Thursday, May 30, 2013

Green VI: A Successful Stop in my Search for Cool Knick-Knacks

I have had a very sudden and insatiable need to re-decorate our boat.  I know, it's silly. I have this vision of it being an eclectic mix of unique styles.  A myriad of interesting, mis-matched patterns and fabrics (think "India"), bold, bright colors (think "Caribbean"), and lots of cool, strategically placed knick-knacks from our travels.  Of course, most of this makes absolutely zero sense on a cruising boat.  After all, a boat might be a "home", but first and foremost it is a purpose driven vessel that has little space for frivolity. Function over form, for sure.  Sigh.  So I must compromise, and taper my vision of a nautical shangri-la that is fit for the pages of Vogue and settle for something that might be worthy of HGTV's "Design on a Dime" (I should be so lucky!!).

In spite of my all-or-nothing nature whereby I would typically hit Cost Plus World Market, TJ Max Home Goods and Pier 1 Imports in one shopping spree, thus transforming my entire living space from spartan to chic in one obsessive/compulsive day, I have been making subtle, less ambitious changes to our interior that are temporarily quenching my thirst for transformation.  A cruising boat doesn't have a lot of space to keep random trinkets, so I have slowly been picking up cool pieces that I find and placing them strategically around the boat where they won't break, fall, or get in the hands of a baby who appears to be part monkey.

The other day Scott and I happened upon a road side glass blowing studio.  Yes.  This place was - like so many other thriving businesses here - a modest shack on the side of the road with some compelling signage.  There were a couple folks inside working diligently, but the most welcoming was a friendly, smiling rasta man blessed with the gift of gab and a passion for all things glass blowing.

"Welcome to Green VI!" I heard him boom in a distinctly Caribbean accent as we walked up.  In his harms he held a giant metal rod with gooey, ember about the size of an apricot on the end.  "We are a local initiative that is aimed towards a greener, cleaner and healthier British Virgin Islands"  he then dipped the scary stick in some multi colored powder, twirled it around for a bit and then stuck the rod (and now multi-colored apricot) in a glowing furnace.  "All of our products are made out of recycled glass from here on the island..."  as if on cue, I heard the sound of a bottle breaking out back.

He continued to tell me about the process of heating the glass, working it and cooling it while forming it into things like starfish, turtles, vases, ornaments and small pendants.  Always a sucker for a cool cause and the opportunity to support a local business, I whispered to Scott that I was going to buy something, "okay?"  Knowing there was no arguing despite his ardent belief that glass should be limited on a boat, he shrugged with an approving nod and made a bee line to Isla who was happily chewing on a piece of dusky beach glass she had picked up from the ground.

My rasta friend - Lion was his name - enthusiastically answered all my questions as I scoped out the beautiful glass creations.  After some back and forth, I finally settled on a pretty little vase that looked as if it had been made out of a beer bottle.  "Oh, this is a rare one!" Lion told me.  "We don't get blue beer bottles all the time, but that is how this one began..." Ever the scholar, he then told me, step by step, how my vase was made.  Lion has a passion and it is infectious.

After a teeny bit of haggling (I learned the art of the haggle in the markets of Tanzania and Thailand, but I just can't haggle aggressively with a non-profit).  He wrapped up my vase in a neat little recycled cloth bag and handed it over.  Not only did I get to support a very cool local business with a great vision, but I got one more little knick-knack to add to our growing collection.  Shabby chic, here I come!

If you find yourself in the British Virgin Islands, Green VI is located on Tortola in the beautiful Cane Garden Bay just past Bobby's Grocery Mart.  You can also find them on Facebook.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Baby On Board: Keeping a Baby At Bay While Passagemaking

"I can't imagine taking my baby on a sea voyage. What if she got sick, bad weather, boat troubles, I think it's very poor thinking on your part.  It's your business...but selfish." Having a baby on a boat is, apparently, a novelty that many of our readers are - err - interested in.  I'd say over 50% of the questions we field are in regards to having a baby on board, and after our recent offshore passage - the questions doubled.  The main question, of course, was:  How the heck did you keep a baby entertained at sea for five days?  And then, of course, there was that ridiculous email above from Mrs. B to which I kindly replied with a big, fat "Thanks so much for the unsolicited advice - how about you raise your "baby" the way you want to, and I'll raise mine the way I want to?"  The nerve of some people, really.  Sheesh. (What the heck would she say to these people?!)

The funny thing is, it wasn't Isla's safety that was my concern (I mean, do I really need to go into the statistics of the safety of a baby on a boat versus, say, a baby in a car?).  Oh no!  The biggest concern that kept me up at night was how the heck I was going to keep her entertained.  I mean, we've been living on the boat with her since she was six months old, and actively cruising for the past four months so we had found a little groove and sort of knew what to expect.  But living on a boat with a baby is one thing...actually cruising on a boat with a baby is another...and doing an offshore passage with a baby is a whole new can of worms.  Isla is an incredibly active and energetic thirteen month old who, when awake, does not sit still.  She climbs, explores, pokes and prods.  She has no fear whatsoever and she is wicked smart.  I often take her to shore at least once a day to play on the beach or take her for a walk to burn some energy and provide some stimulation - but at sea, it would be all boat, all the time.  So how did we do it?

I am happy to report the trip went better than any of us imagined.  She was, for the most part, an angel and while it was definitely a full-time job to keep her happy, we all came through unscathed (minus the couple times she projectile vomited in the cockpit, of course...that was just gross).  Here are some things that worked for us* to keep our baby a happy little camper on the high seas:
  1. Safe place to sleep:  Isla sleeps in a Phil & Teds traveller crib, in the vee berth.  We have secured it semi-permanently to the port side and it has been amazing.  It's big enough for her to stretch out in but small enough that when the weather gets rough she's not rolling all over the place.  She cannot climb out and - most important - she is comfortable and safe.  She has slept soundly in that little bed while sailing upwind in twenty knots bashing into eight foot waves.  Having a secure place for a baby to sleep at sea is imperative.
  2. Medicate: Our mini shakedown sail got a little rough and Isla got sick not once, but twice during that passage.  This was not the most auspicious beginning for a five day, windward sea voyage.  Of course I carry Pedialyte in the event of dehydration, but I didn't want to get to that point (and do babies actually drink that stuff?!?! It's like straight up corn syrup!).  I hit the interwebz and did some research about how to prevent sea sickness in babies, which turned up nada.  I had thought ahead and ordered some children's dramamine and even though it is not recommended for babies under two - I made the executive decision (as a mom) to give Isla 1/4 of a tablet every four to six hours.  She never got sick again and was happy as a clam in even the roughest of seas.
  3. Several safe "areas" to play:  I made lee cloths to contain Isla in both the vee berth and aft cabin.  While the change in scenery wasn't much, it was nice to have a few areas to "hang out" with her.  We'd read books and play with her toys in the vee berth when it wasn't too rough, we'd play with her iPad and listen to music in the aft cabin.  Of course fresh air and vitamin D was a must too, so we'd play up in the cockpit from time to time when weather permitted.  A little variation was nice. 
  4. A dedicated "babysitter":  I know this might not be possible for every family cruising, but having a baby on the boat renders one parent pretty much useless as a crew mate.  Sorry, but it's true.  Scott and I were prepared for this, which was why we bought a new boat that can be easily singlehanded.  Doing regular cruising and island hopping is fine with just the two of us, but if you are going to sea with a baby for an extended length of time (three days or more) I would strongly urge you to take on additional crew to help out.  We had two volunteer crew mates and they were AWESOME and super helpful.  Having them aboard meant Scott was able to get some rest and I was 100% available for Isla.
  5. Gradual introduction of new toys:  Compared to her landlubber peers, Isla has very few toys.  We don't have the luxury of a basement or a big closet to store all her stuff in so she has a small hammock for books and stuffed animals in her room, and a tote bag under the nav station for her toys.  I tried to introduce "new" toys and books every other day to keep her interested because, to be honest, the attention span of a baby (if you're lucky) is about fifteen to twenty minutes before they want something else.  I kept things on a rotation.  Also - baby's don't need fancy toys!  The simplest things will entertain them: pots, spoons, and old coffee bins are all "toys" in a child's mind.  Isla's favorite discovery?  Getting in and out (over and over and over again) of a small plastic dish washing bucket. 
  6. iPad:  This one was a toughie for us.  Scott and I have made a very conscious decision to limit screen time for Isla.  "Screen time" obviously means television but also includes "educational" computer games and - yes - iPad games.  Five days at sea with a baby is a long time.  We do not have a television on board and Isla has hardly had any exposure to the boob tube whatsoever so we figured that a little friendly iPad action here and there for our passage would be acceptable.  I filled our iPad with free "baby apps" from Fisher Price and LeapFrog that included songs, flash cards, and very mildly interactive games.  I am happy to report she preferred getting in and out of her plastic bin to the iPad, but I am still thankful we had it.  It gave me 15-20 minutes of rest with her where she'd actually sit still.  That said, we haven't used it with her since the passage and will probably only limit it to long passages and special situations.
  7. Tether and harness:  Isla never wore a lifejacket this entire trip.  Instead, we used her West Marine infant tether and harness whenever she was in the cockpit (we never went beyond the cockpit with her this passage).  We have several life vests that we use with Isla in the dinghy, but when we sail, she is almost exclusively tethered to the cockpit.  It allows for easy movement, it's less cumbersome (not only for her, but for anyone holding her) and it's safe because it means she will stay with the boat.  A lifejacket might keep her afloat, but our first priority is keeping her on board.
  8. Sleep schedule:  This is numero uno in my opinion.  I could go on, and on, and on about how important I believe sleep is for little ones.  Before Isla was born I was given the book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by a very seasoned and wise momma friend who I admire completely.  "This is all you will need, forget about all the other crap" she told me as she pressed the book in my hands.  I owe her everything (love you Bijal!).  I "sleep trained" Isla from three months of age.  She naps twice a day (9am, 1pm) for an hour and half each time, and goes to bed each night between 6pm and 7pm waking up with a beaming grin twelve uninterrupted hours later (for the record, this happened naturally, she has never "cried it out").  This is not magic, it's exactly the schedule the book recommends and promises if you follow the guidelines.  While I was nervous her schedule would go haywire at sea, I'm happy to report she stuck to it without a hitch.  Having Isla on a sleep schedule makes passage making and cruising SO. MUCH. EASIER.  She is well rested and happy, and we get lots of breaks which allow us to have down time, making us better parents.
While some folks certainly think we're insane, we beg to differ.  We think this life is rife with amazing opportunities for little ones.  Isla is absolutely thriving aboard and, for now, we can't imagine raising her any other way.  She is one awesome sailor baby, that is for sure!  If you want to read more about how we cruise with a baby on board, read our post "Bringing up Baby (On a Boat".
The light of my life right here! 
This was where we spend the bulk of our time, cuddled up in the aft cabin.
"Does my hair look okay?"
We still love the game we call "tap tap" where we tap blocks on anything and everything.
Our vee-berth station and a nice shot of Isla's tent/bed 
This game was VERY fun for Isla.  In the bucket, out of the bucket, fill with things, empty things. Repeat.

Meal time underway in the bumbo seat
Bucket o' fun
"Look mama!! Land legs!!"
* Reminder:  This is what worked for us.  It might not be what you would do and it may or may not work for you, and that is okay.  To each his own, right?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Dolphin Encounter on the SUP

Unfortunately, I didn't bring a camera.  But trust me when I say it was very much like this. Image found here.
I love dolphins.  Then again, who doesn't?  If you don't get giddy at the sight of Flipper in the wild, then you have no soul as far as I'm concerned.  They are incredible creatures and it doesn't take much exposure to them to realize that they're not your average "eat, sleep, poop, procreate, and die" mammal.  They are truly magical.  There's really no other word to describe it. Yes, they are beautiful - and we all love pretty things - but they are so much more.  They have that je ne sais quoi...

Living on the water means we get to see these beauties with relative frequency, and every time - I mean every single time - I turn into a squealing, giddy five year old at the site of them.  It's like Christmas morning circa 1985 when I got that coveted Cabbage Patch doll I so desperately wanted each time I see them breach at our bow.  I want to do the happy-happy-joy-joy dance all over again.

So you can imagine my excitement when I went out for a paddle on our standup paddleboard and was visited by a momma and her baby for a whole fifteen minutes.  Fifteen minutes of dolphin play time is like an eternity in adult play time.  It was, for lack of a better word, incredible.

I had just put Isla down for her afternoon nap when I decided to jump in the water and get some exercise.  It was a gusty day, and each time the wind piped up in the bay I could see the puffs getting closer by the tell-tale ripples on the water.  When this would happen, I'd point the bow of the board into the wind and paddle with all my might to make forward momentum.  When it passed - I would relax a little and take in my surroundings.  It was during one of the lulls when I saw it - a fin slink down into the water.  I stood on my board completely frozen for a moment while the imaginary personal assistant in my head searched frantically for the "how to decipher dorsal fins" paperwork in her messy file cabinet.

Dorsal fins breaking the surface usually mean one of two things:  shark or dolphin.  Being that I now have seen both (remember my shark sighting?), I can distinguish between the two.  A shark surfacing is slightly menacing: gradually up and gradually down, purposefully slow like a retractable x-acto knife.  A dolphin fin is decidedly less menacing: it's a smooth pattern that follows a small arc, much quicker and more frequent.  If the fins confuse you, a dolphin becomes super obvious when they take a breath and exhale a plume of air out of their blowhole - at which point you can take a breath as well, because you will most certainly be holding yours (if you are in the water, that is).

So there I was, floating idly on the paddleboard with this playful dolphin coming right at me.  Then I heard a powerful exhale behind me and saw yet another dolphin coming at me - and this one was a baby!  Being closed in on by a mama dolphin and her calf is like seeing a Unicorn in Sherwood forest.  I got on my knees and quietly followed their shadows with my paddle as they continued to surface, side by side, not four feet from where I floated.  It became clear that the mama was teaching her baby some sort of lesson, so each time they surfaced I would gently exclaim, "Good job baby!" and "Hi baby!" and "Yay, beauties!" as I leaned in closer to the water.  Not sure if any of the boaters around saw what was happening, but it must have looked weird to see a woman floating aimlessly on a SUP talking to the water...

I was so tempted to jump in and swim with them, but didn't want to scare them off.  Mama's are very protective of their babies and I didn't want to appear as a threat to them.  So I just watched them surface just out of arms reach.  I could see the scars on the mama's back.  They surfaced so slowly, so purposefully it was as if they were checking me out.  Of course I have no photos because I literally jumped in the water to cool off and just grabbed the paddle and went out.  I cursed myself a couple of times during the close encounter for not being able to document such an incredible moment but realized that it didn't need to be photographed - it would forever be etched in my mind's eye, and that was good enough for me.

After about fifteen minutes of utter mesmerization  I looked up and saw Scott waving his arms at me from the dinghy dock to be picked up, and - almost as if they instinctively knew I had to go - my dolphin friends disappeared just as quickly as they came.  Hello and Goodbye.  Poof.  Like magic.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Adventures in Paradise: Photo Bomb

Renting a car in the islands is not for the weak of heart.  It's also not for the weak of stomach.  After one evening jaunt into town via the windy island roads here on Tortola, complete with drastic elevation changes, blind corners and sporadic speed bumps - Isla puked all over me.  Not pretty.  Did that stop us from spending five hours in the car the next day? Nope.  We just took it a little easier.

Exploring inland is something that Scott and I vowed we'd do more of this time around.  The coast is great; but life happens inland and while we love to lounge on our boat gazing out at the horizon just as much as the next person, we also love to explore and get a taste of what goes on behind the palm lined beaches.  To do this, renting wheels (two or four will do) is, in our opinion, the way to go.  Thirty to fifty bucks for a day of free-form adventure is well worth it, so we hit up the rental place to get a ride.

"You're license is expired" the nice lady at the counter told me after we had just spent fifteen minutes filling out paperwork.  Huh?  I grabbed my card, did a little math and - sure enough - it was defunct.  Luckily, island folk don't care much for rules and red tape because, after a tense pause the cavalier cashier shrugged and said, "Just be careful, okay?"  Yeah.  This is my kinda place. (Note:  replace license next time I am home.)

After filling up on a local breakfast of deliciously greasy johnny cake stuffed with egg and cheese, we hit the road.  Armed with coffee, sharp eyes and a guide book, we circumnavigated Tortola, making stops all along the way whenever we saw something that looked cool which meant we stopped at anything brightly colored or shiny.

We visited Bomba's Surf Side Shack (more commonly known as "the Bomba Shack") which is exactly as the moniker alludes:  a beach side shack.  But this shack is super famous and - judging from all the underwear that adorns the rafters and fading photos of bare breasted women tacked to the walls - Bomba throws one hell of a party and has a thing for blondes with double D's.  Isla wanted to hang up her diaper next to all the thongs as a funny joke, but we told her that Bomba probably wouldn't appreciate her (very advanced) sense of humor.

We also visited a crazy shell museum.  I say "crazy" because a) we didn't see a single soul there (neither patron nor proprietor) and b) there must have been a million and a half shells in this place.  The floor was paved in shells, the walls were covered in carapace and shells dangled from every conceivable place on the ceiling.  It was like an eerie shell graveyard and must have taken a lifetime to collect them all.  Like Bomba's, colorful signs painted on plywood plastered every square foot of space not occupied by exoskeleton.  Oodles of Bible verses, proverbs and gentle reminders like "slow down" were painted everywhere and despite the misspellings and poor grammar, we enjoyed reading them.

The roads here are insane and driving them is an ear-popping adventure.  Crazy switch backs with blind turns are the only way to climb these steep slopes and apparently the threat of plummeting hundreds of feet to certain death does nothing to tame the speeds of the wheel screeching locals (remember bus ride in Grenada?  It's like that).  Numerous times we pulled off on the shoulder to let more aggressive folk pass.  We had enough to worry about making sure we stayed on the right side of the road (they drive on the left here, we're technically in Britain, after all) and tailgaters were not something we were comfortable with while navigating narrow mountain-side roads.

It was a great day, and we're looking forward to our next adventure in car-renting.
Our breakfast spot.  Cheap and delish!
The Bomba Shack
The fact that we totally match and blend in was unintentional.
Recipe for a successful island bar:  1) Find beach plot 2) construct shack 3) adorn with painted signs 4) serve beer.

On our way to the semi-creepy shell museum
Paved in shells and, again, more painted signs.
Isla loved it.
Have you ever seen so many shells?!?
Isla, examining a conch shell.  This was taken right before she threw it on the ground and broke it.
Throwing things to the ground and practicing with gravity is the newest skill we enjoy.

Do you see us amongst all the signage?
We stopped by a beach for some palm-shimmying practice

A swim.
It's true.  Isla is the real captain of this ship.
This baby oozes love and happiness.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Bright Side of Getting Stuck

Turns out, being stuck between a rock and a hard place feels kinda good.  Who knew?

Since we can't really move towards our intended destination of St. Maarten due to weather, we've decided to - SIGH - throw in the towel and just cruise the British Virgin Islands while we wait for a weather window to move on.  It's a rough life.  They say if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.  Well, we say: if you can't leave 'em, ENJOY 'em.

Scott and I have been here three times before, twice on vacation aboard other boats, and once on our old boat, Rasmus.  While we had a blast during those previous visits, we weren't as captivated as we have been this time around.  I can't quite put my finger on why this is, but we've pretty much fallen head over heels in love with these islands.  So much so, in fact, that we're talking about basing ourselves here semi-permanently in the future.  Perhaps the Universe has forced us to linger so that we'd take pause and have a good look around instead of just blazing through in a drunken stupor.  Either way, we're pleased as rum punch it worked out this way.

Truth be told, it's easy to go lukewarm on these islands as nothing more than a playground for charter boats.  Which, don't get me wrong, they are.  I'll bet an arial view of this place in high season looks not unlike like the carnival game "duck pond" with oodles of Beneteaus bobbing around.  "Too many credit card captains"..."too expensive"..."too touristy"...."not authentic".  These are all things we've heard from other cruisers and -  not gonna lie - we thought those things too.  As a vacation destination for the employed, this place fits the bill.  But for experienced and salty live-aboard cruisers on a budget, there was more...or so we thought.  But after ten days of hanging around these parts, we've fallen off our high horse.

So what makes these islands so great?  Well, for one thing - they are spectacularly gorgeous.  I'm almost exhausting myself with how often I've said "Wow!! It is soooooo beautiful here"!  The dramatic landscape is nothing short of eye-candy; lush hillsides encompassing every shade of green jut out of the cerulean water at sixty degree angles, vibrant flowers dangle heavily in lavish bunches off tree branches, and lanky palms bow lazily over the sandy beaches as waves lap rhythmically on shore.  Looking off in any direction you see the dramatic silhouettes of more islands in the distance like giant boulders that have fallen haphazardly from outer space, and you might even see four or five ridge lines taper off in a dusky haze.  It's super gaze-worthy, that's for sure.  There's a reason there are a gazillion charter boats here: people keep coming back for more because this place is like crack for paradise lovers.

Then there's the sailing.  "We can sail just for the fun of it here!" Scott exclaimed on our first day out.  Most cruisers rarely sail just for the sake of sailing; it's usually to get to some place and more often than not conditions aren't ideal for canvas.  Here, however, there are so many places to go and because of they way this archipelago is situated you are almost always in "protected" waters, meaning you can sail in almost any condition to some awesome anchorage with great snorkeling, a pretty beach, and a killer sunset.  What's not to love? (Okay, the overpriced beach bar kinda blows).

Last time we were here on Rasmus, we were spending $30 a night for moorings which is why we left in such a hurry.  Like lemmings, we took moorings because everyone else did.  Turns out, you don't have too (unless you are a charter boat, in which case most decree that you MUST take a mooring).  This time around, we've anchored just about everywhere and it's been a piece of cake.  We enter an anchorage, get away from the mooring balls and drop the hook.  Granted, it's not high season so perhaps it's less crowded than it would otherwise be, but we're super thrilled that we can spend that $30 on tropical slushy rum drinks during happy hour and not on a mooring ball. With 275 of chain and a better than average anchor, we're more than adequately set to anchor here.  (So far 20 feet is the deepest we've anchored, for the record).

Anyway, we're happy.  We're having fun.  And every now and then we even forget the fact that the weather folks are - as one Facebook follower so eloquently put - "running out of scary words to describe this upcoming hurricane season".  Sigh.  As much as we'd like to, this little love affair must end - for now.  We got to fly south for the summer!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place (in Paradise)

On a boat, we try hard to avoid weather like this...but it's not always possible.
I woke up last night with a jolt.  It’s almost always me who wakes up to strange bumps and sounds in the night, a fact that makes me a little jealous – and a little resentful – of my soundly sleeping husband.  Being a professional worrier on a boat has its downsides, let me tell you.

Last night, it was an orchestra of noise that woke me:  the wince-inducing grinding of our anchor snubber tugging over the roller reverberating throughout the hull, the eerie howl of the wind ripping through the anchorage and causing our boat to jerk unnaturally this way and that on our anchor,  the sudden and gentle pitter-patter of rain on deck- followed by the skies opening up and turning our boat into a bonafide bongo drum.  I sprang up with a gasp and ran to the companionway to take a bearing.  Phew.  Not dragging.  That’s good.  Then I remembered all the portholes and hatches that were open.  Dammit.  I closed them all, sopped up the rain, set the anchor alarm and flopped back into bed.  Scott didn’t even stir.  Bastard.  I must have woken up four or five other times, and I am almost certain we saw wind in the sixty knot range.  Okay, maybe forty.  Either way, it was gnarly and loud.  Scott slept through it all , I swear I even noticed a peaceful little smirk on his worry-free face.

He redeemed himself this morning by going to Isla when she sprang to life with a beaming grin at six a.m, letting me catch up on lost zzzz’s.  I subscribe heavily to the child-like notion that “everything will be better in the morning” but when I awoke, I was bummed to see the conditions hadn’t changed.  Still squally, still gray, still windy, still blech.  We listened to the weather on the SSB radio and it’s official:  it's bad.  And it’s not getting better any time soon.  A tropical wave is upon us, scheduled to arrive on Sunday like a persistent and petulant door-to-door salesman, only you can’t slam the door on a tropical wave.  “What’s a tropical wave again?” I ask Scott.  We really should know more about the weather but weather prediction, it turns out, is incredibly difficult and complex.  He consults our “Weather Predicting Simplified” book (which does nothing of the sort) and says’s “Hmm…looks like a tropical wave is the precurser to a hurricane”.  He says this in a tone no different than “Hey look, there’s a bird in the sky”.  Scott, unfortunately, is totally insensitive to the fact that I am an olympic worrier and does nothing to quell my fears.  Super,  I think.  We’re going to get caught down island in a hurricane.

To make a long story short, we’re stuck here for a while – at least a week, maybe two.  When the weather man says, “I’m sorry, I have no good news for you. I don’t see any change in the foreseeable future” you prepare to hunker down.  There are worse places to be stuck, that is for sure – and yes, we’re on a boat in the Caribbean but the fact remains: we need to make tracks south.  Hurricane season begins in six days and we’re still seven hundred miles from the little invisible box around Grenada that says we’ll be safe.  I’m starting to feel like we’re in between a rock and hard place…and that’s not a good place to be on a boat.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

On Passage-Making, Luck and What We Did Right

With our first long-ish passage -Bahamas to the BVI's - behind us, I find myself reflecting on how successful it was and how smoothly it went, no small feat for a boat at sea for five days.  There are several reasons for this:  First of all (let's be real here), we were lucky.  I believe strongly that those of us who take to the sea depend on a fair amount on good old-fashioned L-U-C-K from time to time (don't we all?), and thankfully, it was on our side during this particular passage.  It is also my belief, however, that we create our own luck in the form of preparedness (anyone remember the "black box theory"?) - particularly at sea - and that the two, let's call them "dumb" luck and "created" luck, dance precariously in a yin/yang type of ballet.

We did a lot right during this passage; some of it intentional, some of it serendipitous... but here is what we learned and tips I can share based on our experience venturing offshore and covering eight hundred miles over the course of five days, non-stop:
  1. Route Planning:  Scott poured over the charts and scoured the internet for information on our trip.  Unfortunately, there was not too much out there as a) most (smart) cruisers avoid passages completely to windward and b) most people who do make this passage start much further north, and much earlier in the season in order to take advantage of trade winds.  Despite the lack of info out there for our particular set of circumstances and coordinates, Scott and I read accounts of the trip and had a pretty good idea of what to expect.  Namely: lots of motoring, bashing headlong into easterly trade winds, and a potential puke-fest of epic proportions.  Fun, right?
  2. Prepare fot the worst:  I know, this sounds pessimistic, but hear me out:  if you prepare for the worst, you will either be ready when the worst smacks you square across the face OR (the better option) you will be pleasantly surprised when it shows up at your door step like an innocent, water-logged kitten looking for shelter instead of the roaring lion it's shadow foretold.  We had read lots of accounts of strong easterly trades and mind-numbing upwind slogs complete with bashing into twelve foot ocean swells for days on end, and that is what we prepared our boat and ourselves for.  The fact that our trip wasn't that bad made it all the better, and because our boat was so well stowed and prepped, we enjoyed a nice, drama-free ride complete with evening sing-a-longs in the cockpit.  (Okay, not really).
  3. Watch the Weather:  Scott watched weather for about a month before our passage; looking for patterns and trying to identify when the trades would lie down a bit and allow for some nice, easterly motoring.  The fact that a weather window presented itself just as our crew arrived was - of course - dumb luck.  You cannot plan stuff like that.  We also subscribed to a professional weather routing service which we utilized underway (via SSB) to alter our course and optimize our path.  This proved to be very useful.  
  4. Know your Limits:  We had two volunteer crew aboard to help Scott make this delivery because initially Isla and I were not going to come (see #2).  We ended up joining the roster after all, and it was fantastic (essential?) to have four extra hands on board.  These days, my number one priority is being a momma to Isla and - truth be told - she is a handful (actually, two handfulls) when she's awake, making me a less than reliable offshore crew member at the moment.  Having a working crew of three guys with me as a mommy/floater/galley slave made this passage much better - for all of us.  The guys maintained a two hour on/four hour off watch schedule which was very easy and ensured everyone was well-rested.
  5. Pre-make Meals:  Holy moly was this a lifesaver!  We ate incredibly well the entire trip and (wait for it.....) I am going to give myself a little pat on the back for this fact.  Actually, I am going to give myself a full-blown "whoop whoop" for my culinary efforts.  Me pulling off five nights of palatable boat meals is, in my little world, akin to Armstrong's first steps on the moon:  A small step for man,  a huge step for Brittany...or something like that.  Thanks to The Boat Galley Cookbook, a very large refrigerator and a couple days of slaving away in the galley pre-departure, I made six casserole-type meals in "bake-and-serve" plastic containers to keep and make underway.  Cooking on a boat (the chopping, the cleaning, the prep...) is challenge enough, cooking on a boat at an aggressive heel while bashing into 4-8 foot rollers is significantly harder.  All I had to do was pre-heat the oven, slide in the dish, wait 30-45 minutes and voila! warm, tasty meals for a hungry crew.  I also made sure there were plenty of ready-to-eat snacks - both healthy and junky - available as well.  We did not go hungry on this passage, that is for sure.  Another added bonus of pre-making meals?  Less garbage underway.  We only had one small bag of garbage at the end of five days.
  6. Shake Down: This is where dumb luck came into play for us in a big way.  We had not planned a shake down sail but the weather ended giving us an opportunity to sail from Georgetown to Long Island and it was probably one of the best (unintentional) things we did.  It was a pretty aggressive sail: twelve hours in 15-20 knots of wind with seas in the 4-8 foot range.  Not only did this give us time to get into sync as a crew, it gave the new crew members a chance to learn a bit about our boat, how she handles and - most importantly - it gave our gear a chance to break before we headed offshore.  We lost our jib halyard at the end of the sail and fixing it in port was much, much easier than out at sea.  The two subsequent days we spent in Long Island were also great for crew morale and boat prep.  This turned out to be a key piece of luck that made our subsequent passage much smoother.
  7. Quick Caffeine Fixes:  The Aeropress coffee maker is still my first love, but it is not the most practical percolator while sailing head-first into six to eight foot ocean swells.  Single serve instant coffee packets are the bomb, and they are your friend.  I bought a veritable boatload of Starbucks Via instant brews on my last trip home and - say what you will about the 'Bucks - it was good.  Really good.  And what's best?  It was easy.  I boiled a thermos full of water every morning and whenever anyone (i.e me) wanted a cuppa joe, all they had to do was grab a mug, tear open the pack and pour in the water.  Coffee snobbery has no place on the high seas people, sometimes you just gotta get your jolt and go.
  8. Prep the Boat:  We went overboard prepping our boat.  The outboard motor?  Stored down below under the v-berth.  The grill?  Stowed in our shower.  The dinghy?  Lashed to our bow despite the fact that our awesome davits are rated for something insane like ten thousand pounds.  We checked oils, changed filters, topped of water and fuel and did all the usual visual checks.  Furthermore, the interior of the boat was given the "tip over" test - meaning I went through the cabin and imagined our boat on her ear, and anything that wouldn't stay put in an event like that, was moved.  I am happy to report our cabin remained clutter and catastrophe-free.  I also made lee-cloths for the crew which proved to be essential (and comfortable).
  9. Pre-Medicate:  The only time I have ever been seasick - and I mean actually puking seasick - came after a night of five (count them, five) dirty martinis.  Friends don't let friends sail hungover, folks.  That still goes down as one of the worst days on the water ever.  No bueno.  But aside from that little blip on the radar - I don't really get seasick.  Despite this, I - along with the rest of our adult crew - slapped on a scopolamine patch the second we started our motor.  No need to be a hero.  Seasickness is not fun, especially if you'll be at it for days on end and we were prepping for a bouncy ride to windward.  The only bout of seasickness came from the one crew member who's patch fell off and was not replenished, otherwise - we were all hunky-dory.  Not too shabby!
  10. Timing is Everything:  I mentioned that luck made it so our weather window arrived just as our crew stepped off their flights and onto Bahamian tarmac.  Dumb luck.  BUT - when we went looking for volunteer crew, one of the stipulations was that they had to be available from the 9th to the 23rd of May.  That obviously disqualified a lot of folks.  We were adamant on this point so that we could have a large window to allow for a healthy amount of wiggle room to wait for weather, make repairs, etc.  It worked out for the best, and - as luck would have it - we were even able to leave a day ahead of schedule because our crew was able to fly in early so that we could take advantage of the weather window as it presented itself.
  11. Get Mental: No, I don't mean go crazy (thought we almost did for a hot minute there).  I mean mentally prepare yourself for the journey at hand.  Do you estimate it will take eight days?  Prepare for at least ten.  Visualize yourself on the boat, day in and day out, for that length of time.  Imagine the calms and the storms, how you will handle yourself, how it will feel.  Envision how you will pass the time and keep your mind occupied.  Picture the night watches, the day watches and visualize the smells, the sounds, the potential boredom, the motion, the monotony, the excitement...  Great athletes are famous for envisioning entire games before they are played and while we might not be scoring any points out here - there is something to be said for getting your head in the game. 
So that's our (very long winded) $.02.  What are your tips and tricks for long passages?  Please share in the comments so we all can learn!
Master Glockenspiel-er in the making

Our crew, off watch. 
The sea treated us to some spectacular panoramas!
A monster squall on the horizon 
Scott, downloading GRIB files via SSB 
Red sky at night?
Happy crew on the home stretch

Monday, May 20, 2013

Argh & Argh

That's "rest and relaxation" in old time pirate speak, in case you didn't know....we're in the BVI's, after all.

The past few days have been a whirlwind of good times soaked in fun, sun and rum.  In fact, we've unwittingly treated this recent landfall as something of a vacation; enjoying a couple nights in a full-service marina, indulging in meals out, and effortlessly falling right into step with the charter set by drinking too many painkillers and staying out way past our (9pm) bedtime.  It's been fun but - unfortunately - it can't be our reality for much longer or else we'll break the bank and pickle our livers.  Our wonderful crew mates left us this morning (we miss you AJ and Brian!) and while it's bitter-sweet, this "vacation" has ended and we are slowly getting back to normal.  The boat has been scrubbed from top to bottom, laundry has been done and we're transitioning the boat back to "cruising mode" from "passage-making mode".

It's easy to forget that we still have six hundred or so nautical miles to sail before we get to our end destination of Grenada.  Despite the fact that hurricane season technically begins June 1st we plan to arrive by mid July when Scott must report back to work.  That means we have about six weeks to (cautiously) enjoy island hopping down the windwards and leewards as we chip off the miles southbound.  The weather will be keeping us in the BVI's for at least another five days, however, so we're going to relax and enjoy it.  We're all a little exhausted from the rigors of the past couple of weeks and now's the time to settle back into our groove and chill out while we enjoy one of the best sailing playgrounds on the planet.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

We Have Arrived

We have arrived.  Right now I am typing this post in the cockpit of our boat with Wilco playing quietly in the background.  Scott is sleeping at my side, AJ is on the stern talking to his girlfriend, Brian is catching up on email down below and Isla is taking her morning nap.  The sky is a perfect periwinkle blue and puffy white clouds float lazily over head.  We are surrounded by walls of lush, green hills and shores lined with gently swaying palm trees.  It is a quintessentially Caribbean scene.

It actually feels quite surreal to be here right now.  For so long this trip was a source of stress for me:  would we have a good weather window?  Would Isla and I join or not?  And if we did join how would she do at sea?  More importantly, how the heck would I keep her entertained at sea?  Would the crew come through or back out last minute? Would everyone get along? Would the boat feel too crowded? Would we be too late in the season?  Would I provision well?  Would our boat be up for it?....There were so many questions, so many unknowns that I just wanted to fast forward this part and be on the other side of it.  It wasn't an experience that I wanted to savor, as we were all expecting the worst, but something I wanted to just hurry up and get over with.

Boy was I wrong.

This trip was absolutely something to savor and enjoy.  As it turns out, all my worries were for naught.  We were very well prepared and we had a healthy dose of luck on our side as well.  This passage will forever be etched in the log of our minds as a milestone for us.  Sure, it was only five days...but it's successful completion has given us a huge boost of confidence in our abilities, our boat and each other.  Everything went more or less as planned which, for those of you who cruise, know this a rarity on the high seas.  We were all pleasantly surprised by the ease of this trip and to tell you the truth, I am actually a little sad it's over.  It was a charmed journey and we couldn't have asked for a better crew.  As we were sailing towards the twinkling lights of Tortola Thursday night, part of me wanted to keep the boat going and sail a little farther, extend the trip a few more days.  Bang a left and head for St. Maarten maybe.  "Let's keep going!" I exclaimed only partly in jest.  I think we all could have continued on.  I finally understand how Bernard Moitessier, after being alone at sea for seven months could head back out to the expanse of the ocean just as he was about to finish (and win) the first around the world yacht race.  "I'm continuing on to save my mortal soul" he had said.  Of course our trip was nothing like the legendary Moitessier's, but I kind of get it now.  Something happens when you stay at sea for days on end, surrounded only by wind and's like a little switch is flipped and suddenly your world is your boat.  All the outside chatter goes away.  Everything becomes so much more...simple.

Anyway, that's enough waxing poetic for today.  I have so many posts to write about our journey; how we prepared, how I kept Isla entertained, what we did right, what we did wrong...but they will have to wait.  We all had one too many Painkiller's last night and the fresh water pool is calling.
We were happy to have arrived!
Our amazing crew.  Brian, Scott, AJ, Isla and I.  Couldn't have asked for a better bunch!
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