The Beautiful Exumas

We’ve been in the Exumas now for about two months and in Georgetown for almost a month – such a long stint that, quite frankly, we’re starting to worry that our anchor is growing roots.

This island chain has brought us both extremes. When we first crossed over from Eleuthera, we entered the Exuma Land and Sea Park, which was the most remote location we’ve experienced to date. No settlements, no stores, no restaurants, no connection, for miles. In a few of the anchorages, we were the only boat in site. But there was unparalleled beauty in untouched beaches, ragged cliffs, vibrant reefs and waters in varying shades of blues that pictures just don’t completely capture. It was the most beautiful place we’ve ever been.

As we made our way south out of the park, we came to settled islands, like Staniel Cay and Little Farmer’s Cay, and the reintroduction to civilization was a bit strange. (Where did all of these people come from?!) But the warm embrace of conversation with others and a meal I didn’t have to prepare myself was magic.

Eventually, we made our way to Georgetown, the capital of the Exumas, and a cruising mecca. Some boats cruising the Bahamas make Georgetown their southernmost stop before heading north back to the States and to Canada. Others stop in for a month or two before venturing further south to the Turks and Caicos and the Dominican Republic. And still others drop anchor here and don’t leave. Never before have we seen so many cruisers in one place, with bays off of Stocking Island lit up like Christmas trees every evening from the bevy of swaying anchor lights. Hamburger beach, honeymoon beach, sand dollar beach, volleyball beach – each anchorage its own little community.

Every morning at 8 a.m. on VHF channel 72, the cruisers’ net is broadcasted. It includes the forecast, the events for the day (morning water aerobics, afternoon coconut painting, volleyball games, trivia and poker nights, etc.), general boating inquiries, and arrivals and departures. Even without organized events, the beauty of this area lends itself to countless activities.

Town is a dinghy ride from our anchorage across Elizabeth Harbor, and you can find most things that you need, provided your expectations aren’t too high and your wallet is fairly padded. The grocery store is decently stocked, especially if you go right after the mail boat has docked, and there’s a cute little library that’s open sporadically. Imagine – the full complement of The Magic Treehouse books, here in the middle of nowhere!

One of our favorite spots is Driftwood Café, with tasty food, excellent coffee and sassy staff. They know me and Claire by name, of course. And I buy fresh organic eggs from one of the women who works there. She brings them from her home, where she and her husband tend to more than 100 chickens. Because that’s how we roll in the Bahamas.

Most of Claire’s birthday presents were purchased from the Straw Market, a tent of fold-up tables were local artisans sell their wares. Some items are sourced from Nassau, but Claire picked out a reversible doll from one of the stalls that the woman sewed herself, and I watched another woman make a larger version of the colorful straw basket I bought for Claire.

Between adventures with other cruisers, outings to town, boat projects, work deadlines, beach bonfires, lovely visits from friends and family, and countless other things that unfold each morning, we’ve settled into quite a comfortable groove here.

Still, that wanderlust is starting to creep in, wondering what’s around the next corner…

Green Turtle to Great Guana

The most beautiful princess and her Great Guana sunset

The most beautiful princess and her Great Guana sunset

Finally, we are getting on island time – taking a deep breath and allowing ourselves the opportunity to enjoy where we are, even if it means putting a few non-essential projects on hold.

Due to a cold front that made traveling further south with Clarity impossible, we spent two weeks in Green Turtle Cay, but it turned out to be such a blessing. We tucked into a cozy little anchorage in White Sound that was surrounded by gorgeous resorts and was a short dinghy ride to town. Just a few days in, we met another cruising family that’s spending the better part of the winter in the Abacos on Wild Child, their Beneteau. Their daughter, Marleigh, is Claire’s age, and the two became fast friends, running like kitties along the beaches and setting up coconut stands.

Amazingly, a few days after that, we spotted Dark Horse anchored just off the island. Just a month ago, we celebrated Christmas in Florida with a couple of cruising families – one of them being Dark Horse, an incredible force of six (four kids aged 8 months, 2, 7 and 9) who have been living on their schooner for three years. We guided them into our anchorage in Green Turtle, and like that, our community grew again.

We explored the island together and the kids climbed trees and put on magic shows while the rest of us bathed in the warmth of adult conversation – heightened by healthy doses of wine, rum and moonshine. We took our dinghies over to No Name Cay to feed the wild pigs. The men convened to share charts and review forecasts.

And when the weather window did lift, we caravanned down to anchor off of Great Guana Cay together, spending the next three days doing school and work on our respective boats in the morning and meeting in the afternoons for snorkeling, diving, fishing and sandcastle-building.

Finding this, a “family,” friends for Claire and for us, was one of the things I was most worried about when we decided to leave all that was familiar in Chicago. To have found a taste of it this soon was an unbelievable gift.

As another cold front was bearing down, the three of us parted ways to find safe harbor – Dark Horse to Marsh Harbor, Wild Child to Hope Town, and us to Man-O-War Cay. We hope to meet again before our paths further divide. Dark Horse plans to leave the Abacos sooner than we will, as their draft prevents them from comfortably cruising the southern cays here, and this is the end of the road for Wild Child, heading back to the States in another month or two.

For now, we’ll enjoy the next week on our mooring in Man-O-War as our cozy little community of three.

Changes in Latitudes…

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Our little fish, snorkeling in the lagoon off of Peanut Island

We’ve only been here two weeks, and it’s fascinating to me how much my attitude has changed on things that used to be so important to me.

I’m sure part of this was my own personal hang-ups, but back in Oak Park, I would never leave the house without my makeup on and my hair done. Here, with this heat and with our daily routine, I’ve taken to wearing no makeup the vast majority of the time. It’s so hot morning through night that it all sweats off anyway, for one. For two, I’m wearing sunscreen all day, which doesn’t mix well with makeup. For three, we’re swimming all the time, so mascara is pointless. And four, I’ve just come to a point where I don’t care. And you know what? I’m pretty happy about that.

Another thing that was important to me back at home was my clothing – cute dresses, skirts paired with trendy shirts, anything from Anthropologie. Here, what’s comfortable and airy takes the cake. Yesterday, I returned our rental car in shorts and a tank top that prior to moving aboard, I never wore out of our bedroom. And skirts and dresses while constantly climbing on and off and up and down the boat, or on and off the dinghy? Not practical.

Aaron’s also never worn so little clothes in his life – shirtless for the vast majority of the day. And he hasn’t worn socks in 30 days – he actually marked the calendar June 30 – and he hasn’t done his hair in weeks. “What comes out is what it is,” he says. I think that’s an excellent approach to life in general.

Our expectation of a “comfortable temperature” has also changed. Yes, we have air-conditioning on the boat and it has been working well (knock on wood), but we keep it at around 82 or 83 down below (yes, that is dramatically cooler than outside). And of course, we want to get outside, too. So, basically, we avoid the sun midday, but otherwise just put up with the heat – all three of us. A constant state of stickiness has become the norm, and we cool down not with air-conditioning a lot of the time, but with a rinse-down. The first few days, Claire understandably complained about the heat even just from the walk from the parking lot to the boat. Now, she rarely mentions it. Such a trooper, that kiddo.

The “schedule” of a day, for the most part, has also fallen by the wayside. Already, we have to remind ourselves what day of the week it is, and we usually don’t know what time it is. Eating has taken an interesting turn, in that we just don’t do a whole lot of it (save for Claire, for whom eating is an ongoing highlight of her day 🙂 ). Aaron and I either get wrapped up in what we’re doing, or it’s just plain too hot and we don’t feel like eating much more than something light. Aaron also doesn’t have a set time for lunch, like he did when his days at the office included his lunch hour. We’re drinking a whole lot more water, though. Probably the amount we should have been drinking all along.

Oh, and Netflix and Amazon Prime? Cable? What are those again? A staple of my day back in Oak Park (I’ll admit it) has become not even a factor of life here. The marina’s Wi-Fi doesn’t extend to our dock, and though we could connect with Aaron’s cell hotspot to stream, we just, haven’t.

Daily life has become a mixture of projects to tackle, deadlines to meet, and exciting adventures. Since my last post, we’ve found quite a few more issues with the boat, and some that we knew about already have become much bigger in scope. But we’re trying to take it all in stride and pace ourselves as best we can, with the goal of getting this boat off the dock sooner than later.

And we made one very, very important purchase – our brand new RIB (rigid-inflatable boat), which will serve as our family car! More on that in the next post. We want to give Claire as much ownership in our new lifestyle as possible, so we decided to let her name the dinghy. It’s been pretty hilarious hearing her additions to the shortlist. I’m planning a little boat-christening party and name unveiling. You can probably imagine some of the contenders :).

Life is changing quickly for us here! Can’t wait to see what a few more weeks bring.

Getting Settled

Claire swam for the first time without a floatie on Monday. On Wednesday, we were back at the pool with full snorkel gear for the whole family to practice for an outing this weekend to a nearby hotspot. She never wanted to come up to the surface!

My two favorite fish!

Claire swam on her own for the first time a few days ago. Something clicked at just the right time, she remembered what she’s learned from classes and practice, and was brave enough to get over her fear. And once she started, she never went back.

It happened in the middle of the day on Monday at a nearby pool, when Aaron normally would have been at the office all day. Except that he was there, encouraging her to keep swimming to him a little bit further, a little bit further each time. We were both there to see it.

That’s one of the many reasons why we’re doing this – to experience these amazing life moments together.

We’ve been here five days now (has it only been five days?!), and we’ve already had some amazing highs. The lows have been there, too. When we arrived at the boat, I was overjoyed and felt the same immediate sense of “this is home” that I experienced when we flew out to see her for the first time. But truthfully, those first three or four days, I was not at my finest.

After the long road trip from Oak Park, we got here and immediately dove into unloading all of our life possessions from the rental van. In the grand scheme of things, we didn’t bring much, but in cruising terms, we had triple what we should have. We were again buried in boxes, and you all know by now how well I do with that.

It also doesn’t help that our boat is in a slip that is about as far from the parking lot as you can possibly get, so Aaron and I had to haul countless loads of boxes in small dock carts in heat so oppressive you’re almost immediately drenched. We still aren’t done unpacking, but finally, in the last day or two, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel of “stuff.”

We’ve also shifted course a bit from our original plan to maintain our sanity (or find mine) and to not dive head first into absolutely everything at once (after all, isn’t moving across the country onto a boat enough for one month? 🙂 ). Originally, after getting here Saturday afternoon, we were planning to return the rental car on Wednesday and leave Riviera Beach City Marina, on the Intracoastal Waterway where our boat is docked, within a few days. We had our reasons and they were good ones – this marina is extremely expensive and with hardly any amenities, and we are still planning to head north to Georgia or South Carolina to wait out hurricane season.

But the next logical port is about an eight-hour run away. We managed to get all of our boxes out of the van, but our things were by no means put away yet. Aaron and I both had work deadlines. Boat issues had to be fixed (the air conditioner needed attention, there was a fuel leak with the generator, etc.) Not to mention the fact that we have had no time to get the boat off the dock, even for a short run to hoist the sails and check the engine.

Oh, and we have a 4-year-old 24-7 now who needs our attention, too.

It was all just too much pressure, and we thought, at least for this first month, let’s just give ourselves a break. We signed a lease for another month here (though we will likely leave sooner than that), and since there’s not really anything in walking distance here, we thought, what the heck, let’s just rent a car for another week. Sure, all of these decisions amount to more money than we were planning to spend this month. But sometimes, you have to make a decision based on what’s best for the family. There’s plenty of time for us to settle into this lifestyle a bit more gradually.

It’s been a trip, to be sure, but as I mentioned, there have also been unbelievable moments of joy. Like when Claire lit up in a monster-sized grin when she saw her room for the first time, or when she felt the ocean on her feet for the first time. Like when she swam on her own, or when we drove to the local snorkel/scuba outfitters and got gear for the whole family. We immediately went to the pool to have her try out her mask and tube, and right away, swimming underwater opened up a whole new world for her that she refused to leave all afternoon. There’s a highly rated snorkeling spot called Peanut Island almost spitting distance from our boat, and we’re planning to head there in the next few days.

Tomorrow morning, I will wake up with the sunrise, brew some coffee, sneak out while Claire and Aaron are still sleeping, and drive to the beach to start my day with the rhythm of the waves . I think it will be another one of the highs for this first week. And also, something that becomes part of my daily routine. What an amazing thought…