A Caribbean interlude

By: Ann Vanderhoof

Author: Canadian Living


A Caribbean interlude

By: Ann Vanderhoof

"How will you be able to stand being together so much in such a tiny space?" friends ask as I give them a tour of our new home. I laugh, but frankly I've been wondering that myself.

Over the last few years, my husband, Steve, and I realized we were desperate for a break from our harried, work-driven and overstressed lives. Gradually, we decided to put our careers on hold, our house up for rent and our possessions into storage, and sail from Toronto to the Caribbean.

Close quarters
The new home we're moving into is a 42-foot sailboat. Receta (Spanish for recipe), as we've named her, is elegant, graceful, fast…and a whole lot less roomy than even the tiniest house, more like a walk-in closet with windows. She's only four metres across at her widest, with most of her -- from pointed bow to pinched stern -- much skinnier.

The berth where Steve and I will sleep is as wide as a double bed at the pillow end, but narrows rapidly to a scant 70 centimetres at its foot. In addition, the person who sleeps on the inside -- me -- will have to climb over the person on the outside every time she wants to visit the bathroom -- the bathroom that is the size of a broom closet. And the galley where I'll soon be preparing three meals a day? Standing on its 60-centimetre square floor, I can reach the stove, fridge, freezer, sink and every cupboard.

Two years in paradise in our mid-40s sounds wonderful, but even as we're moving onto this new home, I'm still wondering whether the means of escape we've chosen is the right one. I have never lived onboard a boat for longer than a two-week summer holiday, have almost no blue-water sailing experience and get nervous when the wind pipes up. Aside from my undeveloped sea legs, I'm worried about how our relationship will survive such close quarters. Without the outside stimulation of our jobs, far from friends and family, and together all day every day, what will we have to talk about? What will keep us from driving each other around the bend?

A good team
Eleven months later, we're off the south coast of Grenada, 2,100 nautical miles from Toronto. Steve pays out Receta's anchor chain as I motor the boat slowly backward. We communicate wordlessly via hand signals -- no shouting from bow to cockpit to disturb the calm tropical morning. Within minutes Steve signals that the anchor is set in the sand and Receta floats serenely on blue glass that glitters in the hot sunlight. We had threaded through coral reefs to get into this anchorage -- Steve at the helm; me at the bow. I had silently directed him left, right or straight ahead to keep us in the safe sapphire ribbon of deep water between the yellow-green reefs. To my amazement we are now a smooth and practiced (almost polished) team.

Another surprise: we have no shortage of things to talk about when daily life may include a barnacle-encrusted hawksbill turtle -- bigger than a Thanksgiving platter and a critically endangered species -- surfacing beside your boat. Or a one-metre-long great barracuda gliding into view from behind Receta's rudder just as I slide into the water for my afternoon swim (the next day, I send Steve in first). Away from work, which always seemed to demand top priority, we have time to explore: fish, flowers, trees, birds, insects, shells, coral, books and the music, food and culture of the islands. We talk together more now, about more things.

And those close quarters I had worried about? Steve has decided they're an opportunity for regular hugs as we squeeze by each other in the main cabin, shoehorn into the galley to grab a snack and climb into or out of bed.

Life and death decisions
By the time we're off the west coast of Nevis, 18 months into our journey, I have realized that trust takes on new meaning when you must trust each other with your lives.

Yesterday, the view from Receta's cockpit was travel-poster perfect: an unruffled turquoise sea, miles of sugary sand along the shore, scattered coconut palms rising like random exclamation points against a green-velvet mountain wreathed in chiffon clouds. The beachfront bar is poster-perfect, too -- just a small patch of sand covered by a thatched roof, serving island rums and beer (cold Carib) and playing local tunes. Today, with a sudden and unexpected wind shift, our placid anchorage has become dangerous. Big rollers break on the beach close behind us and Receta bucks against her anchor line as two-metre waves lift her up and throw her down again. If they get any higher, she will be slammed against the bottom of the ocean in the troughs. We need to get out of here now.

But we can't, yet. Steve has to manoeuvre the dinghy through the mounting seas to pick up our passports in town and check us out of the country. Meanwhile, adrenaline pumping, I ready the boat for rough weather, pretending to our landlubber guests visiting from back home that this isn't anything out of the ordinary. "No problem, just a few waves," I say reassuringly as I lurch around, taking off the sail cover, running lines and stowing or tying down anything that isn't firmly secured to the boat. As soon as Steve returns, he crawls to the foredeck to hoist the anchor while I motor us forward under full throttle -- although we're barely moving since Receta's bow (with Steve attached) is being buried by the steep waves -- and then drive us safely off the shore.

"I can trust Ann's boat and sail handling in all sorts of weather and waves," Steve tells people proudly. "Even through a couple of sizzling lightning storms she always remained calm and competent. Even when I'm asleep belowdecks on a night passage, I don't need to worry." His confidence in me gives me confidence in myself. With just each other to rely on, we share more now, too -- what we're thinking, fearing, hoping and dreaming. And, of course, the chores.

Divided duties
We do the dishes together each night, singing along and dancing to island calypso and soca CDs while I wash (in one small dishpan of water since every drop has to be caught when it rains or ferried aboard in jerry cans) and Steve dries. I'm responsible for the weather forecasts (three or four every day); Steve, the mechanical systems and the head. We share problems, troubleshoot and work out solutions together, whether it's figuring out why the engine is overheating or how to deal with the monstrous lobster Steve has speared, since it's way bigger than our biggest pot.

Back in Toronto, four years after our return, I still think about our midlife break almost every day. In part, that's because I have just finished writing a book about it. But it's more than that. The trip -- its challenges and its pleasures -- reshaped our lives together. "I don't want just to sink complacently back into our old existence," I wrote in my journal the night we arrived back. "I've seen too clearly there's more to life than that."

A new closeness
The top half of the door to my office -- now right next to Steve's office on the second floor of our house -- is covered with a sheet of white paper. Steve tacked it up months ago as I struggled to capture in words the feel, scents and tastes of Caribbean life. On it he scrawled notes of encouragement and his reaction to each chapter I passed along to him. In the middle of the sheet, he prominently wrote, "Take time to lime!" Lime is a Trinidadian word loosely meaning to relax, laugh, chat, catch up, take it easy, have a drink, listen to music, dance, enjoy life.

We work together better now, as a team, than we ever did. But work is no longer everything. We take time to lime. And even though we don't have to pass sideways in the hallway to get from one office to the other, and I can get out of bed without climbing over Steve, we're never too busy, never too caught up in work, to give and receive a hug.

Ann Vanderhoof is a Toronto-based writer and editor. An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude (Doubleday Canada, 2004, hardcover, $34.95), Ann's new book about the couple's midlife break, also includes island recipes.

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A Caribbean interlude