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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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.

65 Hours

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

65 Hours.

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

The weather is our master, and we must obey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Two Weeks Until the Bahamas

claires-assistance

My little helper, practicing her letters and numbers by labeling my boxed wine. #MomOfTheYear

If all goes to plan, roughly two weeks from now, we’ll be in the Bahamas. Even typing that seems so crazy to me! It feels like we’ve been working toward this goal for so long, and at the same time, a year ago, we didn’t even have our condo listed yet. Time is a fascinating enchantress.

With our impending departure, our to-do list has been supersized and expedited, both with Aaron tackling projects himself and us scheduling technicians to come out and help. One of the huge tasks I’ve been handling is provisioning Clarity with everything we’ll need to eat (and live) comfortably for months at sea.

How can you plan meals for two adults and a 4-year-old with an endless appetite? How do you keep meals interesting and delicious with shelf-stable staples, as our refrigerator and freezer space is limited? And where the heck do we put it all?

Luckily, plenty of people have done this before and documented their tips and tricks, so I’ve been reading a lot of blogs and articles to better direct my efforts. We used three months as an arbitrary but practical period of time to plan for. Likely, by that point, we will have stopped in a big port with a sizable grocery store, where I will provision again. We met plenty of cruisers who spent the entirety of hurricane season watching for sales and stocking up on mass quantities of canned goods and other items. To my fault or success, I’ve managed to tackle our provisioning needs in roughly a week, with a few loose ends remaining.

Here is my master provisioning list. I’m pretty proud of it – many, many hours and beers went into the crafting of this document. Here’s how it all came together.

Believe it or not, people do eat in the Bahamas! But we plan to be at anchor the majority of the time, so we want to both limit how much our cruising plans are dictated by stopping at a port where fully stocked stores are available, and also keep the loads we haul back to the boat on the dinghy minimal. We also plan to pick up fresh produce and proteins here and there at the markets on the islands.

Here are a few of the considerations of what to buy:

  • Stores at the major ports have great inventory, but there are still some things that you just can’t get over there (like gin and cheap beer!), so we stocked up on our favorites.
  • Most everything there is more expensive, though the upcharge on some things is higher than others. We save a lot of money by bringing as much as we need with as possible.
  • Shelf-stable goods are key, as we have limited space in the fridge and freezer, but enough storage throughout the boat to stock up for months. We are now living in a floating world of cans.
  • Stocking up big time on basic items, like flour, rice, beans, etc., allows me to make more from scratch, which saves us money and extends how far our groceries will reach. Bye-bye, most prepared foods, hello homemade everything!
  • Staying realistic with what we’ll actually eat. I’m just not going to eat canned green beans or Spam. Ever. So though they are appropriate shelf-stable items, they will not be making the journey with us.
  • We’ll be celebrating Christmas and New Year’s in the islands (fingers crossed), so I got us a few special treats, like two bottles of Champagne and a bottle of sparkling grape juice for a toast to the new year!
Bags and bags completely filled - just with the excess packaging that I removed.

Bags and bags completely filled – just with the excess packaging that I removed.

I have never racked up grocery bills this high in my life. I might frame the receipts. All in all, including toiletries, medicine and first-aid needs, and more, we’ll easily be at $1k in cost. But the buying of the things was only part of this enormous job. Next was the repacking of the things. Here’s what had to be considered for this part:

  • Cardboard on a boat is the devil. It attracts moisture and bugs. So all cardboard had to come off immediately. And I mean all. Even the Ziploc bags were repacked into a bigger Ziploc bag.
  • Out with the cardboard goes any preparation instructions, so these must be written out in Sharpie on the Ziploc bags.
  • The paper labels on cans and the glue used to adhere them are also big no-nos. (Roaches like to lay eggs in the glue. I’m disgusted that I know this.) So off come the labels, and the contents need to be written on top, bottom and sides, so they can be seen no matter where/how the cans wind up being stored. Every single can also got a wipe-down to remove any excess freeloaders.
  • Though we bought some items in bulk, they needed to be repacked into small quantities. That way, if one of the packages spoils or is compromised, the rest of the packages are still in play, rather than the whole thing being ruined.
  • Dry goods, like beans, rice, flour, etc., are all double-bagged. In addition, bay leaves are added to each package to prevent weevils.

cansAnd finally, the storing of the things. One of the amazing things about this boat is all of the storage it affords us. It truly was designed with this lifestyle in mind. Having countless storage areas requires thoughtful planning of what goes where. What things should be most easily accessible? What can remain in the deep gallows of the boat for a few months? And how can we package tightly so that bottles and cans aren’t clanging every time the boat rocks? Everything had to be meticulously documented, from quantity to specific location within each storage compartment (ex. Canned black beans, salon, center compartment, starboard).

Again, behold my magical master spreadsheet! This will allow me to not only keep track of what we have, but also go “shopping” in a month, two months, and grab what I want fairly quickly.

Believe it or not, we still have a few loose ends to buy before we shove off, and plan to rent a car this weekend for one last run to the stores, but we’re nearly there. Weather-pending, we will be leaving the dock here in Fort Pierce, Fla., on Dec. 15 and doing a daysail down to anchor near the Lake Worth inlet. From there, we’ll do another daysail down to Port Everglades, where we’ll take care of a few final things before waiting for a weather window to cross to Bimini.

With each major task like this accomplished, we get closer and closer to making Clarity a truly self-sufficient world, to visiting remote islands where there are no grocery stores or markets, to the freedom of going wherever we want, whenever we want, and doing so comfortably.

This life! I’ve already learned so much, and we haven’t even yet left.

Ready About

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

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

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

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

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

jam-session

Aaron sitting in on an impromptu jam session at the clubhouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Matthew

Just down the river from our marina, this boat didn't fare as well.

Just down the river from our marina, this boat didn’t fare as well.

In the few days before Hurricane Matthew hit the coast, we heard that even during a mandatory evacuation, many choose to stay simply because they don’t know when they’ll be able to get home again after the storm passes. Now, to a certain extent, I understand their rationale.

A sailor on a neighboring boat at the marina stayed aboard during the hurricane, and as conditions deteriorated, he kept us in the loop on how things were progressing. A few small shifts east of Matthew’s path late Friday were just enough to prevent the eye from making landfall in Brunswick, and weakened the storm surge just enough to keep our docks on their pilings. By early Saturday morning, the eye of the storm had moved north and the worst was out of Georgia. Thanks to updates from our neighbor, as well as Facebook updates from the marina, we knew we were in the clear, at least from any damage visible from the dock. With a collective sigh of relief, we hit the road.

Our drive back, however, was more eventful than we would have liked. We headed east on I-26 from Columbia, S.C., as bands of wind from Matthew were very much still hovering over the coastline. We were grateful when we hit I-95 and began to head south, as the wind and rain finally started to subside, but both interstates were almost covered with tree debris.

Massive oak trees had been cleared off the lanes, in massive piles along the shoulder, and some downed trees were still blocking the road. Traffic was halted multiple times as emergency crews tended to cars that had hit trees and spun out into the median. We were detoured off of the interstate, as stretches were still under water. Military convoys accounted for a considerable amount of the traffic. And everywhere, it smelled like Christmas, the overwhelming aroma of freshly cut trees.

We slowly made our way to the Georgia state line, and then finally to the Brunswick exits, around mid-afternoon. In the pockets during the drive that we were able to get cell service, we checked the Glynn County news updates and learned that the mandatory evacuation had been lifted and residents could return. However, right around the time that we reached our exit, all exits off of 95 were shut down again – a miscommunication between the county officials, who had opened them, and state officials, who had not yet completed all proper checks of the bridges in the area. Had we been even 30 minutes sooner, we likely would have gotten in.

So began our next chapter of waiting, watching the exit from an empty parking lot. All hotels, restaurants, stores and gas stations in the area were closed and without power, so we had nowhere to pass the time but our car. With no timeline given by the Georgia Department of Transportation, we also had no way of knowing if they would reopen the exits that evening, or if we’d be forced to wait until the next morning – or even a few days later.

We crossed the state line to Florida, where some restaurants had been reopened, to grab some dinner. And as we were about to head to a hotel room in Jacksonville that Aaron had miraculously found (everything that was open continued to be booked solid), he checked the county website one last time and learned that the exits had finally been opened.

The utterly amazing climax to this story – god, what a story – is that there really isn’t one. We returned to Clarity and found her no worse for the wear. No damage. No destruction. Aside from some chafing and stretching of the lines, she was completely unscathed.

We drove around Brunswick on Sunday and found that overall, the town had weathered the storm extremely well, with minimal damage other than downed trees and power lines. We took the dinghy over to a marina on St. Simons Island (which is still not yet allowing residents to return), and though there were some visible issues, the boats were still floating. Similarly, Jekyll Island was miraculously spared. A blanket of spanish moss and leaves from the oak trees now covers the ground, and a few trees landed on roofs, rather than the road – but the forecast of devastation had been much worse.

Unfortunately, in situations like these, when some are fortunate, others are not; residents from the Carolinas have a much different story.

With the boat back in order, we are settling back into our routine, tackling our to-do lists in preparation for the islands. These tasks that previously seemed like such a burden, now, are an unbelievable blessing.

 

Bracing For Impact

radarAs we locked up the boat yesterday and started walking to our rental car, Claire said, “Mom, can you promise that we’ll come back to our boat?”

I didn’t know what to say. I hope for the best, but didn’t want to make a promise that I couldn’t keep. We’ve been trying to keep Claire aware of what’s going on in a way that she understands and that doesn’t scare her, but even at her age, she gets the seriousness of the situation.

As I sit here typing this from our hotel room in Columbia, South Carolina, the winds in Brunswick, Georgia, where our boat is, have already reached 30 to 40 mph and it’s been raining steadily for a few hours now. The conditions will get much worse before they get better, and all we can do is wait.

When we shifted our life gears and bought a boat in Florida, Aaron and I spoke a lot about hurricane plans. We decided to wait out the season on the east coast, heading north to decrease the likelihood of us being affected by a named storm. Aaron even put together a hurricane evacuation plan – a requirement for our insurance company – and something he did not take lightly.

If we were to rewrite that plan now, it would look much different – one of those things that you unfortunately learn best through experience.

Clarity currently sits in a “hurricane hole,” which is a marina or anchorage that’s designated by insurance companies as a safe haven (relatively speaking) during a named storm. Location, location, location – not just a real estate tenet. The marina sits miles away from the ocean inlet, past Saint Simons Sound, through Fancy Bluff Creek, and up a channel that dead-ends just past the marina. The waves and the storm surge have a lot of ground to cover before they reach our marina. The surge is still our biggest fear at the moment. But more on that in a minute.

Getting your boat to an optimal location is only the beginning. Before evacuating, Aaron and I spent two-and-a-half days preparing the boat for the storm. Some of it was common sense, some of it we learned after researching, and some of it was insight we gained from the other boaters in our marina, many of whom have been through hurricanes before. Here’s the list:

  • Double and triple up all of our dock lines, sometimes reaching not only to our dock but the next over, to spiderweb the boat in and prevent as much movement and bucking as possible, accounting for waves, tides, wind and storm surge.
  • Put chafing gear anywhere the lines touch anything, including other lines, cleats, the boat, etc. With tremendous winds and pressure on the lines, chafing could quickly compromise the lines, rendering them useless.
  • Minimize gear on the topsides to reduce windage as much as possible. For us, this included taking down the furling head sail; removing many excess lines (ropes); stowing all covers including winch covers, the grill cover, hatch (window) shades, sun shades, and more. Anything can become a projectile.
  • Our boat has a hard dodger and bimini, which is a blessing in many ways, but with a hurricane, can be dangerous. After Aaron put considerable time into determining which direction the wind was most likely to generate from at the height of the storm, we turned the boat around, facing the bow into the wind and allowing the gusts to pass right over the dodger.
  • Plug all vents (dorades) that normally allow for fresh air to pass in and out of the cabin.
  • Fill our water tanks to make sure we have full supply upon return, as we may not be able to fill up for days.
  • Close and lock all hatches and lazarettes (our storage areas up top).
  • Down below, close all seacocks (throughhulls) except for bilge pump exits.
  • Check all boats around us in the marina, to make sure they are as prepared as possible. If they don’t reduce windage, for example, anything on their deck could become flying debris. If they don’t tie their boat properly, it could come barreling right into ours.
  • For insurance purposes, take pictures of absolutely everything, to submit with a claim, if needed, and prove that we prepared as much as we could.
  • Book a rental car and hotel room in advance.
  • Pack for evacuation, planning on two or three days but possibly more. This also includes packing up any essential documents and items (passports, boat registrations, computers, portable hard drives) that we would be devastated to lose should we return to a total loss.

By the time we hit the road on Thursday afternoon, we were EXHAUSTED. Also worth noting, though, is not only what we were doing to plan, but what we were planning the boat for, a lot of which wasn’t even on my radar before this. Here are those considerations:

  • The winds: Both the force, and if they’re gusts, or sustained winds.
  • The rain, which causes immediate flooding and raises the overall water height.
  • The waves, which can get as high as 15-20 feet due to the force of the winds on the water. This is certainly more of a concern for the coastal communities, less of a concern as the waves work their way to the inland waters.
  • The storm surge – our biggest concern. As the wind and rain and waves build offshore, they push more and more water toward the coast, creating a surge above and beyond the forecasted waves and tidal fluctuations. For Brunswick, the surge is supposed to be six to nine feet, and it’s looking like it will hit close to the worst time – high tide.
  • Inland tornadoes that can be caused by the systems generated when the hurricane hits land.
  • Loss of power and water, which can last for a few days or even a few weeks, depending on the severity of the storm.
  • Compromised roadways (either by flooding or debris) that prevent us from returning to our boat.
  • Security. With mandatory evacuations, many homes and businesses are abandoned, leaving a wealth of property for vandals and looters.

We are confident that we did as much as we could to secure our boat. Our biggest concern right now is the storm surge. Our marina consists of floating docks, which in theory is ideal, as it allows for the boats and docks to rise along with the increased water. However, the pilings are only about six to seven feet higher than the waters at high tide. If the surge hits at high tide, as it’s supposed to, and it reaches higher than that, which is a possibility, our entire marina could then float up and off the pilings and break apart.

Conditions will peak overnight, and come morning Matthew should have moved up the coast. We’ve planned to hit the road early in the morning tomorrow and get back to the boat as soon as possible to assess things. As long as the damage is minimal, we will be fine, even if the power in the surrounding area is out. Our water tanks are full and we generate our own power. Our batteries will also keep our fridge and freezer running for days.

This is the first hurricane of this magnitude, with this trajectory, to hit the Georgia coast in more than 100 years. Of course it is.

Plan for the worst, Hope for the best. And remind yourself that homes can be rebuilt. All that truly matters is your health and your heart.