Financial Realities: Two Years In

No money, mo’ problems! Okay, it’s not quite that simple.

It’s hard to believe that we’ve been in Grenada for three months already, though in many ways, we feel rooted here. This community, both cruisers and locals, is so welcoming, and each time we experience something new here, we understand why it’s a mecca for so many boaters.

But it’s also been a challenging few months, with a lot of introspection. Speaking frankly, Aaron and I have both been slaves to the almighty dollar, working hard to get some money in the bank, as our cruising reserves were sorely depleted when we dropped the hook here in July.

This has very much driven some tough conversations about what this upcoming cruising season would look like for us, or if there would even be one. But through some come-to-Jesus moments , we’ve realized how well we set ourselves up for cruising longevity with more than just dollars in the bank. More on that in a bit. First, how did we get here?

I have found that one of the most common misconceptions about this lifestyle is that it is cheap. It is definitely cheaper than living on land in the States, but at the same time, you’re not working a full-time job (or in many households, two full-time jobs) to support the family.

In many ways, this lifestyle has felt more like hemorrhaging money.

Typically, cruisers start out with a cruising kitty – money they saved while they were hatching their plan, to live off of while traveling. Others, like us, saved while also developing skills and businesses to allow us to work along the way. Sitting at our condo back in Oak Park, Ill., Aaron and I put together a spreadsheet of definite costs we knew we would incur each month: the (very) low-interest mortgage for whatever boat we purchased, cell phone and data plans to stay connected, groceries, general boat maintenance, and the initial refit costs for our next boat, as well as added in padding for the unknowns.

We also estimated a conservative income from working remotely (both he and I) and factored in money from the sale of our first boat, the Pearson 36-2, in Chicago. The proceeds from the sale of our condo and two cars would go toward purchasing the new boat.

Gorgeous St. George’s. It’s easy to set up camp in one place for awhile when it’s as beautiful as this is.

We thought we had ourselves pretty well set for two to three years of cruising, at least. However, when Clarity dropped anchor in Grenada back in July, our cruising kitty was completely gone, and we were actively living off of all that we are able to bring in each month, which needed to be more. This was due to a number of reasons.

First, our Pearson did not sell in a timely manner. As a result, not only did we not have the proceeds from the sale, but we continued to pay insurance, mortgage and storage fees on it, all while it depreciated in value. We were finally able to sign a contract this past spring, having to let her go at a price that was much lower than we would have liked. Not having the financial burden of her each month was the only “windfall.”

Clarity also managed to rack up unforeseen costs well into the tens of thousands, both seasons we’ve been out. We planned for boat maintenance and knew things would need to be replaced or updated when we purchased her, but the saildrive, and all of its associated costs, was a surprise. Then, replacing the entire rigging was another financial burden that came sooner than we thought.

Huge jobs like this not only add up in the parts, or even the labor, but the days on the hard, when we have to pay both for where the boat sits, and also for a place for us to live in the meantime. (Of course, this is always in beautiful Caribbean islands where the steady influx of vacationers kicks up the per-night rates.) Then, there’s the international shipping to get the parts wherever we are. The import taxes and customs fees. The list goes on and on.

So many amazing opportunities here thanks to the active cruising community! Here’s Claire and her friend Layla relaxing after a morning at sailing camp.

Other non-boat costs have been thrown into the mix, too. Medical bills we are still getting from Claire’s surgery to have the bean removed from her nose in the Bahamas. Unplanned flights back to the States for family emergencies. And a handful more.

The day-to-day of cruising is not what eats away at your bank account. It’s everything else.

Another factor for us is that, while we do have money in savings that’s smartly invested and actively managed, we are determined not to use it. We are determined to live within our means (income) and use what we have invested to help us transition into “the next chapter,” whatever and whenever that is. We also have a healthy college fund for Claire that we set up at least six years ago that has been steadily increasing, so no matter what we decide as a family in the coming years, we can support whatever path she decides for herself.

So, as our boat swayed in the steady trade winds here in southern Grenada, we had to seriously look at our finances and come up with a plan. Amazingly, after the “What are we going to do?” nights with some impressive wine consumption, we realized that the smart decisions we made three or four years ago, while living part time on our first sailboat, would pay for themselves tenfold now.

As many of you know, I’ve been doing contract editing ever since I had Claire, and I worked hard to cultivate relationships before we left that would allow me to bring in money as needed. The key was finding the right connections that would continue to jive with our fluid lifestyle, which was no small feat.

Also, while still working full-time, Aaron put in long hours on the side preparing himself for work that might prove beneficial while we sail. Over the course of two months of studying and classes at the U.S. Maritime Academy (and 15 years of on-the-water experience racing sailboats), he got his master captain’s license and then began working part time for a sailing school and charter business taking groups out sailing. He then studied to become a marine electrician, becoming American Boat and Yachting Council (ABYC)-certified, and set up his own business, Clarity Marine Systems. CMS took off quickly and successfully, with Aaron regularly working in yards and marinas in the Chicagoland area.

One of Clarity Marine’s biggest jobs completed in Chicago, the 70-foot racing sled on which Aaron did a complete re-wire.   (photo by Skyway Yacht Works)

To dig us out of our hole, so to speak, all we needed was some time in one place (hurricane season!) to allow us to draw on our skill sets more heavily. Here in Grenada, I increased my work load (again, so grateful to have cultivated relationships with clients that allow me to increase or decrease my docket as needed) and Aaron started to look into marine electrical work, which there has proven to be a bounty of here. We’ve started the process of re-establishing Clarity Marine Systems as a registered and insured Grenadian business, a requirement to legally work here. He’s been intentionally making his own connections with cruisers, marinas and boatyards in preparation for next year.

We are both very busy and tag-teaming homeschool with Claire, not to mention juggling one “car.” We are now in a position that we’re keeping a healthy family dynamic while slowly but surely building back our cruising kitty. We finally pulled out of the black hole our repairs in Puerto Rico put us in, are living comfortably off of what we make each month, and have started saving again.  But at least for the next month or so, we will stay in Grenada and continue at this pace.

As hurricane season wraps up, we could leave now and cruise on the money currently coming in, but it would require us to keep up the same pace we’re doing now while we are on the move, which would be exhausting and challenging. And truthfully, we want to enjoy the islands we visit, really dig in, rather than having to count every penny or feather in adventuring just on weekends. We want to rent cars and take tours and enjoy a nice meal occasionally and buy fun toys we would like. That is truly our happy place, making smart financial decisions, living small, but also allowing ourselves that flexibility.

Also, we just know there will be big-ticket boat items that will come up this season, as they have every season. We’ll likely need to replace our battery bank during the next year, which will cost thousands, and I’m sure that bell will toll sooner than we’d expect. We need to be financially prepared.

We’ve been going at a million miles an hour since we arrived here in Grenada, but we make sure family time is still our No. 1 priority.

Grenada has been an interesting culmination point for so many cruisers. We’ve seen several families put their boat on the hard and go back to ‘land’ to work for a few months or even a few years to replenish the cruising kitty. Some of them come back, but more often, the boat is put up for sale a year later. We’ve also seen so many “bon voyage” parties, the dream of sailing the world finished, and the crew ready to move on to the next chapter.

It’s also hard to hear when family members are not all on the same page about the decision – some want to keep sailing, but others don’t, so they’re forced to throw in the towel.

One thing I’m so grateful for is that Aaron and I are on the exact same page – we are not done cruising. We have not checked that box off. There is so much more to see. We are both fully invested in this lifestyle – we just want to do it in the way that makes the most sense for our family.

So, here’s the plan, as it stands right now. As cruising season gets in full swing, we’ll head north for an abbreviated season, hitting the islands we missed last season and spending more time in the ones we loved. I’ll keep working, but with a lighter workload, and Aaron will pick up jobs on boats as they present themselves along the way.

Then, we’ll get back down to Grenada early, before next hurricane season starts. This will allow Aaron finish setting up Clarity Marine Systems as a Grenadian business and be ready for the cruising and charter boats to start packing in.

Finally, after three months of a lot of work and a lot of stressful, hair-pulling, emotionally taxing conversations, we’ve come up with a plan that keeps us out on the water comfortably as a family, which is really my only priority. My only true goal, that trumps all the rest.

Let’s. Just. Keep. Doing. This.

Who can complain about a long day of work when you’re treated to breathtaking sunsets like these?!

 

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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.

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.