Coronavirus and Cruising: Riding the wave (and flattening the curve) aboard Clarity

Not a bad quarantine view!

As I put together this post, I’ve already had to update it three times – the state of affairs is changing that quickly and constantly these days.

COVID-19 is affecting the entire world in some ways that are very similar, and in others that are unique. For those of us in the full-time cruising community, it’s presenting unforeseen challenges, being foreigners in foreign waters.

For us on Clarity, March was already a crazy month before the virus started taking over the news cycle and dominating social media. Aaron flew back home to Michigan early in the month due to a death in the family. A week later, he returned, and I prepared to fly to Chicago two days later to have a massive kidney stone removed. It was a health issue I tried for months to get sorted in Grenada, to no avail. The procedures I required just weren’t available here.

As I flew from Grenada to Miami, and then Miami to Chicago, Coronavirus was picking up steam. I was asked at Passport Control in Miami if I had recently traveled to China, and with a prompt NO, I was allowed through. Two days after I arrived in Chicago, my outpatient surgery was performed, and as I started to recover, the world changed. Rapidly. I followed the headlines as the lockdown in Italy was covered and the death count rose. Back in Grenada, an advisory was issued stating that foreigners traveling from China, South Korea, Iran, Italy and Germany would be denied entry. As the virus extended its reach to other countries, I watched as the reported cases in the United States grew.

Social distancing became the new normal, then was quickly replaced by “Shelter in Place” ordinances. As I continued to recover, with one small but necessary procedure scheduled for two weeks after the initial surgery, I watched as businesses in the United States shut down, schools were closed, restaurants changed to To-Go outlets. And a week and a half after I arrived, Grenada added the United States to its travel advisory list. I had two days before the new stipulation would be put into practice, after which I would not be allowed in the country, indefinitely.

I would be separated from Aaron and Claire for the foreseeable future.

After calls with my doctor in the States and my doctor in Grenada, I was assured that the simpler procedure could be done on island, and that it could wait. I also called the U.S. Embassy in Grenada – I knew that they were requiring anyone flying in to go into a 14-day quarantine, but would our boat be considered an acceptable place for self-isolation? I was told that it would. So, I booked flights for the next day. I touched down in Grenada less than two weeks after I’d left, 24 hours before I would have been locked out. I immediately went into quarantine.

Unfortunately, it meant that Aaron and Claire would also have to be quarantined, as there’s no way on our boat for me to isolate myself enough that they would not be exposed, if I had the virus. Given a one-day heads up to my arrival, Aaron fully stocked the boat with food, water, cooking gas, fuel, and whatever else we would need to ride out the time. However challenging that time would be, we were relieved to be together.

Claire’s birthday presents – a celebration to remember, that’s for sure!

We settled into a routine for the first week, counting down the days until we could see a few friends. We celebrated my 38th birthday under quarantine, and then Claire’s 8th. She understood that we’d have a party just the three of us on the day, and she’d have a little gathering with her friends on that magical Day 15. BUT. Then, Grenada instituted a soft emergency state. When people failed to comply, they strengthened it to a full lockdown. Starting at 7 p.m. on Monday, March 30, all are required to stay at their homes or on their boats for at least seven days. Supermarkets and gas stations are closed. Small grocery suppliers are allowed to operate on certain days and only during certain hours. There is no hour-long allowance to head to land to stretch your legs and exercise. Stay. Home. Period.

Magical Day 15, the completion of our quarantine, is no longer.

As I type this, all of the Caribbean islands have closed their ports to foreign vessels. For people wanting to return home, airports are closed, and they are forced to appeal to their local embassies to try and organize a repatriation flight, often to no avail. Over the past few weeks, some cruisers made the decision to sail from the island they were at to one that would still allow foreign vessels, only to learn that the doors were closed while they were on passage, and they were turned away.

Still, in some islands, foreign-flagged are now being told to leave with nowhere to go. If you do not comply, the coast guard escorts you out into the open sea. For many, decisions like this are made with immediate effect, no time to plan.

A sponsored message from the Grenadian Ministry of Health. No mincing of words here!

Here in Grenada, we are extremely lucky that foreign nationals have not been required to leave. We’ve thought about whether or not we should put the boat on the hard and return to the States to ride out this crisis. But the situation in the States worsens every day, with the peak weeks or a month away. The Grenadian government has taken extreme measures, but necessary and proactive ones to limit its spread. Plus, our home is here. Aaron’s potential for work is here. We need to stay here as long as we can.

We are also very fortunate that we are already below the required parallel for our boat to be insured during hurricane season. Many cruisers are now panicking, uncertain of when they will be allowed to move south (Grenada’s ports are officially closed for the foreseeable future). Hurricane season is not that far off, and they likely will not be insured, even in these extreme circumstances.

Of course, we have our own challenges – in addition to staying healthy.  Aaron’s work is at a standstill. My contract work is still feasible, but it’s a time when clients are understandably tightening their purse strings. Though our bills may be few comparatively, they are still bills that require income. We don’t know how long we can sustain this.

And what if Grenada decides to kick out all foreigners? It’s a small island with limited resources, and we understand the need for them to limit those resources to their own people should the virus spread further here. Nine cases and counting. We are praying that the measures they have already taken are enough.

I don’t share these challenges or perspectives to insinuate that ours are any worse than those faced by most everyone these days. There is not a single person that the novel coronavirus has not affected – through drastic changes to their daily lives, loss of jobs, loss of connection, and of course, loss of lives. With an uncertain future, that bright light at the end of this tunnel is unknown.

We are getting creative with our activities on board! Here’s a stuffed animal tea party, complete with brewed black tea, homemade chocolate chip cookies, and classical music playing in the background.

So, all we can do right now is try to find joy in our new normal, with the simple fact of being in good health being enough to celebrate. Our days on board are still pretty structured, with homeschooling, daily chores and boat projects that we are slowly but surely checking off the list. There’s also more dedicated family time, reading, catching up on shows and enjoying hobbies. And of course, more boat projects.

Right now, we can also listen. We can be aware of what’s happening around us, be aware of what we’re being asked to do, and we can comply.

All the best to you and yours.

The Dismasting: What Actually Caused It, What We Learned, and Tips We Can Share

Sunset at Hog Island

As we float here at our anchorage in Hog Island, Grenada, I’m reminded of so many things to be grateful for. That when I look forward, I see a brand new rig majestically towering over us. That down below, Claire plays happily with a sound boat all around her – with boat parts replaced and fiberglass holes in the deck repaired. That I have complete faith in our home. That our home is still ours – better than ever.

Now that the claim has been officially closed, all bills have been paid and some time has passed, we feel comfortable putting down the specifics of what happened. More than $100k in damage was done by the failure of a section of tie rod going to our port side chainplate. The cause: work hardening. According to multiple surveyors, the large stainless steel rod likely had a manufacturing defect. Little by little it began breaking down, but from the inside out. There was no way that a visual inspection, either by us or by a professional rigger, would have seen it. Remember, we just had the boat completely re-rigged 11 months prior … more on that later.

That awful day back in March was the culmination of over a decade of weakening. The winds were comfortable, steady. The sea state was calm. It was just, time. The last bit gave and the whole thing went – from that chainplate, bursting up through the deck, and sending the whole rig over our starboard side.

The dismasting itself was over in 10 seconds, but the full-time job of the insurance claim, getting Clarity put back together, took months. We learned a lot in the process, things we want to share with you in case you find yourself in a similar situation, having to work through a huge claim and dealing with the fallout.

We had some very key things in our favor during this process. Our insurance underwriter, National Specialty Insurance; their third party claim investigator, Raphael & Associates; and our broker, Novamar, were amazing. They covered everything. So often, you hear negative stories about how insurance companies will do anything to get out of paying a claim, finding any loophole in your coverage to reject it. National Specialty went above and beyond for us.

Also, the contractors in Antigua who did the repairs did them well, and on time. Boat repairs without delays is basically an oxymoron, but not in our case. As we were hoping to get the boat out of the hurricane zone as quickly as possible, this was extremely fortunate for us.

Clarity is brand new from the chainplates up, a stronger boat than when we bought her almost four years ago. I don’t like the notion that everything happens for a reason. Sometimes, hardships are just hardships. But, you move forward, you learn from them, and you help others when you can.

 IMPORTANT STEPS YOU CAN TAKE NOW

1. Service your chainplates as often as your rig.

When we saw a damaged shroud while hauled out in Puerto Rico, we never thought twice about doing a complete inspection and re-rig. Whatever was needed. Regardless of if we were to do it ourselves or had to hire it out, the rig isn’t something to cut corners on. We had everything inspected by two companies and told the rigger we chose to provide a quote to replace everything necessary, which we did.

What wasn’t done, nor we were advised to do, was to disassemble our tie rod and chainplate hardware and have it fully inspected. This doesn’t just mean ‘look at it’ carefully in place, but actually take it all apart. Anything threaded should be replaced, as the steel gets slightly weakened during fabrication. This includes bolts, tie rod connecting bars, etc. Oftentimes, and especially in our case, problems cannot be seen while installed. They will avail themselves during disassembly (break), during cleanup, or during a die-test, if chosen to be done.

Our tie-rod system looked perfect – shiny, with no pitting or rusting. After the dismasting, both surveyors shook their heads and said they hadn’t seen anything quite like it. We have no doubt that the hidden problem would have been found, had it all been disassembled. The riggers we consulted with during the dismasting repairs said they require all of their customers to do this, or sign a waiver saying they decline the inspection – thus limiting their liability. Our experience in Puerto Rico wasn’t so thorough, unfortunately.

The No. 1 thing we wish for you to take away from this post is, if you haven’t thoroughly inspected your chainplates and any associated tie rod system at some point recently, DO SO! Even if it requires removing interior finishing to gain access. Though we’ve had 20+ years of experience sailing big boats, this wasn’t on our radar during the re-rig. Be sure to have it on yours.

2. Review your insurance policy.

A few years ago, when we were shopping for an insurance policy for our boat, Aaron secured quotes from a handful of the major providers and we studied them, compared them, read through every little detail. We learned a lot from this article by Where the Coconuts Grow, which, while some things have changed since its writing in 2015, is still full of valuable info. Aaron pulled the trigger on a plan that was more robust than others, including something very important – consequential damage.

What that generally means is, when a claim is filed, aside from what is determined by a surveyor to be the actual cause of the damage, everything else that was damaged as a result of that cause is covered. For us, the port tie rod was the culprit. Everything else – the entire standing rigging, the fiberglass repairs, the woodwork, metalwork, the list goes on and on – everything else, was consequential damage. So even if it was determined somehow that we were at fault for the tie rod (which we were not), the rest would have been covered anyway.

We will never again sign on for a policy that does not include consequential damage. Unfortunately, such policies are becoming harder to come by and quite expensive. We understand that the policy we have with National Specialty isn’t even offered anymore, and we’ll have to sort through this come renewal time.

3. Track your repairs.

Any work that you have done on the boat, make sure that it is meticulously logged. Keep all receipts. Save all emails. If possible, document with photos that are time-stamped. If you are doing the work yourself, rather than hiring it out, keep a logbook of what and when.

This is not necessarily to point fingers in the event that something fails. This is to have solid proof that you are doing due diligence as an owner to make sure that you are addressing the normal wear and tear on your boat and fixing what is needed as it comes.

This was absolutely crucial to us in getting our claim reimbursed. As some of you may remember, we had our rigging fully inspected, and our standing rigging fully replaced, just a year before the dismasting. Thanks to Aaron’s methodical cataloging of all our important boat papers and pictures, we were able to prove immediately to our insurance company that we had taken care of Clarity to the best of our ability.

4. Make sure you are prepared ICOE.

In all of the sailing seminars we attended when hatching our dream, after all of the YouTube videos we watched on heavy weather handling and outfitting our boat, and during Aaron’s emergency training as part of his USCG Master’s license, we never thought we would actually find ourselves in such a serious situation out on the open ocean.

After the immediate shock of what happened, Aaron and I had to snap to the immediate next steps of what to do. With only the three of us on board, dragging the whole rig alongside our starboard side, sails billowing just underwater, Aaron made the correct call that we had to cut it all away so it didn’t damage the hull. Without more people on board, there was no way to safely save anything in the water. Wire cutters, bolt cutters, saws, our Dremel – we used it all. Not only were these tools critical, but they needed to be easily accessible. Fortunately, they were.

Make sure you have the right tools, and make sure you can get to them quickly when the clock is truly ticking.

Though we thankfully did not need to grab it, I had also fully packed a ditch bag. I will be honest, though, and say that the reason I did was because the event occurred on an overnight passage from St. Martin to Antigua, one where we would be spending a considerable part of it further offshore. I had gotten much more relaxed with packing a ditch bag on our smaller sails.

I stress again that when the tie rod failed, it was just, time. It could have easily happened on the four- or five-hour sail from St. Anne, Martinique, to Rodney Bay, St. Lucia, for instance, or hopping from one anchorage to the next. If the hull had been damaged, if the boat was taking on water rapidly, we may have needed to board the dinghy and abandon ship. Potentially no time to pack.

When Clarity was put back together again and we sailed her down to Grenada, you better believe that ditch bag was loaded and ready for every hop.

 

Clarity finally back in the water in Antigua, repairs completed.

LESSONS WE LEARNED IF YOU FIND YOURSELF STARING AT A BIG CLAIM

While we certainly weren’t looking to learn how to navigate the claim process with our insurance company, in hindsight, we see things we handled well and things we could have handled better. Here are a few observations, with the caveat that this is how things worked with our insurance company. Other companies may handle things differently.

 1. Initially, stick to the facts.

When we limped in to Jolly Harbor in Antigua, aware that we had a huge hurdle ahead of us with insurance and not sure how to approach it, we got some extremely helpful advice from a friend and fellow cruiser. Don’t assume blame. Don’t assume that you need to make a case for why you are not at fault. When you make the initial call or email to your provider to start the claim, keep it brief: state what happened, state any important facts you feel are needed (for us, in our initial document, we stated that we had replaced our rigging a year prior), and leave the rest to how the process plays out.

 2. Put your best foot forward.

Our insurance company quickly scheduled a surveyor to come to the boat in Antigua and make his assessment of the cause of the event. Even in our disheveled state, before the adjuster came, we did our best to clean up Clarity. We remedied the mess down below, the undone dishes and scattered belongings from our passage, and restored order. We put away the tools that littered the deck, obviously leaving all damage from the dismasting as it stood. Perhaps none of this mattered, or maybe it made a huge difference. Either way, knowing that the surveyor had our fate in his hands, we wanted him to step on the boat and have the immediate impression that a) this was our family home and b) we cared for it and maintained it as such.

After the initial phone call to our broker, we provided a concise ‘Owner Incident Report,’ including a description of what happened, procedures taken to mitigate further damage and maintain safety of persons aboard, coordinates and weather conditions, resultant damage, explanation of the recent re-rig with receipts, contact info, and photographs. We feel that the professional documentation provided by us all through the process was instrumental in our claim. Don’t assume your insurance will know something unless you tell them – concisely, as you’re most certainly not the only claim on their desk.

Finally, maintain a good relationship with your insurance investigator/adjuster. We would read and revise every email and document we sent to him, and Aaron would write down exactly what questions he had before every phone call. Our adjuster, James, was always patient with us and Aaron always expressed gratitude. Be kind. Imagine the grumpiness they deal with every day. If you’re one of the most pleasant people they deal with that day, it can only help with getting things processed.

 3. Patience is a necessity.

Settle in for the long haul. Resign yourself to the fact that every step of the process is going to take time, and come to terms with it, even though there will be nothing you want more than to move things along. It took us two to three months to even learn that we would be covered. The claim was fully closed seven months after the dismasting. Though this felt like forever to us, we know that our insurance company actually worked very quickly. For many others who have gone through similar claims, it can take a year or more.

4. Get approval for emergency repairs while you wait.

Likely, there will be some repairs that cannot wait for a lengthy claim process. For us, we had a hole in our deck that needed to be immediately patched, unless we wanted an indoor monsoon every time it rained. We explained to our adjuster that we needed an emergency patch to prevent additional damage, and it was approved, with the idea that a full repair would be done further down the line.

 5. Getting work estimates is your responsibility.

When we first started the claim process, it was unclear to us where the responsibility fell in actually lining up estimates for the repairs. Did our insurance company have preferred contractors in our area that they would contact? How would that work?

We learned quickly that we were responsible not only for finding contractors to quote each and every aspect of our repairs, and there were many, but also for getting competing quotes, so the insurance company could review them. As you can imagine, these things happen on island time – better saddle up to another healthy dose of that patience.

Aaron did the research to find the contractors on island, coordinated to get them out to the boat to assess the work, followed up with them to get their quotes in writing, and then compiled all required information to send over to insurance. This was all before we were told that our claim would be covered.

6. Prepare for a full-time job.

Getting the competing quotes to submit to insurance was just the beginning. We thought that the insurance company would be way more involved in the whole process of actually hiring contractors and getting the boat fixed, but they are really just the money men. Once they approve the cost of the contractors, you still have to hire them. Schedule them. Oversee them. And pay them. Your insurance company pays you, you pay them – at least in our case.

7. Hire a project manager.

We did not hire our own project manager/surveyor until three-fourths of the way through the repairs, and this was an oversight. We would highly recommend hiring someone independent, who’s acting on your behalf, serving as the liaison between you and the contractors, and checking and documenting the work. This would have been especially helpful in our case, since we were juggling more than four contractors for four separate aspects of the repairs.

In addition, not to name names, but we found one particular contractor in Antigua absolutely awful to deal with (something that did not become clear until after the contract was signed and the work was started). The work itself was excellent, but the experience with this contractor was traumatic, on top of an already terrible time for us. It would have saved a lot of added stress to have someone serve as the go-between. You can submit the cost of a project manager to your insurance company as part of the claim and see if they will cover it. Ours would not, so we paid out of pocket in the end, but it really is a necessity.

Also, note that no one will care as much about the project as you. So, even if you hire a PM, stay involved. Be on-site regularly, but don’t be a pest. Owners can make a mess of things by trying to be overly involved in every decision. Trust the talent you hire, but stay involved at every step and stay organized. The process will generate a ton of paperwork, so come up with a system. Aaron used Google Drive and scanned any hard copies so he could access any file at any time from any device in any place – which he did, seemingly seven days a week for seven months.

8. Keep the claim open.

Seriously. I know you’ll want closure. Keep it open. Once the claim is closed, it cannot be reopened, and that means that you cannot receive any additional funds from your insurance company without some hassle.

For us, there was the obvious damage from the dismasting, but over the course of the next few months, we inevitably found more. When it rained, we found new leaks. As our heightened emotions in the immediate aftermath of the event calmed down, we saw more clearly and found additional damage around the deck, which we were able to add into the claim.

I can’t stress enough that our insurance was wonderful to work with, and though it was a slow process, we never felt pushed to get things wrapped up prematurely. In speaking with others who have had big claims, they were rushed to get it closed.

9. Understand the money.

Both how you’ll receive it from insurance, and how contractors expect to be paid. Also, the timing. First, let’s talk timing.

Many contractors require a deposit on larger jobs before they will start working. Also, in our case, we needed to get the order in to the factory for our mast, and we had to pay half before it would even be put on the build schedule. Before work could even begin on Clarity, we had to pony up at least $25k. So that you are not floating this from your own funds, work with your insurance company to approve and make partial payments, with the remainder to be sorted when the work is completed. We worked out four separate claims / disbursements over the seven months.

Another part of the money is understanding how it’s going to be paid to you by insurance, and how you need to pay your contractors. If you have a loan on the boat, the bank may require that they receive the money first, which can cause major delays. If you have a loan, ask your bank to allow insurance to directly pay you to prevent schedule problems. If you’re out of your home country, plan time for international wire transfers.

The next element was paying the contractors. Again, these were large payments. Our insurance company and our bank are based in the States, but the work was done in Antigua. The charges were too high to carry on a credit card. In addition, for the biggest part of the repairs, we were in the States while the boat was in Antigua, so we weren’t on-site to pay cash. We were back to international wire transfers and there are fees associated with these. For the bills where wire transfers were the only option, we did submit to insurance to be reimbursed for the associated fees. It’s all part of the dance.

Then we have the final piece of the money puzzle – and it goes back to timing. With repairs in Antigua coming to a close at the end of August, we wanted to get the boat out of the hurricane zone as quickly as possible (actually, we did wind up dodging a hurricane right as we were looking to start our passage south). If we had waited to start initiating payments until the work was 100% completed, we would have been stuck another week or more, just on account of the time for the transfers to process, etc.

In addition, one contractor (shockingly, the same rigger I referenced before) put a “No Cash No Splash” hold on our boat, which meant that they wouldn’t put it in the water until the bill was paid. This is not unheard of when projects are this big, but it was an additional challenge for us, as we wanted to splash the boat as soon as possible so we could move back on board and get it ready for passage as the final repairs were sorted.

10. Prepare for unforeseen costs.

Our dismasting was covered 100% by our insurance company. It’s the reason we are still out here, living aboard – otherwise, the $100k+ price tag would have caused us to pull the plug. BUT, even when everything is covered, there’s more.

We had every intention of getting the boat down to Grenada well before hurricane season, but the dismasting happened just outside of Antigua, and we could not safely move the boat until it was fixed, which would be late August at the earliest. This meant that the boat was in the hurricane zone during hurricane season. We were grateful that our insurance company continued to cover us, but, we had to pay out of pocket for the additional coverage. Coverage in the box is considerably more expensive, like in the thousands more expensive. Awesome.

Some of the work was done on Clarity at the dock, so we were able to live aboard. However, for the critical couple of months including getting the mast and rig put back on, the boat had to be hauled, and the yard did not allow liveaboards on the hard. The boat is our only home, so we either had to find a place locally to stay for two months, or go back to the States to stay with family, which would still require international flights for all three of us. Though we asked for insurance to compensate us, they declined. Another out-of-pocket price tag in the thousands.

The final blow for us was the complete grenade the dismasting threw into our life plans. We had planned to enjoy Antigua in March and April and then quickly head south to Grenada by early May so that Aaron could establish his marine electrical business here. We would use that money for monthly expenses, put Claire in school for a semester, and to refill our cruising kitty for the next season.

Instead, the boat was in Antigua until late August. When we did make it down to Grenada by September, Aaron immediately went through the paces of establishing his business here, but it’s a process. Here we are in early February, still waiting for final approval from the Grenadian government on his permit. Write your plans in the sand at low tide, they say…

11. Extend help if you see others in the process, and extend grace if you’re in it yourself.

Right after the dismasting happened, we were in shock. We didn’t know which way was up, and we definitely couldn’t put two and two together to ask for help. Luckily, the cruising community is unlike any other, and we were surrounded by a huge support network that helped us in ways we wouldn’t have even thought to ask. That first night, one family cooked a huge pot of delicious food for us and dropped it off with a bottle of wine, no questions. They figured, in all the chaos, meals would be the last thing on our mind, but were still important, and they were so right. That was a godsend.

Other friends took Claire out for play dates at the beach and invited her over for sleepovers. Not only did this help create happy memories for Claire in a really challenging time, but it allowed Aaron and me time to sort through the mess, literally and emotionally, without having to try to keep it all together in front of her.

Still, other cruisers who had dealt with the claims process before offered to help us with ours, reading some of our initial correspondence with our insurance agent and helping us shift our frame of mind from absolute doom and gloom to trusting that we had made the right decisions all along, with our insurance plan, with our repairs, etc.

Finally, extend grace. When we dinghied to shore to check in to Antigua, we were zombies. I couldn’t put a sentence together. We ran into another cruiser at the dock: I think I said hello, but I may not have, and I’m 100% sure I came across as cold and rude. I didn’t realize until a few days later that it was a friend of ours, and I felt so terrible. If you come across someone and they seem off, try not to be too quick to judge. You never know what’s going on under the surface.

If you’re the ones trying to navigate the crisis, extend grace to each other (your spouse, your kids). And to yourself. Whatever event you may have experienced – a dismasting, a lightning strike, hitting a reef, etc. – is, at its core, a trauma. There will be fallout from that. PTSD. All three of us experienced it at different times, and often, when we least expected it.

We were lucky that for the most part, Aaron and I were not at low points at the same time. One of us was usually able to help the other out of it. But this is a time to extend grace, to come together as best you can, to be a team and try to make it through even stronger on the other side. This could have broken us – some days, we were pretty certain that it had. But in that vulnerability, we were able to find common ground and commit to seeing this through, however it played out.

What’s Happening Now

A mast! A mast! Our girl is finally starting to look like a sailboat again!

Here’s the short of it:

We are putting her back together again. Clarity is currently in Antigua getting the final repairs from the dismasting done. When she’s ready, which will hopefully be in the next week or two, she will be practically brand new from the deck up. And most all costs are being covered by insurance. We couldn’t have asked for a better resolution.

What happened:

Once the claim from the dismasting is fully closed, we will share more details about what caused it, and a whole host of information we learned as a result. We’ll also share some eye-opening best practices about how to file and handle an insurance claim. This process has been an education for sure.

Here’s the long of it:

I’ve started this post so many times, in my mind and at my computer, about what’s happened since the dismasting. So many things have happened, continue to happen, and with them come a whirlwind of emotions and life changes, some fluctuating dramatically throughout the course of a week, or even a day. I’ve struggled to even know how I feel about it all, much less how to write about it. But here are some of the facts.

When the boat was dismasted just after sunrise that morning back in March, it was the very definition of a traumatic event, for the reasons I shared in my emotional last post. But the event itself was just the beginning. What came next was the fallout, in pretty much every aspect of our life.

The most immediate issue was getting the claim filed. Our insurance company acted quickly, sending a surveyor out to our boat within a week to assess the damage and the cause. Then, gathering the required information for the claim became Aaron’s full-time job, as we determined that one point person would be most efficient. Regardless of whether or not the claim was processed, it was on us to reach out to local contractors, have them assess the boat, collect their quotes, and present their quotes to the insurance company in a clear and concise document. Oh, and these couldn’t just be from one contractor for each issue. There needed to be competitive quotes.

As a result of the dismasting, Clarity needed rigging, metalwork, fiberglass repairs, woodwork, deck painting, and more. You can imagine how many quotes that is. All collected on island time. It was a HUGE undertaking for Aaron, and that’s before we received any indication of if insurance would cover the repairs. With this much work involved, the costs would be substantial.

Another realization was the time it would take to get a new mast, which would be custom built and shipped from the manufacturer. Once the manufacturer received a deposit, in the many thousands of dollars, then we would be slotted into the schedule. So we had to wait until we received our first insurance payment to pay the deposit. At that point, the lead time was 3+ months from the date of order to delivery.

Even if everything moved along perfectly and we were covered, we realized our boat would be going nowhere until at least August. That was a huge change in thinking for us, as we had planned to get to Grenada by mid-May so Aaron could set up his marine electrical business there before the rush of hurricane season. Moving the boat before the repairs were done was an idea we quickly dismissed. Without the weight of the rig, the boat would be extremely uncomfortable in any seas, and if the engine failed during passage, we would have to abandon ship or hail for a rescue at sea, depending on how offshore we were. The risks were too great.

That also meant that Clarity would be “in the box” for at least part of hurricane season, which was definitely not desirable due to weather risks, and also the increased insurance premiums.

It all seemed so daunting, so exhausting, but Aaron and I tried to stay positive. I couldn’t even imagine the choices we would have to make as a family if insurance did not cover at least some, if not all, of the damage, so I held on tightly to the idea that they had to. And we both agreed – if insurance covers this, we put her back together again and continue on with our previous plan to get down to Grenada, as soon as the repairs were done and there was a safe weather window for passage. We were also very, very fortunate to be able to live safely on board at anchor while we waited to hear from our adjuster, and then waited for repairs to begin.

Once we got word that insurance was going to cover us, we knew we had crossed an incredible hurdle, and we’ve been continuing to celebrate that. Naturally, then the actual work started – signing with the chosen contractors, scheduling out the repairs, dealing with international wire transfers. Another full-time job for Aaron, with some impressive spreadsheets to keep six-figures of contracts straight.

Work started in mid-May, and we brought her to the dock for a month of in-water repairs. Mid-June, she was hauled out for work to continue in the yard. The yards there do not allow owners to live on board while the boat is on the hard, nor would we want to in that heat, and while workers needed uninterrupted access to pretty much all facets of the boat.

Plus, all of our cruising friends had sailed south by that point. It was a ghost town in Antigua. Not to mention, extended housing there is expensive. So, we flew back to the States. Our plan for the summer had always been to fly back for a Stateside visit, but for a few weeks in July. Given that the boat wouldn’t be splashed until mid-August, we prepared to leave our home for two full months.

Two months in the States was definitely not in the cruising budget, especially with Aaron’s marine electrical business necessarily put on hold. The financial impact of this dismasting, even with insurance, has been staggering. My steady contract gig also dried up unexpectedly in late May – yet another wrench in our plans.

Still, our time Stateside has been an incredible gift. Our friends and family welcomed us with open arms, housed us, fed us, even gave us one of their cars for the entirety of our visit. They’ve encouraged us and loved us and it’s been a pleasure to spend true, dedicated time with them, rather than trying to shoehorn in as much as we could in just a few short weeks. Claire was enrolled in some summer camps, and Aaron and I took advantage of travel vouchers for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Thailand. It was something we had started planning before the dismasting, and something I was dedicated to doing as long as insurance came through for us.

Aaron has been working hard on the phone and emails every day to keep Clarity moving forward in our absence, and gathering everything needed to hit the ground running with his business when we do finally make it south. I was able to pick up some fresh contract work and dabble in selling some of my sea glass jewelry.

But our visit Stateside has also been incredibly challenging. We’ve been living out of backpacks and suitcases for more than eight weeks, enjoying our time but also feeling displaced, missing our home. Our life. Our rhythm. We are so ready to get back to that, even with knowing that getting back to Clarity is just the beginning, so many steps to go before we’re sitting calmly at anchor in Grenada.

We flew out of Antigua on June 15, and with the mast stepped this week and the vast majority of the boxes checked off, I just booked our flights back for this coming Tuesday, Aug. 20.

The dismasting has rattled us, shaken us up in every way imaginable, pushed us to our limits and then pushed more. But finally, we are starting to see the other side.

While relishing the convenience of being able to drive anywhere we wanted, whenever we wanted, I fell back into my old habit of cranking cheesy pop songs on the radio. I know they’re little more than catchy autotuned garbage, but one song I first heard a few months back has stuck with me, probably because it’s been so hard for me to process what I’ve been feeling. It’s called “The Bones,” by Maren Morris. Here’s what she says:

“We’re in the homestretch of the hard times
We took a hard left, but we’re alright
Yeah, life sure can try to put love through it, but
We built this right, so nothing’s ever gonna move it

When the bones are good, the rest don’t matter
Yeah, the paint could peel, the glass could shatter
Let it rain ’cause you and I remain the same
When there ain’t a crack in the foundation
Baby, I know any storm we’re facing
Will blow right over while we stay put
The house don’t fall when the bones are good.”

 

What Happened

Full sails on passage from St. Maarten to Antigua, with the moon settling in for the night. Less than 12 hours later, the rig was in the water.

Two seconds is all it takes.

Two seconds to ruin your home. Two seconds to do $60,000+ worth of damage. Two seconds for your entire rig to come down. Two seconds to change your life.

Two seconds.

We were on an overnight passage from St. Martin to Antigua, about 30 miles from Jolly Harbor, when one of the things that every sailor has nightmares about happened.

We left Simpson Bay at around 5 p.m. with steady northeast winds at 10-15 knots. We settled in to our course for one long tack, put out the sails and watched the sun set behind us over St. Bart’s.

As night fell, I gimballed the stove and prepared a gourmet dinner of brats and beans. Claire wound down with an audio book before falling asleep in our aft cabin in a mountain of blankets and throw pillows. And Aaron and I prepared to start our night watches – two or three hours on, two or three hours to sleep. We even remarked to each other how easily the passage was going, unlike some other overnight sails we had done. No squalls, plenty of moonlight. Sure, the wind was a bit flukey and we hit some unexpected current, but overall, we were able to keep the boat moving steadily at four to six knots and keep the engine off.

At around 6:30 a.m., I woke up from a two-hour sleep and readied myself to take over watch from Aaron. The sun had just come up and the boat was still making steady progress – only four or five more hours until anchor down in Jolly Harbor! I was standing on the companionway steps leading up to the cockpit, getting the report from Aaron on how his watch went, when we both watched in horror as the entire rig came down.

I’ve heard a lot of people recount traumatic events and say, “It was like it happened in slow motion! My life passed before my eyes!” This wasn’t like that at all, at least, not for me. One second, we were slicing through waves with a full sail plan happily trimmed. Two seconds later, our mast was hanging on by threads over the starboard railing, the boom was bent in half, I saw our full sails billowing under the water. I don’t even remember it being that loud, though given the amount of metal that was twisted like tree limbs and the guts of our rig that were ripped from the deck, I’m sure it was. Aaron says it was like a gun went off, but not only was the noise deafening for him, but he could feel the vibrations through the cockpit floor and seats.

I will say it’s a video that’s currently on repeat for me, and one that I will never forget.

My tears were immediate, like a faucet. And Aaron’s, too, though he pushed them aside and sprang to action. We both tried to stay as calm as we could, he admittedly more than me, because we knew this was just the beginning. Was the rig still connected? Where? Could we salvage anything? Was the hull damaged? Were we taking on water? This was when our lives, and our home, passed through my mind – would we have to get the dinghy down as fast as we could, grab the ditch bag I had packed before we left the previous day, and abandon ship, leave our home for the last three years to float away and sink? This has definitely happened to some when they suffered a dismasting.

Wake up, wake up, JUST WAKE UP, I kept thinking. I’m still waiting to wake up from all of this.

Aaron quickly assessed the situation on deck and realized that, unless he got in the water, which would not have been safe, we wouldn’t be able to salvage anything. Parts of the rig had started knocking against the hull, and to prevent any further damage, he began cutting away the remaining pieces with a hacksaw, rotary cutter tool, and wire cutters.

I immediately ran down below to tend to Claire, who of course had woken up when the rig came down. She was crying, knowing that something had happened, and that it was bad. Still half asleep in her dream world, she asked, “Was it a lion, mom? Or a tiger? Is something breaking our boat?” I explained as best I could, trying to keep calm, and looked around for any signs of water down below. Seeing nothing immediately alarming, I asked her to stay down below to stay safe, and went back up to assist Aaron.

He cut away each piece, each finger still trying to keep its hold on us, and as he severed the last bit, we watched in silence as the whole rig sank and the boat popped up, relieved of the weight it had been dragging through the water. We both then went down below, me to comfort Claire, and Aaron to check all of the bilges and see if the hull was compromised. With everything appearing to be in tact, we fired up the engine. I will never forget the wave of relief when it immediately jumped to, and we confirmed that our steering was still good.

I got the boat back on track for Antigua as Aaron continued checking the damage. Eventually, all three of us settled in to the cockpit.

We spent the next six hours motoring to Jolly, and this was the worst part for me. Six hours to do nothing but stare forward at the massacre that had just happened – wide open sky where there were meant to be sails, bent and twisted rails that had held fuel cans and water jugs just an hour before.

To add insult to injury, without the weight and windage of the rig, we had no way of stabilizing the boat, so we were fully at the mercy of the waves, bobbing violently starboard to port and back again, with each set. Claire and I both got seasick, as if things weren’t bad enough. Aaron created seals around the holes in the fiberglass, which were allowing saltwater to spray down into the salon with every wave. The holes looked like open wounds, the layers shredding like paper, flaking and cracking.

Aaron and I were both delirious, he coming down off of the immediate adrenaline of just executing when it all happened, and both of us naturally short on sleep due to the overnight watches. Claire kept saying, “This is horrible. What happened? Why did this happen to our home?” I didn’t know my heart could break more.

It was a good question, though – why did this happen? How does the entire rig of a sailboat just come down – poof – like the mast was made of playdoh? The conditions were not rough, the waves, averaging at four feet, were reasonable. The sails were full but not overpowered, and there were no squalls – the sun was shining.

Exactly a year ago, we had Clarity hauled in Puerto Rico for a planned replacement of the saildrive and some through-hulls. As the boat sat on blocks, Aaron noticed that one of the diagonal shrouds had broken a couple strands while being transported by the travel lift. Realizing that this was bad news, we called around and had two riggers assess the boat. We had purchased the used boat two years prior with the original rigging, and though it passed the initial survey, we knew we’d likely have to replace the rigging during our tenure with it. It turned out that our time was up. After a thorough review both topsides and down below, the rigger said that we needed to replace all of the standing rigging. We weren’t thrilled with the $5,500 check, but we knew that it was critical to maintain the safety of the boat, so we did it.

What happened while we were near the end of a lovely sail to Antigua, is for the insurance company and surveyor to decide, but given that we had just taken the necessary steps a year prior, we were absolutely baffled.

We finally came into the bay at around 12:30 p.m. We dropped the hook (thank god our windlass was still working), turned off the engine, and sat there. What do you do? What do you say? How are you supposed to feel?

There’s the obvious of what we do now: we file the claim. We wait to see what our insurance company decides, and pray that we are compensated for something we know in our hearts was beyond our control.

We clean up what we can, we prepare for the unfathomable amount of work ahead of us, we try to process what happened.

But then what. When the literal to-do list is done, what do we do? This has broken us. Do we keep sailing? Do we park it for awhile and take a break? Do we cut our losses and bail out?

I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

As human beings, we are trained to look on the bright side, to find the silver lining. Things always could have been worse. There’s so much to be grateful for. That’s all true, and I am.

But sometimes, you just have to sit with the reality. Living on a sailboat that had its heart ripped out. And finding the pieces of your own.

Sunset watch during our overnight sail. Just look at that beautiful backstay! Our transom looks so naked now without it.

Financial Realities: Two Years In

No money, mo’ problems! Okay, it’s not quite that simple.

It’s hard to believe that we’ve been in Grenada for three months already, though in many ways, we feel rooted here. This community, both cruisers and locals, is so welcoming, and each time we experience something new here, we understand why it’s a mecca for so many boaters.

But it’s also been a challenging few months, with a lot of introspection. Speaking frankly, Aaron and I have both been slaves to the almighty dollar, working hard to get some money in the bank, as our cruising reserves were sorely depleted when we dropped the hook here in July.

This has very much driven some tough conversations about what this upcoming cruising season would look like for us, or if there would even be one. But through some come-to-Jesus moments , we’ve realized how well we set ourselves up for cruising longevity with more than just dollars in the bank. More on that in a bit. First, how did we get here?

I have found that one of the most common misconceptions about this lifestyle is that it is cheap. It is definitely cheaper than living on land in the States, but at the same time, you’re not working a full-time job (or in many households, two full-time jobs) to support the family.

In many ways, this lifestyle has felt more like hemorrhaging money.

Typically, cruisers start out with a cruising kitty – money they saved while they were hatching their plan, to live off of while traveling. Others, like us, saved while also developing skills and businesses to allow us to work along the way. Sitting at our condo back in Oak Park, Ill., Aaron and I put together a spreadsheet of definite costs we knew we would incur each month: the (very) low-interest mortgage for whatever boat we purchased, cell phone and data plans to stay connected, groceries, general boat maintenance, and the initial refit costs for our next boat, as well as added in padding for the unknowns.

We also estimated a conservative income from working remotely (both he and I) and factored in money from the sale of our first boat, the Pearson 36-2, in Chicago. The proceeds from the sale of our condo and two cars would go toward purchasing the new boat.

Gorgeous St. George’s. It’s easy to set up camp in one place for awhile when it’s as beautiful as this is.

We thought we had ourselves pretty well set for two to three years of cruising, at least. However, when Clarity dropped anchor in Grenada back in July, our cruising kitty was completely gone, and we were actively living off of all that we are able to bring in each month, which needed to be more. This was due to a number of reasons.

First, our Pearson did not sell in a timely manner. As a result, not only did we not have the proceeds from the sale, but we continued to pay insurance, mortgage and storage fees on it, all while it depreciated in value. We were finally able to sign a contract this past spring, having to let her go at a price that was much lower than we would have liked. Not having the financial burden of her each month was the only “windfall.”

Clarity also managed to rack up unforeseen costs well into the tens of thousands, both seasons we’ve been out. We planned for boat maintenance and knew things would need to be replaced or updated when we purchased her, but the saildrive, and all of its associated costs, was a surprise. Then, replacing the entire rigging was another financial burden that came sooner than we thought.

Huge jobs like this not only add up in the parts, or even the labor, but the days on the hard, when we have to pay both for where the boat sits, and also for a place for us to live in the meantime. (Of course, this is always in beautiful Caribbean islands where the steady influx of vacationers kicks up the per-night rates.) Then, there’s the international shipping to get the parts wherever we are. The import taxes and customs fees. The list goes on and on.

So many amazing opportunities here thanks to the active cruising community! Here’s Claire and her friend Layla relaxing after a morning at sailing camp.

Other non-boat costs have been thrown into the mix, too. Medical bills we are still getting from Claire’s surgery to have the bean removed from her nose in the Bahamas. Unplanned flights back to the States for family emergencies. And a handful more.

The day-to-day of cruising is not what eats away at your bank account. It’s everything else.

Another factor for us is that, while we do have money in savings that’s smartly invested and actively managed, we are determined not to use it. We are determined to live within our means (income) and use what we have invested to help us transition into “the next chapter,” whatever and whenever that is. We also have a healthy college fund for Claire that we set up at least six years ago that has been steadily increasing, so no matter what we decide as a family in the coming years, we can support whatever path she decides for herself.

So, as our boat swayed in the steady trade winds here in southern Grenada, we had to seriously look at our finances and come up with a plan. Amazingly, after the “What are we going to do?” nights with some impressive wine consumption, we realized that the smart decisions we made three or four years ago, while living part time on our first sailboat, would pay for themselves tenfold now.

As many of you know, I’ve been doing contract editing ever since I had Claire, and I worked hard to cultivate relationships before we left that would allow me to bring in money as needed. The key was finding the right connections that would continue to jive with our fluid lifestyle, which was no small feat.

Also, while still working full-time, Aaron put in long hours on the side preparing himself for work that might prove beneficial while we sail. Over the course of two months of studying and classes at the U.S. Maritime Academy (and 15 years of on-the-water experience racing sailboats), he got his master captain’s license and then began working part time for a sailing school and charter business taking groups out sailing. He then studied to become a marine electrician, becoming American Boat and Yachting Council (ABYC)-certified, and set up his own business, Clarity Marine Systems. CMS took off quickly and successfully, with Aaron regularly working in yards and marinas in the Chicagoland area.

One of Clarity Marine’s biggest jobs completed in Chicago, the 70-foot racing sled on which Aaron did a complete re-wire.   (photo by Skyway Yacht Works)

To dig us out of our hole, so to speak, all we needed was some time in one place (hurricane season!) to allow us to draw on our skill sets more heavily. Here in Grenada, I increased my work load (again, so grateful to have cultivated relationships with clients that allow me to increase or decrease my docket as needed) and Aaron started to look into marine electrical work, which there has proven to be a bounty of here. We’ve started the process of re-establishing Clarity Marine Systems as a registered and insured Grenadian business, a requirement to legally work here. He’s been intentionally making his own connections with cruisers, marinas and boatyards in preparation for next year.

We are both very busy and tag-teaming homeschool with Claire, not to mention juggling one “car.” We are now in a position that we’re keeping a healthy family dynamic while slowly but surely building back our cruising kitty. We finally pulled out of the black hole our repairs in Puerto Rico put us in, are living comfortably off of what we make each month, and have started saving again.  But at least for the next month or so, we will stay in Grenada and continue at this pace.

As hurricane season wraps up, we could leave now and cruise on the money currently coming in, but it would require us to keep up the same pace we’re doing now while we are on the move, which would be exhausting and challenging. And truthfully, we want to enjoy the islands we visit, really dig in, rather than having to count every penny or feather in adventuring just on weekends. We want to rent cars and take tours and enjoy a nice meal occasionally and buy fun toys we would like. That is truly our happy place, making smart financial decisions, living small, but also allowing ourselves that flexibility.

Also, we just know there will be big-ticket boat items that will come up this season, as they have every season. We’ll likely need to replace our battery bank during the next year, which will cost thousands, and I’m sure that bell will toll sooner than we’d expect. We need to be financially prepared.

We’ve been going at a million miles an hour since we arrived here in Grenada, but we make sure family time is still our No. 1 priority.

Grenada has been an interesting culmination point for so many cruisers. We’ve seen several families put their boat on the hard and go back to ‘land’ to work for a few months or even a few years to replenish the cruising kitty. Some of them come back, but more often, the boat is put up for sale a year later. We’ve also seen so many “bon voyage” parties, the dream of sailing the world finished, and the crew ready to move on to the next chapter.

It’s also hard to hear when family members are not all on the same page about the decision – some want to keep sailing, but others don’t, so they’re forced to throw in the towel.

One thing I’m so grateful for is that Aaron and I are on the exact same page – we are not done cruising. We have not checked that box off. There is so much more to see. We are both fully invested in this lifestyle – we just want to do it in the way that makes the most sense for our family.

So, here’s the plan, as it stands right now. As cruising season gets in full swing, we’ll head north for an abbreviated season, hitting the islands we missed last season and spending more time in the ones we loved. I’ll keep working, but with a lighter workload, and Aaron will pick up jobs on boats as they present themselves along the way.

Then, we’ll get back down to Grenada early, before next hurricane season starts. This will allow Aaron finish setting up Clarity Marine Systems as a Grenadian business and be ready for the cruising and charter boats to start packing in.

Finally, after three months of a lot of work and a lot of stressful, hair-pulling, emotionally taxing conversations, we’ve come up with a plan that keeps us out on the water comfortably as a family, which is really my only priority. My only true goal, that trumps all the rest.

Let’s. Just. Keep. Doing. This.

Who can complain about a long day of work when you’re treated to breathtaking sunsets like these?!

 

Cruiser Friendships and This Lifestyle: Redefined

The Mayreau Crew! Hard to believe we just met these lovely friends a few weeks ago.

When we arrived in St. Anne, Martinique, we started a wonderfully rewarding chapter of meeting new cruisers that has continued as we head south. It’s made me think of how different it is, meeting new people in this lifestyle, than it was in my last. And it’s become an interesting lens into self-worth for me.

Don’t get me wrong – us cruisers have a set of standard questions: Where are you from? What type of boat are you sailing on? How long have you been out here? What are your plans?

Back in my previous life, I wouldn’t have asked where anyone was from – the answer, in most cases, was self-evident. And I wouldn’t have asked, “What type of house do you live in?” That was much too personal and in a way, beside the point. “How long do you plan on doing this?” If, by “this,” we meant this lifestyle, well, again, I think the answer was self-evident: Indefinitely.

But the one question I would always ask, and would always be asked, when meeting new people, was, “What do you do?” Though I do work part-time from the boat, I don’t often get asked that question, and if I do, it’s usually pretty far along into getting to know someone.

For the most part, this lifestyle is what we do. Day in, day out, on weekends. (What are those again? Right, those are when most of the stores are closed.) I started to think, if the lifestyle has taken the place of the job, what if we evaluate it using the same measuring stick? So here goes.

Does your job challenge you?

A resounding YES. Every day. Some days more than others, and sometimes to a point that cripples me. But always in a way that makes me stronger.

Is there the possibility of upward mobility?

Absolutely. Right now, Aaron is the captain of the boat and I am a knowledgeable first mate, but I need to become co-captain. I need to be able to sail our boat myself, to run our boat, completely on my own, not just comfortably, but confidently. This is far more than getting out of my comfort zone – that happened the day we moved aboard. I have so much more to learn, and even as captain, Aaron has said numerous times that there is always more to learn. There is no ceiling in this job.

Do you feel that you are compensated appropriately?

Financially, of course, the answer is laughable. Rather than even breaking even, you hemorrhage money in this lifestyle. Slowly (or oftentimes, way faster than you’d hoped), you chip away at whatever cruising kitty you saved before leaving. Budgets are your best friend. But let’s define compensation differently. How about in time spent with your family? In places that you get to travel to? In cultures that you are privileged to experience firsthand? Immeasurable.

Do you feel valued?

This is a tricky one. I’d love to say an immediate YES, but it’s more complicated than that, and I think Aaron would agree. We both value one another tremendously and two years in, we’ve settled into pretty clear roles. This doesn’t mean that my responsibilities don’t ever overlap with his, and vice versa, but in order to keep the ship moving, so to speak, there is a natural division of labor. But the gray area lies in playing both roles: the role of spouse, and the role of colleague or fellow employee, because when you’re sailing, it’s a different dynamic.

For instance, when you’ve had a huge victory, or even a huge defeat, you seek words of affirmation or comfort from your spouse. But your fellow employee may recognize it and quickly move on to the next task – and in the moment, this focus may be what’s needed most. Aaron and I are getting better at recognizing when to favor a certain role over the other.

Do we feel valued by Claire? That’s simple. When we are making a point to sync up with other kid boats, when we are hiking mountains and playing on the beach and indulging in ice cream in town? Of course! During school each day? Perhaps not. Oh, right – a third role Aaron and I have had to assume. Teacher.

Do you ever feel like you want to quit?

YES. Obviously not all the time, and I think that the key in any lifestyle or job is that the good parts outweigh the bad. As you all know, there are plenty of times, at the end of a hard day, that we want to throw in the towel. A few times, we have very seriously considered it. But the balance for us overall is still tilting pretty heavily to the good.

Do you feel fulfilled?

If I’m being completely honest, this has sometimes been a hard one for me. Up until I had Claire, I was fully dedicated to my career. It defined me. And the missions I worked to uphold were laudable ones. Produce a publication that enriched and bettered the lives of those who read it. Manage a website and digital presence that allowed healthcare executives to access materials and reach a community that would help them succeed at their jobs. Help small businesses establish the e-media presence they needed to take their brands to the next level.

As I mentioned, I do work part-time, and I enjoy it. I feel blessed to be able to continue a job that allows me the flexibility to pursue this lifestyle while creating income to support it. But my work no longer defines me.

My mission now? My family. My marriage. And, again, if I’m being honest, my own happiness. It still feels like saying that last part is selfish. Since we left, I’ve struggled here and there with feelings of guilt, of thinking, what purpose does this life really serve? Who am I benefitting with this, other than my family?

Even though I hardly hear it anymore, that resounding question of, “What do you do?” is still there, in the back of my thoughts, a bit louder on nights like tonight, when I can’t sleep and my mind decides to throw me the curveballs I’ve been dodging. Why does living life solely for our family sometimes feel like a luxury we are indulging? Why, so often, is traveling as a family viewed as a luxury, and not a necessity? And why is putting yourselves first, measured by quality of life rather than income, often viewed as irresponsible?

If this lifestyle defines us, what is the ultimate goal? Can it be as simple as wanting to create the best life for Claire, of opening her mind and expanding her horizons, and wanting to witness to it all?

Beautiful Bequia in the Grenadines was our office, so to speak, for a week or so.

I was chatting with a couple of friends on the beach the other day, and as much as we were joking, we were discussing serious topics, too. It felt like I had known them for a long time, when in reality, we met just three weeks prior. You hear this a lot about cruising: friendships form quickly and you become quite close in a short period of time.

Some of it is proximity – you’re in the same place and you spend a lot of time together. But I think, too, you just get to what matters more quickly. We’re all generally “doing” the same thing. Your guard is almost always down going in, you’re not afraid to be vulnerable, because you know everyone is struggling with the same challenges you are.

Challenges like, is the overall scale still favoring the good? Is my family happy? Am I happy?

We are just shy of two years in now, and this past year was a hell of a ride. If we’re up for review, how do I think I performed this year? As best I could, but there’s always room for improvement. Goals for this coming year? More of the same.

Where do I see myself in five years? Right. Here.

Cruising the Leewards

A few days ago, we had a lovely sail from the Saints in southern Guadeloupe to Portsmouth, Dominica. The leg was mostly a beam reach, which meant the boat settled into her groove nicely, comfortably. We sliced through the waves at an average of 7 knots boat speed and Clarity was at a reasonable heel.

It was a nice change of pace from our usual sails this season. But more on that in a bit.

The Leeward Islands have been one incredible destination after another, with gorgeous terrain, fascinating cultures and amazing people. Here’s a photo gallery of the places we’ve been blessed to experience thus far. Keep reading below the photos!

 

I’m embarrassed to say that before this season, I was pretty uneducated on the Leeward and Winward island chains. I had never heard of places like Saba, or Statia, or the Saints in Guadeloupe. And some of the islands I only became familiar with as they dominated the headlines during hurricane season last year.

I also had an ignorant mindset that the islands were similar, albeit a breathtaking repetition. It could not be further from the truth.

These amazing places have been one eye-opening exploration after another, all with their own topographies, their own cultures, their own vibe.

Some have one volcano that dominates the terrain. Others, like Dominica, have nine, and other islands, like Anguilla, are flat as a pancake. Some have powdery white beaches, while others have black volcanic sand that sparkles for miles.

We often find ourselves pausing as we plan our next stop to ask, okay, is the next island its own country? Is it part of the French West Indies? Dutch West Indies? Is it a British Overseas Territory? What currency do they use there? All of the French islands, for instance, are on the Euro, while the other islands use the Eastern Caribbean Dollar, and some islands still accept the U.S. dollar. Our shore bag has become a kaleidoscope of currencies.

Even each French island has its own feel. In St. Barts and St. Martin (the French half anyway), the locals were able to communicate in basic English due to the steady tourism there, and would politely switch if they heard me struggling with French. In Guadeloupe, though, hardly anyone speaks English. Though it can be challenging at times, since Aaron and I have never learned French, it’s also forced me to work on some basic phrases, which we should be doing anyway. We are in their country after all! And it’s another great learning experience for Claire.  It’s painfully cute to hear her say, in her lilting voice as we leave a store, “Au revoir; Merci.”

In St. Barts, it was all about luxury – beautiful shops, expensive restaurants and charming little streets that oozed wealth. We saw some of the most breathtaking beaches there, too, though our first black sand beach on St. Kitts ranks up there, too. Guadeloupe, however, was more rugged, especially in Deshaies, a sleepy little fishing village on the north coast. The town was mostly locals, and the locals have café and croissant each morning at the bakery. The waterfront restaurants were simple, though the cuisine was anything but, and all around the massive island was lush, green, wet rainforest. Absolutely beautiful.

The daily schedule on the French islands, if you want to call it that, is somewhat consistent. People wake up early and head to town. Just after lunch, all of the businesses close for at least two or three hours, and the streets become a ghost town. Around 4 or 4:30 p.m., some of the shops may open up again. Restaurants don’t reopen until 7 p.m. for dinner, or whenever the chef happens to drop back in. Everything shuts by midday Saturday, and stays closed all of Sunday. Many shops follow their own hours, though – perhaps they’ll open that day, perhaps they won’t. C’est la vie.

Other islands, like St. Kitts, Montserrat, and Dominica are louder and livelier. The rasta culture is strong and the islanders are warm and inviting. Bars and restaurants stay open late, especially on Friday and Saturday, with music pumping well into the night. Locals at the pool hall welcome you for a match, and others are more than happy to sit down with you and tell you about their family and their experiences growing up on these islands. Montserrat was a particularly moving stop for us in this regard, as many of the locals lived through the eruptions of the Soufriere Hills volcano from 1995 to 2012. Hearing firsthand accounts of these catastrophic events helped us better understand and appreciate the resilience of these amazing people.

Living in these places, rather than just visiting as tourists, has allowed us to settle into the rhythm of each place and truly dig in. What an incredible gift, the three of us being able to soak up these islands like traveling sponges.

The sailing, though, has been a bit of a challenge. We had the idea that once we left the Virgin Islands, we would get the Anegada passage under our belt – our last major haul east – and then have moderate sails with just a little more easting from St. Martin south. The reality has been much choppier.

The Anegada was the first wake-up call from the easy sailing in the Virgin Islands. It kicked our butts, quite frankly. The first 12 hours after leaving Leverick Bay, BVIs, was manageable, with moderate but consistent seas. However, at midnight, a line of squalls we had been watching grew and then surrounded us. Using our new radar, we veered off course to try and avoid the worst, but there was no escaping them.

For the next 16 hours, it was squall after squall after squall, regularly pushing us off course, all the way to Marigot Bay, St. Martin. And the squalls turned the seas into a washing machine. Claire and I were both horribly sick, leaving Aaron at the helm for the duration. There’s a quote from Mark Twain about seasickness: “At first, you are so sick that you are afraid you will die, and then you are so sick you are afraid you won’t die. “ That pretty much sums it up.

From that passage on, it’s been mostly upwind leg after upwind leg (close-reaches as we call it, rather than a hard-beat). The trade winds have been strong this season, with few periods of easing. With each hop to the next stop, there was inevitably some easting, which meant we were beating into it. For those reading this who don’t sail, this is about the most uncomfortable sailing there is, especially for a monohull. The boat is dramatically heeled, which makes climbing around topsides an impressive obstacle course and getting anything down below basically not worth it. Finally dropping the anchor, only to be met with a tornado down below, is not exactly awesome. Nor is your glass casserole dish flying out of the oven and shattering all over the galley while underway. (God bless you, Aaron, for cleaning up that one.)

Also, since we’re out sailing the Atlantic, the seas in general are always kicked up, so unless we want to wait a month or two in each port for that epic weather window, we’re out in four-foot seas, minimum, with six-foot typical. Aside from the Anegada, I’ve been able to keep my seasickness in check, but unfortunately Claire has not been so fortunate.   It’s been much better the last few sails, thank God, but for a while, she was sick every time we pulled anchor.

Beam reaches and downwind sailing are much more comfortable – the boat is less extreme, Claire and I can go down below, and we’re usually still maintaining a screaming pace. We want more of this!

Luckily, though I might be jinxing myself here, we seem to be at the end of the easting tunnel, and it should be smoother sailing from here on out to Grenada. And even with the stresses that the sails have brought in the last few months, the payoff of these incredible family experiences has been more than worth it. The boat has been treating us so well, with very few issues that need fixing or addressing.

Which brings me to our plan for hurricane season and next year! Aaron and I have had a lot of time to talk through possible trajectories. The first decision we made was to sail the boat to Grenada for hurricane season, rather than turn around at some point to head back to Puerto Rico. There are a number of reasons why, but two primary ones. First, there will be a ton of kid boats there for Claire. Two, we will be able to still do some cruising around that area during the season, rather than having to stay put, like we did in Luperon, Dominican Republic.

As we’ve been making our way down the island chain, we’ve also had to blast through some islands and skip others altogether just to get further south before the hurricane season ramps up. As a result, we’ve felt that we haven’t had a chance to fully explore this gorgeous area as thoroughly as we’d like. And, our Anegada nightmare has made us realize that we likely are not ready yet for passages of more than a few days, at most.

So, we’ve decided to do the Caribbean again next season! This time, we’ll be heading north from Grenada and will follow the general arc west, so NO EASTING – woohoo!! There’s so much more to see, and now we’ll be able to do it comfortably, both in terms of schedule and sailing.

Our insurance company is requiring that we get Clarity to Grenada by July 1, so we’ll be keeping a moderate pace as we continue south for the next month. Then, we’ll get her settled while we fly to the States mid-July to visit friends and family for a few weeks.

It’s hard to believe that it’s already June, and to realize how far we’ve come. I often forget that we started this season all the way back in the Dominican Republic. Aaron also did the tally of our miles so far in the last two seasons, and it comes to just shy of 3,000 miles. Here’s a tally of all of the islands we’ve visited just since Puerto Rico:

  • Culebra, Spanish Virgin Islands
  • St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
  • St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
  • Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands
  • Beef Island, British Virgin Islands
  • Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands
  • Great Dog, British Virgin Islands
  • St. Martin/ St. Maarten
  • St. Barts
  • St. Kitts
  • Nevis
  • Montserrat
  • Guadeloupe
  • The Saints, Guadeloupe
  • Dominica

It’s funny, people don’t seem to ask anymore how long we’re doing this. No end date in site.

Back On Track in the Virgin Islands

Be still my heart! My favorite salty sailors posing at the top of Virgin Gorda.

Spanish, U.S., British…. The Virgin Islands have given us the medicine we so desperately needed.

The day we dropped anchor in Ensenada Honda off of Culebra, I wasn’t sure it was real. As you all know, we had spent the last month or more in the weeds with both expected and unexpected boat work, and all of the challenges that came with life on the hard.

The very same day we did the short, successful test sail just outside of Puerto del Rey to check our brand new rigging, Aaron looked at me and said, “Let’s go to Culebra.” We just couldn’t get off that dock fast enough.

Since then, life has been pretty great. Charming towns, beautiful beaches, calm but full sails. Swimming, snorkeling, diving, fishing. Beachside birthday parties, sunset campfires and late-night jam sessions on uke and guitar. Despite our extended stay in Puerto Rico, we were able to catch up to some great friends on S/V Freedom, Chasing Waterfalls, Griffin and Upside Up. Our tanks have been full.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been boat problems – there have, but nothing that Aaron hasn’t been able to assess and fix rather quickly. (I’m always so amazed at his ability to troubleshoot). Finding connection for me to continue working has been a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. And yes, we’ve seen some absolutely unbelievable devastation as a result of the hurricanes – more on that in another post – but we’ve also found incredible beauty and have finally been able to drop the hook in places we’ve been hearing about from other cruisers for years.

For now, I will let these images speak for themselves. We’ve been back at it about a month now and once the current blow passes and the weather opens up, likely early next week, we will tackle the last longer sail of this season – 80+ miles through the Anegada Passage – over to St. Martin or Saba, pending wind direction.

How crazy, the change in temperature between my last post and this one. This life is one wild ride.

Our Hardest Chapter Yet

When we first arrived, we stayed in a slip for a few nights before the boat was hauled. This was the sunset the night before. It looks like the mountains are on fire! We should have known it was a bad omen…

Sometimes, life hands you a great big pile of lemons.

We arrived at Puerto del Rey Marina in Fajardo exactly one month ago. It was a stop that was in the making for almost a year, to properly replace the saildrive before jumping over to the Virgin Islands. We were set to haul out of the water on Tuesday, spend three days in the yard getting the work done, and splash again by Friday or Saturday, taking advantage of the next weather window to head out.

We are still here. Everything that could have gone wrong, did. And then, of course, more things piled on top.

It seems that a bullet point list may be the best way to detail all that we’ve been dealing with. Here goes:

  • Original saildrive and parts ordered from Florida.  Paid for 2-day air shipping, but it was sent ground. FEMA still has priority on all ground (ocean freight) shipping, so we would have been waiting for our parts for at least a month.
  • Second saildrive ordered from Belgium, since the first order was the only one available in the States.  Air freight order was stalled in Paris at Charles de Gaulle Airport for many days due to record-breaking snowfall there.  When it finally shipped to the U.S., it erroneously was shipped back to Paris.  Two days later, it shipped back to the States, where it was delayed two more days due to weather.
  • Saildrive finally arrives, but when the contractors redid the order, they forgot to order the additional parts that were included with the initial order. Had to order additional parts from Florida.  Shipped overnight ($$).
  • When the boat was hauled out, the stress of the Travelift was the final straw on some parts of our rig that had been showing their age.  Aaron called a rigger to go up the mast and inspect the whole thing. More problems. So, it is decided that we needed to replace the whole rig.
  • With the mess Hurricane Maria left behind, riggers are in high demand. Our original contact told us he’d be able to redo ours in maybe a week. That became two weeks. Then no commitment to any general time.
  • Aaron found another well-reputed rigger who could be available sooner. Measurements were taken. Parts were ordered. From Florida. Waiting, again, for their arrival.  They are on schedule at the time of writing this post.
  • While the boat was on the hard, we were not allowed to live aboard. Not knowing when the saildrive would arrive, we didn’t want to commit to any one place for too long, lest we were able to splash sooner. So, we moved around. We stayed in four places over the course of two weeks. I don’t recommend this.
  • We got kicked out of one of our AirBnB rentals. Yep, kicked. Out. I am still flabbergasted by this. Rather than rehash, you can read the review I posted on the host’s listing.
  • With the boat in the yard, mechanics coming in and out, the boat open to whatever elements were floating around, us off the boat for a lot longer than anticipated, our lovely roach problem resurfaced with vengeance. We tried to battle them ourselves. I gave up and called an exterminator.
  • When the saildrive was finally installed, we were able to splash the boat, since the rigging could be replaced while the boat was in the slip. As soon as the boat was in the water, Aaron and the mechanics tested the engine. Transmission control was reversed – forward was backward, backward was forward. Within an hour, Aaron and a mechanic got it  fixed, but still – really?!

In addition to all of these unforeseen problems, there are the unforeseen costs, which seem to require their own list. Not counting the significant cost to replace the saildrive and the associated labor and splash fees, here goes:

  • Daily charges for the boat being in the yard while we waited for parts to arrive. At Puerto del Rey, the charge to be in the yard is the about same as the charge to be in a slip – roughly $55 a day. We’ve been here one month.
  • At one point, the contractors said they would try to arrange with the marina to forgive some of the days, as the shipping mistakes with the saildrive were not on our end. Nothing has been promised.
  • Charge to have the rigger come assess the boat.
  • Fees for the new rig, hardware and labor. Thousands of dollars.
  • AirBnB fees.
  • Rental car fees.
  • Significant bar tabs, as I’m sure you can imagine.

And of course, there are all of those factors that you can’t put in lists. For me, this past month has been the worst since we have owned this boat. Aaron and I both hit rock bottom so many times, we lost count. Sure, we’ve gone through plenty of hardships, but we’ve never had the boat on the hard this long before. It would have been easier if we knew we’d have to be off for a month – we could have planned, logistically and mentally. But things kept getting pushed back, more problems kept creeping up – we were flailing, with no home base to ground us. All this with Aaron putting in long days at the yard and me trying to juggle work deadlines and Claire.

Aaron splicing an eye into our new outhaul in the AirBnB we were kicked out of, the night before we were kicked out.

Luckily, we are blessed to have amazing friends from Chicago here, Karen and Bruce Randall, who have a home in the mountains about 45 minutes away from the marina. We stayed with them for a few nights in between hotels and AirBnB rentals, but when we got kicked out of the last place, they welcomed us back with open arms and no schedule, letting us know we were welcome until whenever the boat splashed. They saved us in so many ways, and we will forever be grateful.

The view from the Randalls’ house – as wonderful as the company.

The issues with the rigging were a big fat punch in the gut, the cherry on top of this horrible sundae. But, when we purchased the boat with original rigging, we knew it would need to be replaced at some point – we just thought we’d get a few more seasons out of it first. And truly, the bright side here is that, if it had continued to degrade without our knowing, we could have lost the mast while sailing. Replacing the rig here was certainly not in the plans, but if it’s between that and the alternative, I choose that.

What we came back to when the boat was splashed, since Aaron fogged it while it was on the hard. The entire boat was like this. It took three full days just to put it all back together.

Another unforeseen result of this chapter has been watching all of our cruising friends from hurricane season in the DR pass us by. At the start of the season, we all hopscotched along the coast of Puerto Rico, a few boats pulling ahead, others catching up. We weren’t always together, but we were always a port or two away, and we knew we’d see each other again soon.

The cockpit upon return. Sigh…

For some of our friends, though, this is their last season cruising, or they have deadlines of getting to a certain place down-island by a certain time that require them to keep moving. While we’ve been racking up massive bills, they’ve been skipping over to the Spanish Virgin Islands, on to the U.S. Virgin Islands, and over to the BVIs. We may catch up to a few of them, but at this point, it’s a long shot.

This marina has a restaurant, a playground and a market, where we may have purchased some ice cream once or twice.

So of course, on top of dealing with all of the obvious challenges, I’ve felt extremely lonely. Not only did this part of the season not go as planned, but the excitement I had of seeing these amazing places buddy-boating with great friends is gone.

Back on the boat, hacking away at the to-do list! Here, Aaron is routing out a panel to mount our new instrument displays at the helm.

The boat splashed about a week ago and being able to move back on board was HUGE improvement for our sanity. We were able to settle into a rhythm here at the marina, and slowly but surely, the boat is coming back together. We’ve continued to cross out items on the to-do list – since we’re here anyway, why not make headway on things that were put on hold while we were moving?

We’ve also gotten back to a good schedule with Claire, doing homeschooling most mornings with play time in the afternoons. She’s been zipping around the dock on her new Razor scooter and we are fortunate to be in a marina with a playground, a restaurant and a market that sells plenty of ice cream.

And, it’s been a few days since the exterminator was here, with no signs of life since. This battle we’ve been fighting on and off for almost a year (yes, full honesty here – a YEAR), we seem to have finally won.

Our rig arrives tomorrow (fingers crossed) and should be installed by end-of-day Wednesday. We will rent a car for a day and do some final provisioning, and after a short sail to tune the new rig, we should be able to finally sail to the Spanish Virgin Islands next weekend, after a nasty weather window passes.

Our new saildrive, finally installed – all the feels!

I know that once we leave the dock and fill the sails, so much of the weight of this month will be lifted. Our delays have actually aligned schedules so that we can buddy boat to the Spanish Virgin Islands with Bruce and Karen, as they have their charter boat here, before they head back to Puerto Rico and we continue on.

I know that we will keep in touch with our dear cruising friends – maybe we’ll link up with some of them, maybe not, but we’ll stay connected. And I know that these new cruising grounds will gift us with amazing new cruising families.

As Aaron and I always say, this lifestyle brings the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. We’ve been banking a ton of lows, so I’m pretty sure that unicorn-flying, sunburst-shining, mountain-climbing high is right around the corner!

Tough Sails and a Road Trip to San Juan

“Should we head out there? It looks pretty rough… Is that a storm? Maybe we’ll just wait it out at the pool.”

Imagine doing the moguls on the ocean. That’s what sailing in Puerto Rico has been like for us.

As our boat sits calmly in a slip in Puerto del Rey Marina in Fajardo, on the east coast of Puerto Rico, waiting to get hauled on Tuesday to replace the saildrive (yay!), Aaron and I are breathing a sigh of relief. This is a milestone for us, to be sure – plans to get Clarity fixed up here have been many months in the making. But the hops along Puerto Rico’s coast have done us in. Our time in the marina, while busy, will be a nice break from out there. We also left Clarity at anchor a week ago and took a three-day road trip to Old San Juan (see pictures at the end of this post!). It was a wonderful reprieve.

The first challenge has been that we haven’t been able to sail – not without the motor. For most of our time, we have been easting along the southern coast. As a result, we’ve been pointed directly into the trades with the wind on our nose, which makes popping sails almost impossible. “But you’re a sailboat!” you say. “Just tack your way back and forth, take a little longer, but actually sail!” We have definitely been motorsailing most every leg. But there have been another few components to consider: waves and swell.

The swell and waves have been kicked up for every. single. sail. we’ve done. Aaron has been diligent in making sure that we’re taking advantage of the best weather windows to put miles under our belt, but that has meant getting out there in 4-and-a-half to six-foot waves, rather than eight or nine, or higher. Also, as we’ve been doing coastal sailing, the period between waves has been extremely short – six to seven seconds – hence it feeling like we’re doing the moguls. When the sea state is confused, well, that’s just the cherry on top. Oh, and when we’re pointed head to wind, and the waves are up, our speed is way down. Awesome.

As much as we’d love to alter course and just sail, we want to be as efficient as possible to keep the seasickness at bay.

That’s been another lovely factor to pretty much every hop we’ve done. I’ve come a long way since Aaron and I started living aboard full-time, and I can tolerate a much more kicked-up sea state than I used to. Unfortunately, I have learned that I can’t take any drugs. Even the ones that are advertised as non-drowsy render me useless, and then I can’t help sail the boat or manage Claire. The homeopathic tricks also don’t work for me at all. So, I’ve developed a method wherein I wind up feeling mildly nauseated and have a pretty bad headache, but don’t actually toss my cookies or become incapacitated.

Rule 1: Do not go down below under any circumstances. At all. Ever.

Rule 2: Up top, stay in the fresh air.

For an hour-long hop, it’s not an issue. For a five-hour sail, it’s more challenging, or boring, depending on how you look at it. It’s compounded by the fact that Claire gets very seasick, too, when it’s wavy and swelly. Aaron and I have also learned the hard way a method that works best for her.

We pull anchor at 5 or 5:30 a.m. and move her from the v-berth to our aft cabin. We give her some Dramamine and she goes back to sleep, allowing us to focus on sailing the boat and limiting her time awake in junky seas. Once she wakes, she comes up to join us and stays up. But, there’s no screen time. No reading. No coloring. She can do nothing that requires her to focus on something other than the horizon. So unfortunately, the sails for her, even when we’ve managed to keep her seasickness at bay, have not been much fun.

The final element to these sails has been a non-stop need to scan for fishing pots. Some were well-marked and easy to spot, but others were not, and there have been at least a few lines out for every sail we’ve done. Luckily, we managed to avoid fouling a pot in our prop.

Once we get the boat fixed up for the season, we will have a bit more easting to do to make it over to the Virgin Islands, which we’re looking forward to. Then, it’s one more east haul through the Anegada Passage before we make it to the Leeward Islands and months of glorious, calm, beam-reach sailing.

There’s a quote by Brooks Atkinson, “Land was created to provide a place for boats to visit.” I’m happy to take in some land for awhile.