A couple who raised their four children on a boat have hit back at critics who say they deprived their brood of a ‘normal’ childhood and ‘adequate schooling.’
Keith and Renee Whitaker, from Texas, sold their successful oil and gas business seven years ago, and, looking for a wave of adventure, they bought a yacht for $257,000 despite not having any solid sailing experience.
At the time their children – Anna, Jack, Finn and Kate – were aged 15, 14, 10, and 9 respectively, and they went from being schooled at home to learning at sea.
Renee, 49, told DailyMail.com that they were often critiqued by outsiders for letting their children down as they did not attend school and mix with other students, but she says ‘we wanted our kids to be different, to stand out.’
Keith and Renee Whitaker, from Texas, quit their jobs and set sail seven years ago. Their kids – Anna, Jack, Finn and Kate – were aged 15, 14, 10, and 9 respectively at the time
Renee says that one of the most common comments she and Keith get via their social media platforms is that they have let their children down as they did not attend school
Some of the highlights from their adventures on the high seas include swimming with sharks in the Maldives, and navigating squalls thousands of miles offshore
The Whitaker children went from went from being homeschooled to learning at sea
Defending their unconventional lifestyle, she continued: ‘We wanted them to have an expanded worldview; to feel and experience many different cultures instead of classrooms of same-aged, same-nationality peers.
‘They do one hour of academics a day but they are constantly learning on the boat. They have developed a deep understanding and appreciation for geography, sociology, entrepreneurship, world cultures, financial management… things they could never learn in a classroom.
‘Our kids have “lived” their education instead of random facts being shoved down their throats with the expectation of regurgitating it for a test.’
To date, the Whitakers have been to 48 countries and Renee says the children have had ‘so many amazing experiences that they’ll never forget.’
Some of the highlights from their adventures on the high seas include swimming with sharks in the Maldives, navigating squalls thousands of miles offshore, diving in underwater caves in Fiji, watching whales breach in Australia, and eating on beaches with local tribes in Tanzania.
What’s more, the Whitaker children have latched onto the power of social media and Renee says they all have ‘very successful’ YouTube and TikTok channels, which generate income.
‘I foresee them with a future in social media and marketing in the coming years,’ the proud mother-of-four says.
On the family’s YouTube channel Sailing Zatara – which has more than 538,000 subscribers – Renee recently posted a video titled ‘do our kids REGRET not getting a “NORMAL” CHILDHOOD?’ in a bid to settle the matter once and for all.
In the clip, she goes about interviewing each of her children to see what they have to say on the subject and if they feel they’ve missed out on a ‘normal’ childhood.
Jack, now aged 20, says there were moments back when they started sailing that he missed being on land, but ‘every time people asked me, I’d just go through my phone and show them the photos [of places we’d been] and be like “this is way better than going to school.”‘
A photo of the family taken during Covid in Fiji in 2020 after their eldest daughter had left to go to college in Texas
Along with seeing a spread of places around the world, the Whitakers say sailing offers a more affordable lifestyle
During the pandemic, the Whitakers spent six months locked down off the coast of a remote island in New Zealand
Jack – second from left and now aged 20 – says there were moments back when they started sailing that he missed being on land, but the adventures have been worth every moment
However, he adds that he does wish that he could drive more ‘but that’s the only thing.’
Similarly Finn, aged 17, says he wants to get his driver’s license because he thinks it would be useful but ‘later on in life.’
Along with not being able to test out his road skills, he says he misses having a consistent friend group to ‘hang out with all the time’ and that’s why he’s leaving next year to have a new adventure, with a van conversion on the cards.
Despite these things, the teenager says his time on the boat has brought ‘more benefits than negatives.’
Kate, aged 16, agrees with her brother that the lack of a social life has been tricky at times, but the things she has done and seen have made up for that.
She explains to her mom: ‘It seems very boring… people talk about prom, I get to sleep on beaches with 12 kids.
‘I’d prefer to do that then go to a dance. You do get to see the world and I think it’s a good exchange in my opinion. I’m not missing out on hardly anything at all, except for more of a social life.’
Just being able to see all those new places at such a young age where I didn’t have to worry about money… or taking time off of work… I will always be very grateful for that
In the video, the Whitakers’ eldest child – 21-year-old Anna – also joins the conversation by FaceTiming in from her college dorm.
She is currently in her third year in a Texas college as a psychology major.
Answering her mom’s question, she says she ‘definitely missed out on a lot of the traditional things that kids do’ by growing up on a boat.
For instance, she said she never went to prom, attended football games or got a driver’s license that ‘contributed to a lot of disconnect between me and my current peers, ’cause they have all these experiences.’
But overall, she says sailing around the world as a youngster is something she would never take back.
She muses: ‘I got to see so many places and so many new things that not a lot of people ever get to see in their lifetime, especially not people my age.
‘So just being able to see all those new places at such a young age where I didn’t have to worry about money… or taking time off of work… I will always be very grateful for that.’
While the Whitaker children found it a little tricky to navigate boat life at times, Renee and Keith say it also presented them with challenges.
Renee reveals one of the hardest things about being a parent at sea is not being able to see extended family and COVID accentuated the feeling of being far away from loved ones.
Finn, aged 17, says he misses having a consistent friend group to ‘hang out with all the time’ and ‘that’s why I’m leaving next year’
Renee says one of the hardest things about being a parent at sea is not being able to see extended family
In the video, the Whitakers’ eldest child – 21-year-old Anna – also joins the conversation by FaceTiming in from her college dorm
During the pandemic, the Whitakers spent six months locked down off the coast of a remote island in New Zealand.
Once Fiji opened up to yachts, they ‘immediately sailed there and spent a fantastic six months there WITH NO TOURISTS!’
‘It was magical!’ Renee exclaimed.
Along with seeing a spread of places around the world, the Whitakers say sailing offers a more affordable lifestyle.
When they lived in Texas, Renee said they ‘wasted lots of money’ on eating out and unnecessary shopping trips.
Now their annual running costs are about $40,000 to $60,000, with their biggest expense being insurance and fuel.
Where they can, they stay at anchor instead of docking at expensive marinas and a perk of being at sea is that they can fish for dinner when they please.
Along with getting quizzed about their children’s development, the Whitakers say another common question they get is about their source of income.
Like many modern-day sailors, the family have built a loyal following on YouTube and Instagram, and they also have a wad of savings from selling their business and a couple of properties which they use as a cushion.
According to Cruising Freedom, the Whitakers’ YouTube channel – Sailing Zatara – has a net worth of $1.9 million, ‘based on the value of their boat, investments and business income.’
The website also estimates that the sailing family makes $17,000 a month through their ‘engaging YouTube content’, with some of the biggest moneymakers including Amazon affiliate links, branded merchandise and ‘homeschool education for other sailing families.’
Looking ahead to this year’s sailing adventures, the Whitakers are currently in Greece where they will spend the next several months exploring the Mediterranean.
They will then move west, sailing along the coast of Italy, France, and Spain before crossing the Atlantic Ocean in fall to get back to the Caribbean.
Offering some advice to others considering ditching their brick-and-mortar house for a boat, Renee says ‘just do it.’
She concludes: ‘You never know what tomorrow holds. Retirement is a farce. Sell what you can, downsize, minimize, and hop on a boat or a van and explore the world.
‘Make memories NOW because if you wait till the right time, it’ll never come.’