Many people dream of someday embarking upon a bucket-list adventure – like selling everything and hitting the open sea to circumnavigate the globe. Jennifer Smith (HBSc’85) actually did it.
Jennifer chronicled the 40,000-nautical-mile journey from Vancouver to Toronto “the long way around” that she and her husband took from 2000 to 2017 in her book, Green Ghost, Blue Ocean, which won the 2019 Pottersfield Prize for creative non-fiction.
Long before stepping foot on a boat, Jennifer embraced change, uncharted territories, and unconventional choices.
Born in Oakville, Ontario, Jennifer became fascinated with archeology when her second grade teacher read the class a story about the discovery of King Tut. She later grew to love geography, and then zeroed in on geology.
Enamoured with the idea of going “far away” to university, Jennifer obtained three scholarships in 1981 and attended Lakehead’s Geology, Energy and Fuel Science program.
“I loved my time at Lakehead, and the camaraderie of my classmates,” Jennifer says.
“Although we were the largest class the geology department had ever seen, there were still only 25 of us. It’s wonderful that those relationships just go on and on throughout your life if you make the effort to stay in touch.”
While a student, Jennifer’s summer jobs helped her gain valuable industry, government, and academic experience. She was a field assistant on a uranium exploration crew camped about 100 miles from the Arctic circle, a research assistant for geology professors Graham Borradaile and John Mothersill, and a worker at the federal Department of Northern Affairs’ Geology Department in Whitehorse, Yukon. Upon graduation in 1985 with First Class Standing, Jennifer was awarded the Department of Geology prize.
To feed her wanderlust, Jennifer took a year off to travel in Southeast Asia before pursuing a Master of Geology degree at the University of Alberta.
“I love seeing new things and being in motion – the physical process of moving through space toward a goal,” Jennifer says. “Because I really love physical geography, the way the land looks, and the processes of nature, I enjoy seeing as much of planet Earth as I can.”
A kindred spirit leads to new directions
During a 1987 summer job on a gold exploration crew, Jennifer met a fellow geology graduate from the University of Toronto who would later became her husband. Alex ‘Nik’ Nikolajevich – Jennifer calls him “the captain of my heart” – also loved to travel, and the couple spent 1989 backpacking through Australia, stopping to work for six months at a gold mine in Western Australia.
After getting married in 1990 and moving to Vancouver, British Columbia, Jennifer spent a decade working as an exploration geologist in British Columbia and Yukon for various companies.
“Although I had wonderful experiences working as an exploration geologist – I really enjoyed being out in the mountains, on a traverse, mapping rocks – I didn't have any mentors, so I didn't really know where it would lead me,” she recalls.
When economic forces driving the mining sector made finding work challenging, Jennifer and Nik found being far from home, and each other, increasingly difficult. To make themselves more employable, they each retrained, and Jennifer became a chartered public accountant in 1996. Leveraging her background in geology, she took on roles in finance, accounting, and later, corporate development in the mining sector.
“Looking back, I'm glad I was flexible, I was okay with letting geology go to take a different route,” she says.
Veering off course towards a new dream
Settled in successful careers, Jennifer and Nik began envisioning a different life, one that would offer time for self-discovery. Jennifer captured their thoughts in her book: “You can always make another dollar, but you can’t make another minute.”
They had started taking sailing lessons, and being on the water fed their souls in a way nothing else had. The couple became obsessed with the idea of sailing from Vancouver to Australia, and did not want to wait 30 years until retirement to do so. They sold their home, bought a 42-foot offshore boat called Green Ghost, and sailed away in September 2000 across the Pacific Ocean towards Brisbane, Australia.
“It's so interesting how people grow up in the same house with the same parents and then have such different journeys,” says Jennifer’s sister, Carolyn Solby. “She was always adventurous.
"Nik is a true adventurer as well, but he’s more the dreamer and long-term thinker. My sister is so organized and thoughtful. She’ll set a high goal for herself, and then take care to understand everything that needs to be done to achieve that goal.”
Getting their sea legs
As Jennifer and Nik adjusted to life at sea, they quickly learned that cruising required determination, flexibility, patience, and especially mental and physical endurance. Nik was plagued with relentless seasickness, and when the weather didn’t cooperate, there were some harrowing moments, as one of the first lines in Jennifer’s book notes.
“Just three days in and our dream felt more like a nightmare,” she wrote. Nik observed that cruising on a sailboat is a lot like camping on a roller coaster. There was always something to repaint, repair or replace, which surprised the couple.
“We’d put so much work into the boat before we left, and I think I was a bit naïve in thinking that you could spend a lot of time getting ready, and then you’d arrive at and remain in a state of readiness. After a while, I realized that cruising is about perpetually getting ready. There’s no end to it,” she says.
On one occasion, the transmission got flooded with sea water, but Captain Mallet – the Port Captain of Rodrigues – saved the day when he and his small group of volunteer coast guards towed Green Ghost in to port through the reefs. Another time, their autopilot system failed. Jennifer says finding out that other cruisers experience the same challenges eased the burden somewhat.
“One young couple we met from Seattle had bought themselves a brand-new boat, and they were still having to fix things, and I remember them saying, ‘We thought this would be more of a cocktail cruise; we didn't realize it was going to be like this.’ Parts of that trip were really hard. Sometimes I’d ask myself, ‘Why are we doing this again?’ But, in the difficult moments, I fell back on my mantra: This won’t last.”
Frustrations also became opportunities to connect. “So many other people did us a favour or offered us a smile when we needed one…nobody cruises alone!”
Weathering the storms
Jennifer describes offshore sailing as 98 per cent boredom and two per cent sheer terror, and indeed, the couple had several close calls in open water.
“There were moments where I felt like, ‘This is a really bad situation; I'm afraid one of us is going to get hurt here,’ but I never felt that we were in imminent danger of a fatal incident,” Jennifer says, noting that her worst moment came when she woke up one afternoon while Nik was keeping watch on deck and couldn’t find him anywhere.
“I thought he'd fallen overboard, but of course, nothing had happened,” she says. Nik had climbed eight feet up the ratlines (a rope ladder near the mast) because he thought he’d spotted a whale.
“Something that non-sailors don’t think about is that the biggest danger is falling off the boat. If you do, the chances of being retrieved are so small. In my mind, I felt that as long as we remained on the boat, we could get through anything.”
Towards a new horizon
Jennifer and Nik’s original goal was to cross the Pacific and get to Australia, but a year into their voyage, the couple’s expedition started feeling like a lifestyle.
“We felt we’d discovered a secret world, a magical life that was there for the taking. We knew two things for sure: the cruising life was fantastic, and we weren’t ready for an ending,” Jennifer wrote in her book.
To extend their time at sea, the couple took breaks to pick up contract work and shore up their bank accounts.
From enjoying potluck dinners on the beach with other ‘yachties’ to exploring a live volcano to swimming with manta rays, Jennifer wanted to forever capture the feelings of wonder she was experiencing. Sending detailed dispatches to friends and family not only preserved these memories, but also made Jennifer and Nik mascots for the loved ones living vicariously through them.
“Jennifer is a wonderful communicator, and from the beginning, she wrote long summaries of various legs of their journey, and I always really looked forward to receiving the next dispatch,” says Brenda Sawatzky-Girling, a longtime friend.
Jennifer and Nik welcomed guests on the Green Ghost, and Brenda and her husband Scott joined the couple onboard in 2003, sailing around Fiji for two weeks. Carolyn and her family visited with them in New Zealand, Australia, and St. Lucia.
“One of the things I really admire about Jennifer is her integrity and willingness to do things that feel right to her, even though it’s not a prescribed path for other people,” says Brenda.
Throughout their sailing expedition, the couple visited many destinations, including Indonesia, Singapore, Madagascar, South Africa, French Guyana, and the Caribbean. Jennifer particularly loved Mooloolaba in Queensland, Australia, as well as Penang, Malaysia, and Madagascar.
“Oh, there were so many great places!” Jennifer says. “Malaysia – we enjoyed very much, it’s a wonderful crossroads in Asia, multi-ethnic and multicultural, and yet English is widely spoken which makes it a very easy place to travel for English-speaking people. I recall a time when we sat in a Malaysian open-air bar eating pulled pork sandwiches, drinking Kilkenny draft, and watching world cup soccer as we listened to the muezzin call Muslims to noon prayer from the nearby minaret. Only in Malaysia!”
The next chapter
By 2017, Jennifer and Nik were ready to set up home base in Burlington, Ontario. Green Ghost now lives in a Penetanguishene marina, and the couple has since sailed seasonally on Georgian Bay.
“We definitely have no regrets about having gone on that trip,” Jennifer says. She plans to continue writing, and recently completed a biography of her mother.
Above all, Jennifer is happy she embraced an imperfect plan, as she wrote:
“I sensed that I’d set myself free. How constraining it is to be defined by others. How liberating to decide who you’ll be.”
Jennifer also wants to let young people know that they don’t need to have all the answers laid out in advance.
“An undergraduate education is so much more than a fixed track toward a degree and a career,” she wrote.
“Hopefully, it’s an experience that will set a student on a course to be ready to learn, ready to retrain, ready to pivot. Mental agility is what allows you to take advantage of the unexpected options that will come your way.”
When you figure things out as you go along, Jennifer believes there’s no telling how far you can travel.