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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Anchoring Off Cumberland

Home sweet home, our anchorage in Fancy Bluff Creek

Home sweet home, our anchorage in Fancy Bluff Creek

Cumberland Island will forever be a favorite for me, both because it’s the first place we’ve ever anchored, and also because of its undisturbed beauty. After a month at the marina in Brunswick, it was the perfect place to reset our minds to cruising again.

The ties to the dock are strong ones – for all three of us. This was the saddest we’ve seen Claire as we’ve left a harbor. It was partly the immediate thought of leaving a community that absolutely adored her. But she’s also getting older and understanding the lifestyle more as we continue to cruise. As much as we say that we hope we’ll see them again in the islands, she knows that it’s unlikely, or at least, it won’t be for a long while in kiddo time.

For us, there’s also the hesitation in leaving a known variable. Being at the dock is extremely convenient. The basics (water, electric) don’t run out, and changes in wind and weather (aside from a developing hurricane, of course) require a changing or tightening of some lines, at most. You aren’t married to the tide schedule and there’s no passing traffic to monitor. It’s just easier.

When we leave the dock, wherever we go, whatever we do, must be a better trade. And while leaving good friends will always be the toughest part of this lifestyle, what’s out there never disappoints.

An hour into our cruise from Brunswick, Claire was still understandably upset by our departure. But as we set our course on the Atlantic, we began to see cannonball jellyfish just below the surface. At first it was a few, and then a few more. And then we realized we were sailing through a bloom that stretched for miles. Claire’s spirits were lifted, as were ours. As we rounded the inlet at Fernandina Beach to head into Cumberland Island, three dolphins kept pace alongside our bow. And that’s to say nothing for what we found on the island the next day.

We anchored in a little cove just off of the southwest corner of the island, with a secluded beach just a five-minute dinghy ride away. In a small stretch of shoreline, we found crabs and shrimp and recent prints from birds, raccoons and possibly wild pigs. We hiked through the maritime forest, watching armadillos hunt through the brush for snacks, and had a picnic lunch at the Dungeness ruins, what remains of a mansion from the Gilded Age. The absolute highlight of the day were the wild horses we passed as they enjoyed a leisurely afternoon. More than 100 live on the 17.5-mile-long island. The pictures at the end of this post show the beauty of the place that my words fall short of conveying.

The excitement was not without its stresses, though. We finally broke the seal and spent our first two nights at anchor, and she held beautifully. But the calm sea state during our first night changed dramatically midday Friday (as we knew it would). Winds built from the north-northeast to a steady 20-25mph and the waves kicked up, a steady thump all night long as they broke across our transom. The boat again held just fine, but it was an evening of constant vigilance with our anchor alarm, making sure we didn’t start dragging toward the few other boats anchored just north of us, or the shoreline. As we gain more experience and confidence with anchoring, the stress will decrease.

After keeping an eye on the marine forecast for a few days, noting the steady projected winds from the northeast, studying the local charts, and leaning on the knowledge of friends who had transited just a few days before, we decided to make way south Saturday morning on the Intracoastal Waterway. Waves of 4-8 feet were predicted out on the Atlantic for at least the next two or three days, and though there would have been plenty for us to do on Cumberland Island if we chose to wait it out, the anchorage wasn’t nearly as comfortable as when we had arrived, and we needed to make way south again, if possible.

Transiting the Intracoastal – yet another feather in the Clarity cap. The five-hour run was a whole different kind of adventure. But more about that in my next post.

For now, we are tucked down below this chilly November evening, a few games of Candyland just finished, with the wind whistling through the rig and the soft crackling of krill munching on our hull.

On Our Way

Clarity's address for the week

Clarity’s address for the week

This past week brought a lot of firsts for Clarity and our cruising life: my two longest sails yet, my first overnight sail, my first night squalls, our first time on a mooring ball.

Two months of hard work behind us, we’re finally starting to enjoy some of the unparalleled perks of this lifestyle.

After a month-long stay at Fort Pierce, we finally cast lines and sailed to Port Canaveral, about 60 nautical miles north. It was a lovely 12-hour sail. Though we had to motor-sail in the beginning, for the last two-thirds, we were able to shut off the engine and truly sail the rest of the way, and all four of us (three crew and boat) said a collective, “Ahhhhhhhhhhh.”

It was only our second sail on the new boat, and Claire and Clarity were in their element. Aaron and I brought the boat into port at high tide, around 12 a.m., while Claire was sound asleep, and tied the lines at the yacht club. We also learned at 4 a.m. how to properly tie the lines to account for five feet of fluctuation between tides :).

Port Canaveral was a huge change from where we’d been. It was lit up like a Christmas tree at midnight with expansive docks for cargo ships bustling through the night shift. A steady stream of container ships, fishing boats and cruise ships shuffled through the channel during our two-day stay.

The highlight was our visit to the Kennedy Space Center. Aaron had been there many years ago as a kid and I had never been. We were absolutely blown away – truly an awe-inspiring and humbling experience. Claire was a trooper during the long, hot day. She’s shown an interest in space in the last few months, a sponge for information on planets and astronauts and outer space. Her excitement when she saw actual rockets and strapped in for a launch simulator filled our hearts.

When we cast lines again on Thursday morning at around 8 a.m., the general plan was to head north to New Smyrna, another 60 nautical miles north, and another stop on our mandatory trek over state lines to Georgia for tax and insurance purposes. Aaron and I had talked about making the run all the way up to St. Augustine, another 40 miles north of New Smyrna, but hadn’t committed to it. A few hours into our sail, we decided, let’s do it.

The 100-mile run would mean that we would have to sail overnight – something Aaron has done many times before on the Race to Mackinac, among others – but something I had never done. It would mean that we would sleep/sail in shifts throughout the night, allowing each other some windows to recharge. As we tucked Claire in at around 8:30 p.m. and prepared for the evening, I was excited. We had both sails out and the winds had been steady. I took the first shift and it seemed like it would be fairly straightforward, albeit tiring.

It wasn’t quite as simple as that. We had checked the radar when we departed and the forecast looked good. But as can always happen, some unpredicted storms developed along the shoreline in the early evening that eventually crept out on the ocean as they intensified. The long and short of it is that Aaron and I wound up sailing through two squalls in the middle of the night. Lots of lightning, strong gusts of winds from all directions, rain coming in sideways. Aaron manned the helm, as the confused winds and seas were too much for the autopilot, and I ran around securing things down below and helping up top when I could.

Overall, the boat did great, we were perfectly safe, and Claire slept through it both times (?!!) – but it was exhausting, and going through a storm like that in the dark, with no horizon or shoreline to focus on, was disorienting, not to mention a little frightening. Adding insult to injury, during the squalls, we made no progress north and had even drifted backward a little.

The storms passed by around 2:30 or 3 a.m. and Aaron sent me down below to grab some sleep. We switched at around 4 and then he came up to join me at 6, when the first few signs of light were starting to show on the horizon. We watched the sun come up over the Atlantic together – an experience I’ll never forget and can’t wait to repeat – and by 7:30 a.m., Claire was up, ready to face the day.

The rest of the sail was lovely, as it had been the day before. Aaron and I rested a bit here and there, but for the most part, the adrenaline of finally getting to St. Augustine was enough to keep us plugged in. Aaron navigated us through the tricky inlet at around 1 p.m., and by 2, we were safely docked in our slip for the night. Utterly wrecked, we were also so proud. That sail felt like such an accomplishment, to both of us. Proof that we could do it, even if unforeseen conditions arose. Further proof that we were a good team, and that we could trust our boat. And also that Claire did so well, happily playing, getting good rest, excited for the adventures in the next port. Needless to say, we all fell asleep early that night and slept a LONG time.

St. Augustine has been a much-needed breath of fresh air, as so many people told us it would be. History, architecture, and endless places to explore. After our first night at a slip, we moved the boat to a mooring ball. It’s essentially like anchoring, except you hook your boat onto a fixed ball. Your boat swings 360 degrees with the tide and current, and you have no electrical or water hookup. It is as close as you can get to how we will be living the vast majority of our time cruising, without having to worry about the anchor dragging.

We signed a week-long contract, and it’s been incredible seeing the fruits of more than two months of work to make sure the proper systems are in order to live off the grid. Our solar panels charge up our batteries quite nicely, with plenty of power for all of our outlets. We filled up both water tanks before we left the slip and have plenty to accommodate showers, cooking, drinking and whatever else we need. Our dinghy takes us to shore each day, and last night when we got back to the boat, we kicked on our generator to run the air conditioning and cool down the boat for sleeping. We even picked up a few free local digital channels on the TV in the aft cabin. The only system we haven’t tested yet is our water maker, but we have a few months left to get that in order.

Life is good. Our hearts are full, our batteries are recharged. I’m starting to really believe that we can do this, and realizing that at the same time, we already are.

The New Plan

Trumpet

Creativity at its finest! Boat parts as instruments.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned since this new chapter began is that plans and schedules are for the birds. Anything that’s not based first on the weather, second on boat preparedness and third on finances is quickly scrapped. And our sanity fits in there somewhere, too :).

Based on my last post, the plan was to stay in Fort Pierce for a few days and then continue heading north, with the next stop being Port Canaveral. I was jazzed about this plan. Finally, Clarity could spread her wings! We wouldn’t be tied to a dock!

We’re tied to a dock. And here’s why. Once we guided Clarity in safely after that full-day sail last week Thursday, Aaron and I were tired, both from the sail and from all the prep the days before departure to get the final necessary boat projects sorted to move her. We spent Friday and Saturday exploring town and Saturday night, we started looking more in depth into the forecast for a Monday or Tuesday departure. Sure, sunny skies (with occasional passing showers) were forecasted all week. But a comfortable sail relies on a lot more than that.

For Monday and Tuesday, the seas would be calm, but the wind was forecasted to blow straight from the north, which means we would have been fighting it the whole way up the coast, and Port Canaveral is about a 14-hour sail from here. From Wednesday on, the wind was more favorable, but the seas would be kicked up to 4-foot waves. As Claire and I get acclimated, we’ll be able to handle these fine, but this early on, we’re just not there yet, so likely she or I or both of us would be sick. I like to avoid that whenever possible.

You may also remember from my previous posts about Riviera Beach that here in Florida, once you’ve paid the transient rate for about seven or eight days at a marina, you’ve paid for the month. That’s just how it works. So, if we left after the seas calmed down some, we’d be leaving and paying the transient rates at these new marinas while this slip that we already paid for for the next three weeks would be sitting vacant, and with this lifestyle, we just couldn’t justify that. So, after a day or two of going back and forth, we signed the contract. Harbortown Marina is our home for the next three weeks, and this past week has proven in spades that it was the right decision.

First, it allowed us to take the throttle off the long list of boat projects that still need to be done and do them at a more leisurely pace, and while we weren’t also trying to make headway north. We work on the boat every day, but we have time to play, now, too, and not feel like every minute we’re spending family time, we’re getting behind. This also allows us some time to practice, both with the dinghy and with the boat itself. I’m getting more comfortable launching and driving the dinghy myself, and in the next few weeks, we will practice anchoring the boat in some of the protected coves here in the ICW, so that when we do head north, we can stay on the hook in a few of the ports and save the transient dockage fees.

Harbortown is also a lot more comfortably equipped than our last marina. We have a pool right at the end of our dock, really nice (and CLEAN!) showers, and a boater’s lounge with desks, couches, and games and books for Claire. It’s also a safe marina, meaning that if a hurricane does develop, we can leave our boat here (if you’re not in a designated safe marina, they kick you out). And there’s a lot more that we can bike and dinghy to here in Fort Pierce – a quaint downtown, an aquarium, the local library, museums, beaches, islands, grocery stores, etc.

We’ve also been able to establish more of a routine for Claire. Generally, we hang around the boat in the morning, having a leisurely breakfast before getting into reading/writing/crafting time until lunch or so. Aaron and I will trade off, one of us with Claire while the other tackles boat projects or work deadlines. Then, in the afternoon, we spend time as a family, whether that means launching the dinghy and heading to town or a beach, or sticking around the marina and enjoying the pool and the lounge. We’re usually back on board in time for me to get dinner started.

The cherry on top has been that a few days after we signed the contract, we met another liveaboard family just a few slips down on our dock. The couple is fantastic – warm, friendly, down-to-earth, fun. And they have a six-and-a-half-year-old son, Leo, who gets along great with Claire. They’re here getting their boat ready to head to the Caribbean about the same time we are, and it’s been such a breath of fresh air finally meeting some boating buddies and developing new friendships for the three of us.

So where do we go from here? We are “definitely” heading north mid-September, port-hopping our way up the Florida coast to Brunswick, Georgia, right over the border. Since we bought the boat as out-of-state residents, we are required to vacate the state within 90 days of the purchase. We’ll choose from a few safe-harbor marinas in the area and spend the month waiting out the rest of hurricane season and continuing to ready the boat before we make our way back south again and cross over to the Bahamas.

Slowly but surely, we are settling in, and every day, it feels more and more like home.

First Family Sail

DSCN2682There were times in the last month that I thought, we are never going to leave this dock. Our boat is literally putting down roots in this slip. Projects will weigh us down and drown us before we ever fill her sails.

But she sails. Beautifully. Comfortably. This floating home and her crew are finally finding their bearings.

After a very busy and exhausting month, all the way through the night before departure, we cast lines on Thursday morning and guided the boat out to the Atlantic Ocean. We had tested and readied as much as we could with the engine and other critical systems, but truthfully, we weren’t completely sure how the day would unfold. Would the engine quit? Would there be problems with the rigging? We haven’t developed the trust in this boat yet that we had in the Pearson. But this first family sail was the beginning.

With a slow but steady breeze from the east, we put up both sails and made our way north with some aid from the engine. Sure, hoisting the main took more effort, since the sail is older and baggier and doesn’t slide easily through its track. And yes, it was really choppy through the channel out to the ocean Claire and I both started feeling it and once we were out, though the waves were minimal, there was a steady swell. But once we got the sails hoisted and the boat flattened out, so did our tummies. A bit out of practice, we are reminding ourselves how to best tackle these longer day passages. We didn’t need a perfect sail; we needed an uneventful one, and we got it.

We made it to our slip in Fort Pierce at dusk, exhausted but renewed, and have been exploring town the last few days with some boat projects thrown in. The plan is to leave tomorrow for Port Canaveral, roughly 60 nautical miles north.

The vast to-do list is still there, the challenges and adjustments to our new life continue, but finally with some forward momentum, it feels as though a huge weight has been lifted.

It’s funny – we’ve been at this a little more than a month now, and looking back, we’ve already come such a long way, earning our stripes as we go.

 

Landlubbers in Sturgeon Bay

Fall has descended on Sturgeon Bay! A week ago, we were gladly dipping our toes in the chilly Lake Michigan water, cooling off from the 90-degree days in blissfully oppressive sunshine. Today, for a trip to town, pants and fleece jackets were in order, and I found myself wishing I had a pair of gloves.

I was prepared for colder weather up north, but frankly, this is just ridiculous. Fifty-degree days and winds steady at 15-20 mph, for at least two days now. And with the wind from the west, the waves build as they head east to Door County and max out at five- to seven-footers. That’s pretty much a sailing death sentence for Claire, as she gets seasick in fours, and likely for me, too. So, we’ve had plenty of time getting to know the ins and outs of this port.

Luckily, Sturgeon Bay is a gem, with plenty to keep us busy: Toy stores and book stores that keep Claire entertained for hours, friendly neighborhood coffee shops and bakeries to satisfy my caffeine addiction (I’ll admit it – coffee shops are my security blanket). And Sturgeon Bay is a bustling maritime community: Aaron and I have both enjoyed window shopping at Palmer Johnson Yachts and ogling the barges and freighters lined up for fixes at Bay Shipbuilding.

We’ve also been fortunate to be spending the extra days at a marina that has a gorgeous clubhouse, where I can fix our dinners in a full kitchen and we can cuddle up on the couches and catch some cable before heading back to Clarity.

The weather is supposed to break a bit tomorrow, with the waves dissipating and the temperatures slowly creeping their way back up throughout the week. The plan is to finally cast lines tomorrow morning, after four (GASP!) nights here, and head to Egg Harbor. Fingers crossed that a fish boil is in our future!

Land, Ho! Milwaukee!

We did it! Clarity is cruising once again!

As many cruisers know, casting the first lines of the trip is often the hardest part – so much tethers us to land. There are so many reasons that we should stay in Chicago and do the daily grind. But as soon as the skyline is in our wake, I remember why we do this.

See pics from our weekend sails here!

On Saturday, we sailed with 10-15 knots out of the northeast and were able to fly both the jib and the main for six hours out of our eight-hour run. It was overcast and a bit chilly out there. I was also reminded as the waves kicked up (unforecasted) to occasional three-footers, that yep, I do get seasick. A few seasons under my belt helped me keep it in check, though, and overall, it was a great trip up to North Point Marina in Winthrop Harbor, just south of the Wisconsin border.

Sunday morning, a lovely couple saw our Columbia Yacht Club flag and invited us to the Winthrop Harbor Yacht Club for their $5 breakfast (we get reciprocal rights with most yacht clubs). We swapped sailing tales over scrambled eggs and pancakes and they helped us cast lines late morning as we pointed north once again.

The plan was to make a quick run up to Racine; the wind was straight out of the north and on our nose, so we wouldn’t be able to sail anyway. But just before we put the blinker on to turn left into port, the wind shifted to the northeast and the fog started to lift. Claire was happy as a clam and we thought, let’s just keep going! We cut the engine, rolled out the sails, and five hours later, we tied up at Milwaukee Yacht Club.

We’ll be here for a few days, meeting up with friends and taking advantage of the high-speed Wi-Fi to knock out some work.

It’s hard to believe it was so hard to cast those lines back at 31st Street…

November Sails in September

Mother Nature and Lake Michigan have not been particularly friendly to us this week, as we’ve been slowly but surely making our way south.

Cold, dreary, rainy, foggy – all those attributes you look for in a lovely September sail! It’s been highs in the 50s during the day and lows in the 40s at night. As I wore the same pair of pants three days in a row because my other pair was already in the laundry, I learned that I didn’t pack appropriately. And investing in foul weather gear might be a good idea before next year’s cruise. Helly Hanson, do you also make sets for toddlers?

After a bear of a day sailing to Frankfort, we had the same conditions all the way to Ludington the next day, and then we got socked in for two days as the wind howled and the waters got angry. The middle of the lake saw 18-footers on Wednesday. Tucked in safe in sound at Harbor View Marina, we enjoyed the library and the cozy fireplace, though we were bummed that the hot tub was closed for the season.

On Thursday, Aaron’s mother, Penny, and her husband, Brian, visited us with the best gifts we could hope for – jars of homemade chili, cornbread muffins and freshly baked chocolate cupcakes. We dug around town with a stop at the library (one of the best around for kids), ate some ice cream at House of Flavors and shared dinner on the boat before they headed home.

Friday, we caught a window before more storms set in and sailed to Pentwater. Our friends Jack and Dawn drove up to join us for dinner at the yacht club, and then we joined them at Muskegon Yacht Club, their home port, the next day after a six-hour sail. Hours of chats, laughs around a bonfire – they’ve become fast friends that I know will be friends for years.

Then today, it was on to Holland. I was looking forward to an easier sail – the last two had been rough, as the lake hadn’t calmed down after the cold front settled in. All of the forecasts called for waves of 1 to 2 feet, and the sun started shining just as we cast lines. Finally, a calm, sunny sail! Well, as can happen, the forecasts were wrong, and as soon as we were halfway through the channel and headed out to the lake, it got lumpy. We sailed 2- to 4-foot waves with 10- to 15-knots of wind the whole way down.

And a miracle occurred. I didn’t feel sick. In fact, I loved it! For the first time, I was able to fully enjoy sailing in those conditions, the jib out, us hauling down the lake, riding the waves at a 15-degree heel. It seems that my exposure to longer sails in waves has helped me curb my symptoms. Maybe if we lived full-time on our boat year round, I’d get to a point where I don’t get seasick at all :).

We sailed, rather than motored, up the channel to Lake Macatawa – something we did on the way in to the last two ports, and something that just felt good to do, seeing as we’re a sailboat. We got the boat settled at Anchorage Marina, Claire took a swim in the heated pool and we all collapsed in our spaghetti. And it dawned on me that today was our last full family sail day. If only we could do this forever…

 

Days of Detours

Well, the last two days were not our finest.

After we finally made a break for it and got out of Beaver Island Friday evening, we spent a lovely Saturday in beautiful Charlevoix. Family and friends came to visit, we dug through town, browsing the shops and tasting the latest local fare. Claire took a dip in the splash pad, I did some laundry… Back to “the usual” for cruising life.

With a need to finally turn this boat south and start heading back to the big city, we had plans to make it to South Manitou Island yesterday and anchor out, and put in a long day today, too.

I’ll be honest – yesterday I was not at my best. Claire woke up on the wrong side of the bed – no nap the day before, part of the cause – and was particularly crabby. And in order to make full days on the water enjoyable for all (which they definitely can be), Aaron and I have to be creative to keep Claire entertained. For whatever reason, I just didn’t have it in me, and when the waves started building about an hour after we crossed the bridge, nobody was happy, including the captain.

The wind was right on our nose, which meant no sailing, and it also meant we were bashing into the waves, which kicked up to four feet. At that point, we’re not a sailboat anymore – we’re a really, really slow powerboat. After a few hours, we cried uncle and headed for Northport, just inside Grand Traverse Bay.

We had visited Northport during a week-long charter five or six years ago, and I didn’t have fond memories of it. But Aaron remembered that they had put $500k into renovating the marina and coastline recently, and a friend had told us they were making great efforts to revitalize the town.

It’s now one of our favorite stops of the cruise. The marina was quaint and cute, with clean facilities and a little beach and park nearby. A hop, skip and a jump to town and we were browsing a beer, wine and gift shop that opened just three weeks ago in the old train depot, and the outdoor fireplace of the Northport Brewing Company invited us farther into town.

After sharing some flights of the local brews and some easy conversation with some fellow boaters, we happened on Tucker’s just down the main street. We treated ourselves to some pizza and bowling, and they treated us like a million bucks – the owner even had his wife at home just down the road pop out of the shower to bring us socks!

Another beautiful sunset and a lively chat with another lovely boating couple on the way back to town, and we were re-energized, prepared to really give it our all the next day.

Today started out well enough – sunny and bright, relatively warm, and calm seas in the bay. We had even made it off the dock before 9 a.m. – a first for the cruise! But early on, we couldn’t keep the main sail full – the wind was back on our nose – so down came the sails, with the engine on full blast. And then, the waves picked up again.

And they kept coming, and coming, and coming – a steady three to four feet, with an occasional five. Anyone who’s sailed the Great Lakes knows that the period between the waves here is extremely small (compared to waves on the ocean). From 2 p.m. on, it was as though we were skiing the moguls with out boat, and making terrible time to boot.

Unfortunately, we were too far past Leland to turn around and just head in, and knew we had quite a few hours to go before Frankfort. At that point, you just have to suck it up and keep going. I felt seasick, but managed to keep it at bay – I’m getting better at this with more time on the water. Claire did get seasick once, but then she was back to her giggly self.

Yet, even on days like today, there’s so much to be thankful for. As fussy as Claire was yesterday morning, she was a dream today, happy as a clam, even through the worst of the waves. Her happiness helped me keep things in check; I learn from her every day.

And though it was a rough ride, Clarity (and Aaron) got us to Frankfort safe and sound before dusk, the engine purring like a kitten the whole way (albeit a very loud kitten).

Tomorrow, we’ll spend a few hours letting Claire stretch her legs on land before taking to the seas again. I can only hope they’ll be a bit more forgiving.

See Ya Later, Chicago!

ClaireSunglassesFinally this boating season, stars and schedules have aligned! Tomorrow, we cast lines and head to Michigan for three or four weeks.

The plan? Live on our boat full-time, make our way north and see as much as possible before throwing the trip in reverse. We are so excited and blessed to be able to do this. Also, the decision to pull the trigger and go was not one we took lightly.

Interested parties can find any number of sailing blogs out there, though I don’t know of any others focused on sailing the Great Lakes with a toddler. But many families are cruising the Caribbean, or even circumnavigating the globe, and documenting their experiences. I’ve actually gotten frustrated reading some of those blogs lately. The pictures are beautiful, and the stories are alluring! But I don’t find them altogether honest. I’ll always be honest here.

Aaron and I had countless conversations about whether or not we should take this trip – not because it wouldn’t be an amazing experience, but in order to make sure we really wanted to take on all of the extra weight that comes with it. Last year, we did a similar trip, and for a similar length of time, so we have a pretty good idea of what we’re in for. With any sailing trip, though, there’re bound to be surprises.

What if weather and waves kick up while we’re sailing? I will likely get seasick, though I’m finding better ways to manage this. Also, if I’m sick, it’s almost a guarantee that Claire is, too. And then the bulk of the responsibility for sailing the boat and getting us safely to shore falls on Aaron. And that’s a heavy burden for him if I’m not at my best as co-skipper.

What if Claire gets a cold while we’re gone? What if she enters another lovely phase of being 2 years old, testing even more boundaries? What if, an hour into a six-hour sail to our destination, she decides she wants off the boat? And then refuses her nap?

What if we’re out and the autopilot quits? Or the steering fails? Or our engine or batteries shut down? Do we have a back-up plan for as many situations as possible? Are we prepared for emergencies?

What if Aaron and I get into a fight while we’re out there? Clarity’s 36 feet can seem pretty cramped in situations like that, and it’s not as if one person can just go for a drive to burn off steam.

(I bring all of these scenarios up because they’ve all happened at one point or another.)

And can we get things organized enough at home to be comfortable leaving for that long? What about work, for both Aaron and me? Oh, and somebody has to stop in on Tink regularly, too!

Then, of course, there’s the financial consideration. Sure, we will be taking our “home” with us wherever we go, but unless we anchor out, we will be paying for slips in every harbor we stop at. These can run anywhere from $35 to $75 per night, sometimes even more, depending on if we stay in a relatively basic municipal marina or a fancy private one with a swimming pool and a hot tub (yes please!).

The truth is, while we’re gone, we will be paying for our condo in Oak Park, paying for our slip at 31st Street Harbor, and paying for our transient slip. G. U. L. P.

I mention all of this to explain that, in order to do this, you really have to want to do it. And you have to accept the inevitable challenges of a trip like this – and embrace them!

Luckily, Aaron and I are both realists, and at the same time, adventurists. With as clear a view as we can have, we are so excited that everything came together and we are able to “take to the sea” once again.

So, here’s the plan:

Aaron will be sailing Clarity over to either South Haven or Holland tomorrow (something he felt was important to do on his own), and I will be driving with Claire to Grand Rapids to visit with his family for a day or two. Then, while Claire and Grandma have some bonding time, I will do my big shopping trip to provision the boat for the next three weeks.

Aaron will likely take the boat one more stop up to Grand Haven and we will rendezvous there as a family on Tuesday, spending a day getting settled before pointing the bow north and seeing where the wind takes us. We will both be working remotely while we’re gone (how fortunate is that?!).

There will be lots of adventures and lots of pictures – I’ll be sure to share them with you! And I’ll be taking notes on each port to create a guide for anyone who hopes to follow in our footsteps, either wet or dry, with their kiddos.

Inevitably, there will be some trying times, and I’m sure we’ll get into some pickles. We always do. I promise to share those moments, too.

See you on the flip side!

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