We purchased Rafiki in October, 2013 and after five frenetic months of refit we finally left the dock in March. Although we had a loose idea of where we wanted to go, our usual goal was to get to the next anchorage without calamity or breakdown and the first six months were a frustrating, maintenance intensive, marriage stressing ordeal. We did need to get to Grenada before hurricane season and that meant that the first part of the trip was a whirlwind of islands without the ability to stop and explore. Other than Grenada by June, there was no set destination or duration to this adventure.
Our eventual route would take us to the end of the Caribbean chain and back to Jamaica before we turned West towards Central and South America. We stopped in Cuba on the way home and ended the trip where we began, at Sunset Bay Marina in Stuart, Florida. We had left our home in Yellowknife almost three years earlier and were on the boat for 2 1/2 years, sailing almost 7000 miles and visiting 23 countries along the way. We had Christmas on the beach, birthdays in mud pits, Carnivals in Grenada and Columbia, and a thousand other new experiences which will stay with us for a lifetime. Trying to capture the entire journey in a short blog is impossible however I have asked each of you to record your final thoughts to act as a record down the road for when the primacy of our experience fades.
When we started the trip Mommy and I used to joke that our four biggest fears were home schooling, hurricaines, pirates and sharks. We felt that the schooling would be our biggest challenge and were determined not to let our desire for adventure compromise your future. The threat of huricaines and pirates was not really high on our list although I was concerned enough to outfit the boat with mace and a shotgun and we would eventually encounter both.
In hindsight we had been so busy planning our escape and the thousand logistical details that went into the sale of houses, cars, moving, retiring, storing furniture, and finding a boat, that we really did not do much research on the actual route. We were using several guide books and thought that we would figure it out as we went. I had visions of happy welcoming islanders taking us into their communities and without a set agenda, thought that we would have the time to immerse ourselves in the abundant island culture. Ironically we really had not given much thought to the other cruisers that would accompany us on this well trodden route.
We had all done a fair bit of sailing prior to the trip, but once we got the boat it became apparent that nothing I had done before prepared me for the maintenance challenges of this type of boat. Although Mommy and you two helped where you could, the reality is that getting the boat ready to go fell on my shoulders. The first year was an ongoing series of failures and frustrations which did slow down over the three years, but remain the greatest detractor to living aboard. The farther afield we went, the harder it was to source parts, and the more expensive it was to ship them in. It is often said that long distance cruising is boat maintenance in exotic locations…
I knew that Mommy was good to go. We had been in enough wacky and dangerous situations for me to have total confidence in her attitude and resilience. At nine and ten, you two were strong physically and mentally and I really felt that we would make a solid team. Unfortunately none of us had any serious offshore experience and I realized that you three were counting on me to ensure that we stayed out of harms way and completed the journey without serious incident.
I cannot say that I ever doubted our abilities or really feared for our safety, with two notable exceptions, but the navigation and seamanship piece was something that I felt we could develop along the way. Our previous sailing experience, my flying background, and the family dynamic gave me confidence in our ability to navigate the initial obstacles we anticipated.
The drive from Kingston to Florida was a highlight of the trip, even more so since none of us anticipated it to be so much fun. I had just retired and there was a real sense of freedom and lack of responsibility that I had not experienced since graduating from university. We plotted our route based on everyone’s different desires and managed to cover the cornerstones of American history en route. Broadway, Arlington Cemetary, the Smithsonian Institute, Annapolis, the great Kyntucky horse farms, the Grand Ol’ Oprey, Graceland, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and finally Disney, were just the highlights of this fabulous 30 day road trip.
I did not anticipate how difficult it would be to find a boat and in hindsight probably should have recognized the challenges we would face. The brokers we encountered did not advocate in our our interest and this made a simple process fraught with stress and suspicion. When we finally purchased Rafiki, we thought she was lightly used and ready to go. This was naive on my part; a boat is never ready to go. We met a wonderful gentleman in Florida who had spent his life in the boating industry and Ralph Baker helped me with the refit and provided endless advice on refitting and general cruising.
The low point of the refit was the vandalism to the boat which necessitated a two month stop in a yard to grind and repaint the decks, and while most of the 50k job was covered by insurance, it was an ominous start to our trip. With the boat at the yard we decided to return home to Kingston for the holidays. As we crossed into Pensilvania we hit an early season snowstorm and I suddenly realized that everyone was wearing flip flops and there was not a pair of socks in the car. We did an emergency stop at Target and sent emails to friends and family requesting a temporary loan of warm clothing. One highlight of the return home is that we got to spend Christmas at 209 which was a real treat and when we returned to Florida at the beginning of January, a shiny new Rafiki awaited us at the dock.
I think that my biggest challenge of the first six months was the constant maintenance. I used to dread one of you saying…”Aaaahhh Daddy, is it supposed to do that? Sound like that? Look like that? Smell like that?” I couldn’t fix one problem without another system breaking. Broken freezers, water makers, electronics, toilets, lines, hatches, you name it. The generator was a continual source of frustration and I never managed to get those bugs worked out even after thousands of dollars and several certified mechanics trying. On top of all this I had managed to develop a sciatic issue with my back and when we finally arrived in Grenada, I was having trouble walking which compounded the maintenance headaches.
Many people ask us what was our favourite island. This is difficult because the experience depends on both the environment as well as the people. Barbuda was spectacular for its beaches, Grenada had a fabulous social scene for adults and children alike and Cuba is special because of the people and the history. The Bahamas are unparalleled for their sand and water. Cartegna was one of our favourite stops and it really is a jewel of a city. Culture, food, music, and friendly people overcome the narco-past of this emerging country and if they can continue to evolve out of their drug and crime fuelled history, I am convinced it will soon be a top tourist destination. Our favourite cruising area was Puerto Rico and the Spanish Virgins where the friendly people, predictable US customs, and spectacular cruising grounds made for a wonderful visit. The USVIs are close by, as is St Croix, which is a little off the beaten track, but both are readily accessible from the East coast of Puerto Rico.
I think my least favourite island was the Dominic Republic and this is probably coloured by the official reception we received there. Bureaucracy, corruption and the huge disparity of wealth coupled with security concerns left a bad taste in my mouth. Panama had a similar bureaucratic fleecing process but we didn’t feel quite so vulnerable to the whims of the customs officials. You will remember that when we were trying to clear out of Casa de Campo and the entire seven person entourage came aboard, the drug guy wanted to look around, nothing exceptional in itself. When we went below he said that there were many compartments to which I replied that he only had to ask and I was happy to open them up. “Oh, we don’t need to take all of that time, but perhaps you could give me a little tip for my hard work.” My preferred reaction was to drag him up before his peers and ask if anyone else was going to ply me for bribes and could we get it over all at once, but the day was advancing, our buddy boat was waiting and we needed to leave. I asked him if $10 would get him off my boat and he seemed very differential,”of course, of course..”. Often we would be faced with the least lousy option and this was one of them, but I was torqued for days
If we were to return to the Caribbean on this type of trip, I don’t think that we would probably venture past the Bahamas. As we discovered there is little, to no, ‘Island culture’ with the exception of the French islands, and the water and beaches in the Bahamas are second to none. That coupled with access to provisions and parts, and reasonable security make it the obvious choice for sailors just looking for warmer weather to escape the Canadian Winter.
As I have alluded to throughout the blog this experience has been about the people we have met along the way. What a fabulous, eclectic, generous and interesting group of adventurers! There are the just-retired couple fulfilling a lifelong (his anyway) dream. There is the lifetime live-aboard group that wouldn’t know where or how to live ashore if they had to. There are the down on their luck, never quite figured out society, escapists, anchored off the beaten track, eking out a living doing odd jobs. There are groups like us that are travelling with families for a set period with the intention of returning to work (them not me…). And finally there are the real adventurous twenty-somethings who made enough money to purchase a boat and have no money, experience, or plan. All of these groups had something special to offer and Mommy and I used to marvel that no one cared what you did or how much money you had, because a plugged head is a great societal leveller! How refreshing that there was no keeping up with the Jones (unless they were ahead of us and under sail…) or rampant materialism. Everyone was in…the same boat.
Three folks that stand out for me were the Elias Family from Isreal on Del Max, the Oliver Family on Emile IV, and Ralph Baker in Florida.
The Elias family had spent a few years in the US and decided that before heading back to Israel, they would take a one year sailing trip in the Caribbean. With minimal sailing experience, and exceptional fortitude, they bought a boat in the US and set sail with a 2, 4, and six year old. Luck conspired against them in the Spanish Virgins they went up on a reef and the boat sank. Darya passed her infant son to a stranger in a RIB who had come to assist them as the boat sank out from under her. Everyone made it to shore safely however as a parent, that would be a significant emotional moment, and most of us would have chocked the whole thing up to youthful over-indulgence and booked flights home. Did I mention that they had exceptional fortitude? That night in the hotel, Oren started surfing Yachtworld for boats and they were floating again within a month. We met them in Grenada and had the great pleasure of sailing with them for the next six months. There was nothing these guys couldn’t or wouldn’t do, and their perseverance really is an example for us all.
The Oliver family was from Calgary and decided to take off on an undefined sailing adventure with Meghan, one of your favourite kids of the trip, and Mathew, their severely autistic son. They way they managed together was inspiring and put all of our mechanical, weather, and health challenges into perspective. What Megan lacked in volley-ball skills, she made up in charm and maturity. MC taught us much about teaching and learning, and Mark has even less of a circuit breaker in-between brain and mouth than I do. We only spent four months with them but we had a wonderful time together and we are optimistic that we will see them in Ottawa in the future.
We met Ralph Baker when we arrived in Florida and developed a geat relationship as he mentored me during the refit of Rafiki. We installed solar panels by day and drank red wine in the evening. He taught me much about the type of environment that we would encounter and was critical as we discussed what needed to be fixed or replaced on the boat. A previous Raymarine dealer, he had a wealth of contacts and selflessly drove me all over Stuart getting various parts and repairs done. He graciously hosted us to dinner several times and shared stories of his sailing adventures up and down the coast of South America. There were many times on the trip when I wished that I had taken his advice and many more when I was glad that I had.
Living aboard Rafiki was pretty luxurious compared to the sailing that we had done previously. We each had a queen bed, our own bathroom and lots of real-estate on deck to go hide and read. We generally had good connectivity with some notable exceptions and were able to “borrow” a signal from shore most of the time. I remember when we arrived in Negril, Jamaica, and I cruised down the beach in front of all the hotels as Mommy and Kathryn searched for a strong unlocked signal. When someone would get one there would be a yell from below and I would throw the engines into reverse and drop the anchor. For a week in the BVIs we surfed with wild abandon due to the gracious hospitality of Richard Bransom.
The things we did miss, besides the obvious friends and family, was the silly stuff that we take for granted at home. Grass, working in the workshop, building stuff, cycling, going to the movies, and other mundane things we take for granted.
The homeschooling was the greatest surprise of the trip. You both were diligent, focused, and a riot to teach. We acted out the British “Thin Red Line” with two calvary pistols and a shotgun in Grand mommy’s family room, we studied Led Zepplen’s “Black Dog” in music appreciation, and built security lights in “shop class”. Every day we would curl up and read an assigned classic together, and once a week we would discuss world events, finance and politics after reviewing the days headlines. Mommy grilled you in Math and Science and we all laughed about the three day math exam and the two day science exam. Grade eight and nine are going to be a breeze. I never really appreciated how much time was wasted in school, nor how much information you were capable of absorbing. The biggest revelation for me was your ability to assimilate information, deduce the key elements and arrive at a logical conclusion. We have undergone elections in Canada and the United States and you are aware of the issues, and have formed opinions based on policy not emotion. You deduced that the precipitous fall of international oil prices would have a negative effect on the Canadian market, and would therefore have a negative impact on your investments. Through formal debates we explored the ongoing conflict in the Crimea and racism in the United States, occasionally teaming up with other cruising kids to debate current issues. We took every opportunity to play beach volley-ball, usually with adults, and both your skills have developed rapidly, which will put you in a good position if you decide to pursue sports in high school. For me personally the home schooling piece was a highlight of the trip and something that I will miss when we return to shore.
We have always been close as a family and actively do things together whether ashore or afloat. This bond had been reinforced during these past three years and while we have lacked the geographical stability of some of your friends, we have had great family stability. We genuinely like you both as individuals and miss you when you are not around. I often tell people that one of the best things about this trip is that we get to eat dinner under the stars every night. That is pretty special and while I am confident that we will continue to carve out “family time” ashore, I have no illusions that we will continue to have the quantity of time together that we do now. Living in close quarters is never easy and I think Mommy had more issues with it than I did, but we have entered into a rhythm of life where we don’t feel like we are in each other’s space, because it has become the norm. I think families that only go for a year perhaps never get beyond the confined space thing, but I don’t get the sense that it is a source of tension anymore.
Your relationship with each other has been another very positive outcome of the trip. While reasonably close before, having only each other to play with most of the time has brought you even closer. I remember when you were both waiting to read the next book in some series and we were only able to download it on one device, you elected to read to each other, page by page, for days. We also have Sirius radio and the boat is always filled with music and usually at least a few people singing along. Several weeks ago I had a proud Daddy moment when ACDC’s Thunderstruck came on and you both belted out the first two versus… I don’t know how the influences and distractions of school will affect your relationship going forward but we are both hopeful that these past three years will have forged a bond that will carry you into adulthood.
Your relationship with us has not so much changed as evolved. You have matured under the pressures and trials of life at sea, becoming part of the team, no longer a liability, but a critical asset. Kathryn drives the boat with confidence and is now actively navigating through shoals without direction or guidance. I confirm she has a plan and then get out of her way. Alex, although not as aggressive, drives the RIB and is learning how to drive the big boat. While we have always done lots of adventures together, it has always been as parents and children, not as equals. We are now operating as a team and this is mosy apparent when we have visitors and our procedures are upset by well meaning friends trying to help. Looking at other teenagers, I had resigned myself to the reality that by the time you were 16 or 17 you would have jobs and friends and it would spell the end of our family adventures. In the past several months I have reevaluated this and now wonder if after our experiences, you may be open to joining us on whatever crazy plan we come up with in the future. Time will tell.
In reviewing the planning for the trip there are some obvious mistakes that we made along the way. Not taking the boat for an extended serious shakedown was perhaps the biggest of them. We did not want to waste any more time at the dock than we had already but we should have probably returned to Florida after four months in the Bahamas to fix the litany of broken systems and get the boat sorted out. Trying to do it en route or down island was very difficult, expensive and frustrating. The choice of catamaran vice monohull could be debated all day however we could have bought a 50 foot Beneteau for significantly less money and it wouldn’t have detracted from the trip although Mommy probably disagrees. I think that we outfitted the boat with the correct kit and the biggest deficiency in out planning was not researching where we wanted to go and what we wanted to see. We made it up as we went and although this has certain advantages, more route planning would have prepared us for what lay ahead. Conversely we use do say in the airforce, “plan early, plan often,” which is equally applicable to sailing.
Our life aboard is so different than our lives in either Yellowknife or Ottawa. We live on less, spend more time together, meet new friends daily, and are always open to new experiences and adventures. Where we are is much less important than who we are there with, and relationships have taken on a much more important role in our lives than stuff. Will these lessons prevail in the coming years? The honest answer is probably some will and some won’t. I hope that we resist the terrible consumption disease currently afflicting our society, and remain open to new and spontaneous friendships, but the pressures of daily life will dictate their own rhythm.
I think the thing I will miss most about the trip is our family time. Doing what we want, when we want. Dancing in the kitchen to the latest Sirius top 10, playing cards or dominoes while drinking the local rum, curling up in the cockpit reading Huck Finn, or watching you stand watch while I doze after an overnight passage. So many wonderful memories, so little ink.
Like any trip there is the good, the bad, and the ugly. To be honest I won’t miss the continual maintenance and challenges associated with keeping all of the systems on the boat working. Provisioning is another weekly chore that lost its exotic appeal after the first week. Deciding if we could buy the extra bag of rice and still carry everything back to the boat, with breaking bags and aching shoulders. We have changed our eating habits based on what is available locally and are eating lots of curries and pasta. Surprisingly we don’t have access to much fresh fish and we never really got into the habit of catching it ourselves. We often walk several km to the local grocery store or laundry mat and then load everything into bags and knapsacks for the walk back to the dingy. This got old quickly although with all four of us we are able to carry a fair bit of stuff.
Laundry is another chore I won’t miss. In fairness Mommy does most of the clothes and sheets but we lend a sherpa hand to carry Costco bags to and from the laundry marts. In Bequia we had a lady pick it up at the boat and return it the following day for $10. We stayed for a month…
When we were in Central America it was so hot and muggy that sleeping was a challenge and we had to keep the boat closed up because of the no-seeums. I won’t miss that heat and I remember thinking how great it would be to get back North to cooler climates. Now we are in the Bahamas and is seems very cool and it has been months since we went swimming. I guess there is no perfect temperature, but the heat in Panama and Columbia was something else.
Your mother and I had planned this trip for over 15 years. We needed to get careers, finances and you, to the point where we could step off the treadmill. I had just retired, your mother had finished her MBA and you two were 9 and 10. It was really the perfect time to “book out” and although many of our friends and family though we were crazy, there were an equal number that were very supportive. Ironicly Uncle Francis and Aunt Alice thought we were being irresponsible and even foolhardy, however I know in my heart that Granddaddy would have completely supported our decision. Many people dream about leaving work and taking their family on some type of adventure and sadly most of them never realize the goal or leave it until they are too late. We have met countless people who looked wistfully at the four of us and confided that they wished that they had done something similar with their own children.
Whether you decide to do something like this with your own families will depend on a thousand as yet, undefined variables. From Mommy and my point of view, it has been a life defining adventure, which has enriched all of us and allowed you two to blossom. Three years is a good length of time and any longer might cause challenges reintegrating into the educational/social system. The reality is that this hiatus is just that, a break from our daily lives which while wonderful, will not completely prepare you for the academic/social environment of high school or university. Any time less than a year just whets your appetite for more and will leave you wishing you could stay out longer.
There have been lots of highlights and several lows of the trip, perhaps too many to cover here. Playing beach volleyball in Grenada and Georgetown with you was pretty special. Doing the Scuba certification as a family was another milestone of the trip. Christmas in Antigua with 30+ cruisers on the beach with football, soccer and a potluck followed by a bonfire was a Christmas we won’t forget. The crossing from Cartegna and then the Derecho in Georgetown were the low points. 30+ kts on the nose for 5 days and then a 70-100kt blast at anchor in the pitch dark, left us bruised and battered. That we emerged from both events without serious injury or loss of the boat is really amazing.
The future is uncertain and we have several responsibilities that will keep us close to home for the foreseeable future, but you mother and I stay up late planning our next adventure. Cycle across Canada, spend a summer living in the Savoie, cruise the Great Loop or perhaps the canals of Europe? We realize that the demands on your time will only increase however I am cautiously optimistic that you might decide to join us, alone, together or with friends. We have managed to steal more time with you two than most parents get in a lifetime, certainly more that our parents had with us, but if you’re going to dream, dream big.