Category Archives: Frequently Asked Questions

FAQ: How Do You Provision for a Large Family (in the Caribbean)?

I know I have touched on this subject briefly before in previous posts. I have talked about grinding grain and making bread, taking the dinghy to get groceries, and storing freeze-dried food for long trips. This time I’d like to focus on what it’s like to shop at island “grocery stores,” some of which more closely resemble a closet than a market, to find food for growing children who eat like a pack of half-starved wild dogs. I’ll also cover the fun of learning to “eat like the locals,” and the joys of stumbling upon a beautiful, clean, well-provisioned store where you least expect it. If you’re on your way down-island, here’s what you might expect to find.

First, I want to mention that when we started out, we had a six-year-old, a five-year-old, a four-year-old and a nursing toddler. If I made a lasagna, for example, it would provide us with two dinners, or a dinner and two lunches. If I provisioned for a long trip, I could go two weeks to one month before I needed a grocery store for fresh food. In a pinch, eating only dried and canned food, we could have gone six months. We now have two teen-aged boys, 15 and 14, a 12-year-old daughter who is taller than I am, a 10-year-old boy who engages in competitive eating with his brothers, and a five-year-old who can’t afford to be picky. If I make a lasagna now, it’s gone before you can say “Mangiamo!” –-scarfed down with two loaves of garlic bread and two heads of broccoli. Leftovers are a thing of the past. We still store freeze-dried food, grains, and some canned goods, but what used to be a six-months’ supply now lasts three months. Meat is no longer something we have for the main course, but an ingredient in a one-pot meal. Provisioning has taken on a whole new look, requiring two carts at the big stores, a taxi ride,  a 13-foot RIB dinghy to cart it all home, and, sometimes, two trips per week.

Grocery Run

Second, a quick note on the Bahamas. Before I leave the U.S., I fill the freezer with meat, and order freeze-dried produce, much of which gets used on this leg of the trip. Nearly everything in the Bahamas must come in by boat. With the exception of Eleuthera/Spanish Wells, where you can find locally-grown mangoes, carrots and cabbage, most of the stores are expensive and stock only packaged foods, mystery meat, and anemic-looking produce from Canada. One thing I will say about the Bahamians: they are good bakers! Do not miss the coconut bread or johnny cakes (journey bread). Good cheese and butter from Ireland or New Zealand can often be found as well, but you’ll have to pay attention to when the mail-boat comes in, or there will be no eggs, milk, or produce to be found. For more information about freeze-dried food, see my previous post Don’t Just Survive—THRIVE.

After spending a month in the Bahamas last March, we skipped the Turks and Caicos and the Dominican Republic, opting for a long ocean passage to Puerto Rico instead, so by the time we arrived in the Caribbean, we had eaten all the snack-y things, the freezer was empty, all the fresh food was gone, and we had eaten into our freeze-dried supplies. But we knew Puerto Rico has a COSTCO, so we weren’t concerned about the loss of provisions we had bought for the Caribbean “trip.” So, we stocked up again, using a rental car and multiple trips to buy familiar items and things we like to have in bulk (like toilet paper!). Which brings me to a principle by which I always abide: if you find something you like in an island store, stock up—it may be a long time before you see it again! It may be expensive, or you may convince yourself that you don’t really need that much maple syrup, for example, but I guarantee that at some point, you will regret not having purchased more of your favorite items.

Finally, here is a shop-by-shop review of the island stores we have visited on our way down the Eastern Caribbean, and a few as we’ve headed west. Included in the list are a few of our favorite local dishes. I’ve labeled the islands with dollar-signs to indicate, roughly, whether the shopping was more or less expensive than I’m used to. ($=less expensive than Florida prices, $$=equivalent to Florida prices, and $$$=more expensive than Florida prices.) As always, I thank my friend Kimberly on s/v Ally Cat for her notes that helped me find some of these places on our way down.

Bahamas ($$$): Stock up for further travels in Georgetown, Exuma at the Save-Rite and Exuma Markets. Go on the afternoon of mail-boat day, or the morning after, to give the store some time to put out the new stock. We do not love conch, but if you do, try the conch salad or cracked conch in restaurants. Besides fresh-caught seafood and coconut bread, the food in the Bahamas is nothing to write home about.

Puerto Rico ($$): With a COSTCO and well-stocked grocery stores, provisioning is not a problem in Puerto Rico. We were at a marina and had a rental car, which made everything easier. As a former Spanish colony, you will still find things like imported chorizo, Manchego cheese, and Rioja wines from Spain, as well as  local produce, coffee, and rums (try the Bacardi 8 or the Don Q Anejo).

Tortola, BVI ($$$): In Road Harbor, you’ll find the RiteWay, a huge, well-stocked store not far from the Moorings/Sunsail charter boat docks, and a smaller one less than a block from TMM Yacht Charters/Doyle Sail Loft. I didn’t see another store like this until Antigua. The BVIs are full of tourists, so finding what you like isn’t a problem. Getting off the beaten path is a little more challenging. If you look for it in a restaurant where locals eat, you might be able to try Goatwater Soup—it sounds disgusting, but is actually quite delicious. Buy some Pusser’s rum while in the BVI’s and learn how to make a Painkiller. The name says it all.

Anguilla ($$)—From Sandy Ground, rent a car or take a taxi to the Best Buy (West), a nice, large store with a deli counter. Look for Ting soda, made from Caribbean grapefruit. It can be found on some islands, but not on others. It became a passage favorite among our crew. If you skip Anguilla, St. Martin/Sint Maarten has everything one could possibly want at reasonable prices. Many people stop there in order to re-provision.

Nevis ($$)—We didn’t have much use for bustling St. Kitts, so we headed to much-quieter Nevis. One can walk to the small Super Food or take a taxi to the larger Horsford’s Valu-Mart IGA. One thing I notice about all island grocery stores is that they smell like salted, smoked fish. I was given a recipe for a breakfast hash that includes said smoked fish. It has to be soaked, drained, and twice-cooked to make it edible. I could never bring myself to buy it.

Antigua ($$$)—In Jolly Harbor, the Epicurean store is an easy walk from the dinghy dock at the marina, and was well-stocked with things I hadn’t seen in a long time, like my favorite kosher teriyaki sauce, Soy Vey! If you are in Antigua at the right time (June/July), there will be a profusion of mangoes of all kinds, very inexpensive at roadside stands. A small-but-sweet local pineapple can be found there as well, called a black pineapple.

Dominica ($)—If you’re anchored in Porstmouth, you will be visited by boat boys selling local produce. Try some new things; Dominica grows the most amazing fruits and vegetables. Something called an “apricot” (a.k.a. zabrico, or mammee apple) grows in abundance there and is delicious. Also look for sugar apples, passion fruit, papaya, soursop, and canips (a.k.a. chin-ups or skin-ups). I’m sure there are big stores in Roseau, but we did most of our shopping at small, local markets in Portsmouth, where the selection of produce, eggs, bread, and fish was excellent. I had my first traditional “cocoa tea” in Dominica, a drink made from raw chocolate (with the cocoa butter intact) and brown sugar. Not to be missed.

Martinique ($)—I stopped at nearly every boulangerie I passed, enjoying the first real French bread and pastries I’ve had since Paris. The “8-á-Huit” chain (I shopped at one in St. Pierre and in St. Anne) is good, and posts hours, as you would expect, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. There’s an upstairs, too—don’t miss it! The Leader-Price in Fort-de-France was an easy walk from the dinghy dock at the park, and had an excellent selection of VERY inexpensive French wine. (Oh, why did I not buy more?!) I have been told that there are excellent stores with dinghy docks in Le Marin. Stopping at a crêperie was a special treat in Martinique.

St. Lucia ($$)—Rodney Bay had a surprising number of supermarkets owned by Massey. By dinghy, you can walk a few blocks to the Massey Super J from the small dock near the tapas place. If I couldn’t find what I needed at the Super J, then the Massey Gourmet across the street would have it. A taxi ride away from the IGY Rodney Bay Marina, there’s a Mega J (like a Sam’s or COSTCO). Jay’s favorite sipping rum comes from St. Lucia, Admiral Rodney.

Bequia (Grenadines) ($$)—Port Elizabeth has lots of little shops and restaurants. I bought staples at Knight’s Trading, and excellent fresh produce from stalls/wagons on the street. Bread fruit is everywhere in the islands, but you may not know what to do with it. You can buy it fire-roasted or fresh, and find it fried in restaurants, where it looks and tastes similar to French fries.

Union (Grenadines) ($$)—The town of Clifton is small, but has a few stores, including a bakery. The produce is local and found at roadside stands. I first bought Christophene (a.k.a. chayote) here—an excellent alternative to broccoli or cauliflower, peeled, chopped, and sautéed with green onions and garlic.

Grenada ($$)—Head to the Spiceland Mall IGA (by bus) or Food Land near Port Louis (by dinghy). Also near Port Louis, there is an excellent bakery, the Merry Baker, and a restaurant, Patrick’s Local, which serves small plates for sharing (tapas style) of a dozen or so local dishes. It’s a fixed menu, but you must make a reservation so they know how much to prepare. This is an excellent introduction to island specialties, like stewed pumpkin, crayfish soup, and green banana salad. While in Grenada, don’t miss “Oildown,” a stew made with chicken, vegetables, coconut milk, “provision” (Irish potatoes, plantains, cassava, breadfruit, etc.), and very firm dumplings. And don’t forget to stock up on spices while on the Spice Island! Note that their “bay leaves” are not the flavor of bay laurel, but more like cloves (very nice in rice).

Bonaire ($$)—Heading west to the ABCs, you will find special items that come on ships straight from Europe (like Dutch Gouda and Danish butter). While arid Bonaire grows little but cactus (from which they make a spirit), they import an impressive selection of produce. You can walk to the Chinese grocery in town, or, if you’re on a mooring ball, the marina offers a free shuttle to the Van den Tweel. I walked into this lovely, clean, well-stocked store and literally wept tears of joy. It was the nicest grocery store I had been in since I-can’t-remember-when. For breakfast, I recommend pannenkoeken (thin pancakes) with eggs and gouda. We went straight to Colombia from Bonaire, but I’ve heard Curaçao and Aruba have good provisioning, as well.

Santa Marta, Colombia ($)—Two blocks from the IGY marina, there is a lovely grocery store, Carulla, with a super-friendly staff and an excellent selection of South American produce (try mangosteen or uchuvas for snacking, or lula for juicing). For a big provisioning trip, take an inexpensive taxi ride to the Jumbo (like a Super Target). If you’re looking for Colombian coffee, I can recommend the whole-bean, dark roast “Sierra Nevada” from Juan Valdez coffee shop. It used to be hard to find export-quality coffee inside Colombia, but Juan Valdez makes it possible. Other things to try in Colombia, arepas con ceviche de camarrones (thick tortillas with shrimp ceviche), or patacones con suero costeño (fried smashed green plantains with sour cream). Arepas can also be bought at the store and are good for breakfast with ham and eggs.

Santa Marta

Bocas del Toro, Panama ($)—Provisioning here proves a bit of a challenge, as there aren’t many places to dock a dinghy. We are staying at the Red Frog Marina on Isla Bastimento, and they have a small market at the marina and a free water shuttle to Bocas Town four times each week. Water taxis, if you don’t want to use the free shuttle, cost $7-10/pp each way. There are plenty of stores and excellent fresh produce, including locally-grown bananas and pineapples. Pick-up truck taxis in town cost $0.65/pp and you flag one down and load your groceries in the back to head to the waterfront. Walking distance from the water taxi dock, you can find produce, Christina Supermarket, Isla Colon Market, and The Super Gourmet, the last of which has items you might not find elsewhere (for a price!). A little farther away, the Panaderia Alemana has very good bread. A dairy truck arrives on Tuesdays, and you can buy fresh milk (not UHT!) right out of the truck. A note on meat: the chicken and eggs are excellent and easy to find, but the beef is pretty tough, so I buy ground hamburger, primero with less fat, and secundo with more fat. Chorizo is easy to find, and the smoked pork chops, chuletas, are a Panamanian specialty and delicious. Shopping is said to be great in David, a bus-ride away, or can be done remotely with the help of Toby and Lola.

I’m still draggin’ my wagon all over the place to shop for food, and will continue to do so in the rest of Central America. After we complete our Caribbean circuit, I’ll write a second installment to let you know what else I find!

FAQ: How do you handle storms at sea?

People often comment that we are brave to do what we do. If what they mean by brave is feeling afraid, but refusing to be ruled by fear, I might agree. One of the chief fears people have about boats is encountering storms at sea. We can often choose the weather in which we depart, but cannot control the weather we experience once offshore. And once you’re in it, like the children’s chant says, “you can’t go over it, you can’t go under it—you’ve got to go through it.”

Summer weather in Florida is pretty predictable. Except for during hurricanes (which you can plan and prepare for), the daily weather forecast is about the same. There are land and sea breezes which take shifts, a middle-of-the-day lull, and afternoon thunderstorms which can pack a mighty punch (we’ve seen wind speeds of up to 65 knots). Tied to a dock, these approaching storms are fun to watch—the cumulonimbus clouds building and billowing, the wind shifting and howling, and rain that is more waterfall than shower—all except for the lightning, which is indiscriminate and always terrifying if you live in a home with a 68-foot metal pole on top. At sea, I can attest, these storms are not to be trifled with.

I never feel more alive, or rather, more aware of the fragility of my life, than at sea in rough weather. I may be one of those rare, sick-minded people that feel a sort of exhilaration, even joy, in the midst of these storms. If I can’t control it, I can at least appreciate it. The wild beauty of foaming wave-tops, lightning that glows white-hot or pinkish-blue and hurts your eyes for its brightness, thunder that you can feel and not just hear—these are awesome forces to behold from the deck of a wave-tossed boat.

The children, sensing a change in the weather, naturally look to us for cues as to how to respond to what sometimes feels like an emergency. We may rush around for a few moments stowing loose objects, digging out rain gear, taking down sails, and starting an engine. But then I do something mundane, like wash dishes or read aloud, to send the message that it’s business-as-usual. If people feel fearful, we pray, and retell the Bible story of Jesus calming the storm with a few words, and wondering at the lack of faith in his anxious disciples. This story restores confidence, if not fearlessness, because it reminds us that we know the Maker of these forces and that we find ourselves in His capable hands, come what may.

Jay, as the captain, is usually at the helm in his foul-weather gear trying to keep the boat at a comfortable angle to the wind and waves. I can only imagine what impression this leaves on our young children, especially boys beginning to get a glimpse of manhood, to see their capable Dad seemingly in control, keeping his family safe and exuding calm and quiet. In reality, we dread sailing in rough weather. It is humbling and physically uncomfortable. But we also know that these experiences are making us tougher and more capable sailors. At the very least, our grandchildren will be regaled with good stories, because, as we have remarked before, it’s never the calm, quiet, boring days which make for good stories.

FAQ: Do you ever get cabin fever?

Do we ever! And boy do we get crabby. People always express amazement that we have chosen to live in a small space with five kids. “How do you do it?” they ask, rhetorically. I try to answer honestly: “Not very well, I’m afraid. It’s been raining for three days straight and we’ll be lucky to survive.”

The irony of living on a boat is that although the living space is technically small, it seems huge: we have the whole outdoors at our fingertips: islands to explore by dinghy, kayaks to take into back waters, an open expanse of sea and sky, the cockpit or foredeck in nice weather, and sometimes a dock and shoreside places to go. But when it rains or gets cold, as it has done a lot recently, the world shrinks to a 15 x 12 x 6-foot room, and seven people fill that space pretty quickly. Jay sits at his computer at the desk, I am usually in the galley, Rachel is playing on the floor, and the big kids are doing school or playing games at the table. If we need to retreat down into the hulls, there’s more space and privacy to be had, but for some reason, we all congregate in the main salon and proceed to step on each other’s’ toes and nerves.

In order to stave off boredom and keep ourselves cheerful, we roll up the rug and play Twister. We read aloud. We play board (bored?) games, long ones like Monopoly and Risk. We watch movies. We bake things. But sometimes, we just bicker and glare at each other and get annoyed. We say things like, “I understand it’s been three days since you ran around. But you have to sit down and be quiet anyway.”

If we get desperate to get off the boat, we put on foulies and brave the elements. Last week, for example, we took the waterproof backpack to the library to get some books. It seemed simple enough. The forecast called for “light rain.” HA! While we were at the library it rained buckets and buckets—ten inches in just a few hours. We watched cars stall as they tried to leave the downtown area, which had turned into a grid of canals. There were Class III rapids outside the library front doors as the rainwater headed for the Indian River Lagoon. So we waited for the downfall to lessen, for some of the water to drain off. We waited a long time, fruitlessly. In the end, we rolled up our pant-legs, carried Rachel (so she wouldn’t be swept away) and waded out to our car. We got out of there with no problems, but we were cold and wet when we got back to the boat. The silver lining was that once we changed clothes, there was a pile of really good books to go through, a whole afternoon’s entertainment. And at least it wasn’t snowing.

Finally, when all else fails, we compromise our old-fashioned values and resort to playing video games. Sometimes we even let the children play, too. I know it’s perfectly normal for kids nowadays to stare at tiny moving figures on a screen for hours on end, exercising little else but their thumbs, but we have never aspired to be normal. We typically view our computers as tools, to be used for learning or working. The kids are allowed to use computers for Rosetta stone, BBC’s Dance Mat Typing, computer programming, LEGO Digital Designer, math and spelling games, Rocksmith guitar lessons, and research for writing or art projects. When the work is done, the kids can earn a few minutes (and I mean a very few) on Coolmathgames.com or Microsoft’s Combat Flight Simulator. But on rainy days, or long, cold weekends, we relax the rules. I know it isn’t going to turn them into zombies (right away), but I really hate to see their little staring faces lit by the creepy bluish light. They cluster around the flickering screen like cavemen around the fire. Our intention is to develop their appetites for more enriching and social activities, but when we’re all packed in like sardines for days on end, what we really want is a little peace and quiet.

FAQ: What advice can you share with dreamers?

Not surprisingly, we get questions from people all the time, asking us how to get started on a sailing dream. Sometimes the questions are from people who have never sailed in their lives, and often they are from families, people who want to break free from the “system” but are not sure how to do it.

We like to think of ourselves as part of the welcoming committee for people looking to live aboard and cruise with large families. We think this is a great lifestyle and an achievable dream for many. But it’s not for everyone. There are certain traits necessary to get—and keep—the ball rolling. And an ability to sail is not necessarily a prerequisite; anyone can learn to sail, but not everyone can live in a tight space with their spouse and numerous progeny and cope with frequent breakages, unpredictable weather, discomfort, and constantly changing plans. These are challenges about which we have tried to write with honesty and good humor, but they are indeed challenges, and there are moments when Jay and I feel completely inadequate and wonder why we thought we could do this with five children.

If you’re contemplating sailing away with your family, there are ways to find out if you are ready to take on an adventure of this magnitude. There are baby steps to take now, and giant leaps when you’re ready. Of course, the advice we offer here is experiential, well-reasoned, and logical, but sometimes the most successful adventurers are those who defy logic, and just go out there and do it, those who ignore advice like mine.

That said, we would still argue that there are common traits we find in fellow cruisers and live-aboard sailors which make them successful. Someone once told me that the test for boat ownership is a willingness to take all one’s money and stuff it down the shower drain and turn on the water. Now that we own a boat, I would say that’s not far from the truth. Aside from holding less tightly to one’s material goods, three things must be present in order to leave a land life (whether for a short time or for the long haul), and start a sailing adventure: the simultaneous abilities to dream big and to take small steps toward an end goal, and the ability to push past the inevitable obstacles.

If you are reading this post, you’re probably already dreaming big. (That, or you’re somehow related to us, and for following us faithfully, we thank you.) There are two kinds of dreams: the night kind, with fuzzy edges and images that are hard to remember, vague and undeniably romantic; and the day kind, a crisper, clearer picture formed by your conscious mind. Dreaming only of sunsets and clear water and a fish on the line isn’t enough. You have to have a really good mental picture of what your live-aboard life might look like—a sort of snapshot that you can come back to and stare at when all looks bleak and impossible.

After you have your idea and have somehow gotten your spouse and family on the same page (their support and enthusiasm are of critical importance), you have to then take your mental snapshot and draw a flow chart on the back. What are the steps you have to take to get closer to sailing away? Things to consider are finances (Are you free from debt? Can you work while you travel? How much will this cost? What will you do with your house and belongings?); comfort with discomfort (Can you live without air conditioning and long, hot showers? Would you mind hand washing dishes and clothes? Who in your family gets seasick?); and skills (Do you know basic first aid? Can you sail? Do all your kids swim well? Can you fix things? Will you homeschool?). Sometimes the answers are unknowable until you’re in the thick of it, but in most cases, you can begin to alter course degree by degree, trying new things (taking a sailing class, going on a long family vacation in an RV, not using the dishwasher, downsizing to save money for the boat) and making small decisions that will get you closer to your goal, like setting a deadline and making a yearly plan (then sticking to it, or your dream will never make it out of La-la Land).

Lastly, hold tenaciously to your dream and your plan. Ignore nay-sayers, even if they are in your own family, look for people who share your passion and learn from them, and recognize the obstacles to your success and surmount them. Read lots of inspiring stories, and stories of survival. Things will indeed stand in your way, and leaving a normal life will be harder than you think, but you must be more persistent than your circumstances.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that through all of our phases—from castle in the clouds to the reality of living aboard at the dock to island hopping in the Bahamas, we have prayed for guidance. Many times our faith has gotten us past our fears and sometimes wisdom granted has saved us from foolish mistakes. We have prayed for friends and our lives have been filled with fellowship we might not otherwise have found. We have been filled with gratitude for safe arrivals, natural beauty, unexplainable “coincidences,” and good health. All the advice in the world is no substitute for an earnest and humble prayer.


Other suggestions for the dreamers out there:

• Read Cruising World magazine, anything by Lin and Larry Pardy, and Tom Neale’s All in the Same Boat. Read Voyage of the Northern Magic to get an inspirational story of a Canadian family that circumnavigated the globe with almost no experience.

• Go to boat shows—we like the Strictly Sail Shows. Crawl around on different boats. Meet real people who do what you want to do. Buy a signed copy of a sailor’s book.

• Watch inspiring family movies like The Astronaut Farmer or episodes of Paul and Cheryl Shard’s Distant Shores.

• Take a crewed charter vacation on a sailboat before taking any life-altering steps. It will offer invaluable insight about whether or not you will love living on a boat and may even raise questions you haven’t yet thought to ask.

• Make a five-year plan if you’re starting from scratch. That’s about the right amount of time for learning, saving, practicing, shopping, and downsizing.

• Write about your experiences as a way to document the changes you go through, keep a record of good memories, and inspire yourself if you get discouraged. Maybe it will be inspiring to someone else someday and the whole thing will come full circle. Funny how that happens…

FAQ: How Do You All Fit on a Boat?

Whenever I mention to someone new that I live on a boat with five children, their eyes bug out and they express amazement and incredulity. How could we possibly all fit inside a boat? And, assuming we could squeeze in like sardines, how could we possibly all get along with each other?  Usually I can clear up the first question by saying that it’s a very big boat and that we can all carve out a private space if need be. To the second question, I say, tongue in cheek, that we are all very close.

While the boat sleeps eight comfortably, the settees around the salon table seat eight, and we have a pantry to store provisions for eight, the truth is that sometimes we don’t even have enough space for all seven personalities. We look at our physical proximity as an opportunity to practice mutual respect and conflict resolution skills; we have protocols for what to do if you ask someone to stop and they don’t, we aplogize and forgive each other, and make amends. But there’s no place you can go to be truly alone—except for when you untie the kayak and paddle off (maybe that’s why I like it so much).

One of our challenges is what to do with our older two boys as they get physically bigger. The dinghy, for example, gets smaller each year. Right now, each kid except Rachel has a roommate. That leaves a guest cabin empty (Jay sometimes uses it as an office). But there might be a lot of competition for that space if people start asking for their own rooms! A friend once suggested that we build an addition. We laughed at first, but the idea took root: what if we bought a second, smaller sailboat, and let the older kids begin to build some responsibility and independence as they learn to fix, live aboard, and cruise in their own boat?

Right now it’s just an idea. Our oldest turns twelve this summer, so we feel we have this window of opportunity to travel before we have to think about what comes next. As we rebuild our boat one piece at a time, and as the kids get more helpful, we get more and more confident about longer and harder passages. Though we’re living the life we imagined, we still have unmet cruising goals and lots of adventures to have while the children are young.

Do we fit in the boat? Sometimes. Better to ask, does the boat fit us? Absolutely and without a doubt.

FAQ: How do you protect your kids from the sun?

In a word: we don’t. We actually like the sun and don’t view it as an enemy, but a friend. But too much of a good thing is still too much, so we expose ourselves to it in appropriate amounts.

Now for the long answer.

We get questions like this all the time—especially now that we have a small human with soft and delicate skin. People ask: Do we slather her several times a day? What about at the pool or the beach? Do the other kids burn easily? The answer to all three of those questions is no. We are fortunate in that our genetic recipe for children includes “lovely golden complexion.” Even the child with the fairest hair and eyes turns a beautiful golden brown in the sun. The children have never burned in their lives aside from the occasional pink nose when someone forgot to wear his or her hat. Even Rachel, with her pearly pink baby skin is getting a little baby tan.

Cancer is no joking matter—but we have come to the conclusion that safe sun exposure does not cause skin cancer any more than healthy food causes allergies. I’m sure I’m opening a can of worms here, but we do not believe in slathering our kids with the chemicals in sunscreen any more than we would feed them something we can’t pronounce. The two topics are inextricably linked in my mind: we try not to put anything un-natural or over-processed on or in our bodies.

The skin is the body’s largest organ. It is the first line of defense against all sorts of toxins and micro-organisms. We avoid anti-bacterial soaps and don’t scrub the kids down very often intentionally: they need good critters on their skin to fight malicious microbes. The skin is also the body’s main mechanism for collecting light, which it somehow miraculously turns into Vitamin D, which is integral to staying healthy. That means safe sun exposure every day, not sun avoidance. And, of course, skin is permeable—which means if you can’t ingest it, don’t put it on your skin!

We believe we were put on planet Earth (or evolved here, if that’s your style) under the rays of the sun, and that we actually need its light and heat to thrive. Of course, depending on your ancestry and where you now live, you may be more or less susceptible to getting too much sun. This is easily combatted by getting a tan very slowly, so you can prevent skin-damaging burns, and by wearing hats and clothes. It’s a sensible approach, and unless we’re going to be out all day where there is no shade, we don’t use sunscreens at all. When we do, we use all-natural products like Burt’s Bees.

The problem with sunscreens is chiefly that the cosmetics industry is self-policing and is not tightly regulated by the FDA (and even if it were, I’d be wary). That’s like the fox guarding the henhouse. If you start researching some of the ingredients in your sunscreen (yes, even the kind for babies), you will find all sorts of frightening facts that will probably turn you into a health-nut like me. Next thing you know, your kids will be wearing SPF clothing and eating home-made bread. Come to think of it, that’s actually not such a bad thing.


Note: Great information on the importance of vitamin D and safe sun exposure as well as cancer prevention can be found at www.Mercola.com and you can check the toxicity of your favorite sunscreens at the Environmental Working Group’s site: www.ewg.org/skindeep/

FAQ: Do You Home-school the Children?

This is the second most common question I receive when I am in public with the children—the first being “Are they all yours?”  No doubt this question is a logical one for people who see a group of related kids playing in a park on a school day. Really, for the cruising family, there aren’t many other ways to handle schooling, but home-schools, or in our case, boat-schools, are as different as the families who choose this way of life.

There are only a few options when it comes to educating children: public school, private school, home-school and no school. On one extreme, you trust the raising of your precious humans to complete strangers (or, more cynically, the whims of the State), and on the other, you irresponsibly allow your child to raise himself (also called truancy). Somewhere in between you find private schools, which may be large or small, sacred or secular, live-in or correspondence, and home-schools, which range from Classical to Montessori, from-a-box to outside-the-box, and even a kind called “unschooling” whereby the education of the child is curiosity-driven, but still parent-directed.

Even before we decided to travel, we wanted our children to have an education directed by us, and not by the state of Florida. We like the holistic nature of homeschooling, where all aspects of human development are addressed. The curriculum can be designed to integrate all the subject matter in a way that makes sense and flows logically, instead of in a disjointed, contrived fashion. And with its rising popularity, home-schooling does not mean social isolation—there are a myriad of co-ops, classes, web-sites and support groups—so many that it requires discipline to actually stay home to do school.

We fall into the semi-Classical, outside-the-box category, I guess.  That means I design interdisciplinary unit studies, generally history-based, and come up with creative ways to teach the content and help kids produce meaningful projects to show what they’ve learned (often by publishing their work in the form of hand-bound books). They do math in work books, but also learn through games, flash cards, real world problems and other teaching aids. Science is typically on-the-go, often driven by what we find around us, though it often plays a role in a unit study as well (for example, a study of the renaissance painters might also include anatomy lessons). Spelling and writing are usually related to whatever book we are reading in whatever history period we find ourselves. The kids do their own assigned reading and reading for pleasure, a recent addition as everyone is now up to speed. Happily, we are finding that they love to read and are reading books assigned to much older children, but which are certainly within their grasp.

 Tapestry

Sarah, holding up a tapestry she wove on a home-made loom for a Middle Ages project

When we decided to buy our boat, we were able to maintain some semblance of normal routine despite the disruption to our environment. When we were doing half-time on the boat, we did school in the car—spelling tests, flash cards and books on CD. When we moved aboard at the dock, the library and museum were a block away, so we often did home-school-away-from-home. And now that we are cruising, the school routines that were firmly established before leaving continue despite constantly changing surroundings.

Another hidden benefit to home-schooling is the multitude of teachable moments that present themselves. We can actively seek out field trips that fit into what we are studying, but there are other spontaneous happenstances, like snorkeling on a reef, settlement museums in the Bahamas, collecting seaweed and invertebrates while wading in shallows or investigating a microcosm in floating seaweed with the help of our microscope, watching meteor showers and identifying constellations in dark skies, going to a foundry to learn how lost-wax sculptures are made, exploring a cave, talking to the welder who installed our arch and bimini about how his equipment works, and countless other opportunities to learn in real-life settings. Not to mention learning life skills like baking, typing, fishing, carpentry, engine repair, navigation, and sewing, to name a few. The children are required to do schoolwork and housework weekday mornings all year round, but have time in the afternoons for art, music, exercising or exploring, reading, and playing. For gutsy parents, it is the perfect solution, providing both structure and freedom.

Please Note: Parent-directed curriculum and teaching is not for the faint of heart. It is not easy to spend all day every day with one’s progeny, especially if they have inherited a stubborn streak of human nature from one or both parents. A teacher who wants a day off cannot call a substitute (unless Walt Disney counts), and without the direct accountability of a school, it would be pretty easy to drop the ball, a mistake for which both kids and parents would pay dearly. We are surely not doing a perfect job, and I am, as most homeschooling moms, fraught simultaneously with pride and self-doubt, but we are generally happy with our children’s progress and are eager to give them the world as a classroom.

FAQ: How do you receive phone calls?

I mentioned earlier that our US cell phones are forwarded to us here in the Bahamas.  We wanted to make it as simple as possible for people to get in touch with us.  Our cell numbers were already well known and we wanted to avoid changing our contact information.  We also wanted to avoid high international rates charged by most carriers, both for ourselves and ourcallers.  To meet these goals, we forwarded our US (Verizon) cell numbers to a US Skype number which is then forwarded to a Bahamian cell phone.  So far it is working very well.  Details can be read below for those interested.

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Our cellular plans have plenty of minutes and forwarded calls count against them, but they also allow us to provide a set of numbers that are airtime-free and the Skype number is one of these.  The downside is that we are continuing to pay for a US cellular plan that we aren’t using.  If we had better planned ahead we could have “ported” our cellular numbers to Google Voice, which could forward those calls to Skype for free, and we could have then suspended the cellular plans.  Oh well.  I'm also the guy paying $10/month for Tanya's old email address from an ISP we haven't used in (best guess) 11 years.

The Skype number costs $18 for 3 months.  Calls to it can be answered anywhere in the world with a Skype “phone”, which is generally an Internet-connected computer, though other devices do exist.  We usually have Internet access to some degree.  I use it for work, we use it for email, news, weather, etc.  But since we are often hitting Wi-Fi hotspots that are miles away it is seldom good enough for Skype, and we have never been fans of VoIP to begin with.  Local cellular networks offer better call quality and greater coverage area, so we bought a Bahamian SIM card for $15 and forwarded the Skype number to that.  

The Bahamas is one of those places where the caller pays for calls to mobile phones, so the phone only incurs costs when we make local calls from it.  But since we’re forwarding from Skype, we are the caller, and have to pay an international rate to boot.  Fortunately, this is what Skype does best and the rate is only 24¢/min.  Further, Skype has subscriptions that let you buy a block of minutes at a lower rate.  A block of 400 minutes to the Bahamas is only $14/month which drops the rate to 3.5¢/min.

Outgoing calls to the US are a little trickier.  Skype doesn’t currently have any facilities that would let us call the US cheap without using VoIP, and we certainly didn’t want to dial internationally from our Bahamas cell phone.  Initially we would call using Skype and struggle through the first few minutes of the call before asking the person to call us back.  Google, however, has a nifty callback feature that helps out here.  We can initiate a call via Google Voice on either the website or through an app on my US cell phone.  Google first calls us, then calls our party and connects us.  An Internet connection is required in either case, so we can’t initiate calls from remote areas.

We expect that this strategy will work equally well in other countries.

FAQ: How do you do night watches?

Cruising aboard a sailboat entails very little actual sailing—mostly it’s getting to a destination as quickly as possible and then enjoying it as slowly as possible. Liza Copeland in her books about her family’s around-the-world travels estimated that they actually sailed only a years’ worth of days in their eight-year circumnavigation. Still, unless you’re just island-hopping or skipping down a coastline, eventually you’re going to have to make at least one overnight passage to get to your destination. Timing can be tricky. You want to arrive with enough daylight to navigate channels or around coral, and just generally to have enough time to get settled comfortably. So you have to guess how fast you’re going to go and then time your departure accordingly. But because wind speed and direction are subject to change, you may go faster or slower than you estimated.

Sometimes, for folks crossing the Gulf Stream, leaving at sunset and going all night makes sense. You have to have someone keeping watch at all hours, to keep an eye on sails, weather, passing ships, to listen to the VHF and to navigate. Since we’re always shorthanded, that means taking turns sleeping. Different couples have worked it out different ways. We are already experts at night watches. This may sound arrogant, since this is only our second overnight trip, but we’ve survived having four newborns and know how to function on very little sleep and pass like ships in the night (ha ha). Of course, so far, the weather has been pleasant and the autopilot and GPS do most of the work.

Here’s how it seems to work best.  Since I’m a night owl, and love star-gazing, I take the sunset-to-midnight shift. Night sailing is what drew me into this bizarre lifestyle to begin with (I’ve told the story in a previous entry). The stars, the bioluminescence in the water, and the rare solitude to me are a wonderful part of sailing. I can listen to music, read a book, write, or just think. My sailing-mom friend Vicki gave some good advice, which I have followed: set a “snooze alarm” on your watch, so that you look around the horizon at least every ten to fifteen minutes. That helps if I’m reading or otherwise distracted, or simply having a hard time keeping my eyes open. A bucket with a comfy “seat” in the cockpit helps, too; since I’m pregnant, I would be going below every fifteen minutes to use the head.

I get Jay’s pot of coffee ready and he takes over at midnight. I usually get up at 3:30 and have a snack and cup of tea. This is the dawn watch—another privilege, but also a practicality. Since I have to be up and available for the kids, it makes sense for me to take a short early morning watch and then catch a two-hour nap before I’m on duty as mom. Jay takes over at sunrise while I snooze, and then he does most of the sailing and navigating during the day. I am a good napper, so I can catch up on sleep in the afternoon.

All that said, I still don’t feel ready to cross an ocean with this young family of ours. A couple of days like this are a pleasurable break in routine—a chance to use my new laser pointer to show a kid a constellation at 4 AM, to play dominoes in the cockpit instead of correcting spelling, and to make easy, snack-y food instead of cooking regular meals. But for weeks on end? I’m sure you get used to the routines and a life at sea, but at present, I am satisfied to enjoy this time as a rarity and not a regularity!

FAQ: What kind of safety equipment do you have?

This is an awkward question because it delves into a number of emergency situations that I contemplate and prepare for, but never expect to happen.  I give fair warning that the discussion of the safety items we carry may conjure images of potential disasters that necessitate their use.  I assure you, dear reader, that I have considered these in detail and with a great sense of responsibility.  Your nightmares are no match for mine.  That said, we feel strongly that our life afloat is no more dangerous, in fact less, than life ashore.  Perhaps a future post will address this point directly.

Boats are required to carry certain items for the safe operation of the vessel.  The list varies by the length of the vessel and how many passengers it carries.  The most prominent items are flares, fire extinguishers, and life jackets.  My boats have been boarded by the Coast Guard twice for inspection.  Both times were pleasant, cordial experiences and no deficiencies were cited.

Take Two came to us with a very extensive set of flares, some very exotic and expensive-looking.  Unfortunately they were all expired.  Some even said they were made in “West Germany”.  We went through them and kept the ones that still looked good, just in case, and the rest we donated at the local hazardous waste dropoff.  We have newer ones to show the Coast Guard when they check, but the old stuff probably still works just as well.

Everybody has their own life jacket (Personal Flotation Device in Coast Guard lingo).  The kids spend so much time wearing theirs that they look natural in them.  Tanya and I have the auto-inflating kind, but wear them less often.  Mine has an integrated harness so Tanya has a way to haul me back aboard if I’m injured or unconscious.  Tanya has a separate harness because her PFD is designed for women, and they don’t make those with the integrated harness for some reason.  During rough weather or at night, the harness is attached to the boat with a tether to keep us from going overboard in the first place.

We have an Autotether system to alert us if someone does go over.  The system consists of little transmitters that are placed on the life jackets.  The transmitters communicate with a base station aboard the boat several times a second.  If the base station loses contact with the transmitter, it immediately sounds a very loud alarm.

The boat also came with an exposure suit, which is kind of a cross between a wetsuit and a ski jacket.  I tried it on and almost passed out from heat.  We don’t have any plans to be in water cold enough that we would need something like that, so I got rid of it.

We have these silly little tapered plugs that you’re supposed to have so you can jam them in holes or broken hoses to stop water flow.  I was sure I’d never need them, but damn if I haven’t had to use them TWICE to keep the ocean on the outside.

Of course we have a VHF radio, but it only has a range up to about 40 miles.  At some point we will probably get a single sideband (i.e. shortwave) radio that can bounce signals off the ionosphere to the other side of the planet.  In addition to voice, the SSB can be used for receiving weather faxes and even email.  When we start venturing beyond US coastal waters we’ll probably get an Iridium satellite phone, which can also be used for email and very light Internet access.  All of these can be useful for giving and receiving help during emergencies, but the satellite phone would be especially valuable if we needed to obtain medical advice.

We carry a rather extensive first aid and medical kit, including some good prescription medicines and surgical supplies (thanks Jeff!).  We have received two days’ worth of training on how to use the stuff, but we’ll still need outside advice for any major issues.  Additionally, Tanya has had CPR training and attended a Safety at Sea seminar.

If, God forbid, someone should need immediate medical attention when we’re far from civilization, we have an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB).  When triggered, it communicates who and where we are to a satellite, which relays the information to global search and rescue authorities (such as the US Coast Guard, among others).  It does not, however, indicate what our problem is, and the assumption is that we require evacuation.

Depending on where we are, help will usually come in the form of a rescue boat or helicopter, but I have heard of things as diverse as military jets and commercial fishermen making initial contact.  It just depends on who can get there the fastest.  How long it takes will depend on weather and location.  Helicopters don’t fly in hurricanes.  

I have heard of two recent EPIRB rescues that probably represent the best and worst cases.  Abby Sunderland was recently rescued from the southern Indian Ocean.  She set it off on Thursday morning and was picked up by a fishing vessel on Saturday.   Then earlier this week a boat capsized 20 miles off the coast of California.  The Coast Guard was there within an hour to rescue three hypothermic crew members.

EPIRBs, personal locator beacons (PLBs), and the SPOT devices have been criticized for emboldening people who aren’t adequately prepared for their adventurous undertakings.  When they get in a little over their heads they just turn on the EPIRB for a ticket home.  We take our EPIRB very seriously.  We know that if we ever set that EPIRB off we will be leaving the boat with nothing but the clothes on our backs and will probably never see it again.  Needless to say, that isn’t something we’ll do unless absolutely necessary.

The life raft is our last resort.  The boat came with a raft, but upon evaluating its condition and the costs of recertification, we opted to buy a new one.  We’ve been without one for awhile, but we finally placed the order for an 8-man Winslow this week.  This particular brand is made here in Florida, so we’ll go see it when it’s ready and before it is packed up and sealed.  This familiarity will be important, especially for the kids, if we ever have to use it for real.

I really don’t think there is a likely scenario that would see us use the raft.  The adage says you should always step up to the life raft, meaning your boat should be sinking.   History is rife with examples of crews taking to the raft and being lost, while the boat is later found afloat.  Being a catamaran and thus not having ballast, I don’t think Take Two is likely to sink.  We have powerful pumps to remove unwanted water and materials for plugging any holes.  But any number of unexpected things could happen that we might need to abandon the boat.  Since mothers may be reading, we’ll let those horrors remain nameless.  If nothing else, the life raft is a really expensive insurance policy.