Charter Life

The day we arrived back in Belize, after the Caribbean Sea crossing, we got the news that Rufus' mom was ill. None of us knew at that stage that she had Leukemia but, over the next few days during the prep for our next charter, it escalated from being "tired and needing blood transfusions" to "full blown, advanced AML" and emergency prep for chemo.

There is always a time of stress before a charter begins, the last few hours to get everything perfect before the guests arrive (which isn't so bad actually, unless you are a perfectionist...) and then there is the wait to meet our new guests and gauge their "vibe" in the first hour or so, which is extremely important as it sets the tone for the rest of the charter.

This specific charter was for a couple, Ken and Elizabeth, on our company's smallest boat, Sea Dale. She is a 38ft Leopard and we are rather fond of this boat, not just because she is South African designed and built, but because she is a great boat to sail and live on. The other bonus is that we get to host mostly couples on her, because she is smaller, which means the charter is more personal and you almost always end up becoming friends. 

We collected our guests in Belize City, at our base in Cucumber Marina, and sailed 6 nights down south to Placencia. We were obviously more stressed and distracted when this charter started, because of what was happening with Ma back home, but after a few minutes with Ken and Elizabeth, discussing their love of good food, world travel and music we immediately relaxed and we knew this was going to be a great few days ahead.

We had so much fun exploring the southern islands, which Rufus and I hadn't yet had the chance to visit in such perfect weather, we enjoyed great meals together (I am always more relaxed and creative when our guests love food as much as we do!), snorkelling, exploring mangroves and deserted islands, dinghy rides, swimming, photography, music and great conversation.

During those seven days we made the decision to fly back to South Africa, immediately after the charter was done. We want to thank Ken and Elizabeth for being such a great couple to share that charter with. They didn't know about Ma until the end of it, but by just being the relaxed, positive, happy, inspiring people that they are they helped us to take our mind off things back home and zero'd our work stress :)

Just to show you how perfect the weather and destinations were (and to make you a teensy bit jealous) here are some photos of that route - no editing/filters/photoshopping whatsoever. Enjoy!

this friendly "little" guy followed us around the island (Ranguana Caye) and was quite keen on having his photo taken. Did I mention that I haven't edited these photos at all? - not even cropped them... That is the actual colour of the water. In every photo - no tricks.

Ranguana Caye's beach

all he needs is his goggles and his GoPro

Rufus scouting good snorkel spots for Ken & Elizabeth 

exploring Laughing Bird Caye's snorkeling spots

pano of Goff's Caye

Goffs Caye

Lapa on Laughing Bird Caye

the view of Laughing Bird Caye from Sea Dale's helm

Ken and Elizabeth kayak back home to Sea Dale 

Ruf resting after a long day of sailing, snorkeling and exploring

Sea Dale anchored off Ranguana Caye

view of Sea Dale from the restaurant on Ranguana Caye

my second time on a SUP...

Ruf exploring the beaches of Ranguana Caye

a private shady spot on Ranguana Caye's beach

Trinidad to Belize

Moving from country to country, working expat contracts and being relocated (or choosing to relocate) has taught us to let go of things and collect experiences instead. It sounds cheesy but it's true. You have to, especially when you cannot take all your precious possessions with you everywhere you go. 

What we are attached to though, is a space we can call home. It doesn't have to be fancy or stationary, it just has to be our space. At this time in our lives our home space is Melody - our trusty 38ft steel boat. After 4 months working in Belize, and having a brilliant time, we started feeling homesick for our space. We had been staying on whichever boat we were chartering at the time, living out of a backpack each, and that worked well because we were always working so there wasn't much time for anything else. And while that is liberating for a time, we started to miss having our space, for just us two, with our espresso cups and our fold up bikes.

So after another 2 charters, one over new years with Jen & Andy and the second with a brilliant family from Costa Rica, we decided at the last minute to fly to Trinidad and go and get our home! It was less than 24hrs from the minute we decided to fly that evening of Jan 24th to the moment we took off from Belize airport the next day. We are beyond blessed to have supportive (and flexible) employers who were all for us bringing Melody over to Belize. They took over some of our charters and gave us the 2 weeks off that we would need to prep our boat and complete the crossing of the Caribbean Sea.

We landed at Piarco International airport, in Port of Spain, and immediately took a taxi to the boatyard. We arrived quite late that night and there was no ladder to access Melody (it is at least 3m from the ground to her deck, when she stands on the chocks in the yard) so we grabbed a steel trestle from a neighbouring boat, positioned it under her bum ("stern" if you want to be proper) and dropped her swim ladder to climb the rest of the way with bags and all. It was a stretch but well worth it to finally be home! 

We worked like crazy people over the next three and a half days, replacing sails, engine maintenance, cleaning, provisioning, sat phone updates and travel admin, and by lunch time on the 29th we were back in the water! Clearing out was quick and easy and we motored over to Scotland Bay to organise the last few things before setting sail that late afternoon. 

The first day was great, we were so happy to be back on Melody that I think the joy cancelled out the motion and the discomfort of a monohull in open sea, after living on catamarans on flat water. The second day we started to feel it again but managed to acclimatise rather quickly, to the movement and the watches we had to do with just 2 people onboard. 

We did a total of 1,700nm, over 12 days, with 15-20kt winds at an average speed of 6kts. The first 10 days were the best, wind and speed wise, but then it all stopped 2 days from the coast of Belize. We were anticipating the drop in wind but it's still never a good feeling on a crossing. When the ocean is as smooth as glass, as far as your eye can see, and you are so close to land you can almost taste the spare ribs you are going to eat when you arrive, the frustration sets in and the engine has to be engaged.

Dont get me wrong, after 10 days in our steel washing machine it was lovely to have some calm but that almost always means that you are not moving and we had to get back to Belize ASAP for a charter we had scheduled. During the trip we sent my dad an sms from our satellite phone, every day, with our position, sailing conditions and how we were doing. Unfortunately somewhere along the  grapevine one of those messages got misinterpreted and we later found out that Rufus' mom had half of the Western Cape praying for our safe deliverance through a rough storm... Let me be clear, we never had dangerous weather. Large waves, good wind speeds and being gatvol of little sleep and constant movement can sometimes sound scary to those who don't sail but for us it was a good crossing. We were sleep deprived, yes, but in danger, never. We were always safe and sound :) Thank you for everyone's support though, we very much appreciate it (and thank you for following our journey on facebook via my dad's google map!).

At 4am on Jan 10th we sailed through Belize's barrier reef channel, together with a couple of Carnival cruise ships, and by 8am we were literally back on dry land as Melody ran aground in Cucumber Marina... It sounds worse than it was. It was actually quite funny to be honest. I'm not sure if it was because of the sleep deprivation or the sheer ridiculousness of the situation but we laughed a lot. Two friendly cruisers helped us take her alongside and, as one of them tried to tighten the stern line, we realised that her bum would have to stay stuck out into the marina waters for a little while longer as her keel had settled in the mud, due to low tide. So, for a couple of hours, we just had to jump from the deck to the land, instead of a small step over the rail, but eventually the water level rose and she floated up above the mud.

That was our first crossing, longer than 24hrs, with just the two of us. We have always had at least two other crew to share the responsibility and work with. This was a good trip though, now I understand why so many cruisers do the Pacific crossing with just two people (and an autopilot!). It's definitely doable with only two people. We get asked if it's boring doing a crossing but once you settle in and make the most of the situation it is very peaceful and relaxing. We did a lot of planning for the next leg of our journey during that trip, and created a few more exciting dreams for the the future too ;)

This is not a trick of the camera, that is literally the angle we were sailing at. Forget any workout you can think of on land - if you want six pack abs in a short space of time, do a crossing on a mono-hull. It is a permanent core workout, even in your sleep.

completely calm Caribbean Sea

our trusty old Suunto compass, still going strong after 30-odd years

the spinnaker pole goes out.

seafood buffet on deck - we had a lot of these little guys, and flying fish jump aboard or thrown on by rogue waves.

sunsets are always more breathtaking at sea, with no land lights and noise pollution.

nap time in between watches.

doing good speed.

skipper checking his sails.

I love this view.

the best storeage while under way. you culd probably also store a baby there and te boat's movement would rock it to sleep for you ;)

Entering the log details after every watch and then updating the route on our paper chart. We actually still haven't filled in the last entry, of when we arrived... it's a bad habit we have developed.

We had a few close calls with very large ships. This photo doesn't capture how close these fatties get. luckily our AIS helps with alarms and comms to correct collision courses. 

This is the route my dad mapped in real time as we crossed. The fourth pin from the east, under St Thomas, is a bit off (too high) but you can get a pretty accurate idea of our route. Thank you Daddy!

Belize Navidad

When we returned to Belize from our Cuba trip, we went straight back into work. We started with a tandem Christmas charter for two fantastic families, the Hogans and Ivies. Christmas charters can be stressful as there is a lot of pressure. We were especially tense for this one because one of the children planned to propose to his girlfriend on one of the private islands and we had to make sure that it played out perfectly.

It turned out that we didnt need to stress at all. They all arrived wearing "Father Christmas" hats and T-shirts emblazoned with "BELIZE NAVIDAD" - if that isnt a sign of how fun people are going to be, I dont know what is. These two families were so kind and loving and such wonderful down to earth people that we immediately felt part of the Hogan-Ivie family. We started off the charter on Rufus' 31st birthday and everyone sang to him while we celebrated with a few cocktails.

Every day was action packed and we had so much fun (and very little sleep). The proposal went off perfectly and Christmas day was celebrated on the beach in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. We braai'd (barbecued) fish and burgers, sang along to a guitar played by one of the expat locals, laughed and talked late into the night.

These are the kinds of charters that make "working" an absolute joy for us. And being able to spend such a special time of year with good people, when you cant be close to family, really makes all the difference. 

Please note: Out of resepct for their privacy, we do not include photos of our charter guests unless we have received direct permission. These two families were so great though, that hopefully I will be able to share some shots soon :)

Christmas Day barbecue on the beach in San Pedro, Ambergris Caye - Photo courtesy of Susan Ivie

making Rufus squirm in front of the camera. He doesnt like pulic kisses during working hours... ;)  - Photo courtesy of Susan Ivie

silly "photo shoot" with Joey & Tanner at sunset

5 favourite travel apps

Many people we meet are heavily reliant on a multitude of apps to make their travels easier. Others refuse to use them because they believe it destroys the authenticity and spontaneity. We fit somewhere in between. Apps do help make our travel life easier, especially in countries where we don't speak the language. We like to use them only when we really need them and try to keep our experiences less online and more in real life.

The apps we use the most are primarily "offline" as a lot of the areas we travel, we either don't have data service for my iPhone or the wifi is expensive/limited/non-existent. Here are our favourites:

 

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Maps.Me

We like this particular map app because it works offline. As mentioned before, we often travel without wifi/data connection so this app is top of our list for accuracy and detail. We have tried a few others but found this one to be the best so far. It's easy to use and the maps are always being updated so you know you have the latest and most accurate info for almost any area you can think of, even small 3rd world villages. 

 

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Trail Wallet

We always work from a budget. We learned the hard way, when we bought and renovated our boat Melody, that if you want to get the most out of your money and eliminate as much stress as possible, in any area of your life, you have to work within a realistic budget. Since then we always know what's coming in, what's going out and where it's going.

The term "budget" means something different to everyone and this app accommodates that perfectly. Again, it doesn't need wifi connection to work and it helps you keep track of your spending in all areas and in any currency. We always work things back to USD because thats what we earn in so I can enter the price of accommodation in a local currency, like Cuban Pesos for example and the app tells me what I've spent in both, saving me the time and effort of doing the manual conversion calcs. You can set your daily budget, it gives you a clear visual representation of where your money is being spent (no confusing spreadsheets), and it helps you spend smart so that you dont run out of money before your trip ends!

 

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Google Translate

We actually use Word Lens but when I was doing my research for this post I found out that it was bought by Google and has now been incorporated into Google Translate. Again, this app works offline, which was perfect for us in Cuba as there is basically (and very scarcely) only dial-up...

The app was recommended by our friend Ane, who used it on her trip to Havana and Vinales. It uses your camera to view and translate any foreign language sign instantly. I really wish we had had this app on our road-trip through northern Brazil in 2012 because Portuguese is probably the most difficult language for me to get the hang of.

 

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AirBnB

We book all our travel accommodation through AirBnB. The only exception was with Cuba, where AirBnB doesn't yet exist, so we used Cuba Junky and referrals from friends. We first tried AirBnB after a recommendation from my best friend Diana, who used it to find her honeymoon accommodation in NYC.

We especially like that whatever accommodation option you choose shows up on a clear, detailed and interactive map of the area, so you can see where you would stay relative to the airport and where you want to go during your trip. The only downside is that recently more and more hotels and resorts are starting to advertise via the site. A large part of why we like AirBnB is because it is more personal, you can stay in people's homes, make new friends and get real insight into a foreign country from the locals on a personal level.

Unfortunately now the hotels and resorts are interfering with that AND some people are turning their homes into small, impersonal "motels" to make extra money, charging similar rates to hotels but with crappier service & facilities. They still advertising as "personal in-home" accommodation. Be smart and do your research, don't just go based on the photos or even what previous visitors have rated. We learned that the hard way with our last stay in Miami... 

 

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GCam

I can't always take my camera with wherever we go and, to be honest, I dont always want to. This is when I use my iPhone to take our travel photos. I use the iPhone 4S and it makes great quality JPEGs but sometimes I want something more substantial and this is where GCam comes in. It's easy to use and it enables me to take large, high quality TIFF format photos which I can easily edit in Lightroom or convert to smaller JPEGs.

I discovered this app through one of our charter guests, Elizabeth, who has now become a friend of ours. She introduced me to the world of "iPhonography" and she is an exceptionally talented, accomplished and published photographer herself. She not only imparted a ton of her own knowledge and experience but also generously gifted me a set of OlloClip lenses for my iPhone! The GCam app plus the wide-angle, macro and fisheye multi lenses take my "muk en druk" shots to another level altogether - great quality photos and super easy & practical to travel with! Thank you, Elizabeth :)

We are always keen to discover new helpful apps. Which apps can't you travel without? We would love to hear from you and try out your recommendations. Which are your favourites?

SIDE CAR

In the previous post I said that on our last day in Cuba we ticked off all the remaining "to do's" on our list. That is not entirely true... We, or rather Rufus, had one more left and it was the most tricky so far.

Rufus LOVES motorbikes. I like them too but I usually leave him to enjoy his motocross with his guy friends on the farm (when we are in South Africa). In Cuba there are quite a few vintage WW2 style motorbikes on the streets but what caught his eye were the sidecars. They are mostly vintage Soviet Union made and all privately owned. When we booked our trip to Vinales we asked the woman at the bus/car rental company if we could rent one and she insisted there was no possible way to do so in Cuba (hopefully that changes for our next visit?).

On the last day we found a sweet old man standing next to his baby blue sidecar in Old Havana, opposite the National Capitol Building. He had a "taxi" sign taped to the windscreen of the passenger side and his helmet firmly strapped to his head, ready to go. He spoke almost no English but we were able to exchange details and schedule a ride to the airport the next morning!

He arrived 10min before our agreed time (we intentionally gave him an earlier time than necessary in case of delays, clearly not necessary) and he was so excited to see us again, as if he was worried we might have played a joke on him and now he was relieved that we really did want to take a ride with him.

He was very thorough with packing our bags into the surprisingly large and numerous storage areas inside the bike. He tucked me in so securely I felt like a pupa in a (slightly rusted) steel cocoon. Rufus was so excited he almost forgot to chew his breakfast pastry and if he smiled any wider his face might have split in two.

We eventually got on the road, still munching our breakfast. Rufus sat behind our friendly driver with me still stuffed in the side car seat. Our driver took on the role of tour guide and in his best broken English (mostly Spanish) pointed out and described all the sights along the Malecon and on our way out of the city. It very quickly became clear however that this would not be a normal ride to the airport, and not just because we usually drive in motor cars... I kid you not when I say that we honestly didn't think we would make it to our destination that day. We have a suspicion that the vehicle was held together only with duct tape and a lot of prayer, and it was a miracle that the engine was still inside the bike, never mind still working - because it sounded like the entire thing was going to fall apart if the engine didn't fall out first...

Being at that lower level, in the passenger seat, is an interesting experience, especially in Cuba. Keep in mind that about 90% of the vehicles on the road are from the mid 1900's and they all spew copious amounts of thick black dirty disgustingness (there is no such thing as "eco-friendly" or "minimising your carbon footprint" in Havana yet). I was practically eye level with every vehicle's exhaust pipe which is basically like all the cars on the road were farting soot in my face. Continuously. I think Rufus nearly fell off his seat from laughter when he saw my face literally covered in car & truck (fart) fumes . 

Then, just as we started to get further out of the city, closer to the airport, finally beginning to relax and trust that the sidecar wouldn't fall apart beneath us just yet, our driver pulled over to the side of the highway and switched of the engine. My heart froze. This was our worst nightmare come true. He was going to demand more money or threaten to abandon us on the side of the road. A bunch of his cronies were preparing to jump out of the bushes and strip us of all our belongings (best case scenario). This was not a good moment for us. We were screwed. 

Being a South African those are unfortunately the first things that go through your mind in a lot of situations. I am both relieved and ashamed to say that none of the above took place. It turned out that he was actually not permitted to work as a taxi driver with his sidecar (hence the difficulty finding one to rent. duh.) and had neglected to tell us this before we left, most likely for fear of us cancelling the trip. Because he was operating illegally he could not be seen accepting cash from passengers so he bashfully asked us, in his broken Spanglish, to pay him on the side of the highway before we entered the military police infested airport in order for him not to be thrown in jail. We gladly obliged and soon we were on the road again (in hindsight, him collecting us earlier than necessary was actually necessary in the end!).

We were so glad to eventually arrive at the airport on time, and in once piece without having to walk most of the way, that we gave him a fat tip right there in front of international departures anyway. Luckily there were no cops in sight and the three of us went our separate ways with big smiles and even bigger relief.

That was definitely the most memorable way we can think of to end our Cuba trip. It was honestly the best international travel experience we have had. It is beautiful, it is safe, the people are (mostly) genuinely friendly, the food is good and the portions massive, the coffee is amazing and the culture fascinating. I know I have said it many times before but seriously, GO TO THERE.

getting tucked into my cocoon

mr smiley face :)

being photographed is a serious business in Havana

my eye-level view of bus backside...

GoPro shots of us driving along the Malecon