Back to the Boat!

International travel is possible again, but you’ve really gotta want it

After our epic Long Trail backpacking adventure, Mike and I spent a few more weeks visiting family and attending the Annapolis Sailboat Show and then, suddenly, it was late October and time to return to Sanitas and the Caribbean. Who would’ve thought we’d still be dealing with border closures and COVID restrictions in fall of 2021? Definitely not me!

We found a pirate in Queens!

Our first challenge in returning to the islands was to figure out what to do with all of our stuff. Somehow, whatever we packed to bring home back in June bred and multiplied in the back of our Ford Escape and we suddenly owned way more junk than fit in our luggage. Visiting “The Land of Plenty” will do that to you. Also, a Costco membership card.😜 Some of it, we’d bring back with us – American toiletries and supplements are very expensive in the islands, as are gluten-free foods. Extra clothing we donated to charity. Luckily, almost all the clothing I bought as “land clothes” for our visit came from a thrift store so it was easy to part with – almost like renting warm clothing that we wouldn’t need when we returned south. Speaking of thrift stores, here’s a great nomad life hack for you…if you are returning home from your trip with a little more than you started with, consider buying an extra suitcase from Goodwill. We bought 2 huge pieces of luggage for $6.99 each and filled them as close as we could get to the 50-pound airline limit. Then we donated them on arrival in Grenada. Just don’t forget to pay for your bags in advance to avoid paying more at the airport! Even international flights don’t always include free luggage these days.

Yeah, we’re gonna need a bigger luggage cart

The next challenge is to comply with all the entry requirements of your destination country. That’s complicated by the fact that restrictions change quickly, based on the number of active cases in a country, and on whether the US is considered “high risk” at the time. When we traveled from New York to Grenada at the end of October, the rules were:

  • Only fully-vaccinated visitors are allowed to enter. We brought hard copy and digital copies of our vaccination cards
  • Apply for a Travel Authorization form one week before your flight
  • Have a negative PCR test result, taken within 72 hours of travel
  • Pre-pay for a 2nd COVID PCR test to be administered at the airport upon arrival in Grenada
  • Book two nights in an approved quarantine hotel in Grenada where you’ll stay until your arrival test results are available
  • Print everything to show the airline prior to checking in, or use an app such as New York’s Excelsior Pass

Our flight from JFK left before 7:00am on a Monday morning, so our covid tests were complicated by the weekend. We tried to take advantage of free testing at a Rite-Aid on Friday morning. But when we didn’t receive results by Saturday afternoon I panicked and paid $160 per person to get a test that guaranteed results by Sunday at 5:00 pm. It was a good decision. Capt Mike didn’t get his free test results until we arrived to the airport – I would have been totally freaking out if the results of our paid tests hadn’t been available!

Nomad man
You gotta wear your hat, so you don’t crush it!

After that, everything went smoothly. A 3am alarm got us to JFK in plenty of time for Mike to drop off me and my massive pile of luggage while he parked. I have nothing but positive feedback for JetBlue. Just a week after the Southwest flight cancelation fiasco, and a week before the American Airlines meltdown, every JetBlue employee we interacted with was professional and helpful. Our flight was about half full and on time, and it felt wonderful to take our first breaths of warm, humid island air when we deplaned at Maurice Bishop international airport. We arrived on a local holiday, but the clear-in process was still smooth and efficient. After our third nose swab in four days, we collected our bags and hopped into a taxi for the short trip to Sunflower Apartments.

I’d planned ahead and ordered delivery of grocery basics (eggs, fruit, pasta, potato chips, and booze) for our 48-hour quarantine. It was brilliant! The delivery van from IGA arrived at the apartment at the same time as our taxi. After Lauren in security took our temperature and showed us around, we settled in for quarantine, aka well-deserved rest and recovery period. With air conditioning and lots of Netflix movies, we barely minded, and we were officially cleared around 4:00 pm on Tuesday. Just in time to go out to eat at Greek Kitchen before restaurants closed round 5:00 for COVID curfew.

Sanitas is one of those masts, way over there. (View from our quarantine apartment)

Do all these Covid protocols sound strange to my fellow Americans? Well, Caribbean island nations are still taking Covid quite seriously, especially since many have limited medical facilities. But they are also balancing safety with the need to improve the economy and to restore tourism. Both Grenada and St Vincent have recently removed the quarantine requirement for fully-vaccinated visitors. Grenada now only requires a rapid antigen test on arrival, rather than the costlier PCR test. And they’ve significantly lowered the cost of the tests for departure, which are required when you return home to the States. While Covid-related protests have turned violent in the French islands, Grenada feels safe and peaceful – especially as the beautiful weather means we live our lives almost entirely outdoors all winter long. I’m very glad we were able to return to Sanitas this fall, and I’m really looking forward to being able to sail more and explore more than we’ve been able to for the past two years!

Celebrating our freedom from quarantine

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.

Nomad Life in the Time of Corinavirus

Several folks have reached out and asked if Capt. Mike and I are ok with all the Covid-19 stuff going on. Well… So far, so good. Sanitas is currently in the French overseas territory of Guadeloupe which at the time of writing had one confirmed case of the Corona virus. So, more than West Virginia, but less than most other regions. 😉

Last night at midnight, France directed that all bars, restaurants, and non-essential businesses must close in order to stop the spread of the virus, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I dingied ashore to the small town of Terre de Haut this morning. But, surreal as it seemed, things were pretty much the same as usual. Restaurants were open, ferries were running, the sun was shining. The small grocery store (about the size of a 7-11) was quite busy. But they always are on Sunday mornings when most shops close at noon. There was plenty of toilet paper on the shelves, and I found everything on my list – even fresh veggies and eggs. I did see two women great each other with the usual French kiss on both cheeks. And then they threw up their hands and looked a bit sheepish and tapped the toes of their right feet together instead. People aren’t freaking out here like they are in the States. Or… Maybe they are but because I don’t speak French, I’m missing it all.

Mike and are feel like we’re in pretty good shape on little old Sanitas. We went grocery shopping in the big supermarket in Point-a-Pitre a few days ago, so we have lots of French cheese and fresh veggies. And when that runs out, the bilge is full of canned goods, nuts, gluten free noodles, and energy bars. We have full water tanks and diesel, and our solar panels are working great.

That’s not so say we aren’t watching what’s happening and taking precautions though. We wash our hands a lot – and certainly every time we return to the boat. I belong to several sailing and cruising Facebook groups that share information on each island’s travel restrictions and entry procedures. I guess that’s our biggest concern right now – what if every island closes its borders to everyone except residents? Where will we go then? What if cargo ships stop sailing and the grocery stores DO get empty? What if we run out of propane for our cook stove? I checked today, and we can stay in Guadeloupe for 90 days without a visa, so I think we’ll sit tight and wait to see what happens. Our hurricane season plans call for us to haul out in Grenada for the summer on 1 July. Hopefully things improve by then, and if we really have to, we could sail straight to Grenada without stopping in less than 48 hours. We could also self-quarantine at anchor for 14 days if Grenada requires it. Although Mike and I would REALLY get on each other’s nerves by that time! 🤪 Imagine being stuck with your spouse for 14 days in a space the size of your master bathroom!

For now, we’re in a small, quiet place, with relatively few people. The weather is good. We’ve got plenty of food, water, and medicine. If everything shuts down, we can still swim and go for walks. It only costs 11€ per day to stay on a mooring ball. The main island of Guadeloupe is only a 4-hour sail away if we need more provisions or medical care. Right now, it feels like the right decision to stay put and see what happens. Which is pretty much all anyone can do, right? Now if only I had more books and a slightly bigger boat!

Why is is so hard to give up “stuff”?

When we sold our house and most of our belongings before moving onto our 37 foot sailboat, several friends told me, “It must feel so good to simplify and get rid of stuff!” Well it did feel good up to a point: emptying closets of outdated technology, getting rid of clothes that hadn’t fit in years, eliminating duplicate camping gear. Even clearing out kitchen cabinets of clutter was kind of fun. And I got really good at my downsizing mantras. Does it bring me joy? Does it fit on a boat? But eventually….. I had gotten rid of the junk, and all that was left was things that I loved, and clothes that fit me, and stuff that, darn it, DID bring me joy! And it was still WAY too much to fit on a boat.

So then sh*t got real. And we kept downsizing: digitizing photos, giving away the coffee bean grinder and any kitchen items that could be replaced at Target, giving away running clothes and cycling kits (’cause who can run or bike on a boat?) We finally caved in a bit and decided to store a few boxes at Capt. Mike’s mom’s house – our road bikes, glassware and pottery from our travels and a box of winter jackets for when we eventually leave the topics and visit Buffalo. That decision probably saved my sanity, because t allowed me to keep some belongings.

Jump ahead to the end of our second cruising season. And somehow… We still have too much stuff! There’s clothes in hard-to-get-to storage that I haven’t worn all season. We have a bag of bags – yes really. Insulated cups always sit on the counter because there’s not enough room in the cup cupboard. Don’t even ask how many pairs of shoes I have. Sigh. So at the end of the season, we downsized again. I really think Netflix should feature Sanitas on an episode of “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.”

When we moved from the boat to an Airbnb while working in the yard, the pile of stuff we moved into the condo was pretty huge.

But, to be fair, we were still cooking all our meals (with vegetables!) And using up food and toiletries from the cruising season. We downsized a bit more before flying to Colorado for a month. But packing light didn’t turn out quite how I envisioned it.

Good thing we borrowed a friend’s car! We had cold weather clothing (it snowed in Colorado the day before we arrived, plus we planned to spend time in New York in October) and running clothes and yoga clothes and going out to dinner clothes and backpacking equipment. So not too bad, considering.

But then a crazy thing happened. During the month we spent in the land of plenty, we bought more stuff! Newer cuter clothes. Toiletries. Makeup (which you sure don’t need on the boat). Gluten free snacks galore. Newer, lighter packaging gear. By the end of the month, we again had way too much stuff and had to ship some to new York. By the time we flew out from Denver to Europe, we’d once again skinnyed things down to a comfortable walking around level.

I think we’re pretty good now! I’ve got hiking clothes and gear. I’ve got everything I need for hot temps, chilly temps, and rain. I’ve got a couple of drinking-wine-and-eating-pinxtos outfits. I even packed some gluten free snacks. Why was it so hard to get here?

Who knows! Like most of us, I get sentimentally attached to things I’ve owned that trigger fond memories. And I hate the idea of re-buying something I used to own. It seems like such a waste! Plus there’s always an element of, “what if I need it someday?” But, with everything I need for 3 months traveling Europe in my backpack, I hope to channel my inner Marie Kondo and get rid of the clutter and excess in my life! And on my boat 😁

Crossing the Dreaded Mona Passage

After a month in the Dominican Republic, our 30 day immigration stamp expired, and it was time to move on to Puerto Rico.

When we first untied the lines in Florida to start cruising, we were stressed out by the thought of crossing the Gulf Stream. But after four crossings under our belts, looking back on it the Gulf Stream doesn’t seem that bad. You always know which direction the current will be flowing, there are apps and websites to tell you how fast the stream is running any given day, the distance is short so you can cover it in daylight, and it’s well understood what makes up a good weather window.

The Mona Passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico on the other hand, throws in a lot more variables. This is where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea, and the currents here can vary widely with no real means to predict their strength and flow. You just figure out the currents when you experience them. Also, there are several shoals, or sandbars, which change the depth of the water from thousands of feet to a couple hundred of feet. You certainly won’t run aground in that, but the change in depth really messes with the water and kicks up confused waves far from shore. Although the passage itself is only 80 miles, the distance from the anchorage in Samana to the first safe port in Puerto Rico is more like 150 miles. We planned for over 30 hours of travel. Cooling land masses often kick up thunderstorms that won’t appear in any weather report. So we were particularly cautious when choosing a weather window to cross. Capt. Mike listened to the offshore weather reports for three distinct regions: north, in the passage, and south of the Mona for about a week, watching for the right conditions before making our Go / No-Go decision.

Finally, we were pretty confident we’d have a window we could safely motor across the Mona Passage, although it was unlikely we’d have enough wind to truly sail. We said our goodbyes to Marcie and Damon the night before, so we were all set to raise anchor and head out at first light. The Bay of Samana is gigantic – hours later, we could still see the finger of land to our north. But eventually, we broke free of the bay, and motor-sailed down the southeastern coast of the DR, encountering one of those crazy currents streaming about 1.5 knots against us along the way. Winds were pretty calm (Capt. Mike had done his research well) so we considered ignoring the hourglass shoal all together and just choosing a heading that lined up straight with our destination in Puerto Rico. Glad we didn’t do that! Even doing everything right, and picking a longer course to the north of the shoal, we still encountered pretty rough seas on the edge of it.

Otherwise, the trip was smooth and uneventful – but long! Out of 33 hours, we were only able to turn the motors off and sail for about 3.5 hours. After about 28 hours, we got just close enough to land that my Google Fi phone picked up a signal and started dinging. So, apparently we were back in US waters for the first time since January 8th! Time to clear back in! Well the US government has finally managed a web site that works. We put my phone up the halyard to get a strong signal, and Capt. Mike called up the CBP Roam app, let ’em know we were back in the US, and twelve minutes later we were successfully cleared in. That even included a quick phone call with Officer Felice. How cool is that? The best part is, we didn’t even need to go ashore in Puerto Real. We could just continue east, taking advantage of the calm winds. Instead, we lowered the Dominican Republic flag and raised the Puerto Rico flag while we were still barely in sight of land.

We had the best of intentions of sailing around the southwest corner of Puerto Rico and making it as far as La Parguara. But as we rounded the cape at Cabo Rojo, the true force of the easterly trade winds and the sea swells they bring hit us. SV Sanitas slowed down to about two knots. And she was getting tossed around like crazy. Maybe it was because we were tired after 33 hours, or maybe it was because we were attempting to travel east too late in the afternoon when the winds had had time to build. But we called an audible and turned sharp to port and found ourselves a safe anchorage underneath the lighthouse.

While we were resting and recovering from our long journey, a fishing boat pulled up. Now, I get kind of defensive when a strange boat pulls up to Sanitas. My first instinct is to say “No gracias! I don’t want it. How much?” But in this case, one of the guys simply handed Mike a live lobster, waved, and zoomed off. Well alrighty then! Welcome to Puerto Rico!