Living a Happy Outdoor Life: interview with Ellen & Seth

Seth and Ekken in South East Alasks

Seth and Ellen in South East Alaska

Ellen Massey Leonard and Seth Leonard both already fulfilled their childhood dream to sail around the world onboard their first sailboat Heretic, and now they are fostering new voyages of exploration towards the Arctic Ocean onboard Celeste. They do all this while conducting an intense professional career, and documenting their sailing adventure on their website

I reached out to Ellen to ask her few questions about their story

FB: First I’d like you to give me a brief presentation of yourselves.

EMS: We’re two young American sailors and outdoor enthusiasts. We circumnavigated the globe in our early 20s on an old and primitive boat. Since then we’ve worked and studied in Switzerland – enjoying Alpine pursuits in our spare time – and we’ve made a voyage to the Alaskan Arctic. Seth is an economist with a PhD from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. I’m a writer and photographer with a BA from Yale University. (Check out her articles here)

FB: You already restored two old boats. What are the feeling of taking care of an old vessel? What motivates you to go through all the hard work and troubles?

EML: The beauty of them! We really just love classics, and a beautiful classic that isn’t old and in need of repair isn’t in our budget. Restoring a boat also lets you get to know her thoroughly, which gives you confidence and knowledge – this hasn’t really been a motivation, but it’s a great benefit.

FB: What is the response of your friends and family to your wanderlust?

EML: We’re really lucky to have incredibly supportive friends and family. Especially when we set off on our circumnavigation, we had a ton of help and encouragement: A friend of Seth’s family outfitted us with gear that he was replacing on his boat (everything from winches to a radar); other friends helped with all kinds of carpentry and sewing projects; Seth’s grandfather gave us our rowing dinghy; our mothers organized our food and linens; I could go on and on. In response to lots of requests to be kept informed of our progress, I started a monthly email update to our friends and family, and that’s what became our blog – it makes a better platform for sharing photos!

FB: What keeps you economically afloat?

EML: Work, and keeping things simple. During our years in Switzerland, we had academic jobs and now Seth has his own consulting company and works remotely. As for simplicity, we no longer have a shore-based home and all the expenses that go with that. We did use to rent a house when we were working and studying in Switzerland. Celeste is a relatively simple boat and we’re able to do almost all our boat work ourselves. We anchor (for free) as much as possible, and when that’s not feasible we pick cheap marinas.

Finally, our Arctic voyage was made a lot easier by having some great sponsors: Katadyn Group, Platypus Marine Boatyard, Rolls Battery Engineering, ZEAL Optics, OCENS Satellite Systems, and Mantus Anchors. And some supporters (smaller level of sponsorship): Hamilton Marine (a chandlery), Helly Hansen, Ace Sailmakers, and Yanmar.

FB: How do you deal with the different commitments in your life?

EML: The answer to that is that work takes priority. We modify our sailing to fit around it – i.e. Last summer we had a deadline of August 22, which meant that we skipped Prince William Sound and Vancouver Island (making direct passages instead) in order to get to Seattle in time.


Sailing fast

FB: How do you keep your mental attitude tuned to your surroundings? Do you prepare mentally to sailing?

EML: Maybe because I spent so much of my childhood outdoors and in boats, I don’t have to work at this consciously. I love being “out in nature” – it’s where I feel happiest. I love watching the wave patterns, the wind on the water, the stars, clouds, birds, etc., and I like to feel how the boat is responding. So it’s fun for me to be tuned in to the world around me. Of course, like anything, I get better at it the longer I do it, so I find that I’m most attuned to the sea several days into a passage.

Regarding mental preparation, it’s mostly necessary when we’ve been away from sailing for a few months. I find that physically preparing the boat is the best way for me to shift my mindset from working (at a desk) to voyaging. Sea trials every season are, of course, part of that. Unless there’s been damage or the boat needs upgrades and/or a haul-out, we’re usually mentally and physically ready to go offshore after about a week of preparation.

FB: What is the effect of spending long time on the Sea on your mind and body? How does it change when you are on land?

EML: This is related to the previous question. I think that the longer I spend at sea, the more attuned I become to the natural world. People often talk about “living in the present”, which to me means truly experiencing each moment rather than constantly thinking about the past or future. I don’t mean that someone who “lives in the present” doesn’t make plans or learn from past experiences – not at all! – just that his mind isn’t constantly somewhere else. I find this very difficult, but I have managed to achieve it on ocean passages, underwater while scuba diving, and on long excursions in the mountains. I find it to be a wonderful mental state.

I know a lot of sailors see a dichotomy between At Sea and On Shore but, given that I love the mountains almost as much as the sea, my dichotomy is more along the lines of Outdoor vs. Indoor or Natural World vs. Built Environment. So to answer your second question, I find it pretty much impossible to retain that sense of “living in the present” and also that state of high sensitivity to my surroundings. I think this is probably normal – it would be overwhelming to maintain that state amid the myriad distractions and stimuli of cities and the like.

What effect do long passages have on my body? Well, unfortunately I lose a lot of my cardiovascular and lower body strength. On calmer days I try to do step-ups in the cockpit to compensate, but it’s pretty hard to keep up a similar level of fitness to what I get by hiking up 3000-meter peaks in the Alps! My upper body strength usually gets better from working the winches, and I tend to lose weight (not necessarily a good thing) from the low-intensity – but constant – effort involved in living on a rolling and pitching vessel.

FB: You lived and visited different parts of the World. Do you think this influenced your identity?

EML: I can’t see how it wouldn’t! I’m not quite sure how to answer this question because there’s no control group – I have no way of assessing what I’d be like if I hadn’t had these experiences! I feel extremely fortunate to have traveled so much and lived abroad. Not only has it been a lot of fun, but I think I’ve gained perspectives I wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s fascinating and informative to learn how other cultures view things and it gives you a chance to evaluate your own ideas.

Celeste dwarfed by a glacier

Celeste dwarfed by a glacier

FB: How do you deal with conflict on board?

EML: Believe it or not, we haven’t really had any conflict while cruising. I guess we’re lucky because we both learned to sail and to love sailing as young children. Offshore voyaging was a dream for both of us equally and that’s what drew us together. So we never had the dynamic that I hear about a lot – that one person (usually the man) wanted to go sailing and the other person (usually the woman) had to learn to sail and become comfortable with boats. Also, because neither of us had been offshore until we went together, our routines and roles developed organically. We have a watch rotation that works well for both of us, and we know we can trust each other with command of the boat when one of us is asleep. The thing about short-handed voyaging is that you really don’t see much of each other – a much bigger issue for us than conflict is, in fact, loneliness. So we make sure to eat dinner together and to spend a few hours at midday just chatting and being together.

I must admit that living aboard and not sailing anywhere this winter has been challenging. The boat feels very small and dark when you can’t use the deck space (because of the cold) and it’s discouraging to have to deal with all the inconveniences (public showers, laundromats, etc) without the rewards of sailing and new places. We both got a bit irritable and depressed, but joining a gym and getting lots of regular exercise has pretty much solved that!

FB: What did you find in the Arctic that was different in the tropics?

EML: Well, aside from the cold (!), the sailing itself was a lot more challenging: The weather is volatile and extreme; there’s a lot of fog and low-lying land and ice (though there is less and less of that); and because the Alaskan Arctic has such shallow seas, the waves get steeper and closer together in lower wind-speeds than in the deep oceans. Another thing – brought to my attention by a scientist in Barrow, AK – is that the very cold air is denser, so it has a stronger effect on the water than warmer, less dense air (like in the tropics). This means that 20 knots of wind in freezing temperatures is going to feel a lot worse (steeper waves, etc) than 20-knot winds in, say, the Caribbean.

Then there are the obvious differences of landscape, vegetation, wildlife, cultures, and daylight hours. The sailing season is much shorter, due to sea ice, winter darkness, and storms. At least in the Alaskan Arctic, there are far fewer sheltered anchorages/harbors than in lower latitudes. We met only 1 other yacht in the Arctic versus hundreds in the tropics. Finally, there are big differences in your level and type of preparation, and, of course, your capacity to endure difficult conditions.

FB: What do you imagine for yourselves in the near future?

EML: I wish I knew! One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from offshore sailing is to be flexible and to be open to what comes. I was recently injured in an avalanche, so at the moment I don’t know if knee surgery or sailing is in my immediate future!

11 thoughts on “Living a Happy Outdoor Life: interview with Ellen & Seth

  1. David Wagner says:

    Thank you for sharing your insights!
    It is a wonderful perspective to really be present. Something I miss greatly.

    1. Ellen says:

      Thank you for reading! I miss that state, too, at the moment, and am looking forward to sailing again later in the spring!

  2. Fascinating. Many thanks. You both have found your lifestyle and I love to follow in my rocking chair! Don’t forget to say hello when you make it to Switzerland again.

    1. Ellen says:

      Thank you, Jo Ann! I’ll be sure to get in touch when we’re next in Switzerland. Miss you!

  3. Rob Robison says:

    I, too, enjoyed your thoughts on being present. Scuba diving is the vehicle I use most often to enter that mindset. It must be wonderful to be able to spend so much extended time in that mental state.

    Good luck with your knee and best wishes to you both,


    1. Ellen says:

      Many thanks, Rob! Scuba diving is really wonderful that way – it’s impossible to think about anything else when you’re doing it, which is of course intense and refreshing at the same time.

  4. Astrol says:

    Fascinating. I certainly find that being out on the water makes all the stress of my day at work completely slip away. The best therapy ever!

    1. Ellen says:

      Thank you for reading! I think a lot of people find that about being out on the water – maybe that’s one reason it’s so appealing?

  5. fabiobrunazzi says:

    Thanks for all the comments. “Being present” is definitely one of the most recurrent experiences related to sailing. Most of the people I interviewed have something to say about it.
    In a way it is the totally opposite of being “busy”, it is to be “engaged” in what you are doing.
    Thanks for your comments, and to take some time to read this website.

    1. Ellen says:

      Hi Fabio,
      Thank you again for getting me to think about your great questions! Being “engaged” is an excellent way to put it – I think that gets at both the intensity and the peaceful quality of the experience.
      I look forward to reading your other interviews!
      All the best,

      1. fabiobrunazzi says:

        Thank you Ellen,

        I am working right now on Matt Rutherford’s interview, after that it’s going to be the Teleport crew. We are planning on being gone sailing in April, so my work here might slow down.

        Thanks again for being available and full of insights!


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