Cruiser Friendships and This Lifestyle: Redefined

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does your job challenge you?

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

Is there the possibility of upward mobility?

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

Do you feel that you are compensated appropriately?

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

Do you feel valued?

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

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

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

Do you ever feel like you want to quit?

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

Do you feel fulfilled?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kindergarten in Cabarete

Claire and Sarah, the founder of 3 Mariposas

There’s a magic that happens when school isn’t just a place you go, but the best part of your day. When you cherish your teachers as much as you love your classmates. When you become part of the culture of your community, not because of a lesson plan or a school assembly, but simply by the nature of those around you.

3 Mariposas Montessori has been that magic for Claire.

When we made the plan to stay in Cabarate for the height of hurricane season, enrolling Claire in school here was a top priority. We knew a classroom setting would be a nice break from homeschooling (for all of us), and also, we knew she would be immersed in the culture here in an authentic way. After reaching out to three or four schools in the area (Cabarete and Sosua are home to a diverse international community), 3 Mariposas Montessori seemed like a perfect fit. We enrolled Claire in the half-day program for their kindergarten class.

3MM was founded by Sarah Ludwig-Ross, a dreamer originally from the Midwest who has a wonderful vision and a contagious, happy aura. This video explains the mission of the school. Half of the students are accepted on full tuition and the other half receive full scholarships, many from La Cienaga, the neighborhood in Cabarete where the school is located.

Classes are taught in English, but students hear both English and Spanish throughout the day. For many of the students from the local community, Spanish is their first language, and some of the staff members who assist with the students speak only Spanish, though 3MM is supporting their study of English. Free play in the afternoons is inherently an enriching blend of both, and Claire’s classmates are from the Dominican Republic, the United States, Argentina and France, just to name a few countries.

Claire has two main teachers – Miss Patty and Miss Farah – and she loves them both dearly. Born in Italy, Patty spent much of her adult life in Michigan before joining 3MM. Her passion for teaching and for her students is clear from the moment you meet her. Farah was born and raised in Haiti and is fluent in Spanish, English, French and Creole. She is patient beyond comprehension, quiet but with such a commanding presence, and one of the kindest, most welcoming spirits we’ve ever met.

The school itself is a wonderland. Nestled on the edge of La Cienaga, the building is a turquoise and lime green oasis surrounded by lush trees and flowering vines. Classrooms are warm and inviting, with hardwood floors and powder blue walls, and they open out to a communal space unlike any we’ve seen in the States.

The students have freshly prepared meals, like handmade pasta, salad and chinola juice, in an outdoor lunchroom, and everyone participates in the clean-up. A smaller, treehouse-like version of the main building serves as the library, where Claire’s class has quiet time and reads together. Students can check out books and the collection includes texts in various languages. Claire recently signed out a French comic book.

All of these areas hug an open space that Claire never wants to leave. The backyard, for lack of a better word, has an obstacle course and a climbing wall. There’s a zipline and a cradle swing. Students and staff help maintain and collect eggs from the chicken coop at the back of the property, though the chickens saunter pretty much everywhere. And a koi pond is one of the newest additions to the school.

Claire has had so many enriching experiences at 3MM – from a field trip spent clearing trash in the local community to student-led presentations for Diversity Day. Claire’s Spanish vocabulary has grown considerably, as has her confidence in speaking it. She and her classmates have made erupting volcanoes, baked coconut cookies, learned about parallelograms, and followed the trail of a friendly neighborhood snake. And back at home, Claire sings Panama’m Tombe, a Haitian children’s song that she learned from Miss Farah, while doing most everything – swimming, coloring, falling asleep.

Claire started school on Aug. 21 and her last day is today, Dec. 1 – two weeks before the semester officially ends for a holiday break. Though it’s only been three-and-a-half months, this place has rooted itself in the hearts of all three of us. Somehow, I just know we’ll be back.

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.

Ready About

silly-goofThe hurricane season is just about over, and finally – finally – we’re about to make our way south.

Brunswick was a wonderful surprise to me, and though I’m ready to get moving again, I feel as I often do when we’re about to leave: “We’ve been here forever! It went by in a blink.”

I’ve heard the term “southern hospitality” many times, and while I’m pretty sure it’s a foreign concept in Florida, Georgia seems to have it in spades. From our walk to town on the first weekend we were here, the business owners extended a warmth that at once felt like you’re pulling a chair up to your grandmother’s kitchen table. The library was a frequent destination, as was the coffee and ice cream shop. And as you can imagine, Claire made fast friends wherever she went, if only for moment to share a twirl or two.

What’s really made this past month such a satisfying one, though, is the community here at our marina. Brunswick Landing Marina has long been a haven for cruisers, whether passing through for a few months to wait out hurricane season, or spending the better part of the year. The social calendar is packed, with the clubhouse as the hub of activity.

There are game nights and craft mornings, potluck dinners, and complimentary wine and appetizer evenings (three nights a week!). There are impromptu jam sessions, sail-sewing lessons and bread-making demonstrations, movie nights, and FREE BEER SEVEN DAYS A WEEK.

jam-session

Aaron sitting in on an impromptu jam session at the clubhouse

Claire is the darling in the middle of it all, plopping herself down on the laps of her bestest friends, showing them her latest paintings and telling them all about her day. Getting her back to the boat to get ready for bed usually requires a robust round of hugs.

Having the scheduled events here has been helpful, otherwise I think we would have worked nonstop through the month. It’s funny: Back when we hatched this crazy plan, a few people asked, “What will you do all day?” There is no end to the work that needs to get done, even just in the day-to-day household things, and rather than reminding ourselves to get back to the to-do list, we often have to remind ourselves to put it down for a bit.

When Claire wants to spell words, we spell whatever she wants to, in no particular order :)

When Claire wants to spell words, we spell whatever she wants to, in no particular order 🙂

There’s three meals a day to prepare, and the ongoing pile of dishes that all need to be hand-washed. Laundry for three piles up quickly, too, and when you live in a small space, there’s no leaving the beds unmade or the shelves untidied, since those are significant parts of your living space. Everything in it’s place; never so true as on a boat. Oh, and there’s daily lessons with Claire, art projects, books to read, games to play, outings. Actual work deadlines fit in there somewhere, too.

We’ve also accomplished a lot this past month on the boat, with Aaron taking the lead on the vast majority of the projects. He’s had a lot of wins – and some understandable frustrations, too, with days that seemed like all work and no payoff. But we continue to ready the boat for our cross over to the Bahamas, and slowly but surely, we’re getting there. Our brand new mainsail will certainly put some spark in our step from now on! A true luxury we never experienced with our last boat.

So, in a few days, we’ll cast lines and head south, first to Cumberland Island to anchor for a few days, and then back to Florida, where we’ll make our final preparations. We’re finally starting to put together a more specific cruising plan, but more on that in another post.

Tomorrow is Halloween, and our fellow cruisers here are excited beyond words to have a crazy four-year-old pirate robot trick-or-treat down the docks. Almost as excited as she is.