First and foremost, this is a celebration, and we have a lot to celebrate! We’re pretty amazing. I’m not trying to be arrogant, just that what we’ve achieved is amazing. Every day we make life work in a space the fraction of the size of the house we sold, forcing us to reduce our ‘wants’, redefine our ‘needs’ and work to accept the boundaries of others. We’ve done big things, as a unit, a family, a couple. Things that have scared us, worried us, challenged and upset us. We’ve put our trust in each other, and in the people we meet, complete strangers, and have been rewarded time and time again. We put our trust in our kids, to manage their time, their learning, and their acceptance of risk. And we trust ourselves (well, most of the time!) that this is right, that we are ‘doing the right thing’ (whatever that is), especially for the boys, their education, their skills- their future.
It doesn’t always go right. We’ve cried, shouted, argued, and sulked. Boundaries have been ignored or trampled, space intruded on, and serenity tested. Like life anywhere, I guess, only intensified- when you can’t go for a walk to get some perspective or blow away the cobwebs, or when it just feels like everyone and everything is on top of you, there isn’t enough space to go round. And that’s without the maintenance and repairs, not only essential to keep us comfortbale and the boat moving, but also because our lives depend on the boat being sea-worthy.
But that’s the challenge, and what makes it worth doing in some ways. Not just the sailing- managing provisions, maintenance, forecasting, watch shifts, communicating effectively in tough conditions. But also learning as a family, making mistakes, and growing as a result of them.
Maybe this doesn’t make sense. I guess it’s that feeling you get when you’ve achieved something unusually difficult or that you’ve been striving for, and where the lows make the success all the more sweet. It really isn’t always a holiday or adventure, despite how it looks, but would you want it to be? There are challenges and hurdles in any life, we just choose to meet ours in a different form.
A lot of people ask us about numbers- how many miles? how many countries? We never aim to build records or accumulate stats, but they can be another way to reflect on what’s been…so, in numbers, what has happened in five years:
- 1 new baby
- Just shy of 11000 miles sailed.
- 26 countries visited
- 9 currencies used- Pounds, Euros, Dihrams, East Caribbean Dollars, Pesos, Jamaican Dollars, US Dollars, Quetzales, Belize Dollars
- 1 major ocean crossed- maybe unsurprisingly, still my ultimate achievement. My ‘I can’t believe we did that’.
- Shortest stay- Bedford Cay, Belize. The expected beach didn’t exist, and the mosquitos chased us away within 30 minutes.
- Longest stay- Samaná, Dominican Republic. Nearly 14 months.
- 3 Tropical Storms experienced.
- 23 Birthdays in 11 countries- and 1 (Dave’s) in the middle of the ocean!
- 5 Christmases- Lisbon, Portugal; Gran Canaria, Canary Islands; Antigua, West Indies; Samaná, Dominican Republic; Antigua, Guatemala (our first Christmas away from the boat).
We were going to ask the boys for highlights and lowlights, but they showed no interest in being interviewed. I think that maybe they don’t see anything remarkable in what we do- it’s been ‘normal’ most of their lives. For us, five years on a boat contrast with the 30+ before. Funny though, they spend lots of time reminiscing about where we’ve been, what we did and amusing anecdotes, so maybe it was being put on the spot! Maybe we’ll write about those another time.
So much, it’s hard to know what to say. What stands out?
Biscay was, well, unpleasant. Lots of sea-sickness, both the boys and me (I didn’t realise I was pregnant at the time, but was breastfeeding Theo so hadn’t taken any medication), so Dave was basically doing all the sailing. Otherwise, a quick passage. After two days of barely eating or drinking, Arthur displayed typical kid resilience when we anchored- Me: Theo, don’t throw shoes at your brother’s head. Arthur: It’s ok, I’m wearing my helmet. The helmet being a plastic storage basket.
Rabat, juxtaposing a rich history, beautiful architecture, chaotic daily-life, and the more basic way of life in the Medina with the modern marina development, western inspired shopping/restaurants, careful lanscaping and more austere design. Being invited to the house of a local lady, Fatima, for dinner after meeting her once, and then her gifting me a traditional outfit. And the bakeries- simply delicious!
The Canary Islands, each with a different character- La Gomera’s lush slopes and ancient forests, Lanzarote’s arid landscape and black, volcanic sands. And of course, Hector’s birth and the new challenges and rewards of sailing with a new baby. Living aboard in a boat yard for 2 months with three children, including baby Hector- no fun, especially when the only adult not engaged in boat-work drops a knife through their foot!
Crossing an ocean. The mad provisioning beforehand and the elation on arriving. 2,500 miles and 20 days of isolation, sighting land only the beginning and end. Adjusting course to avoid the worst of the weather and make the best of the wind, amazing downwind sailing, kids running and dancing to Elvis and ‘Run Rudolph Run’ (despite it being late January/February), star-gazing and constellation spotting at night, story-telling in the morning (the Captain Bumpleton character beloved by our kids was born on the ocean), and swimming mid-Atlantic when we were becalmed. That day, there was the almost indescribable experience of hearing nothing because there was no wind- no boat movement through the water, no waves lapping the hull, no rigging or sail noise, or wind whistling past- so quiet I could feel my ears straining to pick out something, anything. Crossing an ocean is comparable to nothing we have done before or after. The first few days, I checked our progress compared to our boat speed constantly, wishing the days away; by the end, it was almost a disappointment to arrive.
The Windward Islands- Gregory and his fruit boat in St. Lucia. Beautiful Dominica, a strategic territory between Martinique and Guadeloupe; Martinique’s imposing Volcano Mount Pelee, its eruption destroying the entire town of St Pierre and allegedly leaving a prisoner as the only sole survivor. Barbuda, with stunning pinks sand, where a hurricane must have shifted islands sandy shoreline so dramatically that, according to our charts, we were anchored on the land. Grenada– local buses, the best way to explore the islands many beautiful natural attractions, that will always make ‘slow down on the bends, called sheep from the back’ (from a children’s story) unexplainably funny to us. Spicemas – loud and bizarre, with amazing costumes, all night revelling, bass that made the boat hull vibrate offshore, and the tradition of rubbing yourself all over with motor oil, mud or paint! Learning how to make chocolate from bean to bar.
Fourteen months in Samaná, our first extended stay since we left the UK and somewhere we really felt at home, where we rode out two tropical storms, Dave saw the eye-wall of a storm, we discovered 80+ species around the anchorages tidal zone, and were welcomed and supported through the first year of the COVID pandemic. We wrote a lot of posts about Samaná.
Travelling Guatemala’s interior. The contrast between the more temperate interior, complete with autumnal leaf fall, and the steamy, tropical area around the Rio. Camping on the slopes of a volcano! Women taking small children onto busy roads to shovel dirt into the numerous deep potholes in the hope of a few Quetzales, others walking the sides of the road carrying what can only be described as lengths of tree trunk. Quarrying for sand that leaves roads after blind bends reduced to one lane next to a sheer drop. Washing laundry against rough stones with the locals in the cold waters of Lake Atitlan- I soon learned not to use too much soap! Hand-made fireworks sold on market stalls, seemingly to any age, for Christmas and New Year. Guatemalans LOVE fireworks- New Year’s Eve sounded like the sound effects from a film about a major war.
How have our plans developed along the way?
Along the way, our plans have changed regularly. We learned early on that there is a limit to the organisation and control we could have, changing our plans due to seasickness, family visits, deliveries, equipment failures and, of course, weather. Hector, or as he was then known baby Pumpkin, was due around 10 months after we moved aboard, and much of my pregnancy was spent avoiding all but the most benign sailing conditions and making shorter trips and slower progress than we expected. After his birth, we were unsure if we’d attempt to cross the Atlantic; until around April 2019, we were still expecting to finish sailing at the end of the two years.
COVID, though, was the biggest factor for us, like many other families. Although we don’t know what form our sailing would have taken had the pandemic not started/lasted so long, or what other things may have influenced our choices, I think we probably would have been in the Pacific by now. We were a year later arriving in Guatemala than planned as we spent the first year of COVID in Samaná, Dominican Republic, an ideal place to be ‘stuck’ as border closures became widespread.
Fortunately, we were happy in Samaná, and the extended stay that arose from necessity became one that was difficult to end, despite us being ready to move on. As well as the wonderful support and welcome we experienced, both through COVID and two tropical storms, we were in the unique position of being able to visit the town itself, and nearby Cayo Levantado and Los Haities National Park, without international tourism- both were probably as quiet as they are ever likely to be (especially as construction of a cruise ship terminal has recently started). The town felt more like home, more ‘real’, and at Cayo we could have beach fires and enjoy the island to ourselves morning and night.
As well as COVID, a major interior refit of Humpback meant we couldn’t live on the boat for nine months (compared to the three-four we had hoped) while in Guatemala. Due to this, the countries we plan to visit from November 2022 are the ones we had expected to be visiting from the end of 2021. Not that Guatemala wasn’t amazing. It was high on our list of countries to visit and we’re happy we did, but, perhaps due to the length of time working on the boat (and a few other challenges- lightning damaging batteries, outboard engine breaking, Hector being bitten by a dog…), our feelings are a bit of a mixed bag.
We moved back onboard in mid-May, leaving us with only 2-3 weeks before hurricane season officially “started”. We abandoned our plan to visit Cuba and then head to Columbia and Panama, not wanting to rush Cuba’s south coast in an effort to avoid potential storms, a route which would also have involved a lot of sailing, sometimes in less than favourable wind and sea conditions, after having not sailed or even lived on the boat for 10 months. With Dave suffering fatigue due to Long COVID, necessitating more rest time than usual, this was for the best- longer passages would have required a watch schedule and reduced hours of sleep that would have been difficult to achieve.
Given the time of year, that left us in the Rio Dulce for another hurricane season. However, as we REALLY needed a break from the Rio, and were already overstaying our immigration visas (necessitating that we pay a large fine on exit), we opted to spend some time in Belize– close enough to Guatemala that we could find protection from a hurricane if absolutely necessary.
So, Belize is where I started writing this. It’s somewhere that we especially wanted to visit, although a relatively expensive option due to entry and monthly visa renewal fees, and the high cost of groceries. It doesn’t disappoint though! We initially planned one month, but renewed our visas twice- the weather seemed to be cooperating, and there had been no hurricanes forecast for the Caribbean region until the week we were leaving!
Dave had suggested spending the whole hurricane season in Belize (after carefully checking the historical storm tracks), despite the cost. But, the same day we noticed a serious fault with some of the work carried out by the yard in the Rio, something that needs attention before we can sail in any strong winds or heavy seas- it really is fortunate that we didn’t head to Cuba/Columbia! Belize is truly beautiful though – our photos don’t do the beauty of seas and islands justice- and we hope to return for at least one month.
We arrived back into Guatemala towards the end of August. Hopefully for about ten weeks – enough time for the yard to rectify the problem, for us to finish off some boat jobs we didn’t manage before, to visit Tikal (which we somehow didn’t see first-time round), to organize and receive passport renewals, and to stock up on some cheaper groceries.
The thought of the Rio made me feel a little claustrophobic, if I’m honest. We had some great times, but it was also a period of much stress, upheaval, and towards the end of our previous visit I was really feeling a lack of freedom from having been land-bound and boat work-bound for so long. This time, we plan to anchor as much as possible, spending more time in El Golfete and Lake Izabal, and hopefully building a sailing dinghy. It was a wrench leaving the crystal clear waters and amazing snorkeling of Belize, though.
After this second time in the Rio, we might visit the Bay Islands of Honduras, and would like to return to Belize. After that, the rough route is maybe Mexico, Cuba’s south coast, the Bahamas and then the Dominican Republic, hopefully with a return to Samaná. It’s a bit sketchy, but we have some potential family visits to consider, as well as the normal things like weather, so the next cruising year we will take whatever comes our way!
Then, who knows? Whatever we decide, the Dominican Republic will be something of a fork in the road.
The obvious option is to head from the Dominican Republic to Columbia/Panama, spend hurricane season there- lots of great walking, inland travel (which we loved in Guatemala), beautiful anchorages, and new and varied cultural experiences- then transit the Panama Canal into the Pacific ready to cross. It’s the logical step for many cruisers at our stage, especially as it follows the trade wind routes making for more pleasant sailing. So, why are we still undecided?
Mostly because of family. And our lack of time with them. As well as all the great records, there are factors that reflect the more difficult aspects of traveling long-term- in 5 years we and family have missed or are missing: Dave’s brother’s wedding; people buying, renovating, selling and moving house; relationship changes; changes in work; family deaths; health scares; numerous birthdays; five Christmases together; our boys and my nephew growing up; and a new niece or nephew on the way. The further we move west from the UK, the less easy visits become.
Before we embark on the traveling the Pacific, we want to make an extended trip to the UK to spend some quality time with family. Next season, we could potentially leave the boat in a marina in Columbia or Panama and visit the UK before transiting the Panama Canal ready for the Pacific.
The thought of hours on a plane with three children is more daunting than 20 days isolated on our boat at sea without sight of land! Added to the fact that, in sailing, we are trying to reduce our impact on the climate- Dave (who tells me he “would prefer not to step foot on a plane until our global energy usage is sustainable, which will be a destructively long time”) did a calculation online that explains his reluctance-
Return flights for family of 5 (economy) from Bogota to LHR via Frankfurt is around 16.5t CO2
Full tanks and 5 jerry cans worth of diesel each way across the Atlantic is 2t CO2 (in the unlikely event we used it all).
Next May we could leave the Caribbean and sail back to Europe. This would allow us to spend extended time with family and visit some attractions, museums, national parks, etc., in the UK and Europe. And visit places we didn’t include in our plans when we first left, like Ireland, Scotland, Norway, France’s north coast…. We’ve been researching- the Atlantic crossing would likely be less pleasant than the East to West passage. Winds are less consistent, we’d be moving from warmth to a colder climate, and its simply further! And spending time in a region with colder seasons would require we spend time/money on alterations, repairs or replacements to the boat that would otherwise be unnecessary, such as servicing our diesel heaters and replacing/reinstalling their ducting.
We’re undecided. When we’re out at the cays in Belize, snorkeling, swimming, and seeing the amazing marine life, it really does seem crazy to venture somewhere colder and delay the Pacific. The sailing in the Caribbean is easier (aside from safety during hurricane season) than in Europe, with more consistent winds, warmer sailing conditions and no tides to consider. We can swim pretty much all the time without much preparation, diving from the boat straight into warm waters, and the boys are becoming more confident each day. From what we here from other crusiers, the Pacific would be even more amazing.
However, at other times there are aspects about Europe that we miss- Arthur just told me that he doesn’t think Caribbean trees are great for climbing (a serious problem!), there are certainly bigger and more varied museums and attractions, useful as the kids learning and interests become more varied and involved, as well as better access to walking trails, cycle routes, etc. The boys would love to ride bikes, Hector especially, but there are too few places here to warrant the cost and maintenance of bikes onboard (kids bikes seem difficult to find for hire). And I REALLY miss the UK climate- my favourite seasons are Autumn and Winter, frosty mornings, crunching through leaves on woodland walks, snuggling with a hot drink after a cold adventure, torrential rain.
And essentially, Europe would certainly help with family visits. Even when we were weren’t in the UK, it would likely be easier and cheaper for relatives to travel to us, or us to visit them and explore inland by train. And, it’d mean the kids were maybe 8, 10 and 12 when we get to Galapagos and beyond. They’d likely get (even) more out of it, and the beaches, tropical seas and snorkeling would be new to them all over again.
This is sailing!
This is all part of sailing. At least for us, but I think this common for many cruisers. Missing family, missing home. And all the considerations that surround this- do you follow your dream and keep going? Do you keep moving further from home? How will one potential plan affect another? How will finances, boat maintenance, health or family circumstances affect you?
In the end, there is no right answer. We just follow what feels like it makes the most sense or feels best at the time, or accept what comes and make the most of it. Whatever we choose next May, Europe or preparation for the Pacific crossing (or the circuit via Hawaii to the Pacific Northwest and down the US West coast sounds appealing too), there will always be further decisions to make, there will always be compromises. As five years on onboard have taught us, plans are one thing, the reality something else. But I think it’s safe to say that whatever happens, there certainly isn’t a ‘right’ decision. As Dave always says, they’re all good decisions, just different.
We’re certainly looking forward to more years of Amazing. Challenges- maintainace, provisioning, weather, storm seasons, small space-living; Acheivements- meeting the challenges, growing as a family, making new passages; Experiences- new places, cultures, friends, nature; Fun- sailing, swimming, hiking, museums, games, stories, friends. All no matter where we end up!