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.

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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.

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.

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.

In Love With the DR

The Dominican Republic for us has been like a once-in-a-lifetime romance: you fall in love fast, and you fall in love hard.

Maybe it’s because we limped into this country beaten down and losing hope. But I think it’s because the DR is magical in such a pure, well-rounded way that isn’t limited to beautiful beaches (though those are here, too).

The DR oozes life and offers a diversity in terrain and ambience that’s staggering. In a handful of miles, you can travel from a tranquil fishing town to rolling farmland to lush mountains to pulsing watersport enclaves. The people are friendly and welcoming, the cuisine is delicious, and the price is right.

This place has been totally unexpected and exactly what we needed – so much so that we’ve changed our cruising plans. We originally planned to make a brief stop here on our way to Puerto Rico for hurricane season. But after just a few weeks here, it became clear that breezing through town on the way east would never be enough time. We also realized just how much protection from hurricanes the Luperon Bay offers – much more than the marinas in Puerto Rico – and it’s a much, much cheaper option.

And, a few of the amazing cruising families we met in Georgetown are here and are also staying here for hurricane season. Being able to spend more time with them, and have Claire spend more time with her favorite cruising buddies, sealed it for us.

With the boat safely tucked away in Luperon, we rented a home in Cabarete for a week and will fly home to the States next week to visit friends and family and take care of some technological needs (like fixing Aaron’s computer and replacing his phone, both of which got fried on the crossing here).

The next four or five months promise everything we need to refuel: a break from the boat, a trip home, and the excitement when we return of traveling a country we’ve already come to love.

Life is good.

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.

Crash Course in Island Healthcare

whiningfeeHave you ever wondered what you’d do if you stuck a bean up your nose in a remote location?

No?

Us either. Turns out, we should have.

We’ve been in the Abacos for almost two weeks now, and we’ve already had some amazing pinch-me moments.

But one thing to remember – we are reminded every day – is that we are not on vacation. This is our life. And with that comes the expected tasks (laundry, cooking, cleaning, school, work, boat projects), and the unanticipated ones.

On Sunday morning, as I was preparing some meals for the week, Claire asked to see a few of the dried black beans I had out. And then she proceeded to stick one up her nose.

“I wanted to see what it would feel like.” I don’t know what else to say about the act itself. For the longest time, we thought she was joking. But that’s a pretty specific experience she put together. Turns out the joke was on us.

Now, in the States, I’d just throw her in the car and take her to the nearest walk-in clinic so they could suck it out and we could be on about our day. (We tried and tried and tried all of the obvious ways here on the boat to get it out.) But in the out-islands of the Bahamas, when you live on a sailboat, things work a little differently.

We are fortunate that the island we’re currently at (Green Turtle Cay) is developed enough that there’s a clinic – however, it’s only open Monday through Friday and there’s no after-hours emergency line to call. So, Monday morning, we piled into a golf cart rented by another cruising family we’ve come to know here and headed to town.

“Oh, no. We can’t fix that here. It’s way up there? No, we don’t have a tool for that here. You’ll have to go to the mainland for that.” (Keep in mind that I had gritted my teeth and paid for the expensive call to the clinic when it first opened that morning to explain the problem and make sure they’d be able to see us.)

Well, the ‘mainland’ is the northern part of Great Abaco Island, across the Sea of Abaco from where we are, and we had two options: Cooper’s Town and Marsh Harbor. The former is a smaller town but still with a government clinic allegedly more well-equipped than the one at Green Turtle Cay. Marsh Harbor is the third-largest city in the Bahamas, with robust medical facilities, but farther away (i.e. more expensive for travel). And with a cold front that has settled in the Abacos like a cold that won’t quit, the seas are kicked up and we don’t want to move the boat out of our protected anchorage.

So, luckily again, there’s a ferry from Green Turtle across to Treasure Cay on the big island. From there, we’d have to cab it to either location – with the ride to Marsh Harbor being twice as expensive.

Early Monday afternoon, Aaron spoke with the staff at the Cooper’s Town clinic, who were very friendly and helpful on the phone. They gave us the names of specific doctors in Marsh Harbor who could help, but right as we were about to make the decision to head straight there, realizing that we’d never make it back to Treasure Cay in time for the last ferry of the day and would have to also pay for a hotel room there, they said, “Bring her here to Cooper’s Town. We think we can get it out.”

Off Aaron and Claire went on the 3 o’clock ferry (I stayed back to save the ferry fee and also make some progress on a work deadline). By 3:30, they were in a cab and by 3:45, the doctors were taking a look at her. “Nope, we can’t get that out. Too far up there.” It didn’t help that Claire was flinching and crying anytime anyone tried to get a good look up her nose.

Back in the cab, back on the ferry, back to the dinghy, back to the boat, $115 poorer and still with that damn bean firmly planted up Claire’s left nostril.

The thing is, if it had been anything else – a viral infection, a jellyfish sting, a weird bug bite – they likely could have treated it here in Green Turtle, and definitely in Cooper’s Town. But this is now bordering on internal medicine.

Oh, and another kicker – today is a national holiday, so everything is closed.

So tomorrow, we have an appointment with a specialist in Marsh Harbor at 2 p.m. We’ll have to hop in the dinghy to shore, get the ferry again, rent a car and drive to Marsh Harbor. If the specialist can’t get it out, either because Claire won’t settle enough for him to make a good attempt or because it’s lodged in too far, we’ll have to take her to the emergency room, where they’ll likely have to put her under to get it out.

Hopefully, we’ll make it back to Treasure Cay in time for that last ferry at 5 p.m., though likely not. So, add the price of a hotel room to the tab.

One thing I will say, though, is that so far, the costs of this debacle have all been travel-related. The medical professionals haven’t been able to help us so far, but there also wasn’t a wait at any of the clinics, and no fee just to walk in the door and be seen, unlike in the States, where the five-minute visit at each location would have been $100 or more, with or without resolution.

Yes, such an amazing and exciting life we lead as cruisers, with the swimming and the snorkeling and the sailing. And the planes, trains and automobiles required to hopscotch back and forth across the Sea of Abaco, all because our delightful, intelligent, inquisitive daughter decided on a whim to jam a bean up her nose.

Cruiser Christmas Carols

Image c/o RumShopRyan.com

We are used to Midwest Christmases – piles of snow, Santa coming down the chimney, mugs of hot cocoa and hot toddies, cuddling up by the fire… This year will be our first Christmas in the islands, and I’ve been having a hard time visualizing what that will be like and how I can make it as special for Claire as possible.

One of the things she loves to do is sing, so breaking out the Christmas carols seemed like a good place to start getting her (and us) excited for the upcoming season. The only problem is, many of them reference those same idyllic cozy winter settings we’ve enjoyed years past.

So, I reached out to the lovely ladies of the Women Who Sail Facebook group and asked them to help me rewrite some popular holiday tunes. While I wouldn’t dare change a thing in “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” (Claire’s absolute favorite), I think we’ve come up with some great renditions. If I can just get Aaron to strum along on his guitar, I know we’ll be singing these for months – hopefully on a sandy shore with a refreshing rum cocktail.

Cruiser Christmas Carols

12 Days of Christmas

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…
Twelve starfish sparkling
Eleven crabs a-crawling
Ten turtles trolling
Nine sharks a-swimming
Eight whales a-whirling
Seven dolphins diving
Six waves a rolling
*FIVE GOLDEN SHELLS*
Four moray eels
Three clownfish
Two anemones
And a coconut in a palm tree

 

Walkin’ in a Sun-Filled Wonderland (c/o Sandra Montgomery)

Halyards ring, are you listening?
On the waves, sun is glistening.
It’s a beautiful sight, we’re doing alright,
Basking in a sun-filled wonderland.

Gone away, is the cold wind
Here to stay is the warm wind
It’s a comforting breeze we live life with ease
Basking in a sun-filled wonderland.

On white beaches we will build a castle
And pretend that it is our new home
We will ask our friends to come and join us
Together on these lush lands we will roam.

Later on we’ll retire
with a rum by the fire
The stories we’ll trade, of memories made
Basking in a sun-filled wonderland.

 

Sail Together (Sleigh Ride)

Just hear those halyards jingle-ing
Ring ting tingle-ing too
Come on, it’s lovely weather
For a sail together with you

Outside the fish are playing
And friends are saying “Yoo Hoo”
Come on, it’s lovely weather
For a sail together with you

Giddy-yap giddy-yap giddy-yap
Let’s go
Let’s look at the view
We’re sailing in a wonderland of blue

Giddy-yap giddy-yap giddy-yap it’s grand
Just holding your hand
We’re gliding along with the song
Past the ribbons of warm pink sand

Our cheeks are nice and toasty
And comfy cozy are we
We’re snuggled up together like two
Birds of a feather would be

Let’s take the course before us
And sing a chorus or two
Come on, it’s lovely weather
For a sail together with you

 

Bright Christmas

I’m dreaming of a bright Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the blue waves glisten and children listen
To hear, sleigh bells on the bow

I’m dreaming of a bright Christmas
With every lantern that I light
May your days, may your days, may your days be filled with delight
And may all your Christmases be bright

 

Deck the Hulls

Deck the hulls with boughs of holly
Fa la la la la la la la la
Tis the season to be jolly
Fa la la la la la la la la

Don we now our suit and snorkel
Fa la la la la la la la la
Troll the ocean’s ancient coral
Fa la la la la la la la la

See the steady winds before us
Fa la la la la la la la la
Santa’s sleigh is sure to guide us
Fa la la la la la la la la

To an island filled with cheer
Fa la la la la la la la la
And our friends and family near
Fa la la la la la la la la

 

Let it Blow

Oh the weather outside is frightful
But your cabin’s so delightful
And since we’ve no place to go
Let it blow, let it blow, let it blow

It doesn’t show signs of slowing
But the rum down here’s a-flowing
The lights are turned way down low
Let it blow, let it blow, let it blow

When we finally kiss good night
How I’ll hate going out in the storm
But if you really hold me tight
The whole dinghy ride I’ll be warm!

The waves are slowly dying
And my dear, we’re still goodbye-ing
But as long as you love me so
Let it blow, let it blow, let it blow.