What Happened

Full sails on passage from St. Maarten to Antigua, with the moon settling in for the night. Less than 12 hours later, the rig was in the water.

Two seconds is all it takes.

Two seconds to ruin your home. Two seconds to do $60,000+ worth of damage. Two seconds for your entire rig to come down. Two seconds to change your life.

Two seconds.

We were on an overnight passage from St. Martin to Antigua, about 30 miles from Jolly Harbor, when one of the things that every sailor has nightmares about happened.

We left Simpson Bay at around 5 p.m. with steady northeast winds at 10-15 knots. We settled in to our course for one long tack, put out the sails and watched the sun set behind us over St. Bart’s.

As night fell, I gimballed the stove and prepared a gourmet dinner of brats and beans. Claire wound down with an audio book before falling asleep in our aft cabin in a mountain of blankets and throw pillows. And Aaron and I prepared to start our night watches – two or three hours on, two or three hours to sleep. We even remarked to each other how easily the passage was going, unlike some other overnight sails we had done. No squalls, plenty of moonlight. Sure, the wind was a bit flukey and we hit some unexpected current, but overall, we were able to keep the boat moving steadily at four to six knots and keep the engine off.

At around 6:30 a.m., I woke up from a two-hour sleep and readied myself to take over watch from Aaron. The sun had just come up and the boat was still making steady progress – only four or five more hours until anchor down in Jolly Harbor! I was standing on the companionway steps leading up to the cockpit, getting the report from Aaron on how his watch went, when we both watched in horror as the entire rig came down.

I’ve heard a lot of people recount traumatic events and say, “It was like it happened in slow motion! My life passed before my eyes!” This wasn’t like that at all, at least, not for me. One second, we were slicing through waves with a full sail plan happily trimmed. Two seconds later, our mast was hanging on by threads over the starboard railing, the boom was bent in half, I saw our full sails billowing under the water. I don’t even remember it being that loud, though given the amount of metal that was twisted like tree limbs and the guts of our rig that were ripped from the deck, I’m sure it was. Aaron says it was like a gun went off, but not only was the noise deafening for him, but he could feel the vibrations through the cockpit floor and seats.

I will say it’s a video that’s currently on repeat for me, and one that I will never forget.

My tears were immediate, like a faucet. And Aaron’s, too, though he pushed them aside and sprang to action. We both tried to stay as calm as we could, he admittedly more than me, because we knew this was just the beginning. Was the rig still connected? Where? Could we salvage anything? Was the hull damaged? Were we taking on water? This was when our lives, and our home, passed through my mind – would we have to get the dinghy down as fast as we could, grab the ditch bag I had packed before we left the previous day, and abandon ship, leave our home for the last three years to float away and sink? This has definitely happened to some when they suffered a dismasting.

Wake up, wake up, JUST WAKE UP, I kept thinking. I’m still waiting to wake up from all of this.

Aaron quickly assessed the situation on deck and realized that, unless he got in the water, which would not have been safe, we wouldn’t be able to salvage anything. Parts of the rig had started knocking against the hull, and to prevent any further damage, he began cutting away the remaining pieces with a hacksaw, rotary cutter tool, and wire cutters.

I immediately ran down below to tend to Claire, who of course had woken up when the rig came down. She was crying, knowing that something had happened, and that it was bad. Still half asleep in her dream world, she asked, “Was it a lion, mom? Or a tiger? Is something breaking our boat?” I explained as best I could, trying to keep calm, and looked around for any signs of water down below. Seeing nothing immediately alarming, I asked her to stay down below to stay safe, and went back up to assist Aaron.

He cut away each piece, each finger still trying to keep its hold on us, and as he severed the last bit, we watched in silence as the whole rig sank and the boat popped up, relieved of the weight it had been dragging through the water. We both then went down below, me to comfort Claire, and Aaron to check all of the bilges and see if the hull was compromised. With everything appearing to be in tact, we fired up the engine. I will never forget the wave of relief when it immediately jumped to, and we confirmed that our steering was still good.

I got the boat back on track for Antigua as Aaron continued checking the damage. Eventually, all three of us settled in to the cockpit.

We spent the next six hours motoring to Jolly, and this was the worst part for me. Six hours to do nothing but stare forward at the massacre that had just happened – wide open sky where there were meant to be sails, bent and twisted rails that had held fuel cans and water jugs just an hour before.

To add insult to injury, without the weight and windage of the rig, we had no way of stabilizing the boat, so we were fully at the mercy of the waves, bobbing violently starboard to port and back again, with each set. Claire and I both got seasick, as if things weren’t bad enough. Aaron created seals around the holes in the fiberglass, which were allowing saltwater to spray down into the salon with every wave. The holes looked like open wounds, the layers shredding like paper, flaking and cracking.

Aaron and I were both delirious, he coming down off of the immediate adrenaline of just executing when it all happened, and both of us naturally short on sleep due to the overnight watches. Claire kept saying, “This is horrible. What happened? Why did this happen to our home?” I didn’t know my heart could break more.

It was a good question, though – why did this happen? How does the entire rig of a sailboat just come down – poof – like the mast was made of playdoh? The conditions were not rough, the waves, averaging at four feet, were reasonable. The sails were full but not overpowered, and there were no squalls – the sun was shining.

Exactly a year ago, we had Clarity hauled in Puerto Rico for a planned replacement of the saildrive and some through-hulls. As the boat sat on blocks, Aaron noticed that one of the diagonal shrouds had broken a couple strands while being transported by the travel lift. Realizing that this was bad news, we called around and had two riggers assess the boat. We had purchased the used boat two years prior with the original rigging, and though it passed the initial survey, we knew we’d likely have to replace the rigging during our tenure with it. It turned out that our time was up. After a thorough review both topsides and down below, the rigger said that we needed to replace all of the standing rigging. We weren’t thrilled with the $5,500 check, but we knew that it was critical to maintain the safety of the boat, so we did it.

What happened while we were near the end of a lovely sail to Antigua, is for the insurance company and surveyor to decide, but given that we had just taken the necessary steps a year prior, we were absolutely baffled.

We finally came into the bay at around 12:30 p.m. We dropped the hook (thank god our windlass was still working), turned off the engine, and sat there. What do you do? What do you say? How are you supposed to feel?

There’s the obvious of what we do now: we file the claim. We wait to see what our insurance company decides, and pray that we are compensated for something we know in our hearts was beyond our control.

We clean up what we can, we prepare for the unfathomable amount of work ahead of us, we try to process what happened.

But then what. When the literal to-do list is done, what do we do? This has broken us. Do we keep sailing? Do we park it for awhile and take a break? Do we cut our losses and bail out?

I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

As human beings, we are trained to look on the bright side, to find the silver lining. Things always could have been worse. There’s so much to be grateful for. That’s all true, and I am.

But sometimes, you just have to sit with the reality. Living on a sailboat that had its heart ripped out. And finding the pieces of your own.

Sunset watch during our overnight sail. Just look at that beautiful backstay! Our transom looks so naked now without it.

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Cruising the Leewards

A few days ago, we had a lovely sail from the Saints in southern Guadeloupe to Portsmouth, Dominica. The leg was mostly a beam reach, which meant the boat settled into her groove nicely, comfortably. We sliced through the waves at an average of 7 knots boat speed and Clarity was at a reasonable heel.

It was a nice change of pace from our usual sails this season. But more on that in a bit.

The Leeward Islands have been one incredible destination after another, with gorgeous terrain, fascinating cultures and amazing people. Here’s a photo gallery of the places we’ve been blessed to experience thus far. Keep reading below the photos!

 

I’m embarrassed to say that before this season, I was pretty uneducated on the Leeward and Winward island chains. I had never heard of places like Saba, or Statia, or the Saints in Guadeloupe. And some of the islands I only became familiar with as they dominated the headlines during hurricane season last year.

I also had an ignorant mindset that the islands were similar, albeit a breathtaking repetition. It could not be further from the truth.

These amazing places have been one eye-opening exploration after another, all with their own topographies, their own cultures, their own vibe.

Some have one volcano that dominates the terrain. Others, like Dominica, have nine, and other islands, like Anguilla, are flat as a pancake. Some have powdery white beaches, while others have black volcanic sand that sparkles for miles.

We often find ourselves pausing as we plan our next stop to ask, okay, is the next island its own country? Is it part of the French West Indies? Dutch West Indies? Is it a British Overseas Territory? What currency do they use there? All of the French islands, for instance, are on the Euro, while the other islands use the Eastern Caribbean Dollar, and some islands still accept the U.S. dollar. Our shore bag has become a kaleidoscope of currencies.

Even each French island has its own feel. In St. Barts and St. Martin (the French half anyway), the locals were able to communicate in basic English due to the steady tourism there, and would politely switch if they heard me struggling with French. In Guadeloupe, though, hardly anyone speaks English. Though it can be challenging at times, since Aaron and I have never learned French, it’s also forced me to work on some basic phrases, which we should be doing anyway. We are in their country after all! And it’s another great learning experience for Claire.  It’s painfully cute to hear her say, in her lilting voice as we leave a store, “Au revoir; Merci.”

In St. Barts, it was all about luxury – beautiful shops, expensive restaurants and charming little streets that oozed wealth. We saw some of the most breathtaking beaches there, too, though our first black sand beach on St. Kitts ranks up there, too. Guadeloupe, however, was more rugged, especially in Deshaies, a sleepy little fishing village on the north coast. The town was mostly locals, and the locals have café and croissant each morning at the bakery. The waterfront restaurants were simple, though the cuisine was anything but, and all around the massive island was lush, green, wet rainforest. Absolutely beautiful.

The daily schedule on the French islands, if you want to call it that, is somewhat consistent. People wake up early and head to town. Just after lunch, all of the businesses close for at least two or three hours, and the streets become a ghost town. Around 4 or 4:30 p.m., some of the shops may open up again. Restaurants don’t reopen until 7 p.m. for dinner, or whenever the chef happens to drop back in. Everything shuts by midday Saturday, and stays closed all of Sunday. Many shops follow their own hours, though – perhaps they’ll open that day, perhaps they won’t. C’est la vie.

Other islands, like St. Kitts, Montserrat, and Dominica are louder and livelier. The rasta culture is strong and the islanders are warm and inviting. Bars and restaurants stay open late, especially on Friday and Saturday, with music pumping well into the night. Locals at the pool hall welcome you for a match, and others are more than happy to sit down with you and tell you about their family and their experiences growing up on these islands. Montserrat was a particularly moving stop for us in this regard, as many of the locals lived through the eruptions of the Soufriere Hills volcano from 1995 to 2012. Hearing firsthand accounts of these catastrophic events helped us better understand and appreciate the resilience of these amazing people.

Living in these places, rather than just visiting as tourists, has allowed us to settle into the rhythm of each place and truly dig in. What an incredible gift, the three of us being able to soak up these islands like traveling sponges.

The sailing, though, has been a bit of a challenge. We had the idea that once we left the Virgin Islands, we would get the Anegada passage under our belt – our last major haul east – and then have moderate sails with just a little more easting from St. Martin south. The reality has been much choppier.

The Anegada was the first wake-up call from the easy sailing in the Virgin Islands. It kicked our butts, quite frankly. The first 12 hours after leaving Leverick Bay, BVIs, was manageable, with moderate but consistent seas. However, at midnight, a line of squalls we had been watching grew and then surrounded us. Using our new radar, we veered off course to try and avoid the worst, but there was no escaping them.

For the next 16 hours, it was squall after squall after squall, regularly pushing us off course, all the way to Marigot Bay, St. Martin. And the squalls turned the seas into a washing machine. Claire and I were both horribly sick, leaving Aaron at the helm for the duration. There’s a quote from Mark Twain about seasickness: “At first, you are so sick that you are afraid you will die, and then you are so sick you are afraid you won’t die. “ That pretty much sums it up.

From that passage on, it’s been mostly upwind leg after upwind leg (close-reaches as we call it, rather than a hard-beat). The trade winds have been strong this season, with few periods of easing. With each hop to the next stop, there was inevitably some easting, which meant we were beating into it. For those reading this who don’t sail, this is about the most uncomfortable sailing there is, especially for a monohull. The boat is dramatically heeled, which makes climbing around topsides an impressive obstacle course and getting anything down below basically not worth it. Finally dropping the anchor, only to be met with a tornado down below, is not exactly awesome. Nor is your glass casserole dish flying out of the oven and shattering all over the galley while underway. (God bless you, Aaron, for cleaning up that one.)

Also, since we’re out sailing the Atlantic, the seas in general are always kicked up, so unless we want to wait a month or two in each port for that epic weather window, we’re out in four-foot seas, minimum, with six-foot typical. Aside from the Anegada, I’ve been able to keep my seasickness in check, but unfortunately Claire has not been so fortunate.   It’s been much better the last few sails, thank God, but for a while, she was sick every time we pulled anchor.

Beam reaches and downwind sailing are much more comfortable – the boat is less extreme, Claire and I can go down below, and we’re usually still maintaining a screaming pace. We want more of this!

Luckily, though I might be jinxing myself here, we seem to be at the end of the easting tunnel, and it should be smoother sailing from here on out to Grenada. And even with the stresses that the sails have brought in the last few months, the payoff of these incredible family experiences has been more than worth it. The boat has been treating us so well, with very few issues that need fixing or addressing.

Which brings me to our plan for hurricane season and next year! Aaron and I have had a lot of time to talk through possible trajectories. The first decision we made was to sail the boat to Grenada for hurricane season, rather than turn around at some point to head back to Puerto Rico. There are a number of reasons why, but two primary ones. First, there will be a ton of kid boats there for Claire. Two, we will be able to still do some cruising around that area during the season, rather than having to stay put, like we did in Luperon, Dominican Republic.

As we’ve been making our way down the island chain, we’ve also had to blast through some islands and skip others altogether just to get further south before the hurricane season ramps up. As a result, we’ve felt that we haven’t had a chance to fully explore this gorgeous area as thoroughly as we’d like. And, our Anegada nightmare has made us realize that we likely are not ready yet for passages of more than a few days, at most.

So, we’ve decided to do the Caribbean again next season! This time, we’ll be heading north from Grenada and will follow the general arc west, so NO EASTING – woohoo!! There’s so much more to see, and now we’ll be able to do it comfortably, both in terms of schedule and sailing.

Our insurance company is requiring that we get Clarity to Grenada by July 1, so we’ll be keeping a moderate pace as we continue south for the next month. Then, we’ll get her settled while we fly to the States mid-July to visit friends and family for a few weeks.

It’s hard to believe that it’s already June, and to realize how far we’ve come. I often forget that we started this season all the way back in the Dominican Republic. Aaron also did the tally of our miles so far in the last two seasons, and it comes to just shy of 3,000 miles. Here’s a tally of all of the islands we’ve visited just since Puerto Rico:

  • Culebra, Spanish Virgin Islands
  • St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
  • St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
  • Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands
  • Beef Island, British Virgin Islands
  • Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands
  • Great Dog, British Virgin Islands
  • St. Martin/ St. Maarten
  • St. Barts
  • St. Kitts
  • Nevis
  • Montserrat
  • Guadeloupe
  • The Saints, Guadeloupe
  • Dominica

It’s funny, people don’t seem to ask anymore how long we’re doing this. No end date in site.

Back On Track in the Virgin Islands

Be still my heart! My favorite salty sailors posing at the top of Virgin Gorda.

Spanish, U.S., British…. The Virgin Islands have given us the medicine we so desperately needed.

The day we dropped anchor in Ensenada Honda off of Culebra, I wasn’t sure it was real. As you all know, we had spent the last month or more in the weeds with both expected and unexpected boat work, and all of the challenges that came with life on the hard.

The very same day we did the short, successful test sail just outside of Puerto del Rey to check our brand new rigging, Aaron looked at me and said, “Let’s go to Culebra.” We just couldn’t get off that dock fast enough.

Since then, life has been pretty great. Charming towns, beautiful beaches, calm but full sails. Swimming, snorkeling, diving, fishing. Beachside birthday parties, sunset campfires and late-night jam sessions on uke and guitar. Despite our extended stay in Puerto Rico, we were able to catch up to some great friends on S/V Freedom, Chasing Waterfalls, Griffin and Upside Up. Our tanks have been full.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been boat problems – there have, but nothing that Aaron hasn’t been able to assess and fix rather quickly. (I’m always so amazed at his ability to troubleshoot). Finding connection for me to continue working has been a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. And yes, we’ve seen some absolutely unbelievable devastation as a result of the hurricanes – more on that in another post – but we’ve also found incredible beauty and have finally been able to drop the hook in places we’ve been hearing about from other cruisers for years.

For now, I will let these images speak for themselves. We’ve been back at it about a month now and once the current blow passes and the weather opens up, likely early next week, we will tackle the last longer sail of this season – 80+ miles through the Anegada Passage – over to St. Martin or Saba, pending wind direction.

How crazy, the change in temperature between my last post and this one. This life is one wild ride.

Our Hardest Chapter Yet

When we first arrived, we stayed in a slip for a few nights before the boat was hauled. This was the sunset the night before. It looks like the mountains are on fire! We should have known it was a bad omen…

Sometimes, life hands you a great big pile of lemons.

We arrived at Puerto del Rey Marina in Fajardo exactly one month ago. It was a stop that was in the making for almost a year, to properly replace the saildrive before jumping over to the Virgin Islands. We were set to haul out of the water on Tuesday, spend three days in the yard getting the work done, and splash again by Friday or Saturday, taking advantage of the next weather window to head out.

We are still here. Everything that could have gone wrong, did. And then, of course, more things piled on top.

It seems that a bullet point list may be the best way to detail all that we’ve been dealing with. Here goes:

  • Original saildrive and parts ordered from Florida.  Paid for 2-day air shipping, but it was sent ground. FEMA still has priority on all ground (ocean freight) shipping, so we would have been waiting for our parts for at least a month.
  • Second saildrive ordered from Belgium, since the first order was the only one available in the States.  Air freight order was stalled in Paris at Charles de Gaulle Airport for many days due to record-breaking snowfall there.  When it finally shipped to the U.S., it erroneously was shipped back to Paris.  Two days later, it shipped back to the States, where it was delayed two more days due to weather.
  • Saildrive finally arrives, but when the contractors redid the order, they forgot to order the additional parts that were included with the initial order. Had to order additional parts from Florida.  Shipped overnight ($$).
  • When the boat was hauled out, the stress of the Travelift was the final straw on some parts of our rig that had been showing their age.  Aaron called a rigger to go up the mast and inspect the whole thing. More problems. So, it is decided that we needed to replace the whole rig.
  • With the mess Hurricane Maria left behind, riggers are in high demand. Our original contact told us he’d be able to redo ours in maybe a week. That became two weeks. Then no commitment to any general time.
  • Aaron found another well-reputed rigger who could be available sooner. Measurements were taken. Parts were ordered. From Florida. Waiting, again, for their arrival.  They are on schedule at the time of writing this post.
  • While the boat was on the hard, we were not allowed to live aboard. Not knowing when the saildrive would arrive, we didn’t want to commit to any one place for too long, lest we were able to splash sooner. So, we moved around. We stayed in four places over the course of two weeks. I don’t recommend this.
  • We got kicked out of one of our AirBnB rentals. Yep, kicked. Out. I am still flabbergasted by this. Rather than rehash, you can read the review I posted on the host’s listing.
  • With the boat in the yard, mechanics coming in and out, the boat open to whatever elements were floating around, us off the boat for a lot longer than anticipated, our lovely roach problem resurfaced with vengeance. We tried to battle them ourselves. I gave up and called an exterminator.
  • When the saildrive was finally installed, we were able to splash the boat, since the rigging could be replaced while the boat was in the slip. As soon as the boat was in the water, Aaron and the mechanics tested the engine. Transmission control was reversed – forward was backward, backward was forward. Within an hour, Aaron and a mechanic got it  fixed, but still – really?!

In addition to all of these unforeseen problems, there are the unforeseen costs, which seem to require their own list. Not counting the significant cost to replace the saildrive and the associated labor and splash fees, here goes:

  • Daily charges for the boat being in the yard while we waited for parts to arrive. At Puerto del Rey, the charge to be in the yard is the about same as the charge to be in a slip – roughly $55 a day. We’ve been here one month.
  • At one point, the contractors said they would try to arrange with the marina to forgive some of the days, as the shipping mistakes with the saildrive were not on our end. Nothing has been promised.
  • Charge to have the rigger come assess the boat.
  • Fees for the new rig, hardware and labor. Thousands of dollars.
  • AirBnB fees.
  • Rental car fees.
  • Significant bar tabs, as I’m sure you can imagine.

And of course, there are all of those factors that you can’t put in lists. For me, this past month has been the worst since we have owned this boat. Aaron and I both hit rock bottom so many times, we lost count. Sure, we’ve gone through plenty of hardships, but we’ve never had the boat on the hard this long before. It would have been easier if we knew we’d have to be off for a month – we could have planned, logistically and mentally. But things kept getting pushed back, more problems kept creeping up – we were flailing, with no home base to ground us. All this with Aaron putting in long days at the yard and me trying to juggle work deadlines and Claire.

Aaron splicing an eye into our new outhaul in the AirBnB we were kicked out of, the night before we were kicked out.

Luckily, we are blessed to have amazing friends from Chicago here, Karen and Bruce Randall, who have a home in the mountains about 45 minutes away from the marina. We stayed with them for a few nights in between hotels and AirBnB rentals, but when we got kicked out of the last place, they welcomed us back with open arms and no schedule, letting us know we were welcome until whenever the boat splashed. They saved us in so many ways, and we will forever be grateful.

The view from the Randalls’ house – as wonderful as the company.

The issues with the rigging were a big fat punch in the gut, the cherry on top of this horrible sundae. But, when we purchased the boat with original rigging, we knew it would need to be replaced at some point – we just thought we’d get a few more seasons out of it first. And truly, the bright side here is that, if it had continued to degrade without our knowing, we could have lost the mast while sailing. Replacing the rig here was certainly not in the plans, but if it’s between that and the alternative, I choose that.

What we came back to when the boat was splashed, since Aaron fogged it while it was on the hard. The entire boat was like this. It took three full days just to put it all back together.

Another unforeseen result of this chapter has been watching all of our cruising friends from hurricane season in the DR pass us by. At the start of the season, we all hopscotched along the coast of Puerto Rico, a few boats pulling ahead, others catching up. We weren’t always together, but we were always a port or two away, and we knew we’d see each other again soon.

The cockpit upon return. Sigh…

For some of our friends, though, this is their last season cruising, or they have deadlines of getting to a certain place down-island by a certain time that require them to keep moving. While we’ve been racking up massive bills, they’ve been skipping over to the Spanish Virgin Islands, on to the U.S. Virgin Islands, and over to the BVIs. We may catch up to a few of them, but at this point, it’s a long shot.

This marina has a restaurant, a playground and a market, where we may have purchased some ice cream once or twice.

So of course, on top of dealing with all of the obvious challenges, I’ve felt extremely lonely. Not only did this part of the season not go as planned, but the excitement I had of seeing these amazing places buddy-boating with great friends is gone.

Back on the boat, hacking away at the to-do list! Here, Aaron is routing out a panel to mount our new instrument displays at the helm.

The boat splashed about a week ago and being able to move back on board was HUGE improvement for our sanity. We were able to settle into a rhythm here at the marina, and slowly but surely, the boat is coming back together. We’ve continued to cross out items on the to-do list – since we’re here anyway, why not make headway on things that were put on hold while we were moving?

We’ve also gotten back to a good schedule with Claire, doing homeschooling most mornings with play time in the afternoons. She’s been zipping around the dock on her new Razor scooter and we are fortunate to be in a marina with a playground, a restaurant and a market that sells plenty of ice cream.

And, it’s been a few days since the exterminator was here, with no signs of life since. This battle we’ve been fighting on and off for almost a year (yes, full honesty here – a YEAR), we seem to have finally won.

Our rig arrives tomorrow (fingers crossed) and should be installed by end-of-day Wednesday. We will rent a car for a day and do some final provisioning, and after a short sail to tune the new rig, we should be able to finally sail to the Spanish Virgin Islands next weekend, after a nasty weather window passes.

Our new saildrive, finally installed – all the feels!

I know that once we leave the dock and fill the sails, so much of the weight of this month will be lifted. Our delays have actually aligned schedules so that we can buddy boat to the Spanish Virgin Islands with Bruce and Karen, as they have their charter boat here, before they head back to Puerto Rico and we continue on.

I know that we will keep in touch with our dear cruising friends – maybe we’ll link up with some of them, maybe not, but we’ll stay connected. And I know that these new cruising grounds will gift us with amazing new cruising families.

As Aaron and I always say, this lifestyle brings the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. We’ve been banking a ton of lows, so I’m pretty sure that unicorn-flying, sunburst-shining, mountain-climbing high is right around the corner!

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.

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.

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.