World-Traveling Lawler Family Stops in Ocean Pines

OCEAN PINES– After six long, fascinating years at sea, the Lawler family is finally coming home.

Tom Lawler posed with his wife Kim and daughter Emily aboard their ship the Emily Grace following a 6-year cruise around the world. The ship was docked at the Sunset Marina in West Ocean City last week.

In 2008 Tom, his wife Kim and their then 8-year-old daughter Emily sold their home in Connecticut and began a global cruising trek.

Last month the Lawlers returned to the U.S., docking first in Port Canaveral, Fla. then sailing to Georgia, on to South Carolina and through Virginia in their Nordhavn 46 motor yacht named “Emily Grace.” In early June the family arrived at Sunset Marina in West Ocean City and spent a few days visiting Tom’s mother, Shirley, in Ocean Pines.

The Lawlers caught the cruising bug years ago during a scuba diving vacation in Belize on a live-aboard boat.

“It was very luxurious and we all came out thinking to ourselves, ‘why don’t we do this – just get a boat and go wherever you want to go?’” Tom said. “So that was kind of the seed. We developed a plan and saved as much as we could, and when we hit the right number we left.”

Tom grew up in Annapolis and spent every summer in Ocean City with his parents and two brothers. He learned to pilot small boats on the Severn River as a child, but he had to do plenty of research before setting sail across the world.

“You need to know about the customs, and you obviously have to know a lot about navigation,” Tom said. “I took some classes before I left.”

Kim, who has an extensive medical background, took classes as well and became a certified HAM radio operator, allowing the family to use a single sideband radio to transmit data and send and receive emails through satellite technology while at sea.

The boat was stocked with spare parts so the Lawlers could perform most repairs themselves. “You need to find what parts are critical – what parts will shut down the trip – and those are the ones you carry,” Tom said.

A broad range of medical supplies, including antibiotics, was also packed. “Kim could do injections, and we had controlled narcotics for pain,” said Tom. “We went to our doctor and explained what we were doing and they were happy to fill up prescriptions for us. When we left Emily was actually so young that she couldn’t take an adult dose, so we had to carry powdered antibiotics that you mix up.”




After selling their home to fund the trip, the family headed first to Maine, then south through the Caribbean and Trinidad before heading west through Venezuela and Columbia.

Emily was homeschooled throughout the trip using Baltimore-based Calvert School’s curriculum. Food was – for the most part – bought during various stops along the way.

“Wherever you go they have food – they just may not have your food,” Tom said. “So we learned to eat weird things.”

Sometimes the family would stop for a day or two and gather supplies. Other times they would stay and set up camp for several months.

“We were in New Zealand for six months,” Kim said. “It was always because of the weather or the season – having to move – but that was the longest we stayed in any one place.”

“You have to time all the places in the world around the hurricane or cyclone seasons,” said Tom. “We entered the Panama Canal in February, which gives you the most time in the Pacific before the next hurricane season, but we only got as far as Tonga; if we stayed any longer we could potentially encounter a hurricane. So what you do is you go south.

“At certain latitudes near the equator there are no hurricanes,” Tom continued. “So you go down to New Zealand and you wait, and while we’re down enjoying New Zealand there were hurricanes swirling in the Pacific to the North of us.”

While in Niuatoputapu, Tonga, the Lawlers found a village virtually swept away by a tsunami. The Red Cross had dropped two dozen kit homes on enormous pallets on the shore and then disappeared.

The villagers, forced to live under trees, had no idea how to build the homes. Tom, with the help of several other fellow cruisers, met with the island elders to make a plan.

“There were six or seven cruising boats and we all got out our hammers and came ashore,” he said. “We got a bunch of the villagers together too so they would learn, and we all built a house together in one day.

“What was cool was this man that we built it for was about 75 years old,” Tom continued. “We started very early in the morning and at noon he comes riding up in this rusty, old bicycle, and he has a basket and he made us lunch – all the guys. It was so sweet to watch him. And at the end of the day it was his home, and we gave it to him and he just had tears running down his face. And then, once the villagers knew how to do it, they had another 20 kit homes and they could do it themselves.”

Tom said it was important to him – and many of the other cruisers – to give back.

“We visit these exotic places and don’t want to be seen as typical tourists taking pictures and leaving trash on the beach,” he said. “The personal interactions with the locals is what makes each country special and is just as priceless to me as the help we give them. At the end of the day we hope many of the locals will remember us as friends and have fond memories of us just as we do of them.”

During a stop in Fiji Emily briefly attended school with a friend she met on the island, wearing a loaned uniform and carrying in stacks of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and potato chips. The local school children devoured the foreign delicacy, while Emily ate the noodles the other children brought for lunch.

Showering could also an adventure.

“It was a tree trunk and two wooden walls and a rack for a washcloth, and the only soap that they had was what we brought,” Emily said. “The water was ice-cold, and if there was anybody out in the woods they would have seen us.”

Emily learned to do origami to pass the time, and would often make paper cranes to give away to native children.

Emily Lawler, 13, showed off her intricate origami dragon. Lawler made origami creatures for natives in more than a dozen country during her family’s 6-year cruise around the world.

“There would be 30 kids wanting a little crane and I would make one for each of them and they would gasp,” she said.

“We would come into a village and there would be a couple of kids and they would be shy and hiding behind a tree, and then they’d come out and start talking to us and Emily would just start folding without saying anything,” Tom said. “The kids started watching. Then once you did the one and handed it to them that’s all it took; kids would come out of the bushes and they would be all around her. In some cases she would even stop and teach them how to do it. You should have seen the smiles on their faces.”

When they weren’t enjoying the lush, tropical locales and dozens of fascinating cultures they encountered along the way, the family would unwind on their boat watching movies stored on the four-terabyte hard drive packed for the trip.

That’s not to say things were always peaceful. Swimming with sharks and interacting with local wildlife became second nature, but mechanical failures – and the occasional run in with pirates – threatened to derail the trip on several occasions.

In one instance the Emily Grace ran into trouble when a small coolant leak led to a potentially disastrous problem crossing from the Maldives to Chagos.

“We thought we’ll just go – we’ll limp along, I’ll keep adding coolant and hopefully we’ll get to a place where we can have it fixed,” Tom said. “It was a 300-mile trip down to the uninhabited atolls of Chagos and we were 60 miles into it, and there was a little seal that was weeping – ‘drip, drip, drip’ – and suddenly it became a catastrophic failure. It dumped all the coolant to the bilge and the engine overheated and we had to shut it down; we didn’t have anything to fix it with.”

Luckily, the family was able to use their spare “wing engine.” They turned the boat around, slowly sputtered back to the Maldives at half speed, and had new parts shipped from the United States.

Unable to find a mechanic, the Lawlers performed the repairs themselves. “It’s about 100 degrees or more there and we’re all in the engine room,” Kim said. “It was so hot.”

“It was a very big part and it was awkward and very heavy,” Tom said. “Three of us in a cramped, little engine room – it was a struggle. But if we hadn’t of had the wing engine we might have died – we would have been lost at sea.”

Pirates also presented problems.

“We were going to come from India and go up to the Red Sea and go through the Mediterranean Sea, but Somalia is there and there were a lot of people that were being captured and held for ransom,” Tom said. “That’s where we made the decision to go around South Africa, and that added a lot of miles to our trip. But it was necessary.

“We ran dark – meaning we had no lights,” Tom continued. “We turned off our radar; we turned off our Automatic Identifying System. At night we were completely pitch black. If you so much as left the radar on they could use that beam to find you.”

Less life-threatening but no less important, the family was constantly on the lookout for other children for Emily to play with.

“When we left – at age 8 – mom and dad were the world,” Tom said. “But as she got older, most kids want to play with other kids. So we would seek out other boats that had kids and we would cruise with them. The problem is that, after a while, she was always saying goodbye. They make a friend and they make them quick, then a month or two later they have to say goodbye again.”

Emily’s longest friendship began in Madagascar and included a four-month stay in South Africa and stops in St. Helena and Brazil.

“It was a boy and a girl from Tasmania – Zeke and Nina,” she said. “We met in Madagascar and we cruised with them for about a year. That’s the longest I’ve ever been with another boat.”




Since returning to the states, the family has enjoyed many of the comforts that were unavailable at sea.

“Ever since they got here they’ve been in the bathtub,” Shirley said.

“Every night,” said Tom. “We really missed that.”

Kim is relishing having a kitchen to move around in. “I’m enjoying the space and all the pots and pans,” she said. “The washing machine has been really nice too. We have a little washing machine on the boat, but most of the time I was using a bucket. I have a new appreciation for a lot of things.”

“We were in a restaurant the other day and Emily came out and said, ‘I can’t believe there is automatic flush on the toilet – automatic soap – automatic paper towels,” Shirley said.

The Lawlers plan on returning to Connecticut, unloading their “treasures,” and living in a small family owned cottage in Massachusetts. Tom said they would sell the boat and build a new home next spring.

Emily will attend school in the U.S. for the first time since 2008, entering the ninth grade in late August. “I can’t wait to meet some new friends, but I haven’t been to school in six years so I’m a little nervous,” she said.

Asked about her six years at sea Emily said, “I think it takes a brave person; it was a good experience, but I wouldn’t do it again.”

Kim was less diplomatic.

“I always said it takes a naïve or a stupid person,” she said with a laugh.

“When they first started out they were down in the Bahamas, and every time they would see something or go scuba diving and see some beautiful fish Emily would say, ‘OK, now we can go home?’” said Shirley. “And her father would say, ‘but what are you going to see tomorrow?’”


“And there were always new experiences or discoveries,” said Tom. “Emily swam with dolphins in the Caribbean, sea lions in Galapagos, sharks in Samoa, humpback whales in Tonga and got her full SCUBA certification in Fiji. During the six years she has ridden an elephant, horses, a camel and an ostrich.”

Life – they all agreed – will be simpler than it was before the trip.

“You come back and appreciate what you have,” Kim said. “It’s amazing – the majority of people we saw are still cooking on a wood fire and living in a hut.”

“I wanted Emily to see that,” Tom said. “I wanted her to know that the United States is unusual in the way we live and the things we have. There are a lot of things that kids get into – little toys and gadgets – and they think that they have to have them. But they really don’t. I think she knows enough now to make that distinction.”

“We won’t waste water or waste energy like we used to,” Emily said.

Kim said the family intends to build an environmentally friendly house where she hopes to have a vegetable garden.

“But the first thing we’re going to do is go out and get a puppy,” she said. “And we’ll have chickens and we’ll have goats and we’ll live simply.”

The Lawlers kept a blog during their travels filled with hundreds of vivid photos and descriptions of the places they saw and the people they met. Visit to follow their journey.

1 Comment on this Post

  1. Margaret Long

    Great story. Enjoyed reading the story and glad that you stopped in Ocean City.


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