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.

In Love With the DR

The Dominican Republic for us has been like a once-in-a-lifetime romance: you fall in love fast, and you fall in love hard.

Maybe it’s because we limped into this country beaten down and losing hope. But I think it’s because the DR is magical in such a pure, well-rounded way that isn’t limited to beautiful beaches (though those are here, too).

The DR oozes life and offers a diversity in terrain and ambience that’s staggering. In a handful of miles, you can travel from a tranquil fishing town to rolling farmland to lush mountains to pulsing watersport enclaves. The people are friendly and welcoming, the cuisine is delicious, and the price is right.

This place has been totally unexpected and exactly what we needed – so much so that we’ve changed our cruising plans. We originally planned to make a brief stop here on our way to Puerto Rico for hurricane season. But after just a few weeks here, it became clear that breezing through town on the way east would never be enough time. We also realized just how much protection from hurricanes the Luperon Bay offers – much more than the marinas in Puerto Rico – and it’s a much, much cheaper option.

And, a few of the amazing cruising families we met in Georgetown are here and are also staying here for hurricane season. Being able to spend more time with them, and have Claire spend more time with her favorite cruising buddies, sealed it for us.

With the boat safely tucked away in Luperon, we rented a home in Cabarete for a week and will fly home to the States next week to visit friends and family and take care of some technological needs (like fixing Aaron’s computer and replacing his phone, both of which got fried on the crossing here).

The next four or five months promise everything we need to refuel: a break from the boat, a trip home, and the excitement when we return of traveling a country we’ve already come to love.

Life is good.

Life In The Out Islands

Cosmo, the black kitty here who lives around the Hope Town Lighthouse, most definitely operates on island time.

Cosmo, the black kitty here who lives around the Hope Town Lighthouse, most definitely operates on island time.

When most people (myself included, until a few months ago) think of life in the islands, simplicity comes to mind. Ease. Life without worries. But when you start realizing the complexity of sustaining these small, remote communities, getting on “island time” is as much of a necessity as it is a luxury.

First, a definition. The Abacos are considered out islands of the Bahamas. Out islands are any of the hundreds of islands that are “out” from Nassau on New Providence Island (the biggest city in the Bahamas – home to around 80% of the Bahamian population). Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco Island is the biggest city in the Abacos and serves as the heart of the island chain, from where all goods and services flow, to the even more remote islands, the out-out-islands, like Man-O-War Cay and Great Guana Cay.

Stores on the more populated islands are open Monday through Saturday and most of them close for lunch from 1 to 2 p.m. every day. Stores on the out-out islands are open more or less at the whim of the owner, and nothing is open on Sundays.

The out island grocery stores get shipments in by ferry from Marsh Harbour, and Marsh gets supplied primarily by Nassau, which is primarily supplied by the U.S.  Not many things grow successfully on these islands, and attempts at sustaining livestock have mostly failed. Given the song and dance required to get a gallon of milk, you begin to understand the pricing.

I snagged these massive carrots at the grocery store in Hope Town. They were supposed to go to one of the restaurants on the island, but the deliveries got crossed. Also, no fresh fruit available, so time to get creative with canned guava! Turns out guava pureed with yogurt makes a pretty tasty popsicle.

I snagged these massive carrots at the grocery store in Hope Town. They were supposed to go to one of the restaurants on the island, but the deliveries got crossed. Also, no fresh fruit available, so time to get creative with canned guava! Turns out guava pureed with yogurt makes a pretty tasty popsicle.

While staples like dry goods are consistently stocked, other items, like fresh fruits and vegetables, and dairy, are happenstance. If you see something you want in stock, buy it, because they might get something completely different the following week. Sometimes, the shipments to the restaurants and the grocery stores get mixed up, and you just make do with what’s available.

And when there’s inclement weather, cold fronts, kicked up seas, etc., the shipments are on hold. When we visited the grocery store on Green Turtle Cay the second week of January, their shelves were low, as a boat hadn’t come since before Christmas.

It may not be obvious, what with rainbows of shimmering blue in every direction, but drinkable water on the islands is a precious commodity. There’s no immediate fresh water source, like rivers or lakes, so most islands use reverse osmosis and also catch rain water in cisterns. In almost all restaurant restrooms, there are signs to use the water sparingly.

Mail is also very much weather dependent and processed on “island time,” and the post offices run on a whimsical schedule.  The small office may or may not be open, and if it is, your mail will make its way down to the mail boat pickup whenever it does. Once the mail boat picks up the outgoing mail, it’s off to Marsh Harbour. But even there, it gets sorted when it gets sorted. The same goes for the reverse. Friends that we met in Man-O-War in late January were still awaiting a Christmas card that had been sent to them in early December.

A side note regarding addresses: In the out islands, a car is a rare siting. Most everyone travels by golf cart. But some also live on archipelagos where there simply aren’t roads, their dwellings accessible only by boat. Which also means that streets are absent in their addresses, and as such, their properties all have call names. “Sue Jones, Sunset Splendor, Dickie’s Cay, Abacos.” Sounds as magical as it does remote.

Each island that has residents has a bank  – or, I should say, they have a building that serves as a bank. In Hope Town, for example, the bank is open only on Tuesdays, and only for four or five hours. A representative from the Royal Bank of Canada handles the needs of the islanders, but the transacting is more rudimentary. For instance, we needed to get more cash and ATMs on the island do not exist, including at the bank, even when it was open. We queued on the Tuesday we were in town for 15-20 minutes and then Aaron requested a cash advance on our credit card – the only way we could get the paper money we needed.  The bank did not charge any transaction fees, other than what Visa charges us, and it was a rather easy affair.

With views like these from your porch, why would you be in a hurry to get anywhere else?!

With views like these from your porch, why would you be in a hurry to get anywhere else?!

Islands with more residents have health clinics, though these are not the emergency walk-in facilities frequented in the States. They are staffed mostly by nurses, with doctors who visit on specific days of the week to assess specific cases. Like the stores, these clinics are open Monday through Saturday, closed on Sunday, and if you visit the building as a walk-in, you may see a sign on the door that the staff has gone to do a house call and will return later. There are no emergency numbers to call for after-hours consultations.

Communication also works a bit differently in the islands. Given that the islands are all very much maritime communities, much of the correspondence between friends and businesses is done on designated channels on the VHF radio – including for those who live on land. Work also does not happen at the nail-biting, life-or-death pace that courses through our veins in the States. If you call a business to inquire about inventory, or getting work done, they may or may not call you back the same day. They may or may not respond to email. And if you have a verbal agreement for them to come out and assist, they may just get too busy that day. “It will get done.”

When we first arrived in the Abacos, I initially saw all of the negatives in this less-structured framework. What if I need groceries on Sunday, and what if they don’t have what I want? What if I can’t make it to the clinic before 5? Should I even bother to send postcards? It took me awhile to shed the heavy burden of immediate gratification in all things.

But the longer we’re here, the more I develop a calmer rhythm, and I respect, as I should have all along, that all people, including business owners, should be able to spend Sunday at church or with their families. Having certain businesses, like banks, only open one day a week has made us both more intentional about our schedule and more relaxed.

With a complete absence of convenience, I’m redefining “need.” I’m becoming more adaptable, more flexible, more resourceful.

Island time…. I think I’m just about there.

Green Turtle to Great Guana

The most beautiful princess and her Great Guana sunset

The most beautiful princess and her Great Guana sunset

Finally, we are getting on island time – taking a deep breath and allowing ourselves the opportunity to enjoy where we are, even if it means putting a few non-essential projects on hold.

Due to a cold front that made traveling further south with Clarity impossible, we spent two weeks in Green Turtle Cay, but it turned out to be such a blessing. We tucked into a cozy little anchorage in White Sound that was surrounded by gorgeous resorts and was a short dinghy ride to town. Just a few days in, we met another cruising family that’s spending the better part of the winter in the Abacos on Wild Child, their Beneteau. Their daughter, Marleigh, is Claire’s age, and the two became fast friends, running like kitties along the beaches and setting up coconut stands.

Amazingly, a few days after that, we spotted Dark Horse anchored just off the island. Just a month ago, we celebrated Christmas in Florida with a couple of cruising families – one of them being Dark Horse, an incredible force of six (four kids aged 8 months, 2, 7 and 9) who have been living on their schooner for three years. We guided them into our anchorage in Green Turtle, and like that, our community grew again.

We explored the island together and the kids climbed trees and put on magic shows while the rest of us bathed in the warmth of adult conversation – heightened by healthy doses of wine, rum and moonshine. We took our dinghies over to No Name Cay to feed the wild pigs. The men convened to share charts and review forecasts.

And when the weather window did lift, we caravanned down to anchor off of Great Guana Cay together, spending the next three days doing school and work on our respective boats in the morning and meeting in the afternoons for snorkeling, diving, fishing and sandcastle-building.

Finding this, a “family,” friends for Claire and for us, was one of the things I was most worried about when we decided to leave all that was familiar in Chicago. To have found a taste of it this soon was an unbelievable gift.

As another cold front was bearing down, the three of us parted ways to find safe harbor – Dark Horse to Marsh Harbor, Wild Child to Hope Town, and us to Man-O-War Cay. We hope to meet again before our paths further divide. Dark Horse plans to leave the Abacos sooner than we will, as their draft prevents them from comfortably cruising the southern cays here, and this is the end of the road for Wild Child, heading back to the States in another month or two.

For now, we’ll enjoy the next week on our mooring in Man-O-War as our cozy little community of three.

The Case of the Three-Thousand-Dollar Black Bean

Claire in her "hospital costume," as she called it, right before they put her under.

Claire in her “hospital costume,” as she called it, right before they put her under.

To say that the last week was a rough one would be putting it mildly.

After striking out Monday at the local clinics and waiting out the national holiday on Tuesday, Aaron and I caught the ferry Wednesday morning with Claire, rented a car (from Big Papa, because in the out-islands, everything is family run) and drove to the clinic in Marsh Harbor.

We were so hopeful, but after multiple attempts to get the bean out, we had to come to terms with the realization that true medical help was not only necessary, but a plane ride away.

Claire, happy as can be in her pillow fort, in our hotel room in Marsh Harbor.

Claire, happy as can be in her pillow fort, in our hotel room in Marsh Harbor.

Sitting in our hotel room that night in Marsh Harbor, waiting for the flight Claire and I would have to catch the following morning to go to the hospital in Nassau, Aaron and I were in bad shape. Totally defeated. We just couldn’t catch a break, it seemed.

“Do you want to quit?” “…Do you?”

Honestly, we didn’t know what the other would say.

You see, the bean was the cherry on top of two weeks that have been equal amounts stressful and wonderful. Yes, there have been amazing anchorages, gorgeous beaches, swimming and snorkeling, and great friends.  The other half of the story is that, shortly after we crossed to the Bahamas, our batteries stopped holding their charge and would die overnight. Our watermaker all of a sudden started functioning at 50% the output we had when we brought it online in Florida. One of the windows of our hard dodger shattered, showering our entire cockpit and parts of our salon with glass.

Our Wi-Fi for tethering to our phones, which we need for work, wouldn’t load properly, even after hours of troubleshooting. Bugs started cropping up in our galley at night. And a prolonged cold front came through that not only brought temps too chilly for swimming, but also winds and a sea state that made getting further south impossible until it lifted.

And then, Claire stuck a bean up her nose – “tree trunk,” she named it shortly after it took up residence in her left nostril. So you see, we were already pretty run down.

Planes, trains and automobiles - all because of a little black bean

Planes, trains and automobiles – all because of a little black bean

In a really big way, we were lucky. Though we had to get the bean out as soon as possible, Claire’s “ailment” was not painful. But it was extremely traumatic for her, not really knowing what was going on, with Aaron and me trying to hold her down and doctors she didn’t know shoving tools she didn’t understand down her nose.

The biggest contributor to the decision to fly to Nassau was that she simply wouldn’t lay still. She just couldn’t calm down, even with a shot of Valium to try to ease the anxiety. With each attempt at the clinic in Marsh Harbor, her fight got stronger, and it became less and less safe to try to get the bean out. So, alas, a flight to Nassau, where she could be safely put under, was in order. If it’s any indication of the state she was in when we got to the hospital, even the sight of a nurse walking in with a pen would send her cowering behind me, poor thing.

The staff at Doctor’s Hospital in Nassau was fine. We went straight there from the airport and were registered in the emergency room almost immediately. Shortly thereafter, the doctor on call told me he was working with the ENT and the anesthesiologist to determine a plan.

Keeping spirits up in the waiting room! Markers make everything better.

Keeping spirits up in the waiting room! Markers make everything better.

What I didn’t know, though, and I wish the doctor in Marsh Harbor had told me, is that to put Claire under safely, she needed to have fasted for at least six hours. I had given her snacks on the 1 p.m. flight, so we had to sit and wait until 7 p.m. for them to treat her, Claire getting more and more hungry and antsy as the minutes wore on.

Finally, when it was time, I think Claire was so excited to finally leave the waiting room we had been in for hours that she took it like a champ, happily putting the hospital gown on, smiling, joking with the nurses. She gave me a thumbs up while they wheeled her away in her bed – it was as far as I was allowed to go – and they sent me out to the waiting room. It was an absolutely horrible feeling.

The infamous black bean

The infamous black bean

But 20 minutes later, it was done. The bean had been successfully removed, she was waking up and I was allowed back up to see her. “They found tree trunk,” Claire said in a sleepy stupor, and as I called Aaron with the news, relief washed over us. We flew back the next morning, took a cab back to the ferry dock, made the 20-minute trip across the Sea of Abaco, and were back on Clarity by 11 a.m.

So let’s talk money. The ferry for Aaron and Claire to get to the mainland on Monday ($21 round trip per person) and the cab to and from the Cooper’s Town Clinic. The ferry back to mainland for the three of us on Wednesday morning, the rental car to drive to Marsh Harbor ($75), the hotel stay ($150), as we’d missed the window to get back for the last ferry. Then on Thursday, the flight for two (round trip – $300 for the 30-minute flight, thanks to last-minute booking), the cab to the hospital, the cab from the hospital to the hotel, the cost of the hotel stay in Nassau ($260, the cheapest we could find), the cab from the hotel to the airport on Friday, the flight back, the cab for Claire and I back down to the ferry stop ($85), and the return ferry trip. And that’s just travel.

The first two clinics – Green Turtle and Cooper’s Town – didn’t charge us anything, and for all of the effort of the doctor in Marsh Harbor and his staff, and the medicine they used, the total was only $115. At the hospital, however, there was the emergency room charge ($500), for simply registering and sitting in the waiting room for more than four hours. Then the substantial charges really began, because to have her put under, she actually had to be admitted. And with that comes the cost for the ENT, the cost for the anesthesiologist, the cost for the nurses, the cost for the bed. We had to put down an additional deposit of $2,500 for them to even treat her.

We don’t have the final bills yet, but the charges for the hospital visit alone will be more than $2k (they could be more or less than the required deposit – we have no way of knowing until we get the bill).

Of course, you do what you have to do. We never hesitated, each step of the way, in getting Claire the care she needed. In doing as much as we could together, then Claire and I flying ourselves to Nassau to save the flight fee for the third person. In trying as best as we both could to swallow our frustrations and exhaustion and keep Claire in good spirits.

Kids are so resilient; it always amazes me. The same day she and I made it back to the boat, she was out playing at the beach with her friends, supremely happy. No pain, no residual symptoms, nothing.

I slept 12 hours that night. I still feel tired.

We’re trying our best to not let these things kill our spirit. Aaron was able to isolate and fix the issue with the batteries and we have a plan for troubleshooting the watermaker. With fastidious cleaning and a military approach to crumbs and food waste, the bug issue seems to be dissipating. We’ve found a place in Marsh Harbor that can replace our shattered cockpit window, we have a workaround for the Wi-Fi, and the seas should finally lay down enough in the next day or two for us to head south.

Above everything, though, Claire is healthy and back to her happy self, running face-first into the waves and setting up coconut stands on the beach with her friends.

I’m sure six months or a year from now, I’ll look back on the story of the black bean and laugh. Right now, it’s still just a bit too soon.

Crash Course in Island Healthcare

whiningfeeHave you ever wondered what you’d do if you stuck a bean up your nose in a remote location?

No?

Us either. Turns out, we should have.

We’ve been in the Abacos for almost two weeks now, and we’ve already had some amazing pinch-me moments.

But one thing to remember – we are reminded every day – is that we are not on vacation. This is our life. And with that comes the expected tasks (laundry, cooking, cleaning, school, work, boat projects), and the unanticipated ones.

On Sunday morning, as I was preparing some meals for the week, Claire asked to see a few of the dried black beans I had out. And then she proceeded to stick one up her nose.

“I wanted to see what it would feel like.” I don’t know what else to say about the act itself. For the longest time, we thought she was joking. But that’s a pretty specific experience she put together. Turns out the joke was on us.

Now, in the States, I’d just throw her in the car and take her to the nearest walk-in clinic so they could suck it out and we could be on about our day. (We tried and tried and tried all of the obvious ways here on the boat to get it out.) But in the out-islands of the Bahamas, when you live on a sailboat, things work a little differently.

We are fortunate that the island we’re currently at (Green Turtle Cay) is developed enough that there’s a clinic – however, it’s only open Monday through Friday and there’s no after-hours emergency line to call. So, Monday morning, we piled into a golf cart rented by another cruising family we’ve come to know here and headed to town.

“Oh, no. We can’t fix that here. It’s way up there? No, we don’t have a tool for that here. You’ll have to go to the mainland for that.” (Keep in mind that I had gritted my teeth and paid for the expensive call to the clinic when it first opened that morning to explain the problem and make sure they’d be able to see us.)

Well, the ‘mainland’ is the northern part of Great Abaco Island, across the Sea of Abaco from where we are, and we had two options: Cooper’s Town and Marsh Harbor. The former is a smaller town but still with a government clinic allegedly more well-equipped than the one at Green Turtle Cay. Marsh Harbor is the third-largest city in the Bahamas, with robust medical facilities, but farther away (i.e. more expensive for travel). And with a cold front that has settled in the Abacos like a cold that won’t quit, the seas are kicked up and we don’t want to move the boat out of our protected anchorage.

So, luckily again, there’s a ferry from Green Turtle across to Treasure Cay on the big island. From there, we’d have to cab it to either location – with the ride to Marsh Harbor being twice as expensive.

Early Monday afternoon, Aaron spoke with the staff at the Cooper’s Town clinic, who were very friendly and helpful on the phone. They gave us the names of specific doctors in Marsh Harbor who could help, but right as we were about to make the decision to head straight there, realizing that we’d never make it back to Treasure Cay in time for the last ferry of the day and would have to also pay for a hotel room there, they said, “Bring her here to Cooper’s Town. We think we can get it out.”

Off Aaron and Claire went on the 3 o’clock ferry (I stayed back to save the ferry fee and also make some progress on a work deadline). By 3:30, they were in a cab and by 3:45, the doctors were taking a look at her. “Nope, we can’t get that out. Too far up there.” It didn’t help that Claire was flinching and crying anytime anyone tried to get a good look up her nose.

Back in the cab, back on the ferry, back to the dinghy, back to the boat, $115 poorer and still with that damn bean firmly planted up Claire’s left nostril.

The thing is, if it had been anything else – a viral infection, a jellyfish sting, a weird bug bite – they likely could have treated it here in Green Turtle, and definitely in Cooper’s Town. But this is now bordering on internal medicine.

Oh, and another kicker – today is a national holiday, so everything is closed.

So tomorrow, we have an appointment with a specialist in Marsh Harbor at 2 p.m. We’ll have to hop in the dinghy to shore, get the ferry again, rent a car and drive to Marsh Harbor. If the specialist can’t get it out, either because Claire won’t settle enough for him to make a good attempt or because it’s lodged in too far, we’ll have to take her to the emergency room, where they’ll likely have to put her under to get it out.

Hopefully, we’ll make it back to Treasure Cay in time for that last ferry at 5 p.m., though likely not. So, add the price of a hotel room to the tab.

One thing I will say, though, is that so far, the costs of this debacle have all been travel-related. The medical professionals haven’t been able to help us so far, but there also wasn’t a wait at any of the clinics, and no fee just to walk in the door and be seen, unlike in the States, where the five-minute visit at each location would have been $100 or more, with or without resolution.

Yes, such an amazing and exciting life we lead as cruisers, with the swimming and the snorkeling and the sailing. And the planes, trains and automobiles required to hopscotch back and forth across the Sea of Abaco, all because our delightful, intelligent, inquisitive daughter decided on a whim to jam a bean up her nose.

Hurry Up and Wait

Clarity at anchor just off of Peanut Island

Clarity at anchor just off of Peanut Island

And now, we wait.

On Saturday afternoon, we finally made it back to Riviera Beach, Fla., where we started this crazy thing five months ago, almost to the day. And because we’re nuts, that same afternoon, we had a technician on board bringing our watermaker online. Miraculously (if you’ve been following along with our luck regarding this boat’s systems), after a few filters were sorted, it worked! We are officially ready to cross.

Perfectly positioned at anchor just inside the Lake Worth Inlet, we wait for that desired combination of south-southwesterly winds and moderate seas that will make crossing the Gulf Stream as comfortable as possible. According to the marine forecast, we’ll definitely be here through Friday. I’m hoping for a Christmas Eve or Christmas day crossing – what an amazing memory that would be!

With the colossal (immediate) to-do list shortened for the first time in months, I finally have the mental bandwidth to think about how much has changed since we started, how far we’ve grown and what we’ve learned. Back when we hatched this plan and explained our decision to friends and family, our desire to “live a simpler life” was a regular part of the chorus.

Ha! There is nothing simple about this life.

It’s hard work – mentally and physically. It’s long days, sometimes unforgiving days, and “the weekend” doesn’t exist. It’s to-do lists that change, but don’t diminish. It’s constant learning, continuously adapting to new surroundings and new challenges.  As Aaron and I have worked and worked and worked to get this boat and ourselves ready to head to the islands, there are any number of times that I wished I could just have one day where I was sitting in an office, going to meetings, taking client calls.

What this life absolutely has been, though, is a shift in focus back to the basic needs. How much food does a family of three need for three months? How can I make it last as long as possible? How can I provision most affordably?

How can we make sure that we’ll always have enough power while on the hook to run our systems? Can we trust our solar? If we have a string of cloudy days, how can we best conserve our power? Has the generator been serviced? How much redundancy do we need, and do we have all of the parts to troubleshoot and replace when one system stops working?

Getting our water maker up and running

Getting our watermaker up and running

I’ve also never before had a clear understanding of just how much water a family uses in a week – but it becomes a critical calculation when you bring or make your own water wherever you go. We have two water tanks that combined hold a little more than 100 gallons. With full-time use, including drinking water, cooking, washing dishes, showers, cleaning, everything, we empty the tanks in just shy of two weeks – and that’s while we’re mindful of making every cup count (short showers, boiling water doubles as rinse water for dishes, etc.).

Luckily, our watermaker takes salt water and creates four to five gallons of fresh water per hour, allowing us to travel freely without worrying about our tanks running low. As long as it keeps running. Of course, we have the full complement of replacement parts for this, too.

Food, power, water. It doesn’t get more basic than that. But then again, we make our own power. We make our own water. There are countless other systems, too, that I won’t get into here, all allowing us to “live the simple life.”

I’m also aware, though, that this refit phase that we’ve been in since we moved aboard should slow down significantly now, with the big hurdle of getting the critical components squared away behind us. Also, our expedited timeline has been 100% self-imposed, our desire to just get out there and go already! Many cruisers spend a year or more getting their boats ready.

Checking the rig

Checking the rig

I suppose I’m not selling it very well – this time here waiting has allowed the exhaustion from the recent months to set in – but I’ve written before about the reasons we’re doing this, the freedom we’re seeking, this traveling lifestyle and the desire to get out there and see the world. It’s all still 150% true.

But here’s another thing I know now. We certainly aren’t solving the world’s problems, but at the end of each day, there’s a satisfaction that I didn’t feel previously, when we were living in our condo in Oak Park. The things that we do, the tasks we accomplish, directly impact our quality of life. They make it easier, better, more comfortable, more efficient. There’s an immediate result. I slide under the covers in our aft cabin each night, waiting for sleep to wash over me, and truly feel like I’ve earned it.

When we are playing on the beach in the islands, or snorkeling through the reefs, it will be with the certainty that our boat is safe and sound, waiting for us, equipped with everything we need, our own little island that we’ve created and sustained. There. Is. So. Much. Power. In. That!!

When we moved on board five months ago, I had never sailed on the ocean before. I had never done an overnight sail or spent the night at anchor. Those are the obvious things.

I also had no real knowledge of what the basic needs of a family amount to in watts of power, gallons of water, pounds of flour – things I blindly took for granted during life on land. Sitting in our condo the final weeks we were packing, I made a point of recognizing the luxuries that would be left behind – my dear, sweet bathtub, how I miss you! But I also shed a lack of accountability and ownership that I’m embarrassed to realize I lived with for as many adult years as I did.

All if this isn’t as sexy as saying we’re sailing off into the sunset to beaches and palm trees and warm breezes. I’m just realizing now, finally, that it’s equally as important.

rope-swing

Where there’s a rope, Claire makes a swing

For the rest of this Christmas week, we’re making the most of our time here, relaxing and indulging in “tasks” we didn’t have time for before (like Aaron getting his PADI cert to dive). Though we’re hoping for a holiday crossing, there are definitely no guarantees when it comes to weather, so if we’re not in the Bahamas come Christmas morning, perhaps by New Year’s.

Whenever that window opens up, our next chapter begins.

Anchoring Off Cumberland

Home sweet home, our anchorage in Fancy Bluff Creek

Home sweet home, our anchorage in Fancy Bluff Creek

Cumberland Island will forever be a favorite for me, both because it’s the first place we’ve ever anchored, and also because of its undisturbed beauty. After a month at the marina in Brunswick, it was the perfect place to reset our minds to cruising again.

The ties to the dock are strong ones – for all three of us. This was the saddest we’ve seen Claire as we’ve left a harbor. It was partly the immediate thought of leaving a community that absolutely adored her. But she’s also getting older and understanding the lifestyle more as we continue to cruise. As much as we say that we hope we’ll see them again in the islands, she knows that it’s unlikely, or at least, it won’t be for a long while in kiddo time.

For us, there’s also the hesitation in leaving a known variable. Being at the dock is extremely convenient. The basics (water, electric) don’t run out, and changes in wind and weather (aside from a developing hurricane, of course) require a changing or tightening of some lines, at most. You aren’t married to the tide schedule and there’s no passing traffic to monitor. It’s just easier.

When we leave the dock, wherever we go, whatever we do, must be a better trade. And while leaving good friends will always be the toughest part of this lifestyle, what’s out there never disappoints.

An hour into our cruise from Brunswick, Claire was still understandably upset by our departure. But as we set our course on the Atlantic, we began to see cannonball jellyfish just below the surface. At first it was a few, and then a few more. And then we realized we were sailing through a bloom that stretched for miles. Claire’s spirits were lifted, as were ours. As we rounded the inlet at Fernandina Beach to head into Cumberland Island, three dolphins kept pace alongside our bow. And that’s to say nothing for what we found on the island the next day.

We anchored in a little cove just off of the southwest corner of the island, with a secluded beach just a five-minute dinghy ride away. In a small stretch of shoreline, we found crabs and shrimp and recent prints from birds, raccoons and possibly wild pigs. We hiked through the maritime forest, watching armadillos hunt through the brush for snacks, and had a picnic lunch at the Dungeness ruins, what remains of a mansion from the Gilded Age. The absolute highlight of the day were the wild horses we passed as they enjoyed a leisurely afternoon. More than 100 live on the 17.5-mile-long island. The pictures at the end of this post show the beauty of the place that my words fall short of conveying.

The excitement was not without its stresses, though. We finally broke the seal and spent our first two nights at anchor, and she held beautifully. But the calm sea state during our first night changed dramatically midday Friday (as we knew it would). Winds built from the north-northeast to a steady 20-25mph and the waves kicked up, a steady thump all night long as they broke across our transom. The boat again held just fine, but it was an evening of constant vigilance with our anchor alarm, making sure we didn’t start dragging toward the few other boats anchored just north of us, or the shoreline. As we gain more experience and confidence with anchoring, the stress will decrease.

After keeping an eye on the marine forecast for a few days, noting the steady projected winds from the northeast, studying the local charts, and leaning on the knowledge of friends who had transited just a few days before, we decided to make way south Saturday morning on the Intracoastal Waterway. Waves of 4-8 feet were predicted out on the Atlantic for at least the next two or three days, and though there would have been plenty for us to do on Cumberland Island if we chose to wait it out, the anchorage wasn’t nearly as comfortable as when we had arrived, and we needed to make way south again, if possible.

Transiting the Intracoastal – yet another feather in the Clarity cap. The five-hour run was a whole different kind of adventure. But more about that in my next post.

For now, we are tucked down below this chilly November evening, a few games of Candyland just finished, with the wind whistling through the rig and the soft crackling of krill munching on our hull.

After Matthew

Just down the river from our marina, this boat didn't fare as well.

Just down the river from our marina, this boat didn’t fare as well.

In the few days before Hurricane Matthew hit the coast, we heard that even during a mandatory evacuation, many choose to stay simply because they don’t know when they’ll be able to get home again after the storm passes. Now, to a certain extent, I understand their rationale.

A sailor on a neighboring boat at the marina stayed aboard during the hurricane, and as conditions deteriorated, he kept us in the loop on how things were progressing. A few small shifts east of Matthew’s path late Friday were just enough to prevent the eye from making landfall in Brunswick, and weakened the storm surge just enough to keep our docks on their pilings. By early Saturday morning, the eye of the storm had moved north and the worst was out of Georgia. Thanks to updates from our neighbor, as well as Facebook updates from the marina, we knew we were in the clear, at least from any damage visible from the dock. With a collective sigh of relief, we hit the road.

Our drive back, however, was more eventful than we would have liked. We headed east on I-26 from Columbia, S.C., as bands of wind from Matthew were very much still hovering over the coastline. We were grateful when we hit I-95 and began to head south, as the wind and rain finally started to subside, but both interstates were almost covered with tree debris.

Massive oak trees had been cleared off the lanes, in massive piles along the shoulder, and some downed trees were still blocking the road. Traffic was halted multiple times as emergency crews tended to cars that had hit trees and spun out into the median. We were detoured off of the interstate, as stretches were still under water. Military convoys accounted for a considerable amount of the traffic. And everywhere, it smelled like Christmas, the overwhelming aroma of freshly cut trees.

We slowly made our way to the Georgia state line, and then finally to the Brunswick exits, around mid-afternoon. In the pockets during the drive that we were able to get cell service, we checked the Glynn County news updates and learned that the mandatory evacuation had been lifted and residents could return. However, right around the time that we reached our exit, all exits off of 95 were shut down again – a miscommunication between the county officials, who had opened them, and state officials, who had not yet completed all proper checks of the bridges in the area. Had we been even 30 minutes sooner, we likely would have gotten in.

So began our next chapter of waiting, watching the exit from an empty parking lot. All hotels, restaurants, stores and gas stations in the area were closed and without power, so we had nowhere to pass the time but our car. With no timeline given by the Georgia Department of Transportation, we also had no way of knowing if they would reopen the exits that evening, or if we’d be forced to wait until the next morning – or even a few days later.

We crossed the state line to Florida, where some restaurants had been reopened, to grab some dinner. And as we were about to head to a hotel room in Jacksonville that Aaron had miraculously found (everything that was open continued to be booked solid), he checked the county website one last time and learned that the exits had finally been opened.

The utterly amazing climax to this story – god, what a story – is that there really isn’t one. We returned to Clarity and found her no worse for the wear. No damage. No destruction. Aside from some chafing and stretching of the lines, she was completely unscathed.

We drove around Brunswick on Sunday and found that overall, the town had weathered the storm extremely well, with minimal damage other than downed trees and power lines. We took the dinghy over to a marina on St. Simons Island (which is still not yet allowing residents to return), and though there were some visible issues, the boats were still floating. Similarly, Jekyll Island was miraculously spared. A blanket of spanish moss and leaves from the oak trees now covers the ground, and a few trees landed on roofs, rather than the road – but the forecast of devastation had been much worse.

Unfortunately, in situations like these, when some are fortunate, others are not; residents from the Carolinas have a much different story.

With the boat back in order, we are settling back into our routine, tackling our to-do lists in preparation for the islands. These tasks that previously seemed like such a burden, now, are an unbelievable blessing.

 

Bracing For Impact

radarAs we locked up the boat yesterday and started walking to our rental car, Claire said, “Mom, can you promise that we’ll come back to our boat?”

I didn’t know what to say. I hope for the best, but didn’t want to make a promise that I couldn’t keep. We’ve been trying to keep Claire aware of what’s going on in a way that she understands and that doesn’t scare her, but even at her age, she gets the seriousness of the situation.

As I sit here typing this from our hotel room in Columbia, South Carolina, the winds in Brunswick, Georgia, where our boat is, have already reached 30 to 40 mph and it’s been raining steadily for a few hours now. The conditions will get much worse before they get better, and all we can do is wait.

When we shifted our life gears and bought a boat in Florida, Aaron and I spoke a lot about hurricane plans. We decided to wait out the season on the east coast, heading north to decrease the likelihood of us being affected by a named storm. Aaron even put together a hurricane evacuation plan – a requirement for our insurance company – and something he did not take lightly.

If we were to rewrite that plan now, it would look much different – one of those things that you unfortunately learn best through experience.

Clarity currently sits in a “hurricane hole,” which is a marina or anchorage that’s designated by insurance companies as a safe haven (relatively speaking) during a named storm. Location, location, location – not just a real estate tenet. The marina sits miles away from the ocean inlet, past Saint Simons Sound, through Fancy Bluff Creek, and up a channel that dead-ends just past the marina. The waves and the storm surge have a lot of ground to cover before they reach our marina. The surge is still our biggest fear at the moment. But more on that in a minute.

Getting your boat to an optimal location is only the beginning. Before evacuating, Aaron and I spent two-and-a-half days preparing the boat for the storm. Some of it was common sense, some of it we learned after researching, and some of it was insight we gained from the other boaters in our marina, many of whom have been through hurricanes before. Here’s the list:

  • Double and triple up all of our dock lines, sometimes reaching not only to our dock but the next over, to spiderweb the boat in and prevent as much movement and bucking as possible, accounting for waves, tides, wind and storm surge.
  • Put chafing gear anywhere the lines touch anything, including other lines, cleats, the boat, etc. With tremendous winds and pressure on the lines, chafing could quickly compromise the lines, rendering them useless.
  • Minimize gear on the topsides to reduce windage as much as possible. For us, this included taking down the furling head sail; removing many excess lines (ropes); stowing all covers including winch covers, the grill cover, hatch (window) shades, sun shades, and more. Anything can become a projectile.
  • Our boat has a hard dodger and bimini, which is a blessing in many ways, but with a hurricane, can be dangerous. After Aaron put considerable time into determining which direction the wind was most likely to generate from at the height of the storm, we turned the boat around, facing the bow into the wind and allowing the gusts to pass right over the dodger.
  • Plug all vents (dorades) that normally allow for fresh air to pass in and out of the cabin.
  • Fill our water tanks to make sure we have full supply upon return, as we may not be able to fill up for days.
  • Close and lock all hatches and lazarettes (our storage areas up top).
  • Down below, close all seacocks (throughhulls) except for bilge pump exits.
  • Check all boats around us in the marina, to make sure they are as prepared as possible. If they don’t reduce windage, for example, anything on their deck could become flying debris. If they don’t tie their boat properly, it could come barreling right into ours.
  • For insurance purposes, take pictures of absolutely everything, to submit with a claim, if needed, and prove that we prepared as much as we could.
  • Book a rental car and hotel room in advance.
  • Pack for evacuation, planning on two or three days but possibly more. This also includes packing up any essential documents and items (passports, boat registrations, computers, portable hard drives) that we would be devastated to lose should we return to a total loss.

By the time we hit the road on Thursday afternoon, we were EXHAUSTED. Also worth noting, though, is not only what we were doing to plan, but what we were planning the boat for, a lot of which wasn’t even on my radar before this. Here are those considerations:

  • The winds: Both the force, and if they’re gusts, or sustained winds.
  • The rain, which causes immediate flooding and raises the overall water height.
  • The waves, which can get as high as 15-20 feet due to the force of the winds on the water. This is certainly more of a concern for the coastal communities, less of a concern as the waves work their way to the inland waters.
  • The storm surge – our biggest concern. As the wind and rain and waves build offshore, they push more and more water toward the coast, creating a surge above and beyond the forecasted waves and tidal fluctuations. For Brunswick, the surge is supposed to be six to nine feet, and it’s looking like it will hit close to the worst time – high tide.
  • Inland tornadoes that can be caused by the systems generated when the hurricane hits land.
  • Loss of power and water, which can last for a few days or even a few weeks, depending on the severity of the storm.
  • Compromised roadways (either by flooding or debris) that prevent us from returning to our boat.
  • Security. With mandatory evacuations, many homes and businesses are abandoned, leaving a wealth of property for vandals and looters.

We are confident that we did as much as we could to secure our boat. Our biggest concern right now is the storm surge. Our marina consists of floating docks, which in theory is ideal, as it allows for the boats and docks to rise along with the increased water. However, the pilings are only about six to seven feet higher than the waters at high tide. If the surge hits at high tide, as it’s supposed to, and it reaches higher than that, which is a possibility, our entire marina could then float up and off the pilings and break apart.

Conditions will peak overnight, and come morning Matthew should have moved up the coast. We’ve planned to hit the road early in the morning tomorrow and get back to the boat as soon as possible to assess things. As long as the damage is minimal, we will be fine, even if the power in the surrounding area is out. Our water tanks are full and we generate our own power. Our batteries will also keep our fridge and freezer running for days.

This is the first hurricane of this magnitude, with this trajectory, to hit the Georgia coast in more than 100 years. Of course it is.

Plan for the worst, Hope for the best. And remind yourself that homes can be rebuilt. All that truly matters is your health and your heart.