Island Healthcare: Tales from Four Years of Cruising

When you live in the islands long enough, you understand that some things are just handled differently here. Healthcare is one of those things.

We are a healthy family. Even so, as we’ve been cruising, we have had the unplanned joy of medical needs in the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, Dominican Republic and Grenada. Here’s how they played out:

Bahamas

Turks and Caicos

  • Severe allergic reaction to poisonwood (from a tree in the Bahamas, right before we crossed over to Turks)

Dominican Republic

  • Dental filling
  • Pediatrician Checkup

Grenada

  • Ear infection
  • Dental crown
  • Dental surgery (teeth extraction. Yes, multiple)
  • Kidney stone

Apparently, we like to spread the wealth when it comes to our health. But it has allowed us to gain a real perspective into island healthcare.

Cheap Routine Visits and Unexpected Costs: A Black Bean Tale

Generally speaking, in the Eastern Caribbean, WhatsApp is one of your primary means of communication. It is perfectly normal, sometimes preferred, to message your doctor’s office. Specialists have set appointments, but general practitioners often do walk-ins, which is what we have done with our primary care physician in Grenada. In the States, this would lead to people crowding in as soon as the office opens, and getting angrier and more chaotic as the day goes on. We’ve never waited more than half an hour here to be seen.

Healthcare is generally cheaper in the islands – which is why a lot of cruisers don’t have international health insurance. Paying out of pocket is reasonable – though there are caveats – but understand that there are often two prices. There’s the local rate, and the cruiser/tourist rate.

In Grenada, certain places will accept your boat papers as proof of temporary residence, and they will give you the local rate. Let me tell you – it is not a direct conversion. For example, let’s say that you need a test done, like a CT scan, and the hospital quotes a local price of $1,400 Eastern Caribbean dollars. This is roughly $518 U.S. If you’re not a local, they will simply change the currency – in that the price becomes $1,400 U.S. dollars. That’s CRAZY! But true. When I needed a CT scan done here, I had to call around to two or three places and go with the one that would take our boat papers.

Another consideration in island healthcare is that while the level of care is definitely high, the smaller islands are limited in their technologies, and that can lead to incredible extra costs. Let me give you another example. Back in the States, if a lovely 4-year-old decided to stick something up their nose, you would take them to the local urgent care facility, where they inevitably have the tool that sucks it right out, because it’s a fairly common problem. You may pay up to $200 for the visit. Our lovely Claire decided to do this after we had crossed to the Abacos, in the Bahamas – an extremely remote cluster of islands. We took Claire to two or three local clinics, a transportation feat in and of itself up there, and lo and behold, nobody had the sucker tool.

Claire in her “hospital costume,” as she called it, at the hospital in Nassau, Bahamas, right before they put her under to take the black bean out.

To make a very long story short (read the full post here), in order to get the bean out, I had to fly with Claire from Marsh Harbor to Nassau, take a cab straight to Doctor’s Hospital there, and Claire had to be put under in the operating theater for them to surgically remove it. The bills from the flights, hotel stay, clinics and hospital added up to more than $3,000 U.S. We. Were. Not. Pleased.

My kidney stone, which came to light in Grenada, was another matter that was beyond the scope of island healthcare, due to the size of the stone. Because I needed advanced technologies to break it up and remove it, it was simply an impossibility to get it removed here, so I had to add on the cost of an international flight back to the States to get that sorted. More on that later. Isn’t this fun?

Generally speaking, though, if you have common or routine health issues, you can easily get those sorted in the islands, and at a better price. In the States, you are given the most robust care without question and charged handsomely for it.

This is the clinic on Staniel Cay, Exumas, Bahamas, where I received meds for a stomach ulcer. This is pretty standard for the remote clusters of islands there. They can handle the most basic needs of the small population. Image from gibraltarstanielcay.com.

I visited the clinic on the remote island of Staniel Cay in the Exumas, Bahamas, to get medicine for what I was fairly certain was a stomach ulcer. The clinic looked frozen in time about 20 or 30 years past, and the drug reference manual the nurse used was definitely more than 10 years old. She also searched the recommended drug from the manual on Drugs.com – though let me say that the fact that she had working Internet in the office was pretty impressive. However outdated the whole experience was, it ultimately was just what I needed: She prescribed the right drugs, I took them and got better. $40 U.S. for the visit, another $10 for the drugs.

When Aaron went in for a filling in the Dominican Republic, he got comfortable in the chair, and the dentist immediately got to work. “Whoa!” Aaron said. “Aren’t you going to numb me up first?” She said that if it started to hurt, he should let her know, and then she’d give him some novocaine. He wound up not needing it after all, and the overall cost for the filling was minimal.

Last season in Grenada, I found myself needing to get two teeth extracted, one of them being a wisdom tooth. In the States, many people opt to be knocked out for this. That simply wasn’t an option for me here. The oral surgeon assured me that she would use plenty of novocaine so that I wouldn’t feel anything during the surgery. I would hear it, of course – that’s a sound I’ll never forget.

In the States, before they give you the shots, they swab your gums with lidocaine, so the shots themselves aren’t as painful. No such luck of that here in Grenada, either. So, I felt all 10-12 shots of novocaine into my gums. But again – though it’s not as if I’d love to feel that every day, ultimately, I was fine. The initial visit, x-ray, surgery, post-surgery medications, and follow-up visit, all came out to about $600 U.S.

Sure, if given the option, many people would opt for all painkillers possible, and would happily pay the extra costs. But some, like Aaron and me, may not. And these decisions can significantly impact your overall costs.

Hospital Visits: Guinness for all?

Now let’s talk hospital visits. Doctor’s Hospital in Nassau, Bahamas, operated very similarly to a U.S. hospital, except for the fact that a significant portion of the estimated overall bill was required upfront before any treatment would be administered. Other than that, Claire and I spent the better part of the day in a boring but decently equipped space in the emergency room. We moved up to the surgical wing, and again, the facilities were well outfitted – sheets on the beds, disposable surgical gowns, etc. It may seem silly that I’m making this distinction, but it’s for good reason.

In Grenada, there are two main hospitals in St. George’s, the capital city. There is the general hospital, and St. Augustine’s Medical Services (SAMS). All medical care at the general hospital is free, including for tourists/cruisers, whereas SAMS is private, and medical care is priced accordingly.

St. Augustine’s Medical Services, the private hospital in Grenada. I had my CT scan done here. I took the dinghy to shore, walked to the #2 bus, transferred to the #4 bus, and walked up the road to get here. Not so relaxing of a commute with a kidney stone. Image from NowGrenada.com.

So why go to SAMS? Why not just go to the general hospital? Because absolutely nothing is provided at the general hospital. Patients bring their own pillow and sheets for the beds, their own hand soap for the bathroom, their own toilet paper. Yes, you read that correctly – even if you’re rushed in in an emergency situation, a friend or family member must collect those items for you and bring them in on your behalf.

Side note: There is also an area in the general hospital where you can donate blood. In other countries, when you give blood, you are usually given snacks and juice to help replenish your iron count. At the general hospital in St. George’s, there’s a cooler filled with Guinness. Not a joke. This is what they give you (I’m assuming this is just for adults?) to help replace your iron count after donating.

For more straightforward needs, like getting a cast on a broken arm, or more routine surgeries, the care at the general hospital is just fine, and you can’t beat the price.

To Insure or Not To Insure? A Kidney Stone Tale

Throughout our four years of cruising, we’ve gone back and forth on whether or not we needed health insurance in the States. We knew we were never going to pay for international healthcare – the costs were too high, and the out-of-pocket expenses in the islands were generally minimal. Though we visited family and friends back home once a year, we likely still met the exemption of being out of the country more than 330 days a year, so we wouldn’t be charged the penalty if we didn’t enroll for healthcare.

Some people sign up for travel insurance through the Divers Alert Network (DAN), either on its own or in tandem with other plans, to cover the extreme need for someone to be medevaced out of the islands. (As a side note, sales of all insurance plans through DAN have been suspended, likely due to covid.) We opted against this as well, but we decided to keep a bronze-level plan through the Healthcare Marketplace in the States, in case of emergency.

This wound up being my lifeline for treatment for my kidney stone.

I started having strange stomach pains a year prior, and had seen a doctor a few times to sort it, to no avail. After a near trip to the hospital in early January due to severe pain, I knew I needed answers. I was able to schedule a CT scan at SAMS and a few days later, they sent over the summary of results. Wouldn’t you know it – there was my kidney stone. All 8mm of it.

I needed a urologist. The problem was, this is Grenada, and there is only one urologist on the entire island. Because there is only one urologist on the island, he is extremely busy.

The urologist, mind you, is also one of the general surgeons on island, and also attends international conferences, sometimes sending him off-island two or three weeks at a time. I called the urologist’s office and spoke to the receptionist. Send an email, she said – he is booked solid for the next two months, but we will try to fit you in if there’s a cancellation.

Over the course of the next two months, I did everything I could to get in. My GP called on my behalf, and also had me get the complement of tests done that she knew he would ask for. I emailed my results over. I called regularly. Sometimes someone would answer, sometimes the mailbox was full. At the time, they hadn’t shared the WhatsApp number for the office with me.

This Manchineel tree looks harmless enough, but it packs a bad punch. These are scattered along many of the beaches throughout the Caribbean. Poisonwood is another tree in the same family, more prevalent in the Bahamas. Aaron happens to be very, very allergic, and coming into contact with some of the sap left him headed to the clinic in Turks and Caicos for more powerful meds than we had on board.

Why didn’t I just show up at the office and demand to be seen? Because unlike in the States, where you can often strong-arm your way into getting what you want, it doesn’t work that way here (should it really work that way anywhere?). You wait, like everyone else.

In early March, recognizing that I may never get in, I started looking at other options. I reached out to a urologist in St. Lucia, thinking that it would be easy enough to sail there. He was immediately responsive, but told me he didn’t have the technology on island to treat me. He referred me to a medical tourism outfit in Martinique.

I contacted the company and received a reasonable quote from them, but they informed me that they wouldn’t be able to schedule anything for at least two weeks. You see, it was Carnival, and the whole island shuts down for more than a week to celebrate. If I wanted it sorted quickly, I started to realize that the States may be my only option.

Then I received the Hail Mary of messages – the Grenadian urologist had a cancellation and could see me that afternoon! We dropped everything and made sure I was at the office on time, early even. He was very nice, very knowledgeable, and patiently went through my CT summary with me.

He then said, “Unfortunately, I don’t have the equipment on island to handle a kidney stone of this size. You’ll need to fly to the States for this.” I will say that once I had that appointment, the staff gave me their WhatsApp information, and they’ve been much more responsive ever since.

So after three months of trying here in the islands, I booked flights to Chicago for the following week. The rest, as many of you know, is history – wrapped up in the beginning of a pandemic. When I flew back to Grenada right before the airport closed, I was still recovering from surgery.

Every cruising or traveling family makes their own decision about healthcare insurance. Should we pay monthly for something we will likely never use? It’s a great question. I do know that if we hadn’t, we would be digging out from a $35k hole – U.S. dollars.

Drugs: You need ’em, They Got ’em

The last element to island healthcare that I don’t want to go unmentioned is the availability of drugs. Many people encouraged us to trick out our on-board medical kit as much as possible before departing the States. It was for good reason, given that our first stop after leaving the U.S. was some of the most remote islands we’ve been to.

Some families luck out and work with a doctor that understands what they’re trying to achieve with this lifestyle, and helps them safeguard for it. Inherently, though, you’re asking a doctor to prescribe meds for something that hasn’t happened yet, or may never happen. Antibiotics, for instance, if you find yourself off-grid and somebody gets an infection.

The closest I was able to get to this in the States was finding a doctor at a clinic in Georgia who was willing to see each of us for $150 U.S. per person. She would then prescribe one round of antibiotics for each, for a future occurrence.

We passed and decided to take our chances. In doing so, I learned two things since we’ve been out here:

  1. It turns out drugs, like food, are everywhere. They may not be the same specific brand, but the generic is almost always available.
  2. For better or worse, other countries are nowhere near as strict about dispensing them.

When we were in the Dominican Republic, we became great friends with another family from the States (s/v Freedom, we miss you!). Summer, the mom, is a nurse, so I asked her to help me outfit my medical kit. What would you prescribe for various issues? Which antibiotics for what? What about more robust painkillers? Something for ear infections? Etc.

She wrote them all out for me on a slip of paper, and off I went to the pharmacy in Luperon. I wasn’t sure what they would say – never mind that my high school and college Spanish lessons hadn’t covered much detailed medical jargon – but I had heard that they weren’t as strict as the States.

I slid the paper over to a nice gentleman, who reviewed it for a few minutes. He then pointed to each one.  “¿Cuantos?” “How many?”

Not only did he have them all, but he filled them all for me, and for next to nothing in cost. Now I’m not saying that this is the best policy. Likely, it would be somewhere in the middle, where medical professionals aren’t just handing out drugs, but they’re also not demanding hundreds of dollars in visits just to get to the scripts. I will say that I was so grateful that day, and felt so much more comfortable cruising remotely, knowing that we had what we needed to handle many basic things ourselves.

In many of the countries in the Eastern Caribbean, scripts are still required – but the fee for the doctor’s visit to get them is minimal, and it’s generally a much more efficient process overall.

So there you have it. A small glimpse, or our personal tales, if you will, from four years of nomadic living. We definitely didn’t set out to learn this much about island healthcare. My hope is that we don’t learn more.

Flattening the Curve of Coronavirus Emotions

A beautiful beach we stumbled on recently during one of our government-approved family exercise periods. We made sure not to linger – beaches are closed. After that day, it was back to two days of not being allowed to leave the boat.

It’s week who knows of lockdown, and I find myself struggling with expectations.

My social media feed is a constant bipolar stream of presenting this perfect picture of quarantine creativity and efficiency, and posting platitudes that it’s okay if you’re drinking wine straight from the bottle while slumped in the corner.

“It’s okay to not be okay.” I hear that one a lot. I tell myself that one a lot. I don’t believe it a lot of the time. There’s this constant pressure to look on the bright side of things, don’t complain, others have it far worse than you, take this time and make the most of it.

Fellow cruisers half-jokingly said early on, “If the never-ending to-do list of boat projects isn’t finally done by the end of this lockdown, then what are we doing?”

Surviving? Navigating a pandemic?

A friend of mine posted the other day that her children completed their homeschooling curriculum for the year months early. What else was there to do while staying on board but teach?

Another friend posted that with all of her newfound free time, she finally reupholstered the cushions in her cockpit.

I’m going to learn to play guitar! I’m finally going to write that book! I’m going to teach my child how to play chess! Somehow, the “Netflix and Chill” chapter of the pandemic ended abruptly, and we’re stuck in the “Make it Count” chapter.

I’m tired. I’m tired of not really knowing what’s going on. I’m tired of living week to week, waiting to see what new restrictions might be put in place. I’m tired of watching income sources dwindle. I’m tired of making the most of every minute. I’m tired of trying to find the silver lining.

Anyone else?

It’s okay to not be okay, as long as you’re not okay, quietly. Minimize the negativity. Trivialize it. Ignore it. Definitely don’t post it, unless it’s a silly meme – nobody wants to read about it.

I’ve gone through extreme ups and downs during this pandemic. Some days, I feel really on top of my game. Boatschooling is moving along well, we’re keeping spirits up, getting important things done and celebrating family time. And some days, I sit there, unmotivated, dishes piling up in the galley.

We briefly stopped by s/v Alchemy on one of our shopping days. It was Alex’s birthday – she took this lovely picture from the transom of their boat. We sang to her from afar, then continued on our way to shore to get provisions. They are anchored about five minutes away, and yet, it was the second time we’d seen them in six weeks.

On the days when we are allowed to go ashore, I’m completely recharged – so excited to just be OUT! The fresh air, the exercise, the brief face-mask-to-face-mask exchanges with other human beings, are salves to my soul. And then we are locked down again, unable to so much as dinghy around our anchorage. On the days when we are not restricted from movement, I see my friends here from a socially acceptable distance, enjoying shouty chats when we pass by their boats on our way to shore. We smile, we joke, we laugh, and we move on. And then we are back to relying on technology to connect, on Zoom calls plagued with the challenges of low bandwidth and my inability to not be awkward on video.

Life, right now, is a tease.

It’s true – as cruisers, we are predisposed to be self-sufficient. We make our own power, our own water. We often provision the boat for weeks, or even months, anyway, and there are definitely chapters during a normal season when we head for isolated bays and completely unplug.

“This must be easier for you – you do this anyway,” was a comment I heard recently.

But choice makes all the difference. It’s a completely different mindset, when you choose isolation, rather than when you are forced (for a completely understandable reason, of course). Another difference is time – when you make the decision to be on your own for a week, knowing you’ll then head back to civilization.

Instead, we are in lockdown with no specified end date. We are completely unable to plan even two weeks out. I’ve also realized that we are in a place with one of the strictest lockdowns in the Caribbean. We have been sheltering in place for seven weeks, combining the lockdown and our quarantine when I returned from the States, and we still aren’t even allowed on shore more than three or four days a week.

I wish for the return of the before time, knowing that it will never come. There will be a new normal of land life, just like quarantine life has become the new normal. And cruising will look very different next season. Even when borders open, it will be a long, long time until boaters can move freely between island nations, checking in and out with ease – leading the very lifestyle we all planned and saved and sacrificed to achieve. If we can even afford it anymore.

Yes, I understand, I need to look on the bright side. I need to be grateful for the small things. I need to adjust to the new normal, again. I need to tell myself that this will all be okay, whatever “this” is. I’ve never answered “I don’t know” to more questions in my life, many from Claire.

One of my more motivated days on lockdown, doing a cardboard art project with Claire.

“When will the lockdown be over? When can I play with friends again? When can I go to the beach? When will I be able to do my ballet class? When will family be able to come visit us, or can we see them? When will I be able to go anywhere without having to wear a mask?”

I am the opposite of omniscient. I know nothing. I mean, can we just sit for a minute in the reality that our lives right now are giant snow globes and the flakes just keep spinning?

I find myself more tired at the end of these days than the days when we climbed waterfalls. The mental back and forth of it all is exhausting. And yet even now, I hesitate to post this. I question sharing it. In the back of my mind, there are those voices on repeat: “At least you didn’t get the virus. At least you are able to isolate with your husband and your child. At least you have beautiful views during lockdown.” And it’s all true! I see it all. I appreciate it all. This chapter is still, hard.

So what can you do? Each day, you do the best you can. Some days, you nail it, making gourmet meals for your family and fixing boat problems and teaching your kid to read and shaking up a tasty cocktail to watch the sunset.

And some days, you make a cup of coffee and crawl back under your sheets and spend hours scrolling through photos from just a few months ago, gasping at how crazy those people were for being so close together. And you make ramen for dinner.

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.

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!