And how was your summer? After nine months of aquatic vagabond life controlled more by wind and weather than clocks and calendars, Deb and I have settled into a happy routine. Last June, we elected to wait out hurricane season here in St. Thomas, found a marina in a protected hurricane hole, and got jobs with a great architectural firm here on the island. Since then, we’ve been taking advantage of our stationary position to fix the boat, rebuild the cruising kitty, and learn to navigate island life (as opposed to between-island life).
While all of this has been an interesting experience to us, I fear that learning the dollar-bus routes, replacing the house batteries, and our new laundry/pizza date night routine are perhaps not the adventure that you, gentle reader, are looking for in a blog post.
Along comes Deb to the rescue! Below is her recap of the impressions she’s formed and lessons she’s learned since we cast off last October. Take it away Deb!
Top Ten things I’ve Learned on Our Adventure
1. We're incredibly lucky.
This actually is something that I did know before, but it is so apparent every minute of every day on this trip. Our families have been so supportive, from their initial reactions to knowing that we have a place to return to if this all goes wrong. Never once did they say that this was irresponsible or financially foolish. Both our families told us to do this now while we’re able. Our friends have been a mainstay (nautical term - no pun intended). From visiting, calling, FBing, and generally not forgetting us, we’re so blessed to know so many people who make us feel connected and part of their lives even when we’re not around the corner.
After 25 years working together at Urbahn Architects in NYC, it was really really hard to leave. Rather than express frustration at the loss of senior staff, the folks at Urbahn made us feel appreciated and wished us well. In addition, we have been quite lucky to find work with the best firm on St Thomas. Springline Architects has been amazingly welcoming and has made us feel useful and right at home. We’ve felt at home so many places on this trip; we’ve met so many interesting people and made many friends. No matter what hard times we’ve had, and there have been many, this adventure has been an amazing blessing.
I also have to say that we’ve pretty lucky in our marriage. I can live in our little floating tub, sometimes without seeing another soul for days, and I’m still thrilled to wake up every day next to my wonderful husband. I’ve only thought about pushing him overboard a few times. We’ve always balanced each other’s strengths and weaknesses, but this trip has melded us into even more of a unit.
2. I like to work.
I’ve struggled with not working on this trip and I’ve come to believe that for me, it boils down to two issues.
First, I really like having daily structure. When we’re on the move, I’m busy at the helm or planning the next day’s sail or researching the best anchorage and what to see on shore. That suits me fine. I’m working, just not at a paying job. It’s when we’ve stopped for more than a couple of days that I start to go stir crazy. Of course I know all the things I should be doing: writing that novel or learning Spanish or how to play guitar. I guess that a lack of time is only one of the reasons that I haven’t done any of these things up till now. So what about swimming and snorkeling and hiking? Yeah, we’re doing those things as well as the daily chores, tending to the boat, and seeing friends. I’m not bored and our days are full, but the days lack order and I’ve come to see that order, and being able to plan and regulate my day, is important to me.
Second, I’ve learned that working as an architect has been so much of who I am for the last 30 years that not working is unsettling. It’s not so much the whole loss-of-identity thing, because it’s still who I am. And it’s not that I’m worried about ever getting work again (especially now that we are working again here in St Thomas). In part, working allows me to feel like I’m contributing to something bigger than me.
I’ve been so much happier since we started working in St. Thomas. Compared to our life in New York, our work/life balance is much more sane. We still work hard, but for first time, we’re getting home by 6pm. Now I think the ideal would be a 4-day work week.
Oh, and it’s really good to see the back account balance going up again instead of the slow but constant trickle out.
3. I will never again take fresh water for granted.
Pre-trip, I primarily saw water as something to mix with scotch. Sure, there were daily showers, weekly laundry, and filling the boat’s domestic water tank, but it was not something that I rarely spent time thinking about or appreciating. If I opened the faucet, there would be water. It hasn’t been that easy on this trip. When the boat was in her slip in the Hudson River, we would connect a hose and fill the tank once a week. This was easy in most seasons when the marina had water running right to our slip. In winter it was more of an effort since we had to string a couple of hoses together to reach the only active hose bib on the dock building. While we always conserved our water, not letting the tap run while brushing teeth, etc., we didn’t have to think too much about it.
Getting water on this trip has been more of a task. Most of our stationary time is spent at anchor, rather than in marinas, so we carry five-gallon jerry cans, which we load into the dinghy to fill up on shore, dink back, and dump into the tank. Lifting the full cans back onto the boat is a production as each can weights about 40 lbs. We’ve gotten very quick at rigging a block-and-tackle crane to the boom-end and hoisting the jerry cans on board. Currently living a life of luxury in a slip, our access to water is much like back home. When we head out again after the hurricane season, we’ll be back to washing dishes in saltwater and testing the limits of our shower intervals.
But my biggest issue with water isn’t the physical labor of getting it, it’s how much my body craves it. When we were in the Bahamas, there was virtually no rain for two months. In addition, you couldn’t get away from the salt, which crusted everything. Clean potable water is a commodity on all islands. Some places have reverse osmosis (RO) water, where the local municipality has built a plant that filters the sea water to make it potable. Here in St. Thomas (as well as much of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico), there is no municipal water system. Instead, every building on the island collects rainwater from roofs and stores it in giant cisterns (where the basement would be in a mainland house).
You are always conscious of how much water you’re using, because you pay for it. The showers at our marina are coin operated: $1.00 for 3 minutes. When we’re at anchor we found that we use about 5 gallons per person per day; assuming that we’re showering maybe every third day. (Yeah, we don’t shower as often as we did at home.) Since the boat has a 97 gallon tank plus 4 five-gallon jerry cans, we can go about 10 days. When we’re traveling this can be tight. It was particularly tight in the Out lslands of the Bahamas, where hurricane Joaquin hit hard in 2015 leaving little infrastructure for boats (or anybody) to get water. We had to bring jerry cans in to the local bar/restaurant (usually someone’s front room) and ask if we could purchase some of their cistern water. The people we met in the Out Islands were amazing: resilient, self-sufficient and so warm. It was humbling and made me understand a dependency on infrastructure that I’d never considered before.
Regarding the showering thing, you may be thinking that we could just jump in the water to clean/cool off. This brings me back to salt. Before we left on this trip, I thought that I’d be diving in all the time to cool off. You know how sandy and salty you feel after a day at the beach? When you can’t wait to get home and shower? It’s the same swimming off the boat. Actually, without rain it sort of felt that way even if you hadn’t been swimming. The boat was covered with large crystals of salt and you couldn’t keep it from tracking inside making everything feel greasy and crunchy. By the time we got to the Dominican Republic (a mountainous island large enough to have its own climate, one that includes rain), I was so thankful.
[Note to Self: Get involved with environmental projects to clean up and increase access the world’s water and to develop RO water plants. Islanders aren’t the only one who will be lacking fresh water soon.]
4. You’re gonna have weather, whether or not.
I’ve learned so much about weather. When we're out at anchor without data cell plans, we listen to the Marine Weather Center’s Chris Parker’s forecasts every morning on the SSB (Single Sideband Radio). When we have wifi or cellular data, we read his twice-daily email forecasts. The months in Florida and the Bahamas we watched frontal systems move across from the Gulf of Mexico, then get pulled northeast. They came through weekly like clockwork, leaving all their rain in Florida before blustering through the Bahamas.
Later, we moved south into the Caribbean, where weather comes from the east. Being hurricane season, we’re watching wave after wave develop off the west coast of Africa. Waves, low pressure systems that originate in the Sahara and travel westward across the Atlantic, are the seeds of hurricanes. Chris explains if the conditions (extent of Sahara dust, which hinders development; water temperature, which can promote it) are conducive to the system gaining strength. Our first big concern of the season was a LO called Invest99 (“Invest” for “investigate” in NOAA parlance) came within 30 miles of us bringing rain, then petered out as it moved into the Gulf of Mexico.
It gained strength (where it was again named; this time Invest9, don’t ask me to explain the numbering) and moved toward Florida as Hurricane Hermine, crossed Florida, and headed up the coast. It’s fascinating to watch, although to the locals it didn’t warrant a raised eyebrow. I just pray nothing comes here.
5. I sweat.
When we’re on the move there’s always a breeze. When we’re at anchor or in a slip, it’s hot. I’m starting to find anything under 90F kind of cool. I’ve also learned that I sweat; not like a girl or an athlete, but more like Albert Brook’s character in Broadcast News. (I’ve tried to think of a more recent analogy, but really there’s nothing better than this. If you’re too young to remember Broadcast News – it’s an 80’s movie - stream it. It’s great.) I’m really not that freaked out by this. I carry a hanky to blot and I’m wearing waterproof mascara to work, so no worries. I’ve also realized how spoiled I am. I really like air conditioning. Being in AC, at least part of the time, makes me a much happier person. If we weren’t working in an air conditioned office, I think I’d be miserable.
Air conditioning aside, I’ve acclimated pretty well to the tropics so it will be interesting when we go home to visit family and friends in November to see how I feel about the cold. I’m sure the first winter that we’re back home will be (frozen over) hell.
6. I heart NY.
When we left on this trip, the plan was always to sail down the island chain to Grenada, then to head home. But we also thought that we see other places and ways of living and maybe, rather than just pick up where we left off in NYC, we’d end up doing some third thing after this trip. Although this hasn’t completely changed, I’ve come to realize that I really do like being in a city. Beyond that, I really love my city. On the way down, I liked Miami and Charleston. On other trips, I’ve enjoyed Seattle and San Francisco. I do hope I’ve learned to live differently; to slow down more, to be a part of a where I am and not just rush through everything, but right now, I’m looking forward to reconnecting with New York.
7. I heart St. Thomas.
While I miss NYC, I’ve also fallen in love with St Thomas. It’s been great staying in one place long enough to get to know this island. St. Thomas is a weird combination of US and the West Indies. I’m thrilled to be able to go into stores and get anything I need (although nothing grown locally). But there are power surges and outages all the time. Being America, there are low-level racial tensions, but people are generally warm and friendly. There’s work, but there are also a lot of Lebowski-esque dropouts.
It’s a great mix. Oh and did I mention it’s also a tropical paradise? Everybody has a boat! Its 30 minutes from anywhere to a snorkeling heaven where you can catch dinner and swim in 80-degree water. Puerto Rico is a 15-minute plane ride or day sail away. The BVI’s are 4-hour sail away. They have Painkillers!
8. I’m seeing another way to live.
People say that New Yorkers are uncivil and gruff. I don’t agree. New Yorkers are just busy. In New York it is a demonstration of respect to not waste somebody’s time with small talk. Down here, every day we get on the safari bus (i.e.: pickup truck, seats in the back, $1) for our commute to work and the whole bus greets us with “good morning,” as we do as every subsequent passenger climbs aboard. I like it. When we get home, I hope to retain some of these pleasantries. I can’t wait to see how people in NYC react when I say “Good Afternoon!” to an elevator full of strangers.
I like leaving work at 5-or-6pm each night. I know it should be self-evident, but it allows one to do things after work. I could varnish the toe rail! Or write that novel! Or learn Spanish! OK so maybe I won’t, but when we get back to NY, I’m going leave work and establish a better work/life balance. (Pete will only believe this when he sees it, but I promise that I will do this. Life’s too short not to.) If I’ve learned anything on this trip, this is probably the most important.
Oh, and when we get home, I’m ready to not live aboard, at least for a while. We’ve lived on a boat since 1999. When we get back, I want a shower in the same structure that I live in. I want a washer and dryer, maybe not in my apartment, but at least in the same building where I live. Maybe I’ll move aboard again at some point, but for a while I want to live in a building. (Weird, I know.)
9. I need to stay connected.
The worst parts of this trip have been when we didn’t have cell service and couldn’t get to a place with internet access. We’ve had five phone plans since leaving the states, but we still find ourselves in places with spotty (or prohibitively expensive) service. Not being able to keep in touch to let our families know that we were safe was emotionally taxing. I’ve never really understood how social we are as beings. With limited social connections, I fall apart. I have always taken this ability to connect for granted. Now, when we have good service, my cell phone amazes me (I’m here and you’re there and we can still talk). Facebook has also been wonderful for this trip. Every day I checkup on what’s going on in my friends lives. If we had taken this trip even 10 years ago, I would have found it isolating. (And no, I’m not missing out on the experiences right in front of my nose. I just want to be able to talk with my mom.)
10. My comfort zone is somewhere back there.
I knew that I’d be out of my comfort zone on this trip, but I’ve been so surprised by when and why. After having lived aboard for 16 years, getting our captains’ licenses, and being fairly competent and resourceful sailors, I’ve been shocked at how fearful I’ve occasionally been. We’ve been in a few weather/sea conditions that were uncomfortable, but nothing that was actually dangerous (although, I still don’t want to be in 8-foot seas again). I think that most of my fear, (and just so you know, I’ve been absolutely terrified), has been about leaving everything I know. We are extremely lucky. We both have very supportive families. We have resources and places to go back to if this adventure goes pear-shaped. But with all of that, the farther I got from home, the more terrified I’ve been. And really, the Caribbean is not far from home. Maybe the right word is remote. It’s not the physical distance, it’s the remoteness from my previous life. Being on a small island in the middle of a vast sea 48 hours away from the nearest other remote island can be a scary place. I have renewed admiration for adventurers everywhere: Polynesian sailors in their log boats, the British Royal Navy, astronauts, you guys rock.
I’m finally at the point where I can appreciate this trip and all the amazing experiences and wonderful people. I’m looking forward adding to these when we press into the Leeward and Windwards in December. I’m also looking forward to being home again. And I can feel both these ways at the same time.