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.

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Roaches: You Can’t Live With ‘Em

Let me get two things out of the way.

  1. We do not currently have roaches and haven’t for awhile.
  2. I will not be posting any pictures with this post.

Before we moved aboard, I had read the horror stories on other cruising blogs and shuddered at the posts in the Facebook sailing groups. I was warned that in tropical climates with high humidity, like southern Florida and the Caribbean, roaches are more or less a fact of life. And I said to Aaron, like the novice cruiser that I am, “That will never happen to us.”

The truth is, sometimes, roaches happen to clean people.

It is with the beaten down soul of someone who was forced to face a real phobia that I admit that Clarity developed a cockroach problem. First, let me clarify that ours were of the German variety. Not the giant, small-rodent-sized black abominations that I witnessed in college in Baltimore. These were much smaller – but what they lacked in size, they made up for in resilience. They are the most difficult type to exterminate, which we learned after repeated defeats.

Likely, we gained these unwanted visitors in south Florida right before we crossed over to the Bahamas, when I did my three-month provisioning runs. Over the course of two or three days, I bought hundreds of dollars of food, and I meticulously repackaged it all. I got rid of all cardboard and used so many plastic bags that I should have bought stock in Ziploc. I rinsed and sprayed all produce. I took the labels off of every single can, wiping them down with solution and getting off as much glue as I could.

It seems that perhaps, I wasn’t quick enough. Or maybe it wasn’t from my provisioning at all – maybe when we were still at the dock in Fort Pierce, a few wandered over from another boat and climbed their way up our lines. We’ll never know. But all it takes is two, either fully formed or eggs, to make a problem.

I noticed one in our galley shortly after we arrived in the Abacos, and truthfully, as I mentioned these were much smaller than what I’m used to, we weren’t sure what they were at first. Not that we didn’t try to kill them right away – we did – but we thought a few beetles had found their way in through the hatches. When they kept appearing, not every day, but every few days, we investigated further to determine their identity. And then I died a small death.

There are a few other points of clarification I feel the need to make, now that everyone is imagining us living life with creatures scuttering about. First, they were localized to the galley and my side of the aft cabin, which is right off of the galley (lucky me). They were never anywhere near Claire’s room. Second, they are nocturnal. Aaron and I experienced them (oh joy), but Claire never did. Third, we never had a full-on infestation. But really, is any number of these okay? I think not.

The problem got worse before it got better, because as our lines of defense failed, their population grew. Another fun fact about roaches – they eat anything. Crumbs. Dust particles. Dead skin cells. And if it comes down to it, each other. Over the course of three months, we tried Raid, roach motels, a Borax and sugar solution, poison tablets, other natural remedies. Everything. Finally, we found a gel here that I had to apply in every single nook and cranny of the boat. Hours and hours of applications over the course of two days – because cruising boats are praised for their endless storage areas.

The problem was significantly reduced after that first round, but not completely solved. (Another fun fact I learned about pest extermination – even with the most effective treatments, you have to do at least two rounds, to make sure you’ve killed any juveniles that have managed to hatch after the first round.) So a few weeks later, I repeated the process all over again. And finally, success.

There’s an even more effective gel available in the States, the Advion Gel Bait – it’s the absolute go-to line of defense – and when our friends visited us in Georgetown, I had them bring us a package as a precautionary measure, as we will be heading further south into the tropics. Never again will I worry about being too cautious.

My compulsive approach to cleaning the galley has just become a way of life now. I spend as much time every day cleaning the galley as I do cooking in it. I wipe down the stovetop after every single use. I never let any dirty dishes sit in the sink – ever. Every time I do the dishes, I wipe the sinks dry, since roaches are attracted to moisture. I clean the countertops so many times during the day that it may be bordering on obsession. I check the cabinets for crumbs every few days, even though all food items are double-bagged at the least. Sometimes, I don’t even realize I’m wiping down the floors again until I’m halfway through doing it.

In my closet, I still have my clothes in large plastic bags on the shelves. Even at this point, with no reason to worry, I shudder at the memory that a few had been crawling through my clothes. I’m just not ready yet to put them back out. Also, going through every skein of yarn I had stored near the bed to make sure they were bug-free will forever be on my list of least-fun afternoons.

I continue to live in a constant state of paranoia. That black speck on the counter? Has to be a roach. That shadow at the corner of the floor? Roach. The breeze rustling my hair across my upper arm? Roach. The sudden loud noise from the other room? Aaron must have killed another roach. I’d like to say that these scenarios are unfounded fears. They are not.

I suppose, if there is a silver lining in this, it’s that I was forced to face my phobia. I tasked myself with applying that gel, knowing full well what I would inevitably find as I did my best to account for every last square inch. At the end, I didn’t scream for Aaron’s help every time I saw one. I dealt with it; I moved on. I do, however, look forward to finding other ways to challenge myself.

We have heard time and time again that the first year of cruising is the hardest. It certainly does seem like any and all obstacles are being thrown at us. But what can you do but work through them?

Livin’ the dream! That’s been our tagline these days. What – a minor roach problem isn’t part of your vision of living the dream? Ours either.

On the flip side, now that that issue is out of the way, Aaron and Claire are dealing with a bout of poisonwood – yay! But we are putting plans together for our departure from Georgetown, likely this weekend, heading south to the Turks. Getting out into open water, filling the sails and slicing through waves at a comfortable heel – that is truly the best medicine, and always a soul-fulfilling reminder of why we do this.

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.