Monthly Archives: February 2011

Lessons from Adversity, Part II

“It’s all very well to read about sorrows and imagine yourself living through them heroically, but it’s not so nice when you really come to have them, is it?” –from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables

I have read lots of books about disasters at sea—call it research, if you will. I always wonder, “How would I handle a similar circumstance?” I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t really know until you’re in the thick of it. I’ve also read the Little House series of books to the kids (by Laura Ingalls Wilder) about the survival of a pioneer family, and often hoped I would handle adversity like Ma, who weathers everything with composure.

I’m sure Jay will give the blow-by-blow of our little encounter with Mother Nature recently, so I will spare you the details. We learned a lot, though, from our miserable few hours. One thing I learned was that I only freak out about small things. When it comes to the moment when panic might be expected, I was actually very calm. I owe this to two things: prayer (that is, faith that we’re being looked after), and the need to reassure my children. While waves washed over the top of our main cabin and everything around us tossed and turned (including the contents of all our drawers and cupboards), I sat and read Beatrix Potter’s timeless stories loud enough to cover the sound of wind and waves. It really helped the kids stay calm and happy. I confess that I wondered when and how it would all end, but while we were in it, I decided to make the best of it, and hope that we’d find a safe and quiet place to recuperate. We did.

Another thing I learned was that Jay and I can do this, even with four (or five) children. Even in unpleasant conditions. I am not good at snap decisions, like if Jay asks me to look at the chart and find us a safe place to anchor, or if he hands me the wheel without explicit instructions and then heads up on deck. But I am good for a second opinion, and I’m good at preparing ahead of time, and I can follow instructions and provide endless snacks and drinks and dry clothes to wet and tired crew. Jay can stand for hours in cold and salt and wet, enduring the ills of seasickness or adrenaline overload, making decisions that are difficult because the outcome is hard to predict. He’s never gotten us into a mess he can’t get us out of. And, I must say, he can be humble, like when he apologized to all of us for heading into bad weather instead of stopping earlier. He is a good captain, in short, and I am good at supporting him in the role of first mate.

The kids, in their turn, are good at entertaining themselves on travel days, are sympathetic when they see us stressed or struggling, and don’t complain when conditions are rough—they just lie around quietly and wait for us to fix things. If I someone gets cut or hurt in some way, they are quick to run for first aid supplies, and are not bad at caretaking. The older ones help the younger, and when called upon, they are good assistants to us as well. Suffering something difficult together really reveals not only your weaknesses, but also your strengths, and I am proud of how far this family has come in learning to operate as a team.

We are also learning to trust our boat more and more. Of course, if you’re never in unpleasant conditions, you don’t really test the boat at all, and despite our stated goals to do so, we never seek out these conditions. But we figured eventually they would find us, and we would find out what this boat can do. We are learning how strong she is structurally, how well her systems work, for the most part, and what a good and comfortable home she makes for us. We are also learning her weaknesses, and what things we can do to ameliorate them. One last thing we learned: she heaves to just fine (that’s a mono-hull trick where you can use a sail and the rudder to basically stop the boat), and it’s a great way to buy a few minutes’ respite and figure out what to do next. As long as you’re not going to drift into anything, you could even use this tactic to get a few hours’ sleep if you were really worn out from a long storm, or waiting for daylight to enter an unfamiliar harbor. 

We are making a nice recovery—fixing broken things, de-salinating and drying out, cleaning up and re-organizing. It feels good to be anchored and not moving, just resting up for the next leg of the trip. I am glad we learned the things we did while we were in the middle of the storm, but, all the same, I hope we don’t need to heave to again anytime soon.

Lessons from Adversity, Part I

I got stranded in the dinghy (again), but this time I was not able to help myself, and the stupid motor bit me. That would be code for “electric shock.” I don’t take it too personally, though, because it bit Jay, too, when he tried later to figure out what was wrong. I also had trouble with the tilt and trim, which malfunctioned and prevented me from getting the propeller far enough in the water to get forward propulsion. Add that to the fact that I was in the middle of helping a friend, who couldn’t get her motor started. I would have at least towed her back to her boat except I couldn’t help myself! We were sort of drifting along together, me, Carla, and six children, trying to figure out what we should do next. Someone putting by helped us out (thanks, Jerry from Kumbaya)—he got my motor down far enough to go forward and towed Carla home. Had Jay had his VHF on, there’s not much he could have done, short of coming to help out by kayak (yeah, right) or telling me to just row home. Carla’s husband was out fishing, so he wasn’t there to help either.

Now I understand about being independent and self-sufficient. But sometimes you just need help. I’m seven months pregnant, for goodness’ sake—I don’t possess the physical prowess necessary for wrestling with the Merc 25. Jay didn’t exactly scold me for my helplessness, but he did express his desire that the adversity teach me something, preferably that each episode would build my confidence and competence in trouble-shooting. HA! I will not repeat the whole conversation (mostly because you don’t want to hear my irrational and emotional ranting), but suffice it to say that what I have learned is to a) never go too far from the boat or from someone who can help me; b) make sure Take Two’s radio is on and set to the same channel as the handheld unit I always have with me so that the Main Troubleshooter is available to talk me through problems; and c) get our little motor-head Aaron up to speed as quickly as possible so he can fix the damn thing.

The fact is that I am as likely to learn outboard engine repair as Jay is to learn herbal remedies to fix the kids’ various ailments. We ascribe to the “divide and conquer” way of life, and although we always have spares of everything, there are no spare family members. We each have vital roles to play and we can’t really do each other’s jobs with ease. Some cross-training is desirable, of course, or else Jay couldn’t travel for work and I’d never have a moment to myself. But the self-sufficiency we have attained is based on inter-dependency; we are able to help ourselves as a family unit because we can help each other. This teamwork is sometimes put to the test, but you can read about that in another entry…


We've decided to take advantage of the calm before the next front to leave Elizabeth Harbor and get up into the Exuma chain.  We'll weather the front there and then have the prevailing easterlies behind us as we head west.   We don't know yet how hard we'll push, so our arrival date isn't known.  The Where Are We? page will show our position.

Always Homesick

Part of traveling is the anticipation of leaving, the other, of coming home. Pithy, I know. But what that really means is that you’re always homesick for somewhere.

I have so missed my family and close friends on this trip; I probably seemed a bit overzealous when we finally met some other young families here in Georgetown. I nearly attacked poor Helene on the beach one day, and then abandoned her mid-conversation another day when introduced to Carla. The former is here with her husband and two boys (our older boys’ ages) for five months in a rental, escaping predictable life and winter in North Carolina. The latter is the first mate on a catamaran called Begonia, taking an ambitious year-long journey with her husband and two kids (a girl and a boy near Sarah and Sam’s ages). The three families together formed some kind of perfect chemistry, where everyone felt instantly comfortable, and the kids each had an age-matched playmate. That’s a rare concoction. Rare, and short-lived in this lifestyle. That brings me to the second cause of homesickness. The first thing we’ll do when we get back to Florida is get together with our families, but we will all the while be missing the people we have met on this trip. We just can’t win. Or, as Jay put it, there’s always something to look forward to.

We are waxing nostalgic about our trip through the Bahamas and we haven’t even left yet. What will we miss about cruising here? Aside from the people we have met, we will also miss the atmosphere. For example, the quiet. Almost never do we hear airplanes zooming by overhead or sirens or car motors. There is the occasional passing dinghy, it is true, but that is only in crowded anchorages like those near George Town. The dark sky is another thing I have begun to take for granted. I can look up at any time of night and spy an old friend in a constellation; I don’t even bother to get out my star chart and binoculars anymore. There are millions of visible stars here, not that I’ve counted, but it is hard to get a sky like this near civilization, since civilization means electricity, and, consequently, light pollution. The crystal-clear cerulean water, which we never get tired of looking at or jumping into, will be another thing missed, perhaps most by the children, who swim almost every day. The freedom and independence of this lifestyle appeal to me and Jay, so we are reluctant to come back to a dock, and the things on land that seem to draw us in and keep us tied up. I hope we remember how much we love being “out here” and don’t get stuck for very long. We have a plan for getting away again, and a feeling of success about this trip that will hopefully combat the complacency that comes with living near shore.

Of course, the other side of the coin is that there are things for which I can’t wait to get back. I am looking forward to happy reunions with friends and family, as are the kids, who can’t wait to see their grandparents, playmates and cousins. The other day, I noticed that the shopping carts at Exuma Markets are old “Publix” carts, and I had a good chuckle—I’m positively drooling for a real grocery store, and even, gasp! A health food store. It’s hard to find things that are not pre-packaged or canned or inexpensive enough to buy fresh (I just splurged on an $8 pineapple). I also can’t wait to get some things ready for the impending birth of our baby girl in the spring—meeting with my midwife in Sarasota, building a crib, buying a few necessities, and general nesting. And, I’m ashamed to admit, the hot showers, electric washers and dryers and swimming pool at our marina are also calling my name from afar.

Even as I long for the creature comforts of a familiar environment, I know I will miss going exploring in new places with our children, and no sooner will we be tied up to the dock than we will begin discussions about the next cruise. That is as it should be—a natural ebb and flow—we go out, have a great time, come back, touch base and regroup, and then do it again when we’re ready. Jay is right with his glass half-full analysis, but I am still feeling a little melancholy, knowing I will always be missing something.  That sweet fellowship we found here with the family on Begonia and the family staying at February Point is made all the more precious because we all share that bittersweet appreciation for the temporary nature of our adventures. This is a trip we will never forget, but also never duplicate.


The Bahamas cell phone has been a big success.  Not only for talking to the US as we’ve already detailed, but also for local communication too.  The cost of the phone, SIM card, minutes, and forwarding services have been well worth the convenience to us.  We’ve also loaned the phone to other cruisers on a couple occasions.  If we were moving around from country to country, like we expect to in the Caribbean, then acquiring new SIM cards in each would become a greater hassle and expense.  In that situation, we may investigate roaming service from Gymsim, a provider of SIM cards that work (relatively) inexpensively in multiple countries.

Cell coverage is pretty good in the Bahamas, at least around the inhabited islands.  We have a cellular amplifier with an antenna on top of the mast that is supposed to dramatically extend the range.  Unfortunately, it has never lived up to our expectations.  Part of the problem may be that it is a “direct connect” model, requiring the amplifier to plug into the phone’s antenna port.  This connection was always tenuous and highly inconvenient.  It is also becoming more difficult to find phones that even have these ports.  I think we’ll trade ours in for a connectionless “repeater” model.  This essentially puts a cell tower inside the boat, which doesn’t really make me happy, but if it works…

We’ve also already lamented our need for Internet access and problems finding it.  For our next cruise, we will have an Iridium satellite phone.  Besides being a phone which works pretty much anywhere, itself attractive for emergency situations, it can also be used for data.  The connection is slow, but workable for emails and weather data.  

To illustrate the need, at this moment we are watching for a weather window for a 4-day trip back to Florida.  Today is a nice day for the first leg, but the day after tomorrow is no good at all.  If we had the ability to get continuous weather updates, we could go part of the way today and then wait to proceed.  Instead, we feel compelled to wait here for a weather picture clear enough to do the whole trip.

Many boats have single sideband (SSB) radio transceivers for voice communication.  These can even do email with the addition of a Pactor modem.  However, reviews are mixed.  They are not as reliable or easy to use as a satellite phone.  One has to consider all kinds of atmospheric conditions just to figure out which frequencies are likely to work.  Take Two used to have an SSB radio, but her previous owner took it with him.  We still have the insulated backstay and grounding plane, which are the hardest part of an installation, so we may get another transceiver just to be salty.  We’ll skip the modem, though.

We do have a little Sony all-band radio receiver that can pick up SSB broadcasts.  With the proper cable and software it can even be connected to a computer to receive weatherfaxes.  My luck with it has been very poor to date, both for quality of the signal and quality of the information, which has really helped push me toward satellite.

Lastly, we learned during this cruise that our VHF radio does not work well.  In retrospect, we’re not sure it ever has.  Hopefully it is just the antenna at the top, or the unit inside, and not the cable in the mast.  We’ll hire a pro when we get back to diagnose it and make sure we’re putting out a clear strong signal.

Living vs. Sailing

One of the things we’ve learned while cruising is what a small percentage of time is spent underway.  I may have to turn in my man card for this, but I think men often lose sight of this when choosing and outfitting a boat.

Every boat is a compromise, and we have always liked the choices made when Take Two was drawn.  We are still happy in that regard, but if we were ever to buy another boat we might reconsider many of the designs that were summarily rejected before.  Beyond basic seaworthiness, bridgedeck clearances, displacements, and weight distribution just don’t seem as important now as they once did.  Admittedly, they would be more important if we were crossing oceans, underway for days on end, and unable to choose our weather as we now do.

Now don’t get me wrong: I love a sweet sailing boat.  And when we’re underway I’m usually trying to squeeze out every knot.  Realistically, though, much more time is spent at anchor where stability, a light airy interior, ventilation, and other creature comforts are more appreciated features overall.  Besides, I think we sail fast enough as it is.  I would not trade my big dinghy, generator, or watermaker for any amount of additional speed.

This perspective helps us prioritize the summer project list.  While the boat must remain functional, we’ve decided that sailing-related improvements are less important than those that pertain to our day-to-day comfort.  Should we buy new sails, new engines, and new navigation electronics?  That’s all on the list – but at the bottom.  No, our highest priorities are those that we’ll appreciate every day no matter where we are: a galley renovation, reupholstered cushions, shade-giving window covers and awnings, a second bathroom, a clothes washer.  Next priority is our bi-annual haulout to refresh the anti-fouling paint, which keeps us mobile and prevents a reef from growing under the boat.  Then, if we have any money left, I want to add dual wind turbines to reduce our dependence on the generator and extend our supply of diesel fuel.

Replacing the air conditioners will quickly go to the top of this list if they should happen to die while we’re in Florida this summer.  We’ve been waiting for it to happen.  We thought it had happened last summer until I realized the problem was just a $20 capacitor.  If we can’t escape from Florida at the end of the summer, then we’ll install a heating system to help us survive the winter.

Some readers may notice that the projects receiving priority are decidedly “pink” and suspect that Tanya has me at some disadvantage.  But I assure you that is not the case.  I came to these conclusions without (much) assistance, and maintain full control.  So keep your hands off my man card.  Thank you.