Our Boat

Caloosa Spirit

Catalina 42 mkII

A Cruiser’s Christmas by Alice Rutherford

Christmas was always an important part of my family life. When I was a child Santa Claus visited yearly, and in my adult life Jim and I kept Santa alive and well for our children. Every year I thoroughly enjoyed decorating, shopping, planning menus, and looking for small ways to infuse as much fun as possible into the holiday. Christmas was a special time to celebrate our family’s love, the gift of each other, and our joy in being together.

Our last Christmas in our family home before moving aboard was bittersweet, indeed. As I went about all the rituals that had become traditions over the years, I was acutely aware of the finality of each one. The last time to put up the 8-ft. Christmas tree. The last time to hang the stockings on the fireplace. The last time to fill the family room with gifts for all the family members gathered together. And the most heart-wrenching—the last time to put away all the decorations and ornaments, each with its own special memory of when it first came into our lives. The only way I could cope with the pain was to focus on the future adventures—including new Christmases—that would come with our cruising life.

Our first Christmas after moving aboard came quite unexpectedly. Our boat, Caloosa Spirit, was in charter service in the British Virgin Islands for five years. When the time came for her service to end, we moved down to the BVI to oversee the contracted refurbishment, and to eventually move aboard. Island Time being what it is, the refurbishment took five months rather than the projected two, and Christmas fell smack in the middle of that time. So while we were feverishly working to get the charter company to finish the refurbishment, Christmas snuck up on us. Tortola is not exactly Shopping Central, so gift availability and selection were minimal. Then there was the problem of shipping. With the expectation that we wouldn’t be sending much for Christmas, before leaving several months earlier we had presented each of our two kids with digital cameras, and my mom with a WebTV. We wanted to stay close to them with e-mail and pictures. But to me Christmas wasn’t Christmas without giving something to our kids, no matter how small, so I felt compelled to send small packages to our son and daughter back in Indiana. As I wrapped those small packages tears streamed down my face, moistening the wrapping paper. All I could think about was how different these meager tokens were from the mountains of gifts under so many past Christmas trees. My mother—at 90—was coming to visit us for Christmas, so I planned on meeting her flight in St. Thomas. I left early enough to make a quick trip to K-Mart for a few additional minor gifts for the kids, and to ship them off from the U.S. post office there.

Despite my grief over not sharing it with my kids, Christmas that year turned out to be a festive affair after all. The day before Christmas we took Mom to Road Town for a last minute shopping spree. We sailed the boat to a favorite anchorage and joined some friends for Christmas Eve dinner at a beachside restaurant. We decked the boat out with Christmas lights and artificial greenery, and I cooked our traditional Christmas morning casserole and a turkey dinner in the galley. The once-in-a-blue-moon overcast and rainy skies did nothing to dampen our holiday spirits.

Since that Christmas we have sailed Caloosa Spirit from the Virgin Islands to Florida. So the next year Christmas was to be more than the momentary lapse in “boat work” that it was the previous year. But again we had to deal with the loss of family connection around the holidays. After three trips north in five months (including a trip to San Diego to visit our son, Mike, who then lived there instead of in Indiana), a Christmas trip north was out of the question. So we invited Mom and our daughter, Lauri, to spend a boating Christmas with us. They both agreed, but then we had to figure out where that might be, so that they could make flight reservations. We know that a cardinal cruising rule is “No schedules”, but surely that can’t include Christmas! We knew we wanted to spend a good part of the winter on Florida’s Gulf Coast, and we had plans to be in St. Petersburg for a boat show and to leave the boat in a marina there while we traveled in November. So we decided to just stay in St. Pete for Christmas, and Mom and Lauri could get non-stop flights in and out of the local airport.

Jim and I had never spent any time in St. Petersburg, so I did as much research as possible with the cruising guides. I found in the downtown waterfront area the promise of both an anchorage and a marina. At an SSCA (Seven Seas Cruising Association) Rendezvous in Punta Gorda we were fortunate in meeting some fellow cruisers who live in St. Pete, and they provided us with some valuable local information. We did make use of the anchorage during the boat show, then moved over to the Municipal Marina to leave the boat. After returning to St. Pete from San Diego we opted to stay in the marina for the family’s visit. Although we generally prefer the hook to a marina, we had learned that the downtown anchorage has a 7-day limit. Visions of being chased out by marine police at an inopportune hour—not to mention the possibility of no dinghy dockage due to a new boat rental concession at the only structure resembling a dinghy dock—tipped the scales in the marina’s favor.

Aside from the king’s ransom…er, dockage fee…that we reluctantly handed over, St. Pete was a delightful place to spend Christmas. The outstanding bus system allowed us to do Christmas shopping in a way much like what we left behind up north. Wal-Mart and a Simon mall were well within reach, and I was able to check off most of the items on my lists for each family member. We also found ample and appropriate paraphernalia for decorating inside and out—including a small Christmas tree complete with lights. There was even a UPS store within walking distance of the marina, so we got to send a package to Mike sure to arrive before Christmas. A local ballet school’s performance of The Nutcracker in the nearby park was a special treat. Our cruiser friends graciously chauffeured us around town, both for finding boat parts and for holiday fun.

The one thing about St. Pete that I neglected to research, however, was the average temperatures. After all our time in the tropics we never dreamed we would feel so cold at Christmas time! The cold fronts started in early December, and overnight lows in the 40’s became the norm. Fortunately, the bus service allowed us a trip to K-Mart to buy a small propane heater. That wonderful Nutcracker performance in the park? We watched it huddled under a blanket while wearing several layers of sweatshirts. Several times we had second thoughts about our family traveling from chilly Indiana to spend Christmas in “toasty” Florida. But the sunshine was still pleasant, and we went about our preparations for their visit with joyful anticipation.

Just before Mom and Lauri arrived the weather started to warm up. The cold mornings that made getting out of bed difficult became a thing of the past, and we even got to wear shorts again. I was gratified to see how important our family traditions were to Lauri, when she presented us with our Christmas stockings and a couple of treasured ornaments that she had dug out of storage to bring to us. We all walked to a nearby church on Christmas Eve for a soul-feeding candlelight service. Santa Claus managed to fill the stockings, even though the boat was a little crowded. Lauri was sleeping in the salon just in front of the tree, but once more she missed seeing Santa! Christmas Day brought our traditional breakfast casserole and Mom’s breads intermingled with opening gifts (not quite a mountain, but more than a molehill!), followed by a roast beef dinner with plum pudding later in the day. We had managed to “do Christmas” once more.

Other aspects of an enjoyable holiday season in St. Petersburg were going to the beach (by bus, of course), visiting the HMS Bounty at The Pier, sailing on Tampa Bay, and the First Night celebration on New Year’s Eve. That night we got to visit any of about 25 different venues in the downtown area to witness a variety of cultural and artistic presentations. We chose to watch Native American and West African dancing and drumming. The carnival atmosphere throughout downtown was infectious, and the midnight fireworks shot off almost above our boat capped off the evening. What a grand night to usher in the New Year!

Both the year in the Virgins and the year in St. Pete, Christmas has been vastly different in many ways from the traditional Christmases of our past land-bound life. At times I have found myself desperately missing the trappings of those celebrations. But I have also found that it’s possible to adapt old traditions to new situations, when they’re important enough to do so. And there’s always a place for “new” traditions to begin. After all, each of the traditions we associate with the holidays started at some time and place. Surely, for Jim and me the centerpiece of our Christmas celebration will always be spending it with each other.

Perhaps one of our new traditions will be spending Christmas in a different place each year. Already I feel an excited anticipation of what a new location might bring to our Christmas celebration this year. It’s still hard to envision Christmas without our family present, but…we never really know anyway, do we? Christmas is all about hope and living life without fear, after all. And so is cruising.

Posted Wednesday November 24, 2004

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