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.”

 

Advertisements

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?!

 

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!

Driving in the DR

Too soon? She’s pretty tall for her age.

Imagine that you are in a street racing video game. Add livestock.  Add many potholes. Include lots of motorcycles that don’t follow any rules of the road. Prize for winning? You get to do it again tomorrow.

Driving in the DR is absolute insanity, and each area of the country has its own quirks. It’s like unlocking different areas and levels within the game. Luperon and the surrounding country roads are more rural, so way more livestock crossings. Also, the roads are terrible, i.e. constant potholes. Like doing the moguls with your car. Santo Domingo? At least five lanes of gridlock traffic each way, roadway signs that make no mention of the actual road or area to which you are exiting, and everywhere is a turn lane – in either direction – including sudden u-turns. Oh, and a steady chorus of honking, as leaning on your horn is as commonplace as slamming on your brakes. On the flip side, driving in the mountains has you doing so many switchbacks that your brakes start smoking, making your kiddo ask why the car smells funny.

Here’s a video to give you an idea, and then after, we’ll include some rules of the road to make your adventures as successful and fulfilling as ours have been.

Sadly, this photo does not capture the elusive fifth lane, to the right of the truck.

Okay, so now that that leisurely Sunday drive through a local town is out of the way, here are some specific guidelines that you can follow regardless of where in the DR you are driving:

  • Two-lane roads are really three-lane roads, with the middle lane marker being a free-for-all third lane for passing, though sometimes people also pass on the shoulder, though it’s usually not a shoulder, per say, but more like a ditch. So a five-lane road then. The two actual lanes, the middle passing lane, and the less-established shoulder lane in each direction.
  • Traffic lights are optional. Don’t feel like waiting? Merge right out into oncoming traffic whenever you feel ready. Others will certainly get out of the way.
  • I’ve seen some red signs that look like stop signs but nobody seems to stop at them so I think they are lawn ornaments.
  • Drinking while driving – technically illegal. Will you get pulled over for it? Nah. At the gas stations here, they sell cold beer and will open it for you and put it in a little paper bag for your trip. So thoughtful! Besides, the police have better things to check your car for, like weapons and drugs.
  • Park wherever you want. Literally. I mean, the cabs will actually pull to a complete stop in middle of the main lane of a two-lane road to let customers out. And they may wait there a few minutes to see if anyone else wants to get in. You’re not in a rush anyway, right?
  • I think we’ve seen some speed limit signs from time to time, but they were in kilometers anyway, and who can be expected to convert from miles that quickly? Besides, everyone follows the general speed of traffic anyway. And that speed makes driving and drinking a cup of coffee or a cerveza at the same time next to impossible.
  • The motorcycle is always right. They outnumber you. They will buzz past within inches of you at any and all opportunity.

Some things you will likely have to slow down or stop for at some point:

I have no idea what they’re selling. I’ll just stop right here in the middle of the road to find out.

  • Cows
  • Horses
  • Chickens
  • Goats
  • Pigs
  • Donkeys
  • Motorcycles
  • People carrying produce on their heads
  • Potholes
  • The national police wielding rifles at a random check point

Some things you will pass while driving:

  • An old man trying to sell fish hanging from a wooden staff
  • A younger man trying to sell puppies
  • Women trying to sell themselves. Also, women trying to sell stuffed unicorns
  • Men urinating
  • All livestock listed above
  • Rows of vendors all selling the same thing at the same price (roasted nuts, handmade rugs, flip-flops, produce, etc.)

Now, navigating the car through the DR roads is one thing. The car itself is a whole different ballgame. If you are planning to rent a car from one of the many locals, here are a few know-before-you-go tips:

  • It’s best to rent from someone that you were referred to by someone you trust.  For us, the cruising community provided this.
  • Your gas tank will start on empty, likely without even enough gas to get to the gas station.
  • You windshield will likely be cracked.
  • The tires may or may not be flat.  And if they aren’t, one might be tomorrow.
  • Think of the “Check Engine Light” as decoration.
  • Custom car alarms cause cars to lock themselves. Whether or not your keys are in them. Learned that one the hard way.
  • If the car doesn’t start, simply open the hood and bang on the battery and starter a few times. Works like a charm.
  • Engine overheating? No problema. Pour water on it (or perhaps in it?)
  • Sometimes your headlights will work. Sometimes your lowlights will work. Sometimes your dash lights will work. Sometimes they might all work at the same time.
  • Keep some duct tape with you in case the rearview mirror or side mirrors fall off.

I feel confident that once you master driving here, you can drive anywhere. Hell, in the States, with the order and structure of traffic grids and speed limits and dependable drivers, you could probably drive and do your taxes at the same time.

While everything included in this helpful guide is 100% true and has been experienced by us, there is a rhythm to driving here that is attainable with practice. Aaron has become quite skilled at it and is fully comfortable behind the wheel, and I’m slowly but surely putting some miles under my belt. So get out there and try it! Just be very cautious. Auto and liability insurance here, well, that’s a whole other story…

DR Road Trip

In the past week, we drove 328 miles. We spent the night in four different places. Aaron became an expert at traversing the crazy Dominican roadways, Claire was a complete trooper (and a backseat driver), and we really, truly saw the Dominican Republic.

When we decided to park the boat in Luperon for hurricane season, Aaron and I were on the same page about taking advantage of this amazing opportunity to drive the country. Luperon has proven to be a rich home base for us, but there is so much more here – such diversity in landscape and community – we decided to stretch the budget a bit and explore as a family.

We had about a week before Claire started school in Cabarete, so we planned a pretty aggressive route – south to the lush mountain town of Jarabacoa, through the countryside to the crazy metropolis of Santo Domingo, and then back up to the breathtaking north coast.

A combination of AirBnB and Marriott hotel points allowed us to find cost-effective lodging and we wheeled and dealed with the local Luperon car rental contact, Franklin, for the Suzuki 4-wheel-drive beast that is ours through Nov. 1. That part, alone, is a story for another time.

The pictures below tell the story better than I ever could in words. But in a few, we jumped and slid down waterfalls, rode horses through the mountains and swam in a riverside pool. We had fried chicken sushi and pizza with fresh strawberries and breathed in the invigorating scents of greenery all around us.

We took advantage of the sheer decadence of Uber after Aaron battled traffic getting into Santo Domingo that can only be described as complete insanity. We walked to the point of jelly legs through the Zona Colonial and chased some cats through the ruins of a 16th century monastery. Aaron and I reveled in craft beers while playing board games and yes, we went to Ikea.

Not all of it was perfect, of course. We took a quick drive through Bonao, a more gritty city south of Jarabacoa, and decided to continue on our way. And with nerves on overdrive, Aaron navigated our Suzuki through the Sunday morning open-air markets on Expreso 27 de Febrero in Santo Domingo – blocks and blocks of Air Jordans and Jansport backpacks and boots and clothes and fruits and vegetables and TRAFFIC. It was a chaos we were happy to experience from the car. But even so, we appreciated experiencing these pockets of culture.

I tried to think back to when we did road trips as a family in the States, and truthfully, we really didn’t – aside from when we drove from Oak Park, Ill., to move onto Clarity in Florida. And why didn’t we?! The drive to get to each place brought as many memories as the places themselves, so much of this beautiful country that we would have missed completely if we only visited by boat. But a big difference now is time. We had the time. We’ve made the time as a family, to explore the world together.

To try to find the true essence of a place, to peel back the layers, to get lost in it all. That’s where the magic is.

 

First-Year Reflections

Our monkey, at home climbing trees on the beach in Luperon, DR.

One of the questions I received most often from friends and family while back in the States was, “So how much longer are you going to do this?”

Spoiler alert: I have no idea. It could be a few months, or a few years. But one person phrased it a bit differently. She said, in a completely non-judgmental way, “Are you done?”

She was asking because I had just detailed the laundry list of challenges we faced in the past year. As my response came tumbling out of my mouth, I surprisingly found myself uttering a succinct thought that I hadn’t voiced before, maybe hadn’t even realized before. But it’s at the crux of everything for me.

“I don’t want to stop living a life that challenges me, that kicks me in the butt, in the best ways and in the hardest ways.”

Crew Clarity has officially completed a full year of cruising. Strangely enough, the anniversary came and went in mid-July, while we were in the States, completely oblivious to the milestone. We were too busy to notice. Life in the States is defined by busyness.

But the time away from the boat allowed me to reflect on this crazy ride we’ve been on, to recognize what went to plan and what didn’t, to see the ups and downs for what they were, and to gain the perspective you can only find with distance – literal and figurative.

Here are some thoughts on our first year.

 

First-Year Projection: Life on the boat will be so much cheaper!

Reality: Not really. And this is for a number of reasons.

  1. Our first cruising grounds were the Bahamas, one of the most expensive places you can go in terms of the cost of food, the price to do anything on land (eat out, rent a car, book a tour), and the charges for having (much-needed) boat parts shipped from the States.
  2. While we don’t have a mortgage or car payments, we still currently have two boat payments. Yep, two. Our Pearson in Chicago still hasn’t sold. Sigh… It’s a long story. And for that one, in addition to the loan payments, we have yard storage fees. This is killing us.
  3. While healthcare in general is much, much cheaper pretty much anywhere but the States, certain atypical situations come with a hefty price tag. Like, say, sticking a bean up one’s nose. And then refusing to let any doctors try to get it out. Tallying up to $4,000 – yep, you read that right – our “bean incident” gave our cruising budget a huge blow, and this was only two weeks into our international travels.
  4. Boat crap is expensive. Sure, we anticipated having issues with the boat in our first year, as all cruisers do, and budgeted for that. But the issues and expenses we have had far exceeded our expectations. Getting the boat hauled out twice in the first year – once in the Abacos and once in Turks – no bueno.
  5. One positive moneywise that I will say is that, while a lot of people recommended budgeting more in the first year for staying at docks, to get more used to living aboard and giving yourselves some breaks, we really didn’t find the need to do this. We loved staying at anchor, and save a couple of short stops where air-conditioning and cable seemed like Christmas morning, we were completely happy living off the grid. The boat had a lot of problems, but it also rocked it in a lot of ways that allowed us to live comfortably without needing to “plug in.”

 

First-Year Projection: Life on the boat will be so much simpler!

Reality: Life is different, not simpler.

One of the reasons we pursued this lifestyle was to spend more time together as a family. In that respect, the biggest change would be that Aaron wouldn’t be going into the office. He would do work part-time from the boat, but would otherwise be able to participate more in daily “family life.” Certainly we’ve had more time together – how could we not – but for him, office time just turned into boat project time. There were always unsolved problems, systems that weren’t working properly, parts that needed to be replaced, and on, and on, and on. And boat problems have one deadline: as soon as possible. Aaron was often working on them at daybreak, well into the evenings, and through the weekends.

Claire’s 5th birthday celebration on the beach in Georgetown, Exumas, with her bestie, Henry.

Daily life also just takes longer. A decent portion of my day is spent just in meals – making them, serving them, doing all of the dishes from them, making sure we have enough groceries for wherever we’re going next. Then there’s the laundry that needs doing, cleaning, schooling for Claire, etc. None of this is bad – I just didn’t realize before we moved aboard how much daily time would be spent “living.”

Living and traveling on the water also requires an ongoing dedication to forecasting. We live and breathe the weather. Any sail requires planning – routes, wind predictions, wave expectations, tide schedule, and potential anchorages. And once we’re there, a constant monitoring of conditions is always in the background of what we’re doing.

 

First-Year Projection: These close quarters will drive us crazy!

Reality: This really wasn’t a problem for us.

We were fortunate in that, when we decided to do this, we already had an idea of what living together on a boat would be like, thanks to the month-long summer trips we took on the Pearson for three years. But, with those, there was always a definitive end-point, which changes your thinking. On Clarity, once we got past the initial unpacking and storing of everything we had brought from Chicago, we settled in comfortably. The only times I’ve felt confined on the boat were when we were stuck on board for days due to bad weather, unable to even go topsides, and when the boat was completely torn apart down below to troubleshoot a problem or work on a system.

Don’t get me wrong – life on board hasn’t been perfect. We get short with Claire, we get short with each other. But the further into the year we got, the better we were able to recognize when Claire just needed to run off some steam on the beach. Or when Aaron and I were arguing and all that was really needed was some time away from each other and the issue would disappear or work itself out.

Aaron and I are also both aware of making sure we each have the space to pursue our own things, especially when we’re in a place that affords us the opportunity to do so. Here in the DR, it’s been yoga mornings for me and evenings at the pool hall for him.  Have I mentioned yet that we love it here?

 

First-Year Projection: Having no break from Claire will be hard.

Reality: Yep.

This was one of the hardest adjustments, at least for me. I was anxious about transitioning from Claire being in preschool three to four days a week and having ample babysitting options to basically a childcare desert. Sometimes, I don’t even notice it – we just go on about our daily life and I forget. But other times, we would do anything for a break, for her to go somewhere, even if just for an afternoon. I think it’s healthy to check out of being parents every once in awhile.

Schooling has been another part of the challenge. Claire is a bright kiddo and it amazes us every day, how quickly she learns and how much she picks up from the world around us. Hopefully our lifestyle is helping out in that regard. But we are also gaining even more respect for teachers. It’s hard to play that role for Claire one minute, and then be mom or dad the next. As I’m sure is the case for a lot of 5-year-olds, some days, she’s great about it. Other days, it’s a fight – and Claire knows how to push all of our buttons, hard.

Aaron threading the reefs (the dark patches in the background are a few of countless) in the Turks and Caicos

One thing we should have done more this year is arrange some kid swaps with other cruising families. We were extremely fortunate to meet other kid boats almost everywhere we went, and it would have made so much sense to offer to take their kiddo for awhile so they could have some time to themselves, and then in return been able to drop Claire off for an afternoon and get some time ourselves also. Why didn’t we do this more?! I have no idea. We did make getting together with other cruising families a priority, though, and that alone was helpful – the kids with other kiddos to play with, the adults able to do some adulting.

Claire has also been witness to some tough times for Aaron and me this past year, when we were really struggling with boat problems or rough passages or things just not falling into place. That is another challenge – always having a little person around to hear every single word or experience every single mood. (We can’t even fight by ourselves! Ha!)

Here in the DR, we have Claire signed up for kindergarten at a local Montessori school in Cabarete from Aug. 21 through Nov. 1, possibly later. Monday through Friday, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. It’s not cheap (although it’s a lot cheaper here than it would be in the States), but we thought she would really benefit from experiencing the culture here with other kiddos, from learning for a few months from other authority figures, and from the schedule that a school day affords. We have secured a short-term lease on a nearby condo on the beach and will briefly be landlubbers in an area we’ve already come to love.

Claire’s school time will also allow Aaron and me to work more hours, to get some time to ourselves, and for all of us to recharge a bit before we’re back on the boat full time after hurricane season.  Aaron plans to take up surfing and get back to scuba diving, and I plan to crash the yoga retreat that neighbors our condo building as much as possible and also become a ukulele master.

 

First-Year Projection: Being away from our friends and family will be extremely hard.

Reality: Yes – BUT – we were able to stay more connected than I thought.

This was another one of my biggest fears as we moved aboard. My family and my friends are the most important things in my life (aside from our little immediate family, of course), and I had come to rely heavily on my support network.

I also realized that my relationships were primarily based on one-on-one interactions. Think about it – when was the last time, aside from family, that you carved out time for a long, catch-up phone call with a friend? Or took the time to send them a long email?

Connectivity in foreign countries was also embarrassingly a bit of an unknown for me. I was pretty sure it would work itself out, but I didn’t know how.

Our cell plans with T-Mobile have been a lifesaver, at least for me. Though phone calls are an upcharge with price dependent on where we are, we have unlimited texting and unlimited (3G-speed) data. We’ve been able to text regularly with friends, set up free Skype and Facebook Messenger calls when schedules allow, and yes, as you know, check Facebook/Instagram/etc regularly. It helps me feel less isolated from the goings on of everyone back in the States.

Another misconception of the cruising life by those who are less familiar is this idea that we are out on our own, in the middle of nowhere, all alone. Sometimes we are in the middle of nowhere, but we are hardly ever alone. There are a lot of people, including families, who are living this lifestyle and we are a tight-knit group. We become fast friends and if anyone needs anything, we are there to help – sometimes almost too eagerly. The cruising community is nothing short of amazing.

 

First-Year Projection: This life is going to change us.

Reality: Tenfold.

This past year has been the hardest of my life. It’s also been the most rewarding, the most life-altering, the most transformative. I’m pretty sure those things go hand in hand.

Conch shells on the first beach we set foot on in the Abacos, Bahamas, after our Gulf Stream crossing from Florida.

I have more faith in our marriage than ever, and it’s not because life has been perfect. We’ve had our fair share of ugly fights and ugly crying, but one thing we’ve never given up on is each other. I already thought Aaron was a pretty rad dude, but being a witness to the dedication he puts into this boat and this family has been awesome, in the pure sense of the word.

I also sometimes need to remind myself of how far I’ve come. Before we started this chapter, I had never spent a night at anchor (can you believe that?!). I’d never sailed in a squall. I’d never done an overnighter. I’d never driven a dinghy. So, so many firsts that now barely even register, we’ve experienced so much.

I’ve learned that schedules are for the birds, that things don’t go to plan, that you will continue to be tested – especially if you think you can’t handle anything else – and that the rewards are immeasurable, both big and small.

On the bad days, I want to throw in the towel and give up. But I never do. And experience has taught me now to wait until we’re out of the immediate problem to make any lasting decisions about the future. Sleep-deprived and seasick, I may lament to Aaron, “I’m done! I’m shot.” But I’m not! How can I be? This life, this crazy life, has pushed me so far out of my comfort zone, it’s exhilarating, and addictive. I want to keep pushing to become the best version of myself.

My priorities have shifted and my needs have changed. God, do I miss Starbucks coffee and long, hot baths – conveniences not only in the availability of goods, but the dependability of services. But they’re not really needs, right? We can make do – happily – without them.

To me, the time we spend together as a family, the travel, the new cultures, far supersedes the balance in our checking account.

I used to be so concerned with how I defined myself. By my profession? By being married, having a child? By being an adventurer?

The truth is, who cares?! At least right now, I really don’t. While we were back in the States, a good friend said something to me in passing – something that surprised me and also resonated so deeply. She said, “You seem much more self-assured, more confident.” And I am! – that this is the life I should be living. That this is where I belong.

 

I have no idea where my mind will be at a year from now. I have no idea where our boat will be a year from now.  But I know that I’m here right now, in Luperon in the Dominican Republic, writing this blog post with the breeze from the trade winds breaking the midday heat, with Aaron and Claire back on the boat a short dinghy ride away, doing school, playing legos, preparing dinner, or maybe doing nothing at all.

Tough Decisions

Claire gets chummy with the Luperon immigration officials

The last month or so on Clarity has been a grueling one – one that’s made both of us consider quitting. It seems, the hits just keep coming.

One of the reasons we decided to visit Turks and Caicos was to get the boat hauled out there for a bottom job – a biannual task that had come due. But while the boat was prepped for new paint, it became clear that our saildrive, a critical part to our propulsion, was severely corroded. In fact, we realized that it was not a new problem – that the previous owner had patched the problem, painted over it, and failed to disclose it to us.

There we sat, already with a steep yard bill just for the work we had anticipated. We could either buy a new saildrive – $10k, not including shipping or labor. Or, we could do another patch job, cross our fingers and buy ourselves some time to get the boat to Puerto Rico, where we’re planning to spend the latter part of hurricane season, and decide what to do then.

During this first year of our journey, we’ve found ourselves regularly coming back to the question, “When is enough, enough?” I won’t outline the running list of what we’ve dealt with just since crossing to the Bahamas, but suffice to say, it is extremely lengthy, and extremely costly.

The simple response, though, is that it hasn’t been – at least not yet. We’re still here; we’re still doing this. The boat is not for sale.

But we are exhausted. Aaron, who has the lion’s share of responsibility when it comes to boat maintenance, is particularly exhausted.

Often times, our friends and family will try to help us put things in perspective. “If you were back in Chicago, you’d be dealing with a leaking roof! Your basement would flood! Your windows would need replacing!”

I see the parallel, but then raise the challenge of, would all of those happen within 10 months, or would that be considered a really bad stroke of luck?

And back at “home,” we could just step outside if there’s an emergency. We could get on the phone and call any number of experts in the area, and then pay them to deal with the problem. We could maybe decide to let this particular problem go for a bit and deal with it down the line.

We wouldn’t be constantly making decisions that weigh our own safety and account for what would happen if said problem or part fails when we’re on passage, a hundred miles away from land.

Are we being too brazen? Are we putting our lives at risk if we don’t fix this? If we go the middle route, instead of the most expensive route, are we just running the risk of it breaking down again in a year? Or are we shelling out money we don’t really have and playing it too safe?

Keep in mind, too, that parts are not available locally. Everything is shipped internationally from the States with the associated shipping fees, customs forms, duty costs, etc. We are now well-versed in getting things shipped and cleared in the Abacos, in the Exumas, and in TCI. I wish we didn’t need to know these things.

Also, shipping and clearing is not a quick ordeal. For instance, if we decided to buy a new saildrive and have it sent to us in Provo, it was going to take a week or so to get parts. In making our decision, we had to factor in the cost of a one-week stay on the island, as well as a rental car to get around. Roughly $1,000, just to “wait” for parts.

So far, in most cases, we’ve erred on the side of caution and spent the money. This is our home, after all, and especially with the kiddo on board, we must make sure that it’s safe. This time, after hours of back and forth, we decided to do the patch job. We paid a much smaller fee up front to postpone the larger bill down the line, allowing us to keep our forward momentum. But the monthly budget that we reasonably estimated for this lifestyle before we moved aboard has been so far blown out of the water, I had to laugh when I looked back at the numbers.

Did we get a lemon of boat? I don’t necessarily think so, but maybe. Did we get dealt a bad hand for the first year? I think so, but maybe it’s always like this. Does it truly matter, though?

We feel how we feel. We have had truly life-altering, awe-inspiring, humbling experiences this year, and have felt incredible joy. But the overall scale has tipped more to making really tough decisions and solving really complex problems that have taken an enormous toll on our wallets and our mental fortitude.

And just when we feel like we can’t take anymore, we get more.

The passage from Turks and Caicos to the Dominican Republic was a harrowing one – one that I hope will stay on the books as our worst, but likely will get replaced. We made a short (and very pleasant) sail from Provo to stage the boat in French Cay for the crossing, and departed early the next morning. Aaron had done extensive reading and research on the best weather, wind conditions and heading for the trip, and estimated that we should be able to make it to the northern coast of the Dominican by 8 a.m. the next morning.

Shortly after we got off the Caicos bank the conditions worsened. The seas got rolly and the combination of the swell and the waves became extremely uncomfortable. In addition, though we had planned on the winds picking up the further out into the Atlantic we got, they increased sooner, and much stronger.

Adding insult to injury, our autopilot had been slipping prior to the sail. Though Aaron had fixed it, the sea state during the crossing was too much for it. Handsteering was the only option, and Aaron sat at the helm for 18 hours straight. It was an unbelievable test of endurance for him, as the conditions made it extremely difficult to stay on course and keep the sails full, and I am not anywhere near as experienced as he is in steering  in those circumstances. Though I relieved him a few times, my responsibilities were everything else: all things Claire-related, fixing and serving meals, keeping watch for other boats in the early morning hours as we got closer to land, and monitoring our AIS.

In addition, I felt sick. Claire got sick. The waves built to six footers, with the occasional seven-foot wave broadsiding us and turning our cockpit into a swimming pool. Even with our careful preparation, the heel of the boat and constant bashing of the waves made down below a wasteland of stuff that had fallen everywhere.

And, though I had tightened them as best I could, our hatches were not fully secured. As the waves continued, salt water leaked into our cabin. Aaron’s phone was ruined. His computer, which was out on the nav station running our AIS, was damaged (but repairable once we return to the states).

In the midst of all of this, Aaron realized that keeping any easterly direction in our heading was untenable, and bore off to make landfall further west and then motor up the coast in hopefully calmer water/weather at night. It was the right call, and we dropped anchor off of Monte Cristi at around 4 a.m. But over the next three days, we motorsailed east along the coast, leaving at daybreak and making as much distance as we could before late morning, when the daily trade winds here set in from the east and kick up the seas once again. Finally, we limped into Luperon, exhausted. But, the lush, mountainous coastline that we sailed along to get here was the most breathtaking backdrop I’ve ever seen.

The question, again – when is enough, enough? Is this enough?

Now that we’re here, we’re not planning to move Clarity out of this bay for at least a month, maybe longer – a much-needed break from traveling. Just in the last two days, we’ve already met amazing people, both fellow cruisers and locals. As Luperon is one of the best, if not the best, hurricane hole in the Caribbean, it’s a popular hub for the cruising community, and as a result, there are a lot of resources here, as well as activities like karaoke night and movie night at Wendy’s, the bar where “Gringos are welcome!”

Our eyes have been opened to a whole new culture that I’ve never experienced before. My years of Spanish in school have come in very handy as we communicated with the officials to clear in and handle necessary tasks like getting money exchanged and buying groceries. It’s a wonderful breath of fresh air to be in a place that pushes me to be more engaged in everything that we do, simply because Spanish is not my first language.

We make smart decisions and are apprehensive and hesitant when appropriate, but everyone has been very friendly and happy to help. Roosters and dogs have the run of the streets, motorcycles speed past in a burst of noise, and local music is blasted from speakers set up on the sidewalks – all just part of the culture here.

And Claire is immersed in it all, the beauty of everyone’s eye.

“Why don’t they speak how we speak?” – a rewarding conversation for both of us ensued, simply because of what she experienced walking down the street. At her prompting, we spent an hour looking up any word she liked in Spanish.

I overheard her playing with her stuffed animals, setting up an “office in a new place,” where her bunny reminded her llama to have his passport and important papers out.

She now greets everyone in Spanish, and even told some locals that if they forget how to say “thank you” in Spanish, she could teach them.

She played with her ocean-themed sticker book and asked about the Great Barrier Reef. “Can we go to Australia, Momma, and visit? Can we sail there? Show me where it is on our map.”

Her eyes are opening to this great big world in ways I could never have imagined.

This. All of this, is why we do this. Little by little, our batteries are restored. The scale tips again to the good. And we think, how could we not work through the difficult times, when these experiences are the reward?

Enough? Not today.