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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Tough Decisions

Claire gets chummy with the Luperon immigration officials

The last month or so on Clarity has been a grueling one – one that’s made both of us consider quitting. It seems, the hits just keep coming.

One of the reasons we decided to visit Turks and Caicos was to get the boat hauled out there for a bottom job – a biannual task that had come due. But while the boat was prepped for new paint, it became clear that our saildrive, a critical part to our propulsion, was severely corroded. In fact, we realized that it was not a new problem – that the previous owner had patched the problem, painted over it, and failed to disclose it to us.

There we sat, already with a steep yard bill just for the work we had anticipated. We could either buy a new saildrive – $10k, not including shipping or labor. Or, we could do another patch job, cross our fingers and buy ourselves some time to get the boat to Puerto Rico, where we’re planning to spend the latter part of hurricane season, and decide what to do then.

During this first year of our journey, we’ve found ourselves regularly coming back to the question, “When is enough, enough?” I won’t outline the running list of what we’ve dealt with just since crossing to the Bahamas, but suffice to say, it is extremely lengthy, and extremely costly.

The simple response, though, is that it hasn’t been – at least not yet. We’re still here; we’re still doing this. The boat is not for sale.

But we are exhausted. Aaron, who has the lion’s share of responsibility when it comes to boat maintenance, is particularly exhausted.

Often times, our friends and family will try to help us put things in perspective. “If you were back in Chicago, you’d be dealing with a leaking roof! Your basement would flood! Your windows would need replacing!”

I see the parallel, but then raise the challenge of, would all of those happen within 10 months, or would that be considered a really bad stroke of luck?

And back at “home,” we could just step outside if there’s an emergency. We could get on the phone and call any number of experts in the area, and then pay them to deal with the problem. We could maybe decide to let this particular problem go for a bit and deal with it down the line.

We wouldn’t be constantly making decisions that weigh our own safety and account for what would happen if said problem or part fails when we’re on passage, a hundred miles away from land.

Are we being too brazen? Are we putting our lives at risk if we don’t fix this? If we go the middle route, instead of the most expensive route, are we just running the risk of it breaking down again in a year? Or are we shelling out money we don’t really have and playing it too safe?

Keep in mind, too, that parts are not available locally. Everything is shipped internationally from the States with the associated shipping fees, customs forms, duty costs, etc. We are now well-versed in getting things shipped and cleared in the Abacos, in the Exumas, and in TCI. I wish we didn’t need to know these things.

Also, shipping and clearing is not a quick ordeal. For instance, if we decided to buy a new saildrive and have it sent to us in Provo, it was going to take a week or so to get parts. In making our decision, we had to factor in the cost of a one-week stay on the island, as well as a rental car to get around. Roughly $1,000, just to “wait” for parts.

So far, in most cases, we’ve erred on the side of caution and spent the money. This is our home, after all, and especially with the kiddo on board, we must make sure that it’s safe. This time, after hours of back and forth, we decided to do the patch job. We paid a much smaller fee up front to postpone the larger bill down the line, allowing us to keep our forward momentum. But the monthly budget that we reasonably estimated for this lifestyle before we moved aboard has been so far blown out of the water, I had to laugh when I looked back at the numbers.

Did we get a lemon of boat? I don’t necessarily think so, but maybe. Did we get dealt a bad hand for the first year? I think so, but maybe it’s always like this. Does it truly matter, though?

We feel how we feel. We have had truly life-altering, awe-inspiring, humbling experiences this year, and have felt incredible joy. But the overall scale has tipped more to making really tough decisions and solving really complex problems that have taken an enormous toll on our wallets and our mental fortitude.

And just when we feel like we can’t take anymore, we get more.

The passage from Turks and Caicos to the Dominican Republic was a harrowing one – one that I hope will stay on the books as our worst, but likely will get replaced. We made a short (and very pleasant) sail from Provo to stage the boat in French Cay for the crossing, and departed early the next morning. Aaron had done extensive reading and research on the best weather, wind conditions and heading for the trip, and estimated that we should be able to make it to the northern coast of the Dominican by 8 a.m. the next morning.

Shortly after we got off the Caicos bank the conditions worsened. The seas got rolly and the combination of the swell and the waves became extremely uncomfortable. In addition, though we had planned on the winds picking up the further out into the Atlantic we got, they increased sooner, and much stronger.

Adding insult to injury, our autopilot had been slipping prior to the sail. Though Aaron had fixed it, the sea state during the crossing was too much for it. Handsteering was the only option, and Aaron sat at the helm for 18 hours straight. It was an unbelievable test of endurance for him, as the conditions made it extremely difficult to stay on course and keep the sails full, and I am not anywhere near as experienced as he is in steering  in those circumstances. Though I relieved him a few times, my responsibilities were everything else: all things Claire-related, fixing and serving meals, keeping watch for other boats in the early morning hours as we got closer to land, and monitoring our AIS.

In addition, I felt sick. Claire got sick. The waves built to six footers, with the occasional seven-foot wave broadsiding us and turning our cockpit into a swimming pool. Even with our careful preparation, the heel of the boat and constant bashing of the waves made down below a wasteland of stuff that had fallen everywhere.

And, though I had tightened them as best I could, our hatches were not fully secured. As the waves continued, salt water leaked into our cabin. Aaron’s phone was ruined. His computer, which was out on the nav station running our AIS, was damaged (but repairable once we return to the states).

In the midst of all of this, Aaron realized that keeping any easterly direction in our heading was untenable, and bore off to make landfall further west and then motor up the coast in hopefully calmer water/weather at night. It was the right call, and we dropped anchor off of Monte Cristi at around 4 a.m. But over the next three days, we motorsailed east along the coast, leaving at daybreak and making as much distance as we could before late morning, when the daily trade winds here set in from the east and kick up the seas once again. Finally, we limped into Luperon, exhausted. But, the lush, mountainous coastline that we sailed along to get here was the most breathtaking backdrop I’ve ever seen.

The question, again – when is enough, enough? Is this enough?

Now that we’re here, we’re not planning to move Clarity out of this bay for at least a month, maybe longer – a much-needed break from traveling. Just in the last two days, we’ve already met amazing people, both fellow cruisers and locals. As Luperon is one of the best, if not the best, hurricane hole in the Caribbean, it’s a popular hub for the cruising community, and as a result, there are a lot of resources here, as well as activities like karaoke night and movie night at Wendy’s, the bar where “Gringos are welcome!”

Our eyes have been opened to a whole new culture that I’ve never experienced before. My years of Spanish in school have come in very handy as we communicated with the officials to clear in and handle necessary tasks like getting money exchanged and buying groceries. It’s a wonderful breath of fresh air to be in a place that pushes me to be more engaged in everything that we do, simply because Spanish is not my first language.

We make smart decisions and are apprehensive and hesitant when appropriate, but everyone has been very friendly and happy to help. Roosters and dogs have the run of the streets, motorcycles speed past in a burst of noise, and local music is blasted from speakers set up on the sidewalks – all just part of the culture here.

And Claire is immersed in it all, the beauty of everyone’s eye.

“Why don’t they speak how we speak?” – a rewarding conversation for both of us ensued, simply because of what she experienced walking down the street. At her prompting, we spent an hour looking up any word she liked in Spanish.

I overheard her playing with her stuffed animals, setting up an “office in a new place,” where her bunny reminded her llama to have his passport and important papers out.

She now greets everyone in Spanish, and even told some locals that if they forget how to say “thank you” in Spanish, she could teach them.

She played with her ocean-themed sticker book and asked about the Great Barrier Reef. “Can we go to Australia, Momma, and visit? Can we sail there? Show me where it is on our map.”

Her eyes are opening to this great big world in ways I could never have imagined.

This. All of this, is why we do this. Little by little, our batteries are restored. The scale tips again to the good. And we think, how could we not work through the difficult times, when these experiences are the reward?

Enough? Not today.

Bye-Bye Bahamas, Hello Turks

Aaron checking sail trim en route to Mayaguana

Life on Clarity has been vastly different in the last few days – a change that we’re soaking in, and also having trouble wrapping our heads around.

We spent almost two months in Georgetown and near the end, it truly felt like we would never get out of there. Not that we didn’t love it – we did – but it was a long time for us in one place. Too long. We finally dusted off the proverbial cobwebs and set sail a week ago to Long Island for the night. The next morning, we pulled anchor and sailed 33 hours straight, past the Acklins, to Mayaguana, the eastern-most island in the Bahamas. It was our longest sail to date, and it was perfect. The winds, for the most part, were steady, and we were able to sail the whole way without turning the engine on. The night shifts were a dream, with a full moon lighting the horizon.

After after a delicious dinner of freshly caught Mahi with our friends on Upside Up, who buddy-boated with us there from Georgetown, we wished them well on their sail to the Dominican Republic and prepared to take advantage of the weather the next day and sail the rest of the way to the Turks and Caicos. It was only 40 miles away, but a whole world of difference that I’m still having a hard time comprehending.

The cut into Turtle Cove Marina was tricky one, to say the least. The darker colors you see in the water here are all part of the coral reef, and the waves you see crashing in the distance are at the wall of the reef. The marina sent out a guideboat to lead us safely through the winding path, which at times was not much wider than our boat itself.

We’ve spent the last four days in Providenciales (referred to as “Provo”), and it’s been almost the complete antithesis of our lifestyle for the past four months. For one, since anchoring out the first night to stage for high tide the next morning, we’ve been staying in a slip in Turtle Cove Marina. The options here in Provo for anchoring are limited, so a marina was the best option. Also, we knew we wanted to rent a car for a few days and tour the island – all much easier to do when it’s just a step off the boat, rather than a dinghy ride to town.

Right – a car! What is this amazing thing known as convenience and quick traveling? I’d all but forgotten what it’s like to make a plan to go somewhere and get there in minutes. Provisioning has also been an absolute dream. Not having to cart the groceries back in the dinghy in garbage bags to protect them from getting drenched with salt water on the ride back to the boat is like a trip to Disneyland for us. Not to mention that the grocery store here is the closest we’ve seen to those in the States since Marsh Harbor in the Abacos, albeit at island prices.

We’ve also managed to eat our way through town. Thai, Chinese, Indian, gourmet food trucks… We’ve probably (happily) gained five pounds each. The cuisine in the Bahamas was fried conch, period – and at prices just as high as here, or comparable to restaurants in Chicago or New York City.

There are also – wait for it – paved roads, highways and sidewalks! Sidewalks did not exist in the Bahamas, at least in any of the areas we visited. It was every man for themselves, and the local drivers did not exactly follow the pedestrians-first rule.

Sunset at Turtle Cove

BUT – as amazing as this all sounds – YES, CIVILIZATION! – I’m already feeling the pull to move on. We’ve come to realize that here in Provo, it’s as if affluent suburbs in the States were picked up and transported to an island. The Turks and Caicos are considered the British West Indies, and they are their own country – however, their currency is the U.S. dollar.

We’ve been to almost every area of this island, and I have no true sense of any culture other than American tourist. The beaches are crowded with people and lined by resort after resort. And the experiences have been commercialized to capitalize on the tourism industry. Care to visit the conch farm, or the plantation ruins? A fee per person. Want to visit the neighboring island to see the native iguanas? A considerable fee per person just to set foot on the beach.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – certainly, the tourism industry is the lifeline of the islands. But to put things in perspective, we could have experienced any of these things in the Bahamas – visited an old plantation, frolicked with iguanas (do iguanas frolic?) – but at no charge, and likely with very few other people in the same anchorage, if any. They just offered a more authentic experience – something we crave in this lifestyle.

Claire enjoying the silty sand in the Five Cays settlement in Provo

In the interest of full disclosure, though, we have only been on one island so far of this 40-island chain. I imagine that Grand Turk, where the capital is, is very similar, as it is where the cruise ships dock. Likely, some of the other islands offer a more subdued experience – but we won’t have the opportunity to visit many of them.

To clear immigration and customs here in the Turks and Caicos, the cost is $100 for seven days ($50 to clear in, $50 to clear out). After that, you are required to pay $300 for up to 90 days – whether you stay for eight days or 89 days, the price is the same. And the fees to clear in and out still apply.

As we’ve spent the last four months in the absolutely beautiful islands in the Bahamas, we’re eager to set sail for our next port of call – the Dominican Republic. We will first visit Luperon, and we’re not sure how long we will stay there, or in the DR as a whole. But it will truly be a new culture, more so than anything we’ve experienced to this point, and the terrain will be breathtaking in a whole new way – mountains, waterfalls, rain forest. I absolutely cannot wait.

In the meantime, we are making the decision today or tomorrow to get the boat hauled out here for a few days for a bottom job (the days on the hard won’t count against our time here), or just start staging south. Getting the hull painted is something we need to do at some point this summer anyway, so if not here, we’ll do it in Puerto Rico.

For now, I’m sipping iced coffee at my favorite coffee shop here before I return our rental car. I’ll grab one more case of the locally brewed beer. And I’ll take one more blissfully hot and long shower at the marina before we cast lines tomorrow.

It’s the little things, isn’t it? I’ve come to appreciate living without them, and treasuring them.