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.

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.

Bye-Bye Bahamas, Hello Turks

Aaron checking sail trim en route to Mayaguana

Life on Clarity has been vastly different in the last few days – a change that we’re soaking in, and also having trouble wrapping our heads around.

We spent almost two months in Georgetown and near the end, it truly felt like we would never get out of there. Not that we didn’t love it – we did – but it was a long time for us in one place. Too long. We finally dusted off the proverbial cobwebs and set sail a week ago to Long Island for the night. The next morning, we pulled anchor and sailed 33 hours straight, past the Acklins, to Mayaguana, the eastern-most island in the Bahamas. It was our longest sail to date, and it was perfect. The winds, for the most part, were steady, and we were able to sail the whole way without turning the engine on. The night shifts were a dream, with a full moon lighting the horizon.

After after a delicious dinner of freshly caught Mahi with our friends on Upside Up, who buddy-boated with us there from Georgetown, we wished them well on their sail to the Dominican Republic and prepared to take advantage of the weather the next day and sail the rest of the way to the Turks and Caicos. It was only 40 miles away, but a whole world of difference that I’m still having a hard time comprehending.

The cut into Turtle Cove Marina was tricky one, to say the least. The darker colors you see in the water here are all part of the coral reef, and the waves you see crashing in the distance are at the wall of the reef. The marina sent out a guideboat to lead us safely through the winding path, which at times was not much wider than our boat itself.

We’ve spent the last four days in Providenciales (referred to as “Provo”), and it’s been almost the complete antithesis of our lifestyle for the past four months. For one, since anchoring out the first night to stage for high tide the next morning, we’ve been staying in a slip in Turtle Cove Marina. The options here in Provo for anchoring are limited, so a marina was the best option. Also, we knew we wanted to rent a car for a few days and tour the island – all much easier to do when it’s just a step off the boat, rather than a dinghy ride to town.

Right – a car! What is this amazing thing known as convenience and quick traveling? I’d all but forgotten what it’s like to make a plan to go somewhere and get there in minutes. Provisioning has also been an absolute dream. Not having to cart the groceries back in the dinghy in garbage bags to protect them from getting drenched with salt water on the ride back to the boat is like a trip to Disneyland for us. Not to mention that the grocery store here is the closest we’ve seen to those in the States since Marsh Harbor in the Abacos, albeit at island prices.

We’ve also managed to eat our way through town. Thai, Chinese, Indian, gourmet food trucks… We’ve probably (happily) gained five pounds each. The cuisine in the Bahamas was fried conch, period – and at prices just as high as here, or comparable to restaurants in Chicago or New York City.

There are also – wait for it – paved roads, highways and sidewalks! Sidewalks did not exist in the Bahamas, at least in any of the areas we visited. It was every man for themselves, and the local drivers did not exactly follow the pedestrians-first rule.

Sunset at Turtle Cove

BUT – as amazing as this all sounds – YES, CIVILIZATION! – I’m already feeling the pull to move on. We’ve come to realize that here in Provo, it’s as if affluent suburbs in the States were picked up and transported to an island. The Turks and Caicos are considered the British West Indies, and they are their own country – however, their currency is the U.S. dollar.

We’ve been to almost every area of this island, and I have no true sense of any culture other than American tourist. The beaches are crowded with people and lined by resort after resort. And the experiences have been commercialized to capitalize on the tourism industry. Care to visit the conch farm, or the plantation ruins? A fee per person. Want to visit the neighboring island to see the native iguanas? A considerable fee per person just to set foot on the beach.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – certainly, the tourism industry is the lifeline of the islands. But to put things in perspective, we could have experienced any of these things in the Bahamas – visited an old plantation, frolicked with iguanas (do iguanas frolic?) – but at no charge, and likely with very few other people in the same anchorage, if any. They just offered a more authentic experience – something we crave in this lifestyle.

Claire enjoying the silty sand in the Five Cays settlement in Provo

In the interest of full disclosure, though, we have only been on one island so far of this 40-island chain. I imagine that Grand Turk, where the capital is, is very similar, as it is where the cruise ships dock. Likely, some of the other islands offer a more subdued experience – but we won’t have the opportunity to visit many of them.

To clear immigration and customs here in the Turks and Caicos, the cost is $100 for seven days ($50 to clear in, $50 to clear out). After that, you are required to pay $300 for up to 90 days – whether you stay for eight days or 89 days, the price is the same. And the fees to clear in and out still apply.

As we’ve spent the last four months in the absolutely beautiful islands in the Bahamas, we’re eager to set sail for our next port of call – the Dominican Republic. We will first visit Luperon, and we’re not sure how long we will stay there, or in the DR as a whole. But it will truly be a new culture, more so than anything we’ve experienced to this point, and the terrain will be breathtaking in a whole new way – mountains, waterfalls, rain forest. I absolutely cannot wait.

In the meantime, we are making the decision today or tomorrow to get the boat hauled out here for a few days for a bottom job (the days on the hard won’t count against our time here), or just start staging south. Getting the hull painted is something we need to do at some point this summer anyway, so if not here, we’ll do it in Puerto Rico.

For now, I’m sipping iced coffee at my favorite coffee shop here before I return our rental car. I’ll grab one more case of the locally brewed beer. And I’ll take one more blissfully hot and long shower at the marina before we cast lines tomorrow.

It’s the little things, isn’t it? I’ve come to appreciate living without them, and treasuring them.

65 Hours

Here Clarity sat, for seven days. Sure, the mooring field looks calm here – a day or two after the heavy winds subsided, the waters calmed, too.

65 Hours.

65 straight hours down below on the boat, on a mooring at Warderick Wells, in the Exumas Land and Sea Park.

The weather is our master, and we must obey.

It was the longest we’d been on the boat without a break – without sailing. When we crossed from Florida to the Bahamas, it was three and a half days before we set foot on land, but much of that time, we were topsides, the sails full, taking in the sun and the gentle breeze.

As Aaron studied the weather forecasts for the Exumas, he saw the predictions for the front – first the winds were going to be in the 30s, then the models boosted it to gusts in the 40s. We knew when it was going to hit, and had an idea of for how long it would stick around. We were mentally prepared for being tucked in.

The added challenge was the fact that we were in the middle of a connectivity dead zone. No cell signal. No Wi-Fi. No Internet. No streaming. Nothing but the videos we already owned and the chatter on the VHF radio. It was a whole new level of extended isolation.

It would make for a much more entertaining story if I told you that the cabin fever set in, that we were bouncing off the walls, that Claire demanded to swim to shore, or that Aaron or I or both of us lost our marbles. It would be understandable. 65 hours is A LOT of time in a small space, especially without the ability to venture further than the cockpit enclosure up top. (With sustained winds of 30-35 knots, walking anywhere on the deck was treacherous.)

The morning of the third day, I was definitely ready to get off the boat and stretch my legs. But truthfully, I could have managed another day. Really, we did just fine. A few days that weren’t packed to the gills with sailing and setting anchor and dinghy rides and hikes and swimming and snorkeling, was a welcome change. We had no idea of exhausted we were.

We did school time with Claire in the morning, as usual. Claire and I had marathon reading sessions and she and Aaron built epic Lego villages. Aaron and I each had a list of boat projects that had been pushed aside or put on hold for shore excursions, and we were able to take the time needed to attend to them patiently.

I read a book in a day and a half and baked a pie from scratch, down to the crust itself, not because I’m opposed to premade crusts, but simply because I don’t have access to any. And yes, we watched movies – but mostly after Claire went to sleep. To my complete amazement, she asked for videos less on the days we were stuck down below than she does in any other circumstance.

One thing that can definitely wreck the equilibrium in an instant is a bad mood, and Aaron and I made extra efforts to be patient and polite, with ourselves and Claire. We also made efforts to switch up settings in the space we do have down below – reading and playing with Claire in her room, doing meals and school in the salon, setting up movies and stuffed animal snuggles in our aft cabin, and escaping to the enclosed cockpit to read and/or enjoy a cup of coffee.  It’s amazing how much these simple changes in surroundings can reset your mood.

The one challenge I will tell you, however, is that we were in a serious state of water conservation. We picked up the mooring ball two days before the blow set in, with our aft water tank full and our forward tank about halfway. But in those first two days, we all showered after swimming. We washed off our snorkeling gear. I did laundry. Nothing crazy, but all things that take up a considerable amount of water.

In the mooring field with the winds so kicked up, the water wasn’t clear enough to run the watermaker without severely clogging our filters. So we kept an eye on the tanks, and about a day after the winds started, we were low. We made sure we had plenty to drink and I was economical in my usage for cooking and cleaning.

But showering was not an option. By the time we were able to get the watermaker back online, it had been three days. Luckily, when I provisioned back in the States, I bought baby wipes for these occasions – if our watermaker ever quit altogether in a place where we couldn’t get water, or we weren’t able to run it. Johnson & Johnson to the rescue.

These cold fronts seem to be a semi-regular occurrence in the Bahamas, at least for this time of year, and I’m sure our boat seclusion will happen again, probably soon. But rather than see these times as annoyances, I’m starting to see them as signs that we can really do this, this lifestyle, long term. These extended cold fronts can break cruisers, unable to mentally cope with the time being “stuck” down below, or frustrated that their travel timeline is delayed.

Aaron is vigilant about checking the immediate and extended forecasts every morning, often multiple times a day, keeping an eye on these developing cold fronts days before they hit and making sure we’re in the safest place for the blow. I make sure we have plenty of food for tasty meals and think through things to squash the cabin fever when it creeps up.

And then we just settle in down below and take advantage of the break from adventuring to recharge. We have no schedule. We have no timeline. We have nothing but time, together.

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.

Man-O-War: A Photo Journal

Man-O-War is a kaleidoscope of colors and sounds, heritage and community, that is the essence of island living.

Roughly 300 people live here year round – some work on the island, but most take the ferry to Marsh Harbor daily to work on the mainland. There’s a tiny little library next to a tiny little schoolhouse next to a tiny little post office, like a box of pastel crayons.

The houses are just as cute – yellow, purple, turquoise – with coconuts and conch shells lining the properties and golf carts parked outside. Water is sourced from cisterns that catch and store rain water.

Walk the main street off the marina and you’ll pass by friendly neighborhood cats, ducks quacking at the piers and swimming alongside turtles, cotton trees bobbing in the breeze, and shops that may or may not be open, depending on the owner’s plans for the day. You’ll most certainly meet at least one Albury – the family has been on the island almost from the beginning, generation after generation of boatbuilders, sailmakers and master woodworkers. It is a maritime town to its core.

As you head northwest on Queen’s Highway, the island narrows and at The Low Point, a slip of road and a picnic table is all that separates the Sea of Abaco from the Atlantic Ocean.

The air is fresher here in Man-O-War, the pace slower. Life is simpler and more vibrant, and pleasures come easy – like the slick of salt on your top lip from the spray of the steady ocean breeze.

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.

Time To Go

Our last trip to shore for a few final provisions before we set sail this evening!

Our last trip to shore for a few final provisions before we set sail this evening!

It’s been a lifetime of dreaming, years of planning, months of moving and refitting and working, and days of waiting to reach this point. Today is GO DAY!

Finally, the southwest winds have returned for a big enough window for us to cross to the Bahamas. We leave Riviera Beach tonight and sail across the Gulf Stream to reach the northwest edge of the Bahamas just after sunrise. Then, we’ll head to Great Sale Cay to anchor for the night before continuing to Green Turtle Cay in the Abacos the next day to clear customs.

The dropped pin shows Green Turtle Cay, where we will clear customs.

The dropped pin shows Green Turtle Cay, where we will clear customs.

I am like a kid on Christmas morning. I am like a Hallmark card, friends. Goals that seem a million miles away can be reached. Dreams can become realized. This life is a blessing.

We’ll see you on the flip side!

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.

Cruiser Christmas Carols

Image c/o RumShopRyan.com

We are used to Midwest Christmases – piles of snow, Santa coming down the chimney, mugs of hot cocoa and hot toddies, cuddling up by the fire… This year will be our first Christmas in the islands, and I’ve been having a hard time visualizing what that will be like and how I can make it as special for Claire as possible.

One of the things she loves to do is sing, so breaking out the Christmas carols seemed like a good place to start getting her (and us) excited for the upcoming season. The only problem is, many of them reference those same idyllic cozy winter settings we’ve enjoyed years past.

So, I reached out to the lovely ladies of the Women Who Sail Facebook group and asked them to help me rewrite some popular holiday tunes. While I wouldn’t dare change a thing in “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” (Claire’s absolute favorite), I think we’ve come up with some great renditions. If I can just get Aaron to strum along on his guitar, I know we’ll be singing these for months – hopefully on a sandy shore with a refreshing rum cocktail.

Cruiser Christmas Carols

12 Days of Christmas

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…
Twelve starfish sparkling
Eleven crabs a-crawling
Ten turtles trolling
Nine sharks a-swimming
Eight whales a-whirling
Seven dolphins diving
Six waves a rolling
*FIVE GOLDEN SHELLS*
Four moray eels
Three clownfish
Two anemones
And a coconut in a palm tree

 

Walkin’ in a Sun-Filled Wonderland (c/o Sandra Montgomery)

Halyards ring, are you listening?
On the waves, sun is glistening.
It’s a beautiful sight, we’re doing alright,
Basking in a sun-filled wonderland.

Gone away, is the cold wind
Here to stay is the warm wind
It’s a comforting breeze we live life with ease
Basking in a sun-filled wonderland.

On white beaches we will build a castle
And pretend that it is our new home
We will ask our friends to come and join us
Together on these lush lands we will roam.

Later on we’ll retire
with a rum by the fire
The stories we’ll trade, of memories made
Basking in a sun-filled wonderland.

 

Sail Together (Sleigh Ride)

Just hear those halyards jingle-ing
Ring ting tingle-ing too
Come on, it’s lovely weather
For a sail together with you

Outside the fish are playing
And friends are saying “Yoo Hoo”
Come on, it’s lovely weather
For a sail together with you

Giddy-yap giddy-yap giddy-yap
Let’s go
Let’s look at the view
We’re sailing in a wonderland of blue

Giddy-yap giddy-yap giddy-yap it’s grand
Just holding your hand
We’re gliding along with the song
Past the ribbons of warm pink sand

Our cheeks are nice and toasty
And comfy cozy are we
We’re snuggled up together like two
Birds of a feather would be

Let’s take the course before us
And sing a chorus or two
Come on, it’s lovely weather
For a sail together with you

 

Bright Christmas

I’m dreaming of a bright Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the blue waves glisten and children listen
To hear, sleigh bells on the bow

I’m dreaming of a bright Christmas
With every lantern that I light
May your days, may your days, may your days be filled with delight
And may all your Christmases be bright

 

Deck the Hulls

Deck the hulls with boughs of holly
Fa la la la la la la la la
Tis the season to be jolly
Fa la la la la la la la la

Don we now our suit and snorkel
Fa la la la la la la la la
Troll the ocean’s ancient coral
Fa la la la la la la la la

See the steady winds before us
Fa la la la la la la la la
Santa’s sleigh is sure to guide us
Fa la la la la la la la la

To an island filled with cheer
Fa la la la la la la la la
And our friends and family near
Fa la la la la la la la la

 

Let it Blow

Oh the weather outside is frightful
But your cabin’s so delightful
And since we’ve no place to go
Let it blow, let it blow, let it blow

It doesn’t show signs of slowing
But the rum down here’s a-flowing
The lights are turned way down low
Let it blow, let it blow, let it blow

When we finally kiss good night
How I’ll hate going out in the storm
But if you really hold me tight
The whole dinghy ride I’ll be warm!

The waves are slowly dying
And my dear, we’re still goodbye-ing
But as long as you love me so
Let it blow, let it blow, let it blow.