There’s a time to go cruising and a time to stop. As Chris DiCroce found, you don’t always get to choose those times
Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
For my wife, Melody, and me, the evolution began in May 2012 when we sold our home and nearly everything in it to move aboard our Cal 35. After many years of dreaming about a simpler, more fulfilling life, we jumped in with both feet, fear be-damned. For the next five years, we cruised the Gulf of Mexico, East Coast and Chesapeake Bay while we upgraded the boat and saved as much as we could to feed what we called our “fantasy fund.”
It was then, after the work, the saving and the adjustments made for life’s interruptions, that we reached the point where we just decided we had to go—a point where I felt the dream slipping away, getting buried under an avalanche of excuses, like “the boat’s not ready” or “we don’t have enough money.” We’d worked hard. We needed a payoff. We needed to sail.
In January 2017, along with our 10-year-old Dutch Shepherd, Jet, we tossed off the dock lines, set out from Saint Petersburg, Florida, and sailed to Hemingway Marina, where we spent 12 days immersing ourselves in Cuban culture. For so long, I had only read other people’s experiences in Havana. I’d had to see it through their eyes, hear the music with their ears. Our arrival was unlike any other landfall I ever made, simply because it was Cuba. And now, I could see and hear it for myself. Twelve days weren’t enough.
When it came time to leave, we didn’t want to return to the States. Honestly, we couldn’t go back. We were forever changed. That’s what happens with an evolution. We were different people, and we wanted to keep traveling. We only had $5,000 in our cruising budget. But our boat was paid for and performing perfectly, so we decided to continue under the guise that if it all ends tomorrow, we’ll be OK with that. It became our mantra, and we repeated it often.
We left Hemingway and spent four days transiting Cuba’s north coast, anchoring in picturesque deserted bays. Crossing the infamous Yucatan Channel, we enjoyed two amazing weeks in Isla Mujeres before heading south along the east coast of Mexico in some of the most challenging and rewarding sailing we’ve ever done. Entering narrow, unmarked shallow cuts got our hearts pumping. Anchoring behind reefs with little to no protection tested our resolve, and crossing international borders with a dog made us question our sanity. Those days taught us much about ourselves, both as individuals and as a couple.
Continuing on, we celebrated Easter in Caye Caulker, Belize. A few days later, we ate empanadas in Placencia and snorkeled the nearby deserted cayes. We were in our berth at sundown, back in the water at sunrise. All the while we kept telling ourselves, if it ends tomorrow, we’ll be OK with that.
In May, we entered the Rio Dulce in Guatemala and took a slip in Monkey Bay Marina. With reliable Wi-Fi, we were able to work. Melody dialed up some of the old clients she used to do online marketing for. I released a new book and began writing for a couple of television shows. Life was good. We could think about the plan while replenishing the fantasy fund for the next leg of the adventure. Maybe the Caymans. Maybe Panama...
Then life happened, a universal leveling of the field to remind us that with every up comes a down. Ours came in the form of our dog, Jet, losing his eyesight. One afternoon, he had a major misstep trying to board the boat, one that left him clinging to the toerail by his nails and sent me sprinting to catch him before a passing wave crushed him between the dock and our boat.
Jet is our ambassador. He’s the first to greet our dockmates when we arrive in a new place. People up and down the U.S. East Coast know him well and barely remember us. He’s handsome, well-mannered, and he’s never once protested the crazy life that’s been thrust upon him. Years of sunlight, though, had accelerated his Pannus, a degenerative eye disease that affects many shepherd breeds, and we found ourselves having the discussion about selling the boat. We’d only just broken free, and here we were already talking about ending the adventure, truly testing our mantra. Were we really going to be OK with it?
The discussion led to a decision. We’d list the boat and see what happened. I estimated it would take at least a year to sell. The plan was for Melody to fly back to the States while I sailed the boat back after hurricane season. Except for the fact that we had neither a house nor a job to go to back to, it was no big deal. I took comfort in knowing we had plenty of time to dial it all in.
As fate would have it, though, we didn’t have time. The boat sold almost immediately. A fella from Panama wanted her, sight unseen. He saw the listing and called me. We spoke for an hour. He went online and read our blog posts. Being from Philadelphia (and a natural skeptic), I assumed it was a scam. Three weeks after initial contact, though, my wife and I found ourselves standing on the dock with our lives reduced to 14 pieces of luggage, an acoustic guitar and a dog. I’ll never forget loading the launch for the ride to the town dock in Fronteras. The small, overloaded boat rolled to her gunwales. My eyes filled as I watched our boat fade out of sight and we said goodbye to our friends.
After a decade of dreaming, preparing, and sacrificing to achieve a goal, it was over. Just like that. We were boatless. Homeless. Being so busy with the business of selling the boat, neither one of us had bothered to contemplate the magnitude of the moment that would arise once it was truly gone.
The only plan we could devise in the midst of that distress was to rent a place on Airbnb in Antigua, Guatemala, for two weeks. We’d make another plan from there. Traveling in a foreign country with a dog presents an entirely new set of challenges. We couldn’t take Jet on a commuter bus, so we had to arrange private transportation for the seven-hour trip. It was a quiet ride. Our poor Spanish kept small talk to a minimum. I spent the trip arranging in my head the string of events that had led up to the precise moment that had us in this van speeding toward some Spanish-colonial town in the mountains of Guatemala.
We spent five months in Antigua. We took a close look at all that we’d been dragging around and ended up giving away much of it. We signed up for language classes. Thinking it would help my Spanish, I took a job bartending in a sports bar. In reality, though, failing to understand the local slang, spoken through a slur, only served to piss off the regulars. A piece of advice: never agree to work New Year's Eve if you have the slightest doubts about your ability to communicate with the patrons.
After five months we needed a change (how funny that sounds to me now), so we hired another shuttle to carry our nine bags, guitar and dog with rapidly deteriorating eyesight to Xela (Quetzaltenango), Guatemala. In Xela, people cocked their head to one side when we told them of our journey thus far. “You’ve changed your entire life for a dog?”
I didn’t expect them to understand, but by now Melody and I had developed a new skill: the ability to turn off the inner voice that wants to scream, “What the hell are you doing!?” We’ve wired up a kill switch, and it’s been working flawlessly. If we think about all the dots we had to connect to get to this point, I dare say some therapy would be in order.
We only spent a month in Xela. It was lovely, but we were trying to get to Mexico where renting a car would be easier and where we could move without having to hire private shuttles for Jet. We found a place to settle for a few months, to contemplate the madness that is our life with a firm finger on that kill switch, just in case.
As I write this from Oaxaca, far from any water, my unsandy feet gently brush the fur of our impaired dog. He’s lying on the cool tile, oblivious to all that’s happened. My guitar is on the couch in the tiny apartment we’ve rented. The bags are unpacked and hidden away in a closet. For now.
I suppose we’ll make a plan, and like every other plan we’ve made, I expect it to change. The last year was nothing but change. From Florida to Cuba. From Cuba to Mexico. From Mexico to Belize. From Belize to Guatemala. And from sailboat to suitcase. But if it all ends tomorrow, we’ll be OK with that.