Greetings from George Town!

Greetings from George Town, Great Exuma, renowned cruisers’ playground! The last we wrote, we were slowly making our way south through the Exumas, stopping at small settlements and unpopulated cays to see wildlife and see how people live, island-style. Along the way we enjoyed a visit from Anne and meeting up with new friends Steve and Janny, hosting them for dinner one night.

After that, we anchored for a few days at Black Point, which is a small town with an excellent laundry and a few authentically Bahamian restaurants. We enjoyed the food – conch! Lots of conch! But also lots of BBQ ribs, surprisingly. One of our meals was sitting at little desks at the elementary school, eating a rib plate with homemade sides as part of a fundraiser for the school. Good food and a good cause!

How to get around Black Point

The nicest encounter we had was with a couple we met at the laundromat, Charlie and Michelle from Rascal. They’ve been at this cruising thing for a few years now, and were patient in answering a lot of our questions. They were particularly helpful in calming me down about our passage to George Town. Here’s why:

At that point in our travels, we had been working our way south along the western coast of the Exuma Cays. The western side is the shallow Exuma Bank, where the majority of the major anchorages are, and snorkeling, and things to see and do. But George Town – the largest settlement in the Exumas – is on the eastern side of Great Exuma, so to get there from the west you have to traverse a “cut” between cays. And those cuts are the subject of much discussion in guidebooks and blogs about the Bahamas. They can be tricky – you are advised to plan your cut carefully, so that you don’t have tides, currents, and winds working against you to create adversely high seas.

So, while my anxiety level has been steadily improving/abating, I was starting to get worked up about getting through the necessary cut to continue our journey. I think it was providential that we met Charlie and Michelle when we did. When I told them our tentative plan and my fears about it, they IMMEDIATELY reassured me that making one of those cuts was not a high-risk event, unless there are strong winds, which were NOT in our forecast for several days. They told us a few anecdotes about the cuts they had made over the years and what we could realistically expect. And they agreed with us about the plan we’d made – felt that we did, indeed, have favorable weather predicted the next day to make our cut without incident.

Let me tell you, this was a HUGE relief to me, and an answer to prayer. I was so grateful to have experienced sailors speaking into my fears and bringing balance to my thoughts. More than that, I felt seen and heard by God, who knows my heart and my needs, and brought this couple into our lives at the right time. And the next morning, I woke up aware of my need of Him, and with both the desire and the ability to trust Him for the day. So we pulled up anchor, in light wind, and sailed down to Farmer’s Cut, where the seas were mostly calm at slack tide, and about 30 minutes after we entered the cut, we arrived on the east coast of the Exumas with a straight shot down to George Town ahead.

It took about another 7 hours to get here, but my head and heart were in a good place, able to release the things outside of my control (like, will we find a good place to anchor?) and to “abide” in Him. We even had a favorable wind angle to do some sailing without the motors – which makes Andy so happy! And upon arriving in Elizabeth Harbor, outside George Town, we found that there were maybe 200 boats already here – but always room for one more. (Sometimes, we hear, there are over 500 here!) We anchored near a small beach off of Stocking Island, across from town, and settled in.

Distances from Chat-n-Chill on Stocking Island. Has Greenville, SC!

One great thing about George Town is a daily radio broadcast called Cruisers’ Net. Every morning at 8 a.m., you can tune your VHF radio to channel 72 and hear amazingly helpful information: announcements from local businesses, opportunities to meet other cruisers at Pilates or trivia night, where to take your trash or find help with a repair or catch a ride to the airport. It has helped us meet a few new people, and given us some guidance and structure in getting used to a new location. This, too, has been a great blessing. We’re still hoping and waiting to make some friends we can journey with – but with hope that it may happen soon.

Karen….
…and Andy on the path to the incredible, deserted Ocean Beach on Stocking Island.

In the meantime, we are happy that we’ll have our friends Dan and Meaghan join us for a few days starting Easter Sunday. And after that, my mom will also come for a visit. We’ll move to a marina, with a dock, before she arrives – I’m not going to ask my almost-80-year-old mom to ride in a dinghy! But I am really looking forward to these visits, and spending some time getting to know George Town so that we can share it with our loved ones. Up next, hopefully – a visit to Starfish Beach. We’ll let you know what we find.

Concerning Iguanas

We are making our way south through the Exumas at a leisurely pace. This is an incredibly beautiful part of the world, and the weather has been ideal.

Yesterday, we dropped anchor at Bitter Guana Cay en route to our overnight anchorage so we could spend some time mingling with the wild iguanas that inhabit the island.

When you arrive, several of the prehistoric-looking creatures take careful notice of your landing. Some amble up to you, and a few fake an outright bum’s rush. Some of these lizards are over four feet long, so it commands your attention.

Some of the locals on Bitter Guana Cay

But these reptiles are content with eating vegetation, saving hisses and aggressive snaps for each other when one gets too close to another’s “street corner.” We took Romaine lettuce and some bits of apple for them, and they were not at all shy about getting it.

Here, kitty kitty kitty…

There are also some very scenic cliffs that might not match the White Cliffs of Dover, but they don’t seem like such a bad substitute when you’re this side of the Atlantic.

Bitter Guana Cay

Staniel Cay, Bahamas

On Monday, we made our way down to Staniel Cay and dropped anchor. The natural bay is large with impossibly beautiful water and a sandy bottom that provides excellent holding. Every now and then a nurse shark or a stingray glides under the boat.

We took the dinghy over toward the airport and waited for Anne’s tiny plane to arrive from Nassau. The airport concourse at Staniel Cay (TYM) consists of an open wooden pavilion with benches, and security is a chain link fence.

Since we’ve been here, there have been no shortage of sights and attractions. Our first outing was to see the famous “Swimming Pigs of the Exumas.” This is a group of wild pigs that live on…. wait for it… “Pig Beach” on nearby Big Majors Cay. The cool thing about these pigs is that they will swim out in the ocean to meet you on the good faith assumption that you are bringing them food. We came with bread and chopped-up apples, and that did not disappoint. It’s safe, but these are large, wild animals, so there’s always a concern in your mind. Some stories say these pigs are descendants of ones left behind by Christopher Columbus, while others trace a less noble and more recent lineage. After that, we dined at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club.

This little piggy was not overly thrilled at being picked up.
He could swim better than I could

Our next outing was to Thunderball Grotto, literally around the corner from Pig Beach. It’s a cave you swim into that was made famous by the James Bond movie, Thunderball, where Sean Connery romances Claudia Auger underwater before dispatching several bad guys.

Thunderball Grotto is a natural wonder. At low tide, you swim in and out through a small gap, but at certain high tides the entrance can submerge completely, so timing matters. Once inside, you enter a natural cavern with amazing light and an organic kaleidoscope of fish and coral. Our underwater camera could not adequately capture the hues and grandeur of this place.

Anne in the Thunderball Grotto. That’s one entrance behind her.
Sergeant major damselfish in Thunderball Grotto
Brain coral.

Finally, we motored over to Staniel Cay to eat and shop, and I decided to wade in and experience the nurse sharks for myself. A couple of them made lazy approaches and then veered away once they got within a foot or so. It was certainly an adrenaline rush. 

Easy does it…

Tomorrow’s forecast calls for favorable winds to sail back north for a few hours and explore Cambridge Cay some more. We want to introduce Anne to the art and beauty of sailing. For me, it only took once to fall in love.

We interrupt our usual posts…

This is going to be a different kind of post than the previous ones, a more personal one with spiritual content. Those of you who are more interested in Gratitude’s adventures themselves than the psycho-spiritual effects of them may want to skip ahead to the next post, which will feature pigs! And snorkeling! But this one seems necessary for me to write, regardless of how widely it’s read or received. So move along, if this is not your thing; if it is, let’s dive in to the murky depths of my soul!

When Andy and I first began to dream about creating a new life aboard a sailboat, we knew that we didn’t know everything to expect. We did a lot of research and reading; we took instruction on a live-aboard cruise for a couple of weeks; we talked to a lot of people who had done this before us. But we knew that there would be no way to truly know what we were getting into except to Just. Do. It. That’s always the way it is with risky ventures – you can plan and prepare and calculate the risks, but there are always going to be unknowns that you just have to deal with when they appear. It’s part of the adventure.

We’ve shared some of those unknowns with you as we’ve experienced them: waiting on weather to sail; dinghy drama; overheating engines and broken impellers and blown fuses; getting out of the path of approaching storms. And I’ve hinted at how those things have been tough for me. But the fuller truth is, after a while, the cumulative effect has been downright disruptive. At first, these stressful events would cause a temporary unpleasant adrenaline rush, until we figured out a solution to the problem. Then the stress reaction would subside, sometimes with the help of a glass of wine and a good night’s sleep. And we’d wake up ready for the next day’s challenges. That’s still pretty much how it works for Andy.

But about 2-3 weeks ago, I began to struggle with ongoing anxiety. I would wake up in the middle of the night worried about something that had happened that day, or that might happen tomorrow. Or I’d begin my morning with hypervigilance, dreading the day, for no good reason, with sweaty palms and a racing heart. I’d pray, and journal, and read the Psalms, and ask God for help. But for reasons unclear to me, these things would provide only minimal, usually temporary relief.

I reached out to a few trusted friends and spiritual advisors. I asked them for prayer, and any words of wisdom or comfort they might hear from the Lord for me. This proved to be invaluable – I began to gain some perspective on what was happening to me, and possible theories on why. As someone who does not often struggle with high anxiety in my normal, land-life, I desperately needed some basic understanding of what can trigger it and how to cope with it.

So on my last trip home, I visited my doctor and met with my counselor and my pastor. Each had good strategies for me to try, and I have put their suggestions into effect. The result has been positive; my stress levels are no longer on constant high-alert, and I am sleeping better, and when things go wrong (as they will keep doing) I am able to focus, with Andy, on the problem and help solve it. This is major progress, for which I am grateful.

But the anxiety is not totally gone. It has subsided to manageability, but it has not disappeared. So I am now in a phase of soul-searching, asking God what it is He wants to show me about Himself, and about me, in this experience. As one of my favorite authors, Father Richard Rohr, says, “Invariably when something upsets you, and you have a strong emotional reaction out of proportion to the moment, your shadow self has just been exposed.”

Much of my professional and personal work over the last 10 years has been around identifying and facing my false self, what Rohr calls the “shadow self.” I do it because it has brought me a lot of freedom and a closer relationship with Christ. And I love helping others who want to do the same. My false self is all the “good” I want to believe is true about me, and I want others to believe, while minimizing or justifying whatever is negative or sinful. This false self is a real hindrance to spiritual growth and to true, loving intimate relationship with others and God.

One thing I’ve known for a while is that I think of myself as a calm person. I have the desire and the training to be a good listener, a calming influence, a steady companion through emotional challenges. I think these are a part of my True Self. Yet here I am, living on a boat in the Bahamas, in the grip of varying intensities of fear and anxiety. Another facet of my self-deception has been brought into the light; I am not entirely the Steady Suzy I thought I was.

What to do with this new self-knowledge? I believe the Gospel, which says that only Jesus can save me. I cannot change or save myself; only He can do that.

My best hope is to ask Jesus to take me on a journey – a spiritual journey that parallels this sailing journey. A journey of self-discovery, and repentance, and true heart-change. I am asking him to help me befriend and embrace anxious, fearful, stressed-out Karen – to gently show her the unbelief and misplaced trusts at the root of her fear, and to transform those hidden places with His love, as only He can. I have taken similar journeys before. They are usually painful. As a friend once told me, “You know it’s real repentance when it feels like death.” Yet the death of my false self always, in my experience, leads to resurrection and freedom and new life.

Hopefully it is clear now why I needed to write this post, and make public a rather personal struggle. For one thing, honesty is a good and necessary tool for someone who wants to see and repent of her false self. Not just honesty with self – but honesty with the world at large, with life, with the people at the various levels in my circle. For another, I know that life lived in community – even the virtual community of a blog – is richer and deeper and more satisfying. Maybe some of you have prayers, or wisdom, or help to offer me. Maybe something I’ve written here has something to offer you. Either way, we are fellow human beings learning how to stumble our way toward God in an unpredictable world. Let’s learn together.