Tough Sails and a Road Trip to San Juan

“Should we head out there? It looks pretty rough… Is that a storm? Maybe we’ll just wait it out at the pool.”

Imagine doing the moguls on the ocean. That’s what sailing in Puerto Rico has been like for us.

As our boat sits calmly in a slip in Puerto del Rey Marina in Fajardo, on the east coast of Puerto Rico, waiting to get hauled on Tuesday to replace the saildrive (yay!), Aaron and I are breathing a sigh of relief. This is a milestone for us, to be sure – plans to get Clarity fixed up here have been many months in the making. But the hops along Puerto Rico’s coast have done us in. Our time in the marina, while busy, will be a nice break from out there. We also left Clarity at anchor a week ago and took a three-day road trip to Old San Juan (see pictures at the end of this post!). It was a wonderful reprieve.

The first challenge has been that we haven’t been able to sail – not without the motor. For most of our time, we have been easting along the southern coast. As a result, we’ve been pointed directly into the trades with the wind on our nose, which makes popping sails almost impossible. “But you’re a sailboat!” you say. “Just tack your way back and forth, take a little longer, but actually sail!” We have definitely been motorsailing most every leg. But there have been another few components to consider: waves and swell.

The swell and waves have been kicked up for every. single. sail. we’ve done. Aaron has been diligent in making sure that we’re taking advantage of the best weather windows to put miles under our belt, but that has meant getting out there in 4-and-a-half to six-foot waves, rather than eight or nine, or higher. Also, as we’ve been doing coastal sailing, the period between waves has been extremely short – six to seven seconds – hence it feeling like we’re doing the moguls. When the sea state is confused, well, that’s just the cherry on top. Oh, and when we’re pointed head to wind, and the waves are up, our speed is way down. Awesome.

As much as we’d love to alter course and just sail, we want to be as efficient as possible to keep the seasickness at bay.

That’s been another lovely factor to pretty much every hop we’ve done. I’ve come a long way since Aaron and I started living aboard full-time, and I can tolerate a much more kicked-up sea state than I used to. Unfortunately, I have learned that I can’t take any drugs. Even the ones that are advertised as non-drowsy render me useless, and then I can’t help sail the boat or manage Claire. The homeopathic tricks also don’t work for me at all. So, I’ve developed a method wherein I wind up feeling mildly nauseated and have a pretty bad headache, but don’t actually toss my cookies or become incapacitated.

Rule 1: Do not go down below under any circumstances. At all. Ever.

Rule 2: Up top, stay in the fresh air.

For an hour-long hop, it’s not an issue. For a five-hour sail, it’s more challenging, or boring, depending on how you look at it. It’s compounded by the fact that Claire gets very seasick, too, when it’s wavy and swelly. Aaron and I have also learned the hard way a method that works best for her.

We pull anchor at 5 or 5:30 a.m. and move her from the v-berth to our aft cabin. We give her some Dramamine and she goes back to sleep, allowing us to focus on sailing the boat and limiting her time awake in junky seas. Once she wakes, she comes up to join us and stays up. But, there’s no screen time. No reading. No coloring. She can do nothing that requires her to focus on something other than the horizon. So unfortunately, the sails for her, even when we’ve managed to keep her seasickness at bay, have not been much fun.

The final element to these sails has been a non-stop need to scan for fishing pots. Some were well-marked and easy to spot, but others were not, and there have been at least a few lines out for every sail we’ve done. Luckily, we managed to avoid fouling a pot in our prop.

Once we get the boat fixed up for the season, we will have a bit more easting to do to make it over to the Virgin Islands, which we’re looking forward to. Then, it’s one more east haul through the Anegada Passage before we make it to the Leeward Islands and months of glorious, calm, beam-reach sailing.

There’s a quote by Brooks Atkinson, “Land was created to provide a place for boats to visit.” I’m happy to take in some land for awhile.

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Puerto Rico: One Week In

Princess Claire takes the stage in the Parguera town square

Truthfully, we didn’t really know what to expect when we arrived in Puerto Rico.

Aaron had done research on the areas we planned to travel to, and we had both reached out to people we knew who were already here, to get a pulse on things. But the news reports and social media blasts ping-ponged between “We have no help! Things are dire!” and “Puerto Rico is bouncing back!” We still felt like we were sailing in blind.

From our first stop in Puerto Real on the west coast, the damage from Maria has been ever-present. Wrecked and abandoned boats clung to the mangroves in the bays, piles of debris lined some of the alleys and highways. Some businesses were still shuttered.

But also from our first night here, we were surprised – lights were twinkling, towns seemed to be bustling. Most importantly, everyone was celebrating, as we unknowingly arrived the weekend of Three Kings’ Day, an important part of the Christmas holiday celebration here.

The towns and cities that we visited along the west coast are more or less up and running, with electricity (albeit spotty sometimes, and backed up by generators when needed), water and the fastest cell connection I’ve had since before we were in the DR. The cosmetic damage is apparent, but good bones are there, too. As we rounded the cape to the south coast, we found the areas to be thriving. And seeing stores stocked with some of our favorite things from the States – Twizzlers, anyone! – has been a treat.

Aaron and I have never been to Puerto Rico and I’m realizing that this is may be a blessing. The mountains on the west coast are beautiful, varying shades of brown and a bit greener toward the north. I can imagine that they were much more lush before Maria, but they are still breathtaking.

While anchored off the southwest town of Parguera, we spent four days snorkeling the turquoise waters around the mangrove islands, reveling in the soft sand and watching the butterflies and sandpipers weave in and out of the little mangrove forests.

One night, we packed into Coconut and rode out to a nearby bioluminescent bay. It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. The water behind our prop was like glow-in-the-dark paint, florescent arcs circling the dinghy as we splashed. When we were completely still and looked down, it was as though we were staring into an underwater night sky filled with thousands of lightning bugs. Claire was transfixed. We all were.

I have no idea if those mangrove islands were greener five months ago, if the bird population was more plentiful. And I don’t know if the bioluminescent bay was brighter before Maria. But I do know that visiting it was an experience I’ll never forget.

We made landfall in Puerto Rico in the area least impacted by Maria, and as we continue east along the southern coast, we know the damage will worsen. Ponce is our next big stop, and after that, Salinas, where, as I’m typing this, they are still without power.

As we were crossing the Mona from Samana, DR, I was excited, but I was also scared that I would miss the DR dreadfully. I do miss it, but Puerto Rico has surprised me. The people we’ve met have been so kind, the places we’ve visited beautiful in their own right. We sail tomorrow morning for Ponce – who knows what adventures await.

Samana for Holiday Season

This past month has been just the reintroduction to cruising life that we needed to fuel our fires for adventure.

Truthfully, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel when handed in the keys to our Cabarete rental and moved back on board in Luperon. We had settled in Cabarete and made a comfortable life for ourselves there. As much as I was ready to travel and see new things, I couldn’t help but remember our hardships from the first year, specifically the last sail we had done, crossing from Turks and Caicos to the DR. I still shudder thinking about that sail.

We provisioned and readied the boat, waiting for the first weather window to Samana, and we jumped on it, tossing lines at around 1 a.m. to begin our passage in calm seas. The 30-hour sail east and around to Samana Bay was just perfect. The seas were settled enough that Claire and I avoided getting seasick on our first passage out in months – a miracle! And the winds were enough to allow us to sail with the engine off for almost the entire trip. We pulled into our slip at Puerto Bahia Marina at around 8 a.m. and settled in for a wonderful three weeks of luxury while we waited for our window to cross to Puerto Rico.

Puerto Bahia Marina was true decadence, with more than five pools at our disposal, a gorgeous open-air lobby, a billiard’s room, a kid’s club, tennis courts, restaurants and more, all at a reasonable daily rate. We rented a car and drove to El Limon to hike to the biggest waterfall in the DR, enjoying a well-deserved late lunch in Las Terrenas afterward. We sailed across the bay to anchor in Los Haitises National Park for two nights and enjoyed absolute paradise. We swam off the back of the boat, paddled in breathtaking bays and up rivers through mangrove forests. We explored caves and took an epic dinghy ride to Paraiso Cano Hondo, an eco-resort carved into the mountainside on the edge of the park.

We celebrated Christmas with dear cruising friends and spent New Year’s Eve dancing like crazy twentysomethings with old friends and new friends we had met in Cabarete who came to ring in the new year with us.

And as we recuperated after our celebrations, the weather gods aligned, and our window to cross to Puerto Rico opened up. Crossing the Mona Passage is something we had read horror stories about, something I, at least, was dreading. There are numerous sites that explain what makes the Mona so treacherous far better than I could succinctly impart here. Even in the best of weather windows, we were told, be prepared to be uncomfortable. And as usual, anything could happen out there – as it had for our friends just a week prior.

But once again, we were blessed with a wonderful passage. We left our slip at Puerto Bahia at 3 p.m. and sailed out of the bay with a beautiful sunset in our wake. The winds were light, which is part of what made it a desirable weather window, so we motorsailed for the duration of the 24-hour run. And sure, the seas were confused and uncomfortable at times, with some bigger swells – Claire and I both felt it. But in the big picture, it was as uneventful as we could have hoped for. During our night watches, a bright moon and starry sky lit the way. We rounded Isla de Desecheo in the early afternoon and dropped the hook in Puerto Real, Puerto Rico well before sunset.

I was sad to leave the Dominican Republic. It’s a country that has settled in our souls, where we felt at home, and where every place we found was more beautiful and more memorable than the last. We made wonderful friends there and made that invisible transition from visiting to just being. As we readied the boat for these passages, though, my wanderlust kicked in, my desire to see new places and explore and get out there.

That sadness melted away because of a simple fact that became so clear. We are not done with the DR. We will be back – maybe for next hurricane season, maybe to set up camp when we decide we are done cruising. I don’t know in what way, but I know the DR is already written into what’s to come.

For now, a whole new season of adventure is off to a perfect start.

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.

So, what now?

Claire playing hopscotch on the sandbags on Cabarete Beach, two days after Hurricane Irma rolled through.

It’s a question we’ve been getting a lot lately. A question we’ve asked ourselves a lot lately. Really, it’s been a common theme for the last three months.

So what now? Who knows. This hurricane season has been the epitome of anything goes, living life as it comes at you.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written more than a Facebook update. I’d start to write about getting settled in Cabarete, and then Hurricane Irma came. I tried to get my thoughts down about that, and then Hurricane Maria came.

Yep, we had two hurricanes in the DR this season, bringing our grand total to three hurricanes in 13 months (the third being Matthew at the beginning of October last season). The season is basically done, but our luck is astounding, so who knows what might happen. I do know that there are things we can check off of the bucket list now that I didn’t even know were on it.

The entrance to Playa Grande in Luperon, just a few hours after the worst of Irma had passed.

What can I say about the hurricanes. The first, Irma, was awful – not so much during, but the preparation and stress beforehand. I flew to Chicago for my grandmother’s funeral the weekend before it hit. While I spent the time with my family, Aaron had to do all of the boat prep himself, which is a massive job, all while managing Claire. (A million thank yous to the Luperon community for offering any help Aaron needed, with the boat and with Claire, while flying solo.) I caught the last flight back into Puerto Plata before they closed down the airport. Yes, I flew into an oncoming hurricane, and didn’t even question it. You do these crazy things as a parent.

At the last minute, we decided to ride out Hurricane Irma with the Moxie crew at Casa del Sol, a hotel in Luperon just a five-minute drive from the bay. The owner was unbelievably gracious and her daughter and niece were so sweet to our kiddos. Believe it or not, I have such fond memories of those two days, you know, despite the hurricane.

We rode out Irma at a hotel in Luperon near our boat with our dear friends on s/v Moxie, not sure how close the eye was going to come to shore, and not sure how Clarity would fare in this hurricane hole that so many people had said was the safest in the Caribbean. Luperon was true to its reputation. At no point, even during the height of the storm, did I feel unsafe in our hotel room, and the boat made it through with no issues. Sure, we lost power, running water and cell service – but we were fine. In an amazing feat of parenting by both me and Aaron, Claire even called it the “best day ever!”

What? ANOTHER hurricane? That’s just whack.

Seeing how things progressed during Irene, we weren’t as concerned when Maria started developing a week later and tracking toward the DR. Still, preparations needed to be made at the boat once again. We also decided to ride out the storm at our condo just off the beach in Cabarete, an hour and a half away, so we also had to prepare there. And of course, as luck would have it, my mother had just flown in to visit us and was given the unexpected gift of experiencing a hurricane while in town. Maria stayed enough offshore for us to once again only experience tropical storm winds (as opposed to hurricane force), and while there was a lot more rain, the wind gusts weren’t as strong. The power went out, but the back-up generator for our condo development kicked on immediately. The boat, once again, handled Maria beautifully with Aaron’s careful arrangement of two anchors, and the mooring, which we had made earlier in the season and consisted of two 50-gallon drums of concrete, buried in the mud.

Aside from some flooding and downed trees, the DR weathered the hurricanes with few problems and everything was back to normal in days. However, as everyone knows, the rest of the Caribbean was not as lucky and suffered major devastation – especially our planned cruising grounds for this coming season. Come November, we had planned to be back on the boat readying her for sailing, and to sail to Samana, on the east coast of the DR, as soon as possible. From there, the plan was to head over to Puerto Rico to replace our saildrive (remember that awesome problem from last season?). Once that was done, we would provision and continue on to the Spanish Virgin Islands, the BVIs and beyond!

The waves on the beach at our condo turned into raging rapids at the height of Maria. The surge made it up to the lawn in between the beach and our building, but did not reach our condo.

Or not.

So what now?

First things first, with our cruising plans completely blown out of the water, we decided to extend our stay in Cabarate by a month, until Dec. 1. I’ll write another post soon on how life has played out here, but with no plan yet on how to proceed once we were back on Clarity, keeping Claire in a school she loves, staying in a place we love, with our amazing community here, both locals and cruisers, was a no-brainer.

Stay in Cabarete longer? But we’re so miserable here…

Aaron started researching any other options of locations to replace our saildrive – something we absolutely had to do to feel confident sailing any substantial distances. Though Puerto del Rey, where we had planned to have the work done in Puerto Rico, only suffered minor damage during Maria, it’s been unclear whether having the work done would be realistic. A marina on the south side of the DR has a big enough lift for us and their staff is certified for the type of work we need. As Aaron continues his conversations with both places, where we decide to get the work done will become clearer.

Unfortunately, in a really sad turn of events, my stepmother passed away suddenly a few weeks ago due to a stroke, and I was reminded again of one of the big challenges of living this lifestyle – being so far away from family in times of need. I flew back to Chicago last-minute to spend time with my dad while Aaron again held down the fort here. Two deaths and two hurricanes in roughly three months. I think we’ve had enough.

So, here’s what we do know. Once we move back on board Dec. 1, we will provision the boat and make final preparations for sailing, including installing some new navigation systems Aaron put together and I brought back with me from the States, and getting the bottom cleaned. (There is some serious growth on the hull, with Clarity hanging out in the Luperon Bay, immobile, for six months. I can’t believe it’s been six months!!)

Then, when the boat is ready and we get a favorable weather window, we will sail to the Puerto Bahia Marina in Samana. Likely, we will spend Christmas and New Year’s there, exploring the peninsula, before moving on to either the south coast of the DR or Puerto Rico at the beginning of the new year.

After that will be very touch and go. Some amazing resources have been created by cruising friends of ours on s/v Scallywag with SailorsHelping.org to help us cruisers get the most updated information on how the Caribbean islands that were affected by this season’s hurricanes are recovering. This will help determine our route, as will the availability of dependable WiFi, which I need to continue working remotely.

It’s a common saying in cruising life that you experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and this hurricane season was no exception. We’re ready to say goodbye to our life on land, shake off the dust, and get back out to sea.

Where to? Who knows…. Isn’t that part of the fun?

Driving in the DR

Too soon? She’s pretty tall for her age.

Imagine that you are in a street racing video game. Add livestock.  Add many potholes. Include lots of motorcycles that don’t follow any rules of the road. Prize for winning? You get to do it again tomorrow.

Driving in the DR is absolute insanity, and each area of the country has its own quirks. It’s like unlocking different areas and levels within the game. Luperon and the surrounding country roads are more rural, so way more livestock crossings. Also, the roads are terrible, i.e. constant potholes. Like doing the moguls with your car. Santo Domingo? At least five lanes of gridlock traffic each way, roadway signs that make no mention of the actual road or area to which you are exiting, and everywhere is a turn lane – in either direction – including sudden u-turns. Oh, and a steady chorus of honking, as leaning on your horn is as commonplace as slamming on your brakes. On the flip side, driving in the mountains has you doing so many switchbacks that your brakes start smoking, making your kiddo ask why the car smells funny.

Here’s a video to give you an idea, and then after, we’ll include some rules of the road to make your adventures as successful and fulfilling as ours have been.

Sadly, this photo does not capture the elusive fifth lane, to the right of the truck.

Okay, so now that that leisurely Sunday drive through a local town is out of the way, here are some specific guidelines that you can follow regardless of where in the DR you are driving:

  • Two-lane roads are really three-lane roads, with the middle lane marker being a free-for-all third lane for passing, though sometimes people also pass on the shoulder, though it’s usually not a shoulder, per say, but more like a ditch. So a five-lane road then. The two actual lanes, the middle passing lane, and the less-established shoulder lane in each direction.
  • Traffic lights are optional. Don’t feel like waiting? Merge right out into oncoming traffic whenever you feel ready. Others will certainly get out of the way.
  • I’ve seen some red signs that look like stop signs but nobody seems to stop at them so I think they are lawn ornaments.
  • Drinking while driving – technically illegal. Will you get pulled over for it? Nah. At the gas stations here, they sell cold beer and will open it for you and put it in a little paper bag for your trip. So thoughtful! Besides, the police have better things to check your car for, like weapons and drugs.
  • Park wherever you want. Literally. I mean, the cabs will actually pull to a complete stop in middle of the main lane of a two-lane road to let customers out. And they may wait there a few minutes to see if anyone else wants to get in. You’re not in a rush anyway, right?
  • I think we’ve seen some speed limit signs from time to time, but they were in kilometers anyway, and who can be expected to convert from miles that quickly? Besides, everyone follows the general speed of traffic anyway. And that speed makes driving and drinking a cup of coffee or a cerveza at the same time next to impossible.
  • The motorcycle is always right. They outnumber you. They will buzz past within inches of you at any and all opportunity.

Some things you will likely have to slow down or stop for at some point:

I have no idea what they’re selling. I’ll just stop right here in the middle of the road to find out.

  • Cows
  • Horses
  • Chickens
  • Goats
  • Pigs
  • Donkeys
  • Motorcycles
  • People carrying produce on their heads
  • Potholes
  • The national police wielding rifles at a random check point

Some things you will pass while driving:

  • An old man trying to sell fish hanging from a wooden staff
  • A younger man trying to sell puppies
  • Women trying to sell themselves. Also, women trying to sell stuffed unicorns
  • Men urinating
  • All livestock listed above
  • Rows of vendors all selling the same thing at the same price (roasted nuts, handmade rugs, flip-flops, produce, etc.)

Now, navigating the car through the DR roads is one thing. The car itself is a whole different ballgame. If you are planning to rent a car from one of the many locals, here are a few know-before-you-go tips:

  • It’s best to rent from someone that you were referred to by someone you trust.  For us, the cruising community provided this.
  • Your gas tank will start on empty, likely without even enough gas to get to the gas station.
  • You windshield will likely be cracked.
  • The tires may or may not be flat.  And if they aren’t, one might be tomorrow.
  • Think of the “Check Engine Light” as decoration.
  • Custom car alarms cause cars to lock themselves. Whether or not your keys are in them. Learned that one the hard way.
  • If the car doesn’t start, simply open the hood and bang on the battery and starter a few times. Works like a charm.
  • Engine overheating? No problema. Pour water on it (or perhaps in it?)
  • Sometimes your headlights will work. Sometimes your lowlights will work. Sometimes your dash lights will work. Sometimes they might all work at the same time.
  • Keep some duct tape with you in case the rearview mirror or side mirrors fall off.

I feel confident that once you master driving here, you can drive anywhere. Hell, in the States, with the order and structure of traffic grids and speed limits and dependable drivers, you could probably drive and do your taxes at the same time.

While everything included in this helpful guide is 100% true and has been experienced by us, there is a rhythm to driving here that is attainable with practice. Aaron has become quite skilled at it and is fully comfortable behind the wheel, and I’m slowly but surely putting some miles under my belt. So get out there and try it! Just be very cautious. Auto and liability insurance here, well, that’s a whole other story…

DR Road Trip

In the past week, we drove 328 miles. We spent the night in four different places. Aaron became an expert at traversing the crazy Dominican roadways, Claire was a complete trooper (and a backseat driver), and we really, truly saw the Dominican Republic.

When we decided to park the boat in Luperon for hurricane season, Aaron and I were on the same page about taking advantage of this amazing opportunity to drive the country. Luperon has proven to be a rich home base for us, but there is so much more here – such diversity in landscape and community – we decided to stretch the budget a bit and explore as a family.

We had about a week before Claire started school in Cabarete, so we planned a pretty aggressive route – south to the lush mountain town of Jarabacoa, through the countryside to the crazy metropolis of Santo Domingo, and then back up to the breathtaking north coast.

A combination of AirBnB and Marriott hotel points allowed us to find cost-effective lodging and we wheeled and dealed with the local Luperon car rental contact, Franklin, for the Suzuki 4-wheel-drive beast that is ours through Nov. 1. That part, alone, is a story for another time.

The pictures below tell the story better than I ever could in words. But in a few, we jumped and slid down waterfalls, rode horses through the mountains and swam in a riverside pool. We had fried chicken sushi and pizza with fresh strawberries and breathed in the invigorating scents of greenery all around us.

We took advantage of the sheer decadence of Uber after Aaron battled traffic getting into Santo Domingo that can only be described as complete insanity. We walked to the point of jelly legs through the Zona Colonial and chased some cats through the ruins of a 16th century monastery. Aaron and I reveled in craft beers while playing board games and yes, we went to Ikea.

Not all of it was perfect, of course. We took a quick drive through Bonao, a more gritty city south of Jarabacoa, and decided to continue on our way. And with nerves on overdrive, Aaron navigated our Suzuki through the Sunday morning open-air markets on Expreso 27 de Febrero in Santo Domingo – blocks and blocks of Air Jordans and Jansport backpacks and boots and clothes and fruits and vegetables and TRAFFIC. It was a chaos we were happy to experience from the car. But even so, we appreciated experiencing these pockets of culture.

I tried to think back to when we did road trips as a family in the States, and truthfully, we really didn’t – aside from when we drove from Oak Park, Ill., to move onto Clarity in Florida. And why didn’t we?! The drive to get to each place brought as many memories as the places themselves, so much of this beautiful country that we would have missed completely if we only visited by boat. But a big difference now is time. We had the time. We’ve made the time as a family, to explore the world together.

To try to find the true essence of a place, to peel back the layers, to get lost in it all. That’s where the magic is.

 

First-Year Reflections

Our monkey, at home climbing trees on the beach in Luperon, DR.

One of the questions I received most often from friends and family while back in the States was, “So how much longer are you going to do this?”

Spoiler alert: I have no idea. It could be a few months, or a few years. But one person phrased it a bit differently. She said, in a completely non-judgmental way, “Are you done?”

She was asking because I had just detailed the laundry list of challenges we faced in the past year. As my response came tumbling out of my mouth, I surprisingly found myself uttering a succinct thought that I hadn’t voiced before, maybe hadn’t even realized before. But it’s at the crux of everything for me.

“I don’t want to stop living a life that challenges me, that kicks me in the butt, in the best ways and in the hardest ways.”

Crew Clarity has officially completed a full year of cruising. Strangely enough, the anniversary came and went in mid-July, while we were in the States, completely oblivious to the milestone. We were too busy to notice. Life in the States is defined by busyness.

But the time away from the boat allowed me to reflect on this crazy ride we’ve been on, to recognize what went to plan and what didn’t, to see the ups and downs for what they were, and to gain the perspective you can only find with distance – literal and figurative.

Here are some thoughts on our first year.

 

First-Year Projection: Life on the boat will be so much cheaper!

Reality: Not really. And this is for a number of reasons.

  1. Our first cruising grounds were the Bahamas, one of the most expensive places you can go in terms of the cost of food, the price to do anything on land (eat out, rent a car, book a tour), and the charges for having (much-needed) boat parts shipped from the States.
  2. While we don’t have a mortgage or car payments, we still currently have two boat payments. Yep, two. Our Pearson in Chicago still hasn’t sold. Sigh… It’s a long story. And for that one, in addition to the loan payments, we have yard storage fees. This is killing us.
  3. While healthcare in general is much, much cheaper pretty much anywhere but the States, certain atypical situations come with a hefty price tag. Like, say, sticking a bean up one’s nose. And then refusing to let any doctors try to get it out. Tallying up to $4,000 – yep, you read that right – our “bean incident” gave our cruising budget a huge blow, and this was only two weeks into our international travels.
  4. Boat crap is expensive. Sure, we anticipated having issues with the boat in our first year, as all cruisers do, and budgeted for that. But the issues and expenses we have had far exceeded our expectations. Getting the boat hauled out twice in the first year – once in the Abacos and once in Turks – no bueno.
  5. One positive moneywise that I will say is that, while a lot of people recommended budgeting more in the first year for staying at docks, to get more used to living aboard and giving yourselves some breaks, we really didn’t find the need to do this. We loved staying at anchor, and save a couple of short stops where air-conditioning and cable seemed like Christmas morning, we were completely happy living off the grid. The boat had a lot of problems, but it also rocked it in a lot of ways that allowed us to live comfortably without needing to “plug in.”

 

First-Year Projection: Life on the boat will be so much simpler!

Reality: Life is different, not simpler.

One of the reasons we pursued this lifestyle was to spend more time together as a family. In that respect, the biggest change would be that Aaron wouldn’t be going into the office. He would do work part-time from the boat, but would otherwise be able to participate more in daily “family life.” Certainly we’ve had more time together – how could we not – but for him, office time just turned into boat project time. There were always unsolved problems, systems that weren’t working properly, parts that needed to be replaced, and on, and on, and on. And boat problems have one deadline: as soon as possible. Aaron was often working on them at daybreak, well into the evenings, and through the weekends.

Claire’s 5th birthday celebration on the beach in Georgetown, Exumas, with her bestie, Henry.

Daily life also just takes longer. A decent portion of my day is spent just in meals – making them, serving them, doing all of the dishes from them, making sure we have enough groceries for wherever we’re going next. Then there’s the laundry that needs doing, cleaning, schooling for Claire, etc. None of this is bad – I just didn’t realize before we moved aboard how much daily time would be spent “living.”

Living and traveling on the water also requires an ongoing dedication to forecasting. We live and breathe the weather. Any sail requires planning – routes, wind predictions, wave expectations, tide schedule, and potential anchorages. And once we’re there, a constant monitoring of conditions is always in the background of what we’re doing.

 

First-Year Projection: These close quarters will drive us crazy!

Reality: This really wasn’t a problem for us.

We were fortunate in that, when we decided to do this, we already had an idea of what living together on a boat would be like, thanks to the month-long summer trips we took on the Pearson for three years. But, with those, there was always a definitive end-point, which changes your thinking. On Clarity, once we got past the initial unpacking and storing of everything we had brought from Chicago, we settled in comfortably. The only times I’ve felt confined on the boat were when we were stuck on board for days due to bad weather, unable to even go topsides, and when the boat was completely torn apart down below to troubleshoot a problem or work on a system.

Don’t get me wrong – life on board hasn’t been perfect. We get short with Claire, we get short with each other. But the further into the year we got, the better we were able to recognize when Claire just needed to run off some steam on the beach. Or when Aaron and I were arguing and all that was really needed was some time away from each other and the issue would disappear or work itself out.

Aaron and I are also both aware of making sure we each have the space to pursue our own things, especially when we’re in a place that affords us the opportunity to do so. Here in the DR, it’s been yoga mornings for me and evenings at the pool hall for him.  Have I mentioned yet that we love it here?

 

First-Year Projection: Having no break from Claire will be hard.

Reality: Yep.

This was one of the hardest adjustments, at least for me. I was anxious about transitioning from Claire being in preschool three to four days a week and having ample babysitting options to basically a childcare desert. Sometimes, I don’t even notice it – we just go on about our daily life and I forget. But other times, we would do anything for a break, for her to go somewhere, even if just for an afternoon. I think it’s healthy to check out of being parents every once in awhile.

Schooling has been another part of the challenge. Claire is a bright kiddo and it amazes us every day, how quickly she learns and how much she picks up from the world around us. Hopefully our lifestyle is helping out in that regard. But we are also gaining even more respect for teachers. It’s hard to play that role for Claire one minute, and then be mom or dad the next. As I’m sure is the case for a lot of 5-year-olds, some days, she’s great about it. Other days, it’s a fight – and Claire knows how to push all of our buttons, hard.

Aaron threading the reefs (the dark patches in the background are a few of countless) in the Turks and Caicos

One thing we should have done more this year is arrange some kid swaps with other cruising families. We were extremely fortunate to meet other kid boats almost everywhere we went, and it would have made so much sense to offer to take their kiddo for awhile so they could have some time to themselves, and then in return been able to drop Claire off for an afternoon and get some time ourselves also. Why didn’t we do this more?! I have no idea. We did make getting together with other cruising families a priority, though, and that alone was helpful – the kids with other kiddos to play with, the adults able to do some adulting.

Claire has also been witness to some tough times for Aaron and me this past year, when we were really struggling with boat problems or rough passages or things just not falling into place. That is another challenge – always having a little person around to hear every single word or experience every single mood. (We can’t even fight by ourselves! Ha!)

Here in the DR, we have Claire signed up for kindergarten at a local Montessori school in Cabarete from Aug. 21 through Nov. 1, possibly later. Monday through Friday, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. It’s not cheap (although it’s a lot cheaper here than it would be in the States), but we thought she would really benefit from experiencing the culture here with other kiddos, from learning for a few months from other authority figures, and from the schedule that a school day affords. We have secured a short-term lease on a nearby condo on the beach and will briefly be landlubbers in an area we’ve already come to love.

Claire’s school time will also allow Aaron and me to work more hours, to get some time to ourselves, and for all of us to recharge a bit before we’re back on the boat full time after hurricane season.  Aaron plans to take up surfing and get back to scuba diving, and I plan to crash the yoga retreat that neighbors our condo building as much as possible and also become a ukulele master.

 

First-Year Projection: Being away from our friends and family will be extremely hard.

Reality: Yes – BUT – we were able to stay more connected than I thought.

This was another one of my biggest fears as we moved aboard. My family and my friends are the most important things in my life (aside from our little immediate family, of course), and I had come to rely heavily on my support network.

I also realized that my relationships were primarily based on one-on-one interactions. Think about it – when was the last time, aside from family, that you carved out time for a long, catch-up phone call with a friend? Or took the time to send them a long email?

Connectivity in foreign countries was also embarrassingly a bit of an unknown for me. I was pretty sure it would work itself out, but I didn’t know how.

Our cell plans with T-Mobile have been a lifesaver, at least for me. Though phone calls are an upcharge with price dependent on where we are, we have unlimited texting and unlimited (3G-speed) data. We’ve been able to text regularly with friends, set up free Skype and Facebook Messenger calls when schedules allow, and yes, as you know, check Facebook/Instagram/etc regularly. It helps me feel less isolated from the goings on of everyone back in the States.

Another misconception of the cruising life by those who are less familiar is this idea that we are out on our own, in the middle of nowhere, all alone. Sometimes we are in the middle of nowhere, but we are hardly ever alone. There are a lot of people, including families, who are living this lifestyle and we are a tight-knit group. We become fast friends and if anyone needs anything, we are there to help – sometimes almost too eagerly. The cruising community is nothing short of amazing.

 

First-Year Projection: This life is going to change us.

Reality: Tenfold.

This past year has been the hardest of my life. It’s also been the most rewarding, the most life-altering, the most transformative. I’m pretty sure those things go hand in hand.

Conch shells on the first beach we set foot on in the Abacos, Bahamas, after our Gulf Stream crossing from Florida.

I have more faith in our marriage than ever, and it’s not because life has been perfect. We’ve had our fair share of ugly fights and ugly crying, but one thing we’ve never given up on is each other. I already thought Aaron was a pretty rad dude, but being a witness to the dedication he puts into this boat and this family has been awesome, in the pure sense of the word.

I also sometimes need to remind myself of how far I’ve come. Before we started this chapter, I had never spent a night at anchor (can you believe that?!). I’d never sailed in a squall. I’d never done an overnighter. I’d never driven a dinghy. So, so many firsts that now barely even register, we’ve experienced so much.

I’ve learned that schedules are for the birds, that things don’t go to plan, that you will continue to be tested – especially if you think you can’t handle anything else – and that the rewards are immeasurable, both big and small.

On the bad days, I want to throw in the towel and give up. But I never do. And experience has taught me now to wait until we’re out of the immediate problem to make any lasting decisions about the future. Sleep-deprived and seasick, I may lament to Aaron, “I’m done! I’m shot.” But I’m not! How can I be? This life, this crazy life, has pushed me so far out of my comfort zone, it’s exhilarating, and addictive. I want to keep pushing to become the best version of myself.

My priorities have shifted and my needs have changed. God, do I miss Starbucks coffee and long, hot baths – conveniences not only in the availability of goods, but the dependability of services. But they’re not really needs, right? We can make do – happily – without them.

To me, the time we spend together as a family, the travel, the new cultures, far supersedes the balance in our checking account.

I used to be so concerned with how I defined myself. By my profession? By being married, having a child? By being an adventurer?

The truth is, who cares?! At least right now, I really don’t. While we were back in the States, a good friend said something to me in passing – something that surprised me and also resonated so deeply. She said, “You seem much more self-assured, more confident.” And I am! – that this is the life I should be living. That this is where I belong.

 

I have no idea where my mind will be at a year from now. I have no idea where our boat will be a year from now.  But I know that I’m here right now, in Luperon in the Dominican Republic, writing this blog post with the breeze from the trade winds breaking the midday heat, with Aaron and Claire back on the boat a short dinghy ride away, doing school, playing legos, preparing dinner, or maybe doing nothing at all.

In Love With the DR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life is good.

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.