Turning North - Reluctantly

Is it time to go home? I hate to turn around when we're this close. This close to what? And where is home, anyway?

This morning I looked at the chart on the computer, with the red boat symbol showing our current location on the north coast of the Dominican Republic, almost halfway between Florida and Venezuela. Most of the boats here in Luperon, those who are planning to move, seem to be headed south into the Caribbean. They'll fight their way upwind to Puerto Rico, east to the Virgins, and then coast south through a few hundred miles of paradise in the Leeward and Windward Islands to spend the hurricane season in Trinidad. A few may have grander designs; the yacht Transit arrived a couple of days ago like any other, except that it was returning to Luperon after ten years spent going around the world.

For us, coming here was a bit less dramatic. Not wanting to set up huge expectations, we told our friends in Tennessee that we were aiming just for the Bahamas, but privately we hoped to get further. We had never sailed bigger water than Chickamauga Lake, so it seemed prudent to take things one step at a time. Mobile Bay looked huge to us, the Gulf of Mexico an endless green ocean. We celebrated when we had crossed the Gulf Stream, when we had made our first major port at Nassau, reached the incredible islands known as the Exumas. Eventually we achieved the milestone of George Town, sometimes called "Chicken Harbor" because so many boats turn back rather than face the open seas beyond. We intentionally never planned very far ahead, typically just to the next anchorage. We would keep going as long as it felt right, "so long as it was fun," in the words of many. The incredible beauty of the Bahamas, the perfect springtime weather, the colors of the water and perfect deserted beaches made me wonder if anything could possibly be better. Still, I wanted to see for myself.

During the overnight passage from the Turks & Caicos to the Dominican Republic, the physical reality of the calendar finally started to sink in. Starting out in November, it had seemed as if we had all the time in the world. In my mind, I had subtitled our cruise as the "endless vacation." But that night in the Turks Passage, with just the moon and the rhythmic whisper of the waves for company, the nagging thought of income taxes kept reminding me that it was already April. The first of June, the official start of the hurricane season, couldn't be far behind. Suddenly I had doubts that we should go on from Luperon to Puerto Rico and the Virgins as planned, for even if the winds would be with us coming back, every mile further was a mile we would have to retrace, and all too soon.

So why turn back, our cruising friends said. Go south to Trinidad, like us!

Cruisers in Luperon have three basic choices of how to deal with hurricane season. You can hightail it north to the states, up the east coast to the Chesapeake or beyond. You can stay in Luperon and take your chances--but while those chances are pretty good, it's unlikely any insurance company will be willing to share them with you. Our bank requires that we keep the boat insured, so staying here isn't a choice for us. The third option is to continue south to Trinidad or Venezuela, or hop all the way over to Rio Dulce in Guatemala. It's certainly tempting. I'd like to see Puerto Rico, anchor off Culebra, snorkel the Baths and sail all the waters I've read about for so many years. We could keep the boat in Trinidad, tour overland in South America, then make a leisurely trip north next winter. In one grand trip we could "do" the eastern Caribbean, and I have to admit that idea appeals to me. But shouldn't cruising be more than just checking off islands on a list? The bolder choice is certainly to continue south, and I like it for that reason--but of course that's the wrong basis for the decision, too.

"You made it past Chicken Harbor," Norma says, soothing my ego. "That's more than most." Norma came here with her husband on a 39 foot Allied Sea Princess. Six months ago her husband died suddenly, but Norma is making plans to refit the boat and continue sailing.

"My family all assumed I would come home," she says. "Home? That's the boat. I'm already home."

Annie and I had talked about the possibility of going south all along, but for us, the right choice is to turn north and cruise up the east coast to finish out this first year. Going back toward the states seems to give us more options (not to mention more excuses) for extending the cruise rather than trying to see everything in one trip. Even this decision--north or south, as black and white as they come--may not matter all that much in the end. As beginning cruisers, just about everywhere in the world is new and exciting to us. Whether we are anchored somewhere in the tropics or off New Jersey, it's all cruising and it's all great. If you can't run from your problems, I'm hoping you can't run from paradise, either.

High on a lush green hill, cruisers gather in the open air restaurant at Marina Luperon Yacht Club, watching boats leave the harbor as the trade winds die down in the evenings. There is something hopelessly romantic about the sight of a yacht, large or small, slowly and gracefully making her way out to sea. Where is she bound? What awaits her out there on the horizon? In six weeks her crew could be halfway around the world. The ocean is like a untracked highway stretching into the distance in every possible direction.

North, south. Everywhere.

Title Photo: Seaductress under sail in the Turks Passage north of Luperon. Thanks to Margie Uberbaum from Encantada for the picture.

Copyright © 2007 by Rodger Ling. All rights reserved.