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Kate Ford Laird

Year of Graduation: 
1986
Kate Ford Laird on an adventure with her children

"We’ve spent much of our time where you really can’t see any traces of human civilization."

Author, sailor and adventurer Kate Ford Laird ’86 sees boredom as essential to nurturing a child’s imagination. That’s one of the many benefits of raising her now teenage daughters on the open sea, in an electronics-free environment. Along with Hamish, her husband, and her family, she lives aboard Seal, a 56-foot aluminum yacht designed to withstand harsh conditions at extreme latitudes.

Laird and Hamish have logged well over 100,000 miles together and close to 85,000 miles with their daughters, reaching nearly as far north and south as it is possible to go. “As far as we know,” Laird says, “Helen and Anna were the youngest kids since the whaling days to sail from the Arctic to the Antarctic.” 

It’s a lifestyle at once intensely adventurous and marked by long stretches of isolation. “We’ve spent much of our time where you really can’t see any traces of human civilization,” Laird says. “Helen said recently that when she was little, she thought the entire world was wilderness with only a few scattered settlements of humans along the edges. ... Some days, we just watched the wind lift the water into the air in 70-knot williwaws and didn’t accomplish anything else.” With so few distractions, Laird recalls, the girls developed tools to cope with occasional boredom —“whether that was playing outside in driving snow or drawing pages of cartoons when we were at sea for weeks at a time.”

Weeks at a time, indeed. The family sailed to Greenland when the girls were 3 and 4; reached Antarctica when they were 4 and 6; and spent the next five seasons doing charter work in Antarctica and on South Georgia Island. They then set off for New Zealand, then Japan, and finally to Alaska. Since 2013, they have been running charters for mountaineers, tourists, backcountry skiers and scientists in the remote Aleutian Islands, Alaska Peninsula and Prince William Sound. 

If the charter season provides opportunities to commune with nature, winters near Cordova, a town of 2,000 off the road system in Prince William Sound, bring connections with people. In between homeschooling and working hard to retrofit Seal for the summer months, Laird family members have joined science teams, community theater, even a local band or two. Kate, who participated in Exeter’s Washington Intern Program and once imagined a life in the foreign service, has been involved in local politics and outreach in Cordova. “The community time is busy and social, so the two seasons balance each other well,” she says. 

Always attracted to the sea, Laird learned to sail dinghies as a child in New Hampshire, worked during college on a New England Aquarium whale watch boat, and cultivated her wanderlust as a new Harvard grad by taking a job as tutor and crew for a family of five out on the Pacific Ocean. 

Joking that she’s “still on that gap year,” Laird says she “wandered” in and out of writing about other people’s adventures before seizing the opportunity to reach Antarctica by sailboat. She convinced a photographer friend they could sell articles to pay for the trip after their return. “I had already sailed halfway around Antarctica and owned my own boat, but this trip was life-changing,” she says. “For starters, I ended up marrying the captain.” 

She and her sailing partner just celebrated their 20th anniversary, and while their daughters prepare to row out on their own, Laird has one wish: “I hope wherever Helen and Anna find themselves, they will be ambassadors for the fragile wilderness where they were able to spend their childhoods.”

—Genny Beckman Moriarty

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the winter 2020 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.