own schedules, and I don’t think any of that will change any time soon.

family on beach
The happy family enjoying some fun and sun at the beach.

Q. What do you like most about the liveaboard lifestyle? What do you like least? What’s a typical day like now with Zephyr onboard?

I heard someone describe cruising as “a series of Saturdays,” and I think that’s pretty perfect. It’s not that there aren’t chores to be done or groceries to be bought (or water to be lugged, or decks to be scrubbed), but it’s all in a sort of fluid, schedule-less manner. One of the things I like best about cruising is how flexible it is. When we started cruising, I was 24 and Jon was 25 and we had $6,000 saved to make it through the year. We had no refrigeration, no electronics, literally lived on tacos and beans, and somehow still spent $10,000 – giving us our first lessons in boat maintenance and debt!

Now that we have a steady paycheck income, we can afford to stay in marinas and upgrade Brio with new electronics and refrigeration. We still try to live carefully and within our means, but I appreciate how elastic your spending can be with this lifestyle.

I also have to say that the people you meet cruising are hands-down the best part of the whole deal. Regardless of your boat or your budget, cruisers are a welcoming crew – and adding a baby to the mix has just made it easier to strike up conversations with strangers!

zephyr on brio
Zephyr “helping” at the helm of Brio.

Q. Can you tell me how you came up with your weather cloths design using window material so you can still enjoy the view?

I’ve spent so many hours staring at solid weather cloths, wishing I could see the horizon! Actually, the other factor was we bought a roll of Strataglass™ for our dodger project, and later decided to use Makrolon® instead (a stiff, glass-like polycarbonate window material). So we had a leftover roll of Strataglass just begging to be used! It felt a little frivolous to use such an expensive product on weather cloths, but we absolutely LOVE them. We haven’t even bothered taking them down since they no longer block the view. Another bonus? They act as toy-containment devices since little Zephyr has quite the arm on him.

strataglass weather cloths
A beautiful, uninterrupted view thanks to Leah’s clever Strataglass weather cloths.

Q. Besides the weather cloths, what other sewing projects have you made for your boat?

Oh gosh, there are so many projects! I got super lucky with a secondhand Ultrafeed LS-1 that another cruiser was selling in Mexico, and I put that baby through the paces. On the LS-1, I made two biminis (the first from hand-me-down Sunbrella®, the second from new!), replaced the windows in our old dodger, made jerry can covers, replaced the v-berth and quarter berth cushions, updated the main settee cushions, cockpit cushions, etc. – all the little stuff! We never had any real money to work with, so I was always collecting other people’s handoffs and repurposing them. For example, someone’s discarded boat cover became our new bimini, the leftover foam from someone’s v-berth project became our cockpit cushions, and an old mainsail cover made great new jerry can covers!

The first really big project I tackled was dinghy chaps. I probably watched the Sailrite video 15 times, pausing and rewinding to understand each step as I attempted patterning for the very first time! This was also one of the first projects I ever attempted with all-new materials – Sunbrella and double-sided basting tape included – and it felt absolutely incredible to realize that I could actually make something really nice!

dinghy chaps
Leah’s first big sewing project was making dinghy chaps.

The dinghy chaps gave me the confidence to tackle a project my husband had been nagging me to try for years – a new dodger. We modified our existing frame to be a couple inches lower, so the top could be wide enough for two 100-watt solar panels, and then we set about building a brand-new Stamoid™ and Makrolon dodger. Since we were saving the labor costs on the dodger, we went all out on the materials. Stamoid, a vinyl-coated polyester fabric, is such a nice product to work with. I bought a leather hide to add reinforcement along the bottom edges and on the handrails, and Makrolon windows are the absolute clearest and most rigid windows you’ll find in a soft dodger. I will admit that sewing through Makrolon sounds a bit like gunfire – I don’t think the LS-1 appreciated it – but it was a workhorse right to the end!

After the dodger, we decided it was worth it to invest in a brand-new Ultrafeed machine. I wanted to replace the luff tape on an old genoa so that it could work with our new furler. So for the first time in 7 years of Ultrafeed ownership, I needed a zigzag machine. I bought a new Ultrafeed LSZ-1 and it was like Christmas in September – what an incredible machine!

dodger project
Leah proudly completed this dodger project with her secondhand Ultrafeed LS-1. Shortly after this project, she upgraded to a new LSZ-1.

Since then, most of my sewing has been focused on baby-containment devices! I started with a Phifertex® and Stamoid lee cloth that went across the whole v-berth, and then quickly moved on to a full baby-berth zip-in enclosure when we realized Zephyr was not going to be slowed down by a mere suggestion of a wall! The zip-in enclosure has been a lifesaver, giving us a completely safe space to tuck him away when it’s rough or he’s asleep and ensuring we don’t have to worry about an accidental fall or escape while underway. Peace of mind is our new priority!

Q. What made you decide on an Ultrafeed? How do you enjoy sewing with it?

The Ultrafeed Sewing Machines are amazing. My experience sewing on an older LS-1 really sold me on the quality of these machines, and the support is unparalleled. I remember having an issue with the thread balling up, and when I contacted support from Mexico, they emailed me step-by-step troubleshooting directions and answered all of my questions, despite the machine being secondhand and probably 10+ years old!

The new LSZ-1 is even more impressive – my impression is that you can really sew anything on this, including lighter-duty “household” projects. Additionally, I tell anyone who will listen to fork over the extra money for a Sailrite Swing-Away Binder. After going through 400 feet of binding on the dodger and bimini projects, I am 100% a binding attachment convert!

People often raise their eyebrows when they realize I own a full-size Ultrafeed on our 33-foot sailboat. “Where do you keep it!?” is a common question. I always tell them that the Ultrafeed is like another crew member, and it fits in exactly one spot on the boat (under the v-berth) – so that’s its home! It’s not even just our projects – the dockside sail repairs and last-minute patches we’ve been able to help other cruisers with help me feel like we’re able to repay some of the cruising kindness and favors we’ve been shown! There is no way I would ever sail without a Sailrite.

Q. What do you love about sewing? When did you learn to sew and from whom?

I love that you can take something someone else might consider broken or useless and repurpose it into something completely new. I love that sewing enables you to feel self-sufficient and to make dramatic changes to the way the boat looks and feels. Initially, I learned to sew from my mom and grandma, so I think I also love the feeling of family and a shared passion that it instills. I hope my son will grow up to love sewing as much as I do!

sunset on brio
With views like this, it’s no wonder Leah and Jon plan on continuing their life on the water.

It sounds like this happy little family is loving life on the open sea. Baby Zephyr seems born to thrive in this nomadic lifestyle, and Leah and Jon have no immediate plans to stop cruising. As the saying goes, when you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like work.

Finally, are you wondering how they came up with the name “Brio”? Leah was looking for a short word that expressed the couple’s passion and excitement for sailing and the cruising lifestyle. Brio means “enthusiastic vigor and vivacity.” Looks like they found the perfect word to sum up their life philosophy.

If you’d like to tag along on their aquatic adventures, you can follow their blog at www.withbrio.com.

10 thoughts on “Baby on Board: Sailing, Sewing & Raising a Family”

  1. Excellent story which made for very pleasant reading here in a rainy morning in England. I hope they can keep on sailing and sewing for the rest of their lives.

  2. What did you use for an enclosed V berth for the baby? Did you sew something? My daughter lives on a sailboat with a baby in DC. I have the LSZ -1 and want to help her contain the baby.

    1. Hi Karla,

      Leah used Phifertex mesh and Stamoid vinyl fabric to create a breathable but secure zip-in enclosure for Zephyr. He sleeps in a little cubby right next to the v berth sleeping area. Leah installed snap fasteners that snap the enclosure to the woodwork below and above the cubby. The zipper opens and closes the assembly more easily so she doesn’t have to unsnap it every time. I hope this helps!

  3. Thanks, this does help. Any chance you could take a picture? I need to sew something for my daughter soon!!
    Karla

  4. Your passion of sailing, family, nature and the sea is very clearly scribed. Your story has begun and an enjoyable read. Follow the sail until your sunset, and breathe the beauty of that salt air. Love your story, Mac

  5. Would love to see any other pictures of the baby proofing that has been done as I’ve got a very adventurous 1 1/2year old on board.

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