Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Entering The Kingdom of Tonga

Our first stop after leaving Samoa was a tiny little island that was about half way between Western Samoa and the Vava’u group of islands in Tonga.  While it’s only about a 30 hour passage, it’s one to be careful of since these waters can be unpredictable due to the South Pacific Convergence Zone.

After carefully consulting the weather, we set off with a prediction for 12-15 knots of wind on the beam.  Unfortunately, we got 22-28 knots on the nose instead – NOT FUN!  After so much downwind sailing this was a rude reminder of how different it is to sail in the big bad ocean versus the Puget Sound.  We were also reminded how badly our forward hatch leaks under those conditions when we captured a whopping 3 buckets (5-gallon buckets!) full of sea water that had leaked though our hatch – and that’s just the water we caught!  Suffice it to say that it was an extremely wet and uncomfortable trip and we were very glad it was a short one.

The kids in Tonga are ADORABLE!

I’m happy to report that the sun was shining when we arrived at Niuatoputapu (often referred to as “New Potato” by cruisers as it’s a bit of a mouthful to pronounce) and we were able to drag everything out onto the deck to dry out.  Ahhhh the joys of this cruising life!

Big Sia
Little Sia
When we first arrived there were only two other boats, but by the next day there were about 8, many of which we already knew from Samoa.  We soon met the rest when we did a tour of the island with Sia, the resident self-proclaimed greeter and tour guide of Niuatoputapu.  Who knew you could fit 17 people in one truck!  Sia basically calls you on the VHF when you arrive and assists you with checking into the country and showing you the island.  She has an adorable little girl – also named Sia.

Woman weaving
During our tour we saw some interesting things, but one I found especially fascinating is the traditional weaving found throughout Tonga.  Hand-woven mats are used for a variety of functions in Tonga including clothing, sleeping mats and floor coverings.  They are a huge part of Tongan life and are often presented as gifts during weddings, births or deaths.  Each mat is unique and they are greatly treasured within Tongan society.

Weaving in process.
It is not uncommon to come across a house where several women (or perhaps an entire family of women) will be working on mats.  In this region the weaving is most commonly done with Pandanus leaves which can range in length, but are typically about 4-6 feet long.  Suffice it to say that there is a crazy amount of work that goes into preparing the leaves before they can be used for the weaving, and to complete a 4 x 6 foot piece can take two women up to 2 weeks to finish.  We really wanted to buy one as a memento so you can imagine my surprise when we later purchased a beautifully finished mat at the market in Tongatapu for just $40 USD.

Check out that detailed work - WOW!

Grave sites of the 9 lost during the tsunami of 2009
Something else worth noting is that this area has greatly benefitted from relief efforts via the World Bank after being hit by a devastating Tsunami in 2009.  Nine lives were lost and countless homes were destroyed.  Many islanders were left with nothing after their homes were damaged or washed out to sea.  But in the aftermath the World Bank came in and spent 5 million to rebuild and repair the infrastructure of the island.  In the end, they retrofitted 60 buildings and built 73 new houses – plus a new school.  The people of the island still speak of that day with fear, but at least they are now well on their way towards getting back to a “normal” life thanks to this reconstruction project. 

Boys playing in front of one of the new buildings

Some friends Brett made.
Brett had a great time getting to know some of the local children in the village.  In many of the places we’ve gone the resounding cry has been for a “lolly” (aka candy), but on this island we were only asked for pencils and pens for school.  How sweet is that?  Of course we were happy to oblige.

All in all Niuatoputapu was a wonderful little place to stop and regroup after a nasty passage before continuing on to the Vav’u group.  We enjoyed the people, but we especially enjoyed the children and their unabashed pleasure in just being alive.  It’s amazing how little people can have, and still be completely happy and content.  It’s a good lesson for all of us.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Wonderful World of Western Samoa

Words can hardly describe what a lovely place Western Samoa is.  We had planned to stay on the island of Upolu in the town of Apia for just 3 days, but after discovering how exceptional it was we ended up staying for two wonderful weeks.

One of the many beautiful beaches
Where do I start when describing this amazing place?  At the beginning of course!  We arrived early in the morning after an overnight passage from America Samoa and were quickly greeted by the Apia Port Authority, who escorted us into the marina (where you are required to stay when visiting).  Once docked we were promptly checked in by some friendly folks from Immigration and Customs – how great is it that they all come to you?  Considering that in some countries this can be an all day affair as you wonder around from one office to the next, this was quite a treat!

After being officially cleared in, we happily caught up with friends on Mazu and Moondance and got the lay of the land, which included happy hour at the conveniently located bar at the top of the boat ramp – a great place to get to know all of your new neighbors on the dock.  We were soon introduced to a couple on a Swedish boat, Anniara – Göran and Gudrun.  They were thinking about renting a car to tour the island for two days and wondered would we like to join them and split the cost.  Even though we didn’t know them, we jumped at the opportunity as the price was good and they seemed like people we’d like to know better.  We’re happy to report they’ve since become good friends – though we’ve had some pretty competitive game nights!

Robert Louis Stevenson Museum (and home)
We had a great time touring the island and seeing all the sites over the next few days.  Our first stop was a tour of the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum – the home where the famous author (Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to name a few) lived the last five years of his life.  He obviously made an excellent impression on the locals during his short time here as they speak very fondly of him and his contributions to their beautiful island and culture.

Robert Louis Stevenson and family

Gudrun and I marvel at the roots of the Ma Tree
After the museum we took in a few waterfalls and did the hike out to see the “Ma Tree” – a huge tree in the middle of the forest.  The short hike took us through some of the Upolu island rainforest, which was beautiful, but the tree itself is very impressive.  The huge roots that tower out of the ground are really a site to see.

Check out that ladder!
After more waterfalls (my personal fave was Togitogiga), lots of pigs (and cute little piglets) and the lovely Tafatafa Beach, we made a stop at the not-to-be-missed To Sua Ocean Trench, a local wonder of landscape where a huge hole in the ground has exposed a giant salt water pool.  After having a quick lunch at the park’s small restaurant we donned our swimwear and wandered over to the edge to look at the pool.  To reach it you have to climb down a nearly vertical ladder onto a slippery platform.  While a little intimidating, the refreshing swim in the clear water was well worth the climb.  At low tide you can apparently swim under water thru a passage to the outside, but we decided to pass since we had no idea on the state of the tide.

Samoan's - always ready to smile.
We finished our first day with a run over the majestic Le Mafa Pass (great views of the whole island) and then driving the northeast coastline – incredible views abounding.  But what really stood out the most was how CLEAN everything is here.  Every single house was well tended with immaculate yards full of flowers and greenery.  Every little village was completely spotless – not an ounce of trash to be seen and roadways neatly painted in different colors to delineate one village from the next.  After the trash of America Samoa it was stunning to see how perfectly kept everything in Western Samoa was.

Shirley, Taf and Nana - young at 89!
Our second day out was filled with more beautiful water falls, an interesting lunch at a small grocery store and some gorgeous white sandy beaches.  But the best part was the end.  While searching for the beach that the movie “Return To Paradise” was filmed at we had the excellent luck to meet a wonderful woman named Shirley Esera.  She was teaching some of the village children who we had stopped to say hello to and soon we were invited in to visit with her, her nana (grandmother) and her husband, Taf – who quickly provided coconuts to sip all around.  Turns out in Samoa, men do most of the cooking and cleaning – I knew there was a reason I loved this place!!!

After chatting for a while, Shirley asked if we would like to join them for their Sunday dinner the next day.  Her father and mother would be home from the city and she would love for us to meet them.  Of course we jumped at the opportunity as getting a chance to meet families and learn more about their culture is what doing a trip like this is all about!

The Lemalu clan
And so we happily returned the next day and met the whole family – including Shirley’s sister, a good friend, her parents, Nana and the grandkids.  What an interesting family and we greatly appreciate the opportunity to learn so much about Samoan customs, families, village life and what comprises the Fa’a Samoa (the Samoan Way).

The 3 pillars of Fa’a Samoa are the Matai (village chiefs), Aiga (extended family) and the church.  Each village has Matai – which are the heads of the “extended family” and they have important duties within their family and the village.  According to the Samoa website, there are 362 villages throughout the Western Samoa islands and over 18,000 Matai!  Aiga is huge here - with a definite structure of respect, with elders garnering the most respect.  It's not unusual for many family members to live under one roof, or for siblings to take care of each others kids.  Everything revolves around family, church and village life.

Where all the big decisions are made!
As you may have guessed, there are different levels of Matai and it turns out Shirley and her family are highly titled Matai.  Shirley’s father explained why each house will have an open air structure and how the piles that support the roof can indicate the number of “talking chiefs” in that village.  When the village has an issue, all of the talking chiefs (Matai) will gather and discuss the issue completely.  Once the head Matai has heard all of the arguments, they will make a decision and that decision in FINAL!  No more discussion, no more arguments – their decision is the law.  I found it an interesting way of problem solving – everyone gets to say their piece, but the eldest (and presumably wisest) Matai of the village has the final say.  We can’t thank Shirley and her family enough for sharing their home and their food and their knowledge with us – it was a truly amazing experience!

Another reason we decided to stay a little longer in Apia is that the annual Teuila Festival was set to begin just days after our arrival.  This festival is a huge attraction for the island, with lots of competitions, singing and fire dancing to behold – definitely worth staying for.  One of my favorite things about Samoa is how interested the people are in greeting and learning about where you are from, but also how willing they are to share their cultural heritage.  There was even a “Cultural Village” where you could learn about the history and customs of their society – including food, carvings, tapa making, tattooing and more.  It was fascinating and all free!

Pe'a tattooing - not for the faint of heart!

Check out those tattooing instruments - yikes!
It turns out that the ancient art of needle tattooing, called Pe’a in Samoa, is still alive and well.  This traditional male tattoo, considered a right of passage for receiving a Matai title, is not something that is taken lightly as it is costly and extremely painful – but those who complete the process garner great respect.  Unfortunately, those who don’t often commit suicide as it is considered highly shameful for you and your village if you don’t complete the full tattoo.  Pe’a, which consists of complete coverage from the waist to the knees is undertaken using handmade tools and is administered by Tufuga Ta Tatau – tattoo masters who are highly revered by their fellow Samoans.  We were able to witness this process taking place and I can tell you it looks incredibly painful.  Often family members and friends will be in attendance to provide support and encouragement.  Titled women also undergo this process (though their designs are not quite as widespread) and Shirley proudly showed us hers and thoroughly earned our respect!

Finished Tapa Paintings

We were also highly fascinated to learn the complete process involved in making tapa cloths – something we had actually purchased in the Marquesas – basically paintings done on “cloth” made from specific trees.  After watching this process from start to finish, we had a much greater respect for the work involved and felt amazed to have bought ours for what seems like a song considering what is involved!

Cutting the bark off the tree
Flattening and pounding to stretch out the bark and than laying flat to dry. 
After this the "cloth" is doubled up and filled in as needed to form a surface for painting the design.
While all of these experiences were amazing, I would be remiss to not mention the shear entertainment value of the annual fire dancing contest – one of the most important parts of the Teuila Festival.  We not only watched the final competition, but also enjoyed the elimination rounds prior to the final night – for both children and the adults.  Yes – young boys also perform these dances and it is very serious business.  What a great experience to get to see all of this up close and personal – I think Brett took almost 1000 photographs!

As you can likely tell from the length of this post, we just can’t say enough about Western Samoa and how impressed we were with the people, the landscape, and the importance of family, morals and traditions in this amazing society.  I would highly recommend a visit to these wonderful islands if you ever get the chance.

Thanks for all the smiles Samoa!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A little slice of America in a land far, far away…

The beautiful coastline of America Samoa

When you’ve been far away from home for many months, the thought of spending a little time in a country that starts with the word “America” can be pretty tempting.  Especially the thought of being able to re-provision with some real live American products!  So after 2 wonderful weeks in Suwarrow, Bella Vita set sail for America Samoa.

When you say you are going to America Samoa everyone wants to tell you how terrible it is.  The harbor is supposed to be completely foul after the tsunami that came through a few years ago and there are lots of stories about anchors getting fouled on washing machines or refrigerators or boats dragging all over the harbor during high winds.  People also like to tell you (even though they haven’t been there) how terrible it smells because of the tuna processing plants.  Basically most folks say the place is a waste of time – dirty, smelly and dangerous to anchor in. 

Heartbreaking how much trash can
fill the harbor after rainstorms...
While I will completely agree that the smell can be eye wateringly offensive – it thankfully only happens for a short period a couple of times a day.  I can live with that.  And for the 10 days we were anchored in the harbor, we held just fine.  When we pulled anchor all that came up was a black plastic bag, so while some boats may have had a bad experience, we did not.  The only thing that made us extremely sad was the amount of trash that filled the harbor after strong rain storms (which happened very often).  Unfortunately the people here are still learning that plastics do not decompose and can’t just be tossed out the window of your car…

Thanks for all the help Caroline!
Surprisingly, what people don’t talk about is how beautiful the island is once you get away from the dark and dingy harbor.  We were very blessed to have been introduced to a local named Caroline who drove us around a bit and helped us to see more of the island.  We greatly appreciated her willingness to give us a ride on a provisioning run to the Cost-U-Less – a great warehouse like place with lots of American type products – including Hersey’s Kisses, a favorite passage treat for us!  We hope Caroline wasn’t too shocked by all the stuff we bought!

Keeping the dead close...
One interesting aspect of life in America Samoa is that the dead play and integral part of the daily existence for the living.  Most family members are buried in the front yard of the family home.  As you ride the buses around you pass countless graves right in front of the house – and often you will see family members lying on top of them to stay cool during the heat of the day.  Gives new meaning to keeping the dead close, huh? 

Now that's what I call friendly officials!
Another thing worth mentioning was how friendly everyone was.  Walking down the street a quick smile would bring a friendly smile and warm greeting in return.  And the US Customs guys?  Compared to dealing with customs in the USA, they were a big treat.  Yep, this image says it all.  Don’t be fooled – it wasn’t Brett bringing them donuts....no….they offered their donuts to US!!!  Can you even imagine that happening in the states?  Our guys could take a lesson or two from these wonderfully warm, but still clearly competent officials.  They processed us in and out of their country with a smile and a warm greeting proving once again that you don’t have to be a jerk to get the job done.  Very nice!

Need a ride?  The bus system in AmSam rocks!

Video AND feathers - sweet!
Definitely our favorite part of AmSam was the bus system.  There are buses that go EVERYWHERE and they are CHEAP!  Not only that, they are each decorated by their owner with a lot of flair (which usually meant feathers!).  We used the bus system extensively and got a real kick out of seeing the different decorations employed to tempt riders to come on board.  Some even had videos!  Cost to go to most places was just $1, and usually included some good music to boot.  With buses coming by about every 10 minutes it was a great way to get around. 

All in all, while it rained a LOT and and was VERY hot and humid, we are glad we made a stop in this small American outpost.  The people have a lot to offer and the island is very beautiful once you get out of Pago Pago and do a little exploring.  And to top it off we’re officially re-stocked with enough Hershey Kisses to make it to New Zealand!

Another awesome bus ride - thanks AmSam!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

One Year Out Part II–Advice for New Cruisers

BV at Suwarrow

While we are in NO WAY experts after one year, there are some things we’d like to pass along that we have learned after sailing almost 10,000 miles out on the big blue ocean.  In the interest of keeping it simple, I’m going to do bullet points on topics.  If you have ANY questions, feel free to post a comment and I’ll try to get back to you when we have internet…

Food Provisioning

Provision 3

  • Don’t go overboard on staples like rice, flour, milk, pasta or canned meat and vegetables.  These items are available pretty much anywhere you go – even the smallest store will have most of them – so don’t bother wasting too much space on them.
  • DO stock up on items you love that you know you won’t be able to get elsewhere.  I am a total cheese-o’holick, so we brought a LOT of cheese and I buy more whenever we have the opportunity.  I’m relieved to say we’ve never run out (not sure WHAT would happen if we did!!!).  Stock up on what is important to YOU!
  • Don’t bother stocking up on toothpaste, shampoo, soaps, etc.  They are also available everywhere.  Turns out people all over the world like to stay clean!  Not sure why I didn’t think about that before we left… 
  • In Mexico you can find almost anything, so don’t feel like you need to buy a ton of stuff before leaving the states.  If you make the jump across the pond to the South Pacific, things start getting harder to find and they are much more expensive.  We provisioned VERY heavily in Mexico and it saved us a LOT of money in the long run (AND allowed us to eat well for a reasonable price!).
  • If you drink, stock up heavily before leaving the states or Mexico as alcohol is VERY expensive pretty much everywhere in the South Pacific, but especially in French Polynesia.  And don’t forget about your mixers!  Tonic was available in larger ports, but only after some wide searches – even in Mexico. 
  • Bizarrely, junk food and sugary cereals are available in EVERY store (even the tiny ones) in the south pacific.  It’s a pretty sad statement if you ask me – but I will admit to being glad to get a pretzel fix whenever I want one…
Cruising Thoughts:
Our New View
  • Mexico – if you plan to winter in Mexico before making the jump to the South Pacific, do NOT plan to winter in the Sea of Cortez.  We did a lot of reading, but never found this advice, so thought we should pass it along.  While the the sea is a wonderful and beautiful place (can’t express how much we loved it there), December through March is NOT the time to be there.  You will get constantly pinned down in 20-35 knot winds for days at a time.  There is a reason cruisers leave for mainland Mexico by mid-December! 
  • If we had to do over again, we would spend less time in the Marquesas and WAY more time in the Tuamotos.  While the Marquesas were nice, the anchorages can be rough and it all looks very similar after a while.  Since you only have 90 days in FP, we would recommend 2-3 weeks in the Marquesas, 5-6 weeks in the Tuamotos and the remainder in the Society Islands. 
  • Do NOT miss Suwarrow!!!  Out of everywhere we’ve been, this was by far a favorite spot and should not be missed.  There is something magic about that place and we wish we could have stayed much longer.
  • Skip America Samoa if you are only going there to provision.  The cost to stay (we paid $167 and are US citizens!) completely offsets any money you save on what you buy there.  If you absolutely MUST have your US type products, than make a stop, but don’t do it if you just want to save money.  That said, we loved the Samoan people and the island itself was beautiful once you got out of the dirty and smelly Pago Pago harbor.

What to bring:
  • SPARE PARTS!!!  Brett took a lot of grief from everyone on how many spare parts we purchased before we left, but some of them have really saved our bacon (or the bacon on another boat that needed it).  Even so, there were things we didn’t think of.  So if you have the room, bring everything you can think of that might break.
  • Lots of flashlights.  You might even consider installing a flashlight in each area of your boat – you will be amazed at how often you need one and it’s great to have one no matter where you are.
  • Tools – bring as many as you can in the room you have available.  Think through every major system on your boat and what you would need to fix it when it DOES break. 
  • Buy LOTS of batteries if you have battery driven items.  We were shocked at how fast we went through our AA’s.  They also make great trading items.
  • Bring lots of paper, pens and pencils for the kids in the islands.  As we got past FP the kids were not asking for money or candy – they just wanted school supplies, which are very expensive to buy here.  I can’t think of anything I would rather give away than something that will help a kid in school.
  • Extra t-shirts are good for trading and gifts.  Know that your own t-shirts will all end up stained and in tough shape as time goes on so having some extras is a good thing.
  • LOTS of bathing suits – you’ll wear them out quickly and it’s something you need.  Buy good quality swim suits – not cheap ones as they break down really fast in the sun and salt.
  • Bring a light weight wet suit or full body micro suit.  Even though the water is warm you get cold pretty quick when doing long snorkel trips.  Also invest in quality snorkel gear.
  • Various bug traps and bug bombs – ants, cockroaches, etc.  Even when you are super careful it can still happen.  While we have been lucky to not have any cockroaches (yet!), we know several (clean and careful) boats that do and they are really tough to get rid of if you don’t have the stuff to do it.
  • Mosquito coils or candles and LOTS of bug spray as the mosquitos in some areas can be brutal. 
  • Extra printer cartridges – you can find them, but they are WAY more expensive than in the US.  Make sure you store them in some sort of plastic as they will often dry up.  It’s great to have a color printer to print a photo or two of a local you’ve friended – they love them!
  • Lonely Planet (or similar) guides on anyplace you plan to go.  Knowing something about the places your traveling in makes for a much richer experience.
  • Stainless steel polish (to many brands to name one) and a stain remover (like FSR).  Stainless does rust in the tropics and it will color your fiberglass pretty quickly if you don’t keep after it.
What do we wish we’d brought that we scoffed at before leaving?
A washer/dryer installed on the boat.  Laundry turned out to be a really big deal after leaving the wonderful services in Mexico.  Not only has it been ridiculously expensive (we’ve paid as much as $20 US for one load, wash only!), but they don’t always come back any cleaner than they left.  We do almost all of our own laundry on board and only send out towels and sheets, usually for wash only  to keep the cost down.  I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve wasted (with sore arms to boot) doing laundry.  If we had installed one of the small washers available for boats, I would be a much happier gal.

Weather & SSB Radios
Do not leave home without installing an SSB radio.  Sign up for either Winlink (free) or Sailmail (better stations for the South Pacific IMHO) and make sure you understand how to subscribe to weather files – both gribs and text.  These will be unbelievably important to you at all times – you must know and understand how to get them and how to read them.  Your safety depends on it.  You should always look at the weather for several days prior to your departure and if it looks bad – don’t leave!

The added benefits of the SSB radio are you can join local nets to keep track of friends or to let people know where you are.  Also great is the ability to keep in touch via email with loved ones at home when there is no internet.  While internet coverage is fairly good in most places, there are definitely times when you won’t have it and will be very glad you’ve got your SSB.

Top 3 things that break down on cruising boats:
  • Refrigeration
  • Outboard engines
  • Autopilots
Almost every cruising boat we know has had problems with one of those breaking down – if not all of them – so be as prepared as possible with spare parts, refrigerant, tools and more spare parts!

Equipment Recommendations:
  • The strongest autopilot you can afford to install in your boat.  Out of all the things that break, the worst one that happens to MANY cruisers is losing your autopilot.  I can’t tell you how many boats we know that have told us horror stories of having to hand steer their boats during long passages when their autopilot when out.  Knock on wood, but we haven’t had any problems yet as we installed a hydraulic autopilot that was oversized for our boat.  We’ve put that piece of equipment through some serious tests and I’ve never been so glad that we spent the money to upsize. 
  • Dual refrigeration systems.  We have both engine driven and DC driven and both have failed us multiple times, and currently BOTH are not working (sigh).  We’re hoping to have the parts for the DC one  when some friends arrive to visit, but no clue when our engine driven one will be back online as we have a leak that we haven’t been able to identify.  Hopefully the DC one will get us to New Zealand once we have the parts.  Until then we have our food on several different boats that had some extra room.   It’s amazing how other cruisers will come through to help when needed.  Make sure your system is in great shape and bring lots of spare parts – especially brushes for the motor!
  • Two outboards – one large and one small.  Not only is it great to have a backup outboard if one goes down, it’s great to have options.  When we know we’re just cruising around a small anchorage we use our putt putt.  Not only does it use less fuel, but it’s lighter (easier to move) and you don’t need the big fuel tank in your dinghy.  But when we have to go longer distances, it’s great to have the big dog – it gets us up on a plane and we fly across the water, covering long distances in no time.
  • Get a good dinghy with a hard bottom and a nice v-shape in the front.  This is your CAR!  You will be spending a LOT of time in this car and it’s shape is very important.  The v-shape in the front (preferably coming up at a nice sharp angle) will keep the water out of the dinghy when it’s rough out and make for a dryer ride.  If only we’d known that before we left…..I wouldn’t have to listen to Brett curse our dinghy on a regular basis (sigh).  Also consider having dinghy chaps made to cover it as it will prolong the life of your “car” considerably.
  • A good wind generator is worth its weight in gold.  Same for solar panels.  It’s free energy.  Enough said.
  • Lot’s of low draw fans.  You simply can’t have enough of them.  Put them everywhere you spend time – especially by the bed, galley and main salon.  You WILL be hot in many locations and you will be very glad you have them.  I’m sitting in front of one right now in fact!
  • A Rocna anchor – I know this will provoke plenty of arguments, but I firmly believe the Rocna is THE BEST anchor on the market.  It holds beautifully in pretty much every anchorage we’ve been in – sand, mud, rocks, you name it.  It has awesome holding ability but still comes up easily – even after 4 days of 30+ knot winds.  It has gotten us through some sleepless nights at anchor while everyone around us was dragging.  I know they are expensive – but they are worth every freaking penny.
  • Having a wifi booster on board is great – lets you get internet in the comfort of your own home instead of having to go to the local internet café.  Not a “must have”, but rather a “nice to have”.
Final Pre-departure Advice
  • Take the time to have a big sendoff party.  It doesn’t have to be fancy (ours was BYOB) and it allows you to say goodbye to all the people you care about along with giving you a great memory to hold dear during your final days at home and all the stress that comes with it. 
  • Accept that you will be VERY stressed out during those final weeks trying to get through your check list.  Brett’s blood pressure was off the charts during this time – but thankfully went right back down after we left.
  • Have someone at home to help manage your affairs and be a home base.  Many things (insurance, credit cards, banks, etc) want you to have a US address (no PO boxes allowed) so this really helps.  If you trust them enough to do a power of attorney, I would recommend that too as we have had to use that once already.
  • Put your affairs in order.  Make sure your family knows what you want if you are hurt (aka a “living will”) and create a will so that it’s clear what should happen if the worst happens to you.  Hopefully you won’t need it!
  • Make sure your health insurance includes a healthy amount of evacuation insurance to fly you to a better hospital.  While we haven’t needed it ourselves, we’ve heard of a few folks that have.
  • LEAVE!  Sometimes just leaving the dock is the hardest part, but there comes a time when you have to accept that everything won’t be perfect but it’s just time to go anyway! 
  • Be prepared to go through a BIG adjustment period – even if you’ve lived aboard for years.  Leaving all your friends and family behind for the unknown is not an easy thing and it takes some getting used to.  Let yourself have time to adjust.
Wow!  That was way longer than I thought it would be – I guess we had a lot to say after all.  Just keep in mind that we’re still newbies at this and have a lot to learn – but that’s part of the beauty of this life – you never stop learning.  And if some small part of what we’ve learned helps a new cruiser than even better!


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Musings after One Year Out - Part I – Personal Growth

Our last view of our beloved Seattle skyline

Our final view of the beautiful Seattle skyline...

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about how this first year has gone with all of the places we’ve seen so far.  Since leaving Seattle on September 6th, 2012, we have stayed at 92 different anchorages (or marinas) and according to our GPS trip log we have traveled 9238 nautical miles.  That’s a heck of a lot of distance at an average of 6 miles per hour!

Many people think that cruising is a permanent vacation – all playtime and fun on white sand beaches…..and while that is a part of it, I can tell you this sailing life not necessarily the “dream” we all dreamt about before leaving.  So I thought on this “anniversary” of sorts I would take the opportunity to talk about my own thoughts and personal feelings.  To discuss how I have been affected by our travels this year and how much I have changed already – maybe not in the obvious ways you would see if you know me, but changing within, where it counts.

When we first left Seattle, I was both devastated and more excited than I’ve ever been.  Leaving my family and friends behind for the complete unknown was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  Brett and I are blessed with an extensive family and a wonderful set of amazing friends that we really enjoy spending time with.  Being very social people, our first few months cruising were pretty lonely even though we were seeing and experiencing many new things.  It was much harder than we expected to meet boats going the same way at the same pace, so was tough to make friends, even when you’re outgoing!  The one reprieve was our friends on S/V Daybreak – a wonderful family whose company and humor was much appreciated and enjoyed.

Thankfully after we’d been in Mexico for a while that started to change, but it really picked up when we started to connect with the other boats that would be making the crossing to the South Pacific.  We have now forged countless friendships with boats we still see fairly often and will likely continue to see as we progress along the “coconut milk run”.  We also continue to make new friends along the way, which happily has our social calendar as full as we want to make it.

But starting out down this new road was much harder than I had expected.  Even though I really thought I was mentally ready for it, for about the first four months I experienced on-again-off-again periods of depression, missing my family and friends tremendously.  Leaving all those relationships behind was so much harder harder than I had anticipated, especially my morning walks with Susan.  Those daily doses of girlfriend time were more valuable than gold and I missed that time more than I would have thought possible.

And it’s not just the relationships you miss.  We are all creatures of comfort and we humans relish the familiar and the safety of the known.  But when you are cruising, nothing is familiar anymore – EVERYTHING is new.  You can’t just drive your car to the local Safeway or Home Depot to get what you need – and often the search for what you need will be an all day affair.  Ironically we don’t even know how comforting that is until it’s gone.  For me, this new paradigm was very difficult to adjust to – I craved the comfort of the known and felt a lot of irrational fear as a result of the overwhelming “unknown” of it all.

The final difficult part for me was the safety factor.  While we lived aboard for several years before departing (to make sure we wouldn’t kill each other in a tight space!), we did so safely tied to the dock at Elliott Bay Marina.  Big wind storm?  No problem as we were totally safe in our snug little cabin tied to the dock.  But not anymore.  Big wind storm now?  Better make sure your anchor is set, let out a little more chain and consider setting up an anchor watch.  This “home” is all you have after all and you must keep it off the rocks no matter what.  Not only that, you have to protect yourself from the possibility of someone else hitting you – which you have almost zero control over.  It’s not easy to live with that knowledge at all times – it takes many months to get used to.

The good news is that eventually you DO adapt to these changes and when you get there, you enter a much happier space – it just takes time.  Thankfully this NEW NORMAL can be pretty exciting and gives you the chance to learn a lot about yourself (good AND bad) while exploring this amazing world we live in.

One thing I have found very enlightening is realizing how I tend to apply my everyday assumptions from home to situations we’ve experienced while traveling, even though I’m in a completely new culture.  For instance, if I was approached by a stranger in Seattle and they just started talking to me and asking where I’m from or my name, I would likely treat it with healthy amount of skepticism, wondering what their “angle” might be and what they wanted from me – possibly even a little fear if it was a dark night and I was out alone.

But in fact in our travels thus far, very few people have wanted anything from us.  While it’s true that some folks are trying to sell you something as they recognize you are a tourist, the majority of them are fairly interested in just talking.  If you buy something – great – but if not, no big deal.  Overall, people have been overwhelmingly kind, respectful, interested in us and a joy to get to know when I’ve gotten past that initial gut response or assumptions.  That guy who seems to be looking at me in a menacing fashion?  After I smile at him I often get a huge smile and a shouted traditional local greeting back.  The farther into the South Pacific we’ve gone, the MORE this seems to be true.  People are very curious about our travels and talking about it has been a great way to open the door into further discussions, giving us a chance to learn more about THEIR culture.  Ironically, many of them (just like at home) think we are crazy to be traveling on our boat!

Another big adjustment for me has been learning how to let people in.  Not just emotionally, but physically too.  While we were staying at Suwarrow I had a bit of a epiphany.  If you’ve read the prior post, you’ll know that we spent a lot of time with Charlie (one of the caretakers) and that he was a big fan of the ladies.  Charlie would be very familiar – often wrapping his arm around me and leaning in very close.  It made me very uncomfortable and felt like a total invasion of my personal space.  But after discussing it with Brett, we decided it was just who Charlie is and that I should try to just go with the flow and not to worry about it.  By learning to accept his behavior, I ended up learning a lot about myself and my own preconceived notions.  We must allow ourselves to trust in the goodness of others instead of assuming the worst.   

Over time I came to understand that this closeness was just part of the way people from this area communicate and show they care – it doesn’t mean anything other than that.  I’ve learned that “islanders” love to touch and hug and express their feelings through closeness – but only when you let them in.  Believe it or not, some of them even give hugs on a scale equal to Brett!  By opening myself up to that “invasion of space” I have begun to have a much richer experience in my relationships with the people we meet.

During these recent musings it’s become very clear to me that as a human race we have far more in common than the differences that can separate us.  We are a complex and amazing race of people – continually changing and adapting to our surroundings and shifting environments.  But we all experienced pride, anger, love and the many other emotions humans have been born with.  It has been fascinating to think not only about how I have changed this past year, but more importantly about how all of these third world countries we’ve visited are adapting as they gain access to the outside world via the internet and Facebook – taking in a virtual title wave of information and deciding how they will make it a part of their “normal” world without losing who they are culturally.  Watching this change race across the globe is both exciting and intimidating.  Witnessing how the internet is creating cultural change in these islands makes me worry that soon there will be no individual culture left, even in the most remote villages.  But at the same time, it’s arrival makes it possible for me to post this blog post!  Ironic, eh?

But as we all know, progress is inevitable and so we can only bear witness to what’s happening inside of our heads and out in the population as we keep exploring new places.  Now that I have finally adapted to this new life (and ironically feel more comfortable at anchor than at the dock now!) I am filled with excitement for the adventures to come and for what I will learn as we continue our journey around the world.

Our new view most of the time...
Our view most days - incredible!

Coming soon – Part II, Advice for New Cruisers