Chub Cay And The Swimming Pool

Sailing to Chub Cay

After Great Harbour Cay we sail south to another of the Berry Islands popular among cruisers for its strategic geographic location between Florida and the Exumas: Chub Cay.

(On the way there we catch a good-size mahogany snapper, same as the ones we were catching near Cuba a few months ago but smaller, and we have an excellent supper of white tender fillets fried with garlic lemon and pepper, and white rice on the side.)

Ivo with a mahagony snapper

Ivo with the mahogany snapper

 

Chub Cay

Although Chub Cay has undergone major renovations in the not so distant past: new docks, expanded marina and entrance channel, refurbished restaurant, 57 newly-built vacation villas along the beach, and a 20,000 square foot three-level members-only clubhouse and pool, we find it almost completely deserted.

 

The swimming pool

The swimming pool

 

The Fun Pool

The construction of the clubhouse with its spectacular 360-degrees view of the island, its private bar, restaurant, and trophy room has been abandoned after the crash of the global economy a few years ago and the huge yellow building like an empty shell, without windows and doors, its dark interior full of construction materials instead of trophies and memorabilia, is standing uninhabited on its shore overlooking the perfectly protected anchorage. Strangely though, we find the magnificent fresh-water pool on the beach in front of the clubhouse functioning, full of crystal cool water, surrounded by palm trees and beach chairs, inviting us to jump in. And we do not refuse.

 

Maya and Vick

Maya and Vick

 

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Viktor

 

 

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Maya

Maya

 

Every day for three days we return to the pool to chill and have fun, and there is no one even to ask if we are aloud or not. There are no people, no locals (no settlement on this island), no tourists, no cruisers, but us and another Canadian boat with three young guys aboard waiting, like us, for a weather window to cross the Northeast Providence Channel to Nassau.

 

Maya and Mira

Maya and Mira

 

Thus, we spend Ivo’s birthday and Christmas in complete isolation from civilization, the weather perfect, sunny and peaceful, swimming and snorkeling, eating coconuts we find fallen on the beach and lobsters we find under rocks in the shallow waters not far from the boat.

 

Ivo and Maya with coconuts

Ivo and Maya with coconuts

 

Maya with coconut

Maya with coconut

 

Lobster on the table

Lobster on the table

 

We feel somehow privileged to be here, like VIPs, or like millionaires who own a private island with a handsome pool maintained by some mysterious invisible people. Aah, it’s a nice feeling…

 

Mira at the pool

Mira at the pool

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sailing The Great Bahama Bank

Have you ever dreamt of an infinite underwater desert?

 

Have you ever seen in your sleep the bottom of the sea stretching for miles and miles beneath you, abandoned, all life gone someplace else, only you floating like a sleepy butterfly with your white wings spread just a few feet above it, always in the center of a vast blue circle formed around you by the unbroken horizon, for miles and miles, for hours and hours; and even at night under the sad cold light of the full moon you still see the underneath, this time not a flooded desert of sand but of snow (because the moon does this trick especially in dreams), for miles and miles?

Yes?

You had a Bahamian dream.

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You dreamt you were sailing across the Great Bahama Bank, this unique vast stretch of sand submerged in just a few feet of crystal turquoise waters, which explains the origin of the region’s name: Bahamas-Baja Mar-Shallow Sea.

The Great Bahama Bank in the west portion of the Bahamas stretches for more than 300 miles from north to southeast and 100 miles across from west to east, some 30,000 square miles of shallow tropical sea. The depths here vary from 6 to 30 feet and the water is so clear, so transparent, many times when you look down you doubt it is there at all. As if you are hovering in the air above sand dunes.

We sail from Bimini to the Berry Islands, some 80 miles to the east, across the great Bahama Bank starting around four in the afternoon. All night the winds are from south-southeast, light, and the full moon is out to watch over us. We sail on a close reach doing 6 to 7 knots, a couple of long tacks. Early the next morning we approach the first Berry Islands and cays.

The dawn reveals a strange view: a gathering of giants, silent, dreamy, floating in the sea. It is a cruise ship anchorage, here the giants sleep.  Fata Morgana gently, very quietly, passes between them, not to disturb their slumber. How big they are, completely deserted ghost towns. Where have all the people gone? One wakes up, makes a grand unhurried turn and heads east to Nassau. Another arrives with the same royal movement, and becomes still. We sail on.

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Half an hour later we arrive in Great Harbor, Berry Islands and drop anchor in a broad bay in front of a spectacular white-sand beach.

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Waters of Chaos

This is the story of how we almost died one night when the sea was not there anymore, but a black raging mass of liquid walls and howling winds; when the whole world had disappeared and our small boat left all alone in the entire universe was doomed. This is the story of how we passed Neptune’s first test on our way to becoming sailors.

 

 

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After two months in Guatemala, we begin a long passage north, 500 miles from Rio Dulce back to Key West Florida, where we planned to do some work and improvements on our 38-feet 2001 Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana. We start in rainy weather with unstable north winds and high seas in the Gulf of Honduras.

The very first day two of the blocks, old and rusty, which hold the boom attached to the traveler break. Ivo uses a rope to tie the boom immobilizing it in the center of the boat. This causes the mainsail to rip off from the base where it is attached to the boom, about two feet. We reef it to the first reef and thus we are able to sail. From now on, for two weeks and a half, we sail with a crippled main and a boom stuck in a central position.

For the next 17 days and nights, the wind is always coming from the direction where we want to go: north-northeast. The good thing about it is that we don’t have to play with the boom much. The bad part is that we have to tack constantly climbing against the wind at a very slow speed, thus covering at least three times the distance.

Many cruisers turn on the engines in such situations in order to go faster motorsailing. Not us. We never use the engines. If there is no wind, we wait. If there is little wind, we drift slowly. If the wind is too much, we reef. We drop anchor and lift anchor under sail most of the time. The two engines on our boat are for emergency situations only, and this is not an emergency situation. Yet. This is just a part of it, part of sailing.

It takes us a week to get to Isla Mujeres Mexico as we make the big mistake of choosing the Belize Inner Channel instead of the offshore route. The current in the 100-mile long channel running between the shore of Belize and the barrier reef is going south, flowing against us like a river, robbing us of at least 2-3 knots. The waves, 4-5 feet coming at an angle from northeast, are stopping us some more. Add to this not one but two mean winds, one northwest descending from the Belize mountains, and one northeast pushing from the sea, and try to sail between them, going north, tacking a hundred times per day with a reefed main and no engine! Not fun.

Our progress is between 1 and 3 miles per hour. We cover about 20-30 miles per day and anchor at night. Being able to stop and get some rest at night is the sole reward we get for sailing in the channel, but it’s not worth it.

After three days of this struggle we are finally out of the channel and sail for three more days and nights nonstop to Isla Mujeres. The plan is to anchor there and get some rest, a day or two, stock up on provisions, check the weather forecast, and cross to Key West: 300 miles northeast of Isla, where the current of the Yucatan Channel and the Gulfstream merge.

In the morning on the seventh day of sailing, we arrive in the familiar anchorage in Isla Mujeres in front of El Milagro Marina, exhausted, but happy we made it. The day is beautiful. We plan to go shopping first thing after we check our E-mails, and then we can sleep all night; sleep like babies.

While the rest of us are checking E-mails, Ivo is checking the weather.

“Strong north winds and big waves are coming soon,“ he announces, „we can’t sail directly to Florida. The best thing would be to sail east to Cabo San Antonio, Cuba, then to Havana, and cross the Gulfstream from there, the same way we came. But we have to go now, immediately, before the weather hits, or wait here for a week or who knows how long. We only have a few-hours window, we have to hurry up, let’s go!”

I take a look at the forecast and maps on the PassageWeather website. “Let’s wait. It doesn’t look too good. What if we cannot make it inside your ‘few-hours window’ and we hit a storm? I am not doing this! Haven’t you learned yet? In sailing the most important thing is waiting. Waiting for good weather. A week, a month, doesn’t matter, we wait here!”

We start a huge fight, like always, and the kids interfere. Both Viktor and Maya want to get to Key West as soon as possible; they don’t want to wait. Three against one.

We lift anchor one hour after we dropped it, without setting foot on land, without shopping or getting any rest, and we begin the 100 miles passage east-northeast across the Yucatan Cannel, trying to run in front of bad weather with a mainsail that doesn’t work quite well. There is your classic recipe for disaster.

Twenty miles offshore, the north winds pick up. The sky becomes thick with dark clouds and the first squall hits, rain and all. We reef the main to the second reef and the jib, and ride it out, 40-knot winds. It pushes us south. All night we fight with three more of these squalls. No one sleeps, we wait for the day. The day comes but it doesn’t look good. The north wind doesn’t drop below 25 knots. The powerful Yucatan current is flowing north, against the wind. When you have a strong current and strong wind in opposite directions, you get enormous waves, taller than the boat, from the direction of the wind. Not long, slow, sleek waves, but sharp, quick, confused ones. These are the worst possible conditions, and small crafts should not go out in the middle of such a mess.

Ivo is at the helm hand-steering since more than 30 hours and we are still in the middle of nowhere. We get pushed south after each squall and coming back north is impossible. We are so much off course, we start looking at the charts to see if we can go somewhere else, south, but there is nothing south of Cuba.

As the second night of this passage approaches, the north winds pick up even more reaching 30-35 knots, steady. We are now begging for those 20-25 knot winds which terrified us in the beginning. With the enormous waves charging at us, and the boat heading off course in a direction where there is no land any time soon, it becomes one of these ‘emergency situations’ when the engine is your only hope. We bring down the sails, turn on the two motors and abandon the boat in the hands of the autopilot, direction Cuba.

It’s only the beginning of the night; only the beginning of our worst nightmare. We find ourselves between two worlds: the above and the below, the air and the water, the living and the dead.

The world above has become a black rampaging monster. The monster is facing us with its cold mouth gaping wide open, and deep from its infinite entrails comes a powerful endless roar. Its breath is loaded with the screams of thousand flying witches, his fury is sublime. Thus is the wind.

The world below has gone mad too. All the underwater invisibles have gathered below the surface of the sea around our boat and are restlessly pushing and pulling us, throwing walls at us: a bizarre sadistic game. Each wall is the last. Will the boat go through it? Will it pass? Or will it turn over? That’s it! This time we won’t make it. How about this one? And the next? We have loads and loads of these, even worst, even bigger, coming from everywhere. Thus are the waves.

 Viktor, Maya, and I sit in the cockpit, protected from the outside hell by the thin plastic enclosure. Our lifejackets are stowed away in the starboard engine room, not accessible under the present conditions. So if the boat turns over and sinks we will find ourselves floating in the middle of the sea without lifejackets, in the dark. I promise myself that from now on, if we survive this, the lifejackets will always be close to us when sailing. Viktor has a whistle hanging on his neck, a submergible flashlight, and a knife. Maya is armed with another flashlight and the flare gun. I am holding the submergible VHF radio and a glowing stick. We count: Nine more hours of darkness. Eight and a half more hours of darkness. The time is slowing down, stopping, going backwards, laughing at us. The night is here to stay.

Ivo is out on the deck holding on to the rigging, screaming at the world above and the world below, losing it:

“Why, Night, why? I can’t see anything! I can’t do anything! That’s enough! Stop! There is nothing I can do; I don’t see! I hate you Night; how can I fight if I see nothing, if I’m blind? This is not fair. I am sorry. I didn’t know… I don’t see, I see nothing…” His hopeless howls are terrifying us more than the storm.

Maya is crying. “Mum, let’s call someone on the VHF, let’s ask for help. Let’s call!”

“There is no one around us, there is no one to call, we are all alone,“ I cry back. „Plus, we are not sinking yet, so we have no reason to call for help.”

We can only call nearby vessels on the VHF radio, we don’t have a satellite phone (we don’t have any phone), and there are no vessels near by. We have never been more alone, more abandoned.

We are also beyond exhaustion, especially Ivo who has broken all records for staying awake up on his feet, night after night after night.

“You deserve it,“ I yell at him, „but we don’t!”

The port engine suddenly stops. We are left with only the starboard engine, but the boat keeps going. The boat, our Fata Morgana, keeps going, against the wind, against the waves, against all odds: she takes it. She is like a brick house, they told us, heavy and stable. Such are the Leopard catamarans built in 2001, you will see when you hit bad weather.

Sometime after midnight on the third night, Ivo falls asleep in the cockpit. Viktor and I take turns at the helm, although we do nothing, just sit there and stare at the GPS and the wind-speed indicator. Wind is still the same. The autopilot is navigating and the starboard engine is slowly pushing us towards Cuba. Twelve miles left. Six more hours of darkness. How many more waves?

By this time, we are beyond fear. You can only feel fear for so long. After some time, you just get used to it, accept your situation, prepare mentally for all the imaginable possibilities, for the worst, and ride it out. You kind of become numb. But you never stop hoping. We came so far, why not getting all the way to the shores of Cabo San Antonio? Why not getting to the shallow calm waters where our anchor can reach down and grab the sand? Can you imagine? Land, safety.

Then I fall asleep.

The next morning is the most beautiful perfect morning in our lives. Fata Morgana is anchored, gently swaying on top of crystal blue waters. I can see the bottom underneath. The shore is so close. We sit in the cockpit in silence and look at each other smiling. We breathe. We breathe as if it is the first time we are breathing in our lives, like if we are being born, but realizing it and enjoying it so much, big gulps of air, can’t get enough of it.

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16 Advantages of a Simple Kayak

A simple kayak will:

 

1. Get you to a shallow place

A simple kayak will take you to the place you want to go, even if it is too shallow for a dinghy.

The drought of a kayak is 0.0002 ft.

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Near Comunidad Indigena Caxclampon Pataxte, Guatemala

 

2. Get you to a quiet place

The kayak has no engine, therefore it makes no noise.

Sneaking near an indigenous home on Lake Izabal, Guatemala

Sneaking near an indigenous home on Lake Izabal, Guatemala

You can sneak upon people’s properties without being noticed; or float downriver without disturbing the wildlife.

 

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Floating down the River Polochic, Guatemala

3. Get you to a tight place

You can paddle even in mangroves, between roots and branches.

 

Mangroves near Cayo Levisa, Cuba

Mangroves near Cayo Levisa, Cuba

4. Get you to a beautiful place

With the kayak you will be able to explore the most beautiful places on your journey.

 

Lago Izabal, Guatemala

Lago Izabal, Guatemala

5. Not pollute the waters

Keeping the environment clean (and having your conscious clean) is another advantage of not having an engine.

River Lilies

River Lilies

 

6. Save you money

This is an obvious one. No engine= no fuel= no dollars

 

Mira and Ivo paddling. Photo bi Joni Spencer

Mira and Ivo paddling.
Photo by Joni Spencer

 

7. Provide a nice spot for kids to do art while under sail

 

8. Provide a dark shady spot on the boat for resting

Maya sleeping under the kayak

Maya sleeping under the kayak

9. Keep you in shape

Paddle, paddle, paddle! Often living on a boat means less physical exercise. Paddling the kayak will make you spend that extra energy and it is good for your heart and muscles.

 

Maya and the kayak in front of Fort Jefferson, Florida

Maya and the kayak in front of Fort Jefferson, Florida

10. Take your kids and their friends off the boat

The kayak will become a favorite jumping-off platform and transportation for your kids, no matter how old they are. They will paddle between boats to pick up their friends, go to shore, or to explore the region.

Maya and Noial in Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Maya and Noial in Rio Dulce, Guatemala

 

11. Provide transportation for Cuban officials

If you ever sail to Cuba you will be unpleasantly surprised how many times you will have to deal with officials. Every time you move the boat from one cayo to another you will have to do another immigration checking out and checking in. The Cuban officials will board the boat every time to verify if there are any undocumented people on board (you are not permitted to have Cuban friends visiting the boat EVER even if the boat sits at the marina). Making the officials paddle to the boat instead of taking them there by dinghy is a nice little revenge.

 

The Cuban officials will come aboard no matter what; if you are on a dock or at anchor.  Here Ivo and an immigration officer paddle the kayak, El Poderoso (the name of the kayak means The Mighty One in Spanish) back from the boat anchored at Cayo Levisa. Fastest kayak ride ever, said Ivo.

The Cuban officials will come aboard no matter what; if you are on a dock or at anchor.
 Cayo Levisa, Cuba

12. Be loved by children everywhere

When you show up with a kayak in an indigenous Mayan village in Guatemala, you become The Event of The Year. Not you, the kayak!

Finca Jocoro

Finca Jocoro

There hasn’t been any scientific research done on the subject of How many indigenous kids can sink an unsinkable kayak, but the experiments have already started.

 

Near Finca Jocoro, Guatemala

Near Finca Jocoro, Guatemala

13. Help you make friends

Your new indigenous friends will visit your boat if you invite them. They are as curious about your way of life as you are about theirs.

 

Friends from Playa Pataxte visiting the boat

Friends from Playa Pataxte visiting the boat

You may take a few kids to the boat on your kayak, the rest will arrive shortly with their lanchas and cayucos.

 

Our kayak also has new friends!

Our kayak also made new friends!

14. Transport you and your groceries

You can park your kayak on the docks everywhere and visit the local village or town. Be sure to lock it against theft, though. When you comeback with bags full of fruits and vegetables, the kayak will be there for you. It will take more load than you think.

 

Agent Orange waiting for us next to Angelica and Andrea... Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Agent Orange waiting for us next to Anthonia and Andrea…
Rio Dulce, Guatemala

15. Transport 10 cases of 24 beers!

Yes, it will. You can load as much cases of the cheapest beer you ever saw on a simple kayak as you want. 10 is not the limit!

 

Ivo, happy, with 10 cases of Brahva, El Estor, Guatemala

Ivo, happy, with 10 cases of Brahva, El Estor, Guatemala

16. Pull your boat

When there is no wind there are but a few alternative ways to advance with a sailboat without using engines. Put your flippers on and go push the boat; or jump in your kayak and pull! Ivo has done both, but he prefers to pull: it’s more efficient. His record speed pulling the boat by kayak is 0.5 knots!

Ivo pulling the boat, Lago Izabal, Guatemala

Ivo pulling the boat, Lago Izabal, Guatemala

 

The story of Agent Orange

 

A few months ago, our good friends Neith and Sherry gave us a kayak along with a bunch of other useful things, before heading off to the desert in New Mexico where they will take part in The Solar Ark Project. We named the kayak El Poderoso which means The Mighty One in Spanish after Che Guevara’s famous motor bike. But after some time, we nicknamed him Agent Orange, as the kayak’s most notable feature is his bright orange color.

 

Agent Orange is a simple plastic unsinkable kayak. We didn’t realize then how much we will be needing it on our travels. The kayak became one of our most treasured possessions. We use it for transportation to go from the boat to shore and back when we are anchored someplace, as well as for a number of other things and I am sure that the list of ways to use it will keep growing with time.

Sailing into the sunset

Sailing into the sunset

 

 

 

 

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FriendShip. The Extraordinary Story of One Family.

 

Why do we love traveling?

– Because the world is beautiful. It is not a big world, if you think about it. The Sun, which is not bigger than a shiny pancake in the sky, is about a million times bigger than our planet Earth, which makes our planet Earth as small as a pancake crumb! But, still, it’s a beautiful planet. So many amazing places to explore…

But that’s not all. We love traveling also because of the other people who love traveling. One of the best thing happening everywhere we go is meeting incredible folks and making new friends. We become magnets for people with similar interests, values, and worldviews. We form a tribe based on common dreams.

The very first day we arrived in Rio Dulce we met Daeli, Joni, Noial, Elan, Lovam, and Spirit, presently living and traveling aboard a 39-feet catamaran Solaris Sunstream named FriendShip. We became inseparable.

 

FriendShip in Lago Izabal

FriendShip in Lago Izabal

Their extraordinary story captivated us. It begins like this:

At the foot of a volcano a tall French guy met an American girl who was reading his favorite book: Papillon by Henri Charriere. They climbed the volcano together and kept going; never stopped.

We were in a town slowly getting swallowed by the Sahara desert. Today probably it doesn’t exist anymore, covered by sand, the last town before the desert. The last time it rained there was ten years ago. It’s one of the driest places in the world. That’s why they keep metal there, mountains of iron, it never corrodes. The people in this town are really tall. They wear white jilabas and blue turbans, completely covered from the head down. There was this doctor who let us sleep on top of his roof for three nights. He told us, ‘I think she is pregnant’. He was speaking good french. The morning we found out Joni was pregnant we smoked our last cigarettes and started down the road hitch-hiking. A car saw us and pulled over. There was a goat near the road but the driver didn’t see it and hit it. The goat was badly injured. „Don’t look the goat in the eye, Daeli said, an exchange of evil spirits might occur!“ Noial was born in 2003, the Year of the Goat, in Reunion Island, after we have been traveling for months around Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and Mauritius.

 

Most of the time we would hitch-hike and camp out. But sometimes we would take the train. The trains in West Africa are tricky. People from the surrounding areas start arriving at the station days before the train and camp out for up to a week next to the railroad tracks waiting for the train to arrive. The whole thing turns into a huge party. Finally the train shows up, one of those iron trains: carts loaded with iron. That’s the heaviest train in the world. The passengers hop on top of the iron chunks and that’s how we traveled, on top of the iron. They even serve tea up there, pass it around to the people. After Noial was born we spent two years traveling around Reunion Island, Madagascar, Mauritius, Rodrigues, Comoros Islands, Kenya , and Ethiopia. Back in France we bought two bikes. The plan was to go around the world on bikes. We traveled for eight months around Europe as far north as Tromso in Norway (even to Svalbard). Then we went south to Tunisia. There we found out Joni was pregnant again. We couldn’t do a bike trip around the world with two babies and so we decided to get a sailboat instead.

 

We started looking for a sailboat while biking. We biked around Guadeloupe,  Martinique, and St Maarten where we finally found a boat. A 31-feet aluminum Brise-de-Mer named Josee. We knew nothing about sailing, we didn’t even know how to move the boom but we were so happy.

 

We enjoyed our boat and life at anchor, swimming and splashing around even though the anchorage was so dirty and polluted by the nearby boatyard. No one else was going in the water. Maybe that’s where I got the infection, I’m not sure. Elan was born in 2006 in St lucia with hypotonic cerebral palsy. In the beginning we were so worried. What is he gonna be like? Is he gonna walk? But then we realized there is no point worrying about those things and accepted his condition as part of our life.

 

We kept going. We sailed to Venezuela, Aruba Bonaire, Curacao, Colombia, and Panama and did land trips there. We travelled inland in Colombia and Venezuela for 4 months. Two years later, in 2008, Lovam was born in Guadeloupe.

 

We now had three small kids, one with PVL, but we never stopped traveling. I think it’s genetic. There is this theory about the nomadic gene. You either have it or you don’t. If you are born with it you start to get depressed if you stay in one place for too long, you can even get physical illnesses. I think both Daeli and me have the nomadic gene.

 

In 2011 we bought FriendShip, a 39- feet catamaran, as we needed more space.

 

In the beginning of their travels, in Africa, Europe and Latin America, Daeli and Joni didn’t record their journey as they didn’t have a photo camera. They were traveling mainly on foot, hitch-hiking and biking trying to keep it really light, getting their backpacks down to 7 kilograms each. They slept by the Alley of the Baobabs in Madagascar, and on top of Piton de la Fournaise volcano in Reunion, they camped at the edge of the Limestone Forest and Isalo Park with white lemurs in the trees around them. They sailed with the Vezo, semi-nomadic people on the west coast of Madagascar, on a small hand-carved pirogue. That is when they first got the taste for sailing. They were welcomed to pitch a tent in a Masai village in Kenya. They met the turkana people of lake Turkana, and visited the medieval town of Gondar in Ethiopia. They went on bike trips around France,Denmark, Norway, Finland, Italy, Germany, and Sweden and later around USA with the three babies, four months camping out, never slept in a hotel. They biked the Olympic Peninsula and the coast of Oregon. They lived in Slab City for a while. Then they got an old 1986 van and did van trips in Canada, and from Canada down to Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Honduras.

 

I kept going to the United States in between trips to do therapies with Ilan. We tried everything:  all the traditional physical, speech and occupational therapies; we tried alternative ones: Craneosacral therapy, Conductive Education, the Feldenkrais Method. They were all really good but very expensive. My hope is that one day they will be covered by insurance.

 

People ask us how we finance our lifestyle. We work from time to time, but most importantly, we live really cheaply. We have no bills. We make handmade jewelry and sell it. When we work, we save up to buy the big things, like the boats and the van. Our most precious possessions are our experiences and memories.

 

The following pictures are from their later travels with the kids, when they got a camera.

Joni, pregnant, and Noial with bikes.

Joni and Noial with bikes.

 

Daily with in Slab City

Daely with Leonard Knight in Slab City

 

Lovam

Lovam riding Daeli’s bike

 

Noial climbing the mast

Noial climbing the mast

 

 

Ilan

Elan

 

Joni

Joni with Elan

Noial and Daily

Noial and Daeli

Daily and his super-bike (100kg)

Daeli and his super 100 kg bike

 

Camping out

Camping out

 

Noial in Slab City

Noial in Slab City

 

 

Joni with the kids

Joni with the kids

 

 

Joni with the kids in their dinghy, two days ago. Photo by Mira

Joni with the kids in their dinghy, two days ago. Photo by Mira

 

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The Gulf of Honduras Bridge Is Not On The Charts!

 

 Sailing south along the coast of Belize

 

Sailing south non stop for over twenty hours along the Caribbean coast of Belize between the mainland and the Belize Barrier Reef where the seas are low; winds over twenty knots, the boat doing eight, at times nine knots. The miles go fast. Small mangrove islands to port, tall mountains to starboard, dark and mysterious, a huge river delta poring its brown waters in the sea.

At night, we try to take turns steering the boat, Ivo, Viktor, and I, but most of the time Ivo is at the helm, enjoying the speed. As we enter the Gulf of Honduras, the wind dies and the sea becomes flat as a lake. Staying awake is a challenge. Humongous cargo ships criss-cross the gulf, passing just next to our tiny boat. One even alters her course avoiding us. Good thing she saw us.

 

The Gulf of Honduras bridge

 

Around 3 in the morning Ivo wakes me up after a sharp tack, worried.

„There is a bridge in front of us and it looks low, we almost crashed into the bridge!“

„What bridge are you talking about, I don’t see a bridge.“ All I see is city lights in the distance. I take the spotlight and gaze into the darkness.

„The bridge, there, don’t you see it? Shit, it’s not on the chart! And that’s exactly where we have to go, it’s on our way!“

 

Ivo

Ivo

 

He really sees a bridge. Viktor and I try hard, staring into the darkness to see it too. Ivo has convinced us the bridge is right there, only, we cannot detect it…

We spend an hour circling in front of the bridge, altering our course in order not to collide with it, checking another chart to see if they maybe indicated it there. They didn’t. Sometimes the charts are way off, but omitting to mark a creepy low bridge in the middle of the Gulf of Honduras is preposterous!

„Wait a minute, this isn’t a bridge, I say, this is a road on land far away in the distance and you are hallucinating! Go get some sleep,“ I take over the wheel for the rest of the night and turn the boat directly towards the imaginary bridge.

Ivo goes below to get some sleep thinking to himself, „Man I hope she doesn’t hit the bridge…“

 

 

weekly writing challenge

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Inside The Storm

„When in the wind’s eye she refused to go farther and with all her sails aback she slowly forged astern. Back, back, until every watcher’s heart was ready to burst with suspense, back to that fearful maelstrom. Back, to the octopus whose arms were extended to receive the doomed ship and her crew. Back, till in the hollow of a huge wave her stempost struck the sand beneath and the story is told.“

-An account of the 1849 storm and the wreck of the Hanover, by Milton Spinney, son of the keeper.

 

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Imagine you could get to a small Caribbean island, one hundred percent virgin, covered with lush tropical vegetation, bordered by a long stretch of white powdery sand where you can go for walks in the morning and collect pink seashells, surrounded by waters so crystal and fresh you just snorkel all day among purple corals and fish. Imagine you can get there for free and stay for as long as you like to, never having to pay for airplane tickets and hotels. There, you don’t even have to worry about food. The avocado and mango trees are loaded with fruit, lazy lobsters and fat fishes are begging to be fillet and barbecued, and watch out for those big coconuts constantly falling from the palm trees just next to your bare feet. Totally free!

This is what you sign up for when you give up house and job, when you buy a sailboat and load all your belongings and kids aboard, and one fresh April morning you lift anchor, spread the sails, and chose a direction.

This island experience is not some romantic totally unrealistic representation of the cruising family’s journey. We are enjoying such moments since a few months now. The only detail that is not completely true, besides the coconuts falling next to your bare feet (if you want a nice coconut, you have to climb up the palm and get it!), is the „totally free“ part. Everything has a price, especially freedom. And not everyone is willing to afford the price of ‘free travel’. Sometimes this price can be as high as your very life and the life of your children. But you only realize that when you hit your first storm.

August 23

We are tired after a day of sailing and we still haven’t found a protected place to anchor. It is dark when we clear the reef and drop anchor just past the breakers, in sixteen feet of water, not too close to the shore of a small island where we can see the lights of a few houses. Belize City glows in the distance, further west. We are now in Belize.

This isn’t really an anchorage, there are no other boats, and between us and the sea is just a tiny stripe of coral reefs which are calming the waves a bit, but are unable to slow down the south winds. Our plan is to spend a few days here, check out the islands and snorkel around the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest reef system in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. But Neptune had other plans for us.

The next morning we wake up under heavy skies. A black cloud almost touching the sea is getting closer and closer from the south-east and soon a thick and dark wind full of rain descends upon us squealing and roaring and howling. Here comes the crazy old man riding upon the storm like a demon coming from the deep, mighty and furious. Lightnings slit the darkness around us followed by terrific explosions. We no longer see the shores of the island, we see nothing. The GPS says we are dragging anchor and fast. We turn on the motors and try to keep the boat from crashing into the reefs or to shore, but we have no idea which direction to turn, plus the wind is way stronger than the engines to be able to turn. Total chaos.

Good thing we dropped anchor away from the reefs and the shore and we had enough space to ‘drag safely’ for an entire mile. After some time, I have no idea how long the squall lasted, the wind calms down a bit, giving us enough time to reanchor and let out 300 feet of chain. Then it hits again. This time we don’t drag. We take GPS position every half an hour. The storm like a vulture circles above us and assaults us many times in the next couple of days and nights. Each squall is worst than the previous with winds of 40, then 50, then 60 miles per hour. But the boat takes it. We even get used to it and start playing cards.

On the third day looks like the worst has passed. The sky is still grey, the wind is still blowing hard but steady and the sea is rough, but no more squalls. Our wind-vane which anyway wasn’t working is missing and we are exhausted, but everything else is fine. It could be a lot worst. We could have been at sea and not at anchor, what would we have done then? Probably, for the experienced sailor, this would have seamed just a swirl of clouds. To us it was a hurricane. Later we found out that it was tropical storm Erin.

Time to sail the hell away from here, forget about snorkeling and visiting Belize, we now just want to get to Guatemala as soon as possible. Thus, we never set foot on Belize land, nor in Belize waters, we never met a single Belizean man or animal, although technically we spent a few days in Belize. Our memory of this country is populated by the terrible sounds of the storm. And the story is told.

 

Inside The Storm

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Playa del Carmen: Mayan Ruins and Sea Turtles

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August 18.

We pick up the anchor and leave Isla Mujeres heading south.  (The windlass suddenly doesn’t work, so Ivo has to bring the chain and anchor up by hand.) Our destination: Rio Dulce, Guatemala, a hurricane hole famous among the cruising community. Lots of boats spend the unstable summer months here as Rio Dulce is one of the most protected anchorages in the Caribbean and storms rarely visit this pace. The distance we have to sail is about 450 nautical miles, at least 4-6 days of sailing depending on the wind and if we don’t stop at night.

But we have to be mad not to stop, we are sailing parallel to Riviera Maya, keeping close to shore, and on our starboard side are some of the most beautiful Mexican beaches and resorts. Why not spending some quality time in a five-star ultra luxurious resort (or somewhere near it) for free?

 

Hotel Pool, Playa del Carmen

Hotel Pool at a 5-star resort, Playa del Carmen

 

After a few hours of uneventful sailing we drop anchor just south of the crowded Playa del Carmen after the last hotel right in front of the beach. There is not a single anchorage here, so we are hoping for calm winds and seas at night. The next day we explore.

 

Fata Morgana anchored off the beach, Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Fata Morgana anchored off the beach, Playa del Carmen, Mexico

 

For the first time we leave our boat anchored in front of a beach, alone, in a country notorious for its high crime rate. There is no dinghy dock here, so we paddle to shore and finally Viktor brings the kayak back to the boat and swims to shore with a bag full of shoes. Thus we don’t have to worry at least for the kayak. We head to town.

 

Viktor after swimming from Fata Morgana to the beach with a bag of shoes.

Viktor after swimming from Fata Morgana to the beach with a bag of shoes.

 

Once a small fishermen village, today Playa del Carmen is a major tourist destination with modern gated hotel complexes and condominiums, downtown area with shopping plazas and boutiques, internationally recognized chain restaurants and bars, and luxury department stores.

 

Public Beach at Playa del Carmen

Public Beach at Playa del Carmen

 

From here we go to Tulum to check out the ruins. If we had a good detailed chart or/and a cruising guide explaining how and where to clear the reef breakers, we could have sailed to Tulum, a few miles south of Playa del Carmen, and anchored just in front of the God of Winds Temple perched on the edge of a bluff, facing the sunrise. But we don’t have a guide and the chart doesn’t show any depths beyond the reef, so we take the bus instead.

 

Mira in Tulum

Mira in Tulum

 

Tulum, City of Dawn, is one of the last Mayan cities and one of the best preserved Mayan sites. (Maya did not have to pay admission because of her name. Joke. Because kid under 13 enter for free.) We are impressed by the size of its territory and the number of individual structures: temples, palaces, frescoes, platforms. But the hundreds of tourists invading the ruins inevitably spoil the entire experience. At some point we just want to run away from there. Plus, we are getting worried for Fata.

 

Tourists at Tulum

Tourists at Tulum

 

We get back at the boat in the afternoon to find her undisturbed, quietly waiting for us. The next day we spend walking around the coast. South of the last hotel and sandy beach is a rocky deserted shore where we notice at least twenty recent sea-turtle nests. Suddenly, we spot a coati digging in the sand. The animal runs away and hides in the bushes as we approach. There is blood and turtle eggshell. He’s been eating recently hatched baby sea-turtles! We find two survivors and keep them in a bucket covered with sand, like Suzy did back at Loggerhead Island. We plan to release them on the beach around midnight.

 

Ivo with a baby green turtle

Ivo with a baby green turtle

 

It’s midnight, full moon. Ivo and I paddle with the kayak to the beach to release the two baby turtles. One is dead. The other one swims away. And then, we see a huge green turtle just finished laying her eggs, exhausted, covered with sand, heading back to the Caribbean Sea. I can’t resist and snap a picture. She tolerates us, ignores us, and disappears in the black waters of the night. We are overwhelmed. Was it a dream?

 

A green sea-turtleheading back to the sea after laying her eggs.

A green sea-turtle heading back to the sea after laying her eggs.

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Marina Hemingway to Cayo Levisa

 

Leaving Marina Hemingway

After a week and a half in Marina Hemingway, inadequately expensive, noisy, mosquito-infested place with terrible facilities, we are eager to leave and sail west. On the way out of the marina, we have to clear la guarda and immigration again. In Cuba, you have to go through this painful process every time you enter or exit a port. Even if you go for a two-hour sail near the shore and comeback to the same port, which we’ve done once while in Marina Hemingway, you have to check out and check back in with la guarda and immigration, as if you are leaving the country and then coming back. This means: officials on board inspecting your passports, boat documentation, and the boat itself, before authorizing the move. I believe, Cuba is the only country who does this to cruisers. Unpleasant.

 

The Cuban officials will come aboard no matter what; if you are on a dock or at anchor.  Here Ivo and an immigration officer paddle the kayak, El Poderoso (the name of the kayak means The Mighty One in Spanish) back from the boat anchored at Cayo Levisa. Fastest kayak ride ever, said Ivo.

The Cuban officials will come aboard no matter what; if you are on a dock or at anchor.
Here Ivo and an immigration officer paddle the kayak, El Poderoso (the name of the kayak means The Mighty One in Spanish) back from the boat anchored at Cayo Levisa. Fastest kayak ride ever, said Ivo.

 

Our plan is to sail 60 miles west to Cayo Levisa and spend a few days there, then continue to Cabo San Antonio, the westernmost tip of the island before crossing over to Isla Mujeres, Mexico.

We hoist the main sail and the jib early in the morning on August 4, but there is not much wind until noon. The ocean surface is calm and sleek like the skin of a sleeping manatee. The boat barely moves with 1,5 knots.

 

Viktor and Maya are doing some laundry while the boat  gently sails west.

Viktor and Maya are doing some laundry while the boat gently sails west.

 

In the afternoon the wind picks up from the east and we start making good progress doing about 6-7 knots, wing-on-wing. Our autopilot and wind gauges don’t work since we started this journey, so we never know what is the wind speed, and we constantly hand-steer the boat. These are two major things we have to work on as soon as possible, but for now we just make the best of it. We became really good at ‘feeling’ the boat while steering and guessing the wind. They certainly didn’t have wind indicators and autopilots in the old times, is our consolation.

Thus we sail west all day along the Cuban north coast keeping a safe distance from the reef breakers, on the edge of the indigo-colored Gulf Stream. On our left slowly float by soft green hills, deserted beaches, and small coastal villages.

As the sun prepares to dive behind the horizon, we prepare to clear the reef and find an anchorage behind Cayo Levisa. It has been a long day.

 

Cayo Levisa

 

Fata Morgana is the only sailboat at Cayo Levisa anchorage.

Fata Morgana is the only sailboat at Cayo Levisa anchorage.

 

Cayo Levisa is a tiny mangrove island with a long stretch of fine sand on the north side. Tourists, mainly from Italy and France, arrive here daily, but the place is never overcrowded, as there aren’t any hotels, but a few coquette wooden bungalows alongside the beach. I wonder, how much it would cost to come here and rent one of these for a week. The good thing about sailing is that you can visit places like this and stay as long as you want for the reasonable amount of zero.

 

Cayo Levisa Beach

Cayo Levisa Beach

 

We even get a huge pile of fruits and vegetables as a gift from a guy who works here. Marcus is  one of those rare people with open hearts and minds and a talent for kindness and benevolence. „Remember, not all Cubans are like those you met in Havana. In the countryside, people are welcoming, honest, and generous, even if they are poor“, he tells us with a perfect English. This little gesture illuminated our entire Cuban experience and restored our faith in this country’s ordinary people.

 

An unexpected gift.

An unexpected gift.

 

The next couple of days we spend with Harley and April who followed us here from Havana. Together we go snorkeling on the reefs in the morning, feeding with leftovers the thousands of yellowtails and sergeant-majors swarming near the corrals who come and take small pieces of food from our hands. We spend the afternoons on the beach submerged in the warm shallow waters only our heads sticking out, like a family of hippopotamuses, around a small surf board where we rest our beers, exchanging stories.

 

Cayo Levisa

Cayo Levisa

 

And in the evenings, the kids stay on the boat and watch Back to the Future 1, 2 and 3, while we go on shore to the small restaurant and dance on the beach. April brings two cords with scorched tennis-size balls at the ends where we attach glowing sticks because we couldn’t find kerosine and teaches us to fire-dance but without the fire (and a good thing too, especially for beginners). Ivo is natural and ambitiously masters most of the moves in just a few hours. The tourists are sitting at a safe distance, watching us.

 

Maya drinking Cola at the beach restaurant

Maya drinking Cola at the beach restaurant

 

Although we enjoy our time in Cayo Levisa, we get disappointed again when we try to go on the other side to the mainland and visit La Esperanza, a tiny fishermen village nearby. The authorities tell us we cannot go. Even if Harley and April would stay behind and keep an eye on our boat, we are not aloud to set foot anywhere except Cayo Levisa. The explanation is that there is no customs and immigration authorities there to clear us in (although we already cleared three times in Cuba…) It’s ridiculous. Not being able to go on shore and explore the country’s rural interior is the biggest downside of visiting Cuba by boat.

The next morning, we lift anchor and sail off to our last Cuban destination: Los Morros, Cabo San Antonio.

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Turtle Nest Expedition

 

 

 

Loggerhead Key is a tiny island in Dry Tortugas, across from Garden Key where Fort Jefferson is. A tall lighthouse, three times the height of a regular one, was erected here in the 19th century, about the same time as Fort Jefferson was being built.

Pier and Lighthouse, Loggerhead Key, Florida

Pier and Lighthouse, Loggerhead Key, Florida

 

There are not organized tours here, and so the island, its white sandy beaches, and the coral reefs around it are undisturbed by people most of the time. The only way to come here is by boat.

Driftwood on a white sandy beach, Loggerhead Key

Driftwood on a white sandy beach, Loggerhead Key

 

July 22, Monday

We drop anchor very carefully on a sandy bottom patch, making sure there are no coral heads beneath. Ivo and I take the kayak to check out the lighthouse and explore the place. Viktor and Maya stay on the boat to play video games…

Fata Morgana anchored off Loggerhead Key

Fata Morgana anchored off Loggerhead Key

 

On the island we stumble upon Mark and Suzy, Marine Biology Students doing an internship and a group of scientists studying the sea turtles.

Suzy

Suzy

Kristen Hart, a research ecologist, and her crew have just arrived to monitor some of the turtle nests on the beach.

They accept our offer to help with the turtle nest expedition. (Our help consists in caring a huge beach umbrella and holding it above the excavating researchers, taking pictures, and asking too many questions.)

Excavating a recently hatched turtle nest

Excavating a recently hatched turtle nest

 

In the next couple of hours, under the hot tropical sun, Kristen and her crew excavate turtle nests marked by a pole indicating a recent hatching.

Kristen Hart holding unhatched turtle eggs

Kristen Hart holding unhatched turtle eggs

They count the eggshells, mark the nest GPS positions, take samples from the unhatched eggs by opening them and collecting the smelly rotten yolks in a jar.

An unhatched baby turtle

An unhatched baby turtle

 

The nests contain exactly one hundred yellowish eggshells each, of which a few unhatched eggs in various stages of development, and couple of baby turtle body parts, meaning that most of the baby turtles successfully hatched and made it to the ocean sometime in the past couple of days.

We are so grateful to be part of this expedition… It is an amazing learning experience; we only regret that the kids didn’t come. We learn about the green turtles and the loggerhead turtles, their habitat, behavior, and reproduction first hand.

We spend the evening and a night of a full moon on the boat watching the light of the lonely lighthouse lazily circling around us. Tonight, enormous creatures will emerge slowly from the warm dark waters of the ocean hauling their heavy shells across the sands to find a familiar spot. A place where many many years ago they awoke buried among their one hundred brothers and sisters and with much effort their journey begun. At this spot, they will remember, their old mother came, many many years ago, and gently covered with sand one hundred round eggs, her most treasured possession. They will remember, yes, and they will do as she did. Tonight.

Full moon over the lighthouse

Full moon over the lighthouse

 

The next morning we go back to the island, this time with Maya and Viktor, to investigate the sands of the beach for new nests. Another short expedition.

Suzy leads us along the beach

Suzy leads us along the beach

 

Suzy leads us along the southeast beach showing us fresh turtle tracks and nests, explaining the difference between the green turtle and the loggerhead nesting behavior. I am glad the kids are interested and participate. This is an example of how they learn valuable lessons outside school, thanks to traveling. A natural history, ecology, and biology lesson they will never forget.

A recent turtle nest and tracks from the night before. The eggs are under the little hill.

A recent turtle nest and tracks from the night before. The eggs are under the little hill.

 

They learn that green turtles and loggerheads have different patterns of walking on the sand and making their nests. That they dig sometimes a few nests before choosing where to lay their eggs. That they do this in the dark of the night to avoid being discovered and bothered by birds and predators. That they lay a hundred eggs or more, of which over 90% hatch successfully, but only a small fraction of the baby turtles make it to adulthood. The rest become easy prey for marine predators. That, if they make it, they can live to be hundreds of years old. That people hunt them in the past for they were an easy pray and had delicious meat until their numbers diminished dramatically. That today hunting and killing a sea turtle is a crime. That pollution, oil spills, and destruction of their habitat continues even now to endanger them. And that there are now programs and individuals out there who care about them and try to preserve them.

 

You can read more about the sea turtles of Dry Tortugas and the research and conservation efforts of scientists like Kristen Hart in Implementing the Dry Tortugas National Park Research Natural Area Science Plan: The 5-Year Report 2012.

 

 

 

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