Eight years down: how we fund the cruising life

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How can we afford the cruising life? Everybody wants to know, but few ask. Cutting to the chase: we’re not independently wealthy. How we’ve supported ourselves has changed over time. Today marks the first day in our ninth year of cruising (holy cow!): retracing those years in terms of our finances tells the tale.

On August 21, 2008, we untied the lines from our slip behind the pub in Eagle Harbor and set off to go cruising with a pocketful of savings from about a decade of anticipation, and six years of more intent planning. We never expected to be out this long. When we left Bainbridge Island for Mexico in 2008, we expected to be gone for at least two years…five, at the outside.

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2009: exploring in the Mogote, La Paz, Mexico

It was our assumption that as the kids approached high school age, they’d year for a more “normal” life. And then, we weren’t sure we’d be able to afford cruising. We were living off savings built up in anticipation of this interlude in our lives, and that money could only last so long.

2010: always a friendly lap in Fiji

2010: always a friendly lap in Fiji

At around the two year mark, we found ourselves scraping the bottom of the financial barrel. This was sooner than expected, but our hopes to fund additional years of sailing by selling our house were foiled by the real estate crash. Instead, we lost money monthly as the mortgage exceeded rental income: there was no option but going back to work. Sitting in Tahiti, we mapped out the possibilities: where could we sail to, by the end of the season, and find a job?

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The stars aligned around Sydney, so we worked our way steadily towards the western side of the Pacific over the course of 2010 and cashed that first Aussie paycheck when our bank account had dwindled to $100. For the next year and a half, our little family embraced the experience of trying on another country for size…and we pinched pennies to save amid a high cost of living.

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2011: Australia Day in Sydney Harbor, on MV Furthur

Australia indelibly imprinted on us, but six months of attending school in Brisbane cured our kids of any urge to attend “normal” school. With enough in the kitty to sustain us for a while again, they cheered the prospect of returning to homeschooling when we had a family meeting in mid-2012 to discuss plans to move on.

2012 – school uniforms in Brissie

2012: school uniforms in Brissie

Departing Australia opened a new chapter in our cruising lives. For all the aspects of living in Oz that we enjoyed, it also showed us that we no longer fit in. Jamie and I determined to find a new ways to support our family and continue cruising, so we wouldn’t have to repeat the cycle of working in a developed country…for a while, at least. Trying to pass for normal with people who couldn’t understand our real drives and motivations was draining, and pressures on the kids not what any of us wanted.

2013: temple style, Bali

2013: temple style, Bali

And so while sailing west through Indonesia during the first six months of 2013 we worked on ways to build a few streams of trickle income to sustain us. Returning to sailmaking after many years, Jamie discovered how much he has to offer as a cruising sailmaker, helping people get the right sail. I found new energy around sharing our life through writing, and building a bit of income from freelancing, this blog, and co-authoring Voyaging with Kids. At the same time, shifts in rent/mortgage allowed us to actually earn some income from our house, a welcome cushion when bigger boat projects piled up as we prepared Totem for the Indian Ocean.

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2014: reviewing and repacking the ditch kit

Last year, we spent our cruisiversary in East Africa, anchored off Cosmoledo—a  remote atoll in the southern Seychelles. Hunkered down to take shelter from rough conditions en route to Comoros, we had the company of friends for shared hikes, snorkeling, meals and laughs. Headed toward South Africa, our thin earnings weren’t going to be enough for extras: for the first time, we dug into retirement savings to avoid missing out on the rich experience of inland Africa.

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2015: weathering a blow with friends on Shakespeare

Now, with our eighth year behind us, financial dynamics are shifting yet again. Our house returns to the status of net expense instead of net income (curse you, adjustable mortgage!). But we’re building new sources of income doing something we truly enjoy: cruise coaching service, where we share what we know to help others through the steps to go cruising. What’s also different now is we’re a little more accustomed to the instability in ways our 2008 selves could never have imagined. We live on a thin margin. To make that work, in most years, our expenditures are well below the US poverty line for a family of five. Sure, it’s stressful! But we balance that with the opportunity, and it’s not a difficult choice. Our priorities are different.

2016: sunset on the Mystic river

2016: sunset on the Mystic river

Nobody is more surprised than I am that we are cracking into our ninth year of cruising: still out adventuring, exploring as a family, no plans beyond “Cuba sounds good” for this winter. Happy cruisiversary to us! Raising a glass to celebrate on the Mystic river tonight as the sun sinks behind Noank, grateful to chalk up another year of living adventurously.

Privileged cruisers

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Turquoise water, white sand, the stretch of a tropical island…contrast of our dinghy and a local outrigger. We are so tremendously privileged in our experiences. But our privilege extends far beyond this: most importantly, our privileged lives stem from the place in the world we were just plain lucky to have been born in. A place with a wealth of opportunities and support. Not always easy, but nearly endless possibilities.

My last post, about how cruising wrecks lives, speaks plain truths of uncomfortable differences in the way we look at our culture now, through the lens of the last eight years. It shouldn’t be interpreted as it a rejection of our home. As more than one commenter (friends, thank you!) pointed out – you can be perfectly happy living differently. We don’t have to “go back”…as if we could! But we’re all impacted by our experiences in life, we can use that to make choices or changes.

Sunfish and a sunset sail, Mystic River

Sunfish and a sunset sail, Mystic River

But it also shouldn’t minimize how our experiences have pushed to the fore of our minds how incredibly well-off “we” (anyone in the developed world) are. The consumption I reacted against is just one symptom. More importantly, we have dramatic control over our individual destinies compared to people in so much of the world. There’s enough to eat, and education, and medical care. We are rich enough not to worry about meeting base needs and instead contemplate luxuries like progress toward self-actualization, or benefits of the newest iPhone.

Last night I received an email from a boat that had recently arrived in the Ninigo atoll, Papua New Guinea. Longer term readers know that Ninigo is one of those very special places that’s remain close to our hearts—we’ll never forget our stay there in 2012. As usual, it was because of the people who touched our lives.

Why yes, that IS a tree kangaroo on Siobhan's head

Why yes, that IS a tree kangaroo on Siobhan’s head! Mal island, Ninigo, PNG: 2012

We only get news from the friends we made on Ninigo’s Mal island when a cruising boat stops in, because they have no communication to the outside world—just a radio to contact another island. Visiting cruisers like Carina’s crew offer a golden opportunity to trade updates. This boat in particular contacted us before they left from Palau for Ninigo, so we were able to ship a small care package, photos, and letters via the good ol’ USPS.

But the news wasn’t good: my friend Mollina, who I call sister, hasn’t recovered from her baby’s birth earlier this year. She’s struggling badly enough that she can’t work in the vegetable garden that feeds her family. She can’t hold her children for long.

Mollina and her firstborn, Finn, madonna and child

Mollina and her firstborn, Finn; Madonna and child

Mal looks like an island paradise, and in many ways it is, but it is a difficult life that shouldn’t be romanticized. Let me put it into a bit of perspective. On Mal, there aren’t any roads; just some footpaths. There’s no electricity. There’s no fresh water piped in, and no sewage piped out. There are no grocery stores or hardware stores or regular supply ships. People get by with what they forage or build. There are very few ways to earn currency.

This family just sailed outrigger back from their vegetable garden, an overnight trip in open ocean

This family just sailed outrigger back from their vegetable garden, an overnight trip in open ocean

Mollina’s illness is much more than a setback or an inconvenience. Health care is very limited: Mollina’s husband has a deep cut on his arm, thanks to chasing a wild pig from their garden with a spear, and it’s not healing well because the local health ‘clinic’ doesn’t have enough clean bandages. At least that’s an obvious problem. I can’t tell from Mollina’s message what’s afflicting her. It’s impossible to know whether she could use the anti-fungals or antibiotics on Carina, or if what she needs is actually surgical. Oh, and surgery, or access to a trained medical professional? The nearest hospital is a two-day ride in an open boat, and it’s probably not a place that you or I would want anyone we love to go for medical treatment. There is a reason we met very few people with gray hair on Ninigo.

My big indulgence during our last weeks in Mystic is attending sessions at a nearby yoga studio. I felt the absurdity of my privilege there this morning, lying on a high-end all natural rubber mat, in a purpose-heated room that mimics Ninigo’s near-equatorial position, worrying about Mollina. It felt obscene. It felt so f*cking unfair. Tears running down my cheeks remain private, indistinguishable from the sweat dripping down my face. I have no right to be so worried about whatever the h3$% is keeping my shoulder from being as mobile lately, about whatever little problems exist in my world, because they really aren’t problems at all in the scheme of things. We have ALL THE POSSIBILITIES. We have so many lifelines to call on in a time of need.

The lovely Caper...Cuttyhunk, MA

The lovely Caper…Cuttyhunk, MA

We may find some aspects of the abundance here at home to be distasteful, or uncomfortable, or whatever it is. But ultimately, cruising brings a new appreciation for how spectacularly lucky “we” are: we have so many options. We should just hope to avoid the sickness of entitlement.

Meanwhile, I asked friends for help with Mollina’s illness, and friends showed up in spades: people offering what they have, whether it is knowledge or connections or funds. With guidance, I have a set of specific questions about symptoms that hopefully can get to a likely diagnosis. In those moments, our world shrinks in the most beautiful ways: friends from Boston, Seattle, New Zealand, Australia and more, connecting through the ionosphere in my text message to a sailing boat anchored in Ninigo. And I wait, and hope, that there will be a feasible path to help her heal.

Sunset watercolors

Sunset watercolors

How cruising wrecks lives

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It’s become profoundly clear that we’ll never be normal again. Is it unsettling? A little. We were a poster family for Normal, and utterly happy. Sitting in Totem’s cockpit from our mooring in the Mystic River, looking towards Noank in the fading light, that normal life—and the security that came with it—is lost to us.

Traded it all for the excitement of boat plumbing

Traded it all for the excitement of boat plumbing

The feeling germinates being back in a sped-up world, where there’s more of a rush to the finish than an appreciation for what’s around. Close traffic, fast cars. Foul language over the VHF, disrespect for rules of the road. We have fallen out of sync with our routines on board for learning, writing, taking care of Totem, and taking care of ourselves. If it weren’t for the steady stream of family and friends we’re sharing these weeks with I’d probably feel thrown off balance.

Daphne’s crew departing just after sunset

Daphne’s crew departing just after sunset

A couple of thought provoking conversations drive the feeling home. We’ve had a few interviews in the last couple of weeks and I appreciate how they’ve pushed us to better understand the space between us now, and us before. I’m not sure how to articulate it yet, but keep trying! Part of the difference is how we’ve embraced the loss of security. I’ll recount our early years, saying “when we ran out of money the first time, we stopped in Australia.” Just the idea that we might be willing to do this is anathema to our old selves. But it wasn’t going to kill us, and it did make us stronger. Our worries and priorities shifted.

Processing events of the day with Siobhan

Processing events of the day with Siobhan

“Tell me about places where you’ve seen environmental devastation?” comes one question, followed with, “and what about places of hope?” One of our early goals was to help the kids appreciate our human impact on the world. This is accomplished in spades, but to what end? We can share a litany of examples to answer the former question, but relatively few for the latter. We’re back in the middle of a consumption-driven society that seems namelessly behind so much of the imbalance we experienced between humans and our environment, and it screams at me, but there seems to be little recognition of our collective responsibility. Changed as we are by what we’ve seen, it is now anathema to re-enter the culture we once claimed.

Two cruising families in two weeks have intersected with our crew, buoying us. One has been back a year: the former crew of Daphne offer a sounding board and a lifeline. They’re proof you can pass, for a while at least, and find a way forward. Hearing their stories, sharing ours, helps center me again.

There’s Sasquatch!

There’s Sasquatch!

We see with the kids from these cruising families how that much-feared question of socialization plays out in practice. The awkward gaps of conversation in meeting fade quickly. With each family, it only takes minutes for the kids to make their way from the neutral meeting zone of the cockpit to the table in the main cabin down below. They are playing cards, sharing music, and laughing uproariously in minutes. None of them are owned by a little screen somewhere nearby, dropping bits of pixie dust to an irresistible lure away from genuine human interaction.

Dutch Blitz with new friends aboard Totem

Dutch Blitz with new friends aboard Totem

Busy weeks of exploring and experiencing the USA again are slowing down, and ready for reflection and context. One clear sign that “cruiser normal” is returning is that there’s time again to resume our routines. Exhibit A: the kids’ computer is back in action after a long haitus for repair, and Niall spent the morning helping his sisters with math lessons.

I love how she’s touching his arm while he explains linear equations

Sneaky Mama Pic: I love how she’s touching his arm while he explains linear equations

Jamie spent the morning working on the watermaker, and cleaning some apawling (ba dump bump, bad sailor pun) winches.

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Winch maintenance: at least as fun as plumbing

Balance is found, for now. It’s supported by the company with like-minded humans who recognize we’re not crazy for walking away from our secure, safe lives.

Rigging Darrin’s 110 for racing

Rigging Darrin’s 110 for racing

“Becoming a parent wrecks your life…for the better.” This was the sage advice of my cousin when I was pregnant with Niall. While we couldn’t quite grok it at the time, he was right. Your life is profoundly impacted, and the lens through which you see the world is forever shifted. Cruising is much the same: our lives, as we knew them, are wrecked. There’s no going back to before. Looking at how it’s changed us and shaped our kids, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

aloha shirt, jam jar of wine...must be sundowners

aloha shirt, jam jar of wine…must be sundowners

A New England summer aboard

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DSC_9688Our summer in New England is half over: flying by! Dangerous, as we have a long list of projects and repairs to do on Totem…but before digging into them, we had a few people to visit, places to see, presentations to give.

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It was a great experience for all of us to share our stories at Falmouth Academy to a mix of people, instead of a more exclusively “cruiser/sailor” audience. The questions are great! It also afforded our kids an opportunity to get in front of a crowd, one of the ‘normal’ kid experiences ours don’t often have. But the pressure of getting up and speaking in front of a roomful of strangers is something just about everyone needs to learn, they’ve now had three chances to do that since we got back. Each time, it’s a little smoother – a little easier – a little less stressful.

For us, the loop around this corner of New England and our first busy weeks have been about much more than speaking opportunities. It was also a great way to meet up with old friends…those we’ve known from our pre-cruising lives, and those we only knew through email/blogs while we were away…like Rebecca from the catamaran Summertime Rolls, who set us up at the Nantucket Yacht Club.

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Backyard lounging at the Vaughans with Rebecca & Brian, and SV Calico Skies’ Grace and Bill

We’ve been lucky to see some of the best of the region, iconic names and places.

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Nantucket’s ridiculously picturesque lighthouse

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Looking towards the mainland from the high point of Cuttyhunk

The Mata’irea family treated us to a spread from the Cuttyhunk Shellfish Farm’s Raw Bar service. Call them up on VHF 72 for boat-side delivery of the sweetest oysters!

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There were two different tours at various Woods Hole institutes–coordinated by our friends at Falmouth Academy. Inspiring for anyone, and pure gold for the ocean lovers on Totem.

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BIG resident stripers outside WHOI’s Marine Biological Laboratory

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This isn’t even biologist humor! Only at MBL.

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Totally lucked out: ALVIN was in residence, preparing to ship out. ALVIN!!

The spin up to Massachusetts gave us another chances to be in range of my brother and his family for an additional round of “cousin camp.” Another is already planned!

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Last night, we picked up a mooring near Noank again. We’ll be here, in/around the Mystic river, for another month—hunkered down to projects done now.  Watching the Poet’s Lounge sailing charter go out for sunset cruises in the evening, while we welcome our own from Totem’s cockpit.

poets lounge

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And at the core of it all, time with family and friends. Jamie is originally from Mystic; much of his family is sprinkled between southeastern Connecticut and Rhode Island. I’m so glad Niall can get schooled on how to shuck oysters and clams from his great uncle Lance – I don’t think it’s something he’ll ever forget.

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Family time. #1 reason we’re here.

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Jamie’s aunt and uncle are here from South Africa, and we’ve been out on Totem with cousins who flew in from California.

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Jamie’s cousin Hillary (who I swear could be MY cousin) and her son Noah

And there’s something great about circles coming around, being out with the adult kids of dear friends… who are now some years older than Jamie was when he met their parents. DSC_9797

It will be nice to slow down for a few weeks, where morning walks with Jamie’s sister and her dogs are one of the few things scheduled.

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lets meetIn a couple of weeks, we’ll host an open boat party on Totem in the Mystic area. I don’t expect to post the location here, so if you’d like to join us (August 13, anytime between 3pm and sunset), get in touch! Low key hanging out, trading stories, enjoying a sunny summer afternoon.

Maintenance and repairs will keep us busy enough otherwise: we’re dogged by charging problems that started in the Caribbean and have only gotten worse. The broken stanchion is still broken. The “clears” on our dodger…aren’t. And then there’s the matter of kayak replacements. I need to replace all my Nikon gear, two bodies and three lenses, because it has a fungus that has twice defeated a professional servicing. ouch.

Come September we’ll begin our southbound journey, by way of many stops along the US east coast. Maybe by then we’ll have a better idea of our route for wintertime and beyond. At this point, it is still best summed up as “Cuba sounds great!”

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The best mail services for cruisers

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pinterest mail servicesWhat do you do about mail while cruising? A fixed postal address is kind of handy, even when your lifestyle is footloose. (photo above: one of the few remaining Royal Mail Ships, the St Helena, anchored of Jamestown).  Even though most correspondence is digital, a few necessities make a real address important:

  • Voter registration
  • Bank / credit card accounts (electronic statements, of course, but try opening an account without an address!)
  • Vessel documentation
  • Insurance
  • Taxes and tax forms (can’t fill out a W9 without one…might not get paid without a W9)
  • Publishers/customers who insist on mailing checks
  • Driver’s license
  • International clearance (you almost always need to fill an address in somewhere on the forms. OK, you could make up a Mickey Mouse address, but it’s best to play by the rules when we’re guests in another country)

That’s not a big list, and it represents only a handful of pieces of mail per month, but it’s still unavoidable. Also, thanks to Jay Campbell (cruiser/photographer/lawyer) for pointing out that financial institutions are now getting tighter about enforcing the Patriot Act requirement for a residential address…better to get it now, than have a problem later. At least there are a lot of easy virtual mailbox services to choose from! Chatting with a woman last week who circumnavigated in the 80s/90s, when it was a complicated process involving a friend/family member, international forwarding hassle/cost/delays, and the nearest American Express office. Thank goodness THAT has changed!

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Town mailbox, Koh Phayam, Thailand

So, how do you pick a mail service? On the surface, they all work about the same way: you get a physical address where your mail lands. Envelopes are scanned and available to review online. You decide if an envelope should be opened for scanning contents. If a piece of mail is physically neede (like a replacement credit card, vessel documentation), forward whenever you want; otherwise, click to trash.

I went through the due diligence to research different services recently when I considered changing ours, and share the results to help others. Factors I looked for:

  • Address location
  • Monthly fee
  • Included pieces of mail per month
  • Any bonus mail / concierge services
Gen-u-ine post box at the top of Diana's Peak, St Helena

Gen-u-ine post box at the top of Diana’s Peak, St Helena…South Atlantic ocean

Other factors being mostly equal (a scan is a scan), the physical address is key: is there a personal tie to a particular state you want to maintain for voting or licensing? Or are you looking for income preservation by “moving” to an income-tax-free state? Unsurprisingly, several services are based in the tax-free states of Washington, Florida, Nevada or Texas (one service, Traveling Mailbox, has addresses in all four!).  (Families: FYI, your home state bears no relevance to homeschooling regulations you are obligated to follow…only the regulations of the state in which you are physically present).

Looking at cruiser-friendliness and good value, three services stand out. The “annual” figure is my way to make sense of variable monthly fees by pricing the 12-month rate for a fictional account with two addresses, based on 20 pieces of mail (20 scanned envelopes) per month, from which five pieces (total of 20 pages) needed to be scanned. It showed some surprising differences from the at-a-glance monthly fees that seemed useful.

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Dockside Solutions: Dockside Solutions bubbles up as an excellent service that ticks all boxes at a good value, and really understands the cruiser market. Among other cruisers using Dockside, Pacific Sailors Mike and Verena Kellner have have been customers for years. “Dockside Solutions has all the usual services you would expect, like scanning, forwarding, etc, but they also host cruiser get-togethers at their shop! It’s more like a community.” I think it’s especially cool that owner, Angela, keeps a map showing the locations of her clients all around the world…it’s clear that she loves what she does.

Saint Brendan’s Isle:  Most cruisers know Saint Brendan’s Isle because they’ve focused on the cruiser and RV market for years. The Boat Galley’s Carolyn Shearlock is a fan and has great post all about it. They’ll assist with establishing residency, too, so you can keep your driver’s license and more. Florida is another income-tax-free state, which makes it a good candidate. You do have to be there in person to change residency, however.

Traveling Mailbox: Traveling Mailbox stands out as by far the best value among all the services. They’re under the radar for cruisers (well, everything except SBI seems to be), but shouldn’t be, considering the relatively low fee for the same services. I learned about them from Colin, a road warrior with an international bent, who has used them for a couple of years now and has been very pleased with the rapid turnaround (as little as three hours) on scan requests. Helpful if you’d like to move on from that anchorage with good wifi, but need to see your mail first! This is also the only service I’m aware of that offer a mobile app to help manage your inbox.

Other services met basic needs, but fell short in one way or another – commented in the notes here:

next best mail services

A mention for the service we use, Earth Class Mail. Great interface, gobs of options, nice humans responding when we have a question, addresses all over the place. They were the only virtual mailbox offering a Washington state address when we took off, and their service has been awesome. Yet I’d be unlikely to choose them again, because their prices have shot up as they target businesses instead of individuals. We are grandfathered into old pricing which keeps our rate competitive, but at some point I suspect that a low-value-customers like us will get squeezed out. If you want more services and aren’t price sensitive, they’re an excellent option, but others are a lot more affordable and offer all the services cruisers or full time travelers need. Along similar lines, US Global Mail is a premium rate relative to other services, but offers a relatively speedy turnaround of scanned documents: as soon as 15 minutes to within a few hours or the request. For some, that feature may be worth paying for (most services have a 24-hour turnaround, but what if you’re trying to leave port?).

Credit where it’s due: Thoughtful information that helped me came from this post from Colin’s Work Smart and Travel blog, and the source he started from Josh at Travel China Cheaper – check them out for more details and other experiences.

Apartment mailboxes: Penang, Malaysia

Apartment mailboxes: Penang, Malaysia

Disclaimer: Traveling Mailbox provides affiliate links. I used one here, which means if you click through and sign up with them, I’ll eventually get a little kickback. Affiliate links have exactly nothing to do with my opinions on the blog.

The problem with cruising kids and socialization

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“But what about socialization?” People unfamiliar but curious about cruising lifestyle often ask this about our children. We’ve done a few presentations about our travels during our first month back in the USA, and can almost guarantee the question of our kids’ socialization will come up in the Q&A afterwards.

Tucked into comfortable chairs on a friend’s porch last week, we compared notes on our two families’ cruising experiences. The Reys have alternated cruising their classic Huckins, Cortado, with travels to Europe—building worldschooling experiences for their kids while staying close to Tony’s work. A dozen yards away, our collective tribe of six kids aged 11 to 17 laughed over a Harry Potter trivia game before abandoning the porch to play basketball in the driveway. Listening to them shoot hoops by headlights in the fading light, these kids easily interacted across a wide age range, weren’t phased by gender, and were not reticent to engage adults (or other kids more than a couple of years apart in age). It’s one example, but it’s typical, and seems to me they’re pretty well socialized.

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The only problem with cruising kids and socialization is that the myth they will be inadequately socialized persists.

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Playing “horsies” on the bow with Zada: Mexico, 2009

By flickering candlelight, we muddled over the subject of socialization. Lynne & Tony’s response is one of my favorites, too. They like to return a different question: “How did you like junior high school? What about high school?” for most of us, those weren’t overwhelmingly positive social experiences, except maybe with rose-tinted hindsight. Why not just skip over a whole pile of angst while raising and educating kids who are self-confident and secure?

I like to flip this question another way, too. Why is it presumed better socialization to put a couple of dozen kids the same age into a classroom with a single adult? Does a narrow band of peer-dominated socialization provide optimal social growth? I don’t think so, and research agrees.

The question generally comes from unaware curiosity. I suspect we are imagined off in the middle of nowhere, alone in our travels, interacting overwhelmingly just within our family unit. It’s sometimes true, but it’s the exception. Most of our time is spent “somewhere,” among the company of other cruising families on an extended field trip. Our kids have to work out conflicts, and appreciate the value of friendships. They more frequently face the social challenge to make new friends. They readily engage others across age and gender, and their communication benefits from routinely socializing with adults. Everyday life informs them about the “real world.”

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cruising kids gather for a group sketching session – Malaysia, 2014

It does take work to place yourself in the company of other kid boats. On a Facebook forum for cruising families recently, one parent wondered why, after months in the popular cruising grounds of the Bahamas, they did not encounter a single cruising family. As newbie cruisers, this family didn’t realize you can’t expect it to happen organically: it takes some effort, some advance research and contacts. And then, you have to be flexible in your plans. (How to do this another story, and a section of Voyaging with Kids is devoted to the topic.)

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Rough housing on a lawn in Nantucket: July, 2016

Being solo is fine for a while—months, even. But it can be tough over time, especially for singleton kids. It’s changed our routing plans many times, in big and small ways. We’ve seen the need for their child to be among a larger peer group push families to stop cruising altogether. I’m sure the fact our kids have each other as peers and playmates has made our stretches away from other cruisers easier.

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Kids jetting off on adventures! Comoros, 2015

In fact, there are a lot of other cruising families “out there,” and our kids get to hang out with other kids most of the time. I expect it to be harder the next few years, because older boat kids are less common: the sweet spot seems to be from around 6 to 12. (I’m still amazed that we managed to be around a more than a dozen of tween and teen cruisers during our Indian Ocean crossing year!)  It will take effort to find and connect with other kids, unless we make the tradeoff to go our own way.

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Kids from three boats prep a foraged dinner: Indian Ocean, 2015

This paints a rosy picture. Socialization is more multidimensional, and about individual personalities as well as environment. But our kids are growing as social beings in a very different way than their peers at home. We have to be open with them about these differences, so they don’t expect seamless interactions now, or transitions later. They are largely outsiders to mainstream culture. They don’t know the names of the latest celebrity newsmakers, musical hits, or fashion trends. But for the most part, it’s because they don’t care: they’re not in a bubble, and they can find these things online, and choose what’s important to them to follow.

Boat kids e.Exploring WWII wrecks: Rabaul, PNG, 2012

Boat kids e.Exploring WWII wrecks: Rabaul, PNG, 2012

It’s intimidating to make the leap to raise children differently, and we’ve gone WAY off the path of the norm. Back on Lynne & Tony’s porch, I think about hearing the “what about socialization?” question, and how it makes my mama bear hackles come up, ready to defend my cubs. I have to remember, it’s not negative judgment—just a lack of understanding. Our differently socialized kids are doing fine, thank you.

Making an impression at the Seychelles Yacht Club

Making an impression at the Seychelles Yacht Club, 2015

Big picture routing and Totem’s plans

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The Mystic river was blanketed with fog when we poked our heads into the cockpit this morning. Totem is anchored roughly between Mason’s Island and Noank: the shoreline is only about six boat-lengths away, but impossible to see. We had to get a compass direction to know which way to point the dinghy to go ashore. Lack of visibility mixed with sound insulation gave the strange feeling of being adrift while moored in our little floating home.

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Amtrak south station (thank you Joy & Alex!)

That sense of being out of step with our environment follows us during these first weeks back in the US. We’re happy to be here, just feeling a little unmoored. Focusing on the reason we’re back—time with family—helps. Early morning walks with my sister-in-law and her dogs…a new ritual. “Cousin camp” in Boston this last week, visiting my brother and his family (the kids’ cousin Lana has doubled in age since they last saw her in 2013). It’s nearly three years since the kids have seen their grandparents, too, who joined us in Boston for a mini-Fravel-reunion.

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Mairen and Siobhan bookend their cousin Lana

 

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Niall toasts his grandparents

When we feel our Differentness a little too keenly, it helps to focus on what’s ahead instead. What’s ahead breaks down into three stages: 1) this summer in New England 2) fall in the Chesapeake and working south, then 3) winter in the Caribbean.

Next week, we’ll head up to Narragansett Bay to visit with friends, old and new. Then it’s Buzzard’s Bay for a few days: Totem crew will speak as part of Falmouth Academy’s community series on July 18th (details on their website). From there we’ll sail to Nantucket before making our way back to the Mystic river, and settling back off Noank for the remainder of the summer. Planning an “open boat” for the second weekend– August 13-14–for whoever wants to come by. Just let us know.

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Radically scaled back plans for summer ’16: Maine? NH? maybe next year.

Our southbound track begins in early September. I can’t wait to come down the East River into New York City – I’ve dreamed about looking up at the buildings of Manhattan from the deck of Totem! We’d like to spend a week there before coast-hopping our way to the Chesapeake. Destination: the SSCA gam in Camp Letts, Maryland, which starts September 29. The US Boat Show follows a few days later in Annapolis (I’ll be with Voyaging with Kids publisher, Lin Pardey, in her booth). Niall tells us he needs at LEAST a week in DC to see the museums, and I bet he’d use more time if he had it, so we hope to linger in the Chesapeake for a solid month at least. There are things to do, people to meet up with, places to visit.

The problem with that, of course, is it will eventually get cold. You know what we miss already? That we’ll miss even more by then? Water this blue, and warm as a bath. So there’s really no question about the fact we’ll be heading back to the Caribbean for the winter.

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Ahhhh…..

Plans are fuzzier once we point south of the Chesapeake, late-Octoberish. There are myriad ways to get tot he Caribbean: it isn’t the straight up march south that left coast cruisers do to Mexico. Where will we land first? And how will we route after we get there? The only thing we KNOW at this point is that we want to spend a chunk of time in Cuba. For the rest, we have some decisions to make:

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…a tiny fraction of the options. Purple line was our track this spring.

  • Where to leave from the US? Carolinas, Georgia… or all the way to Florida?
  • How to route through Cuba? (Preference on board: the more rural south coast)
  • What’s the goal destination at the end of the season? We need to take this and prevailing conditions into account for a big-picture route. (Is it time for the Panama canal? Can we save enough $$ to do some work on Totem in Trinidad or Grenada? Another summer in New England, via Bermuda and the America’s Cup? CHOICES!).

I’m all for opinions, so drop a comment about places we shouldn’t ‘miss. There’s no rush to figure it out: a route will unfold, probably slowly. And meanwhile, we pick our way through the fog.

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After years as nomads, returning to the USA

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Dun colored cliffs on the back side of Block Island emerged from a hazy marine layer: our first sight of land as we approached New England. With each mile, landmarks and islets and buoys along the way tickled old memories of these waters where Jamie grew up racing, and where we met. Names remembered, but now unfamiliar enough they take a few beats to put into context. What’s the best channel east of Fishers Island? How close are the rocks off that point? What Jamie could have navigated blindfolded in years gone by needed careful chart references as we pointed towards landfall in Stonington, Connecticut.

Totem is in US waters for the first time since 2008. This is supposed to be a glorious feeling, this homecoming, but we were tense and a little stressed. Perhaps it stemmed from realization that a once-indelible mental map had faded. Certainly, a lot can be chalked up to the rough passage from Bermuda we were completing. Some was thanks to the terse reception from the boatyard, which ceased being helpful with our arrival (US Customs & Border Protection—CBP—officials work through their facility) when they learned we would be anchoring in the harbor that night (free) instead of paying them for a mooring ($50). But if I try to examine it honestly, it was also the niggling question: were we missed, after these many years gone by? Just as Jamie and I were getting a little snappy with each other a runabout motored up, carrying old friends hailing us and welcoming us home. More friends and family waited on the dock. Our mental cloud lifted.

Totem in her party dress: a strand of courtesy flags from many of the ~30 countries/territories we've visited

Party dress: a strand of courtesy flags from many of the ~30 countries/territories we’ve visited

First days back in the USA feel surreal. Kicking it off was the friendliest welcome by officialdom in eight years. CBP requests notice three hours in advance of arrival so they can send an official; it turns out Officer Alvarez drove out from Bridgeport, an hour and a half away from our landfall. We came ashore bearing a folio stuffed with the legacy documents of many past clearances, our passports, and boat stamp and ink pads. Disentangled from hugs with loved ones, we pulled ourselves together to get the official work done. It’s usually a series of papers to complete, declarations of what’s on board, crew lists completed in triplicate, etc. A little awkward while standing on a dock, I thought, but that’s OK, and just asked Officer Alvarez what we needed to do. And he gave us the most unexpected response:

“Welcome home, family! Can I take a picture with you?”

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Love this kid but his eyes are closed in 90% of the pictures

And THAT, my friends, was clearance back into the USA for our little crew. Oh, he did take the copy of our Bermuda port exit papers before leaving, but there was no lengthy process of forms and questions and stamps and judgment: it was a warm welcome, pure and simple. When that finally sank in, it took restraint for me not to give him a big hug! We spent about fifteen minutes on the dock, just chatting, answering his questions about our trip, basking in his reception and blessings (blessings!).Somewhere in all this…any vestige of arrival anxiety faded.

The kids then took off running down the dock, after Jamie told them they hadn’t REALLY connected the dots around the world till they set foot on shore. I think he actually instructed them to kiss the ground, which unfortunately we did not witness.

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Walking up the street afterwards, Niall soaked in his new surroundings. We got progressively punchy calling out all the American things to see: American flags! American license plates! Cars on the right side of the road! He was full of questions that reminded us our children are strangers in their homeland. It was the first of days answering questions about their environment, establishing norms that are ridiculously obvious to most Americans – just not so obvious to our three.

What’s that? – it’s a fire hydrant. And that stick on it? –it’s to show how deep the snow is, and where the hydrant might be under the snow. NO WAY! –yes, really! The questions and observations keep coming: there is that house a typical American house? (We’re in the painfully quaint hamlet of Stonington village, where charm is carefully molded in a Rockwell model of New England. No, that waterfront cracker box is not typical, and it’s probably worth seven figures.) And we have our moments of awkwardness. The kids expressed some discomfort at being surrounded by “spectacular wealth,” as Niall described it. I had my own predictable freakout in a grocery store that was normal by US standards, but dwarfed most I’ve seen for the last few years…found babbling in the cereal aisle, overwhelmed by options.

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Re-integration is eased in steps. The morning after arrival we sailed to Essex and the Seven Seas Cruising Assocation gathering, but before pulling up the anchor, met briefly with the teacher from Falmouth Academy who has engaged his class in join projects with us this year. Excited to meet him in person, he bowled us over with a welcome-home care package of treats: Hershey’s kisses. Chocolate chip cookies. Vermont sharp cheddar. Local craft beer. Twizzlers. And a gorgeous blueberry pie, because when their class asked over Skype what American foods we missed (Siobhan: “What’s American food?”), Niall chimed in with pie.

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Not so fast, Mairen! Surveying the loot…

Speaking at the SSCA gam both helped us process our own experiences, and benefit from the positive energy of sharing our knowledge. We hope to do a lot more of that while we’re back, and have a few yacht club and bookstore presentations lined up (contact us if you’d like to nominate a location!). But this first little roller coaster ride is just the beginning, and I’m sure there will be plenty of ups and downs as we get to know our home again and the myriad of ways it’s changed since we  left. For the kids especially, who for have grown up outside: Siobhan has no real memories of living in the US, and Mairen’s are few. And in truth, it’s fascinating seeing it through their eyes, unburdened by past experience.

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Passage notes: Bermuda to Connecticut

1 sunset at sea“This is turning into an expensive passage.” Those were Jamie’s words to me after the latest breakdown on our third day at sea. A large block, used for the genoa sheet, had permanently parted ways with the track on deck.

The passage started benignly enough, once we got going. Although the weather watch to depart began the day we arrived in Bermuda, there were people to see and boat parts to fix, and a week felt sufficient. Plenty of time all around, really: there were three weeks before we needed to be in  Connecticut and our passage time, in good conditions, should take only three or four days. What was there to worry about?

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Plenty, it turns out. Systems come from multiple directions: you have to watch for cyclonic weather spinning up from the tropics, and lows rolling off the US east coast. We’re out of the trades and into the realm of variable winds (e.g., no consistent and reasonably predictable wind direction and strength), with convective weather—squalls—to keep things exciting.  Day after day, reports showed either potential heavy weather conditions to avoid, or an unstable forecast marked by significant disagreement between weather data sources about what might happen. A clear weather window for the passage proved elusive, as we have no interest in tempting fate.

At one point it seemed like we wouldn’t even make it to Essex in time for our June 21 presentation (now that was an email I didn’t want to write the event organizers). So when the various models Jamie monitors for weather forecasts finally resolved into agreement – and with conditions looked reasonable- we dove into passage prep and were on our way in a couple of days.

We hauled anchor at dawn in the placid bay inside St George’s. The first day was a gentle beginning, sailing north over the top of the bank to the west of the islands. A small pod of beaked whales—Cuvier’s beaked whale, possibly (any cetacean jockeys able to ID from the fuzzy pictures below?)—were the sentimental boost to a perfect day of comfortable sailing. If only it had lasted! By evening, the wind and seas combined to make life on Totem more bouncy than is comfortable.

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One of the significant dynamics in this passage is the Gulf Stream, a fast, warm ocean current that flows northwards along the US east coast, bending out and across the Atlantic towards Scotland and Norway. In our path, we’ll cross it at points where speeds may be up to 3 knots. When wind direction opposes current, the Gulf Stream is a famously miserable place to be.

We didn’t cross it until our third night at sea, and at a time that the wind and current aligned, making the passage relatively smooth. But beginning the first evening and lasting for the next couple of days, the swirls and eddies to the east of the main force of the stream created very uncomfortable sea state.

The dominant current stream bears close watching and careful planning to avoid when wind opposes current, but it’s the smaller flows spinning off from it that make a significant impact to passage planning. Current is the foundation of the sea state here: specifically, streams current in close proximity that are running in opposite directions. This causes peaky waves of enhanced size. It can be really uncomfortable. This is similar to our experience in the Mozambique channel. There, too, the dominant current is conventionally described as monolithic – when actually, it’s much more complex.

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Compounding the confused seas, we seemed to be doing a lot of unexpected upwind work. Routing algorithms indicated we could expect up to 25% to be upwind, but other than some gorgeous beam reaching the first day, the passage was almost entirely hard on the wind. And then, the wind was much stronger than expected forecast: instead of 20 knots (which we always always assume could be 40% higher, so, pushing up near 30 knots) we instead had a lot of mid-thirties, one especially uncomfortable night in the 40s, and top gusts around 50. Sailing into this wind, in sloppy seas, is cagetorically Not Fun. Recall that force=mass x acceleration, mix in square-fronted waves that are moving against us with the current, and it makes for uncomfortable pounding. Water sluices back along the side decks. Every imperfectly sealed hatch is found the hard way, and the girls’ bunk was soaked with saltwater. Leaks from the main cabin hatches make everything damp and salty.

The stress of these conditions cost us our kayak. We picked up the well-used Keowee from CraigsList back in… 2007, I think, or maybe it was 2006. It was a playground for the kids during that time at the dock while we worked getting Totem ready to leave. It was their first stretch of independence. It’s been our second car for years, the kids’ by default. My haven for solo exploration, or the nest for 1:1 time with one of the kids.

Niall and Mairen in our home port, Eagle Harbor…wearing jammies

Niall and Mairen in our home port, Eagle Harbor…wearing jammies

It happened when one of these steep-fronted waves smacked into the bow for the Nth time. The kayak spends passages lashed to a couple of stanchions, and there was enough energy in motion for the broad, flat bottom of the kayak to exert significant force against the stanchions. One broke off at the base, loosening the lashing. A subsequent wave picked up the kayak and flung it over the lifelines, still attached to the boat and now banging on the hull while full of water. There was no safe option but to cut it loose, complete with paddles, fishing pole, dock hose, and more stored inside.

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no more kayak; the broken forward stanchion is tied to its aft neighbor

This wasn’t even the worst chapter. Most frightening of all was in the wee hours of our third night at sea. Towards the end of my watch I caught the whiff of a faint odor; it got stronger when I went below, and seemed like smoke. I woke up Jamie, who has a gift for going from zonked to alert in seconds (not my specialty), and thank goodness for that, because it was apparent that something was burning and fire on board holds among the greatest potential for disaster. Jamie immediately went in action to suss out the source. Niall sees the lights on in the cabin, and although our teen is usually only up at 2:30a.m. if he hasn’t gone to bed yet, pops out to assist—getting out the life raft, putting it in the cockpit with our ditch kits, following us with fire extinguishers, doing whatever needs to be done. Tense minutes tick by searching for the source: engine, battery bank, charger, electrical panel check out. Finally, it’s found at the controller for the solar panel. This voltage regulator shorted internally, and the smell is from wires melting inside the unit. A breaker has already tripped, and likely prevented any further problem even if we hadn’t found it ourselves, but our hearts are pumping as Jamie disconnects the remaining wires.

last sunset at sea: no more ocean sunsets for a while

last sunset at sea: no more ocean sunsets for a while

Chalked up to Neptune’s might: one kayak, one stanchion, one fancy big block, much salty laundry and cleaning to come. Some wet books, salvaged with careful drying. Not claimed: morale of the crew under tough conditions. The kids chipped in proactively, whether washing dishes or standing watch. Laughing and dealing instead of griping when the saltwater spray and leaks find their way, unwanted, into yet another corner of Totem. Acting quickly and as a team in an emergency. I am so proud of our crew. And I know we are all very grateful to put this passage behind us.

This wasn’t the dreamy voyage of night watch ruminations under a canopy of stars. It’s one we’re all happy to put behind us. Closing the miles towards Stonington, although I mourn the kayak, the energy on Totem isn’t mired in the difficulties of the past days. There is palpable excitement as we get closer to the “home” our kids have mostly learned about from afar, and the friends and family they recall through a few distant memories.

Totem is now tucked in at the Essex Yacht club for Summer Sailstice! Looking forward to a long weekend of good times and information sharing with the SSCA’s annual gam.