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

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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