How I Sailed to New Zealand with Type 1 Diabetes


Two years ago, on St. Patrick’s Day (for good luck, of course), I shoved off the North American continent with my family aboard a 38-foot sailboat. Our bow pointed towards South Pacific paradise. It would take us nearly a month to sail there, through calms and squalls and day after day of perfect tradewind sailing. We didn’t see land nor ship for 26 days, until the magical, lush and green island of Hiva Oa came into view at dawn one morning.

Before we departed, I’d packed a six month supply of food aboard our small sailboat for myself, my husband, our two young daughters, and our crewmember. We weren’t going to go hungry. Also stowed away onboard for my use was a year’s worth of insulin, glucose test strips, pump infusion sets, and Dexcom sensors, and of course the lifetime supply of lancets I’ve been carrying around for years. Also, 20 pounds of Smarties.

Our Boat in Maupiti French Polynesia

Looking upon the journey, now back home in the Pacific Northwest, sitting on my comfortable and still couch, it seems like a dream. How did I manage, with 26 years of living with type 1 diabetes under my belt, to take 18 months to sail from the United States to Mexico, then across the South Pacific to New Zealand? Even now that I’ve done it, it still seems impossible

But of course it’s not. Just like accomplishing any major dream or goal, whether it’s running a marathon, writing a novel, having a diabetic pregnancy, or sailing across an ocean, it takes a single-minded approach to even get to the start line. You’ve heard the saying, “keep your eye on the prize,” and that’s exactly what needs to be done.

Here’s the advice I used to get there:

Assume you are going to succeed.

My husband and I have sailed together for 15 years. We’ve taken other long sailing trips, but it wasn’t until just after our second daughter was born that we decided that it was time to start planning for the adventure we’ve been dreaming of for years: to sail to the South Pacific isles. From the point the decision was made, to the time we shoved off our home dock, we never thought for a moment that our dream wouldn’t happen.

This is not to say that there won’t be setbacks, because there certainly were for us as we prepared for our trip. There will be down days, when the prize seems impossible, but you have to believe it will be yours and keep taking the small steps each day needed to get there. Because you will.
Get your team on board.

Before we left our homeport, I made sure I was all up to date on exams, vaccinations, eye checks, blood labs. I took along copies of all prescriptions, just in case. My endocrinologist gave me his phone numbers and email and told me to contact him any time. After so many years of managing my type 1, I make 99% of my diabetes care decisions on my own, but it was reassuring to know that if I needed help that I could still turn to my medical team, even thousands of miles away. 

Gather your supplies.

Since I knew it would be pretty difficult to get my mail-order pharmacy to drop a box of supplies off on a tropical atoll without an airport, I took along enough supplies, and then some, to last until I knew we’d be in a place where I could stock up again (namely, New Zealand). How did I do this? I was lucky: my health insurance company offered what they called a “vacation override” where I was able to fill a year’s worth of prescriptions at one time by paying the four 90-day copays at once. And my endo is great for writing enough quantities on my prescriptions to ensure there’s no chance of running low on supplies and insulin. 

Don’t expect perfection.

Truth be told, my blood sugars kind of sucked the entire time we were sailing. Our routines varied wildly. There were so many new, delicious foods to try. It’s a very active life, with swimming, walking, hiking nearly every day we weren’t sailing. The exercise helped my numbers, but many days I kept my glucose level higher to avoid crashing from the heat and added activity. My sugars were up and down constantly, but I succeeded in avoiding the worst that can happen. Sometimes, life is just too enjoyable to worry about perfection and for me, the memories of our time in the South Pacific far outweighed the goal of a perfect A1c. I’ve got plenty of time to work on that, now. 

Don’t quit.

We made landfall in the Marquesas and spent several amazing weeks exploring these distant, exotic islands. They are a lot like Hawaii, 500 years ago. But we were growing frustrated with the squally weather, living at anchor, breaking gear, expensive food. I had a growing anxiety of being so far from the medical care I was used to. We were hot. There was a moment when we considered turning north, to Hawaii, instead of continuing west towards our goal of New Zealand. We even got out the charts and measured how long it would take to sail back to the familiar. 

Johnson Family Equator Crossing
Johnson Family Equator Crossing

But, we knew that if we’d quit then, we’d always regret not having gone the whole way. It was hard, we would continue to struggle. Diabetes on a small boat in the tropics would continue to be a pain. But in the end, we didn’t want to regret giving up our dream. And I’m glad we didn’t, because it turned out our best times lay ahead of us.

If you have diabetes, or are caring for someone who does, you know what it’s like to have it affect nearly every waking moment. But the thing about bringing diabetes along on such an epic, memorable adventure is that I hardly remember the diabetes part at all. I know it intruded every time I went hiking, or swimming, or ate an amazing carb-filled new food. But I only remember the view from the peak, the warmth of the tropical water, and the taste of fresh baguettes hot from the island baker’s oven.

Sara-Fakarava-pump on hip
Fakarava with Insulin Pump

In Fakarava, a Tuamotu atoll in French Polynesia, I snorkeled every day in water so warm it was like returning to the womb. Thinking back, I must have eaten lots of snacks, re-taped my Dexcom sensor many times, tucked my pump in a beach bag while I swam. But I don’t remember doing any of those things. I do remember what it was like to watch black-tipped reef sharks swim towards me and my three-year-old daughter and the huge napoleon wrasse fish with sides so intricately colorful I’d nearly forget to breathe.

Although I can remember a few specific diabetes near-disasters — particularly memorable lows and highs — my memories of the daily care of my diabetes has faded into practically nothing. That’s the thing about achieving big things: it’s the taste of success and joy that lingers, not the struggle. I only remember the many magical moments of life on the sea, what’s made experiencing it even with diabetes worthwhile.

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4 years ago

I know it has been years since you wrote this but I wanted to say great job. I also have type 1 for 40 years now. I am starting my prep for a 4000 mile solo sail leaving from NY next year. Hopefully all goes well and I have no issues. Going solo has my other half worried but I think it will be a good challenge and force me to look after myself carefully. I had one question about insulin storage in the tropics. Did you keep it refrigerated the entire time with no issues and what was your… Read more »

David Sanderson
6 years ago

Sara, Great article. As a type 1 diabetic, I have been looking for both information and indeed some inspiration that I can fulfill my dream, with planning. The first question I have and others have posed, is how are you going to do a circumnavigation with type 1? I am in the very early stages… may need to learn to sail some more first… but this would be pointless really without recognizing the elephant in the room first. My goal is to investigate where supplies are available as well as having very substantial supplies on board. Like you I have… Read more »

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