Last night, we sat in our cockpit and had homemade lobster pizza for dinner. The hills of Grenada – verdant and lush with coconut palms and mango, nutmeg and papaya trees were dark silhouettes in the distance. The water around us glistened with drops of light from the almost-half-full moon, the breeze was warm and gentle, and the pizza was fantastic. It had been made entirely from scratch – in a place where “from scratch” means not only preparing the dough ourselves but also diving to catch the lobster. We are 3,800 kilometres south of Toronto as the crow flies – much, much farther as the wind blows – and for perhaps the hundredth time, I said silent thanks that I’d pushed doubts aside to embark on this adventure. How could I have hesitated so long?
When my husband, Steve, and I first talked about taking a midlife break from our careers – leaving jobs and home, family and friends – and sailing our boat from Toronto to the Caribbean, it was idle, dreamy chat: pure escapism to whisk us away from the slush of winter and the unrelenting pressures of deadline-oriented work. (I’m a magazine and book editor; Steve, a magazine and book designer.) We gave our dream a name, “the five-year plan,” but one year passed, then another, and soon a fifth and sixth – and we still had not committed ourselves to sailing south. Too many hurdles seemed to stand in the way: we had jobs we loved; we were concerned about getting back into the marketplace and earning a living after we returned; we both had aging parents (although no children) and worried about being out of easy reach; our boat wasn’t ready for offshore sailing – and I wasn’t convinced that I was either. I had never lived on a boat for more than two consecutive weeks, never done a night passage, never stood watch alone. It was much easier to stay than to go.
However, while we hesitated we did begin organizing our finances to allow ourselves time away from the working world. (I estimated we’d need $1,500 to $2,000 US per month to live while cruising – not including the cost of new equipment to make our boat, Receta, suitable for the trip.) An ongoing business of Steve’s could provide a little income while we were away, but we also started a concerted savings effort. Paying off our mortgage was a key first step; as a result, revenue from renting our house could form an emergency financial cushion.
Slowly we came to realize there would probably never be a time to go that was absolutely right. Our work getting Receta ready for the trip could continue indefinitely (with a boat, there’s always something to fix, add, replace or improve). And now – while we were reasonably young (both in our mid-40s), in good health and, particularly in my case, ready for a change in our careers – was probably as right a time as there was going to be. Better to take the risk than spend the rest of our lives regretting not going. We set August 1997 for our departure.
As we became caught up in the whirlwind of details that planning our escape required, my daily chore list became more intimidating than any I had at the office: hire a property manager to rent and look after our home. Get physicals, eye exams, dental checkups. Visit the local Ontario Health Insurance Plan office to arrange the once-in-a-lifetime vacation exemption that would allow us to be out of the province for up to two years and still maintain OHIP coverage. Arrange supplementary out-of-country medical insurance. Reassure parents that we know what we’re doing. Enroll in a St. John Ambulance first aid and CPR course. Reassure parents again. Finish up the professional obligations that would help pay for out adventure. See all our friends one last time. Sign powers of attorney to allow our accountant to handle our finances … and prepare living wills, just in case. Reassure parents. Sort our possessions into three piles: stuff for the storage locker we had rented, stuff for a yard sale, stuff to be moved onboard. Re-sort our possessions to reduce the size of the third pile so it would fit on a 126-metre sailboat just 3-7 metres across at its widest point, most of it much narrower.
By the end of July when we moved onto Receta (the name, by the way, is Spanish for “recipe,” because we think the boat has all the right ingredients), my excruciatingly well-organized self was trailing loose ends in all directions. When Carol, whom we’d chosen to manage our house, tracked us down two days after we moved out, she inquired sweetly, “Did you realize you rented the house with a load of your clothes still in the dryer?”
We’ve been gone more than a ear now. I have hiked through a rain forest in Saint Lucia, slid down waterfalls in the Dominican Republic and danced soca in the streets of Grenada. In oh-so-chic French Saint Martin I bought my first bikini in more than a decade. (“But it’s quite conservative for this island,” I note in my journal, “since it has a bottom and a top.”) In fact, I now live in a bathing suit for days on end, and I don’t wear shoes most of the time. I shower in the open air, using water that’s been heated by the sun, and on hot, hot nights I sleep on deck under the stars. Most days I’m convinced I was born to the cruising life.
The discoveries that living on a sailboat allows prove irresistible: an eagle ray rooting for dinner in the sand as I snorkel above it. A mona monkey devouring a mango high up in a tree. Dolphins arcing through our bow wave. We are constantly pulling one guide or another from the boat’s overburdened bookshelves to help us identify the animals, birds, shells, fish, reef creatures, trees and even foods we are encountering for the first time. Every day brings something new.
May 8, 2015
I’ve managed to avoid it for the first eight months of our travels – across Lake Ontario, through the New York State Barge Canal, down the Hudson River, through the Chesapeake, down the Intracoastal Waterway to Florida, across to the Bahamas – but if I want to see the Caribbean, it’s inevitable. I’ve got to face my first – and long-dreaded – overnight passage, from Rum Cay to Mayaguana at the southernmost end of the Bahamas. We have agreed to two-hour watches, and I start with the 10-to-midnight shift. As Steve heads below to sleep, I clip my safety harness to my inflatable life vest and hope that I can keep my pride intact and refrain from calling him before his two hours of naptime are up. At least there’s a routine to keep me busy: scan the horizon for vessel lights, then go below every 15 minutes to check the radar screen. (“Why do freighters always appear on my watch?” my journal asks peevishly at one point.) Keep an eye on sail trim, boat speed and course. On the hour, I note our latitude and longitude in the ship’s log and plot our progress on the chart.
My first night flies by, and Neptune is good to me: the sea remains nearly flat calm, the sky is bright from an almost-full moon; Receta leaves a trail of silver streaks behind – phosphorescence from thousands of tiny marine organisms. Mesmerizing. I suddenly realize that not only am I not worried, I am actually enjoying myself. A month and a half later, I’m even willing to undertake the 52-hour run from Saint Martin to Saint Lucia in one shot.
“How will you be able to stand being together all the time in such a tiny space?” friends had asked back in Toronto when Steve and I gave them tours of what was to be our home for the next two years. Indeed, there’s no escaping one another on Receta. But we like to think working together, as we had done for more than a decade, helped equip us for boat life. Still, there are times when it’s just about impossible not to get a little, uh, testy with each other. Such as when you discover raw sewage (from a cracked valve in the head system) is spewing all over and one of you has to jury-rig a repair and clean up the mess. (Steve got that evil chore.) Or when one of you has eaten the last of the bread and the only way you’re going to get more is to bake it yourself.
In fact, lots of things I took for granted on land are not as easy on the boat. Every drop of water we consume – for drinking, cooking, cleaning – has to be caught when it rains or ferried aboard in jerry cans. (I’ve become expert at doing a dinner’s worth of dishes in one small pan of water and the laundry on deck in two buckets.) Cleaning and maintenance are constant when your home is a boat in salt water – an adjustment for someone whose housekeeping efforts back on land were sporadic (to say the least). As we frequently remind ourselves, cruising is a lifestyle, not a holiday, and you’ve got to take the bad along with the good.
May 31, 2015
A few hours earlier we ghosted out of Escondido Bay, a beautiful anchorage on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. There was the barest breath of wind and a favourable forecast as we lifted Receta’s anchor at sunset, on our way to crossing the Mona Passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, a 120-kilometre slice of ocean with an ugly reputation. Now all hell is breaking loose. Blinding forks of lightning are sizzling down from the night sky and stabbing the surface of the Atlantic around us. I count the seconds between the flashes and the thunder – far too few, given that the 19 metre-high mast on our sailboat is the tallest object for miles around. Rain beating on my face, I wrestle with the wheel, attempting to stay on course while the wind howls and the boat plunges up and down in the sudden steep waves.
The flashes and thunder are simultaneous now. Steve has gone to consult the radar and plot a new course that will, I hope desperately, take us out of the squall, but in the meantime I am alone – and frightened, especially when I momentarily lose my bearings and am unsure which direction heads us into danger (shoals and shallow water) and which one takes us away.
“Steer 143 degrees!” Steve bellows the new heading out at me, and I emerge from my confusion and, eventually, out from under the squall. But the wicked waves remain throughout the night, and daylight brings feed-the-fishes seasickness. I subsist for the next 24 hours on water and pretzels, and remain lashed to the boat with my safety harness until we reach our destination, Boqueron, Puerto Rico.
Fortunately, the bad days are separated by long strings of calm and blissful ones, and I come to accept them as a modest price to be paid for places we’ve seen, people we’ve met and the cultures we’ve been part of – experiences that will remain in my mind’s eye long after memories of seasickness and rough weather have faded.
September 27, 2015
“You put how much in?” Evette asks in horror, as I explain that my first attempt at preparing stewed lambi (the island name for conch meat) tasted good but not perfect. We met Evette when we anchored off Hog Island, Grenada, near her home in the village of Lower Woburn, and she has been sharing her recipes with me. But I’m not doing too well with the “a bit of this, a bit of that, now you add your spices” approach. (It turns out I have added quadruple the required amount of the brown sugar burnt in oil that is the secret to the lambi’s rich sauce.)
So now, a couple of days later, Evette and her 15-year-old daughter, Gennel, have squeezed into my tiny galley (barely 1.5 metres long and 1.2 wide) to actually show me how to prepare the enormous spiny lobster they have brought us as a gift. (No sense having a perfectly good lobster ruined, Evette must figure.) And so I madly scribble notes as she grates garlic, pounds green onion, squeezes lime and shakes curry powder into the steamed lobster-tail meat, to be quickly stir-fried later and served over rice. Under her guidance, it turns out exquisitely. During our time in Grenada, Evette gives us armloads of coconuts, sugar apples and mangoes from the trees on her land and, more importantly, a friendship to remember.
Other places, other memorable people. In Five Fathom Creek, S.C., Oran Baldwin took us under his southern gentlemanly wing and, faster than you could say “jambalaya,” taught Steve to throw a cast net for shrimp. (“Don’t forget to open your mouth when you throw,” he warned. Important advice – since proper form entails holding part of the net in your teeth!) When Steve’s first hauls were a little meagre, Oran insisted on giving us a heap of his own shrimp. But practice makes perfect, and we thought fondly of Oran on subsequent days as we meandered through marshes and devoured our own fresh-caught shrimp.
October 1, 2015
After dinner and our nightly ritual of doing dishes (I confess I still miss my dishwasher) followed by a game of cribbage, I go up on deck to feel the breeze and look at the stars before bedtime.
The water laps against Receta’s hull and a hundred tree frogs announce their presence on shore. I listen and watch quietly. I’ve realized on this trip that I don’t have to be frantically busy every waking moment of the day. I’ve learned how to “lime” – the creole word for just hanging out, relaxing, chatting.
In fact, this has been one of the most important things my midlife break has taught me. Back home, each day was ruled by the clock; here, I seldom wear a watch. I’ve slowed down and given myself time to savour things. I’ve become more patient and I promise myself I won’t become caught up in the old frantic pace when we return.
Back home, our jobs dominated the dinnertime conversation. Here, Steve and I talk together more, about more things. (It’s a pleasure, for instance, to have the time to discuss what we’re reading.) Back home, I measured my accomplishments in terms of my profession; now I take pride in a much broader self-sufficiency.
There are tradeoffs, of course. It’s difficult to share the lives of family and friends back home. They are changing just as we are, and we are leaving each other behind, I miss those long unhurried phone conversations I used to have. E-mail helps a lot though, and I am convinced that without it I would not be enjoying my time away nearly as much. (It has surprised us how easy it has been to find places along the way with E-mail hookups – even in a small fishing village like Luperon, Dominican Republic, where pigs and chickens roam the dusty streets.)
Occasionally, I awaken in the night from “work dreams,” a vestige of my former life, and I wonder if I’ll be able to make a living when I return. But mostly I only stir if the wind picks up in the anchorage or rain hits my face through the open hatch overhead.
We’ve been in Grenada, south of the active hurricane zone, for three months now – a time that began at the height of mango season, continued through the revelry of Carnival, and is ending as the island kids have headed back to school.
In a few days, weather permitting, we’ll lift the hook and sail for Trinidad – an easy 120-kilometre overnight passage. (God, could I have said that six months ago?) Then we’ll slowly start our way back up the island chain, visiting some of the places we missed on our way down, as well as the ones we loved too much to simply pass by without stopping again. A year from now, I will be back in Toronto. I can assure you a very different person will be coming back.