Friday, December 28, 2012

Sailing the Virgin Islands with Children

When you live your life the way you really want to, the concept of vacation takes on less and less importance. We love what we do and how we live, so we don’t spend months focusing on that great week or two when we get to forget about our regular lives. No one’s paying us while we take time off, either, so it’s just as well. That said, I think we just took a vacation, and it was incredible! I guess everyone enjoys a change of scenery and a respite from hard work, and we sure got one. 

Things in St. Thomas really slow down just before Christmas, so without a great deal of fanfare, we agreed to go sailing with friends whose similarly aged kids would be in town over the holiday. Our first delightful anchorage was in St. John’s Maho Bay, which is a great spot to start a mini cruise, especially with children. The beach is very forgiving, and there’s pretty good snorkeling around the rocks that sort of separate Maho from Francis Bay (We’re actually in Francis all the time, but boaters tend to call the whole area Maho).  The campground’s restaurant up the hill is decent as well, and includes a children’s menu, adult beverages, and a big salad bar. There’s also a small market, yoga classes, and sometimes movies or live music up there, so there’s plenty to do if you’re into climbing the hill and seeing what’s what.  On this particular Maho visit, we’d had a tiring afternoon of playing on the beach with a strong swell and a high number of  sand fleas (a big St. John issue when the wind isn’t strong), so we opted for family boat dinners, an awesome sunset, and an early bedtime. 

We had toyed with going to a few other St. John favorites our friends hadn’t been to before, but the next thing you know, we found ourselves checking in to Jost Van Dyke the next day and doing the whole BVI thing. We almost didn’t go, but we had only gone to Tortola and Virgin Gorda last season, and that was pretty much all business. We decided to be flexible, hang with our friends, and enjoy the time off before the season got super crazy. It’s not every day we all can be off at the same time and both have kids onboard, so I’m glad we stuck together. We’ve never “cruised” with other boats, but I can see the appeal when you’re dealing with kids who like to be together and the other boat has cool grown-ups.

For me, checking in to Jost Van Dyke is more like checking out. It doesn’t matter if all I drink is some cold water, something about the place makes my already low blood pressure drop tremendously. While Ryan checked us in, the girls and I easily found a hammock and tire swing and settled right in. After a lunch aboard and brief rest, we met up with our friends at Foxy’s. They were just finishing up some delicious-smelling roti and chatting with the waitress from Trinidad. 

Now some might argue that some of the greatest spots in the BVI’s are not designed for children, but I tend to take the try it and see approach, especially during the daytime. You won’t find any more welcoming people on earth when it comes to children than West Indians, and in places like Jost, bartenders and customs officials have their kids hang out with them while they’re working, so we looked for a happy spot where grownups could relax while the children played.

After climbing the trees, swinging on the hammock, and digging for treasures on the beach, the kids all wanted to go swimming. Great Bay wasn't as clean by the shore, so we all hopped into the
dinghy and headed for the other side before it got too late in the day.

No real trip to JVD is complete without a fast and furious dinghy ride over to White Bay, so we plowed ahead together in our friend’s super dinghy around the rocks and straight in to Ivan’s. There’s nothing wrong with the other great establishments on JVD, but Ivan’s is a special place for us. It’s getting deeper into the lost world feeling the island seems to have. My first time there, years ago, we met some great people and just hung and hung and hung til the moon was high. It was an honor system bar that day, and you just felt love all over. As a baby, Halina took her first dip in the water in front of Ivan’s, so we wanted to take our friends there. There was a bartender this day—perhaps a daughter of Ivan’s. Her young son (about four years old, perhaps) was playing his drum kit and looking to make friends with our kids. We had a nice time and a good laugh as the grown-up girls flung ourselves into the dinghy leaving the beach. Around the way back to Great Bay, our friend’s seven year-old got us all howling like wolves and cracking up. Ah, nothing like a day in Jost.   

Next stop: Norman Island! This is a great place to take your pirate-obsessed child as it is the original “Treasure Island.” The caves you can snorkel through there have brought me fabulous memories and photos. This was our first time with our kids. As I mentioned in the Maho bit, there was a strong swell happening at this time, so when I took our five year-old snorkeling to the caves, didn't feel at ease when the water swooshed us towards the inside of the cave. So I took her back around the dinghy area where the snorkeling is also very nice. The other family’s 5 and 7 year-old boys did fine in the caves, so it’s just a matter of where your kid’s comfort level is. I think showing them pictures of what it is like on the outside and inside before going would help in establishing expectations. There are no bats, bears, or booty, you don’t walk, and so on. So while my one daughter was disappointed in herself for not feeling confident enough to go inside the caves, our three year-old was thrilled she could look over the side of the dinghy and see beautiful fish.   

I would be remiss if I pretended Norman Island isn’t also famous for the Willie T, aka William Thorton. If you don’t know, it’s a big old sailboat in the bay there that has a dinghy dock attached to it, and it becomes a serious party scene as the night progresses. The big deal has always been that you get a Willie T t-shirt if you dive off the upper deck topless or totally naked (I’ve seen that). We all know this, but I had heard the nude diving was not as popular anymore, so our plan was to get there early, eat, and get out. No one felt like cooking. I’ll just relay what the bartender told us when we boarded this time. “Children are very welcome, we love children here, but I want to let you know that there is soft porn on the monitors by the bar. You can turn it off or whatever, but then people really like having it on, so you know, we just leave it.”  We thanked him for the information and took the kids upstairs where they watched an older kid jump (while wearing a bathing suit) off the upper deck over and over. Hmm, what’s worse? We go back downstairs but not by the monitors. Juice and temporary tattoos for the kids. OK, When Is Dinner?? 6:30. No one knows when 6:30 is because no one wants to get their non-working cell phone wet and no one owns a watch anymore. It had been days since I knew what time it was. After getting the kids all dancing, we had a great dinner and raced off back to our anchorage by the caves as quickly as possible while the charter guests came in by the boatload. It was 7pm Christmas Eve, and I wanted the sweeties to have visions of sugar plum fairies dancing in their heads instead of…….

We had given Santa our GPS coordinates, so he knew where we were. Once I had the little ones all tucked in, I wrapped and sorted and arranged the little piles of gifts just so. As a way of slowly shifting focus away from Santa in years to come, we introduced the concept of parents giving gifts (novel idea, right?). This year, we provided the “family gifts” of a boogie board and noodle float. We kind of take noodles for granted and don’t use them much, but they’re good to have around. A boogie board, however, is something Halina has been wanting for about a year now. All the kids at the beach have them, and she’s come up with some interesting uses of her own, such as strapping it to the swim ladder and floating on the current, pretending she’s paddling out to a giant wave. Halina also got a pair of nice goggles, and Mariana got her first snorkel. We had a mini snorkeling lesson on Christmas and she did pretty well. She’s only three, so I’m not pushing too hard. Best to keep everything fun.

So anyway, we enjoyed watching the girls open gifts, and I made my usual big Christmas breakfast. It’s my once-a-year bacon splurge, accompanied this year by scrambled eggs and homemade biscuits. It was just so nice to be together, to not feel rushed to go anywhere, and just enjoy nature and the time together. Towards the end of a leisurely morning that was actually pretty cloudy, we all headed toward Coral Bay in St. John to try and get a cell signal to call family and check in to the US (which you can do by phone if you have frequent boater cards). Well no real cell signal was to be had, but we didn’t get close enough to a tower, I guess. It was nice to get a brief rain shower or two to wash some of the salt off the decks. 

We continued on to one of my favorite anchorages in the world—Leinster Bay. It’s always calm inside, and I always see something great when snorkeling: lots of turtles, really elaborate starfish, and so on. The water was a little cloudy from the rain, so it wasn’t the best day, but I did see a humungous fish I’m still trying to identify. It had leopard markings on part of it, and must have been four feet long and a foot or so wide. Have to look into it more. Pretty awesome. My little fishy was getting cold, though, so after a little snorkel lesson with her sister, we headed back to the boat to warm up and do some grilling. Wow, what a great dinner. My husband is gifted on the grill. He cooked up a nice piece of steak, and I made rice, broccoli, and salad to go with it. We all had some of our homemade Christmas cookies afterwards and reflected on what a wonderful day we’d had together. The whole trip was really special. We are blessed to have friends who are very comfortable to travel with—I don’t take things like that for granted. We had gifts for our children, good food to eat, and the health and love of our family. On Liberty, we can take that love wherever we go.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Home Schooling Island Style

And so, the homeschooling adventure begins! 

Yes, just 10 days ago, we were driving half an hour to our small, reasonably priced, developmentally appropriate, and supportive preschool where the girls (and parents) were very comfortable. But you can’t take it with you! Instead of spending an hour in the car and rushing like crazy to get there on time three days a week (this is preschool, after all), we flew to St. Thomas and moved back onto our sailboat where we operate almost entirely on a schedule that feels natural and right. 
Last year, our oldest went to a nice Montessori school nearby, and that was fine. While I liked the teacher and other students there, what I mostly enjoyed was going to the library every day after school with the girls and getting to meet other grown-ups. But between finances being tight and my own hypercriticism of schools in general, it seemed that homeschooling was the best option for right now. So far, I’m not regretting it.
Wednesday, our Montessori friend and her mommy met us at Latitude 18, our favorite local spot, for a ride on their swing set and some princess juice, which turned into a nice long lunch and hide-and-seek in the field. Thursday, we met up with other homeschoolers at Magen’s Bay beach and were really embraced and welcomed. After swimming and picnicking, the kids did a white elephant exchange where they will trade homemade or recycled items. We’re planning to make our new friend a name plaque from seashells or coral on driftwood. 

The girls really like the idea of Mommy being their teacher, so we had a semi-structured home-school session today. We learned about sorting (the laundry), which is easy to differentiate for the two girls, 3 and 5 years old. Next, while the older one reviewed the terms “plus, minus, and equals,” before tackling addition and subtraction problems, the younger one and I practiced accurately counting the stuffed animals. Then, I read to the younger, while the older filled in missing beginning letters of short words. I had to laugh when I learned why she wrote vird instead of bird next to the swooping bird picture. Not sounds she usually mixes up. “What is this picture of?” I asked her. “A vulture,” she replied. Who can argue with that? 

But back to the library. We have a fair number of children’s books onboard. It would save space to put them on an ereader, but I’m not trying to give them a lot of screen time. Besides, there’s something really special for children to be able to walk to a shelf, select a book, and hold it in their hands. Since she was about 2, we have routinely searched for Mariana onboard, only to find her sitting down below in the rear of the boat by herself, carefully paging through a book. Now at 3, she has been looking at the pictures and telling herself the story aloud, quoting the characters and whatnot. Very fun! But it’s nice to have variety in terms of reading material, and I (usually) like it when they can self-select. While I haven’t heard much positive news about the island’s actual public library, I have heard that there is a surplus of books being given away from Montessori, and I have now secured a space to keep them on land for all to share. So, while the school’s books are not yet a definite, another mom has already piped in to share her used books. Very exciting! I’ll have to post photos when it becomes a reality.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Home Sweet Home

They say “kids don’t lie,” and three year-olds are certainly no exception. 

We were sadly off of our boat during this year’s hurricane season. The first month on land, little Mariana would sometimes cry and exclaim, “I want to go back to Liberty!” Ugh, what could I say? To someone so young, they have no way of believing if they’re actually going back somewhere no matter how many times you tell them you are. “Soon” is equally ambiguous and there’s not much use in saying it will be one or two months. Having a scooter and a working freezer with popsicles was little comfort. 

True to my word though, we are now back onboard and Mariana has said repeatedly, sometimes gently tugging at my sleeve, “I am soooo glad to be back on the boat!” Even in an apartment, it’s not too hard to separate yourself from others you live with if you want to. The same is just not the case on most sailboats under 50 feet. But now that the girls have their own rooms again, they would have been just as happy to be sharing. Sure, Mommy or Daddy could go back in our stateroom and close the door or escape up top or down below, but we find ourselves really wanting to be together and enjoy every second of it. 

In this environment of love and comfort, our little scaredy cat decided yesterday that she wanted to swim in the ocean. She quickly donned the floaty suit her big sister wore until her swimming got good last year, and tentatively headed down the swim ladder while we were at our mooring beyond the harbor, facing St. John. Much trepidation ensued and encouragement abounded. We assured her she didn’t have to do it if she didn’t want to. Finally, she held my hand and let go of the ladder while we swam around the stern of the boat. I didn’t want to freak her out, so we didn’t stay out long, but she wanted to go out again and again. Later, Daddy overheard her softly saying, “I’m so proud of myself.” We’re proud of you, too, sweetie! 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Solar Dreams Coming True

For my last birthday, I figured I would ask for something big, something I've wanted for a long time, something that costs more than a typical birthday gift in our family. It was a big birthday, so I made my desires known. I wanted a solar panel.

One of my favorite things about living "on the hook" is that we don't generate enough power with our two solar panels and wind generator to keep the laptop plugged fully charged or use the tv. Our kids read more than anyone I know, and when I'm not working I could really use a break from staring at a screen. Still, I use the laptop to help earn our living writing, and it's a great way to stay in touch with friends and family via Skype, social networking, and good old email. Hence, the shortage of power is also one of my least favorite aspects of living on a boat off the grid. It's not like I'm trying to blow-dry my hair while microwaving popcorn and watching a movie. But some days the wind dies down and it even rains sometimes-- always when you have a deadline.

Today, I got my birthday present, though. After working the Annapolis Sailboat Show for five days, you would think I would have seen everything there, but I really didn't have a chance to walk around too much as I was on an awesome Hylas 70 that everyone wanted to see. So I was busy. As the show was quickly winding down today, my husband met up with me and we did a marathon race-through the tents while boats started their engines to leave. Luckily, he spotted "Solar Panels!" amidst the cardboard boxes and bins being packed in the tent closest to our exit. The guy just happened to have a 70-watt panel which should fit nicely next to the other one atop the bimini, and it was under $150. Not a bad price!

The show was over and it wasn't going anywhere but on the truck back to Florida, though, so we decided to take a breather for some muscles and a beer at Middleton's. As promised, John the solar guy was still packing up an hour later and gladly took our cash for the panel. I look forward to warm Caribbean nights filled with all the fans, phones, lights, and websites a girl could wish for. I promise to work less on projects I don't enjoy and focus more on what I love. And as a result, there ought to many more blog posts coming up...