Friday, November 28, 2014

On Being a Cruising Kid...

I never really considered myself a "cruising kid", but I also never remember life without sailing in it. My parents always had a sailboat, the first was a Pearson 30 poetically named "Tenacious" - she took me on my maiden sail when I was only a couple weeks old and was same boat I put into gear and tried to drive out of Monroe harbor at the tender age of two. The second was a well-reputed 35 foot Pretorian, "Lancashire Lass" (after my mother), with a pretty blue stripe and a little more room for our growing family (my younger brother and sister had arrived by now). The next was a sleek Frers 41 (also a "Lancashire Lass"), which was bigger still and would be the boat responsible for my love of racing.  My dad has since built two custom aluminum boats of the same name - but the bulk of our cruising vacations were spent on the Pretorian and Frers. Every summer since I can remember (up until the apex of my angst-ridden teen years), our family of five would spend a few weeks cruising along the shores of Lake Michigan like...well, cruisers.

This was very strange among my friends. None of their families ever sailed and they certainly didn't own sailboats, so my disappearing over the summer on one was something I usually had to explain. Because many of my friends did know the concept of "lake house", I would liken our boat to my family's version of a "lake home", only ours moved from port to port and was kind of like camping. We slept in "bunks", we cooked in a "galley" and went to the bathroom in a "head". Sometimes it was stormy. Sometimes we threw up over the side. And sometimes we'd be stuck in a town longer than expected due to weather. One thing we could count on? It always took a really, really long time to get wherever it was we were going. Patience was a lesson that was always reiterated on the boat.

I never knew the term "cruisers" back then and I certainly didn't know that anyone ever lived on their boats. That wonderful nugget of information didn't come until after I read "Maiden Voyage" at thirteen or fourteen years old. Nope, where I grew up kids like me lived in houses with their parents, attended school, participated in various extracurricular activities, and eventually ended up going to college. If people were living outside the parameters of mainstream society (like...on boats), they weren't doing it in our suburban neighborhood.

When Scott and I left Chicago on our first boat Rasmus in 2010, we were inducted into another world - one where people did live on their boats and traveled the world in them. These were modern day gypsy caravans that floated. Some of these wonderful people even had kids on their boats. They were free, fit and fun. They were articulate, creative, intelligent and well-mannered in a way I hadn't seen in most land children. They were "boat schooled" and travelled the world with their families. These were cruising kids. Never did I consider that in my youth I had been one of them.

But I was, in a way. It wasn't full time and it wasn't to any foreign or exotic port, but our humble bouts of family cruising on beautiful Lake Michigan left an indelible mark on my character and had a huge impact on who, and where, I am today.

I don't remember the trips in enough detail to piece together a whole vacation. I know that we buddy boated with my aunt, uncle and cousins some times. I remember tons of fun. I remember being outside. I remember riding on the bow, holding on for dear life and excitedly feeling my stomach drop out from under me as we pitched over waves. I remember how cold Lake Michigan could be, even in August, when we ran and jumped in off the docks. Mostly my memories are just vignettes: a rainy day playing Old Maid on the boat, a rough passage where we all got sick, a family dinner in an out-dated lake side restaurant, and an impromptu dress up party on the dock(when I cleverly turned a bunch of garbage bags into a respectable hula costume). I remember water-balloon dinghy fights, fishing off the dock at sunset, pan-fried perch drenched in butter and building sand castles on the beach. I remember halyard swinging, dinghy excursions and exploring the rocks of countless break walls with my brother and sister looking for fool's gold. I remember my dad would always play classical music at bedtime because I couldn't fall asleep without it. Pachelbel's Canon in D will forever bring me right back to my bunk, back to the boat, listening to the gentle splash of waves against the hull.

Mostly I remember feelings: happy and free.

Despite this, I am pretty certain I was never excited about these boat vacations back then. I'm sure I whined that I would miss my friends, lamented that I would miss out on all the "cool" stuff summer had in store, and of course we all bemoaned having to live on a boat and sail every other day or so. Sailing was so very boring, so very slow. My parents obviously ignored our whining knowing full well that kids in particular are the most adaptable beings on the planet and in a few days time we'd  get in our groove, find our fun and forget all about whatever it was we were whining about. As we got older they started to allow us to bring along a friend on these vacations. It was when we could share this "strange" lifestyle with our peers that we started to see the "cool" in it. They would always be amazed by boat life (something which was so normal and natural to us) and, in turn, we'd find a healthy level of pride in our unconventional vacations. For a time, anyway.

We'd pack up the boat and usually my dad would single-hand the one 12-hour overnight across the lake from Chicago to the Michigan shore while we all slept down below. Once there we would leisurely skip from town to town along the coast. He knew not to push us. He was patient. He would learn to make us love sailing in short, digestible chunks. The love affair would take over a decade to mature in my brother and sister and I, the appreciation of what our parents were giving us during those summers didn't come until we were all grown up.  The sailing part was a means to an end for us kids, because what we loved about these trips was not sailing but coming into a new port. Each little beach town offered something exciting: New parks! New restaurants! New dunes! New ice cream and fudge shops! New books! My brother, sister and I are all voracious readers and we credit our deep love of reading to these cruising stints. We lived a very "unplugged" life on the boat. No television, no video games and of course this was well before cell phones were ubiquitous and in the palm of every hand. We didn't check in on Facebook, we didn't post pictures on Instagram, nor did we "tweet". When we underway, if we weren't building forts on the bow or playing games down below, or being dragged along in the dinghy (something that made us squeal with delight) we were reading. We'd find our comfy spots and tuck into our books. On "long" passages of five hours or more, we could knock off a book a day. Thankfully our parents never said "no" to replenishing our library at the next port. The excitement of new books on the boat was palpable.

My memories of the harbor towns along the Michigan shore - from Mackinaw Island to St. Joseph -are vivid. Cobblestone streets, bright red lighthouses, colorful storefronts, sandy beaches for miles... It wasn't until I sailed into these ports on my own boat twenty years later that I realized just how much I remembered. "Oh my gosh!" I would exclaim to Scott, "That is the park where my sister buried her rain coat, never to be found again!" or "That is the restaurant we used to go to every time we came here and play "killer" (a family game whereby the 'killer' winked people around the table 'dead')!" or "I remember fishing off that pier with my little Snoopy pole!" The memories all came flooding back with such fondness, it was like coming home. The familiarity of these places, untarnished after two decades, surprised me. Looking back, our cruising vacations made me fundamentally suited for a life afloat.

My dad always says that the greatest gift you can give to your kids is your time - and not just 'quality' time, but 'quantity' time...because beautiful moments where bonds are strengthened, difficult moments where security is developed, teachable moments where integrity is built and challenging moments where character evolves are not scheduled. They are there, in every second of every single day. They might be fleeting and they might be subtle, but they are always there. These cruising vacations gave our family the priceless gift of quality quantity time. Cruising kids get this kind of time from their parents in spades, it's a huge bonus of the lifestyle, for sure.

There was no way of knowing back then just how much impact those short but intense bouts of cruising would have on my life, but every day I am reminded. Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. It's rare we truly appreciate something for what it's worth when we are in the moment, particularly when we are children. Yet so much of who I am can be traced back to the boat, back to those cruising vacations and that time spent with my family: my love of reading, my appreciation for classical music, my intrinsic knowledge of the parts of a boat and sailing, my deep respect and admiration for the water and all things 'nature', the close bond with my family and - most of all - my unflinching desire to give the same experiences to our children.

So while I might not have been a full-time "cruising kid" - I was indeed one of them. And, as Frost so eloquently says, that has made all the difference.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Letters from the Twin Trenches: 8 Months In

Back story to our "Letters from the Twin Trenches" series...When we were in the BVI's we met up with some blog followers.  They were young, fun and we enjoyed hanging out with them (and the left over provisions they gave us from their charter when they flew home the next day).  Fast forward to months later when I announced our twin pregnancy on the blog...  Imagine my surprise when I got an email from Kimberly telling me that she, too, was pregnant with twins and only a week ahead of me.  "Must have been something in those painkillers!" she wrote... And so began a pretty incredible and prolific E-pal friendship chronicling our respective pregnancies and birth stories that continues to this day.  Her beautiful fraternal twin girls were born (full term) two weeks before ours and I have to tell you, sharing our (eerily similar) journeys via email has been very cathartic for me.  Solidarity.  If there is one thing you need as a parent of twins it's community.  We need to know we are not alone when it seems our sanity is teetering on the brink, which it will do from time to time when there are two newborns in the house.  Particularly if those newborns are screaming in unison.  These are some letters to her...they tell it like it is.  The good, the bad, the ugly...

November 11, 2014


It has been way too long. I know it's my fault and I am so sorry. I have written you a hundred emails in my head and SO many nights I have gone to bed thinking "I have to write Kimberly" because, well, you will either a) feel my joy or b) (more likely) feel my pain. Alas, time just disappears. The old adage "days are long but years are short" doesn't really apply to people with twins I don't think because my days FLY by. One second it's 7:30am and I'm finishing a pot of coffee (yep, finishing a pot of coffee) and then POOF!!! It's 6pm bedtime. It's crazy. Twins are a total time sucking vortex. Granted, it's a cuddly, adorable and pretty hilariously awesome one - but a vortex none the less.

SOOOO....what is new? Both our girls' are 8 months. INSANE. Before you know it they will be a year and we will be like "WHY ARE THEY STILL NOT SLEEPING THROUGH THE NIGHT?!?!" Haha...I joke. Kind of. But wow, it's been a trip. So how are things? How is work? How is your mom? How are YOU? and, most important, how are the beautiful A and M? (Note: Please send a recent pic!) Oh...I guess I should ask how poor Michael is too - how is he holding up in your estro-house? ;)

I think you guys went to the Annapolis Boat show? Am I remembering correctly? How did it go? I think I saw it was successful? Did you quit your jobs and buy a boat? ;)

Things are good in our camp. We are finally in the guest house now which means we have our own space which is wonderful. Not that living with my parent's was horrible, because they were just about as awesome as they could be and we will forever be indebted to them for all their help, but a family of five needs their own space. It's been great to have it. So there's that...

I will start with the good news: the babies are awesome. Seriously, they are the happiest, most smiley little babies ever. Especially Haven. Yep. Crazy Haven; the child who screamed her head off and could not be put down for an entire three months is now the happiest baby on the planet. Always smiling. Always happy. At least in the daytime she is (I'll get to this later). She is a full-blown mama's girl and if I am in the room, she is at my feet, on my lap, eating my face or climbing up to snuggle. She's a mama-seeking missel and she is so nosy and curious. She is standing and "walking" along on furniture which is crazy. Her nickname these days is "The Steamroller" because if anything is in her path (including her poor sister) she'll just plow right over it. We reckon she will be walking by eleven months. We thought Isla was our Olympic athlete (you should see her at the playground!) but now it's looking like Haven might just be our ticket to the Games. We shall see. She is something else, let me tell you.

Mira is still chill and sweet as ever. I call her my "angel baby" because she is just so soft and delicate - I just want to eat her up. Obviously you know about the hospital stay which was awful - but, in a way, it felt almost like a vacation. Meals delivered to me? No cleaning up to do? Only one baby to tend to? Ability to sit down for more than five minutes? Sleeping more than three hour stretches?!?! File that under the hashtag: "you know you're a mom of twins when..." She's healthy as a horse now, though no where near as big and sturdy as her sister. We are actually getting her evaluated by a physical therapist just to make sure she's not delayed since I do have some concerns, though it might just be pronounced in the wake of her rather 'advanced' twin. She is only now starting to sit up on her own and still has not mastered crawling on her hands and knees for any length of time. She drags herself around like a zombie a la "thriller" and, I might add, she is damn good at it. She does a mean army crawl too. It's hilarious. She also loves to sing and bob her head to music which is the funniest thing to see since her head is so big and her little neck sometimes wobbles to support it. She's definitely got music and rhythm in her bones, she "sings" along with me by doing this hilarious open mouth monotone "aaaahhhhhhhhhhhh" - we're working on pitches. One thing at a time.

The bad news: These crazy babies are still not sleeping through the night and while naps are (dare I say?) better, they are nowhere near the consistency and length that Isla's were (they go down at 9am and 1pm every day and most days Haven will do one forty-fiver and then - if I am lucky - an hour, Mira, the better sleeper all around, will usually do an hour to an hour and a half each time thankfully). As for nighttime sleep, on a good night I get up only once or twice to tend to a child/nurse babies (Isla wakes up too now which adds insult to injury). On a bad night, I'm getting up anywhere from four to six times to nurse the babies or calm Isla from a bad dream/get her water/pick up her blanket that fell...etc and it really takes it's toll on my sanity. If you carry the two after subtracting times woken up vs. hours left for sleep - that is a maximum of two to three hours of consecutive sleep a night. It's crazy, and literally wearing both my body and my mind thin.

We did a modified cry it out out two months ago out of sheer desperation (back when the twins were waking every two hours for weeks and weeks on end), and it did work to a point (meaning only waking up at 1am and then at 6am), but I think we're teething again (both girls have their bottom two teeth) which is wreaking havoc on sleep and, of course, my mental state. Scott is sleeping with a full-blown trucker; I drop more "F" bombs in the middle of the night than I care to admit. When that monitor goes off, my heart literally skips a beat when I look at the clock and see only two or three hours has gone by, I get PISSED. Then I calm down. I try to remember this is only a sliver of time in our lives - and go and nurse them, which guarantees slumber. Sometimes I let them cry for a while to see if maybe just maybe they'll fall back asleep, but when I do that it almost always results in Haven waking the whole house which is total mayhem and I usually do what I can to avoid that, probably to the detriment of "sleep training".  Ahhh....sleep is overrated, right?....WRONG. It is not, but whatever - we're almost at a year and before we know it they'll be two and three and four and this will be nothing more than a blur, just like all the other twin moms who's kids are older tell us. But I still really want to hurt the mom's who say, "My babies slept through the night - ten hours a night -  at 4 months old!" I honestly believe if our girls slept well at night, I would be 100% a-ok. I mean, our days are awesome and I can handle all three no problem - we have our routine and our fun and all that good stuff - but the nighttime shenanigans wear me thin. Literally. I am now at my pre-baby weight and still shrinking. I guess that's the silver lining? I will definitely be bikini ready for January. No doubt.

But, sleep deprivation aside, all in all - life is so good. I am so in love with these little munchkins and they are such sweet love bugs. I never really thought I could love another child as much as I love Isla but - lo and behold - I totally do. If I had a dime for every time I say, "I cannot handle how much I love these kids!" I'd be buying that Hallberg-Rassy 46 in no time. I feel so lucky and so blessed with our girls. Isla (though fully in the throes of the "terrible twos" and full of "challenging moments") is such a joy and the twins' personalities are really coming out. I'm just DYING to see what they are like in a year. It's going to be so fun when the three of them can really play and interact - I'm getting glimpses of it now and it's fun to imagine what the future will look like with these three little ladies in it. 

It's also fun to imagine a solid 8 hours of sleep. Sigh.

Miss you - write when you can! 

Much love,
Like this series? Check out my other "trenches" posts:

Breastfeeding Twins: A Delicate Balance (notes on successfully establishing breastfeeding)
Letter from the Twin Trenches: From One M.o.M to Another (4 weeks: letter to a fellow twin mama)
Letters from the Twin Trenches: Four Months In (Out of trenches? Not quite)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Living Legends: 10 Questions with John and Amanda Neal

John and Amanda Neal are not your average sailing couple. At first glance, they look like any other pair of cruisers you'd see at a dockside pot luck; good looks, sun-kissed skin, Hawaiian shirts and easy smiles. You'd never guess that they are bonafide modern-day adventurers and incredibly accomplished sailors who have literally sailed circles around the vast majority of us. I met them last January and they are as unassuming as could be. But don't be fooled, they are anything but "normal". Having logged over 600,000 miles between them, it's hard to tell based on numbers and stats alone who is the 'saltier' of the two. At the tender age of 22, John took the helm of his 27 foot sloop and singlehanded from the Marquesas to Samoa (4000 miles) and wrote a best selling book about it. As a teen, Amanda sailed from New Zealand to Vancouver with her parents and in 1990 she completed The Whitbread Around the World Race (now The Volvo Race) as rigger aboard s/v Maiden, the first all-women Whitbread boat. Individually, their resumes are impressive and together they complete the dynamic duo behind Mahina Expeditions; the hard-core, hands-on, live-aboard sail training school that takes place in waters that most sailors only dream of.

I have been a huge fan of their website, which hosts a wealth of information on all things voyaging, since the beginning of this blog (check out their "boats to consider for offshore cruising" page for starters) and I still find myself referencing their site from time to time. These two are the real deal and it's my honor to present to you my interview with them:

1.  They say the #1 rule of cruising is to not have a schedule, yet you run a successful offshore sailing school that requires one which I imagine must be stressful at times. How hard is it to plan your itineraries and stick to them?  

It isn’t hard at all. I spend a lot of time researching the routes plus I’ve sailed most of them several times over the past 40 years and have a fairly good idea of what to expect, weather wise. I also crank 30-50% extra time in to the plan, so if we need to wait for better conditions we can drop some places we would normally have stopped to explore.

2.  You have done your fair share of sailing in both the big and little latitudes. Do you prefer one over the other? What stands out in your mind as the biggest difference between the two and what do you find the most challenging about high latitude sailing? 

We find the high latitudes more challenging, more difficult and more rewarding. Tropical sailing is lovely, and when we’re in Patagonia or the Arctic getting knocked around and cold and wet, we sometimes say, “What are we, crazy? Remind me why we left the tropics for this abuse?” We don’t prefer one over the other. We’ve just left the South Pacific after five incredible, over-the-top years. It was quite sad leaving several countries, but we’re already looking forward to return, although probably not for several years. (The biggest difference is:) The stronger winds, substantially larger seas and faster speed of movement of the weather systems. For instance, nearly each of the 15 or so times we’ve made the 2700 mile passage from Auckland, New Zealand to Tahiti on the northern edge of the Roaring Forties we’ve seen 50-60 kts and very large seas. On this passage we find professional weather routing very valuable.

3.  You do a lot of sailing instruction with people who are dreaming of taking the plunge into the live-aboard life. What would you say is the most common mistake or misconception your clients make/have when it comes to sailing/cruising? 

We frequently hear that folks find ocean passagemaking more physically demanding than expected and that their boats require substantially more time and money to maintain than anticipated. Another common mistake is waiting too long to reduce sail – which frequently results in damage to sails or rig.

4.  Similarly, you do a lot of consulting with people to help them find the perfect cruising boat. What is the one piece of advice you would give to people shopping for a boat? 

Give yourself plenty of time to find, repair and outfit your boat. Currently, the selection in North America for good offshore-capable boats in the under $100K and under $200K categories is quite slim. Unless the seller has just spent a substantial amount of time and money upgrading and preparing their boat for offshore, the purchaser can easily spend 100% of purchase price and 1-2 years in repairing and outfitting for passage making. The older you are, the newer the boat you should purchase, even if it is smaller, if you really want to go cruising.

5.  You and Amanda are both very skilled sailors with impressive resumes. What is one skill each of you possess that you found the most useful in regards to the cruising lifestyle? On the flip side, what is something you wish you were better at that would be helpful with life aboard? 

Amanda has an amazing situational awareness – when something breaks or there is a critical time, she can instantly figure out exactly what needs to be done and make repairs. I think this is partly a result of her extensive offshore racing background including completing the Whitbread Around the World Race as rigger aboard Maiden and surviving two hellacious Sydney-Hobart races in boats that slowly disintegrated. She wishes she had more interest in following the weather. I’ve found the ability to keep the big picture and plan ahead for everything helpful. Although we can both speak and understand basic French, I wish we had better language skills, particularly Spanish and Portuguese.

6.  Amanda is a very accomplished racer turned cruiser. Many women who cruise are following their husband's dreams and a rare few are as competent on a voyaging boat as Amanda. What is a piece of advice she would give to other women who are looking to boost their confidence and/or sailing skills?

  • Discover your learning style. Most women learn differently then men. Cruising World magazine commissioned me to write this four-part series of articles on women cruising.
  • Take the learning at your own pace and keep it fun and enjoyable. Don’t beat yourself up if something goes wrong.
  • Don’t forget to take time out for yourself and your own passions/interest, whether sewing, bird watching, dancing, reading, yoga, fitness or whatever. I often find the most interesting and happy cruising women are ones who take time to incorporate their own interests.

7.  If you could give one piece of advice to people who are starting out cruising, what would it be? 

Get off your boat and explore every chance possible. Don’t let your boat become all-consuming. Follow your personal interests and passions while cruising. Use your skills and ingenuity to make a positive impact on the places you visit and people you meet.

8.  You have made your life's passion (sailing/voyaging) your work. How do you not get "burned out"? 

We are never on the boat 12 months a year, and find most people who are, get burned out with cruising. We always plan ahead and find a safe place ashore to leave our boat during hurricane or winter storm season. As much as we love being on the boat, we’ve found it very healthy to have 4-5 month breaks each year. In the beginning it was because I’d always run out of money and need to head home to work for a few months. Now, even if we didn’t need to come back to work, we still would as we really appreciate the change of focus and pace. It’s a joy to catch up with friends and family and mentally stimulating to work, but by the time we head back to the boat, we are both really looking forward to it. 

9.  You sail on a Hallberg Rassy 46 (coincidentally our *dream* boat) - why did you choose her and if you could change one thing, what would it be? 

We looked worldwide for several years before ordering a Hallberg-Rassy 46. Some of our criteria: great sailing performance, protected helm position (the factory option of a permanent hard dodger is brilliant), substantial build quality as we sail in some fairly extreme weather conditions, extensive tankage (265 gallons water, 1400 mi range under power), simple and sturdy rig, moderate draft (6’1”) and tons of storage space. We’ve now sailed Mahina Tiare III 181,000 miles, the equivalent of seven times around the world and she is still in excellent condition. (For more, read John's review of the HR 46). The one thing we would change would be no teak decks. We tried to get HR to skip the teak decks, but as they’ve never built a boat over 34’ without teak decks, they have no non-skid pattern in the deck mold and wouldn’t do that.

10.  Of all the places you have sailed, is there one that keeps calling you back? I know it's almost impossible to ask "what is your favorite" - you have a favorite destination? 

Amanda: The Azores – they are so fresh, small and romantic. We really love and are drawn to isolated, small offshore islands and the very interesting people we find there. Some examples: the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, Norway’s Lofoten Islands, the Shetlands, Chiloe Island in Patagonia and the tiny, isolated islands of the South Pacific like Mopelia. 

John: I would add Vanuatu and Fiji for the islanders infectious zest for life and crazy sense of humor and Antarctica and Spitsbergen for the 24 hours of daylight mid-summer and how everything seems like it is in 3D and larger than life.

Want more of the Neals?

John and Amanda will be presenting at the upcoming Chicago, Seattle and Vancouver boat shows.
Sign up for their in-depth full-day seminar on Offshore Cruising (which covers 18 topics and includes their 260 page cruising companion) or check out their smaller free seminars on everything from storm tactics to outfitting.

Check out John's book Log of the Mahina - A Tale of the South Pacific about his journey to the South Pacific.

Aside from being an accomplished sailor, Amanda is a talented cook as well. Check out her book: The Essential Galley Companion - Recipes and Provisioning Advice for your Boating Adventures
All photos used in this post are by Tor Johnson and used with permission.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What's the Top Sailing Destination?

"What is your favorite destination?" is probably the second most common question that cruisers get asked by landlubbers (after "How can you afford this?") It's a hard one to answer because it's kind of like asking a parent, "Who's your favorite child?" Each place is so unique with it's own special appeal and when it's all said and done, most islands and destinations end up balancing out based on their features, attractions and -yes- minor detractions. Some islands are known for their inland adventures, some are better known for their sea life. Some locals are friendly, some more aggressive. Some offer fun social activities whereas others are uninhabited. Cheap vs. expensive, beach bars vs. beach combing ....yadda yadda... All of the above work in a yin/yang sort of way depending on the destination, so to say what's the "best" is not only totally subjective but really hard because there are so many variables to consider.

So when LOOK Insurance Services ran their own list on the "Top 5 Most Exotic Sailing Destinations" and invited us to chime in, I decided to use their criteria of: 'climate', 'scenery' and 'clearness of the water' to come up with our "top destination".

So, based on those three things, the winner is (drum roll please)....The Bahamas. Hands down.

Granted, we've only covered a tiny sliver of the planet by boat but for us - based on our travels thus far - it doesn't get much better than the Bahamas.


To say they are "awesome" really does them no justice. But they. are. awesome.

When we were first planning our trip five years ago, we were going to skip this island chain and sail right for the British Virgin Islands. Our (embarrassing) mentality was, "If they are so close to the USA, then they can't be that cool". I know, what an incredibly ignorant way to think. More planning and the desire to take "baby steps" finally put this incredible island chain on our sailing itinerary and for that I am very, very grateful. We've cruised the Exumas twice and plan to spend a full season in the Bahamas in the near future. So what's the deal? I'll break it down for you:

The Climate:
Sharing the same latitude with much of Florida means the Bahamas are almost a temperate -yet still tropical - climate. We cruised there between the months of February and April and we never felt uncomfortably hot. Daytime it was bathing suits, shorts and tanks and evenings almost always required a light sweatshirt or long pants. After having spent two summers in Grenada (out of the hurricane zone) where it is hotter than Hades, I really enjoy/appreciate a place where you don't stew in your own sweat 24/7.

The Scenery:
When I scan through the sixteen thousand photos I have from the past four years (note to self: must organize photos) - the best are, bar none, the ones from the Bahamas. They are almost cliche in their "tropical island-ness" and each one looks like a photoshopped postcard. Except they are not. Low lying sun-bleached islands surrounded by water that covers every shade of blue and green from cobalt to topaz, from teal to hunter with endless vistas of sea and sky for as far as the eye can see. It's spectacular.

The Water:
Sigh. It's all about the water. The average depth of the Bahama banks is something ridiculous like ten feet. It's also as clear as the day is long. Literally. You can drop your anchor in twenty-four feet of water and watch it dig in to the pillowy, white sand (added bonus: anchoring in twelve to fifteen feet of clear water is so much nicer/easier than anchoring in thirty feet of dark water). When you are sailing, you can look over the rail and see red starfish thirty feet down. We have yet to go anywhere with water as beautiful as the water in the Bahamas (the Tobago Cays in the Grenadines come close, as do the Turks and Caicos). The windwards and leewards don't even come close to the kind of water clarity that the Bahamas dishes up each and every day.

....and I just can't stop there....

Other bonuses of the Bahamas:

The Safety:
This is a biggie. The only place we ever locked our dinghy up was in Nassau (which is the capitol and where something like 75% of Bahamians live, leaving many many islands completely uninhabited) and never needed to raise it or lock it at night (not the case just about everywhere else we've travelled). We never worried when we left our boat and we never felt threatened or harassed by the locals. Tourism is the countries "bread and butter" and they work hard to maintain a great reputation. Furthermore, because most of the islands in the Exumas can only be accessed by boat or small charter plane, locals in these very small communities really respect and love the visitors they do get. There is a peacefulness and serenity that is unique to the Bahamas and to experience it is something quite wonderful.

The Variety:
The Bahamas offer over 700 islands, cays and islets to explore. There are so many places to see that you can cruise the Bahamas for ten years and still discover new and interesting spots that you've never seen before. It's no wonder so many folks return year after year. Within the Bahamas are a slew of "distinct" island chains that all have their own 'feel' and offer up something a little different. From the Abacos to the Berrys, from the Exumas to the Raggads there is truly something for everyone.

The Solitude:
There are not too many places in this world where you can feel like you have your own private place. The Bahamas are one such place. We could travel with the "herd" and be among other cruisers when we wanted, but if we were craving some solitude - it was only a short sail away. With so many islands and so many anchorages, you are never too far from your very own paradise.

The Sailing:
Because of the way the Bahamas are situated, you can access most islands without ever having to sail in the open ocean.  The Islands of the Bahamas act as a natural wave barrier so if you stay "inside" the banks, you get all the wind but almost none of the waves making many passages in decent weather true pleasure sails. Also, because there are so many islands you can almost always sail where the wind takes you and end up in a great little anchorage. Furthermore, because the islands are so close together, you almost never have to do a passage longer than a few hours (aside from crossing the gulf stream) which is also nice for those just starting out or traveling with small children.

The People:
Bahamians are among the most generous people we have come across in our travels. We've been invited into their homes, their businesses and their churches with open arms. They have not been embittered by mass tourism and are just plain good. Considering that a large part of the enjoyment of travel is connecting with the locals, this is a biggie for us.

The convenience:
Being so close to Florida and the good ole' US of A has its perks and many cruisers sail to and from the states in a single season to either store their boat, do repairs or re-provision. Also - because the many islands of the Bahamas are all united under a single flag, you can travel between them without having to clear in and out of customs (which can be a royal pain in the butt), not to mention the fact that you can use a single SIM card to stay connected while you are there (as opposed to the windwards/leewards where you must check in and out and where you might need a new cell provider from island to island). The Bahamas truly are, "So close, yet so far away."

So there you have it. Just a few of the reasons we love the Bahamas.  So what do you think? Do you have a favorite sailing destination?  I also did an additional Q&A I did on the Bahamas for our good friends on s/v Necesse if you want to learn more!

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

The Tale of the Naked Sailors or "The Elephant in the Anchorage"

As many stories are told on this blog, there are countless more that go untold. Sometimes its due to a lack of time, sometimes it's because I don't find what happened particularly interesting, and sometimes it's because the situation is so awkward and the cruising world so small, that I need a little distance from the occurrence in order to feel okay writing about it. Alright, maybe that's only this one story. While that awkward feeling I felt so many months ago still manifests itself in a visibly pained expression on my face every time I think of it, my psyche has healed and the vision of random male genitalia that was once emblazoned into my mind has (finally) fogged and crazed like aged eisenglass. Thank God.

And so I bring you the tale of the Naked Sailors, or "The Elephant in the Anchorage":
(All details - like boat names [even though I couldn't remember them if I had a gun to my head] and islands - will be omitted to protect the nude)

Nudity is simply part of living on a boat in tropical climates. It's hot. Really hot. Air conditioning is a luxury very few cruising boats can afford so staying cool becomes a sort of obsession at times. Wearing actual clothes becomes burdensome and, unless we go ashore, underwear or bathing suits became the standard uniform for no other reason than to avoid adding more sweaty clothes to the laundry pile. It is not unusual in the slightest to catch a glimpse of your neighbor tactfully bathing naked off the back of their boat or to see a pair of boobs sunning themselves on the deck of a passing boat. Let the record show I have no problem with this type of nudity and I fancy myself significantly less "Puritan" and a little more "Hedonist" than my American roots might suggest. I mean, there was group skinny dipping each night of mine and Scott's wedding weekend and I've been to a healthy number of full moon parties in my day that could only be described as "bohemian".  That said, when the spirit of nudity borders on intimidating, well...that's something else entirely.

But I am getting ahead of myself...

We, along with our buddy boat, were pulling into a new anchorage that promised an uninhabited island, good holding and little to no swell. Neither we nor our friends had been to this anchorage before, and we were excited at the prospect of a new place. As we approached we noted that two other boats had lay anchor before us. No big deal. We readied our boat for our arrival by dropping sails, securing Isla and prepping the anchor. Scott took his position at the helm, I took mine on the bow. As we approached, I grabbed our binoculars to scope out a good spot.  Imagine what happened next like a scene in a movie:
(Fade in)
Scene: Caribbean Island. High noon.
{Wide shot: Girl on bow of boat approaching beautiful uninhabited island with binoculars around her neck}. 
Girl brings binoculars to her head.
{Cut to: Shot from the vantage point from the binoculars}
Girl begins scanning the horizon from left to right slowly. First, the view is of the ocean - and then, slowly, the edge of the anchorage and finally, the land with the anchorage in the fore-shot. A seagull flies into and out of view. Another anchored boat enters the shot as the camera continues to pan. Slowly, we see the stern and then a naked man standing on the starboard rail with his hands on his hips looking directly at binoculars, appearing thoroughly displeased} Cue sound: RECORD SCRATCHING. 
I repeat: Hands on hips. Staring at us. Completely naked.

At this point, we were approaching pretty closely - close enough for a good arm to throw a baseball from one boat to the other - and, as close as we were, most boats would give a passing wave, a friendly "hello" to the neighbor boat.  This is also the last acceptable point where most people in their birthday suits might take cover in the form of a towel or sarong, or perhaps a bold few might just turn around or hop into the cockpit so as not to show the "full monty". But not this guy. Nope. He kept his body perfectly square with our bow, hands firmly planted on his hips to almost accentuate his nakedness. Needless to say, I did not wave hello. I just awkwardly pretended not to see the 45 foot boat right in front of me whose captain was in the buff, staring me down. Being the more easily intimidated of our duo, I made a quick visit to Scott at the helm and hurriedly whispered, "Um...this guy up here is totally naked and does not look thrilled at the prospect of our anchoring near him".  Scott's feathers do not ruffle easily and his matter-of-fact reply was, "I don't care if he's naked. He doesn't own this place. We're going to anchor where we anchor and he's just going to have to deal with that". I groaned and walked back up to the bow: "Oh hi. Ohmygosh, where did you come from?!...Oh, hey! You're naked? I hadn't noticed". Riiiight.

By now we were close enough to have a conversation over the water and he was still standing in all his full-frontal glory seemingly trying to make eye contact with me. I pretended not to notice, tried not to meet his eyes with mine but there was no denying the fact that this man was aggressively displaying his birthday suit with (as far as I can surmise) the intention to intimidate us out of the anchorage or, at the very least, prevent us from anchoring near him. Unfortunately, the anchorage was only so big so this was kind of impossible. We were gonna be neighbors for the night. Oh joy.

While I lowered our anchor and Scott began backing down, the man - we'll call him "Buff", made a move - still completely naked, mind you - into his dinghy. I remained on the bow of our boat as we settled into place (as one does when they anchor) and saw out of the corner of my eye Buff approach the stern of boat #2 which was about six boat lengths to our starboard.  "What's he doing?" I wondered to myself when out of the second boat ambled another man also naked. WHAT the HELL!?!? From my periphery, I could see the two were having a conversation - probably bemoaning our arrival - completely naked.

And *this* is where this whole scenario got super weird interesting to me.

I mean, sure, the aggressive "in your face" nudity by "Buff" was a tad unnerving, but the communal nudity between two presumably married men (each boat did have a woman on board)...Now that raised some questions...

Questions like: how do two boats get to the point where they can be so comfortable to be naked together? And in front of others, no less? Did they meet on a secret "cruise naked" website? Were they swingers? Nudists? Did they all drink too much one night and decide to hell with their clothes? Was it some sort of tactic to ensure privacy in what can otherwise be crowded waters? Had they entered into some sort of bizarre "who can have the fewest tan lines" contest? Furthermore, did the group nudity ever come up between them all - like at dinner? "Isn't it great that we can all sit around naked together! Clothed folks don't know what they're missing!" or "You guys, I'm so glad we all decided to go nude - those bathing suits were so dang itchy!" or "Hey, would you all mind if I wear some boxers tomorrow, I got a little too much sun yesterday." I mean, what are the events that lead up to nude buddy-boating?! Inquiring minds wanted to know.

Obviously, we never did find out the back story. We left the next morning just as the gentleman from boat "B" was bending over, naked, tinkering/cleaning/fixing something or another on deck. It was a whole new kind of sunrise for all of us, and we opted to ignore the elephant in the anchorage and move on shortly after.

Wearing clothes.

Some people drop anchor, others drop trou. To each his own in this great world!

Monday, November 03, 2014

Thank You for Keeping it Real

I was pretty overwhelmed by the response to our last post.  It never ceases to amaze me which of my posts tend to really strike a chord with people.  They are almost never the ones about us traveling in beautiful locations or sailing to exotic places (i.e. much of this blog). Instead, they are the missives that I usually think of as rather mundane when I sit down to write them (or, of course, the ones that are the most dramatic). The posts where I find myself working out a particular conundrum or writing out the bones of a skeleton hiding in my closet.  I certainly never sit down to write something and think, "Now *this* is really going to get 'em!" Nope. These days in particular (since down time is such a precious rarity), I write when I am moved to write and I write from the heart. I don't blog for numbers and I don't blog to make a buck (though I probably should start monetizing a bit more). Sometimes my anecdotes are funny, sometimes somber, sometimes reflective - but the posts that seem to resonate the most are the ones where I am totally candid and shed light on the inner workings and struggles of a real honest-to-goodness human being.

When I say it like that I guess I really shouldn't be surprised after all.

If there is one thing that connects us as people it's the fact that - when it's all said and done - we all want the same few things. Safety, belonging and mattering.  In a world that, on the surface, seems more connected than ever, we grow more and more distant from one another. We share only our best pictures, put forth our happiest faces and create the illusions that our lives are much more interesting and satisfying than they really are. I think all of us do this at some level. I know I do. It's almost impossible not to. But it is imperitive to our health to stop perpetuating the fallacy of perfection, or at the very least, find a little place in this world where we don't feel like we have to.

So when we as humans share our struggles, pain, and weakness as I did the other week, people seem to enjoy it. They find it refreshing. Not because they revel in another's hardship, but because they realize they are not the only ones who struggle with fill in the blank. And if there is one feeling most humans do not enjoy, it's the feeling of being alone in this world (note: this is different from "alone time" which. Is. Awesome.)

It's easy to read a blog like ours and imagine our lives as perfect, when the truth is very far from that. Yes, we are blessed. Yes, we are thankful. Yes, our life has taken some interesting twists and turns that put us a little to the left of "normal". But "perfect" we are not. In the vast majority of this blog I have aimed to focus on the positive, which on one level resonated with people. But now I think I will strive to focus more on being real and honest. Obviously this is not easy, as it makes me vulnerable. But I believe I am a better writer and a better person when I can speak freely and truly (even though for the sake of my dad I will always try to swear as little as possible on the blog, despite the fact that I swear like a sailor in real life).

All this is my very roundabout (and verbose *wince*) way of saying thank you to all of you. I honestly have the best readers in the whole blogosphere as far as I am concerned. After my "limbo" post so many of you reached out to say, "Yes!! Me too!! Thank you!!" and I so appreciate that. I certainly did not see it coming. I know I am a terrible blogger who breaks the cardinal rule of blogging in that I do not respond to most comments (between email, Facebook messages and blog comments I am way behind) - but I am so thankful to have here a community of readers who are fellow human beings who (for the most part) recognize when another of their own is struggling (no matter how big or small that struggle may be) and who reach out to say: "you are not alone."

Thank you for connecting. Thank you for keeping it real. And thank you for allowing me to do the same.

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