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Cruise Family Robinson

Words by | Photos by Jennifer and Richard Robinson
Cruise Family Robinson
Our Rose under sail.

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Bodies glistening with motor oil, dark skin setting off huge, dazzling white grins in a joyous festival of whining and grinding, as the locals call the sexually charged rhythmic dancing: for three nights the nonstop sensual rollercoaster of Carnival carries along everyone who happens to be in Grenada. Three years ago, the Robinsons were on the verge of signing off plans to begin building their dream home. “I can’t do this,” declared Richard, at the last moment. “I’m too young to retire.”

That bombshell delivered, the next day Jen agreed. If just one of them had doubts about settling down, then they wouldn’t. They had always dreamed of sailing the world — one day. That day had arrived. In short order, their house was sold, the dream home replaced with a new plan. “The leap from the dream to the doing is massive,” says Jennifer. “It’s hard to let go. People spend their whole lives gathering everything around them, not just material things, and we moved away from that.”

The Robinsons researched the market and decided to have a 44-foot cruising catamaran built in South Africa. It would have the highest technology and design features in order to become their comfortable, safe home on the world’s oceans. Then they started a process of preparing themselves to take on new skins. That included rescue and emergency skills, and a formal skipper qualification that would take them 2500 nautical miles around Asia on a training boat. A keen diver, Richard began a series of challenging study and courses, with 80 dives over 10 weeks, rising to the highest PADI level where he would be able to train instructors in deep sea diving.

Jen went off the deep end in her own way, following an advanced first aid course by immediately spending a Friday night helping in the accident and emergency room of a public hospital in Cape Town. She estimates that at least one-third of the never-ending stream of mostly male patients were victims of violence caused by alcohol or drugs. Between dealing with broken beer bottle and knife wounds, burns, bashings, and multiple diseases from HIV to tuberculosis, Jen was injecting local anaesthetics, giving tetanus shots and dressing wounds. Cape Town introduced the pair to poverty on a level they had not seen before: an unemployment rate over 50 per cent, and tin shacks cluttered across kilometres “as far as the eye could see,” recalls Jen.

Santiago from a rooftop restaurant.
Santiago from a rooftop restaurant.

Clearing Out

Launching into the unknown is something many of us do in our lives, but rarely on this scale. On Tuesday, February 5, 2013, Our Rose was lifted and lowered into the Cape Town water. On March 28, the southerly breeze bore her out into the Atlantic “like a little cork bobbing on the ocean.” Richard fondly recollects stopping “in the middle of the Atlantic” and having a swim — perhaps a baptism of sorts.

Eleven days on, Our Rose arrived in Saint Helena, and almost immediately the couple set a pattern that was to recur. They befriended an 82-year-old, offering her a hand up the hill with her groceries, and she invited them to a meal. Mildred was to be the first of many in the most diverse of communities who would provide hospitality as a result of Jen and Richard’s engaging and outgoing attitude.

Arrival in Tobago marked the end of the ocean crossing. There had been some alarming teething issues with their new boat, but the beauty of shooting stars and treats of ultimately fresh sashimi and homemade ice cream all helped wring a change of mindset, with “the realisation that any pre-passage fear had gone, and been replaced with enjoyment of each day’s activities; living in each moment,” concludes Jen.

Open-ocean supermarket: groceries below, plants above.
Open-ocean supermarket: groceries below, plants above.

Another pattern that was to repeat was regular reunions with boat owners encountered in ports. The cruising community is one in which membership occurs by osmosis — sometimes by helping others through problems, and often by recommending places to seek or avoid. The NET radio system provides a social channel, and it was through this that, in Grenada, Richard and Jen responded to a radio plea to help with a children’s reading programme that took them to the heart of the community.

Run from a garage set up like a classroom, the programme relies upon volunteers to teach reading, writing and mathematics. One of Jen’s three youngsters, who were aged just four or five, had recently lost his mother to cancer. Jen showed him how to hold a pencil and write his name, and he ended up lying with his head in her lap. The couple were also moved by the sibling support and love they witnessed as they taught.

In Trinidad they had been introduced to the national pastime of liming, ‘the art of doing nothing’ which involves the sharing of food and drink (especially rum). Activity while liming is considered cheating. Hence a cooking class was accompanied by rum punch, a tour of the island involved the three legal rum distilleries, and the various beach celebrations they encountered were well-‘spiced’. This was all good training for one of the world’s best-known parties — Carnival.

This celebration of dancing to calypso music, fantastic masquerade and much rum mixed with a dash of religion or superstition reaches its crescendo in Trinidad and Tobago, but Grenada is also something special. Ignoring its history as a Lenten prelude, the three-day party thrown by this island is in the rather hot month of August. Huge speaker trucks keep the calypso visceral and “the music vibrates right into the core of your body,” says Jen. “The dancing is like pornography with your clothes on.” This was mixing with the locals on an entirely other level.

The electric atmosphere of Carnival in Grenada.
The electric atmosphere of Carnival in Grenada.

What Comes Around

On the first day of December came the official (insurance company-specified) end to the hurricane season, punctuating the open sea with vessels re-positioning. The Robinsons’ next ports of call would be up the east coast of the USA.

After the isolated beauty of the Bahamas, the sight of Florida from the sea must have been nothing short of weird. Heading towards the port entrance, approach lanes were shown on the charts like a highway. Extravagant homes with their boats of people partying lined the shores, and for the first time on their trip halfway across the world, the couple were met by belligerent immigration and customs officials.

Locals living it up quayside, Ft. Lauderdale
Locals living it up quayside, Ft. Lauderdale

Several days sailing up the coast took Our Rose beneath the gaze of Liberty and into Lincoln Harbour Marina, a 10-minute free bus ride from Central New York City and its Broadway shows, Empire State Building, restaurants, a farmers’ market and, of course, catching up with a rapidly increasing network of friends. This was all achieved from the comfort of the Robinsons’ own floating New York apartment.

Leaving Long Island Sound, on passing the tiny granite islands called The Thimbles, the couple was approached by a Boston Whaler with a black dog on the prow and skipper Sandy Stoddard welcoming them with a glass of wine in hand. He insisted they jump aboard for a tour of his family home of over 100 years. Soon after, the anchor was dropped just off downtown Boston, with a free shuttle into the wharf and $1000-a-night hotels just metres away. More friends were met and made. This was followed by a voyage to Maine to encounter generous fisher folk and enjoy festivals and crustacean gifts, then on to Nova Scotia, reuniting with more recently-made cruiser friends.

Being able to drop anchor in a leafy bay in Irvington allowed a nearby vineyard visit, and the hospitality of Americans from Miami to Maine who would meet the couple, offer them help and friendship, and even lend complete strangers the family car, created quite an impression. “America exceeded our expectations,” says Jen.

Weather windows were playing a significant part in their daily planning. “Weather rules our life; before our journey, it just made you think what to wear,” she observes. When sub-zero temperatures and clear days dictated the path south, a dockside slip sent Jen into a spin, and into surgery. Again, a willing local appeared magically, in the form of Susan and her dog, Kiwi. Seeing the flag on Our Rose, she had paddled out from the town of Beaufort, and helped with medical transfers over the next few days before all was well for the voyage to Cuba.

That was an eye-opener, says Jen: a country where life is simple, where there is 100 per cent literacy, and yet paltry wages (US$20 – US$50 a month). “The people have so little, but they will give you everything — then there’s music, music and more music.” Landing at Santiago de Cuba, they ended up being invited to dinner as a result of talking with their first taxi driver. This couple has an extraordinary gift for linking into the circle of other people’s lives. In their three years at sea, the Robinson’s lives have been overlaid with those of so many others.

It might be crossing the road in a Dominican Republic village to share a cold beer with a local who looks hot, accepting a seaside villager’s invitation to a freshly caught meal, or baking a cake for a just-discovered cruising neighbour’s birthday. It often seems to start with a default response of “Yes” when a stranger says, “You must come and visit”, and on it goes from there. Implicit is mutual faith in the goodness of people, “although you do sometimes have suspicions,” admits Richard.

The lifestyle of cruising in the fresh air is a healthy one that has blown out the cobwebs. Ever practical, Richard explains their change of perspective: “We couldn’t imagine what the lifestyle was before we were doing it. You move away dramatically from the external factors the world shoves at you. It’s an extremely positive lifestyle, and you become more patient, living in a small space. You learn to make decisions differently. If you have doubt or fear, you have to put it behind you, make positive decisions and just get on with it.”

Back when the time came to realise that dream of building a boat to cruise the world, it seemed to mean selling or giving away all they owned, and leaving loved places and faces of friends and family. But the gaps have been filled as the Robinsons melt into the worlds of all they meet. Their log is filled with phrases like “met their lovely friends who invited us over for dinner” and “we went to see if we could help”. As Jen points out, “Many of the people we’ve met don’t have the opportunity to leave where they are, so this is the only way we could meet them.” The dream of sailing the world has turned into the reality of befriending its people.

Published on September 25, 2015
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