Sailing into retirement: A family adventure

LCol (Retired) Max Shaw, Maj (Retired) Elizabeth Brown-Shaw, and their children Victoria, Benjamin and Johnathan.

LCol (Retired) Max Shaw, Maj (Retired) Elizabeth Brown-Shaw, and their children Victoria, Benjamin and Johnathan.

Peter Mallett, Staff Writer ~

What began as a casual discussion over a bottle of wine led to an epic seven-year sailing journey throughout the South Pacific islands.

Back in 2011, as a fierce snowstorm raged outside their Halifax home, LCol Max Shaw and his wife Maj Elizabeth Brown-Shaw tossed around ideas for their future.  Both had 23-year careers in Canada’s military and were still enjoying those challenges and opportunities, but they realized it was time for new adventure, especially one they could share with their children.

So, they plotted a non-traditional course.

In 2012, they sold their home and bought an old 47-foot fibreglass hulled sailboat they named SV Fluenta. With their children, eight-year-old Victoria and six-year-old Johnathan aboard, they set off from Anacortes, Washington, for the South Pacific.

Their first major destination was Mexico, where they spent 18 months near Puerto Vallarta and the Sea of Cortez refitting the boat – and eventually welcoming baby Benjamin. This extended stay enabled them to adjust to their new lifestyle before setting off for more-distant lands.

They departed Mexico for French Polynesia when Benjamin was four months old.

Two decades in the Canadian Armed Forces and Shaw’s leadership of the sail-training program in Halifax had helped prepare them for the adventure. However, the learning curve was still steep as they had to become DIY mechanics, plumbers, electricians, and riggers all while nurturing and educating their children in tight spaces and in a foreign countries.

“Many times, the Lego characters were doing the same kinds of jobs as Mom and Dad, such as installing solar panels and 12V batteries!” said Shaw.

Living aboard a boat wasn’t a vacation. They lived in close quarters, which sometimes brought about trying moments. 

“There were times when things went wrong and I found myself fixing the engine in a remote location or fibre-glassing a hull in the scorching sun, and that’s when I asked myself what the heck am I doing out here and wishing I was back home in Canada sitting in my office doing my old job that I was good at,” said Shaw. 

Safety was paramount, said Shaw, as he had precious cargo on board – his family. They worked continuously on repairs to keep the boat seaworthy and its many systems – desalinator, power generation, plumbing and so on – functioning.  They constantly monitored their high-frequency radio and later, a very low bandwidth satellite link for weather information and forecasting. Shaw carefully studied marine charts to navigate safely among the many islands that dot the South Pacific and Micronesia region.

“The military taught both of us that you set a goal, ask yourself what are the risks of accomplishing that goal, and then look at ways to mitigate the risks,” said Shaw.

No geography or history schoolbook could compare to the education the children got travelling to the islands, such Fiji, Tonga, and the Marshall Islands.

“These people have a much more traditional approach to life than Canadians are accustomed to,” said Shaw. “It is based on subsistence, there is minimal cash economy and they trade goods and live off the land to survive.”

When visiting the remote islands, the couple helped fix residents’ solar panels, outboards, and generators while the locals taught their children crafts and fishing techniques.

“Each country has its own culture on each of the islands. It wasn’t necessarily the beautiful sites or surroundings that we saw, it was the people and the interactions with them that really made our adventure worth it.”

Since returning to Victoria last year, the family continues to live on their floating home docked at the Sidney marina. The older children have returned to a bricks and mortar school (before COVID-19 sent them home). Shaw will be teaching sailing for the Royal Canadian Navy and a local sailing school, as well as helping others prepare themselves and their boat for their own adventures.

“The key lesson of our journey for others to hear is if you have a dream of doing something completely different in your lives, chances are it’s doable. There is always a great deal of thought required to do it, and you need to be rational about it, but if you really want something there is always a way to accomplish your goals.”

A detailed travel blog with extensive photography of their voyage is available at

Doable dreams

The Shaw family travelled from the Pacific Coast south to Mexico, and then crossed the Pacific in 21 days to French Polynesia. They spent nearly five years travelling between islands before sailing north to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska and back down the Pacific Coast to Victoria in December 2019.

During their travels, they visited 14 countries and territories including French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, Niue, Tonga, Fiji, New Zealand, the Marshall Islands, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, the Republics of Kiribati and Vanuatu, New Caledonia, and Mexico, along with Canada and the United States. In the end, they completed a 36,000 nautical mile journey, the equivalent of circumnavigating the globe 1.7 times.


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