Monthly Archives: May 2013

Yard Work

We value hard work and it’s something we try to teach our kids.  But whenever we try to get them to buckle down to heavy duty schoolwork or chores, all we seem to get is bitching and moaning.  

We’ve long felt that what was needed was a lesson in good hard physical labor, so I mentioned our dilemma to a friend in the process of clearing his new property.  It happened that Ben had just cut back a Brazilian pepper hedge, had a huge pile of trimmings, and had rented a wood chipper for the weekend.  He was estimating about 8 hours of work for he and Paul, with one of them on the chipper and the other hauling branches.  We decided it would be a great opportunity for the kids to help out and get a taste of real work.

It took one hour.  I worked the pile, separating braches.  The four kids hauled branches from the pile to the chipper.  Ben fed the chipper non-stop, and Paul prepped the bigger branches with a chainsaw.  

The kids performed well beyond my expectations.  While I had planned for the work to last a little bit longer, they went at it with such dedication and teamwork that I couldn’t be anything but pleased.  There was no whining, no complaining, no ass-dragging.

I’d arranged for Tanya to pick us up after three hours, so we had a little time to kill.  While we were waiting, Ben taught the boys to operate the backhoe and let them use it to dig a big hole.  They were in boy-heaven.

Kayaker’s Paradise

We’ve just returned from a two-month trip through the Exumas and Abacos, where we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and soaked up some beautiful scenery.  I’ve written previously about our love for kayaking, and a great way to explore the Bahamas is in a shallow-draft boat that can slip silently through mangrove tunnels or over blue holes. By shallow-draft, of course, I mean a few inches—one criterion for a good kayaking trip is that it’s too shallow for the dinghy. Here are my recommendations for great kayaking adventures in the Bahamas:

1. Shroud Cay. Hands down my favorite place to kayak on planet Earth (so far). This is a deserted, pristine island with lots of trails, beautiful white sandy beaches, and perfect swimming holes. As part of the Exuma Land and Sea Park, the island is uninhabited and protected. The combination of crystal-clear water mazes, lush green mangroves and white-sand beaches makes it irresistibly beautiful. With three trails (at least) that you can kayak, you could spend a week here happily paddling, hiking and swimming. The southern trail, my favorite, takes about an hour’s paddling to get from the anchorage to the ocean beach, and at high tide, the water flows all the way through. It is supposed to be closed to dinghy traffic, but sometimes people don’t know, or don’t follow, that rule. The middle trail is a lot longer, and at low tide it dries up long before you get to the ocean side, requiring a hike through mud flats if you want to see “what’s on the other side.” This is a shallow trail inaccessible to dinghies. The northern trail has a great swimming hole on the ocean side, but it is open to dinghy traffic, so a peaceful trip may be interrupted from time to time by the sound and wake of an outboard motor. While kayaking Shroud, we saw sharks and turtles, tropical fish along rocky ledges, conch, coral heads and lots of wading birds.

2. The Bight of Old Robinson. We returned to an old favorite just northwest of Little Harbor, Great Abaco Island. If anchored at Lynyard Cay, it would be a good idea to move for the day to the anchorage behind Tom Curry Point to explore by dinghy or kayak, but it’s also pretty easy to take a mooring ball in Little Harbor and tow a kayak or two behind a substantial dinghy (we have a 12-foot hard-bottom inflatable with a 25hp outboard) and head to the Bight for the day. There are more than a dozen blue holes, though I’ve only actually kayaked over two of them. Just to the northwest of the Riding Cays there is an entrance to a great kayaking trail, though timing is tricky, as it is very hard to navigate at low water or on an out-going tide. The entrance itself is beautiful, with coral heads in shallow water, upside-down jellyfish and huge, red-orange cushion stars. Once inside, the water is calm and the blue holes are easy to spot, but you have to know where to look. An easy one to find is just to the south of the entrance to the trail, and it is marked on shore with a plaque dedicated to some young people who died scuba-diving in the underwater passages. This discovery may put a damper on the trip, but it is still exciting to paddle around in a foot or two of water and then see the bottom drop away. Another hole lies to the west behind some rocky islets, but there’s no marker, so you have to search. It helps to look at a satellite picture and mark the approximate locations of the blue holes on the chart before you go exploring. The Bight is where we first saw the dark shapes zipping across the sandy patches near Man of War Bush which we would later come to call “Turbo Turtles.”

3. Snake Cay to Armstrong Cay. We anchored in Buckaroon Bay just north of Armstrong Cay, where there is a little lagoon perfect for a quick kayaking trip. At high tide, you can go into the mangrove trail to the southeast. Even better is a day trip behind the rocky islands south of Snake Cay. Tow the kayak behind the dinghy and have someone drop you off in the channel just past the ruins of the old mill. Heading south, you can meander for hours behind Deep Sea Cay, Mocking Bird Cay, and Iron Cay. The landscape here is decidedly different from anything you’ll see elsewhere because of the pine forest on the Abaco side, and the lush vegetation on the rocky islands. The water is a beautiful, clear green over a mottled bottom with rocks, coral, sand and turtle grass. If you’ve ever wondered where sea turtles go between the time when they hatch from their tiny eggs and crawl down the beach and when you see them huge, surfacing on the ocean like a submarine, I know where at least some of them spend their adolescence. The Abacos are just plumb full of mid-size turtles, and if you’re careful, you can sneak up on one and watch it zip away, faster than you ever thought a turtle could move.

4. No Name Cay. Southeast of Green Turtle Cay is a beautiful little anchorage on the Sea of Abaco behind No Name Cay.  We anchored outside the entrance to the lagoon and took the kayaks in for a quick explore. We found mangroves to the north and a small, sandy beach to the south. We pulled the kayak up on the sand to see if we could get through the brush to see the ocean side of the island. What we found was a rough trail to a small, shallow, enclosed bay perfect for finding treasures like sea glass and shells. Back in the lagoon, we enjoyed drifting across the still water as the tide carried us toward the exit. It was perfectly quiet except for distant ocean breakers and bird calls.

5. Double Breasted Cay. I’ve saved the best for last. Many people traveling across the Banks stop at Great Sale Cay and miss one of the treasures of the northern Bahamas. Following the chain to the northeast of Green Turtle, past Manjack, Spanish, and Powell Cays, the islands grow smaller, more remote and less protected. About 45 nautical miles from the Crab Cay waypoint on Little Abaco Island you arrive at Double Breasted Cay, a gathering of small, narrow, uninhabited rocky islands. The current is tricky, so we entered and exited the anchorage at slack high water, but if you can get in behind Sand Cay, it’s worth it. This is kayaking at its best. The sandy flats around Sand Cay are known for shark sightings, and I saw several large sharks patrolling around dusk one evening. In the open water between the islands, there are lots of coral heads, easily visible from the water’s surface on a calm day. In the mangrove trail to the north, we saw more turbo turtles and wading birds. The stillness was only broken by the liquid warble of Red-winged Blackbirds. This is my new favorite place in the Bahamas, one I hope we’ll return to on a future trip.

Pete’s Pub

One of our favorite places in the Abacos is Little Harbor, a sweet spot at the southern end of the Sea of Abaco. We’ve stopped there both coming and going—it’s either our first stop after crossing Northeast Providence Channel from Eleuthera and the Exumas or our last taste of Abaco before heading south. The area has a lot going for it—caves with stalactites, stalagmites, and bats, a beautiful protected cove filled with sea turtles, a nice hilly hike, an ocean beach with dramatic views and good waves, a bight with good snorkeling and excellent kayaking, blue holes, and, of course, Pete’s Pub and Foundry.

Pete Johnston came to the Bahamas on a boat with his parents in the 1950s. His father was a sculptor skilled in the art of lost-wax casting, and he built the foundry that is there to this day, open for tours daily. The last time we visited, Eli got an early Christmas present in the gallery: a bronze shark belt buckle on a leather belt made by none-other-than Pete himself. He even measured Eli and punched the holes. He does beautiful work, and also happens to run our favorite restaurant.

Pete’s Pub is the ultimate low-key beach bar. The food is always fabulous, with the fish and conch on the menu usually caught and cleaned that day. The burgers are a bit pricey, but better than you’ll find anywhere else in the Abacos, where good meat appears to be scarce. The sides are always a spicy version of the Bahamian standard, peas-n-rice, and a to-die-for pineapple cole slaw. We’ve never been disappointed. The atmosphere is special, too, with the picnic tables in the sand, little shady places to sit, a “porch” near the bar with Adirondack chairs to sink into with your cold Kalik or their famed fruity rum drink, “the Blaster” (why walk when you can crawl?). The whole place is lit with small lanterns and Christmas lights and festooned with tee-shirts donated and signed by past visitors. Add some good music and a hook-and-ring bar game and you have the perfect place to relax at the end of a long sail.

We like to head over in the dinghy around 6-ish, when the red-yellow-green traffic light on the beach comes on. You can go up on the rooftop balcony to see a great view of the sunset or the breakers on the ocean side. The kids bring things to play with (army guys, buckets and shovels, dominoes, coloring books, etc.) and we spend the whole evening enjoying a meal or drinks, meeting other boaters and talking to locals. It’s the sort of place that seems outside of time, unchanging, like the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

We often have a hankering for Pete’s Pub, but part of its charm may be that it’s so hard to get to. When we arrive, it is usually with weariness and joy in equal measures. Little Harbor is an easy place to pass up, with the washing-machine surge against Tom Curry Point and its shallow entrance, but once inside, it is a little slice of paradise, remote but not isolated, secluded yet welcoming. It’ll be awhile before we get back there, but, eventually, when the craving hits, we’ll untie the dock-lines and brave the ocean waves again, knowing that there’s a bright spot at the end of every journey.

Life is School

I have written elsewhere about our home-school, or rather, boat-school practices (see FAQ: Do You Home-school the Children?), but from time to time I like to post an update about what we’re learning on Take Two. Now that we are traveling, formal schooling has taken a back seat to fun and exploration. Instead of doing the “Daily Dozen” (see footnote), we’re down to three: Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmatic. The children are still responsible for a page in their math workbooks, an entry in their journals, and a chapter in the book we are currently reading (we just finished the WWI autobiography Seargent York and the Great War and have moved on to Karen Hess’ Out of the Dust), but these tasks are usually done before noon. When the school-work and chores are done, the kids are free to pursue their own interests, and I am pleased to report that the choices they make for free time are both diverse and fascinating. Our key mission is to inspire our children to be life-long learners—after all, life is school—and we are beginning to see them independently take on challenging books and projects (yay!). Aside from the history and science they pick up as we travel, they are each exploring new areas on their own.

Eli, 11, is learning Small Basic. Jay set him up on an old computer and gave him a tutorial and a book, which he is working through as if it were a game instead of a new language. (I wish he felt that way about Spanish!) Earlier this year, Jay gave a mini-lesson on a base-two number system, and Eli took an interest and wrote a coded letter to a friend in binary. While we lived in Marathon, he picked up a new sport: tennis. He and I spent many a happy afternoon hitting and chasing little green balls. He reads like a fiend when given the chance, and is currently reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Aaron, 10, is our most mechanically-inclined child so far, and is teaching himself electronics. It started with a set of Snap Circuits he got for Christmas one year, but has quickly morphed into projects from Charles Platt’s Make: Electronics using chips, wires, a soldering gun, capacitors, resistors, LEDs, and some tiny little color-coded wires. Don’t even ask me what he’s doing, because I don’t understand it. He also got a neat Lego motorized loader/bulldozer set for his birthday last year and has been using gears from that set to build gear boxes that have six speeds and actually shift. While his brother was enjoying tennis, he was practicing the half-pipe on his skateboard and discovering a love for basketball. His favorite book is David Macaulay’s The New Way Things Work.

Sarah, 9, is a little like Ginger Rogers, who could do everything Fred Astaire could do, only backwards and in high heels. She’s working on her online test to get a Florida Boating Safety Education I.D. card so she can captain the dinghy and also doing some computer programming and electronic experiments in her spare time. She prefers learning French to Spanish, paints with acrylics, and writes stories for fun. She is always working on a new knitting project, and is also currently sewing her sister a nine-patch quilt. She's taken to gardening, and even though we are short on space, she has a pot of carrots growing on deck and an assortment of herbs on my galley window sill. Given some alone time in her room, you can hear her playing her keyboard and it actually sounds like music. She’s always reading at least three books simultaneously, but loves Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series of books on her Kindle.

Sam, 6, is still learning to read, but seems to have a gift for numbers. He has excellent mental math for someone so young and seems to absorb math facts just by being in the same room as the older kids. He is learning to draw airplanes and WWII battle scenes, can play a mean game of chess, put together a 1000-piece puzzle, do complex dot-to-dots with hundreds of dots and really likes stories by Dr. Seuss. He has joined the bigger boys on their flight simulator and enjoys dogfights in his Spitfire.

Rachel, 2, is the smartest toddler we’ve ever produced, a fact I credit with the time Sarah spends reading to her and teaching her every day. She talks in complete sentences, is potty-trained, sings nursery rhymes, counts to ten, and surprises us with her accuracy when naming shapes, colors, and even some numbers and letters. She can dress and undress herself, brush her own teeth, and blow her own nose. She has impeccable manners and loves to have stories read to her. She’s learning to swim, but I’d like to see that skill really solidify this summer, as it will increase her joy and our peace of mind.

Jay and I don’t seem to find a lot of “spare” or “free” time, but when we do find those moments, we love to read. Jay is experimenting with Arduino microcontrollers, and is rereading the Hornblower series by C.S. Forrester for pleasure. He just finished a WWII memoir, With the Old Breed: at Peleliu and Okinawa by E.B. Sledge. As an English major, I read lots of dead white guys in college, but missed a lot of the American authors, so I’m trying to cover some lost ground. I started with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and enjoyed it more than I expected to. I took a break and read James Mitchener’s
Chesapeake, which led logically into a reading of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom's Cabin. While Jay fiddles with electronics projects with Aaron, Sarah and I experiment with new recipes. We made a skillet coffee cake from Robbie Johnson’s Gourmet Underway. I love it when learning becomes a whole-family venture, and one of my favorite things about home-schooling is that everything at home becomes an opportunity to learn, whether it’s peaceful conflict resolution or how to mix a Goombay Smash for sunset visitors. 

Note: The Daily Dozen replaces a project-based curriculum while we have a toddler on the loose. It’s an experiment to see if we can do school in five-minute increments between potty-training and temper-tantrums. The dozen mini-lessons cover these areas: Bible/Family Devotions, Music, Math, Science/Nature, Spanish/French, Vocabulary/Grammar, Geography, Logic/Brain Teasers, Art History, Navigation/Seamanship, Poetry, and History/Literature.


The weather had been nasty all day, so it wasn’t a huge surprise yesterday to look up and see a waterspout.  


They’re not common, but we’ve seen a few of these before.  Eli is our official historian and he says four waterspouts in the last three years.  So our initial response was more of the “oh, cool” variety.  Usually they don’t last very long and don’t head our way.  But this one was doing both.

We were anchored off of New Plymouth at Green Turtle Cay and the waterspout appeared to be in Black Sound.  It would have to cross land to get to us and at that moment I was cherishing a belief that waterspouts can’t cross land.  But this one was doing an admirable job.

Waterspout Ashore

The swirling cloud of dirt and debris was quite mesmerizing.  We even saw it pick up what looked a whole lot like a roof.  It was about this time that we began to think “oh, crap”.

There are two kinds of waterspouts.  Most of them are non-tornadic.  They’re relatively weak, relatively stationary, and have a very small area of influence.  Not that you’d want to be in one, of course.  They’re just not as deadly as their land borne tornado cousins.  The second kind of waterspout is.

This turned out to be the first kind fortunately, but it was kind of dicey for a while.  It eventually dissipated over land, but the weather was really weird for the next 10 minutes.  A 30 knot wind came through the harbor and spun all the boats around 360 degrees.  

And then it rained.


Take Two usually has a habitat of little fish living beneath her.  They like the shade and the edible tidbits that rain down at meal times.  We call them the cleanup crew.  

In Marathon, they’re little snappers.  In Bradenton and Ft Pierce they’re catfish.  In the Bahamas… nada.  No fish.  It’s been kind of sad and lonely not to have any little friends down there cleaning up after us.

So it was remarkable in Royal Island a few weeks ago when Tanya scraped a plate overboard and little fish came out from under us and snapped up the goodies.  Remarkable because he was an odd little black and white shark-looking fish, and because, hey, it was a fish!  We commented that he kind of looked like a remora, and then we thought nothing else about him.  The next day we sailed to the Abacos.

Fast forward almost a month and a couple hundred miles.  This afternoon as I scraped a plate at Green Turtle Cay, guess who popped out?  If it isn’t the same fish, it’s one EXACTLY like him.  It is definitely a remora.  I don’t have a great picture of him yet, but we can clearly see the sucker on the top of his head.


So what are the odds that it’s the same fish?  Well, when was the last time you saw a remora in real life?  Doesn’t exactly happen every day, does it?  And isn’t it a remora’s purpose in life to stick himself to a bigger fish and live off its scraps?  Where is his big fish?  I think it’s us.

So we have a little buddy.  This is so much better than the usual ragtag band of loafers we attract.  I wish we could keep him forever like a pet.  Unfortunately, we’re headed for a dock in Florida and I don’t think he’s going to like the locals very much.  But for now he’s got a pretty good thing going.