Category Archives: Leaving the Safe Harbor

Done is Better Than Perfect

cheers

I completed a final revision of the book manuscript I have been working on for more than three years, Leaving the Safe Harbor: What We Learned from Life on a Boat. With poetic justice, I finished editing the last page of the last chapter one year exactly from when my first reader/editor made her last encouraging comment. I moved the final pages to a document entitled “Final Draft.” It might not be perfect, but it’s done, and that feels amazing. Total word count: 84,654.

Jay and I had a quiet date night out (everyone else must have been at home watching the Superbowl!) and a glass of Prosecco to celebrate. It’s time to think about the next steps, but for just a moment, I want to enjoy that sense of accomplishment.

The book is not merely a re-write of the blog, though faithful readers might recognize some of the stories. It’s a narrative that documents our journey from suburbanites to salty sailors, organized around sailing idioms and life lessons. Here’s the prospective cover, and a sneak peek (introduction, table of contents, crew list, and prologue) to whet your appetite. I’m planning to publish as soon as possible.

Book Cover
Cover photo credit: Bruce Vanderbilt, Montserrat, 2016

“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” –Otto Von Bismarck

“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” –Mark Twain

Setting Sail

Have you ever noticed how many sailing idioms have crept into our language? Even someone who has never stepped foot on a boat knows what it means to “stay the course” or “go into uncharted waters.” You don’t have to be sailing to be “adrift” or “anchored,” and most of us have a guiding “compass” of one kind or another. But actually living on the water gives these idioms depth and color, and sometimes, teeth.

We have sailed and lived aboard sailing vessel Take Two, a forty-eight-foot custom wooden catamaran with our five kids for more than ten years, working from our floating home and “boat-schooling.” When we bought the boat, we had four children, ages six, five, four, and one. We sailed back to the U.S. from the Bahamas in time for the birth of our fifth, a girl who has spent her whole life afloat. As of this writing, they are now eighteen, seventeen, sixteen, thirteen, and nine years old, all of them capable crewmembers, and Take Two has thousands of sea miles under her twin keels. My husband and I, once merely displaced yuppies, are now salty sailors, people who are uncomfortable in shoes and small rooms and traffic jams.

All of us have learned something from our adventures. It is not an easy life, since “learning” usually involves some form of pain, and an “adventure” is what happens when things don’t go as planned, but it is a rich and rewarding experience. What we have gained far outweighs what we gave up when we left suburbia and its predictable routines.

Maybe you have dreams of sailing away, or of breaking free from the routines that keep you from experiencing life outside the box. Maybe you’re a vicarious explorer, or maybe you’re off on adventures of your own and are drawn to our story by the kinship that exists among all travelers. Whatever the case, you don’t have to sell your stuff and move aboard a boat to learn from our mistakes or to share in our adventures. To get underway all you have to do is turn the page.

Contents

Crew List: Who’s Who on Take Two

Prologue: Staying Afloat, In Which We’re Living the Dream, But Some Days It’s a Nightmare and We Learn to Make Tradeoffs and Deal with Disappointment

1: Rocking the Boat, In Which We Have an Idea that Will Change Our Lives and We Learn to Dream Big

2: Uncharted Waters, In Which We Leave Suburbia and We Learn to Have Faith

3: Sink or Swim, In Which we Buy a Boat (or Two) and We Learn to Take Risks                                                          

4: Running a Tight Ship, In Which We Establish the Boat Rules and We Learn to Live a Disciplined Life

5: Learning the Ropes, In Which We Discover that Pain is a Good Teacher and We Learn to View Mistakes as Opportunities

6: Close Quarters, In Which We Move Aboard with Small Children and We Learn to Resolve Conflict and Offer Grace

7: All Hands On Deck, In Which the Ship’s Bell Rings and Everyone Comes Running and We Learn to Work Together as a Team

8: Chock-a-Block, In Which We Decide to Collect Verbs Instead of Nouns and We Learn to Make Memories Instead of Buying Stuff

9: Batten Down the Hatches, In Which We Hope for the Best but Prepare for the Worst and We Learn to Accept Hardship and Remain Optimistic

10: Getting Ship-Shape, In Which We Renovate an Old Boat and We Learn to Find Order Within Chaos

10 ½: See Which Way the Wind is Blowing, In Which We Face a Tough Choice and We Learn to Prioritize and Make Decisions

11: Plumbing the Depths, In Which We Experience the Unfathomable Beauty of the World and We Learn to Love and Protect Creation

12: Ships Passing in the Night, In Which We Explore the Transitory Nature of Friendships Afloat and We Learn to Make Friends Quickly

13: Troubled Waters, In Which Things Go Wrong and We Learn to Be Patient and Self-Reliant

14: On the Right Tack, In Which We Get Involved with the Locals and We Learn to Give and Receive

15: Smooth Sailing, In Which Things Go Right and We Learn to Appreciate Even the Smallest Things

16: Course Corrections, In Which We Find that All Plans Are Written in Wet Sand at Low Tide and We Learn to Be Flexible

17: Safe Harbor, In Which We Come Full Circle and We Learn to Let Go

Epilogue: In the Offing, In Which We Dream New Dreams and We Learn to Persevere

Anchors Aweigh: Glossary of Nautical Terms for Landlubbers

Appendix A: Photographs, Diagrams, and Maps

Appendix B: Advice for the Adventurous, Reading Suggestions, and Questions for Reflection/Discussion

Crew List: Who’s Who on Take Two

Jay, Captain and Chief Engineer. He’s the Problem-Solver, the Magic Genie who funds the dream, and the Introverted Computer-Genius with an adventurous side. He grew up sailing and keeps the boat’s systems running smoothly. He is equally adept at designing a database, plumbing a boat toilet, and wiring an A/C electrical panel. Fun Facts: he has to medicate to prevent seasickness, loves extreme weather, and stands out like a sore thumb in Central America.

Tanya, First Mate and Ship’s Cook. She’s the impulsive Idea Man, extroverted Family Ambassador, and Neurotic Control-Freak. She’s afraid of everything but doesn’t let it stop her from living a full and exciting life. She loves overnight passages, meeting new people, and cooking. She serves as French/Spanish interpreter and knows how to find things in a new place. She thinks out loud and never knows when to quit. Fun Facts: she plays ukulele, reads voraciously, and used to be a kindergarten teacher.

Eli, Second Mate. He’s the first-born son, a Frustrated Perfectionist, Man of Action, and wordsmith lovingly known as Captain Vocabulary. He’s in charge when Jay and Tanya are off the boat and helps stand watch at night on long passages. Fun Facts: he loves to freedive, plays D & D, and flies airplanes.

Aaron, Second Engineer. A Mr. Fixit, he loves tools, can talk to anyone with his Charismatic Personality, but can sometimes be a Primadonna. He helps with boat projects like installing a water heater or changing the oil in the engines. Fun Facts: he plays electric guitar, rebuilt his first carburetor at age seven, and knows almost everything about WWII tanks.

Sarah, Quartermaster. She’s a Creative Genius, able to draw and play musical instruments, a Ready Wit, but you might not know it because she’s also a bit of a Hermit. She helps with docking and anchoring, knows where everything is, and is a good sailor. Fun Facts: she’s excellent at using just the right movie quotes to fit a conversation, is fluent in Spanish, and loves to bake cookies.

Sam, Able Seaman. He’s got an Indomitable Spirit, and the ability to Charm Animals and small children, yet somehow most often shows us his Spastic Clown side. He stands by to help wherever needed and likes to take morning watches. Fun Facts: He can solve the Rubix Cube in thirty-two seconds, juggle, and touch his tongue to his nose (though not all at the same time).

Rachel, Midshipman. She’s the youngest, born after we moved aboard Take Two, a precocious Old Soul, Empath, and, unfortunately, Rage Monster. She sleeps in a bunk amidships and likes to help in the galley.  She loves to sit in the captain’s chair on passages and stays out of the way when docking. Fun Facts: Loves to draw and sing, has a “little old lady” alter ego, and makes doll clothes out of fabric scraps.

Take Two, Custom Wooden Sailing Catamaran. It might seem strange to put the boat on the crew list, but our worthy vessel is more than just a vehicle that gets us from point A to point B. She is a part of our family. We love and care for her, and she, in turn, shelters and protects us. She was built in the Netherlands in 1991, the year Jay and I rode the school bus together in high school.

Prologue: Staying Afloat, In Which We’re Living the Dream, But Some Days It’s a Nightmare and We Learn to Make Tradeoffs and Deal with Disappointment

May 2016. I am at the helm, the only crew still standing. The captain is wedged in a corner of the cockpit trying to nap. The others are lying prone, sleeping where they fell, some outside in the cockpit, others on the settees inside, and one, half-naked, on the salon floor. If there were a soundtrack for this day, it would include crashing waves, wind whistling in the rigging, the drone of a diesel engine, crewmen moaning and groaning, and the sound of someone throwing up at the rails. The wind is wild, whipping my hair around and chapping my face. We are pounding into six-to-eight-foot seas, directly upwind, sails furled and both engines running. Occasionally, I get hit in the face with salt spray from the bows burying themselves in a big, green wave.

It is the kind of day people imagine when I tell them I live on a sailboat and they stare at me with an odd mixture of horror and admiration on their features. Perhaps they are thinking of the fisherman in his yellow rain-slicker on the Gorton’s Fish Sticks package. Well, sometimes it is like that, but only for a day or two out of the year. Sometimes, believe it or not, life at sea can even be boring. But usually, like this day, it is a combination of highs and lows, the highs often being better than you can imagine, and the lows, worse.

We are on a rhumb line between the east side of Puerto Rico and a small island in the Spanish Virgins, Vieques. The U.S. Government once used Vieques for target practice, and despite its now being a vacation destination with beach resorts, there are still parts of the island that are off-limits due to unexploded ordnance. We are here in the middle of a churning sea because it was the best weather that we could see in the forecast for making our way south and east to the Virgin Islands. It is late in the season, May already, and we need to be in Grenada before hurricane season gets cranking. It’s been a rough year for leaving, our intended departure date slipping from January to March because of Jay’s work schedule and the numerous cold fronts and disagreeable conditions preventing our crossing the Gulf Stream.

We passed up a month of cruising in the out-islands of the Bahamas with good friends on Ally Cat in order to take advantage of a few days of calm weather to head east, and the last cold front of the season to push us south into the Caribbean. Though we’re excited by what lies ahead, we are still feeling this disappointment. We had been trying to meet up with Kimberly and Michael and their daughter, Ally, for months, slowly heading south as they headed north, our paths crossing as they had twice before, in Washington D.C. and Ft. Pierce, Florida. As it turned out, we had only three days together in George  Town, Exuma in the Bahamas, to catch up. We made the most of it, with a dinner together of fresh-caught-Mahi tacos, a provisioning day with two other boat-moms, a cruiser’s open-mic music night, and a beach bonfire. The last day, Kimberly bequeathed to me her notes from their year in the Caribbean, notes that I would cherish and use extensively the following year.

One of her recommendations was Bio Bay, or Bahia Mosquito, in Vieques, a naturally-occurring phenomenon where bioluminescent plankton exist in impressive concentrations in a closed bay, and cause anything that passes through the water to glow and sparkle. I was enchanted by the idea of anchoring our boat at the entrance to the bay and taking our kayaks in on a dark night to give my kids a magical experience. I became obsessed with this idea—so driven, in fact, that when it was time to leave Puerto Rico, I insisted we make the stop in Vieques instead of going straight to St. Thomas, which might have provided a better wind angle for sailing. And now I am paying for it and exacting a price from my crew as well.

Guilty questions circle my head like seagulls after a potato chip. “Will this be one of those times when we all suffer for nothing? Like those other times when I have an idea and drag everyone along and it turns out to be a costly disappointment? Will we even be able to anchor at the mouth of the bay with the wind and waves from this direction?” I have six hours of bashing to think about this, while our little boat icon creeps across the screen of our chart-plotter more slowly than I could ride a bike. I say a small, selfish prayer that it will all be worth it.

I have seen no other boats since we left this morning with our French counterpart—a boat called Dingo D’Iles (“crazy for islands”), a large catamaran with five kids aboard. They are long gone, heading to the British Virgin Islands. This is another disappointment, as we would like to have spent more time with them. We have never met another family with five kids aboard, and they had two teenagers, too. We overlapped by only a few days at Palmas Del Mar, just long enough to hang out in the laundry room while catching up on the wash, and to share Rachel’s birthday with their three little girls. But they are on a schedule to get to Martinique by a certain date, and we are not. There is always the chance that we may run into them later.

Vieques grows incrementally larger on the horizon, as the mountains of Puerto Rico vanish behind us. The only redeeming qualities about this day are that it is not raining, and that we’ll arrive before dark. I console myself, as I often do, by reminding myself that it could always be worse. By mid-afternoon, we are running along the coast, looking for a place to anchor the boat. The captain looks dubious. The opening to Mosquito Bay looks too narrow and the bay itself too shallow for us to get inside, and the water is too rough to stay outside. I can hear him thinking about his bail-out plan and calculating arrival time in St. Thomas. I cannot accept defeat so easily. Perhaps, I suggest, we could just do a drive-by and see whether it’s “doable.”

So we creep in around a point, in whose lee lies a perfect little isolated palm-tree-lined beach, and inch toward the entrance to the bay. Suddenly, as if by magic, the wind and waves disappear, and a mangrove-lined channel opens up just beyond a wide, shallow bight. We drop the anchor, fall back to see if we like the placement, pick it up again in classic Take Two style, and re-anchor. It’s perfect. The captain agrees to give it a go, but we will only stay one night, so this is our only chance.

Everyone is moving again, like the waking dead, looking rumpled and groggy. “Where are we?” is the repeated question. And now that we are out of the wind, it’s hot. And at the mouth of Mosquito Bay, Sarah points out, it might be a buggy night. But I remain optimistic. Yes, it might be hot and buggy, but we’re in a safe place and, barring rain, we have a chance to go do something rare and interesting. Jay and I do a pre-dark recon by dinghy to see how far we have to paddle, and what the bay looks like. We decide that I’ll kayak with the big kids, and he will take the dinghy as a support vessel with our youngest crewmember, Rachel, who just turned five.

We make a quick dinner and drop the kayaks in the water. The sun sinks into the sea and stars begin to wink in the darkening sky. It is a moonless night, ideal for our purpose. We paddle down the long, serpentine entrance in the dark. There are a few sparkles in the water, but nothing we haven’t seen before. A fish darts away from the bow of my kayak, and I see a streak of glowing green. Then the creek widens into a bay, something we feel more than see. The farther in we get, the brighter the swirls our paddles make in the water, until the water is unmistakably glowing. Fish dash in every direction leaving fiery trails like comets, the paddles come out dripping diamonds of light, and we leave glowing wakes behind us. The kids are all thinking the same thing, and finally someone says it aloud: “Can we jump in?” If it weren’t so dark, Jay and I would exchange a parental glance. We had read that a girl was bitten by a shark in this bay a year ago, and we instinctively know that swimming in a warm, shallow bay at night is a bad idea. But we say yes, anyway. It’s irresistible—a chance to swim in liquid light. Our friends on a boat called Jalapeño said it was not to be missed—they went so far as to dare our kids to swim here if they ever got the chance.

Our fearless first-born jumps in first. His whole body is luminous. His hair is on fire with glints of green. One by one, we all immerse ourselves in what looks like radioactive liquid—even our timid five-year-old, who leaps in fully-clothed. Our hands and arms come out of the water scintillating like we’re wearing sequined gloves. The experience is thrilling, incomparable to anything we’ve seen or done. A kayak tour group emerges from a clump of mangroves and we have surely disturbed their quiet evening expedition with our riot of sound and light. We hop back in the kayaks after a while and play paddle-tag, using the glistening trails to chase each other through the dark. This is what that awful day at sea was for; it has made all the discomfort worthwhile, and I am quite literally glowing with happiness. As we paddle out of the bay, the glow fades, the streaks turning to mere sparkles again, and we head back for a freshwater rinse and bed.

Tomorrow, we’ll weigh anchor and head back out to sea. The waves will still be there, but hopefully we’ll have a better wind angle for sailing to St. Thomas. We’ll be sailing past Culebrita, with its famous “Jacuzzis,” a series of natural rocky pools on an island wildlife refuge. Our good friends on Abby Singer are anchored there, but time and weather do not allow for another stop, so we’ll have to catch up with them further “down island.” So goes the life afloat.

Sometimes we measure success on the boat by the absence of failure–nothing broke! Nothing leaked! No one got seasick today!  Sometimes sailing looks merely like “not sinking.” There are glorious, wonderful, sparkling days, but they stand out in memory like an oasis in a desert of rough passages. “Staying afloat” acknowledges the hope-amidst-hardship of the sailing life. If it’s so hard, one might ask, why do we do it? Because despite the unpredictable and sometimes unpleasant nature of boating, the beauty, joy, and freedom we experience in nature, the sense of accomplishment we feel when we overcome a challenge, and the memories we make as a family while traveling make it all worth it.

Disappointment is a normal part of life on Planet Ocean. Our life and path are often dictated by things outside our control, like the weather, Jay’s work, or things that break unexpectedly. We may yearn to go somewhere but be unable to get there because it’s the wrong time of year, or the wind is blowing the wrong direction or speed. While we love to go off the beaten path, we can’t stay very long and keep the paychecks coming. This is partly why we have not crossed an ocean yet, and why we waited so long to make the jump to the Caribbean. We were waiting for the technology to catch up with our dream so that Jay could work from the boat wherever it was anchored. The tradeoff is that we get to live this way, instead of saving up for ten years so we can take a trip.

Then there are the things we can control. Every time we say “yes” to one thing, we have to say “no” to a thousand others, some of which may have been better than the one we chose. Often, we pray through a decision, and choose a counterintuitive path whose purpose is only revealed later. But there is no loss without some gain, and when we miss a time with old friends, for example, we have an opportunity to make new ones.

Our lost month in the Bahamas with Ally Cat was later spent in the Virgin Islands cruising with Abby Singer. Similarly, the weeks we might have spent with them in Culebra were used to earn income and tour Puerto Rico by car. A rough day at sea yielded a memorable night in a phosphorescent bay. Choosing to continue feeling disappointment about lost joys keeps us from experiencing new ones. We just need to stay afloat during the hard times so that we are ready when good times come again. This is one of the chief lessons we have learned from life on a boat, though not the first.

If you made it this far and want more, you’ll have to buy the book! Stay tuned…