Ottawa

Everything ship-shape with seafaring Ottawans in the Caribbean

Seafaring Ottawan Lorraine Escher describes life in Luperón, Dominican Republic where she, her husband, and four young children have moored their sailboat for the five months of hurricane season.

The Escher family gave away many belongings and set sail in September 2015

The Escher children play with locals in the Bahamas. (Lorraine Escher)

For an Ottawa family on an epic nautical adventure, life at sea is all about rolling with the waves and whatever tropical weather throws at them.

That means mooring their 15 metre-long ocean-going catamaran for months in a protected harbour on the north coast of the Dominican Republic during hurricane season.

"The dates vary slightly," explained Lorraine Escher. "But insurance companies tend to take the dates very seriously."

Their insurers will continue to provide them coverage, even while inside the so-called "hurricane box," but seeking safe harbour was essential. 

In 2015, Lorraine and Rick Escher bought the catamaran to live on with their four children for a life at sea that could last as long as eight years.

Fresh water is delivered to the Escher's boat "Aphrodite" in Luperon Bay, Domincan Republic. (Rick Escher)
The arrival of the Caribbean storm season meant they had put on hold plans to sail directly to Grenada, their next planned destination. The delay leaves the Escher family free to explore Antigua, Saint Lucia, and Puerto Rico at a leisurely pace once the season's potentially-damaging winds have passed.

The family of six will spend the months between July and December carefully following the weather while moored in the harbour at Luperón, Dominican Republic and watching for what is called the definitive sign that strong winds are coming.

"We're told that when the big fishing boats come in, to not question whether a hurricane is coming or not. They'll tie in at the mangroves and we're to take every precaution that we can," said Escher.

Mixing with locals in Luperón

Luperón Bay is is an ideal hurricane shelter and one believed to have offered even Christopher Columbus safe harbour at one point. It's a popular place for "cruisers," the name for travellers who live on private boats and sail from port to port often for years at a time.

In an interview via Skype from aboard the family's home at sea, the St. Francis 50 Catamaran named "Aphrodite," Lorraine Escher said the family's aim was to get better integrated not only with Luperón's locals, but also with other "cruisers" who have chosen the town's protected harbour during hurricane season.

Escher said they're the only ones moored there who are travelling with children, and keeping kids occupied and enriched will be a challenge for her and Rick.

As part of an effort to integrate with Luperón's 20,000 people, the Escher children are taking Spanish classes four days a week with locals.

Escher herself is volunteering in a class and teaching English to local 13 and 14-year-olds, whose dedication and maturity have impressed her.

The Escher boys help a new friend with an improvised swing in Duncan Town, Bahamas. (Rick Escher)
"The goal of these students seems to be the same: they're looking for a better and brighter future for themselves. One girl last night said that she didn't want a career of cleaning. She wanted to become a dentist and plans to go to Spain," she said. 

There are movie nights, trivia nights, and regular nights of baseball games in which the cruisers are pitted against the baseball-loving locals. 

Life at sea

Escher said there have been some surprises about life at sea.

"I told you about a year ago I wanted to do something beyond cleaning my eaves - I could eat those words," she laughed, recalling a September, 2015 interview where she described why she was giving up domestic, settled life in Ottawa.

"There's a whole lot of cleaning to do on a boat. The underside, right down to the bottom of the keel. The topside. The bilges below your feet that need to be cleaned. And, if something goes wrong, you can't just ignore it!"

Escher found herself surprised to be missing the arrival of cold autumn weather and the changing of the seasons. 

Lorraine Escher and her four children (clockwise from left) Karen, 4, Henry, 4, Paul, 7, and Betty, 9, in July 2015. (Stu Mills/CBC Ottawa)
"I've been watching the heat wave in Ottawa, and it's about 35 (degrees) here all the time. It gets a little bit cooler a night, (but) it's pretty hot," she described.

She says she has suffered unexpectedly from severe and long-lasting sea sickness, which she controlled with the motion-sickness drug Dramamine, but there have been more upsides than down.

"We watched our Grade 2 student go from basically learning to read to blossoming as a reader, and that's been really exciting as a family," said Escher.

Getting comfortable

"Some things that they do pushes them outside of their comfort zones," said Escher, recalling the children's time spent swimming in an underwater cave. 

"My hat's off to their teachers. It's not as easy as it seems to homeschool your kids," she added. The mother has taken on language instruction and topics in the humanities, while her husband delivers the math and science curriculum.

But the children are learning unique lessons about the world around them even without help from their parents.

We swam with a dolphin for an hour, which was pretty exciting- Lorraine Escher

"We swam with a dolphin for an hour, which was pretty exciting," said Escher.

Although their journey so far has been exciting, she admitted to some homesickness.

"I miss high speed internet, sometimes," she laughed.

"I miss the Gatineau Parkway," she added, calling herself and her husband keen cyclists. "There's nothing quite like it. It's really scenic, the air is fresh, it's a really pretty area. I miss that."

The family is still enthusiastic about circumnavigating the globe. They expect to pass through the Panama Canal in January 2018.