Christmas in the Islands

It wasn’t a white Christmas (unless you count the sand) but I truly think we’ve had as nice a holiday as we could manage while being stuck far from home in the days of coronavirus.

Within the sailing community, everyone talks about “Christmas in Bequia” in the country of St Vincent and the Grenadines. So as soon as we’d cleared into the country at Union Island, Capt. Mike and I started planning to sail about 55nm north to arrive in Bequia before bad weather moved in and to ensure we’d make it before the holiday. It was a brisk sail, with higher than expected seas, but Sanitas did great. We arrived and anchored just in front of the floating Bar One where friends from SV Jono and SV Maracudja cheered and jeered our anchoring attempts. Sometimes you watch the show, and sometimes you are the show!

It was a lovely welcome to this particularly welcoming island! Bequia is all about boats – they build boats by hand here, and fishing is a big part of the culture. Bequia is one of the few places remaining in the world where residents have approval to hunt whales. But they can only do so using small open sailboats (without motors) and using hand thrown harpoons. 😲 You can find any sort of marine service you might require here, such as canvas work, engine maintenance, or sail repair. And ferry boats run daily to the main island of St Vincent in case you can’t find a repair part here. It immediately felt like a place we could stay quite happily for a while. And the best part was that many of our sailing friends from Grenada and elsewhere had also gathered, so we could look forward to celebrations with friends to make us feel a little bit better about that fact that we were so far away from family.

St Vincentians have a unique Christmas tradition known as the “Nine Mornings.” For the nine days leading up to Christmas Eve, some folks attend early morning church services and then gather in the main square in town to listen to music, dance, and participate in contests like “longest earrings”, “best female dancer”, and “fastest juice drinker.” I have to admit, we didn’t participate very much – even hearing loud music from shore at 4:30 am isn’t enough of an enticement to get me out of bed before sunrise. And then…once the sun does come up, everybody heads to work or school and the party’s over. But we did enjoy the lights and decorations at a much more reasonable hour of the evening, lol!

On Christmas Eve, we were invited over to Andres and Elisbeth’s sailboat to join in a Norwegian tradition of sharing rice porridge (risgrøt) and mulled wine (gløgg) with friends and family. This tradition is new to me, but I love it! The “more the merrier” vibe felt so kind, and it was a great chance to meet new cruiser friends – several of who had just crossed the Atlantic in time for the holiday. Wow! Impressive! Our hosts were festively attired – those Santa hats are hot in the tropics!

We had Christmas lunch with some good friends at Coco’s Place. And while I *could* have ordered Turkey and the fixings, when in Bequia, you must celebrate Christmas with fresh fruit, right? And a cool rum punch 🍹Tourism is way, way down because of Covid, and it felt good to support a small local restaurant owner with our holiday business. And we’ll definitely be back for Coco’s famous fish chowder. Luckily, we have good cell phone signal here, so both the captain and I were able to call home on Christmas to speak to our families and to dream of the more traditional snowy, cozy Christmas we wish we could be spending with our loved ones.

Thanks to Cheryl on Leef Nu and Lindy on Holiday for the photos of Christmas lunch! I guess I was having too much fun to take pictures.

Speaking of difficulties due to Covid, The Fig Tree restaurant is an institution in Bequia- long a gathering place for cruisers, as well as a resource for local school children who attend Miss Johnson’s reading program in the afternoons. But the owners were contemplating closing down because of the lack of visitors in 2020. So a group of Fig Tree supporters, including the owners and crew of Sailing Yacht Ananda, planned a fundraiser party for New Year’s Eve. I’m thrilled to report that every single table sold out, and we enjoyed a wonderful evening of cocktails, local Caribbean food, and dancing knowing that we were helping Miss Johnson and her team stay in business through this unusually quiet “high” season.

You may be wondering about exactly HOW we can safely have these types of celebrations during Covid. St Vincent and the Grenadines has used closed borders, mandatory Covid testing, and mandatory quarantine to do a good job of keeping the number of cases imported into the island nation low. There are limits of the size of gatherings, and requirements for hand sanitizer and contact tracing, but otherwise things feel pretty relaxed. Except….at about 7:00 on New Years Eve, the government decided that the big street parties and all night celebrations that usually usher in the new year would be too risky this year. So at the last minute they prohibited “amplified music” and sent policemen around to share that message. It definitely meant things were quieter than expected! But the Fig Tree party was granted an exception, because our entertainment was provided by a violinist playing pop hits with great enthusiasm. The authorities said he could play during dinner…..so dinner went on for a very, very, long time – right up to midnight! 🤣 He did have backup music, and a supporting DJ, but I guess they figured a violinist couldn’t get in too much trouble!

I hope you and your families had a safe and peaceful Christmas, and that you were also to do the best you could to make new traditions in this crazy year. ❤️

How do we vote from our Sailboat?

This is the first year since we sold everything in 2017 and moved onto our sailboat, Sanitas, that we won’t be visiting friends and family in the USA in the fall. You know – COVID. 🤬 So how do we vote when we’re “stuck” in the tiny island country of Grenada 🇬🇩 with no access to the good old USPS? Well, it took a lot of research, a bit of trial and error, and about $15 but I think I’ve figured it out!

When we sold our house in Colorado, we established residency in Green Cove Springs, FL. (Yep. You can go ahead and call Capt. Mike “Florida Man.”) Florida is a no excuse vote-by-mail state. That means any registered voter can request a vote-by-mail ballot, without needing to prove a hardship or disability or that you’ll be out of town on Election Day. And, regardless of what the Pres says in his tweets, there’s no difference between an absentee ballot and vote by mail in Florida. in fact, in 2016, Florida removed the words “absentee ballot” completely from all government websites, ballots, and documents. When we registered to vote in Clay County, we ticked the box requesting to vote-by-mail and each time we return a ballot, we tick the box again stating we want to continue voting in this manner. That’s all well and good when we’re in the US, and we can get our mail forwarded to us, but what do we do when we’re overseas?

There’s an excellent government website called the Federal Voter Assistance Program or www.fvap.gov that provides tools and links to help US citizens vote from overseas. Being the government, it’s all acronym alphabet soup. First, we filled out the Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) to certify that we’ll be living outside the US on Election Day and requesting our ballots by email, rather than USPS mail. It required filling out and printing a form, then signing it, scanning, and e-mailing it back. In just a couple days, I received an e-mail confirming that Clay County received the form, and we were good to go on e-mail ballots. Step 1 successfully complete!

FVAP also does a great job of providing the election timeline for each county, including deadlines to register, request vote-by-mail, to return your ballot, and more. It even provides contact info for each county board of elections. This might just be the most useful government website ever! And now I’m slightly embarrassed about how much I’m gushing over a government website.

On September 18, we received our ballots and voting instructions in an e-mail – right on schedule! I hopped on a local minivan bus and traveled to the only shopping mall on the island, where I found a business center and printed our ballots and instructions for 10.50 ECD ($4USD) Back home, I used resources at Ballotpedia.org and the League of Women Voters lwvfl.org to research candidates and constitutional amendments on the ballot. When we were ready, Capt. Mike and I marked our ballots, signed them, and filled out a fax transmission sheet.

Florida doesn’t allow you to return a ballot via email (some states do!) so we also signed a waiver acknowledging that our faxed ballots wouldn’t be private. And then I set off in search of a fax machine – remember those? I spent about a day and a half walking back and forth between the boatyard and the Budget Marine chandlery with a folder full of paperwork trying to make it there during business hours (Island time is no joke!) and trying to find one with a fax machine that would function correctly and stay connected for 5 whole pages. I phoned Clay County directly a couple of times and spoke to a lovely, polite southern woman who checked that the fax machine was indeed turned on, and even gave be a backup fax number when the first one didn’t work. You gotta love that southern politeness! Finally, and after paying 2ec per faxed page, success! My mantra is, “Well it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than FedEx!” I have fax transmission sheet to prove my ballot went through. Now, fingers crossed that my signature from 2020 matches the one I gave them when I registered back in 2017 and I should be confident that Capt. Mike and I did our part to make our votes count and our voices heard. Even from the islands, mon.

Special Treat! A Sailing Video!

For some reason, I rarely post videos…Maybe because I’m the old-fashioned writer type? Or because video editing is hard? Or just because we’re not very telegenic? 🤣 Lucky for you, we’ve got friends who are great at this stuff. For a sense of what this sailing is really like, click the link below for a 20 minute YouTube video of highlights from last week’s Race around Grenada, filmed by our good friend Zach on SV Holiday!

Fun on Holiday Race around Grenada

Grenada Summer Camp

I’ve heard fellow cruisers describe a hurricane season in Grenada, West Indies as “Grenada Summer Camp” and now I know why!

The crew of Sanitas spent July 2020 anchored in Woburn Bay on the south coast of Grenada. Every morning, we’d listen to the Cruisers’ Net on the VHF radio and there were so many social activities announced every morning, we had to create a little cheat sheet calendar to keep track of them all! Yes, this is still the age of Coronavirus, but Grenada was COVID-free by July and gatherings of up to 25 are allowed, especially outdoors. For more info on “Where are the masks?” click the link to my previous blog post.

We reunited with sailing friends who cleared quarantine a few weeks earlier than us on the 4th of July at a Bar-B-Q at Whisper Cove Marina. This lovely small marina became our home away from home – a place to do laundry, fill water jugs, dispose of trash – as well as mingling with other cruisers at happy hour or pizza night or acoustic jam sessions.

Sanitas was anchored just a short dinghy ride away from Le Phare Bleu Marina, a welcoming spot WITH A POOL where for the price of a happy hour cocktail, cruisers are welcome to socialize while floating about. Kids splash and chase each other at one end, and adults share buckets of beer at the other, and everyone has a wonderful time until sunset.

Grenada summer camp (or is it retirement community? 🤔) isn’t all eating and drinking. It’s the first time in months we’ve been able to go ashore and get some regular exercise. Meghan, on SV Clarity, is kind enough to lead beach boot camp a couple of days a week. And, while the Hash House Harriers aren’t running (they can’t guarantee groups of less than 25 people) there are lovely trails within the Mt Hartman Dove Preserve, and we’ve participated in several small group hikes. Sometimes, the hikes end at the West Indies Beer Company. Ok, maybe it is all eating and drinking!

Hog Island is the center of cruising social life. On Sunday afternoons, cruisers and locals alike gather at Roger’s Barefoot Bar to chat and to buy burgers, ribs, and lobster from the informal vendors. Have grill, will sell Bar-B-Q! You can also buy a sarong or some fresh veggies from vendors in the shade of the island trees if the curious cows don’t eat it first! There’s a mile-long trail on the island with great views of the anchorage too. One evening, we gathered on the beach with Leef Nu and Holiday and had a cookout – grilled delicious Italian sausage with a potluck of sides. We had a rollicking good conversation about the differences between American candy brands and Canadian candy brands. Did you know Smarties and called Rockets in Canada? And, to add the the confusion, Canadian smarties and bigger crunchier m&m’s! Isn’t this an educational blog?

What’s next for the crew of Sanitas?

So we survived quarantine in St George’s Grenada, though not without a bit of drama. On Day #15, we headed to shore with great anticipation to take our COVID-19 tests. Once we passed, we’d be free to officially clear into the country and to have our freedom of movement back! But… Capt. Mike’s rapid antigen test came back inconclusive, which was treated the same as a positive. So he had to undergo the nasal swab PCR test, and we both had to return to Sanitas to wait three more days for the result. Oh my gosh, I could have divorced him! Those were the hardest three days of the entire quarantine. Of course, he didn’t actually have coronavirus and the test eventually came back negative, but those extra three days of confinement were emotionally very difficult to take.

That’s all behind us now, thank goodness! Now we are free to move Sanitas between Grenada anchorages, and to go ashore at will – with masks and social distancing, of course. Several of you have reached out to ask what’s next for Sanitas and her crew. What are our plans for hurricane season? Keeping in mind that plans are really hard to make in a global pandemic, with things constantly changing….

We are probably going to spend all of hurricane season here in Grenada.

Our original plan was to haul Sanitas and store her in a boatyard while we flew back to the US for the summer. In fact, on Plan A we’d be at a family reunion in Boston right now. Sadly, that got cancelled. (Sound familiar?) In 2020 reality, the international airport in Grenada is still closed, and there are no commercial flights scheduled to or from the United States. Grenada clamped down hard on the virus back in March and as a result, this small island country is currently COVID-free. The government is easing restrictions and gradually reopening the economy, but they’re serious about protecting their citizens and residents, so it’s happening slowly. They will be opening to Carribean regional flights first, then commercial flights from low-risk countries such as Canada, and eventually (hopefully) to high-risk countries such as the United States.

I put quite a bit of effort into renegotiating with our marine insurance company. I wrote a new hurricane plan and begged and pleaded and sweet talked our insurance agent, and finally got permission to keep Sanitas in the water for July and August while still keeping our hurricane insurance coverage. That’s good news, because it means we still have a place to live for those months. In July, we’re living at anchor, exploring Grenada’s southern harbors and bays. For August, we have a reservation for a slip in Port Louis Marina in St George’s. Hurricane season is low season, so an entire month will cost us about $600 plus water and electricity. And speaking of electricity, the J-Dock at Port Louis is the only spot in Grenada with 110 power for American boats. You know what that means – air conditioning! Also, access to marina showers, and a laundry room, and a pool. 😲 It’s just a short bus ride away from beautiful Grand Anse beach, and from the hustle and bustle of downtown St George’s.

For insurance reasons, we still have to store Sanitas on the hard for September and October; the months that are historically more likely for hurricanes to impact this part of the Caribbean. We’ll look for a small apartment to rent during that time, and we’ll do some work on Sanitas in the boat yard. If the Coronavirus situation improves by then and flights resume, we’d love to have the chance to fly home and visit family and friends during that time. But it’s too soon to count on it. Plus, what happens if we successfully make it back to upstate New York and then a fall second wave hits and Grenada closes borders again? We wouldn’t want to be stuck thousands of miles away from our home and all of our belongings, with no place to live and no health insurance for Covid. That feels like it would be a pretty precarious situation, and not one that our retirement savings could handle.

None of this is ideal and we really, really miss our friends and families. Keep posting all those Colorado summer mountain pictures and Florida running group pictures and crazy New York State weather pictures please! But we’ve got everything we need (if not everything we want) and we think we can make it work this summer if we can’t make it home. I hope you all are hanging in there on your Plan B or Plan C or Plan D and are staying safe and healthy and sane through these crazy times! Sending virtual hugs!