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.

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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.

So, what now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What? ANOTHER hurricane? That’s just whack.

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

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

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

Or not.

So what now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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