Puerto Rico, You Breakin’ My Heart

One set of trade-offs we are constantly having to weigh is the desire to explore our destinations deeply vs. the risk of being in the Caribbean hurricane zone during the summer months. We worked out a deal with Gratitude’s insurer in which they pay for any hurricane damage as long as we keep the boat below a certain latitude (12° 40’, by August 18, to be exact). Now, in order to hold up our end of the deal, we have to make some tough choices. We can’t spend weeks at every island! Oh, this is heartbreaking, I tell you.

I had really looked forward to savoring Puerto Rico. We visited for the first time about 4 years ago, just to San Juan and a day trip to El Yunque Rain Forest. That was enough to whet my appetite – and I choose that phrase deliberately, because the food here is – ahhhhh, scrumptious! So when we started our planning for this venture, I envisioned exploring all kinds of little towns and islets – Ponce, Salinas, Fajardo, Culebra, Vieques. There are colonial squares! Bioluminescent bays! Golden beaches! Reefs to dive!

Alas, we experienced only a smattering of the above. Our time in Puerto Rico was mostly utilitarian: provisioning (Costco!), tracking down engine parts (West Marine!), locating technicians, and getting sail and rigging repairs done. We were warned, a while back, that the cruising life consisted of “Repairing your boat in exotic locations.” So far that’s been accurate. Plus, there are only so many weeks left before August 18, and so many islands left to discover. We haven’t even reached the US or British Virgin Islands yet! And those have been high on my bucket list.

That said, there were a few highlights to our limited shore time in Puerto Rico. One pleasant surprise occurred when we anchored at Puerto Patillas, on the southeastern shore. We’d read about it on Active Captain, which is kind of like Trip Advisor for sailors, with reviews of anchorages and ports. Other sailors reported that there were restaurants within walking distance of the shore, if you can find a place to leave your dinghy. That’s no small thing, as many of the docks and boardwalks on the southern coast were destroyed by Irma and have yet to be replaced. So we decided to try it with full knowledge that we might just have to return to the boat and throw together a quick dinner instead.

We could make out one obvious dock at a distance, but we couldn’t tell whether it belonged to a restaurant or a residence. As we got closer, we saw a porch and some people sitting on it, but then it was suddenly clear – this was someone’s home, not a public place. So we kept going. But then we heard a guy calling from that dock, and waving, so we turned back – maybe he could tell us where we could find a place to tie up.

Turned out the guy (and his friends/family on the porch) was a fellow cruiser, house sitting for friends! They kindly offered to let us use their dock, and invited us to sit and visit a while. We had a delightful time trading sailing stories and getting advice; our hosts were 13 years into their live-aboard adventure, and full of wisdom! We felt like we’d stumbled into a gold mine. After our visit, we left them to their dinner while we walked into town to find our own. But we traded contact info, and I made a new Facebook friend. We hope to link back up with these nice folks when we’re all down in Grenada later this year.

Just down the road from the friendly fellow cruisers we found a bar-n-grill with good cheap eats.
Recycled tires on the side of the road by the bar. Beauty shows up in unexpected places!

The other really nice thing that happened in P.R. was that Andy found us one of the BEST RESTAURANTS EVER. Seriously. We’d been in Fajardo several days, eating on the boat or at the marina restaurant, when he took it upon himself to look up some other dining options. So the last night we had our rental car, he didn’t tell me where we were going.

We ended up at an old gas station off the side of a winding road, with nothing else around it. It looked, at first, like the rain forest had overtaken it. But as we walked up, we realized that this was going to be an ultra-cool place. La Estacion is a barbecue joint of sorts with a multilevel outdoor deck, tropical plants scattered around, and the menu scrawled on a giant moveable blackboard. Our server was one of the owners, and he described (with passion!) all of the menu options – how long they were smoked, how they were spiced, how big the portions. This was a man who cared about food! He steered us toward some custom cocktails and then we ordered a big sampler platter of chicken, beef brisket, ribs, and pork belly. OH. MY. GOODNESS. If I lived in Puerto Rico I would eat there every day and grow as big as a house. But I would be very happy.

The very glorious BBQ sampler. Clockwise from top: Cole slaw, chicken, some kind of fried bread, beef brisket, pork belly (with a fried pork rind), ribs, corn bread, and potato salad.

It was nice to have a special last evening, because the following day was all work! The sail riggers returned “first thing in the morning” (translation – “lunchtime”) to put up our restitched jib and Code Zero and to rig the reefing lines on our mainsail. The factory engine tech (for whom we’d been waiting almost a week) finally was able to squeeze us in to take a look at our starboard engine. (You may have noticed by now that we keep blowing out impellers; he helped us figure out some of the problem, but we still have more issues to resolve.)

Daniel and Jose, our sail riggers, with our restitched jib

Finally, about 2:30 p.m., the work was complete and we could get underway. We knew we did not have time to get all the way to St. Thomas, where we had friends flying in the next day. So we used our remaining hours of daylight to shoot east to an anchorage off the coast of Culebra, a part of Puerto Rico also known as one of the “Spanish Virgin Islands.” I had really hoped we could linger on Culebra a few days and check out the quiet beaches and awesome snorkeling. But we resolved that we’d hit it on the way back in a few months. Not too disappointing, especially when you consider we’d be spending the next two weeks, with friends and then family, in the US and British Virgin Islands.

Sunset over Culebra. Next time we WILL visit the bioluminescent bay at night!

Stories from the DR, and The Thorny Path, Part 3

This is a long post, so I’ve divided into sections. We spent about two weeks in the Dominican Republic, and they were full! It is truly a beautiful country, full of warm people, lush landscapes, and stunning beaches.

Meeting Friends

Our first full day in the Dominican Republic was blessed by a visit with two friends of Andy’s (and now mine!): Miriam and Angie. He met both of them several years ago when he came to the DR to give a speech to the project management community. Before we arrived, he got in touch with Miriam, who has a brother who is a sailboat captain; we thought it might be nice to know a fellow sailor in this country. Miriam then realized that our arrival into Puerto Plata coincided with her departure from Puerto Plata a day later (she and Angie were already booked on flights to Florida). So they came into town a day early, picked us up at our marina, and took us out for lunch.

Miriam, Andy, Angie, Karen. Andy loves being flanked by beautiful women! 😎

After lunch, they took us to Fort San Felipe, built in the sixteenth century by the Spanish to defend their coast. The view was beautiful. It was a pleasant way to take in a little history of the area. Angie and Miriam dropped us back off at the marina and we thanked them sincerely. It was very nice to see/make friends, and also to drive around town with people who knew the area.

Road Trips

Speaking of driving – it’s a madhouse in the DR! There are lanes, but I’m not sure why – no one stays in them. Motor scooters, with two or three or five passengers (some of them children) zip in, out, around, and toward all the cars. Cars turn and change direction with no warning! Trucks will park in the right-hand lane of the highway to unload cargo. Vans (gua-guas), a form of public transportation, will likewise stop in the midst of all other traffic to pick up pedestrians looking for a ride. It is CRAZY.

So what did we decide to do? That’s right – RENT A CAR AND JOIN THE MADNESS! It required a little courage to pull out on the main road the first time – but once I took the plunge, I started to get the hang of it. The basic rule is “Might makes right.” Smaller vehicles yield to bigger ones. So if a truck is coming toward you – you swerve. If you are bearing down on a motor scooter – they swerve. Somehow the whole thing works… we never saw any accidents.

Renting a car gave us the freedom to go explore. We visited Sosua, a lovely little resort town, and walked along Playa Alicia. On the way home we stopped at La Sirena, which is the DR’s equivalent of WalMart. We browsed the clothing and school supplies and sporting goods, but our real aim was groceries. There was NOTHING we could not find. I even got to restock my LaCroix supply! (“Basic white-girl water,” Andy calls it. I don’t care – it’s a treat for me.) Gorgeous fruits and vegetables here – MASSIVE! Big heavy avocados for a dollar. Stacks of mangoes, piles of tomatoes, fruits I’ve never heard of. All of them beautiful – not several days past their prime, as we often found in the Bahamas. And so affordable. I can see why some North Americans retire here. Your money will go a long way. We spent less than half of what it would have cost us at previous stops.

Lovely Playa Alicia, in Sosua. There is a mountain visible from every beach we visited in the DR.

The next day we wanted to go to Isabel de Torres, a steep hill with a cable car to the top and a statue of Christ the Redeemer. But when we got to the park entrance, the gates were down and several dudes sitting on motor scooters were hanging out on the side of the road. One of them came up to us and told us that the “teleferico” (tramway) was closed, but he could lead us up another road to the top for a mere $20. We passed. I didn’t think he wanted to harm us, but I had read that the drive up to the top was best done with four-wheel drive, as the road is not in great shape.

So we made a new plan – let’s go see Luperon! It’s a port where many cruisers spend all of hurricane season. The drive was manageable, in spite of the extensive highway construction. Once we were there, it was a whole different world, away from the city and the resorts. Cows and horses and chickens wandered into the road randomly. Laundry was strewn over shrubs to dry. Sometimes the road became dirt and gravel before returning to pavement. The downtown area was a mix of people, animals, cinderblock buildings, and telephone wires.

Getting hungry now, we did like the locals and parked in the right lane on a quiet street. Then we went walking, looking for a restaurant I’d read about in our cruising guide. We stumbled into it rather quickly (Google Maps was not an option, but that turned out to be okay – Luperon is small). It was tiny, maybe four tables in the open-air dining room and a kitchen behind a counter in the back. At first we thought we needed to order at the counter, but an elderly lady behind it pointed to a table and said, “Toma asiento.” (“Take a seat.”) So we picked out a table.

There was no menu. A lovely younger woman (perhaps the older woman’s daughter?) approached, put her hand on my shoulder in welcome, and explained that today’s choices were beef, pork, or fried chicken. Andy chose the pork, and I could not resist fried chicken. We asked for bottled water, but our hostess indicated a big blue jug of “agua purificada” on the counter, so we assented. A few minutes later we had a little pitcher of it, with ice and two plastic cups.

About ten minutes later, our plates arrived – a smallish (not Ameri-super-sized) portion of meat, with a big mound of white rice and a side of beans. Andy’s plate had peppers and onions with stewed pork; mine had a portion of a chicken breast, a wing, and a leg, perfectly crispy and deep brown. They were small pieces – I could imagine the chicken that had given its life for my meal, and it was clearly one that had lived free-range on the side of the road. The food was absolutely delicious, and we ate almost every bite.

When we finished, Andy went to the counter and asked for the check. Our hostess told him we owed 250 pesos. He was startled, and asked her, “¿Estas segura?” (“Are you sure?”) She reassured him that 250 was the price. Folks, that’s all of FIVE U.S. DOLLARS. For BOTH OUR MEALS. AND WATER. We’d been enjoying the lower food prices up to now – but that one set a record. Rest assured that we left a generous tip.

Boat Maintenance

We spent about six days at Ocean World, waiting for a weather window that would allow us to traverse the rough seas of the DR’s northern coast and continue the Thorny Path to Windward. Besides our car adventures, we also set about making some needed repairs. We found a guy who would repair our sail bag – a giant canvas cover for Gratitude’s mainsail. Andy checked both engines and their impellers – after our difficulty coming from the Turks and Caicos, we didn’t want any surprises on the next leg of the trip. He also replaced a float switch for one of the bilge pumps; this is a device that detects when water has washed into the below-decks area of the boat and sets off an automatic pump to drain it. He hates having to work in the bilge, as it’s a very tight space for him to wriggle into.

And if that were not enough, he also replaced yet another of the blue step lights. I guess they are all determined to go out around the same time. At least this one didn’t blow any fuses. (Andy has a thing about blown bulbs – they make him a little nuts). All that, plus a good country scrubbing, inside and out. We accumulate a coating of salt on Gratitude’s exterior that turns into a sort of slurry. You can feel it everywhere.

The view from our slip at Ocean World Marina. The white building is the casino.

Sailing East: Not for the Fainthearted

Finally, what looked like a good weather window for sailing the northeastern coast looked like it was approaching. We knew it would take us at least three days to sail this next leg of the Thorny Path. We were on the fence about when to start; knowing we wanted to meet friends in St. Thomas by July 3rd, and that we still had a few hundred miles to go, we were feeling some pressure. So we took an optimistic view of the weather forecast and reasoned that setting off first thing in the morning – before 6 a.m. – would help us take advantage of “the night lees” – a coastal weather pattern in which cool air rolls off the mountains towards the sea at night, counteracting the strong easterly trade winds. (Winds blowing east are right on your nose when you’re traveling east, making for a rough ride.)

We said as we started that this Sunday was an experiment. And yes, it was certainly a learning process. We wanted to go forty miles, a roughly eight-hour trip into the wind. But the night lees were gone by 11 a.m., and the winds were no joke. They got stronger as the day progressed – gusting up to 28 knots, at times. (10-15 is ideal; above 20 you pay attention to; 30+ requires you to take action.) The boat, we found, could handle that – but our Code Zero sail could not. It was furled (rolled up), but just before lunch we heard something flapping loudly. The top part of the sail had whipped loose! That, my friends, is a sight and sound you dread hearing. Sails that flap loosely in the wind get shredded.

We tried letting it out a bit and refurling, but that actually made things worse. We got an hourglass effect: the top needed to rotate in one direction, the middle was cinched, and the lower third needed to rotate in the opposite direction to the top. We truly did not know what to do – we couldn’t make the wind stop blowing, and we could not furl the sail (wind it back up into a neat little roll).

We finally figured out how to lower the Code Zero from the top, even though it was partially unfurled. Once it was down, we still had a messy bundle of lines and yards of loose sail that wanted to blow away (and perhaps take one of us with it, if we weren’t careful). Our nightmare scenario was one of us, plus the sail (still attached to several lines on the boat), going into the water and getting dragged or tangled or caught in an engine prop.

Don’t worry. That didn’t happen.

Still, it took us an hour and a half of wrestling and yelling and running around the deck like madmen to get that sail stowed in the forward cockpit. We figured we’d get it safely situated, then figure out what to do with it once we were at anchor. Andy remarked that this was like wrestling a bear for 90 straight minutes.

I’m beginning to appreciate long, boring, uneventful days at sea.

Waking up earlier gives you better conditions AND the sunrise!

It took us two more days to reach our next marina, but we had learned our lesson. On both of them we set the alarm to wake up at 3:30 a.m. and departed our anchorages by moonlight so that we didn’t have to do battle with the afternoon winds. And even though we were tired, the strategy worked – we arrived in Samana midday on Tuesday with no other major incidents.

We stayed at the Puerto Bahia Marina – a truly beautiful resort with a seaside pool and friendly locals. We had to make another repair to our sail bag (YES – the one we had JUST HAD REPAIRED THREE DAYS AGO). But the guy who did it also repaired some small tears in our Code Zero sail, so there was that. We enjoyed the restaurants and took a gua-gua (public transportation minivan) into the town of Samana. Not much to see, but as we were looking for a ride back a guy with a motor-scooter-rickshaw-thingy offered us a ride. It was cheap, so we decided why not? THAT was the way to travel, friends – faster than walking, but slower than riding in a van, so we could take in all the local color – the families selling fruit by the side of the road, the stray dogs and children running around, makeshift cafes set up on the side porches of homes. Pretty cool.

In Cambodia, these are called “tuk-tuks”. We forgot to ask what they are called here.

Turks and Caicos: Diving Paradise

I am writing this post as Gratitude cruises EXTREMELY calm seas. There’s the barest of swells and maybe 2 knots of wind, making it possible for me to sit in the forward cockpit with no fear of getting splashed. We are off the northern coast of the Turks and Caicos, about to turn south once we get to the western edge, so that we can sail to French Cay tonight; in the morning we’ll start crossing the Caicos Bank, heading for Big Sand Cay, our last anchorage in the T&C. We hope to leave from there late on Sunday, June 9, for an overnight sail to the Dominican Republic.

But before we leave this beautiful country, we want to share a little taste of our week here.

The Turks and Caicos used to be a part of the Bahamas, and geographically that makes sense. But they’ve been separate countries for over a hundred years now, and the differences show. T&C is a British colony with more development and more infrastructure than most of the places we visited in the Bahamas. The grocery stores are outstanding, there are dozens of good restaurants, and car rental is easy and cheaper than a round-trip taxi ride.

The Graceway Gourmet in Providenciales – most of the comforts of home

The beaches and the water are gorgeous! Same beautiful range of blues and greens that you see in the Exumas, with many many good reefs just begging to be snorkeled or dived. (Dove? I never know.)

Andy has some company for his 3-minute safety stop at the end of our first dive

We took some time while in Providenciales (not the capital, but definitely the largest town and the center of tourism here) to go diving again. I really wanted to do some more training, and found a dive shop, Aqua TCI, that could help us. Alas, it would have required some online coursework, and we did not have reliable-enough internet to make that feasible. (Not just internet, it turned out – there were a few power outages during our week here, as well. Provo was a victim of Hurricane Irma, and while it has recovered nicely, there are still some hitches in their systems.)

So we “settled” for pleasure dives, and boy were they pleasurable! The variety of reef life was truly amazing. We did four dives over two separate days, and on both days we saw reef sharks, turtles, eels, lobsters, hogfish, and all the wrasses and angelfish you could hope for. We even spotted a juvenile trunkfish – a tiny little spotted thing! – that is apparently somewhat rare. The corals were bright and healthy – rock corals, brain corals, sponges, fans. Andy got some nice videos of the sharks and I managed to get some still shots of a lot of the fish.

A curious Caribbean Reef Shark came to check us out on our dive
Sharks are friends! Not food!
Juvenile Spotted Drum
Juvenile trunk fish – they’re pretty rare to spot. Our guide found this one – it’s the little black blob with the white polka dots.

Diving is SO MUCH FUN!

A view of our marina (Turtle Cove), from the lovely Magnolia Wine Bar on our last night.

We did a lot of eating out AND grocery shopping, too. Eating out, because the variety of cuisine here was a nice change from what we had grown used to in the Exumas. We had some nice Italian, some paella, and grilled fish with risottos and pastas, beyond the peas-n-rice and mac-n-cheese that was so prevalent earlier in our journey. I was delighted with the creativity and skill of the chefs, even at the casual bars we visited. I didn’t do any cooking while we were docked, but we made two grocery runs to get restocked. I had heard that the grocery stores were good here, and they did not disappoint. For the next few days every meal will be prepared here on board, so I wanted to be sure and get everything we’d need.

What’s our menu for the next few days? Well, I’m planning to cook up a big pot of BBQ beef short ribs with cole slaw for dinner tonight, that will give us plenty of leftovers for quick reheating. I found a rotisserie chicken that I’ll use to make curried chicken salad, and I have a new recipe for a Mediterranean quinoa salad I want to try. Between that and the cheese and crackers, apples and peanut butter, and Rx Bars we have onboard, I’d say we won’t go hungry. In fact, it’s calm enough that I might try doing some food prep today while we’re underway. We haven’t had good enough conditions for me to try it before – I’ll let you know how it goes.

On the Awesomeness of My Mom

Mother’s Day was last weekend, and I was home to celebrate it as both a mom and a daughter. (Andy and I came home for various events: work for him, music festivals for me.) But my heart was already focused on my mom before the official holiday, because she came to see us on Gratitude right after Dan and Meaghan left and right before we jetted home.

My mom is a quiet, reserved person. She is friendly, and kind, and a person of deep faith, but she is never in your face about it. She and my dad did not do a lot of traveling when my siblings and I were young, but after we were grown they began to branch out. Sadly, my dad got sick (dementia caused by poorly-controlled diabetes) before his death, so for several years, when my mom was at an age where she could have been out enjoying her good health, she was home all day, every day, taking care of her husband of 48 years. Her world really shrank, through no fault of her own. I never heard her complain about it, but I know it was a loss she felt deeply – well before my dad’s passing.

Now my mom is almost 80, and while still in good health, not in a position to do a lot of traveling. So when Andy and I announced to our families that we would be moving onto a boat for a year (or two, according to Andy!), I felt tentative about inviting her to visit us. She was never a water-sports kind of gal, or a sun-worshipper, or a boater. She’s more of a Jedi homemaker, very skilled in the kitchen and the garden and with a sewing machine and knitting needles. (She made a lot of our clothes, when we were kids.) Nevertheless, I asked her: What would you think about coming down to stay with us on the boat?

Her answer: “I think that would be an adventure!”

I just love her.

The Awesome Kathy Hutson in Little Exuma

So for Christmas we gave her the flight, and in April she flew down to George Town. We moved Gratitude to a marina, which was further from town but let us position the boat at a dock, so she would not have to bounce around in a dinghy to get to shore.

For her part, Mom took an Uber to the airport. She had never flown alone before, much less used Uber, but she told me later, enthusiastically, “Uber is the way to go!” Once in George Town, she found a cab and had them bring her to our marina. We would have gone to meet her, but realized the day before her visit that we were almost out of time to extend our permission to be in the Bahamas, so we spent our morning sitting in the immigration office. Then she got directions to our slip and took a 10-minute nap in the cockpit while waiting for our return. That’s how my mom rolls.

And how my mom rolls made her visit just delightful! We didn’t have ideal weather – lots of rain – so we spent a good bit of time hanging out on Gratitude, reading and talking and watching fish swim under the docks. But we did have one good morning of sailing, and she loved it. Never felt seasick. We ate at a French-Bahamian restaurant and she tried conch fritters. And on our last day, defying the rain, we rented a car and drove all over the island. We went to the Straw Market (so much better in George Town than in Nassau!) and the grocery store, picking up an impromptu picnic to snack on. We drove to Little Exuma, down a bumpy dirt road to the Tropic of Cancer beach. She found the coolest piece of coral washed up on the beach – it looked like a miniature tree. We visited Santanna’s for BBQ ribs and Mom’s Bakery for pineapple rum cake. Then we drove back to the marina and put our feet up and spent the rest of the day reading.

Tropic of Cancer beach, Little Exuma. One of the last photos of my long hair! New ‘do photos soon….
The National Family Regatta was in George Town the same weekend as my Mom
Three Sisters rocks off Great Exuma – notable to Mom because she has three daughters
Tropic of Cancer beach lies on… you know….

It was a laid-back visit, but just right for my mom. And true to her nature, even on the boat her favorite thing was kitchen-themed: She loved my Ninja Foodi.

It pressure cooks! It crisps! It bakes, boils, slow-cooks, dehydrates, and steams! It does everything but the grocery shopping, and is PERFECT for a boat galley.

I told you my mother was a master in the kitchen. And she loves gadgets – LOVES them, I tell you. Makes her own yogurt! So in our downtime, Mom spent several hours reading through my Foodi cookbook, asking me questions, and scheming how she could get a Foodi of her own. I told her it would make a great birthday present from her kids, in October… to which she replied, “I’m not waiting that long!” She already owns a sous vide cooker, but she was drawn to the Foodi’s air-frying and pressure cooking capabilities. And when I saw her for Mother’s Day, she proudly led me into her kitchen and showed me her own Foodi. Which she had used already to cook some of our dinner that night.

Mom, you are both predictable and surprising, all the time. And 100 percent awesome.

Great Exuma Adventures, Part I

We have spent the last three weeks either anchored or docked in Great Exuma, Bahamas. This is the longest time we’ve spent in one location on the boat, if you don’t count Florida. (Maybe we should, but I don’t because so much of our time there was spent on the dock, working on the boat.) These last three weeks we’ve explored land and sea, met new people, gone to church on the beach, and hosted friends and family. So there’s a lot to catch up on! Let’s get started.

You’ve already read some about our first week in George Town (capital of Great Exuma). I mentioned Starfish Beach, so will share a photo from there. Apparently there used to be a lot of starfish there, hence the name; we only found one, but he was big! Maybe he muscled all the rest out.

Don’t worry – no starfish were harmed in the taking of this photo

Easter Sunday was notable for two reasons. One, we worshipped at Beach Church. Beach Church is a George Town cruisers’ tradition – it’s been going on seasonally for many years, roughly November though Easter. All are invited, and it’s a simple yet meaningful time of worship, fellowship, singing, prayer, and message. There’s a choir (you can join by showing up 30 minutes early to practice the songs), elders, and a statement of faith. We loved it. It must have been established in the 70’s, because we sang a mix of newer songs (10,000 Reasons) and much older (Pass It On). And every service ends with all attendees standing in a circle singing The Lord’s Prayer. The whole experience reminded me of my high school Baptist youth group days.

The other reason Easter stood out was that our friends Dan and Meaghan came to see us! I had a leg of lamb in the freezer, which was perfect for our Easter dinner, but before we sat down to eat Meaghan was eager to hit the water. So we all donned our snorkel gear, broke out the paddle boards, and jumped off the boat. I’d been watching local boats bring visitors to snorkel maybe 50 yards off our bow, so we swam over to see what we could find. It was a reef! Between Gratitude and the beach, with some lovely coral and friendly fish. A great start to our visit.

The next day we took Dan and Meaghan out for a sail. We had a nice wind and relatively calm seas, and we didn’t have to point the boat toward any particular destination. Ideal for sailing! We weighed anchor and left the harbor for half the day. What made our time especially sweet to me was Meaghan’s genuine curiosity and interest in all the aspects of sailing – anchoring, hoisting the main, unfurling the jib, reading the wind, trimming the sails, navigating, maneuvering. It was a real pleasure to introduce our friends to the pleasures of sailing. We even got to turn off the engines and use only wind power for the majority of our trip.

Dan and Meaghan were AWESOME boat guests! They love the water!

One sobering thing about our sail was passing by a cut between two small cays where another sailboat had wrecked just the night before. The boat was saved from total loss by a local rescue crew made up of volunteers. They were a French catamaran with outdated charts that showed a clear passage where there were CLEARLY, VISIBLY shallow depths and sharp reefs. If they had arrived in daylight, they probably would have been fine, but they did not and simply trusted the chart. It was a good lesson for us. Sometimes you just can’t avoid arriving in a new place at nighttime, but we make every effort to avoid it. This boat was fortunate – they were damaged, but because of the quick rescue response the damage was not beyond repair.

Our time with Dan and Meaghan also included diving with Dive Exuma. We were scheduled to visit a tugboat wreck and Stingray Reef, but were told when we arrived that choppy seas might prevent us from visiting the reef. So we set off knowing that it would be a bumpy ride. Turns out that didn’t bother me – until we hit the water. We were wearing new gear, and the waves were high and fast, and I hadn’t been diving since last summer. All I can say is that I panicked! Everything I knew about descending safely just left my brain, and I got scared. Andy and Dan were ahead of me, already under the water, so I swam back to the boat. At first I thought maybe I could get some help from the dive master, but by the time I reached the boat I was hyperventilating and in no shape to make a calm descent.

So I sat out the wreck dive. It was disappointing, but definitely the right decision. Andy worried about me the whole time he was below, which made me sad, but I was glad he and Dan got to dive together. And as we left the wreck site, I began to think about when I could schedule another dive, soon – in the spirit of getting back into the water quickly so that my fears did not spiral out of control. I love diving, and I would not want to let one incident rob me of something I really enjoy. Fortunately, the dive master made a judgment call that the seas had calmed enough for us to do the second dive. This time, I kept my head and made it down to the reef just fine. We saw some nice coral and fish, but the real value to me was the chance to remember that diving is fun, not scary, and I have what it takes to enjoy it.

We dubbed this “Redemption Dive.” Thanks to Dan T for the photo.
One of the many rewards of scuba – seeing a whole new world underwater

The next day we said goodbye to Dan and Meaghan, which made me sad but not despondent. Our time on the water is definitely richer with friends, but I also knew that my mom would be aboard in just a couple of days, so that made our parting a little easier. I’ll share all about Mom’s visit in the next post.

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.

…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.

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.

Swimming with Stingrays

Last week I was in a tough place, mentally and emotionally, after all the drama with our passage back to the Bahamas and our engine troubles and the approaching storm. So Andy suggested a mental-health field trip – something fun, to remind us why we wanted to take this sailing journey in the first place.

We were anchored in a beautiful cove off of Cat Cay, in the Biminis. Cat is a small private island, frequented by Jimmy Buffett and Jeff Bezos, and outsiders are not particularly welcome ashore. But just north of Cat Cay is the unpopulated Gun Cay, and at the top of Gun Cay is Honeymoon Harbor – a popular beach and snorkeling spot. We had anchored there once overnight, after an all-night passage, but we did not go exploring then. So Andy did a little research and found that Honeymoon Harbor is the home of stingrays and turtles. A worthy candidate for a field trip!

So we loaded up the dinghy with towels, water, and snorkel gear, and motored about a mile to Honeymoon. The sea was calm, almost placid, making the ride smooth and enjoyable. As we approached the beach, we saw them – a large school of rays!

Stingrays at Honeymoon Harbor, Bimini

We drifted toward a dock and found a spot to tie on, eager to get closer to the stingrays. We knew from previous experiences that stingrays are gentle creatures that only sting you when you step on them. As long as you shuffle your feet along the sand, they will hear you coming and get out of your way, so there’s little risk of either of you getting hurt. Several families with kids and dogs were already in the water feeding the rays – it’s a common practice here, and Andy had brought a small bag of bait fish from the stock he keeps in our freezer. (Mr. Project Manager plans ahead.)

We carefully climbed out of the boat and eased into the water. It was cool and clear, and about ten rays swam immediately to us. They were so beautiful – gray, with some blue tones up close, varying sizes, gliding smoothly over the sand and each other. At first we just put the bait in the water and watched the rays race each other to it. But we soon found that we could just hold a piece of fish in our fingers, and let the rays swim over and “Hoover” it up directly from our hands. These rays have “teeth” that are more like sandpaper, and they simply suck the food up from the surface of your hand. We both tried it, but only Andy was bold enough to hang on to the bait long enough for the ray to suck it up.

A word on the color of the water here – WOW! After our bait was eaten up and the rays moved on to some nearby little kids with a full bucket, we took some time to walk on the beach and gaze out over the glorious water. Every shade of turquoise – Who knew there were so many? Eventually we struck up a conversation with a dad supervising his kids and dog in the water; he was very friendly and told us a little about his experiences living and boating in the Bahamas. His dog, a pure-bred Corgi rescue, was the most water-happy dog I have ever met. He was neither spooked by nor aggressive towards the rays; he just stood there and let them swim around him. Such a sweet pooch.

Feeding the rays in Honeymoon Harbor

This little field trip did indeed help my mood, and I was grateful Andy thought of it. It’s easy to get tunnel-vision on all the tasks and projects that keep our vessel afloat. “Stop and swim with the rays” is going to be my new “Take time to smell the roses.”

P.S. After Cat Cay we motorsailed to Chub Cay, in the Berry Islands. We waited out a big storm at the marina there, which is SO nice – a pool, restaurant, bar, and places to run. (We both logged a couple miles). We met a receptionist who had heard of Kennesaw because she will be enrolled at KSU next fall – small world! We also met Ben and Nancy who were in the slip across from us on Mimosa, their Leopard 45, and we had fun comparing features and layouts on our boat before hanging out at the Nauti Rooster. They were headed back to Florida, but that encounter did bode well for the new-friends potential of our continued journey.

Everything takes longer than it does.

Hi everyone. We write you today from a dock in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. We had hoped to be back in the Bahamas by now, but God just chuckled at our plans. Here’s an update on the last couple of weeks.

Our sail back home to the US was uneventful, blessedly so. We did catch another fish – a tuna this time. Andy is great fun to watch when the reel begins to spin – he gets both excited and uber-focused! The tuna was just large enough for us to get a couple of meals out of him – we cooked it for lunch, while still underway. I decided that I will not cook that way again – too much motion on the boat, even though the sea was relatively calm. Lots of sailors pre-cook their meals when preparing for a long passage, and now I know why.

We arrived back in Ft. Lauderdale in the early afternoon and headed for our marina. There we had another “adventure.” We radioed the marina and followed their directions to our slip… only to discover that the slip they’d assigned us (right beside a big cement dock) was a few feet too narrow for our boat to fit. And another boat had followed us into the docking area, so there was no room to back out. It was a struggle to keep the boat out of harm’s way, but thankfully the other boat caught on to our situation, pulled out, and gave us room to back away from the dock. The dock master sent us to the other side of the marina, where there was plenty of room to maneuver and a spacious berth for Gratitude. But we were both sweating buckets until we got the lines tied.

This incident gave me a couple of insights. One, I’ve decided I’m going to be a lot more assertive from now on, when making marina reservations. I’m going to make sure, on the front end and right before pulling in, that the folks know all the dimensions of our vessel, and ask them for the biggest slip they will give us. I’m not making assumptions that everyone else knows what our boat needs.

The second decision may not be fully in my control, but to the extent that I am able, I am going to stop worrying so much about whether we hit something. If we do, we do. Right now the fear I feel is disproportionate to the risks we are taking. We’re taking it slow and not making big crazy moves. If we damage our boat, we’ll fix her. If we damage someone else’s property, we’ll make it right. As long as no one gets hurt – and in all our scary situations so far, the closest we’ve come was Andy falling into about 10 feet of water in a bay – we are okay. This incident showed me that I’ve been afraid – too afraid – of looking foolish. I know from experience that that is a fear that is based on a lie. So that’s where the battle is, for me and this boat – to remember the truth that learning always involves making mistakes. And we’re allowed our share. It will be okay.

Once Gratitude was docked, we set to work getting her cleaned up, because we would welcome friends aboard just a few hours later. Dan and Tracy flew down from Atlanta to spend a weekend with us, and we had such a good laid-back time. We ate at Coconut’s (twice), lounged around the boat, shopped at West Marine (Dan was like a kid at Christmas!) and generally soaked up precious time with friends. It did both our hearts good.

Dan and Tracy left on Sunday, and the next Thursday I flew home for a short visit. Andy stayed with the boat, to oversee the repairs. I saw all my kids, some dear friends, and my Mom and sister. Worked out (of course!) and went to church. And saw Fleetwood Mac in concert. I would have loved more time and more visits with friends, but I also missed Andy and our boat. Which helped me recognize (not for the first time) that we’d made the right decision, buying Gratitude. She already feels like our new home.

I flew back to Ft. Lauderdale with our son Kyle and Andy’s dad Theron. They are with us now, and we had hoped to sail with them back to Nassau and give them a taste of the Bahamas. However, our repair work has hit various delays, and we learned yesterday that someone made a mistake in fulfilling an order for parts, so now we have to wait again for the right ones to be shipped. Which means that we will not be leaving Ft. Lauderdale by this weekend. It’s disappointing – but on par with what everyone has told us about boat ownership. To quote one of my dearly departed and much beloved college professors, Dr. Brewer: “Everything takes longer than it does.”

Nassau to Spanish Wells

Well last week we finally left Nassau. It’s been an eventful two weeks so I thought we might fill you in.

Nassau was not our favorite locale. It is a great place to grocery shop and eat out; but it is also crowded, touristy, and very expensive. One thing that frustrated us a little there was that there are not really any good anchorages. We found a couple that provided adequate shelter, but not much to do once you arrived. Perhaps you could take your dinghy to shore, but then it would be a $20 cab fare each way to the grocery store. To get close to things like Starbucks or restaurants or provisioning, you had to stay at a marina- with its daily fee and extra $$ for electricity and water.

After a few days of trying to find a good anchoring spot, we gave up and headed to a marina in anticipation of our son Clint’s visit. He and his girlfriend Sierra arrived in Nassau February 7, after their cruise celebrating her birthday. This was our first visit from home! We decided we would do some sailing and anchoring at an island off the coast near Nassau, then return to the Atlantis resort marina for the final part of their stay. This allowed them to manage their luggage and cab rides with ease. It also gave us all some variety throughout their visit. Atlantis, while expensive, was still a good value compared to renting a room there. The price of the marina stay included access to the pools, restaurants, and water park. We had a very enjoyable Sunday there cruising the water slides and trying out a few of the restaurants. I don’t know that I’d rush back there, but it was fun to try once. I will say that the marina was top-notch. Docking was relatively easy, and the ambiance around the place was upscale. Definitely a step up from your average marina.

I must confess that I was a bit blue when Clint and Sierra left us. It was a wonderful visit, and it made me not homesick, but perhaps family-sick. I did really soak up the time with people who know us and love us. It made me look forward to the next visit with family.

The next morning we cast off the lines and motor-sailed all day to Eleuthera. It was a little bumpy; we were sailing into the wind and the seas, which is not comfortable as compared to sailing with the waves coming from behind you. But we really, really wanted to get somewhere other than Nassau. And we were glad we did! It took us about 6 hours to reach an anchorage at Royal Island, an uninhabited island on the northern end of Eleuthera. The next morning we did some laundry, worked out, cleaned up, and motored one more hour to Spanish Wells, where we picked up a mooring ball right near the town.

For our non-boating friends, a mooring ball is like an anchor that you sail up to rather than bring with you. It’s usually a heavy object (stone or concrete) with a buoy and a line attached. The line has a loop at the end, and you attach to lines from the bow (very front) of your boat through the loop and back to your boat. It is usually very secure. It is also, we discovered, difficult to pick up with just two people.  We got a line attached to one side of Gratitude but were having trouble getting a line in from the other side. (We decided we need some longer dock lines for occasions such as this, to make it easier.) Fortunately, a guy in the boat moored next to us got in his dinghy and paddled over. He ran the second line through the loop for us. Turned out he was a fellow Mariettan! His name was Thad, and he lived in Marietta for about 11 years. We dinghied over later that day with some beer and our profuse thanks and had a nice visit with him.

Our time in Spanish Wells was very laid-back. We checked out the local restaurants and rented a golf cart for a few hours to explore the town. It is the opposite of Nassau – a working town, no glitz and not touristy, except for some rental properties for a few families who vacation here every year. No resorts, just a quiet secluded beach. Great seafood, because their primary industry is fishing. Two supermarkets, but not like Publix back home – more expensive, less selection, but you can find almost everything you really need.

You may have seen on Facebook that we took one day away from the boat and visited Harbor Island. To get there, you go to Pinder’s Supermarket the day before and tell them you need a taxi to the ferry dock. They’ll tell you what time to be back there the next morning. The water taxi takes you across the channel to North Eleuthera. The captain ties up his boat, gets off, and disappears for a few minutes – he’s gone to get the passenger van. You transfer yourself into the van, which takes you to the public ferry dock on the other side of North Eleuthera. The captain tells you what time he’ll be back at that public ferry dock, and that if you are even one minute late he will be OUTTA THERE. (He’s quite emphatic about this.) Then you get on the government ferry boat (one is always leaving or arriving within about 10 minutes of each other) and you ride over to Harbor Town.

Our captain (a very crusty elderly gentleman with some interesting stories) told us that Harbor Island was Sin City and that he guaranteed we would not want to stay long. What does it say about us that we absolutely LOVED it? Ha! It is clean, full of friendly people, and has the Pink Sand Beach, at which I could happily have stayed for a week. You rent a golf cart right across from the dock. You drive that cart about three long blocks to the public beach access. At the end of the access road is a fabulous (albeit crazy-expensive) restaurant and a little shack that rents chairs, umbrellas, towels, snorkel gear, paddle boards – anything you might need for a beach day. And bottled water. And Cheetos.

We plopped ourselves down on two chairs and beached, all day. It was heavenly. The only thing I neglected to do was take a picture of the pink sand. Truth be told, the pink is very faint. It is mostly white, with a pinkish tinge, from coral they say. But it is glorious, because it was the softest sand I have ever walked on. Not hot at all – cool and smooth beneath your feet. If I’d had a little more time, I’d have rented snorkel gear too and swum out to the reef to see if I could find some fish. That’s okay, though – I have already decided I will find a way to come back here.

The only bad thing that happened to us this day was having to leave to go back and meet Captain Crusty at the ferry dock. Oh, and our dinghy had some water in it when we got back. We don’t know why – it wasn’t alarming, but it’s yet another problem to solve. So we counted this as a very successful day.

Today we spent the day cooking and cleaning. We are going to start tomorrow sailing back toward Ft. Lauderdale. We knew when we left that we would need to go back in a few weeks to get some issues resolved with our newly-installed solar panels. And our time away has revealed a few other things (like that busted eye on the dinghy that sent Andy crashing into the sea!) that need repair. So tomorrow we will leave Spanish Wells for a series of day sails – back to New Providence (anchoring away from Nassau), then to Chub Cay in the Berry Islands, then a long sail to Bimini, where we will be only 50 miles from Florida. We hope to be back in Ft. Lauderdale on Friday.

After our return, the plans are to host some friends on the boat for the weekend, then for me to get a quick visit home. I’ll return to Gratitude with our son Kyle and Andy’s dad (“Papa”). They’ll be with us for a week, and I can’t wait! I’m also excited about touching base at home, seeing my family, and of course working out with my Crossfit III squad. Andy will supervise our boat work and see if we can get ready for a return to the Bahamas, Part II. But of course, we hold these plan loosely. We’re learning.